Future Alternative Past: Vegetable love

Every month, Nisi Shawl presents us with news and updates from her perch overlooking the world of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror. You can also look through the archives of the column.

We’re mammals. Beasts. But when we look at the world we inhabit, we see ourselves surrounded by plant life, and when we look at that world through the lens of SFFH we can see the plants surrounding us as neighbors and potential rivals.

Fantasy is full of dryads, mythological tree spirits I first became acquainted with via CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Though Lewis’s series is famously a Christian allegory, clues to the books’ religious core escaped me, and this may be due to my fascination with its pagan façade. Narnian dryads died when their trees were chopped down, and I developed a fierce protectiveness for the saplings in the vacant lot next to my childhood home.

But did they need my protection? Sneaking under the fence to watch movies at the drive-in on the far side of the ballpark across the street, I was introduced to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short horror story “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” This 19th century tale of a toxic garden centers on a luridly beautiful tree bearing fatal flowers. Its breath is death — except to the young woman who tends it, who is in some way its sister. The woman’s exhalations bring death, too, to those who come too close. Her touch could kill the student who courts her, instantly; thorns and poisons are plants’ primary defenses, and far more potent than the wrath of a grade-school girl.

Science fictional instances of botanic speculation include several wistful references to human photosynthesis. There’s 2011’s By Light Alone, by Adam Roberts, with its ironic take on conspicuous oral consumption; earlier, there are the symbs of John Varley’s Eight Worlds series, symbiotic human/plant partnerships that allow us to live indefinitely in the vacuum of space — as long as said vacuum is sunlit. Ursula K Le Guin often celebrated our interrelatedness, most notably in her 1972 novel The Word for World Is Forest. In my short story “Slippernet” I invoke the power of forests’ mycorrhizal networks or “Wood Wide Web” as empathy-injectors disabling Trumpian othering, and I’ll be doing more with these fungal threads in my upcoming sequel to Everfair.

But by far the most interesting sfnal exploration of straight up plant intelligence is Sue Burke’s novel Semiosis. Set onan extrasolar colony, the book begins with a wincingly plausible cascade of mini-disasters culminating in a tense situation which only partnership with an herb-based sentience can resolve. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora highlights the futility of classifying extraterrestrial life along an Earth-context plant-animal binary, which even locally falls apart (slime molds, anyone?). And yet, drawing on recent scientific discoveries, Burke does a tremendous job of showing us the thought processes of an actual vegetable. In doing this she moves a step beyond the scope of Le Guin’s 1971 short story “Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” writing some passages from the viewpoint of her alien character’s widely distributed and practically immortal mind.

Recent books recently read

My Writing the Other co-author Cynthia Ward’s latest pulptastic vampire novella, The Adventure of the Dux Bellorum (Aqueduct Press), pits Dracula’s queer daughter against a mad scientist in Kaiser Wilhelm’s pay. The daughter, Lucy Harker, is a British spy assigned to keep the titular “dux bellorum” — aka “warlord” — Lieutenant-Colonel Winston Churchill out of trouble during his tour of duty on the Great War’s Western Front. Since that includes battling mind-controlled wolfmen and giant telepathic pterodactyls, this is a pretty tall order. Fortunately Harker’s lover, another lesbian vampire, happens to be a British spy as well. Together the couple fight the good gonzo fight for Truth, Justice, and the Triumph of Democracy. Throughout their sensationalistic escapades Ward references the works of HG Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, MR James, and other forefathers of SFFH with wholehearted enthusiasm, yet still manages to update their stodginess with breathtakingly matter-of-course feminism and homophilia. Which is to say this is nostalgia for forward-looking readers. A neat trick. Also a fun one.

Swedish author John Lindqvist’s debut novel Let the Right One In caused an international stir, blending traditional vampire lore with modern social issues such as bullying and gender fluidity. I Am Behind You is the English translation of Himmelstrand, a later and decidedly weirder work of Lindqvist’s, a novel which only hints as to what befalls its characters. Explanations are apparently being left for the two following volumes of this trilogy; what we have in the first book is the set-up, plus a bit of nasty description and some character development.

The set-up: four RVs are mysteriously transported with their contents and inhabitants to a strange, grassy field beneath a sunless blue sky. The viewpoint characters include two kids, four couples, and a beagle. Most of the nastiness boils down to an attacking horde of whimpering zombies and a powerfully acid rainfall, though there’s also plenty of old fashioned gore: spilled blood, oozing guts...the proper balance of ick and wtf, in sum, to begin a long and hopefully disturbing new saga of loneliness and horror.

Couple of upcoming cons

Con+Alt+Delete is an anime convention you’ll want to attend if you like “Full metal Alchemist, Dragon Ball Z, Yu-Gi-Oh, Lolita Fashion, Homestuck, My Little Pony,” and similar sorts of entertainment. Or maybe you ought to go if you want to get your cosplay on — there will be competitions.

For those who prefer something a bit more specialized there’s Tacoma’s Weekend of Wizardry, which basically promises live-action Harry Potter fanfic. It sounds especially tempting to those of us still awaiting the arrivals of our owls.