The Pollinators of Eden

The Pollinators of Eden by John BoydThe Pollinators of Eden front
Dell Publishing Co., 1969
Price I paid: 90¢

Blond and beautiful Dr. Freda Caron had been waiting patiently for her fiancé, Paul, to return from The Planet of the Flowers. But Paul had unaccountably requested an extended tour of duty, and had sent in his stead his handsome assistant, Hal Polino, along with an exquisite new breed of talking tulip.

Freda, methodical scientist that she was, was not quite sure what do with either of them—especially when the tulip was as heterosexual as Hal.

That’s when she began the experiments…

Okay, guys, wow. This book was really, really difficult to finish. I just don’t even know how to summarize it, but I’m going to try.

I really like the cover art, though. Sort of an Adam and Eve motif surrounded by what I guess are supposed to be flowers. I’m not sure what the things surrounding the people are supposed to be. Electrons? Plant parts? Either way, it’s the best thing about this book.

And here we have another case of the back jacket summary being a collection of lies. Well, maybe not lies, since all that stuff does sort of happen in the book, but something about the tone of that summary suggested that I was in for a really weird sex-in-space book. Like maybe if Little Shop of Horrors was in actuality Little Shop of Whores and the whores were still plants. I was somehow disappointed.

What this book actually was was in fact 212 pages or so of people talking about stuff. I’m serious. Boring, boring conversations that either slowly progress the plot or just plain digress from it in ways that were not in any way exciting or helpful.

The plot begins quite similarly to the back jacket description, but it kicks off by calling our protagonist “ovately willowy.” That’s how it establishes the fact that Dr. Freda Caron is supposed to be attractive, I suppose. I’ll confess I had to look up the definition of “ovately,” and when I did it was only more confusing. How can somebody be egg-shaped and also willowy?

Any possibility of denying Dr. Caron’s effect on men will be denied by the fact that everywhere she goes, somebody hits on her. I mean, this poor woman can’t walk down the street without somebody trying to put the moves on her. At one point she even testifies in front of congress, and the guy she’s talking to straight up says that it’s not fair for her to be there, because her beauty keeps distracting him. Nobody in this book has any notion of professionality or of allowing a woman to be in any way intellectual or competent if she’s also attractive. I’m not even a woman and I’m insulted by this fact.

Anyway, Dr. Caron is waiting for her future husband to show up and he doesn’t. Instead we get Hal Polino and a pair of tulips. Hal immediately begins trying to score, while the tulips themselves are supposed to be the interesting part. It flies in the face of science, but these tulips are, as the book says, heterosexual. The problem with using this term in this way is that it completely glosses over what is actually supposed to be interesting about these plants. You see, the whole point of them is that they are sexually dimorphic in a way that Earth plants don’t tend to be. Earth plants tend to have both male and female parts on the same plant. These things don’t. Calling them heterosexual is jumping ahead a little bit.

The back jacket says the plants talk, too. They don’t really. What they have is some kind of air sac that allows them to mimic sounds they hear. Later we find out that the plants can communicate with each other as well, but no, no one in this book has any kind of conversation with a tulip, heterosexual or otherwise.

Dr. Caron puts the plants in the ground and starts breeding new ones, all the while exploring her own sexuality and psyche for the bulk of the rest of the book. This is only vaguely related to the plants.

Dr. Caron is apparently sexually repressive, despite being smoking hot. Almost more than anything else, the book talks about human psychology and sexuality with respect to the good doctor. At one point she and a colleague devote a night to finding out exactly how many drinks it will take to get her to let go of her repression. Her feelings are also awoken by the graduate student her fiancé sent, Hal. Hal is amorous and intuitive and handsome and all that stuff, and Dr. Caron keeps having to rebuff his advances.

I mentioned a Senate Hearing that didn’t have much effect on the plot, and I’ll only bring it up again to point out the one idea communicated in the book that I actually really liked. You see, humanity is now capable of spreading throughout the galaxy, and there are lots of people who want to be among the colonization effort. Part of this committee meeting is meant to deal with the people who don’t want humanity to colonize other worlds, and in particular Planet Flora. What demographic is most concerned with the negatives of colonization?

