This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.
—Richard Powers, The Overstory
Sometime in the future, on a planet far from Earth, a human colonist plants the seed of a Vegetable Wife. When she is fully “mature,” passively poised in a bucket of water by the window, he rapes and beats her: “She was only a plant, she felt no pain.”1 After a time, in a fit of drunken rage inspired by her blank green face and her fearful alien nakedness, the colonist attempts to strangle her. As a plant, the Vegetable Wife absorbs air through her skin; he, however, is easily strangled by the thickened stalks that are her hands. Afterward, she waits for the sun to rise: “She would plant the man, as she had seen him plant seeds. … She would see what grew.”2
Pat Murphy’s “His Vegetable Wife” was first published in 1986, part of a wave of feminist speculative fiction—including, notably, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)—written in response to the North American backlash against second-wave feminism. In 2021, the story retains the impact of its angry feminism. But it also resonates in a new way, thanks to the emergence of critical plant studies, as an example of “plant horror” (to which I will return). Murphy’s story invites readers to rethink not only the oppressively gendered relations between women and men, but also the equally oppressive relations between “Man” as the universal human and a feminized, vegetal “mother nature.”
Fun fact: plants make up at least 80 percent of the earth’s biomass, while animals, including human animals, account for about 0.3 percent. In other words, the Earth is a planet of plants, and plants are the most evolutionarily successful life-forms on the planet. If plants did not exist, neither would we, although they would do just fine without us. We depend on the vegetal world for breathable air, nourishing food, and efficacious medicine, and it is vitally important to give plants their due in this age of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change. This is the argument made by plant physiologist Stefano Mancuso and science writer Alessandra Viola in their fascinating and (at the time of publication) controversial Brilliant Green: The Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence. First published in Italian, in 2013, this is a wide-ranging study written for a popular audience that draws equally from philosophy and science to describe a truly alien world of plants.
The idea that plants are both utterly familiar and utterly alien is also key to Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabari’s wonderfully titled Radical Botany: Plants and Speculative Fiction. As a recent winner of the Science Fiction and Technoculture Studies Book Prize, given by the University of California, Riverside, the book suggests the increasing imbrication of science, technology, philosophy, and fiction within what are being called the “posthumanities.” Radical Botany is a kind of secret history of some revolutionary ways in which the speculative imagination has challenged long-held convictions about what plants are and what they are capable of doing.
How the speculative imagination has turned plants into stories is the focus of Katherine E. Bishop, David Higgins, and Jerry Määttä’s edited collection, Plants in Science Fiction: Speculative Vegetation. Bishop introduces this 10-chapter collection as an exploration of plants in science-fiction popular culture. Like Brilliant Green and Radical Botany, Plants in Science Fiction aims “to encourage sustainable relationships between humans and the rest of the natural world, including plants.”
In their very different ways, Brilliant Green, Radical Botany, and Plants in Science Fiction are all important contributions to critical plant studies. And that means they are all intensely (bio)political.
Critical plant studies is a recent development within the posthumanities. This context signals not only the intensive interdisciplinary nature of critical plant studies, but also its alignment with new philosophical positions and new scientific ideas gathered under the umbrella of “posthumanism.”
A marked feature of the posthumanities is their recognition of the limits of human knowledge. This is a key takeaway from (pre-posthuman) American philosopher Thomas Nagel’s classic essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” (1974). Nagel argues that, while we are perfectly capable of finding out many facts about bats, the differences between bat and human sensory experiences render his question unanswerable: all that humans can ever know “what it is like to be” is what it is like to be human. And even this knowing remains uncertain, because consciousness is so subjective. The posthumanities are interested in deprivileging the human as the apex of evolution, so as to think about what comes into view when the human is moved out of the way. They emphasize our inescapable entanglements in the world. The posthumanities show how “we” and “nature” are enmeshed in continuous interactive processes—just think of the bacteria in your gut, if you want an intimate example—rather than being fixed in static (and often oppositional) relations.3 In other words, like all life-forms on Earth, we are not so much in the world as we are of the world.
