I’m in two minds about this. There are ten chapters in the academic collection Plants in Science Fiction: Speculative Vegetation, and while I have time for the content I have, I confess, none for the presentation.
I’ll admit that, for reasons outside the scope of this review, I am seriously questioning the effectiveness of academic communication—both in its language and in the way it chooses to disseminate information. I’m not advocating for researchers and critical thinkers to dumb themselves down, but honestly, is work like Plants in Science Fiction really maximising its communicative potential with passages like these?
Haraway imagines and encourages a multifaceted sympoiesis (“making with” or co-creation) that will challenge both the anthropocentric autopoiesis (self-creation) of the Capitalocene and the ubiquitous double-pronged hubris/fatalism of the Anthropocene. (p. 59)
As this congeneric reading has shown, whereas Lavondyss presents Tallis as literally experiencing arboreal transformation and alternative parturitions, The Vegetarian uses narrative strategies compatible with realist fiction to create a similar experience of temporal and subjective fluidity, so that Yeong-hye’s fantasy of a radically innocent botanical reproduction presses against the framework of consensual reality and of a human-indexed temporality. (p. 143)
Now in all fairness, I picked the above as representative of the worst passages of prose in Plants in Science Fiction, but is it any wonder the chapters in this book are all blurring together for me? It’s not as if these two single sentences—and, hideously, they are single sentences—aren’t embedded in what could be interesting discussions. I might even say crucial discussions, as the human perception of (and relationship with) plants is both constantly changing and of increasing importance in this age of climate change. They are just rabidly, deliberately, inaccessible.
Then, for suspicions not quite passing understanding (I am suspicious by nature) I looked up the book on Amazon. A Kindle version will set you back nearly $70 US. A print version is more expensive. Sudden illumination! The prose can be as inaccessible as it likes; no one will be buying this. Well, educational institutions. Maybe the odd botanical zealot. But Plants in Science Fiction, like other examples of its kind, isn’t being written for lay readers. They couldn’t afford it anyway.
And I’m asking myself, on this extended wandering off the path of straight review (you’ll have to forgive me, the book is so worthy and so dull): Just who is this book written for?
I have an undergraduate degree in botany. My master's was spent studying seagrass. I’m a speculative fiction writer myself, with an interest—often a critical interest!—in biologically based science fiction. Hell, I’ve a paper on fungus and the human microbiome in Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris series just come out in a critical collection from Routledge. It’s a paper that spins quite well off some of the stuff Alison Sperling is doing in her Plants in Science Fiction chapter, “Queer Ingestions: Weird and Sporous Bodies in Jeff VanderMeer’s Fiction.”
I should be the target audience for collections like this, and I pounced on it as soon as the Strange Horizons review editors offered it to me. And yet ... I just can’t. It’s not only that I can never, ever remember what “ontology” means. It’s just that it all seems so deeply counterproductive. One of the quotations on the back cover of Plants in Science Fiction, from Professor Eric Otto of Florida Gulf Coast University, says that “Readers will come away with a profound and challenging understanding of what it means to be human, as well as a deep appreciation for the critical function of science fiction in a threatened world.” With all due respect to Professor Otto, I think he is being optimistic. Readers are certainly consuming authors like Jeff VanderMeer and developing a critical understanding of their own biological relationships. Far, far fewer of them are doing the same when it comes to critical, academic readings of VanderMeer’s work. It’s the primary sources that are driving change, that are developing Otto’s “profound and challenging understanding.”
Of course they are. They’re more accessible to the general public. I can buy the entire Southern Reach trilogy on Kindle for less than half of the price of Plants in Science Fiction. I would certainly find it easier to read.
What, as academics, are we doing? When did we decide that our critical work had to become so deliberately inaccessible, and that talking to our colleagues was worth more than talking to our peers? While I was writing this review, a report came out that substantial areas of the Amazon rainforests were experiencing such low rainfall, due to climate change, that they were at risk of turning from rainforest to savannah. I raise this to illustrate that yes, if science fiction can help us to reimagine our relationships with plants, then that is undeniably good. That relationship needs changing, and the sooner the better. So why on Earth, for those readers unaware of the critical research behind these texts, is that research not designed to help them learn it? Why is it so impossible to write in a way that encompasses colleagues and peers alike?
I don’t know. I look at the paper I’ve got coming out, on the same subject, and I still don’t know. I honestly stay awake some nights and wonder if I’m doing the right thing, or if I’m engaged in some elaborate academic joke on indigestibility and the inability to adapt that ultimately helps no one.
So then. Let’s see if I can communicate, in plain language, the most useful bits of Plants in Science Fiction, on the off-chance that you, gentle reader, are looking to reassess the place of plants in your own particular universe.
Let’s start with creepy plants (“Botanical Tentacles in the Chthulucene” by Shelley Saguaro), because creepy plants are awesome and because there’s never any getting away from bloody Lovecraft, it seems, so let’s get shot of him first. Saguaro points out that “Tentacles are most often attributes of animal species, from giant squids and octopuses to microscopic flagellates and ciliates” (p. 56). Transplanting this animal imagery onto plants, then, gives a monstrous hybrid of a creature, one neither fully plant or animal, a creature defined by its boundary-crossing nature. Looking closely at plant tentacles in the works of H. P. Lovecraft, John Wyndham, and John Boyd, Saguaro comments that these “(frightened) men” (p. 73) were looking to navigate a world that increasingly did not centre them. While plant tentacles can represent the threat of a hybrid other, however—and it’s no coincidence that these creatures are often sourced from regions that white men such as the authors were trying to colonise—they can also be interpreted as a “liberating multi-species” flowering that encourages more diverse relationships and ways of living.
