“Where are your empty-headed heads, you creatures of the darkling plains? You have toads in the head, not to understand my prophecies where the green pillars grow. Growing is symmetry, up and down, and what is called decay is not decay but the second part of growth. One process, you toad-heads – the process of devolution, that carries you down into the green well from which you came…I’m lost in the mazes – Gren! Gren, like a mole I tunnel through an earth of understanding…Gren, the nightmares – Gren, from the fish’s belly I call to you. Can you hear me? It’s I – your old ally the morel!”
The first chapter was agonizing: the text was coarse, awkward, and unintelligible, and the names and descriptions silly and often beyond imaging. As the characters are split up or otherwise “fall to the green”, the reader finally follows a select few on an unceasingly violent series of mindless events. These few make a doomed but decisive venture and are about to return back to the familiar albeit danger-filled forest that is their home, when along comes the morel.
In Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse, or The Long Afternoon of Earth, we eventually are left with two main characters, who travel through a hostile environment overtaken by highly evolved plants; an Earth in locked rotation with a dying Sun forces plants to cleverly – and horrifically – adapt, while mammals are quickly driven to extinction.
Yattmur and Gren, both humanoid but from different tribes, meet sometime after Gren’s encounter with a sentient parasitic fungus, “Morel”, which latches onto his head and gives him intelligence. However, Morel’s true aim is to find more species like himself, use others to absorb all information he can, and reproduce anywhere and everywhere.
At first a promising guide to a way out of the steaming and murderous forest, Morel starts to control Gren, forcing him and, indirectly, Yattmur to do things they didn’t sign up for nor fulfilling his original promises in keeping them and the company they keep safe. Gren futilely struggles to fight off Morel’s grip on his mind, while Yattmur tries, with mixed success, to care for the friends they have met along the way.
In the end, Yattmur, along with Gren, return to the hot world not because she has to nor due to any kind of gross negligence; the morel’s machinations, schemes, and overbearing need to propagate and control is simply not the current she chooses to get swept up in.
The above quote by Morel, that treacherous and insular yet driven scum, is his last attempt to occupy Gren’s already diseased mind, who has escaped Morel’s mad schemes and for which he is no longer a vessel.
Morel is a fascinating character among the many otherwise interesting but mindless botanical monsters mentioned in Aldiss’s novel. Yet, de-evolved as they were, as spoken by Morel himself, the humans become wise enough to leave his party in the end; Yattmur feels remorse for the deaths (all directly or indirectly caused by Morel’s selfish decisions) of those with which they crossed paths, whereas Gren is simply tired of the Morel’s tricks and literal mind control.
The clunky wording at the beginning becomes prosaic and plumbing towards the end, an end which is abrupt and hardly uplifting. And yet, the madness of it all, as they watch from a distant mountain the forest writhing in thick steam and lightning uncontrollably up toward the doomed Sun, can now be appreciated.
It’s beautiful, foreboding, clarifying, unpredictable, and unforeseeable. Nevertheless, in a way thanks to the morel, we’ve found each other and have come out of the forest, only to go back in. But, as the saying goes, we’re all the wiser and more prepared for having done so.