Damon's Fascination with Plants
A Tribute to Foliage in Science Fiction

I've always been fascinated with the phenomenon of life, and particularly, for some reason, with plant life. I imagine that if biology courses in high school hadn't required various dissections, botany could easily have competed with linguistics for my academic attention.

As it is, though, my interest in the study of life has been constrained to casual reading... and particularly to science fiction.

My 'for fun' reading has always been almost exclusively science fiction; nothing else fits the pattern of my own imagination so well. And my favourite books are usually those that go to great lengths describing an alien biology. And of those, the ones that concern themselves mainly with plants seem to hold a special, exalted place in my heart.

Plant themes seem to be fairly prevalent in the genre; I've read quite a few books that deal with awe-inspiring botanical canvasses, be they worlds distant in space, time, or both, or a future vision of our own world. Plenty of stories forego the mega-jungle setting, but focus exclusively on some particular, startling plant.

My own ambition is one day to write a series of stories or books set in a meticulously described, biologically diverse universe. And of course, the single race from that universe I've thus far (throughout the last few years of high school) described in most detail is a botanical intelligence.

In any case, here I've collected a few of the books I can remember reading that deal almost exclusively with plant life:

Day of the Triffids
by John Wyndham

If the average person makes any connexion between plants and science fiction at all, this is probably the classic being remembered. A disaster story in Wyndham's great tradition, this is the story of the immediate future in which, after an apparent slip-up involving secret cold war weapons, most of the human population is struck blind and the triffids, ambulatory stinging plants previously harvested for their oils, come into their own, contesting dominance with the remains of human civilisation. I root, er, for the plants, myself.

by Alan Dean Foster

I think this was the book that first clued me in to my special preference for plants. Human colonists struggling to establish a foothold on a world completely carpeted in thick, miles-high jungle come into contact with previously stranded humans... who have been completely integrated into the vegetal being of the world. This is an all-or-nothing book; Foster's foliage is an entire ecosystem replete with its own evolutionary amazements, all described in dizzying and delightful detail. Please excuse the blatant consonance there.

by Alan Dean Foster

Well! It would appear that perhaps Alan Dean Foster was as enamoured of his own leafy creation as myself, as he has decided to revisit Midworld in this fairly recent (1995) addition to his Flinx series. I've only actually read the first of the series before now, but understandably, when I saw this book, I could hardly be expected to resist. As usual, Foster has produced an easy-reading page-turner which, though perhaps somewhat lacking in the arena of revelatory meaningfulness, is nonetheless a smashingly good read. In most ways, it seems a continuation of Midworld; a thing, in my opinion, to be appreciated. And though I found myself becoming annoyed, as is normal, at the intrusion of plot into the heady descriptions of vegetal magnificence, Foster, with his usual skill, drew me quickly into said plot and managed to make it almost as enjoyable as his descriptions of Midworld's fauna and, especially, flora. And now, I think, I shall have to locate a few more of the Flinx books...

The Word for World is Forest
by Ursula K. LeGuin

One of the few things my LeGuin I have thus far read. Unfortunately I can't remember much about this book right now, except that it is another 'jungle world' type novel. It's in my collection somewhere; when next I dig my books out of storage I'll be sure to reread it and write a description here...

Memory Seed
by Stephen Palmer

Apparently a first novel, this story is a sort of creeping disaster tale, set in the far future. Humanity's last city is being slowly overrun by creeping green, and a small group of resisters searches desperately for a way out. The greenery here is more of a background than an intricately described main feature, but the descriptions that are given are very well done. I think my favourite phrase in the book is 'ambulatory pumpkin'.

The Long Afternoon of Earth
by Brian Aldiss

Another jungle world book like Midworld or The Word for World is Forest, this one is, like Memory Seed, a tale of Earth's far future. Once you accept the, er, interesting proposal that the earth, moon and sun have ceased all movement in relation to one another, this is a very absorbing book. In a world where one ancient banyan tree has conquered all the land on the sun-side of the earth and supports a vast and intricate ecosystem that battles on the shores with the poisonous seaweeds, and where the traversers, giant vegetal spider analogues, spin their webs between earth and moon, constantly ferrying life to the greened satellite, miniature humans struggle to maintain their position as one of the few remaining species of animal life. And when two of them meet morel, the one plant intelligence, a symbiotic fungus that earns its living by supplying its hosts with the advantage of intelligence, things get really interesting. Two things that take some getting over are a rather unpolished feel, and the annoying reduplicated names Aldiss gives everything, though - wiltmilts and trappersnappers and killerwillows and the like. The book is well worth the effort of getting over these, however.

Runners Up

Dr. Dolittle's Garden
by Hugh Lofting

I've always been a huge fan of the Dr. Dolittle books, and Garden was always one of my favourites. Insects go with plants somehow in my mind, and in this book Dr. Dolittle not only finally learns to communicate with insects, but also rides to the moon on the back of a lunar moth. Plants only play a small part - some bell-shaped flowers the moth brings with it from the moon supply the passengers with oxygen on the trip - but the whole book inspires a very vegetal feeling for me.

Beyond the Fall of Night
by Arthur C. Clarke and Gregory Benford

The first half of this book is a rewrite of a Clarke classic and contains no botanical musings; the second half of the book, however, concerns itself greatly with the advanced evolution of earthly life, and its merging with the vast interstellar biological soup. Some fantastic descriptions of utterly alien life, much of which has that folial feel in abundance. ('Folial'? Is that a word?)

Computer Games

One of my earliest exposures to the idea of botanical intelligences was in that classic space exploration game, Star Flight. Way back in the days of XT PCs with state-of-the-art CGA displays, I played that game and I loved it. One of the races in the alliance that formed the setting for the game was a vegetal race called the Elinowan or something similar; a race upon the superficial description of which my mind seized and expanded long ago.

And of course, extra credit must be given to the greatest game of all time, Star Control II, for the inclusion of a vegetal race in the Star Control universe. I must admit, though, that the incredibly minor and apparently quite 'afterthought' status of the dearly beloved Supox in the game did disappoint me. Ah well. I think my favourite memory of them is when, confronted with the accusation that Earth's top scientists and science fiction writers had long since proven beyond a doubt that vegetal intelligence was an impossibility, they reply that indeed, their own race has confirmed this fact. How odd.

If you should happen to know of any other plant-y books you think might interest me, please do suggest them!

<- follow the underripe banana to the Paukarut...
All material copyright © 1997 by Damon Harper.
All rights reserved.

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