Penelope Greensmith, a divorced, cardigan-wearing, lonely bio-librarian, is responsible for a vast seed bank made possible by the mysterious Vice she inherited from her father. One day she receives an unexpected visitor: the charming Horticulturalist, who wants to see her collection. He thinks it could hold the key to stopping a terrible plague, which turns vegetation into mush, from sweeping the universe. Penelope joins the Horticulturalist on a dimension-hopping space adventure, leaving her daughter Lily and her ex-husband Graham back on earth, trying to survive the plague.
Greensmith is a very British novel, infused with a humorous sense of absurdity, puncturing the pompousness that often comes with sci-fi. It has the light, comic sensibility of Douglas Adams or Dr Who. As in Dr Who Penelope becomes Hort’s ‘companion,’ and we learn that he’s had other companions before, is dashingly charming in his green lace-up shoes, and has a Timelord-esque control over space and time.
The plot is more or less a wacky picaresque adventure story, zipping about the universe at a fast pace, with Hort pointing a finger to open portals to new places, never knowing where you’re going to end up next. There’s a trio of heroic rebel flamingos named Fluffy, Princess and Tim, fighting evil armoured lizards. There’s a planet-sized sentient criminal plant, named the Rampion, who opens thousands of flowers, each one containing the smiling face of Morgan Freeman.
Irreverence helps drive the story forward at an incredible pace. At one point Hort says ‘You need to understand what’s happening here and we’ve got an awful lot of exposition get through so I’ll just ping that straight into your brain.’ He places his hand on Penelope’s forehead, and the reader gets two pages of condensed exposition. It’s all incredibly light-hearted and jolly, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a relaxing, easy bit of fun escapism perfect for when you want to take a holiday from reality.
And yet… Greensmith also deals with a war, an apocalypse, betrayal and loss, and grapples with a few timey-wimey, spacey-wacey concepts. This means it has some sudden tonal lurches from zany space comedy to emotional drama, satire or philosophical musings.
Sometimes the general silliness helps to address a theme in an interesting way. Penelope is forced to ponder the insignificant place of humans in the grand scheme of things, and the ultimately unknowable nature of the universe and The Other. Throughout her adventure she struggles to keep her sanity by clinging to a human way of seeing things, although she knows it is a false view. She ‘doubted that a giant alien criminal plant being did actually look like Morgan Freeman’ – but that’s what she translates her experience into. She feels ‘It was so very upsetting to think she was incapable of seeing difference properly. It would be pointless to travel a universe if all the sights, sounds and smells of it if had to be filtered through the tiny pinhole camera of her own humanity in order to understand it in anything approaching human terms.’
At the opening of the novel, a war is happening: an info war, being fought on the internet, in which history is being erased and re-written. Two young men sign up to do their duty – six months in a data centre. This feels like real Black Mirror territory, and uncomfortably close to our present reality. Whiteley has some fascinating things to say about this, but just as quickly as the war is introduced, it’s cleared up with an online ceasefire and the story veers off in a new direction.
The apocalyptic vegetation-killing plague that sweeps planet earth happens largely off-stage, although Penelope has her daughter, Lily, on her mind throughout. But Lily and Graham’s journey on earth is only briefly touched on. This is partly explained because Greensmith takes place on such a mind-boggling huge timescale that individual human lives no longer matter in the way they once did.
The blend of tones and themes makes Greensmith feel emotionally unsatisfying. The comic elements undermine Whiteley’s serious points, and the dark elements give a bitterness to the comedy. But Greensmith’s slightly uneasy mixture gives the novel a freshness and unpredictability, and make it quick, page-turning book that takes the reader on an entertainingly wild ride.
Aliya Whiteley is the author of the critically acclaimed novellas, The Beauty and The Arrival of Missives, along with several novels and a short story collection.
Greensmith is published by Unsung Stories and is available here.
Aliya Whiteley was born in Devon in 1974, and currently lives in West Sussex, UK. She writes novels, short stories and non-fiction and has been published in places such as The Guardian, Interzone, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Black Static, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as Unsung Stories’ 2084 and Lonely Planet’s Better than Fiction I and II. She has been shortlisted for an Arthur C. Clarke Award, Shirley Jackson Award, British Fantasy and British Science Fiction awards, the John W Campbell Award, and a James Tiptree Jr award. Her stories are unpredictable; they can be terrifying, tender, ferocious and deeply funny. She also regularly reviews film, books and television for Den of Geek. She blogs at: aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com and she tweets most days as @AliyaWhiteley.
Reviewed by Kate Tyte
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