jinian: (pigs ahoy)
[personal profile] jinian

Happy late birthday, [personal profile] rushthatspeaks!

My (1978) copy of The Pollinators of Eden begins with a dedication:
To Lynn Gillaspy, as a warning

Then we proceed to the Prologue, in which we learn that the novel is the first of a trilogy based on classic myths, and why he chose to write it as SF. (Short version: he liked Heinlein.) It includes that lovely phrase, "I shot my wad." Thankfully he does not mean that literally at this point in the book. The other gem here is, "When Freda finally yielded, it was to a lesbian orchid on a planet of ambulatory plants." That is not actually true; like any good pollinator, Freda had to collect he pollen before depositing it.

I promised to evaluate this book for plant-biology realism, but secretly predicted that I would be laughing too hard. And, although there's a lot more to say about the book, I am sticking to my bio focus, painful though it has proven.

All plants are the same

On page 4, we see the first evidence of the plant-biological theme of this novel: that plants are substantially the same on all planets, even when this makes zero and possibly negative sense. Our lovely (but frigid) heroine is annoyed to have to plan her wedding rather than "crossbreeding Martian lichen with terrestrial rock moss." There is no reason that this would ever work. Even assuming panspermia and some parallel evolution -- a big assumption -- lichens are made of fungus living in symbiosis with photosynthetic bacteria and sometimes some other friendly cells; mosses are plants which descended evolutionarily from multicellular green algae. It's possible that Earth scientists would name a solely Martian organism resembling lichen "Martian lichen", but not if it was actually a moss.

Although all plants are the same, clearly plants from the planet Flora are better; witness Freda's expostulation on her first encounter with the genitals of the homicidal space tulip: "This plant is heterosexual." And then, "The two plants had acheived a stage of heterosexuality that put them eons ahead of their terrestrial cousins."

I'm just going to reappreciate that for a minute.

Plenty of plants on Earth are "heterosexual" -- we call it dioecy. It is not more evolutionarily advanced, because there's no such thing. Lots of organisms change from how their ancestors were, but lots do the same thing, and evolution favors success by either method. In the sense that those plants all originally had hermaphroditic flowers, yes, it would've taken more time to get to unisexual flowers, and entire male/female plants are often another step following that. It's a good way to ensure outcrossing, which does have selective benefits, but there are plenty of other ways. This one isn't better. In fact, in botany, flowers with both male and female parts are called "perfect".

And, in fact, all plants are not the same. It's just their flowers that look alike, and even that seems to be superficial. (Hint: an orchid's labellum does not consist of multiple petals.) The seeds are different: a football instead of a pod containing thousands of dustlike seeds for orchids -- but still smelling of vanilla! -- and tiny, black, yet highly efficient gliding and penetrating seeds for the tulips. The orchids are small free-standing trees, even if their flowers and tendrils are "unmistakably and exqusitely" similar to terrestrial orchids'.

The central mystery of the book is, to me, how flowers on completely different planets could evolve to look so similar. I mean, this requires that we assume the author is not simply a dangerous man with a glossary of planty-sounding terms, which I admit is the parsimonious approach, but it's fun. The obvious solution is that Platonic ideals exist, and as organisms approach them they get some kind of bonus to evolutionary fitness -- more efficient respiration, increased fecundity, whatever -- though Wim suggested things would look the same if alien precursors had planted morpho-signaling devices throughout the galaxy.

Only they need to be sexier, obvsly

All Flora-derived plants have blooms for their entire lives. On page 9, Freda points out that this makes no sense, but the issue is never addressed again. Humans have permanent sex organs! Of course it's the right and proper thing! How this is dealt with is really not consistent; the tulips are described as having a "seed duct" and also seed chambers that open directly to spit the seeds (imagine incredibly skilled, targeted watermelon-seed spitting), which seem mutually exclusive. The orchids, well:

"What you see here is a seed pod, but the cellular striations around this portion of the stalk suggest muscular tissue. A single seed at a time is germinated, and all births are Caesarean."

If we take it as a given that there's muscle, which is a big if, why would you cut through it to release the seeds, and who exactly is doing the cutting? An actual botanist, which these characters are supposed to be, might have phrased it as a capsule that remains hydrated, opens by some means, and then closes the suture. Of course, there is no reason whatsoever for all this permablooming and outsourcing of gestation, except that the story's setup requires the plants to be able to shag humans with their exquisite tentacles.

Notably, all the female flowers have a "vestigial stigma". It's located just outside the "oviduct" (which is where on a plant?!). Later we learn that, at least on the rampagingly lustful orchids, this tiny stigma is highly sensitive. Yes, ladies, he gave the plant a clitoris. I suppose we should be grateful that the author thought it was a hallmark of being Highly Evolved.


"With my limited laboratory facilities, I believe i have detected hemoglobin in the sap of the orchids. Are the plants, then, carnivorous...
... or are they so highly developed along lines of evolution that they are part animal?"

This is not how it works, people. Lateral gene transfer, yes, very infrequently, but only if it's good for something. Hemoglobin in plants is generally not useful, though there's one case where they have something similar, which is pretty cool. This is a relatively subtle example of the weird fondness people have for the Great Chain of Being (rocks at the bottom, angels at the top), in which of course plants would be better if they were more animal-like. Not true! Different life strategy, already highly successful.


My suspicion is that the author had a glossary of plant-biological terms and picked things that sounded reasonable with no idea whether a given plant might have them. For instance, the homicidal space tulips are eventually found to be killing people and mind-controlling wasps (I know!) by focusing ultrasonic beams with the calyx. Only... tulips don't have a discrete calyx whorl. It's identical to the corolla, which is why they look like tulips. Plus, the orchids have "pollen nectar" somehow; no wonder they have trouble finding pollinators. Those are two different substances with different purposes, and jamming the words together doesn't improve the logic.

Also, he made things up. "Osmosis ducts" are not a thing. Plants have vasculature, yes, but there are in fact names for the types, and they work on more principles than osmosis. (And when Freda goes to look at them, she uses an electron microscope on fresh tissue: also not how it works, though there are some surprisingly low-vacuum, low-fixative, wet methods out there now.)


Somehow, after all that, I didn't hate the book either. It was bizarre, but bizarrely likable, and the biology doesn't stab you with its badness until you go looking for trouble (or until the last two pages). I could go on all day about the foreshadowing, the treatment of women, the Great Stupid Dénouement, but really, you should all read this ridiculous thing too, and I want to leave you some surprises.


hey love, I'm an inconstant satellite

July 2017

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