Panel 3: Ecocriticism: Close Readings of the Future



Panel 3: Ecocriticism: Close Readings of the Future

Imagining Plant-Like Futures? Vegetal Intelligence in Brian Aldiss’ Novel Hothouse (1962)

John Ryan, University of Western Australia

How might we imagine humanity in 2050 as more plant-like—as in higher synchronization with vegetal temporality in our scientific, technological, cultural, and interpersonal pursuits? How might we resist denying a future to plants and, thus, to ourselves and other beings? This paper will address questions such as these through a reading of Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse, recipient of the 1962 Hugo Award for Best Short Fiction (more).

Science Fiction Questions the Foundations of Human Progress: Extrapolations of Desire in James: Tiptree Jr.’s A Momentary Taste of Being

Selena Middleton, McMaster University

This paper explores the ways in which science fiction exposes the mutability of our humanity within the context of ecological collapse as depicted in James Tiptree Jr.’s A Momentary Taste of Being. Tiptree’s narrative explores the transformation of the crew members of an interstellar voyage when they come into contact with an alien species (more).

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20 replies
  1. John Ryan, University of Western Australia says:

    Dear Conference Attendees,
    Thanks very much for viewing my talk on “Imagining Plant-Like Futures.” I’m keen to hear your thoughts on the role of science fiction in promoting sustainability and envisioning the future, especially for the earth’s plant life.
    Talk to you soon again!
    John Ryan (Thailand & Australia)

    • Márgara Averbach, Universidad de Buenos Aires says:

      Hi, John. I have not read this novel by Brian Aldiss (don’t like him much to tell you the truth) but you should compare him with a novel by John Brunner called The Crucible of Time, impressive creation of a word, and very challenging to translate (which I did in the 1990’s… The world he creates and follows through out ages… is a world of plants. He invents words to describe it. Impressive.
      Thank you for your talk, I really enjoyed it.

      • John Ryan, University of Western Australia says:

        Hello Margara,

        Many thanks for your suggestion! I’ll certainly have a look at John Brunner’s The Crucible of Time in terms of its plant world. Actually, I am new to sci-fi and just beginning to feel my way around the genre, so I appreciate your lead.

        Kind regards, John

        • Márgara Averbach, Universidad de Buenos Aires says:

          Do, for me it is also a book which is useful to understand invention of words and to learn how to translate them. The thing is: as Brunner creates a whole world and its history in many, many generations and years, he needs to invent words which the readers have to have patience to understand (this… probably, made it an extraordinary book but not a successful one)… and the invention is immense in scope and strategies. Very interesting in that sense too.

  2. Selena Middleton, McMaster University says:

    Hi John, I’m very pleased by how well – I think – our talks go together. I didn’t focus a lot on this and perhaps did not describe this enough, but the alien being that provides the transformative impetus in A Momentary Taste of Being is plant-like, at first not thought to have any kind of psychological life. As the crew of The Centaur becomes more influenced by its telepathic power, they begin to have dreams in which human bodies begin to take on vegetal qualities.

    I’m really interested in these quotes from Hothouse: “It was no longer a place for mind” and “It was a place for growth”. Is Aldiss’ vision for humanity a cynical one? Is the implication in Hothouse that humans have peaked in their ascendancy and that a kind of devolution (as in Ballard’s The Drowned World) will take place after which plants will inhabit the vacated niche? If this is the case (as some say of Tiptree but I disagree), or if some kind of plant-human hybrid future is the suggestion, does this vision offer anything hopeful for our future?

    Thanks for your talk!

    • John Ryan, University of Western Australia says:

      Hello Selena,
      Many thanks for your comments – my apologies for the delay in replying. I was also very pleased about the overlays between our talks, especially in terms of our mutual invocation of Darwin’s ideas in the analysis of two works of science fiction. I was also interested in your discussion of Stacy Alaimo’s idea of “transcorporeality” which seems also to have relevance to “Hothouse”. In a similar vein, I’ve recently looked into the concept of intercorporeality (coming from eco-phenomenology and other areas) in theorizing plant-human physical affinities (e.g. shared hormones, etc.) and interdependencies.