Plant studies, in this posthumanist framework, intersects with a diverse body of recent thinking about materiality (the matter of the world) in a time of increasingly anxious awareness that we have been misrecognizing the biosphere and all its vast forces as “our” world. We are used to thinking about everything in the world that is not us as passive “nature,” which exists to be used. In fact, this opposition between humanity and the world is the founding assumption of Western humanism. This assumption is undercut by revisionary posthumanities research. Often engaging with new scientific investigations—in areas such as quantum physics, artificial intelligence, bioengineering, and gene-splicing—posthumanities research has resulted in unexpected new ways of thinking about plants.
Mancuso and Viola’s Brilliant Green is less an academic study than a botanic manifesto, passionately taking up recent scientific discoveries about the very complex lives of plants. In opposition to what they call “brain bias,” Mancuso and Viola argue for plants as emergent forms of distributed intelligence, just like the internet. This view finds plants’ “brains” in their millions of roots. (Perhaps surprisingly, these claims reflect the continuing influence of Charles Darwin’s early botanical studies, such as The Power of Movement in Plants .)
Defining intelligence as “the ability to solve problems,” Mancuso and Viola argue that most of our ideas about plants tend to “hinge not on science but on sentiment and cultural preconceptions that have existed for thousands of years.” Their discussion of plant sex, for example, notes the often astonishing strategies through which plants control their environments—including bribing insects with nectar—in order to reproduce themselves. The book examines the plant-animal hybridity of carnivores such as the Venus flytrap, demonstrating how plants can demolish the rigid taxonomies that map our knowledge of Earth’s life-forms. (Once again, the forerunner position belongs to Darwin; his 1875 study, Insectivorous Plants, posed a significant challenge to 19th-century botanical science.)
The more we know about their almost infinite variety, and the more we realize the sheer impossibility of “really” knowing them, the more we might conclude that plants are the queerest things on Earth. To riff on Sigmund Freud’s mystified question about women, “What do plants want?”
Brilliant Green is also a speculative botany, committed to upholding the dignity and autonomy of plants, because “plants have a universal function for life on our planet.” At a moment when people are just beginning to acknowledge the worthiness of nonhuman animals, however, plants still tend to be figured as nonsentient organic infrastructure, immobile and passive, mere feminized nature-for-us. In contrast, Mancuso and Viola call attention to the radical differences between plant and animal evolution, to the sheer alienness of plants.
Although Mancuso and Viola have nothing to say about speculative fictions such as “His Vegetable Wife,” Michael Pollan’s foreword to Brilliant Green does. Pollan points to the links between the scientific imagination and the science-fiction imagination: both have “the ability to see the world from a completely fresh and unencumbered point of view.” This process of “defamiliarization” is a potential strength in both science and science fiction, a critical strategy that invites us to think differently about some of our taken-for-granted truisms. It certainly is a key strategy in Brilliant Green. The book introduces readers to genuinely alien modes of being and doing that are right here beside us, but that we fail for the most part to recognize, except through the lenses of instrumentalism and aesthetics.
How has the speculative imagination turned plants into stories?
In their recent and very wide-ranging study, Radical Botany, historians Meeker and Szabari trace some of the strands of a speculative “radical botany” in fiction, philosophy, and botanical studies, from the writings of 17th-century “libertins érudits,” such as Cyrano de Bergerac and the botanist Guy La Brosse, to the New Weird fiction of Jeff VanderMeer and the posthumanist ecological thought of the 21st century.
In their introduction, Meeker and Szabari argue—much as Mancuso and Viola do—that most of us are victims of “plant blindness”: we simply do not see them except insofar as they serve our purposes. In response, the authors unearth “a long speculative tradition that conjures up new languages to grasp the life of plants in all its specificity and vigor.” In effect, these works are collaborative projects between plants and the human imagination.
Meeker and Szabari begin their history with early speculative fictions, such as de Bergerac’s tales of fantastic travels known as L’autre monde (1655; The Other World, 2016), and they conclude with a close look at VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, 2014). Cyrano’s traveler discovers animated trees on the Moon and talking trees on the Sun, and plant lives provide many of the marvels, both satirical and utopian, of his travels. In stark contrast, early 21st-century speculation about the world of plants is often tinged with horror: VanderMeer’s scientist characters literally lose themselves in the weird ecology of “Area X,” an alien zone that dismantles human rationality and reshapes the “natural” world in utterly uncanny ways. The disturbing mid-19th-century fictions of Edgar Allan Poe announce this swerve, and Radical Botany includes a detailed reading of “the excessive vitalism” of the natural world in stories such as “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839).
