Imagine a future. A future so far, that the earth has stopped spinning. Like a clock wound down. The sun covers the sky, immobile. In this tropical heat, the plants have turned carnivorous. The world has been colonised by a single banyan tree that has grown so large that it buries everything underneath its trans-continental canopy. In this vegetable inferno, the last remnants of humans fight all the monsters that Nature can put forth.
This was one of the worlds that Brian Aldiss made. Aldiss, who passed away last fortnight, one day after his 92nd birthday, was one of the titans of science fiction. This sweltering future Earth was set out in his novel Hothouse, published in 1962. Apocryphally, the book did badly in the US as it was stocked in the horticulture section in bookstores there.
The boarding school I went to did have a huge banyan tree and I fondly hoped that it would, over the next million years, be the one that would cross and criss-cross the earth. Perhaps, a spark of this tropical fire came to Aldiss from his experiences fighting in India and Burma during World War II. As a young soldier, he was posted to Mhow in Madhya Pradesh. In a YouTube interview earlier this year, he recalled stopping to pick up a magazine at the Bombay railway station, “a magazine called… India Cinema with lots of guys and girls on the cover and I thought this would be fun, and I bought it. I found that criticism in there was much harsher than any criticism you’d find in the English equivalent. For instance, they would say, ‘Oh, Mr Das Gupta, this is a silly man — he’s bald! Who wants him as a hero?’ I’ve actually still got that, somewhere; I always treasured it”.
Growing up in Vizag in the 1990s, there were only a couple of bookstores which didn’t restrict themselves to engineering entrance guides or medical texts. In such stores, the shelves presented an unchanging picture. New stock came in only rarely. Unknown tides would deposit strange books on our shores. A rare comic-book adaptation of the Elric of Melnibone series. The novelisation of The Terminator movie. Amidst such detritus was a monstrous tome, Trillion Year Spree, a survey of science fiction put together by Aldiss. I’d just got past Isaac Asimov and the Doctor Who paperbacks. This book was a map to continents I didn’t even know existed, a book that described impossible books. It also set out my next two decades, which would be to find those books and read them.
Later, thanks to a sale at the British Council library in Madras, I was able to amass an Aldiss collection of my own. The book that blew my mind was Aldiss’s experimental Report on Probability A. Describing the plot is pointless, it is set over the course of a single day in an English bungalow and features its occupant, a Mr Mary and his wife. Mr Mary is under surveillance from a trio of observers, each of whom, is himself under observation from the others. For a book written in 1962, it retains its astonishingly inventive verve even today.
Aldiss was also capable of a peculiar humour. His short story ‘Confluence’ features an 11-million-year old language on the planet Myrrin. Words can start with a direct meaning, for example, ‘AB WE TEL MIN’ means “the sensation that one neither agrees nor disagrees with what is being said to one, but that one simply wishes to depart from the presence of the speaker”. Aldiss then introduces the wrinkle; the language is a combination of words and the posture taken up by the aliens. Meanings are altered by the way an alien sits or stands, so JILY JIP TUP could either indicate “a thinking machine that develops a stammer” or “the action of pulling up the trousers while running uphill”.
Similarly, “LA YUN UN” could refer to all these possibilities; “A struggle in which not a word is spoken; the underside of an inaccessible boulder; or the part of one’s life unavailable to other people”. Aldiss enjoys himself with such combinations like “KARNDOLI YON TOR”, a “mystical state attained through inaction” or “a learned paper on the poetry of metal”. Aldiss, who started his career working in a bookstore, can’t resist throwing in YUP PA “a book in which everything is understandable except the author’s purpose in writing it”. My favourite is probably BAG RACK, “Needless and offensive apologies”.
Christopher Priest, who was a friend of Aldiss, wrote after his passing, “his work shines out as an example to us all, a standard to strive to equal…his conversation was something to stay up all night for, and his sense of fun was marvellous”. Long after Aldiss is gone, the worlds that he wrought shall remain.
Jaideep Unudurti is a writer in Hyderabad.