Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: The Long Afternoon Of Earth by Brian Aldiss (1961)
(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 12.)
First, thanks to everyone for being patient while I took some time off from this project. There's been a ton of stuff going on here, and elsewhere, that's kept me way too busy. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I also wanted to delay so I could read the long version of this book, Hothouse, which I dutifully acquired through Half.com, complete with its original K-Mart price tag. It didn't happen, and for that I'm also sorry. I first read The Long Afternoon Of Planet Earth a while back when I started an earlier version of this project on my personal blog. (I'm not going to link to it but if you have to seek it out, let me warn you in advance that it's really boring and rarely updated.) So there's a little self-cannibalization going on in this post but we should be back to normal next week. Right. Enough with the apologies. Let's get down to the end of the world. The most common complaints leveled at Steven Spielberg's A.I.: Artificial Intelligence have to do with the final segment, set many years ahead of the rest of the film. Its robot-boy protagonist, having sunk to the bottom of the ocean and gone into stasis, has outlived not just his creators but humanity as a whole. Whatever shape life on earth has taken, it's left humanity behind. The androids (if that's even the right word) who have have superseded the human race treat him like a Rosetta Stone for understanding their own origins. Then they let him die, his shutting down the last exhausted sigh of a civilization that no longer had a place in the cosmos. Frankly, I don't get the hate, particularly from those who mistake it for a happy ending. It's not. But it's not what I'd call a tragic ending either. It's a view of where we're going that can make you reel with its distance and a sad bookend to the trippy humanism of A.I. originator Stanley Kubrick's 2001. The ending doesn't have much to do with the Brian Aldiss story that inspired it, "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long," or its sequels. But it has a lot to do with Aldiss, or at least the Aldiss I found in The Long Afternoon Of Earth, a novel published a few years earlier in Aldiss' native U.K. in a slightly longer version called Hothouse. It's many years in the future and humanity has diminished, literally. Not only are humans fewer, they're smaller too. They're also one of the last examples of the animal kingdom. The earth's rotation has slowed to a stop and the plants have taken over. What animals remain–fish, some insects, humans–act almost as parasites or, just as often, prey to the animal-like vegetables that rule the Earth and slightly beyond the Earth: spider-like Traversers travel along a web spun between the Earth and the moon, we find out a few chapters in.
It's all incredibly imaginative, but I like the book best in its early chapters, when Aldiss lays out the social structure of his tree-dwelling protagonists and the ins-and-outs of life in a jungle where the sun never sets. And even with the monster combat, Aldiss doesn't shy away from poetic passages particularly the opening:
Obeying an inalienable law, things grew, spreading rioutous and strange in their instinct for growth. The heat, the light, the humidity–these were constant and had remained constant for but nobody new how long. Nobody cared any more for the big questions that begin "How long?" or "Why?" It was no longer a place for mind. It was a place for growth, for vegetables. It was like a hothouse.
It's more postscript than post-apocalyptic. Much life has ended, humanity has wound down, and the sun is burning out (or blowing up), but there's little sense of tragedy here. It feels like rest will soon come after a long struggle. It's almost a shame that it has to go about the business of being a novel and, in fact, Aldiss spends most of the remaining pages doing little more than describing the fantastic vegetable creatures of his hothouse world as his bland protagonist travels around in search of, well, it's never quite clear. (And eventually an intelligent fungus takes over most of his brain functions and he stops acting of his own volition.) Worse, there are long passages and thoughtless repetitions where Aldiss is clearly writing just to fill the pages and he has a strange habit of sticking to his characters' points of view and then pulling back to explain what has happened over the eons with chirpy omniscience. It feels like a cheat and it saps the exotic allure of the novel's world. But by and large I really liked this book, which is good because there's plenty of Aldiss in the box. He's an interesting character whom I knew little about before, with a past that included a troubled childhood, military service in Burma, a star-crossed would-be marriage, friendship with Kingsley Amis and Harry Harrison, financial ruin, an '80s comeback, and a current long, productive, albeit lonely writing jag at an age when most people putter around the house. (There's a great 2001 profile from The Guardian here and he published a new book, Harm, this year.) He's also been adapted more than I'd thought. Last year's Brothers Of The Head is from 1977 novel and Roger Corman's Frankenstein Unbound is taken from Aldiss as well. He's also written poetry, travel, and autobiography. I don't know if he keeps plants. Okay, things should return to a normal weekly schedule for the foreseeable future, barring unusual disruptions or brain-controlling fungi. Next week: Donovan's Brain, by Curt Siodmak Then: Moonraker, by Ian Fleming And then: ??? (I'll drop a comment to fill in this blank.)