The Long Afternoon of Earth — Heating Up Your Gaming Session


The Long Afternoon of Earth

(Original Title: Hothouse)
Author: Brian Aldiss
Publisher: Signet Books
Reprinted: 1962
Page Count: 192
Purchase on Amazon: Price Varies

Far into the future the Earth no longer spins on its axis. It sits in a fixed position with half covered in perpetual sun and other cloaked in darkness. It’s orbiting satellite, the moon is attached to the planet by cobwebs from enormous plant-like spiders. The sun at the center of the solar system has increased in size as it creeps closer to its death. Its constant rays fixed on the locked planet has produced a hothouse, leading to the rise of omnivore plants and vegetables that now cover every square inch and rule as the planet’s dominant species. Man still dwells in this hothouse but at five times its former size. Humanity fights for survival while its environment strives to consume it.

The Long Afternoon of Earth, originally titled Hothouse and winner of the Hugo Award for Best Short Fiction in 1962, is a tale of an adolescent boy named Gren and his travels on a planet dominated by omnivorous flora. It’s an abridged version of a series of five serialized novelettes titled “Hothouse”, “Nomansland”, “Undergrowth”, “Timberline”, and “Evergreen” published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction – 1960 and 1961. An unabridged version of the novel was first published in 1976. Hothouse is the most commonly used title of this novel and is widely available in multiple formats on Amazon. list 57 editions of the novel in 16 languages so finding a copy is easy. I picked my copy up at my local used book store in the clearance section for $1.50.

The story begins with a bang as we follow a tribe of humans who live in the middle layers of an enormous banyan tree, part of the dangerous lush environment, as a child is consumed by the ravenous flora. The tribe consists of young children and a handful of adults living in a matriarchal society. Above them the leaves shield them from the sun’s harmful rays, casting them in a green hue. Women are the leaders of the tribe. Their job is to protect the tribe and preserve the men so future generations can follow. Men can only be touched when it’s time for mating, no other time is permissible. Everyone in the tribe must follow the leader or be banished. Gren, the oldest of the male children has trouble bowing to authority.

Life is simple for humans in this hothouse. Their goal is to survive each day and produce a new generation. Each member lives in homemaker nuts called nuthuts. These hollowed out seed-homes are secured to branches using a distilled cement from the acteoyle plant. Each member of the tribe has their own. Their openings are only large enough for its occupants to enter to prevent unwanted intruders. Inside the hollowed home each human houses their souls, a wooden effigy used for burial.

When a tribe member falls victim to the green, their bodies are never recoverable. Tradition dictates that their wooden souls be placed in an empty burnurn plant seed husk. These translucent seed husks which the burnurn plant retains after releasing its seed is used by the plant for its defense. The burnurn plant focuses the sun rays through the glass-like seed husk, acting like a magnifying glass, burning any threat that comes near. Once acquiring a burnurn the wooden soul rests inside and the vessel. It is then placed on the cables of the traversers, a massive plant creature that resembles a spider. When these traversers climbed up and down their cables which attach to the moon, the sticky burnurn adheres to their outer fibers and carries it up.

Death by the green comes often for the tribe and is disturbingly accepted quite easily. This is the life for humans in the middle branches. If they are not vigilant of their surroundings, it will consume them.

Life is forever changed for Gren and the other children of the tribe when their leader Lily-yo decided it was time for the group to split. As tradition dictates when the adults lose their ability to protect their young they ascend in burnurns on the fibers of the traversers to their deaths, giving way for a new generation to lead and carry on the traditions of the past. Lily-yo and the adults crossed over too much of their surprise, while Toy, the eldest female of the children, takes on the role as the new leader for the group. Gren, always the defiant one, finds himself separated from the group after a series of happenstances. While making his way back to his tribe, he’s assailed by a sentient fungus of greater intelligence than himself. The fungus drops on him from above, adhering to the back of his neck creating a parasitic relationship. The two live as one but the fungus, known as morel, can dominate his will over Gren. Poyly, a young female smitten with Gren, helps Gren find his way back to the tribe. But in doing so, she also becomes host to the morel when it divides and transfers over to her. For Gren actions and disobedience, he is cast out of the tribe for refusing to follow Toy, the new leader. Gren forced to leave, Poyly decides to go with him. The two are heavy influenced by morel to seek out a haven where it can grow in peace and overtake more humans.

As for the rest of the story of Gren and his adventures, I’m going to leave that for you, to discover and enjoy for yourself. I will say this, the story is exciting and ripe with peril. The novel is filled with lots of usual flora to populate your gaming sessions. It’s great a great source for surprising your players and making their characters a vegetable’s meal. Below I’ve highlighted just a sampling of some strange inhabitants featured in the novel that could be used in your RPG sessions.

TigerflyThese flying insects, one of the few insect species still to exist, attack both plant and animal alike. They bore holes in their prey and lay eggs inside. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae consumes the host. They often attack traversers which is why traversers travel to the moon where no tigerfly can live.

Traversers Traversers are large mutant plants that resemble spiders that can grow miles long and travels between worlds by encasing an air bubble around themselves. Its webs reach the moon locking itself to the Earth. Humans can travel on the outside of traversers on their fibers inside burnurns seed husks but risk mutation from the sun’s radiation or death. One must travel inside a traverser to avoid the sun’s radiation. Tigerflies, a nuisance to traversers, bore into the sides of these giant fibrous spiders leaving their larva to consume its body when hatched. The holes they leave are large enough to carry and protect human passengers once dispatching the threat from the larvae. Traversers not only travel from Earth to the moon but to other planets as well. 

