Friday, April 16, 2010

The end of their world is nigh

"The insides of the yellow bird were marvellous to behold. Here were small spools, a line of knobs, a glimpse of amplifying circuits. The two humans let their fingers enjoy the delight of toggle switches.

"With scarcely a murmur, it rose from the ground. Superb in powered flight, it wheeled above them, glowing richly in the sun.

"'Make the world safe for democracy!' it cried."

A bit of context may be needed here. The yellow bird-like machine is the heckler, the two humans are Gren and his mate Yattmur, and the scene takes place in the dim and distant future, in Hothouse , a novel by Brian Aldiss, the "godfather of British science-fiction".

Gren and Yattmur are on an epic journey across an earth inhabited by predatory plantlife, a very nasty telepathic fungus and the tummy-belly men, who live in strange symbiosis with trees.

This unfamiliar earth has stopped spinning on its axis and is tethered to the moon by strands spun by the traversers, mile-wide arachnid vegetables that commute between the planets, feeding off the sun's hard radiation.

The human race has devolved back to the trees, shrunken in size and lifespan, sometimes hitching rides on the Traversers and mutating into even stranger life-forms on the way.

You couldn't make it up.

But Brian Aldiss did, nearly 50 years ago, and even today Hothouse reads with a modernity that belies its age. Humans have lost control of the world and their own destinies, and function at pretty much the same level as the semi-sentient plants that they eat. When they're not being eaten themselves.

Hothouse isn't really a warning about a man-made environmental crisis – it's a fantasy about what might happen in the far future as the sun gets closer to turning nova.

But like all good science fiction, it speaks to our own time. And what strikes closest to home, finishing the book three weeks before a General Election, is the heckler machine.

The heckler is the only high-tech artefact in a world where even the wheel has ceased to exist.

To Gren and Yattmur it's an incomprehensible relic of a distant past, as it flutters above their heads, exhorting them to "Vote for SRH – vote for freedom!" and telling them that "Statistics prove you are better off than your bosses."

All the heckler's political slogans and posturings – support the two-day working week, boycott chimp goods – are made meaningless by the passing of time.

In the present day, of course, we can't ignore the party-political slogans. And even the most apolitical cynic would think twice about swapping today's politicised media mayhem for the opportunity to live in a continent-sized banyan tree under constant threat from wiltmilts, vandalberries and deadly nettlemoss.

But won't it be nice when it stops?

Hothouse is published by Penguin Classics, and is worth every penny of £8.99.

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