Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Long Afternoon of Earth

Brian W. Aldiss stands as one of the most accomplished authors in the sf field. His ability to combine inventive sf imaginings with a deft literary style allow his works to be read and enjoyed on several levels. In his early novel Hothouse (1962), which was released in the U.S. in slightly abridged form under the title The Long Afternoon of Earth, all of his talent is on display.

The book is a seamless fixup of a series of novelettes originally serialized in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Set in the distant future it paints a picture of an Earth in which human civilization has waned and the vegetable kingdom has asserted supremacy. The landmass of the world is now covered by a gigantic, sprawling banyan tree. In the tops of this tree prowl the traversers, titanic spider-like plant creatures. They feed on the hard radiation of outer space and have woven a web between the tidally locked Earth and its moon. Beneath them the planet seethes with aggressive vegetable creatures that have evolved to fill the niches once occupied by animals. Ravenous trappersnappers, devouring wiltmilts, swooping rayplanes, and "those mindless sharks" the thinpins. It is a world of menace at every corner, of Nature, red in tooth and claw.

In this world, in the middle layers of the banyan's branches, lives Lily-yo and her small tribe of diminutive humans. Now living a hunter-gatherer existence, the once dominant Homo sapiens have been reduced in stature both figuratively and literally. These humans are tiny creatures, only a fifth the size of their ancestors, their small size reflecting the diminished role of humans in this world. Faced with the constant threat of voracious plant beasts they live a precarious existence. They can only persevere and, like the vegetables around them, purse "their instinct for growth."

The novel is divided into three parts, each following the characters on their odysseys. The first involves Lily-yo and her small group, which includes the headstrong youth, Gren. They climb to the strange heights of the banyan, the Tips, to perform the ritual which will deliver Lily-yo and the other adults of the group to the afterlife. The remaining children of the group, including Gren, will go and start a new group as has been the custom from time immemorial. The second and third parts of the novel deal primarily with Gren whose obstinacy has resulted in his parting with the group. His resulting journeys lead him to unexpected perils and discoveries.

Delivered in a concise and economical style, Aldiss' novel is successful on all levels. As an entertaining story it never ceases to amaze with it's array of marvelous creatures and environments. The fecundity of imagination revealed here is matched only by deftness with which Aldiss crafts the narrative. The central image of the book, that of the cobweb draped Earth and moon, can be forgiven its lack of scientific plausibility for the shear power of its metaphorical vividness. Yet despite the brutality of the protagonists' world, and the ostensibly gloomy milieu of the Dying Earth subgenre in which this story is situated, the novel is never oppressive. The final pages leave you with a sense of hope, even in the face of cosmic adversity. It is a rewarding and accomplished book that exhibits Aldiss in the full flower of his growth as a writer.

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