THE LONG AFTERNOON OF EARTH BY BRIAN ALDISS (1961)
The most common complaints leveled at Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence have to do with the final segment, set many years ahead of the rest of the film. Its robot-boy protagonist, having sunk to the bottom of the ocean and gone into stasis, has outlived not just his creators but humanity as a whole. Whatever shape life on earth has taken, it’s left humanity behind it. The androids (if that’s even the right word) who have have superseded the human race treat him like a Rosetta Stone for understanding their own origins. Then they let him die, his shutting down the last exhausted sigh of a civilization that no longer had a place in the cosmos.
Frankly, I don’t get the hate, particularly from those who mistake it for a happy ending. It’s not. But it’s not what I’d call a tragic ending either. It’s a view of where we’re going that can make you reel with its distance and a sad bookend to the trippy humanism of A.I. originator Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. The ending doesn’t have much to do with the Brian Aldiss story that inspired it “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” or its sequels. But it has a lot to do with Aldiss, or at least the Aldiss I found in The Long Afternoon Of Earth, a novel published a few years earlier in Aldiss’ native U.K. in a slightly longer version called Hothouse.
It’s many years in the future and humanity has diminished, literally. Not only are humans fewer, they’re smaller too. They’re also one of the last examples of the animal kingdom. The earth’s rotation has slowed to a stop and the plants have taken over. What animals remain—fish, some insects, humans—act almost as parasites or, just as often, prey to the animal-like vegetables that rule the Earth and slightly beyond the Earth: spider-like Traversers travel along a web spun between the Earth and the moon, we find out a few chapters in.
It’s all incredibly imaginative, but I like the book best in its early chapters, when Aldiss lays out the social structure of his tree-dwelling protagonists and the ins-and-outs of life in a jungle where the sun never sets. It’s all quiet poetic, particularly the opening:
The heat, the light, the humidity—these were constant and had remained constant for… but nobody new how long. Nobody cared any more for the big questions that begin “How long…?” or “Why…?” It was no longer a place for mind. It was a place for growth, for vegetables. It was like a hothouse.
It’s more postscript than post-apocalyptic. Much life has ended, humanity has wound down, and the sun is burning out (or blowng up), but there’s not necessarily a tragedy to it all, just a sense that a rest would soon come after a long struggle.
It’s almost a shame that it has to go about the business of being a novel and, in fact, Aldiss spends most of the remaining pages doing little more than describing the fantastic vegetable creatures of his hothouse world as his bland protagonist travels around in search of, well, it’s never quite clear. (And eventually an intelligent fungus takes over most of his brain functions and he stops acting of his own volition.) Worse, there are long passages and thoughtless repetitions where Aldiss is clearly writing just to fill the pages and he has a strange habit of sticking to his characters’ points of view and then pulling back to explain what has happened over the eons with chirpy omniscience. It feels like a cheat and it saps the exotic allure of the novel’s world.
But by and large I really liked this book, which is good because there’s plenty of Aldiss in the box. He’s an interesting character whom I knew little about before, with a past that included a troubled childhood, military service in Burma, a star-crossed would-be marriage, friendship with Kingsley Amis and Henry Harrison, financial ruin, an ‘80s comeback, and a current long, productive, alebit lonely writing jag at an age when most people putter around the house. (There’s a great profile from The Guardian here.) He’s also been adapted more than I’d thought. The current Brothers Of The Head is from 1977 novel and Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound is taken from Aldiss as well. He’s also written poetry, travel, and autobiography. I don’t know if he keeps plants.
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