Saturday, August 15, 2009


Now that I come to think about it, plant-people are underutilized in speculative fiction.

The first such species I encountered was in Jack L. Chalker’s Well World series, which featured well over a thousand sentient species living on an artificial world. One such species looked like large humanoid plants, but unfortunately I don’t have either the Chalker books or Wayne Barlowe’s Extraterrestrials, which included a painting of a member of that species. I just remember that each plant-person grew a huge leaf from its head, which was used in photosynthesis.

Then there are the cactacae of China Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels. These look like green humanoids covered with sharp thorns, which they file down if they want to avoid hurting people of other species. They also have sap rather than blood, which protects them from the predatory anophelii in The Scar.

There are also Tolkien’s Ents, though they’re so much larger than others that they’re ambulatory trees. Finally, today I learned about a manga called “Finding the Fallen”, which features a type of plant-people called Ruoens.

When severely injured, they strip naked, down a gallon of water and cover themselves in rich, thick potting soil and lay there for a day or two.

The more I think about this, the more potential it has. You’d have to bend science around the concept, of course – plant-people aren’t biologically possible for several reasons, one being that the average humanoid doesn’t have sufficient surface area for the kind of gaseous exchange and sunlight absorption that photosynthesis requires. But if you can disregard this, there’s a lot of possibilities for plant-people.

• Some plants, such as mistletoe, parasitize others. Could some species of plant-people do the same to others?

• Some plants have properties, medicinal or otherwise, which could be very valuable. For instance, an ounce of saffron can cost well over $20. What if some plant-people were killed or kept as slaves so that these products could be harvested from them?

• Plants have several interesting features that people don’t – stolons, flowers, roots, food storage in the form of underground tubers, fertilization through insects or wind. Would these be present on plant-people too?


writtenwyrdd said...

Great thoughts, Marta! And thanks for the reminder of the Well World, I never got through the whole series but I did read severalof them (assuming I'm thinking of the same books as you are.)

I like the idea of sentient plants as aliens. We have touched on it quite heavily in horror movies via the Pod People; but it isn't a theme or trend I can think of for general sff except for the exceptions you mention. Ents are more or less (forgive the humor) Green Giants, so they tend to be remembered as giant humans and not mobile tree people (at least to me.)

I think there are good reasons to possibly limit the use of motile trees in the sf realm, if not fantasy: I am not up on the science, but I suspect that plants wouldn't normally be motile (in the sense that we are always walking about) and that would tend to make them less likely character fodder for speculative fiction.

Linda Adams said...

I hate to say it, but the first thing I thought of was "The Plant Man." It's a third season episode of the TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (on DVD) and regarded as one of the worst episodes of the show. When someone starts saying how bad the show was, "The Plant Man" is the episode they always mention.

The plant man is the creation of a scientist team of twin brothers. The good brother is trying to create a new food source to feed the starving; the evil brother wants a plant man army. Evil brother creates a man-sized plant which attacks some of the characters; he also creates a giant one, which attacks the submarine (with all the appropriate crashing special effects, which the show is known for).

Then there's the carrot man from Lost in Space ...

beth said...

Ironically enough, I am thinking of doing a plant person story...

Hazardgal said...

Just watched a strange flick today called The Ruins about carnivorous plants on a Mayan ruin that devour people. These plants loved blood and repeated what one was thinking. It would have been better had they shown some intellect or purpose other than sacrificing humans. I also just wrote a story about plant people.

Anonymous said...

As soon as you mentioned Plant people, I thought of Zaahn from Farscape.

Marian said...

Hey Tasha,

Did you mean Zhaan?

That was a fascinating entry, by the way. The more I read about Farscape, the more I want to watch the series - I'm just afraid of how much time it will take.

Marian said...

Hey Marge,

I agree. Plants, animals, aliens and so on which prey on humans have been done so very often in speculative fiction that I'd really like to see either something different or the preying handled in an original way.

For instance, there was a short story by Isaac Asimov where alien plants kept animals under control to take care of them, through producing quantities of pollen that the animals breathed in.

I think that's one reason I went for plant-people, as opposed to plants (as in the example of plants in the Mayan ruins that you mentioned). When you have humanoids in the story, even if they're part botanical, it's easier to make them individuals and give them unusual or sympathetic purposes in life.

Marian said...

Hey beth,

Go for it! I'd love to see a plant-person story. Say, one told from the points of view of the talking plants in the garden in Through the Looking-Glass.

Those plants had personalities!

Marian said...

Hey Linda,

Thanks for commenting! Now I have to look up this carrot man.

I don't mind people thinking of bad TV shows when they read some of my more out-there ideas. :) I'm a firm believer in thinking outside the box, even if what you come up with seems silly at first, or has been poorly used in a previous context.

Marian said...

Hi writtenwyrdd,

The Well World series is... something else. For me, the sheer level of imagination that must have gone into creating over a thousand fantasy species is impressive.

Unfortunately the characterization didn't quite match that. I can't remember anything about the protagonists of the series except that their names were Nathan Brazil and Mavra Chang, which sound like a good exotic/familiar cross, but anything else about them is beyond me.

If aliens could have silicon instead of carbon in their systems, or liquid ammonia rather than water, then they could be sentient plants too. Yesterday I borrowed a non-fiction book called Aliens and Alien Societies - edited by Ben Bova - and I'll see if it contains anything about plants.

But you're right about motile plants being less feasible in science fiction. The amount of energy required for that would probably be less than they could obtain from photosynthesis.

Anonymous said...

Yes. Zhaan. Good grief. Being the Farscape fanatic that I am- you'd think I'd spell her name correctly.

From what I've learned about your tastes from reading this blog, I think you would love Farscape to death. It's only 4 seaons and then a two part mini-series. Some people find the beginning of the first season a bit silly. I didn't, but it did take them until midway to hit their groove. Then it's pure awesomeness.

Marian said...

You know, I've read the Farscape wiki quite a bit because it sounds so interesting in terms of worldbuilding. I mean, there's a military organization called the Peacekeepers. I love that kind of thing!

And the spaceships. And Chiana.

So someday I do have to make the time to watch whatever I can of this show. I must check and see if the episodes are available on YouTube.