In a short but already quite storied career, Aliya Whiteley has distinguished herself in several ways. She is, for example, unusual in having made a name for herself while writing almost exclusively at the novella length (including the first novella ever shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award: The Arrival of Missives, 2015). In addition, she is an author whose work tends to straddle, with an expert control of tone and imagery, the divide between science fiction and horror. Her stories are characterized by finely-honed worlds and thought-through counterfactuals, but also by viscerally disturbing body horror—the fungal women and the effect they have on the men who take them for wives in The Beauty (2014); the alien rock fused with a shell-shocked soldier’s body in Missives; the layers of skin sloughing off the characters in The Loosening Skin (2018). At the same time, the horror in Whiteley’s stories runs deeper than mere disgust. It is the horror of the loss of self, of loneliness, and of realizing that the world is more dangerous and cruel than you had been raised to believe.
In her most recent novella, Greensmith, Whiteley once again delivers a compelling and plausible future world alongside disquieting horror, but she also adds a new weapon to her arsenal: humor. Greensmith is a tale about the end of the world, about looking back on your life and evaluating your mistakes and achievements. But it is also deeply funny, and a vicious satire of one of science fiction’s most beloved pop culture touchstones.
Penelope Greensmith is a fifty-something bio-librarian who has recently relocated to a secluded country cottage. Divorced and with a grown daughter she doesn’t entirely understand, Penelope is coming to terms with a life that has amounted to less than she might have hoped for, whose greatest achievement is almost unheralded: a collection of samples of the world’s plants, more than a hundred thousand of them arranged in racks in the cottage’s basement. Penelope inherited the project from her father, and with it a device called the Vice, which creates an indestructible disk recording all the information about a plant for posterity through a method Penelope has never understood.
On the morning that Greensmith begins, Penelope is visited by a man calling himself The Horticulturalist—Hort for short. Gregarious and charming, he explains that he has been traveling the world (or maybe Penelope just assumes that he means the world) looking for remarkable gardens and specimen collections. Despite her general distrust of people, Penelope finds herself disarmed by Hort, and invites him to study her collection and work with her.
Within a few days of Penelope and Hort beginning to work together—during which Penelope becomes completely smitten with her new friend—a bizarre virus attacks the planet, spreading with terrifying speed and killing every last bit of plant life: “the great rainforests of the Earth melting, oozing into a thick green paste, creating vast swamps.” Hort confesses that he is actually an interstellar traveler who has been seeking a cure for the virus, and invites Penelope—well, actually a neural copy of her, which he promises will be virtually identical to the real thing—to come with him and bring her collection, in the hopes that both will be helpful in his quest. Penelope, though she agonizes over the choice to leave her daughter behind, agrees in the hope that she can help Hort find a cure quickly enough to save the higher lifeforms on Earth from starvation.
From here on out, Greensmith becomes a psychedelic adventure in time and space, with Penelope following Hort to different planets on an intergalactic scavenger hunt, searching for information about the Vice—which is clearly alien in origin—and about the genesis of her father’s project. Along the way, she rubs elbows with revolutionaries, criminals, and space whales. Except not really, because through the same technology with which Hort has created the Penelope neural copy, he can also influence her perceptions. Everything Penelope sees and experiences is filtered through several layers of metaphor. Aliens look to her like flamingos. Place names are translated into the names of Earth plants, like Rampion or Calendula. When she and Hort travel to a prison planet to visit a master-criminal who is also a plant, Penelope perceives him—an elderly, introspective, repentant prisoner—through her vague memories of watching The Shawshank Redemption:
She was beginning to get used to these tricks. It was a way for her consciousness to make sense of whatever was actually upon the flower, and keep it bearable for her, of course. She doubted that a giant alien criminal plant being did actually look like Morgan Freeman.