Meeker and Szabari also call attention to the extraordinary power of film, “a form of pure movement,” both to materialize and to defamiliarize the vegetal world. Time-lapse photography allows us to see plants in motion, overcoming some of the plant blindness that results from our species’ very different temporalities. The authors also offer compelling readings of plant horror in the two film versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978), in both of which human beings are replaced by “pod people” whose subjectivities, desires, and goals are utterly alien. After all, what do plants want?
Plant blindness, plant horror, their utopian promises and their apocalyptic threats, their mysterious temporalities, and their alien lives entangled with our own: these are some of the many strands of speculation that Bishop, Higgins, and Määttä weave together in Plants in Science Fiction.
Plants in Science Fiction is divided into three sections: “Abjection,” “Affinity,” and “Accord.” “Abjection” focuses on plant horror, opening with an overview of early 20th-century “weird fiction” such as H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1931) and Algernon Blackwood’s “The Man Whom the Trees Loved” (1912). The resurgence of weird fiction in the 21st century as “the New Weird” is often attributed, at least in part, to the nearly incomprehensible “weirding” of a biosphere that we thought was nature-for-us. The climate crisis is, in ecophilosopher Timothy Morton’s resonant term, a hyperobject, too vast in time and space for us to comprehend, and composed of massive material forces that we are utterly incapable of controlling.
This first section, “Abjection,” includes a chapter on perhaps the best-known novel of plant horror in English, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), and a chapter on “becoming tentacular,” exploring how speculative fiction has represented a world of monstrous plants, “of clinging tendrils, creeping rhizomes and far-reaching mycorrhiza.”
“Affinity” takes up, among other things, the question of desire in nonfiction writing such as poet and naturalist (and grandfather of Charles Darwin) Erasmus Darwin’s The Loves of the Plants (1791). In so doing, the section opens out to “the radical possibilities” of posthuman reproduction.
“Accord” looks at some of the ways in which interactions between the human and the vegetal result in new posthuman subjectivities. It does so by reading narratives such as Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Queen City Jazz (1994), a novel in which giant nanotechnological blossoms archive both history and memory, and in which “info-pollination [is] carried out by mutated bees.” Another chapter in this section takes a deep dive into the sensory world of smell in a discussion of Tom Robbins’s Jitterbug Perfume (1984); scent is a key element of plant life, but one whose importance we tend to dismiss in our own lives. Once again VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy is a privileged site, and the final chapters of Plants in Science Fiction explore both the queer reproductive capacities of “the sporous bodies” in the trilogy and the potential for posthuman becoming in the weird ecologies of “Area X.”
Plants in Science Fiction opens with a haunting epigraph from Ursula K. Le Guin: “We all have forests in our minds. Forests unexplored, unending. Each of us gets lost in the forest, every night, alone.” Speculative fiction can literalize these “forests of the mind,” materializing them into, for instance, de Bergerac’s wise trees, Wyndham’s monstrous triffids, director Don Siegel’s pod people, Murphy’s Vegetable Wife, and VanderMeer’s alien spores. Each is an effort to imagine an alien mode of being in the world that we can never fully understand but with which our lives are intimately entwined. Plant thinking can help us appreciate the limitations of thinking like humans. And while it may be uncomfortable to abandon our position as the pinnacle of evolution, like the Vegetable Wife we might plant the seeds of a new (post)humanism and see what grows.
This article was commissioned by Gretchen Bakke.
- Pat Murphy, “His Vegetable Wife,” The Norton Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery (Norton, 1993), p. 629. ↩
- Ibid., p. 632. ↩
- “Entanglement” has become a catchphrase in the posthumanities, but it originated with physicist Erwin Schrödinger’s work in quantum mechanics as a way to think about what Einstein termed the “spooky action at a distance” of quantum particles. ↩