      What I have described as a “posthuman” vision at the end of Hothouse (in which Aldiss questions the “old” classifications between animal, plant, fungi, human) might readily be characterized as transcorporeal – going beyond strongly individuated differences driven by taxonomic alignments. If I write this into a paper, I might look into Alaimo’s work.

      Your question about whether or not Aldiss offers anything hopeful for the future is a good one. The narrative is rather cynical, at times with a witty edge, but the gist of the story is the struggle between the vestiges of humanity and plants-gone-to-excess. There is little indication of equitable or harmonious states of exchange between beings. So the best conclusion I could come up with is that, through a kind of exaggerated post-apocalyptic vision, Aldiss mirrors back to us the miraculous and symbiotic state in which we find ourselves now. His narrative calls attention to plants, even though they are monstrous and posited as enemies, largely. He ascribes a kind of partial or conditional intelligence to them. And in doing this, he helps us to think about the plant world around us as more than the immobile furniture of the world, as Michael Pollan says.

      Kind regards,

    • John Ryan, University of Western Australia says:

      Hello Selena,

      Thank you for your excellent talk – I enjoyed your refreshing (non-grotesque!) interpretation of the novella, which I haven’t read but I look forward to reading soon. And I’m very glad to share this ecocriticism panel with you. G’day from Australia. A few questions and ideas came to mind as I listened to your talk again just now.

      I’m curious about the connection between Darwin’s view of nature and the transcorporeal ecofeminism framework you’ve developed very well in the talk. On this note, I was reminded of Chapter 2 “Darwin and the Ontology of Life” of Elizabeth Grosz’s book Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power (2005). You might find this reference interesting, if you haven’t already sourced it.

      I was also wondering how the “salvific transcendence” of the novella fits with Alaimo’s concept of transcorporeality. How might it be possible to reconcile the desire you describe within the narrative to transcend the Earth with the exigencies of transcorporeal exchange and embeddedness?

      And finally, I was fascinated by the alien being – what kinds of vegetal qualities do the humans begin to take on? And why do you think Tiptree chose a plant model for this creature?

      Kind regards,


      • Selena Middleton, McMaster University says:

        Thank you, John. Elizabeth Grosz is on my radar. I will be sure to check out the title you mentioned.

        You ask, “I was also wondering how the “salvific transcendence” of the novella fits with Alaimo’s concept of transcorporeality?” This is a difficult question, and the answer is perhaps to be found in posthumanist visions of the future. But there are problems there as well, as posthumanism draws heavily from Enlightenment thinking, leading to the idea of “transcending materiality and especially animality” (this is a reference to Sundberg’s “Decolonizing posthumanist geographies”) which is contrary to transporporeality which is a material process as well as ethical/spiritual. It’s hard to think of exactly what will result from Lory’s revolutionary project, and the horror that comes through in Aaron’s narrative voice reflects that. Alaimo’s transcorporeality suggests that our bodies are permeable, taking in as well as giving out, and if this is the case then the “transcendence” will – perhaps in line with Judeo-Christian mythologies – be a kind of humbling, or such a drastic change as to be considered a death. Many environmentalists (Derrick Jensen comes to mind) see this as a transcendent opportunity.

        As for the vegetal qualities the the crew of the Centaur begin to take on as their exposure time to the alien increases, there are some interesting parallels to Aldiss again. I really connected with the one quote you read from Aldiss, that “It was no longer a place for mind” as this kind of environment I believe begins to take shape on the Centaur, ironically originating inside human minds. Aaron, the protagonist, relays his dreams to the reader, and in one in particular, the first crew member affected by the alien begins to shift form into a green cauliflower-like plant. This character, Tighe, suffered a head injury and after contact with the alien, keeps escaping quarantine (no one knows how he is doing this, but it is suggested that there are multiple iterations of him, or that he is somehow able to walk through walls); so the head injury/contact with the alien has resulted in his human body being boundariless, shifting in space and species.

