Six science fiction and fantasy novels with important plants (SoS #63)

It’s Saturday, and ordinarily I’d think about a Six on Saturday post of plants in the garden or greenhouse. But the weather has been grotty for the past few days, with near constant cold rain mixed with occasional freezing rain, and although a few optimistic spring bulbs are sprouting, there’s hardly anything in bloom. The situation is a bit better in the greenhouse, but the dull gray weather isn’t the best for photographs, and honestly, it’s kind of cold and gloomy out there even with the propane heater.

So, I’m going to try something different. When not obsessing over orchid catalogs, I like to read science fiction novels, and although SF authors spend more time thinking about alien animals, they do occasionally pay attention to plants. Since it is Saturday, I have decided to limit this post to six novels–science fiction or fantasy–in which plants are significant to the plot, not just window dressing.

1. The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham

John Wyndham’s novels and short stories were some of the first SF that I swiped from Dad’s bookshelf. The Chrysalids is definitely my favorite, but I also enjoyed Wyndham’s novel about motile carnivorous plants, The Day of the Triffids. If you have seen the 1962 movie, you’ll recall that the Triffids are alien in origin, arriving as spores in a meteor shower which blinds anyone who views it, leaving them easy prey. In the book, however, triffids predate the meteor shower and are widely farmed for their oil. The protagonist thinks they were probably bioengineered behind the iron curtain. The mass blinding event is unrelated to triffids and simply allows the plants to escape cultivation and act as a particularly nasty invasive species.

closest real-world analogue: Thankfully there aren’t any carnivorous plants that can kill humans with a venomous whip and then tear off gobbets of decomposing flesh. However, the sticky substance that allows the triffids to also trap insects reminds me of the flypaper traps of sundews (Drosera species).

Picture of a sundew growing in a bog
Drosera intermedia growing in a bog, Quoddy Head State Park, eastern Maine.
IMG_3437-crop
The same species in Vestfold og Telemark, Norway. These guys get around.

2. The Integral Trees, Larry Niven

The eponymous integral trees grow in the Smoke Ring, a torus of breathable air orbiting a neutron star. Since they live in free fall, they don’t have massive roots, and instead have a tuft of foliage at each end of the trunk. Unequal stresses on each end pull the tufts in opposite directions and cause the tree to take on the shape of the integral symbol in calculus. The plot of the novel is kicked off by a feature of an integral tree’s life cycle that has unfortunate consequences for the human colonists who live in its tufts, but like some of Niven’s other novels (most notably Ringworld) this is a book where the setting is more interesting than the characters or plot.

closest real-world analogue: Bromeliads like Tillandsia species, I suppose. Tillandsias use their roots primarily as holdfasts and can be grown with no substrate at all. It’s not difficult to imagine one growing successfully in free fall.

tillandsia
This seems to be the only picture of Tillandsias that I have: a twenty-year-old low-resolution image of Tillandsia caput-medusae (top) and Tillandia bulbosa.

3. Great North Road, Peter F. Hamilton

In Great North Road, artificial wormhole portals have allowed travel to a number of extra-solar planets. One of them, St. Libra, has a complex vegetable ecosystem and no animals at all. The novel is a typical Peter Hamilton doorstop with a huge cast and interleaved subplots that include a murder mystery and a war against an alien menace that looks like it will be a long defeat. All of the subplots involve the plants of St. Libra in one way or another.

closest real-world analogue: This is a spoiler, so I’ll transform it by rot13. Gur cynagf ner gur ovbybtvpny pbzcbaragf bs n cynargnel pbafpvbhfarff, onfvpnyyl gur Tnvn ulcbgurfvf eha nzhpx, fb gur pybfrfg erny-jbeyq nanybthr zvtug or sbhaq va gur erprag erfrnepu fubjvat gung gerrf bs qvssrerag fcrpvrf pna fjnc ahgevragf ivn zlpbeeuvmny pbaarpgvbaf orgjrra gurve ebbgf–n fbeg bs fybj pbzzhavpngvba.

4. The Serpent Sea, Martha Wells

Wells’s Raksura novels take place in a complex fantasy world inhabited by dozens of races, none of them human. The style is more swords-and-sorcery than epic fantasy, but the books also have an oddly science fictional quality; magic is treated like technology, and some of the characters are basically scientists. The main characters, the Raksura, are humanoids who can shape-shift into winged reptilian forms, but more interesting than that, they are eusocial. Although they are as intelligent as humans, they have biologically specialized castes rather like hive insects. Raksura colonies (courts) are mostly located in a rainforest region where they inhabit gigantic “mountain trees.” The Serpent Sea is the book in which mountain trees are introduced, and their biology drives the plot. But you should start reading with the first book in the series, The Cloud Roads. I can’t think of anything else quite like these novels.