It soon becomes clear, however, that Penelope is not the only one imposing narrative and familiar terms on an unfamiliar reality in order to make it bearable. Hort, too, is engaging in these games, but in his case, his power over Penelope means that he can impose his perspective on her, such as when he, with the touch of his finger, injects a potted history of the places and situations they visit in order to catch her up. Which appear to her as pulp fiction movie credits with appropriately bombastic background music, in which Hort always plays a dramatic, starring role:
TEARTHUMB: Time of War
In a world of cruel injustice, the oppressed Flamingo rebels finally have the ability to strike back at their tyrannical overlords. Their only hope lies in taking over The Tower, the information hub that controls the sale and production of the planet’s unique resource. (p. 44)
Despite all this freewheeling adventure, and despite Hort’s exhortation to “Stop thinking inwards … Adventures travel outwards, not in,” Penelope can’t seem to stop a habit of introspection. Traveling with Hort, far from elevating her, only reinforces her sense of her own smallness and ordinariness. When Penelope thinks back to her life—a mundane middle class existence, punctuated by occasional trips abroad, and given meaning by the work of the collection that now seems hard to justify, she describes herself as a “pot plant,” something domesticated and easy to overlook, needing only a bit of attention now and then. Even the most intense emotional connection of Penelope’s life, her love for her daughter, is now a barbed recollection, as each step in Penelope’s journey with Hort takes her further away from sharing in her daughter’s painful final days. Whiteley reinforces this point by returning to Earth occasionally to view the desperate—and, as they ultimately realize, fruitless—struggles for survival of Penelope’s daughter and ex-husband, who arrive at her cabin hoping to meet the end with her, and are instead left to wonder what became of her.
Meanwhile, most readers will have already developed a healthy skepticism towards Hort, with his cheerful arrogance, his overbearing bluster, his seeming solicitousness of Penelope’s limitations that always seems to end up with her agreeing to do things his way. By the second or third time the plant-killing virus shows up on a planet that he and Penelope have visited, not even she can deny that Hort is the cause of the problem that he claims to be trying to solve. When confronted with this fact, Hort reveals the full extent of his narcissism:
“You’re the virus.”
“I don’t want to be! I’m looking for a solution. I’m actively engaged in trying to make myself a better person. That counts for something, right? I’m trying to save the universe here.”
“From yourself.” (p. 93)
Here, at the very heart of Greensmith’s pulp adventure plot, we also find the queasy center of the novel’s horror. Hort is so self-absorbed, so consumed by his need to be, as Penelope puts it, “his own hero” (in the spaceship on which he and Penelope travel, she discovers a room in which multiple screens display Hort’s adventures, recut into movies that stress his dashing heroism), that he won’t even take the simple step of ceasing his travels and adventures. And yet at the same time, this self-absorption is what makes Hort attractive to someone like Penelope. He desperately needs someone to be awed by him. To Penelope, used to making herself small, desperate to feel special and important while also realizing that she is neither of those things, that need is irresistible, even as she realizes that Hort is a monster.
It’s only when Penelope goes rummaging through Hort’s belongings that Whiteley’s full scheme with Greensmith becomes clear. In his storage area, Penelope finds more pot plants, and realizes that they are the faded neural copies of her predecessors, Hort’s previous travel companions. And suddenly, it becomes clear who Hort—who is known only by his occupation; who travels the galaxy in a vessel that defies the laws of time and space and seems to have limitless internal dimensions (known as the “Ingenious Storage Solution”); who is the last member of a race of powerful, wise beings who have chosen to withdraw from the rest of the galaxy; who goes on adventures accompanied by wide-eyed “assistants” who reflect his glory back onto him—is meant to be a stand-in for.
For Penelope to triumph over Hort she needs not only to figure out how to outsmart a being whose control over her is almost total, but to find a way to escape the logic that he has asserted over her very existence, which insists that his desire to see himself as the hero, and the rest of the galaxy as merely a backdrop to his adventures, is more important than the survival of entire planets. In other words, Penelope has to break through the genre of her story. And yet, even as she achieves this, Penelope realizes just how seductive that genre logic is:
A blank new room. I could put my own adventures in there. I could perfect turning Tearthumb and Calendula into films in which I’m the hero. But I wonder if that wouldn’t make me crave the creation of other adventures. I suspect being the hero is addictive, and I can see a situation where I end up finding an unsuspecting underling on some poor planet, and dragging them along just to witness how brilliant we are—the Rampion/Penelope hybrid—as we all travel across space together. (p. 144)
Greensmith is a story about an ordinary middle aged woman triumphing not only over the remarkable being who has stolen her heart, her life, and her very identity, but over her own impulse to become that being herself. Penelope’s final act is to surrender to her own ordinariness, and to the sadness of what her life has amounted to. That is neither horrifying nor funny, but simply true, and it’s a reminder of why, in any mode, Whiteley is an author worth picking up.