        There are lots of other references to plants, and people functioning like plants. There are references to flowers all over the place, especially in reference to contact between humans and the alien (the ship that makes contact with the planet is called the China Flower, for instance), as Tiptree gets at this idea of transcendent posthumanism through a physical reproduction (which is intentionally horrifying and therefore a block for most of the characters, except for those who have lived through horrors and traumas and can see something on the other side of that process that others can’t). It remains unknown what the end product will be, but Lory believes the emergent being will be beautiful, while Aaron mourns the loss of humanity as we know it. I think as readers, we can inhabit an uncomfortable space between those two reactions.

        • John Ryan, University of Western Australia says:

          Thanks for you thoughtful response, Selena. You’ve inspired me to consider Tiptree’s work from a plant studies perspective – much appreciated!
          All the best,

  3. Selena Middleton, McMaster University says:

    Apologies for the inaccurate talk title and abstract. The general themes are the same, but I ended up taking a more feminist approach to this talk. In that vein, I wanted to post a blog entry by Stacey Alaimo, whose “transcorporeality” I talk about briefly in my presentation. In this very recent blog, Alaimo isolates probably clearer than I do in my talk, a connection between patriarchy and environmental issues:

      • Márgara Averbach, Universidad de Buenos Aires says:

        Hi, Selena. I am listening to your talk (before going to class, end of the year, nearly summer here so a lot of work) and I wanted to say that I have read Alaimo and Haraway, but I come to the same ideas (that what we do to our environment, we do to ourselves) from the Native US cultures and literatures and the ideas they express. There (you can see that in my talk here about Dwellings, a book by Linda Hogan) their world views (Lucien Goldmann) –which can be traced in their fiction, poems, etc, make use of Darwinian theory to state that we, humans, are not complete, cannot be thought, without our circle, our “relatives” and those include the human clan (more than a family) and the place that group lives in (water, rivers, mountains, planes, animals, plants). We are relatives. There is a poem by Hogan (and other authors do the same but just not to put more names in here) that is called Crossings where she makes use of Darwinian ideas to express this idea of a net that we are breaking. Thank you for your talk, which I really enjoyed. Maybe I will say more when I finish listening but if I do not put this here, I will forget…

        • Márgara Averbach, Universidad de Buenos Aires says:

          Sorry, I forgot one thing I had to say: I think one cannot say that the idea of “progress” is “human”. It is specifically Western, “progress” is one idea that Native or First Nation cultures in the whole of America (meaning the continent) reject absolutely in their speeches, books, paintings, cinema…

          • Selena Middleton, McMaster University says:

            Thank you, Márgara, for your comments. I’m very excited to get to explore some of these ideas in the final chapter of my dissertation, for which I have just started the research. The final chapter will be looking at indigenous science fiction, relationships to the land, trauma and (hopefully) hope.

            In my very preliminary research so far I have come across the idea that it is the mythologies that allow for hope in a very broken relationship. Whereas in Western mythologies (specifically Judeo-Christian) the idea of separation and perfection is prevalent–at least this is the idea that has been most widely incorporated into Western culture; I acknowledge that many religious folks, as opposed to secular folks, have a different way of interpreting these myths. These mythologies are also the foundation of the Western idea of progress–that we are moving toward a specific (divine) goal–that, I agree, is not entirely present in other cultures.

            I say “entirely” here based on my research on Tiptree, who pointed to a tendency towards exogamy in her short story “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side.” This idea, for Tiptree, was based on her exposure to many other cultures as a child travelling with her anthropologist parents (most notably the remnants of some tribal peoples of the Congo, after the genocide instigated by King Leopold II of Belgium). I acknowledge that Tiptree’s understanding is gleaned from colonial ideas, though she gets to the root of many kinds of injustice in her stories, with a vehemence that clearly identifies her as someone who recognizes the unjust and flawed structures of Western culture. I believe her stories point to the idea that while Western culture has made a monster out of “progress,” all human beings have a proclivity to reach out to the “Other” which necessarily demands change. The Western idea of progress may have more to do with the West’s acceptance of concepts of possession or property as well as progress.

