Improbable Botany – Gary Dalkin (ed)

Improbable Botany
Gary Dalkin (ed)
Wayward London
605 pages
Reviewed by Katy Lennon

Improbable Botany, edited by Shoreline’s own Gary Dalkin and published by Wayward London, shows immediately it is not taking its botanical theme lightly. It is integral to the collection; opening with an introduction showcasing the tangible effects Wayward have continually had on a world not always sympathetic to the plight of plant life. Engaging with local communities and stimulating communal growth seem to be at the centre of Wayward’s ethos. This shines through in the eclectic collection of stories; as well as their desire to put the people behind them in the forefront, with a series of contributor interviews closing the collection.

The collection is made up of diverse range of contributors, from established SF cornerstone Ken Macleod, to Experimental Architecture Professor Rachel Armstrong. The stories in it are just as varied, with everything from a Sherlock Holmes story to action-packed international escapades.

Stories like ‘Strange Fruit’ by Justina Robson take a weirder look at the theme; blending surreal horror imagery with hard science. What investigators believe to be corpses turn out to be beautiful, bruised, women-shaped fruits, being harvested for unknown causes. A botanical specialist is brought in to perform an ‘autopsy’ on one. There a distinct mood of ominous dread, and Robson’s writing is steeped with a kind of lyrical unease, a discomforting depiction of our limited human understanding of nature.

‘Who Lived in a Tree’ by Tricia Sullivan depicts a more ambiguous picture of the objectives of plants; an apathetic ancient being resisting consumption into the advanced technology of the future. A great tree system called the Green controls almost all aspects of human life; smart-houses are housed within great oaks, and the story is told by a tree living off the Green grid, as a woman threatened with being housed in one of the elderly care smart houses attempts to live in it. Tender, and at the same time seemingly permeated with the indifference of nature, it is a sweet and wistful look at a world where plants and humans could, passively or peacefully, live alongside each other.

‘Advent’ by James Kennedy is a heartbreaking look at grief and guilt; as the child protagonist grapples with his father’s recent death. Plants in the story represent the ultimate unknown. Esoteric, Wicker Man symbology of wheat dollies and sentient Christmas trees, mixed with memories and dreams, cloud the boundaries between real, imagined and dreamed realities. The world and the characters in it are all unknowable throughout the story, and the reader is allowed to slowly piece together fragments from a child’s understanding. The terrors in the story are made even more unnerving in their mystery, as though we are being exposed to something far beyond our understanding.

Science Fiction is often seen as an attempt to make sense of our own world and its future. The marrying of science fiction with the vast, impenetrable world of plants was always going to make for an interesting collection, depicting, as outlined in the Introduction, a ‘body of work with narrative environments’. The worlds of these stories feel real and conscious. Sometimes passively observing, nihilistic in their disinterest in humanity, sometimes aggressively defending themselves. Sometimes they take an interest, leaning in to change things, for better or worse.