Classical myths are not my forté. So when reading John Boyd’s three novels based on classical myths, I take them at face value—the element of science fiction stripped of its mythical connotations. The first in the series, The Last Starship from Earth (1968), had an intriguing society but too many twists to render it a respectable attempt at a serious novel followed by some strange notions in the conclusion. The Pollinators of Eden maintains this weirdness to a degree.
Rear cover synopsis:
“SUBJECT: Psychiatric case history, Freda Janet Caron
DIAGNOSIS: Humanism with nymphomanic omniphilia
When the United States starship Botany returned from the planet Flora—the Flower Planet—Dr. Freda Caron, a cystologist for the Bureau of Exotic Plants, stood waiting in the space agency’s control tower in the area of touchdown, the San Joaquin Valley. When the officers, scientists, and crew disembarked, however, Freda’s fiancé, Paul Theaston, was not among them. Why had he chosen not to return, almost on the eve of his marriage to Freda? What were the secrets of the Flower Planet? What was its strange hold on Paul? Determined to learn the truth, Freda sets out from Earth to visit Flora—and there, at last, she understands.”
The planet of Flora is home to a cornucopia of plant life with almost no animals or insects. The billions of years old planet orbits a dying star, the planet life hypothesized to understand the situation and copes in its own way. After one science voyage, crewman Paul stays behind on the planet to better understand the pollination of the orchids of a special isolated island. Pollination among the orchids stumps Paul and his best guess is that the planets are ambulatory, a notion which no self-respecting botanist would vouch for.
Paul gives a fellow crewman alien tulip seeds to give to his fiancée, Freda. Intrigued by the mystery of the plant’s pollination method, she planets a row of the seeds on the university’s grounds and is given the assistance of an Italian Stallion grad student, Hal Polino. Soon the giant plants are witnessed shooting their ground penetrating seeds with remarkable accuracy, with Row A giving way to the new generation in Row B and ever onward. The ultrasonic vocalizations of the planets add yet another mystery to the plants—are they intelligent, can they sense more than sun and soil?
Amid the experiments, Freda is whisked away to Washington to assist her boss in establishing a permanent base on Flora, however, the navy has a different idea of making the planet forbidden to scientists and making the planet an asylum for people suffering from psychological space bliss (a mournful longing for the stars characterized by the patient’s skyward-pointing face). Also at the committee meeting is the libidinous and influential professor of Entropy, Hans Clayborg, who introduces Freda to martinis and finds her optimum martini consumption in order to Freda to feel secure about another man touching her. Sly fellow with math skills, seducing the virgin!
Freda ruins the university’s chance to establish a permanent scientific base on Flora, but returns to her garden of alien tulips to continue her research with Hal. They record and test some theories about the planets’ communication, but they take it too far when they subject one row to three blasts of ultrasonic white noise. As Freda is speaking with Hans, he keels over and dies right beside her. The autopsy reveals that he died of a stroke, but Freda has an inkling that the planets had something to do with his death. Now a mother figure to the planets, she continues her research with doubts as to the plants’ safety for herself and for the world.
A number costly accidents involve the university’s facilities and a string a deaths occur around her garden. Freda’s expressive, scientific explanation sends her to the crazy house where she uses her recently found seduction methods on psychologists, who fall to her eroticism and do her favors which are forbidden among other psychiatric patients. Eventually, even her removal from the ward and a placement on the last ship to Flora are granted. She must join her fiancé Paul on the planet Flora!
Had a good chuckle over the synopsis statement of "nymphomanic omniphilia".
Like The Last Starship from Earth, this novel isn’t laden with obvious mythology but must follow some sort of mythological train of thought for the author. Regardless of this irrelevance, The Pollinators of Eden starts off on a wonderful note with sexual tension, botanic mysteries, and scientific jargon. Freda is interesting, the plants are enticing, and the plot has momentum. These three notes then meet the wall of the politicking in Washington, where only the sexual tension is brought and developed. Meanwhile, the plants take an idle backseat along with the rest of the momentum.
The book’s own synopsis is misleading because Freda doesn’t go to Flora until the 20% of the book, which turns the topsy-turvy laboratory-cum-politics-cum-garden-cum-psychiatric ward plot into a surreal yet calm reacquaintance with her fiancé and his findings on the pollination methods of the orchids. Thereby, the reader comes to the most talked about piece of the novel, a twisting clinch and spoiler which I won’t tell, but the plot pretty much leads directly to it, making it pretty obvious yet also not all-telling enough (guiltily).
Besides the plot-stopping politicking, the reader will be struck with the anarchic technology which Boyd has included in this novel, which takes place around the year 2237: carbon paper, slide-rules, and stenographs. Boyd didn’t give much thought to the science behind Pollinators; he probably thought just throwing in a spaceship would make it all futuristic enough. Boyd paid more attention to his puns, allegories, and prose than he did to the science of this science fiction novel.
It wasn’t an entirely bad piece of fiction, but it started off well, got caught up in the bureaucratic gears, tossed into the loony bin, and shipped off to an isolated planet around a dying star. I wouldn’t condemn this book to the same treatment, but I’ll keep it in my collection next to The Last Starship from Earth awaiting the third book in the mythologically-inspired science fiction trilogy: The Rakehells of Heaven (1969).