            Anyway, I am very excited to get to continue my research on indigenous science fiction, and consider the ways in which different myths contribute to a different approach not only to the land, but the land as it is now and the traumas inflicted upon it and the people in relationship with it. I’ve read from Nakota scholar Kim Tallbear that for many indigenous peoples the land is considered a post-apocalyptic landscape, but one with which human beings are nonetheless called to be in relationship with. This, I think, is where hope resides–in this call to relationship.

            • Márgara Averbach, Universidad de Buenos Aires says:

              There is science fiction by Native US authors but if you allow me to define science fiction as a projection into the future, there is one book one should read necessarily, Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko, my favorite author, It is a long, passionate book on how Nature and some humans start struggling agains the Destroyers. Try that one if you can.

  4. Erin James, University of Idaho says:

    Hi John. Thanks so much for your talk. I really enjoyed it!

    As you were speaking about plant-like futures and Aldiss’ novel, I was struck by the rootedness of it all — an idea also foregrounded in Marder’s notion of “embodied emplacement” (I think I have the phrasing on that correct). While I’m intrigued and persuaded by many of the ideas that you associate with plant-like futures, I have a tough time reconciling this one with a future that many predict will be defined in large part by forced migration and refugeeism. Have you come across any imagined futures in the science fiction that you’re studying that suggest ways to reconcile plant-like futures with movement on such a grand and frequent scale?

  5. John Ryan, University of Western Australia says:

    Hello Erin,

    Nice to ‘see’ you here! Your question is a powerful one: “Have you come across any imagined futures in the science fiction that you’re studying that suggest ways to reconcile plant-like futures with movement on such a grand and frequent scale?” I hope that other visitors to the panel with interests in sci-fi might also venture a response.

    My initial response is that, as I believe Marder and others would also stress, rootedness is only one dimension of plant being. It is the plant that allows us to reconceptualize “embodied emplacement” in terms of movement on a grand scale (ala Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire argument). The obvious rootedness of vegetal life, on the one hand, but counterpoised, on the other, by the rapid projection of its materiality into space (sometimes even within our time-consciousness), as an example.

    Although I didn’t emphasize this in the talk, I believe Hothouse can be interpreted in the context of forced migration and refugeeism. The home-place of the novel is the banyan and the human characters are forced to migrate constantly under threat from all sorts of hybridic creatures and the severely altered conditions of the earth. Yet the humans are constantly grounded in the banyan, in the plant world — and their plant-like being is reflected in the attunement – not always positive – with the vegetal life around them because of its pronounced percipience.

    I’ll give your question some more thought – thanks for that!

    All the best, John

  6. Justyna Poray-Wybranowska, York University says:

    Hi Selena and John,
    Thanks for sharing your research. Your papers work really well together. I am unfamiliar with the books you’re analyzing, but you’ve definitely made me want to read them now.
    Have either of you heard of the film Creeping Garden? It’s a documentary film that sheds light on slime moulds, which are organisms that are neither bacteria, nor vegetables or fungi. Although the film is in part a scientific documentary, it also muses on the philosophical/ethical implications of slime mould intelligence and examines how far the breakdown of human/nonhuman boundaries can be pushed with some pretty interesting experiments.
    I enjoyed both of your presentations. Thank you again.

    • John Ryan, University of Western Australia says:

      Thanks very much, Justyna, for your positive comments. I hadn’t heard of “Creeping Garden” but I will make sure to check it out. The film sounds like an excellent addition any posthumanist nature documentary collection 🙂
      Kind regards,

  7. Márgara Averbach, Universidad de Buenos Aires says:

    As regards this divide, it is part of the exploration the book I worked on for this Conference turns around. There is an excellent chapter on this called “A different Yield” that I discuss in my presentation. The definition of science is also questioned here and discussed from a different world view where animals and humans are essentially relatives. Thank you for your talk.

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