Closest real-world analogue: The way that the eusocial raksura inhabit mountain trees parallels the way eusocial ants inhabit the galleries and tunnels of ant-house plants like Myrmecodia and Hydnophytum.

platytyrea-mossman
Myrmecodia platytyrea

5. World Without End, Sean Russell

It has been about twenty-five years since I first read World Without End. At the time, I had never read a fantasy novel inspired by Georgian/Victorian natural science and exploration, so World Without End and its sequel, Sea Without a Shore, scratched an itch I hadn’t known I had. The protagonist is a young empiricist (i.e. scientist) who bears a more than coincidental resemblance to a young Charles Darwin, and his voyage in the story is more than a little like the voyage of the Beagle or the expeditions of Captain Cook. The plot hinges on the mysterious characteristics of Spuriverna regis, a plant collected by a previous expedition to that world’s equivalent of Polynesia.

closest real-world analogue: any herb that has, or is purported to have, medicinal qualities. Spuriverna regis is a member of the Verbenaceae, as is the Lantana in my garden.

L_camara
Lantana ‘Miss Huff’

6. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

Of course The Lord of the Rings. Along with everything else, LotR is an extended celebration of Tolkien’s love for trees. It’s largely the detailed description of trees throughout the story that make it feel so real, so grounded in places that are entirely believable. There are the willows in the Old Forest, the hollies outside Moria, the mallorns in Lothlorien, and the sad, dead tree in Minas Tirith. And the ents, of course. At the other end of the size scale, there’s Athelas. The outcome of the war of the ring would have been quite different without that little herb’s medicinal qualities.

closest real-world analogue: With their smooth silvery bark and golden leaves that don’t fall until spring, I suspect that mallorns look a lot like fancier versions of beech trees.

Fagus_grandiflora
Do you think the elves grew bonsai mallorns? (Photo shows an American beech, Fagus grandifolia, at the 2019 Winter Silhouette Bonsai Show)

If this weren’t supposed to be a Six on Saturday post, I could go on…and on. There’s Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse (aka The Long Afternoon of Earth). Ursula Vernon’s “The Tomato Thief” and “Sun, Moon, Dust” and Robert Silverberg’s “The Fangs of the Trees” are short stories, not novels, but otherwise fit the criteria. I’m tempted to mention Gerald Durrell’s satirical novel The Mockery Bird (so I will mention it). Its plot depends on the ecological relationships between a fictional bird, a fictional moth, and two fictional tree species, so I’ll consider it honorary science fiction (emphasis on the science).

What other novels and stories have very important plants?

16 thoughts on “Six science fiction and fantasy novels with important plants (SoS #63)

  1. I just finished The Book of Koli and The Trials of Koli, books 1 and 2 of a new trilogy by MR Carey. Plants are important throughout the story, mostly as adversaries; thanks to long-ago genetic engineering efforts, most plants have become deadly in various ways, and some can actually reach out and grab you. And the main character is from a family of woodsmiths, so he is especially familiar with how to subdue the trees and so on.

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    1. It has probably been about 37 years since I read it, so I can’t recall if it was in some anthology where it was a stand-alone excerpt, or in the context of Rocannon’s World. The plot of Rocannon’s World doesn’t ring any bells.

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  2. Contrarius, I haven’t downloaded any of their material. I have opened a couple of pdf files to skim-read. Here’s a link to the site: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwjCmbGB3pDvAhWkm-AKHcyYAfoQFjAAegQIARAD&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.luminist.org%2Farchives%2F&usg=AOvVaw1h97G8u93usjWiaaRWgXtg

    The front page for the site mentions:
    “Documents in a variety of formats are made available here as a free public service. Click the bracketed links below to download files. Items in this collection are tagged as non-fiction, fiction, poetry, or drama, although some works defy exact categorization or may be alternatively categorized. Other categories include biography, anthologies, and letters. (The term Para-fiction is used for obviously fictional works published as non-fiction.) Most of the PDF files listed here are made from cover-to-cover scans of original print publications. A few are re-formatted from OCR texts. Spiritual texts and periodicals are in separate collections.

    “If you have documents to share or suggestions of works we should include, please contact us. Items may be submitted in hard copy or electronic forms.

    “This collection may contain copyrighted material which has not been specifically authorized for our use. The copyright law of the United States (Title 17, United States Code) provides for making “fair use” copies of copyrighted materials under certain conditions, including that that the reproduction is not to be used commercially or “for any purpose other than private study, scholarship, or research.” By accessing files linked to this site you are agreeing to abide by these restrictions. If you do not agree, do not download. If any copyright owner objects to our inclusion of their material on this web site, please do not harass our hosting providers; just contact us with the pertinent information. We will remove contested content promptly upon receipt of legitimate requests. Readers who wish to obtain a permanent copy of any item are encouraged to acquire one from a bookseller of their choice. Readers may contact us for assistance in locating copies for purchase. “

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