This plays into the transgressive sexual imagery of tentacles—look, don’t blame me for bringing this up, I’ve just come from Archive of Our Own, where over seven and a half thousand works of fiction are tagged with “tentacle sex”—an imagery that Saguaro notes has linguistic underpinnings. Regarding copulatory tentacles, “the word copula, meaning ‘bridge,’ is an apt term in relation to these texts of hybridity” (p. 73), but Saguaro is not the only one to focus on hybrid reproduction between humans and plants.
It’s at this point I should point out that humans are already filled with microbial species, including fungi, without which we’d all be dead. You are a multi-species creature and always have been! Isn’t it wonderful?
(Lovecraft would not be delighted. I most certainly am.)
Creatures like ourselves should be concerned with hybrid reproduction. T. S. Miller’s chapter, “Vegetable Love: Desire, Feeling, and Sexuality in Botanical Fiction” extends this questioning of identity. “Why is it that, even in the realm of science fiction unreality, it is easier to imagine plants as the agents of arousing desire rather than themselves experiencing and imagining desire?” Miller asks (p. 120), and the choice of texts explored in this chapter supports the question. There’s Pat Murphy’s short story “His Vegetable Wife,” where a man seeds, in his garden, a type of vegetal woman whom he can sexually assault without guilt. There’s also Flower Phantoms by Ronald Fraser, which like John Boyd’s The Pollinators of Eden focuses on women’s attraction towards plants. Miller’s question, then, is easy to answer. If plants arouse desire then plants can also be used to satisfy that desire, and while that satisfaction may come with transgression, it also reinforces the idea of humans as active agents and tool users. Generations of exploiting plants for gain backs up that ease of imagination, while the idea of plants expressing desires of their own grants to those plants an agency that requires both consideration from humans and inconvenience to them—it’s much easier to use something if you can consider it worthless, or somehow lesser. Genre can reimagine the sexual life of plants, but only by acknowledging, however reluctantly, and however implicitly, that they are not nearly as different from us as convenient exploitation would have us think.
I’m sure the wonderfully perverted writers on Archive of Our Own would be happy to know they’re not just producing weird (and strangely readable) porn. They’re also taking part in a mass revolution in biological and ecological perception that’s an inescapable result of life in the Chthulucene/Capitalocene. I honestly think there’s something kind of wonderful about that. Good for them. Someone should plant their arse in that tag and study it.
But let’s turn to “Alternative Reproduction: Plant-time and Human/Arboreal Assemblages in Holdstock and Han” by Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook. Specifically, to what Cook has to say about Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, which “examines our fear of and attraction to—perhaps even longing for—cross-species or even inter-kingdom intimacy” (p. 129). The relevance to the above is clear. Our sense of identity as human is frequently linked to the perception of humans as somehow living apart, as isolated from the rest of the biological community. I’m not even getting further into the idea of the human microbiome here, I’m talking about a separation even more fundamental than that. I’ve met a number of people in my life who’ve said something similar to “But humans aren’t animals!” To which my biologist self tries really hard not to respond, “Are you vegetable or mineral, then?”
Such a response, though satisfying in the moment, is both unhelpful and inaccurately simplistic. I offer the example, however, because it illustrates the sense of distance that can build up, through time and prejudicial culture, between human and nonhuman life. It is a distance that is thoroughly undermined by, yes, tentacle sex. If humans can form sexual relationships with plants, and if those relationships result in offspring, particularly fertile offspring, then by definition what we are looking at is neither cross-species nor inter-kingdom. It’s a state of affairs that turns humans into plants themselves, mobile examples of a usually sedentary kingdom.
If you’ve read Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, you may recall—as Plants in Science Fiction authors Saguaro and Yogi Hale Hendlin certainly do—Pollan’s assertion that humans are tools that the tulip uses to reproduce itself. This again is the tool and agency question raised by Miller. If plants can use tools, if they can propagate with humans, then surely this is transgression and boundary-crossing on multiple levels, and it’s one that resonates, very clearly, with the idea of identity. If we have plant characteristics as much as animal ones, if we are the hybrid monstrous of Saguaro’s chapter, how does this speak to our future perceptions of ourselves, and of the biology with which we share this planet?
Yeong-hye, protagonist of The Vegetarian, comes to identify more and more with vegetable growth, to the point where, starved all to nothing, she attempts to make her body subsist as a plant does, on sunlight and water. Yeong-hye tells her sister of a dream in which “I was standing on my head … leaves were growing from my body, and roots were sprouting from my hands ... I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch, so I spread my legs, I spread them wide” (Han, quoted on p. 140). This is structure and fertility and reproduction communicated in uncompromisingly vegetal imagery, the imagery an indication of the identity that Yeong-hye has chosen to assume.
Yeong-hye, too, would be glad to know that fungus is inside her. She probably already does know it. And what we have, in consequence, are more questions. Questions not only as to the place of plants in speculative fiction, but to the place of plants within ourselves. Will changes in understanding, in a world that is increasingly open to the monstrously hybridised, be enough to force changes in behaviour—changes that are increasingly necessary, in a world that is increasingly destroyed by capital and the inability to connect, to reach over borders and value plant life as we value ourselves?
It’s a conversation that science fiction authors are having with their fans. The critics, also fans, should be having it with us.
Seeds come forth quicker that way.