Archive for the ‘science fiction’ Category

… is the title of a short story by Isaac Asimov, and also an episode in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: and what Alice found there. Readers will remember that the bolshy and perpetually bewildered Alice encounters the bossy Red Queen in the garden of the house of the looking glass. As well as giving Alice useful advice (‘curtsey while you’re thinking what to say; it saves time later’) she and Alice start running frantically faster and faster, until Alice is completely out of breath and exhausted. Then they stop: and Alice realises that they haven’t gone anywhere; they were running madly just to stay in the same place. When she protests, the Red Queen retotts that if she wants to go anywhere she will have to run a great deal faster than that.

Many of us in modern business and industry recognise this situation: we are in a Red Queen’s Race, wearing ourselves out forever running just to stay in the same place. It’s thought-provoking to realise that Lewis Carroll, in the supposedly more laid-back 19th century, obviously knew this feeling too. And obviously Isaac Asimov also knew it: the frustration of thinking you’ve made a big step forward, only to discover you’ve only enabled yourself to stay in the same place and not lose ground.

I was going to take a photo of the Red Queen’s Race from my own copy of ‘Looking Glass’ to accompany this post. But when I found it, there’s no picture of the race! (Sigh.)


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… on intelligent plants: take a look at the BBC’s report from last year: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-34849374

and a report on a new book on ‘plant intelligence’, in the Guardian newspaper last month: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/radical-conservation/2015/aug/04/plants-intelligent-sentient-book-brilliant-green-internet

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‘Chemical Plant’ is a short story by Ian Williamson, which I first read in Out of This World 1, ed. Amabel Williams-Ellis and Mably Owen (1960). To spoil the story: the key figure (creature? character?) in the story is a plant that can manipulate the environment to produce the chemicals it requires to grow and flourish. This becomes a problem for the human space-explorers in the story when the plant gets hold of one of their space ships. Everything ends happily, and the plant is only slightly inconvenienced.

As a gardener I love this story, as would any gardener who has wrestled with plants which don’t grow or grow too enthusiastically. Plants do manipulate their own environment simply by growing in it, but most not so effectively as the ‘hero’ of ‘Chemical Plant’. At the very least, plants break up solid soil through their roots, and raise the local humidity, making the area more hospitable to other plants and to animals. I’m told that a patch of woodland can attract rain. Perhaps readers of this blog can comment?

The most famous plants in fiction are probably John Wyndham’s triffids, who have become a standard description of any disagreeable and over-enthusiastic plant — such as rambling roses that ramble too far or spiny trees that take over the garden and seem to threaten the life of any human who tries to trim them. But other authors have also described plants that manipulate those around them. Now, where did I find that short story about the lovely plant with blue flowers that makes its gardeners really happy by making them think they have all they want? – this fictional plant can manipulate minds at a distance, and so ensure its own survival and growth. The people who care for it don’t even realise that they are being manipulated. A very clever idea … wish I could remember where I read it.

In my own writing there are a few plants which are more than they seem. I refer in Kimball’s Kiss to oak trees being intelligent, but that’s a theme I haven’t pursued further as yet. Also in the ‘Gray’ stories, the alien rhuaans are reliant on the berries of the evergreen ‘singing trees’ to enable them to reproduce. The ‘singing trees’ sing through the rustling of their leaves. The implication is that they are talking to each other, but again that’s a theme I haven’t developed. One for a later story!

I think it is in Penelope Farmer’s A Castle of Bone that the boy hero realises that although we think of trees as part of normal life, if we realise that they are giant plants they become altogether threatening and alien. It’s over 40 years since I read that book, but this image has stayed with me. Trees are not alien to this planet, but they are completely alien to us: they are living things that grow and operate with a completely different worldview from ours, massive chemical plants that use sunlight to split carbon dioxide and water and make cellulose. They can live for hundreds of years: to them, our puny little lives must seem contemptible. Until, that is, a human produces a chain saw.



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