FlymenThese mutated humans have large scaly wings and live on the True World, the moon. Flymen were once human who originated from the Heavy World, Earth. Humans, like those from Lily-yo tribe, upon reaching the moon inside burnurns undergo mutations from exposure to the sun’s radiation as they ascended. It can sometimes produce horribly debilitating deformities, but most alter into flymen. Flymen travel inside traverser to the Heavy World to abduct human children to give them a better life on the moon which has a breathable atmosphere.

Nomansland There is an area next to the banyan tree that separates the forest from the open sea, called nomansland. Nomansland is an open area of beach where few plants can grow. Most of the plant growth is found on the edges of the forest or the seashore; plants like killerwillows or creepers. Termights live on the sandy beach in their castle of sand and travel underground for protection. Traveling across nomansland is very dangerous for its lack of cover and the creatures/omnivore flora that live upon it.

Sand Octopus The sand octopus has adapted itself to live on the land where it safe from omnivore seaweed that lives in the sea. They make their homes in the sand, bury themselves to hide and attack their prey. When prey is in reach, it extends its tentacles and grabs hold. It then pushes its victim into the sand to suffocate it. The sand octopus must kill its prey as quickly as possible or risk arousing the killerwillows which lives at the shore edge which preys upon Sand Octopi.

Morel Morel is a sentient fungus that grows and splits like an amoeba when it’s large enough. It usually grows on mindless flora giving it more of an existence. Morel in the story attached itself to termights, descendants of termites, before finding Gren. The fungus communicates telepathically with its host and has the power to dominate it. It feeds off its host, growing in size until it’s ready to split off onto another creature retaining the knowledge it’s gained. The morel’s goal is to find a safe location where it can grow and attached itself to more humans.

Snaptree The snaptree uses its looped root system to create snares and tightens it when the prey is in position.

Oak After a million years of sunlight, it developed cages from its branches that it drops when prey is near. It feeds off the dung of the prey and its decomposing body later.

Bellyelm This plant appears as a hollow dry log. When prey enters the log through the opening, it closes trapping it. Once trapped, the bellyelm secrete a sticky sap that digests its meal.

Herders Humans known as herders lives in lava formed caves at the base of a volcano which they call Skirt of the Black Mouth. They survive by hunting jumpvils, a plant version of a rabbit, and other vegetables. The members of the tribe trade their hunted food with their neighbors the fishers for fresh fish. The tribe is fairly safe from omnivore flora as not much dare lives so close to the Black Mouth.

The Black Mouth Inside a volcano lives an unseen creature that uses a siren call that shakes the ground and compels food to its mouth. Anything within earshot automatically comes under the hypnotic song and move toward the mouth, tossing themselves in. The herders who live at the base have developed a counter song to the Black Mouth which protects them. The only parts of the creature described in the novel were its fingers which hung over the lip of the mouth appearing ominously and disappear one by one.

Greenguts Greenhuts are hypnotic bulbous plants that open their mouth to entice their prey to step inside. Greenhuts have no mode of locomotion being only a stomach so only entranced creatures that step inside are harmed. Once inside, digestive juices slowly break down the prey.

Tummy-trees  Tummy-trees are pineapple looking trees with a collar of spiny leaves protecting the swollen knobby ovoid mass of the trunk. The sawtooth bladed leaves at the top are for its protection and the tree can hurl these with great force slicing anything in its path. The tree blooms or captures, not explained in the text, tummy-belly human-like creatures which extend from the tree by their tails. They’re part of the tree and work to protect it, not letting outsiders get close.

Fishers/Tummy-Bellies The fisher or the tummy-belly as they are later called in the story live by a river from which they catch fish for themselves which they use to barter with the herder tribe. Fisher appears as plump hairy men with a spongy like rotting vegetable matter. They have very long green tails attached at their rumps which they hold coiled in their hands. Their long tails are in fact an umbilical cords connected to the tummy-trees. The fisher can live separated from the tree but have very limited intelligence, much like a young child.

Mountainears/Howlers These white-clad figures with pointed noses and large ears live in a mountain past the terminator, the line where the sun does not shine. The mountain in which they live is tall enough to get some sun and warmth but for the most part, is snow-covered. Mountainears are taller than humans with thick fur, long-jawed, yellow-bearded, low browed with snouts, and tails. They are primitive hunters armed with bows and arrows and sharp fangs. They hunt speedseeds an avian plant and make use of tools like sleds to haul items through the snow.

Catch-carry-kinds Catch-carry-kinds are the genetic descendant of dolphins. They travel the world gathering legends and hold the most knowledge of any species on Earth. They are an aquatic species and have no legs or arms but like their ancestral genus, they can breathe air. Catch-carry-kinds use a human-like subservient race called Arabler to carry and care for them while on land. The Catch-carry-kinds are the only ones with the intelligence and knowledge to know the sun is dying and will take all life with it when it dies.

Arabler The Arablers are a human-like race that is slowing devolving into a plant. They do not speak; losing the ability to do so. They wear no coverings on their skin which is covered in tattoos. Arablers are servants for the Catch-carry-kind. The Arabler women can move forward or backward in time, vanishing as they do. They use this power on command to predict and protect their master. They travel in pairs with their masters caring for his needs. The Arabler men are also used by the Catch-carry-kind. They are their beast of burden. Carrying their masters on their hunched over forms until they drop dead.

As I said, this is just a sampling of what the novel has to offer. The amount of strange flora and their unusual names can get overwhelming. There is so much one can pull out of this book to use. Reading through it I did my best to take notes as I read, but I did find myself having to go back and correct my notes.

Aside from the items to pull from this novel the story itself was alright, nothing groundbreaking. It was more of a tour through this alien world ripe with flora. The novel was an easy read. The chapters were very short, only a couple of pages each. Each chapter was action pack and death was always one step away. This is a great book for anyone looking to grow their catalog of plant foes. It will surely catch your players by surprise and keep your games fresh.

~Stephen Pennisi

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