The earth has ceased to turn. Animal life has all but vanished and plants reign triumphant under the constant red glow of a dying sun. Hothouse (aka The Long Afternoon of Earth) is Brian Aldiss' nightmare vision of the last days of planet earth, where mankind has devolved into greenskinned tree dwellers preyed upon by the many and myriad vegetable predators who dominate the vast banyan tree that covers the daylight side of the world.
Hothouse belongs to that sub genre of science fiction first glimpsed towards the end of H.G Wells' The Time Machine and later given its most common name by Jack Vance in The Dying Earth. But, unlike Vance whose final days are a colourful playground for his characters and imagination, or M. John Harrison's Viriconium sequence with its slow entropy and yearning or even Michael Moorcock's End Of Time novels with their warped projections of the past and infinite possibilities, Aldiss offers little by the way of hope for his characters. Savages at best and mutated throwbacks at worst, the human characters of Hothouse have little time for playfulness or introspection since the only games they can possibly play or the only thoughts they can possibly have are geared towards simple survival. The characters in Hothouse do not stumble over the lost wisdom or cities of mankind nor do they discover the means and methods of overcoming the dangers of their world, for them, ultimately, survival is both a means and an end in itself.
Cast out from his tribe and thence from the banyan tree itself, Hothouse follows the fortunes of Gren and his mate Poyly as they travel through the doomed world. Essentially a travelogue or an odyssey in its structure, the novel is a distant cousin of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels in that the characters become our eyes and ears as we travel with them, and like Swift's savage satire the characters are secondary to the sights, sounds and dangers of the world (in much the same way as they themselves are secondary - at best - to the other creatures around them).
This is not to say, however that Aldiss neglects his human protagonists or reduces them to ciphers, merely that Gren and Poyly and later, following Poyly's abrupt demise, his new mate Yattmur, are reduced in stature both physically and in narrative terms to the status of tiny figures in a much larger landscape.
First published in 1962, Hothouse shares an ecological theme with several novels of the same period – notably John Christopher's The Death of Grass, J.G Ballard's The Drought, Moorcock's The Ice Schooner and Charles Platt's The Garbage World – what separates it from these equally fine novels, however, is Aldiss' baroque imagination and ability to wring humour from even the most ghastly of situations: Gren's symbiotic/ parasitic relationship with the fungal Morel, for instance, where we, rather than Gren himself, realise the Morel's essential naivety and stupidity, the grotesquely funny Tummy Belly men who unwillingly accompany Gren, Polyl and Yattmur, or Aldiss' sheer delight in the use of language and the names he gives to his vegetable creations – crawlpaws, whistlethistles, wiltmilts, oystermaws, burnurns and many more.
Winner of the 1962 Hugo Award, Hothouse is, arguably, Brian Aldiss' finest novel, horrific, playful, inventive, florid, stark and unforgettable.
A new edition published by Penguin Modern Classics is currently available.