Rich white people.

Yep, they don’t want people to go into space because the people who will most want to leave Earth are the people whose job it is to make them comfortable. I’m not making this up, and it’s brilliant. They want the lower and middle classes to stay here on Earth, sacrificing their lives to make things easier on the rich instead of going off into the universe to escape the pants-crappingly awful life the rich want them to live.

Apart from that little discussion, though, the book didn’t have an awful lot to offer in terms of ideas or plot. Dr. Caron and Hal discover that there’s probably some kind of intelligence governing the tulips. They’re able to con wasps into being pollinators through sound waves and they’re able to fling their seeds into plots that have been made for them, thus saving our protagonists a lot of time.

Dr. Caron and Hal attempt to make other people see the awesomeness that is a self-aware plant, but they refuse to see it. Finally a linguist offers to help out and offers to make a recording of the plants while Hal does stuff that bothers them. Stuff starts to go really wrong for everybody at this point.

The plants kill Hal with sound waves. Then the air conditioners fall apart in Dr. Caron’s greenhouses for reasons I couldn’t fathom. Then a guy on a tractor gets killed by the tulips. After all that Dr. Caron figures it’s time to kill the plants for good and orders a plane to drop poison on them. Somehow or another the plants manage to kill the guy flying the plane and it crashes.

Dr. Caron’s superior at the university is pretty miffed about all this because he keeps proposing budget cuts and Dr. Caron is somehow killing people and blowing up valuable university equipment.

She manages to convince him to let her go to Flora and find her wayward fiancé, presumably on the idea that if she goes off-world she won’t be able to cost the university money.

Once she gets to Flora and finds Paul the book goes from being mind-searingly boring to brain-meltingly weird.

She finds Paul hanging around, mostly naked, living among some orchids. The orchids are the highest form of plant life on the planet, much more advanced than the tulips. He dismisses the tulips as the planet’s equivalent of poisonous insects.

Poisonous insects he sent to his future wife on a planet that was not at all prepared for them.

These people are supposed to be scientists, people! What are they doing sending specimens across the stars without making sure they won’t do an Australia on the cradle of mankind?

Well, actually, we sort of get an answer to that.

The planet Flora has some weird effects on humans, it seems. People just really seem to like it. Yeah, it’s beautiful, and as the name suggests it’s covered in some kind of non-animal life forms

Actually I was in the process of typing that phrase as a joke when I realized that the deal they kept making in this book is how the plants are really in a lot of ways like animals. They communicate, for one, but they also have emotional responses. They have fibrous hairs that are akin to nerve cells, and some of them even have fluids that are very similar to hemoglobin. So yeah, they’re non-animal life forms, but they’re also non-plant life forms.

I think that’s really what bothered me most about this book. Everybody’s talking about these things like they’re just Earth plants that wound up on another planet and got smart. What we’re really talking about is an entire alien ecology unlike anything on this planet. For one, this book belies a criminal lack of imagination in making a “Plant World,” but then when it turns out that these things are utterly alien the characters treat them like topiaries and send them back to Earth and put them in the ground.

ANYWAY the point I was getting to is that Planet Flora has an effect that basically turns off the logic circuits in the human brain and makes everybody want to run around naked and say “groovy.” This is not seen as essentially a bad thing.

Paul has been getting to know the orchids of Planet Flora. I know you’ve been waiting for it, so I’ll get it out there. Yeah. I mean “know” in the biblical sense. Dude’s been having psychic sex with flowers. He’s in love with them, particularly with a tall red one. They’ve having all sorts of psychic love and now he wants his common-law wife to get in on the psychic plant sex action.

Wasn’t she, not a few pages ago, terrified of sex and human contact? I believe the book even called her frigid. All it took was flowers, guys.

After some time dilly-dallying with the orchids, some folks show up and start hacking away at them. It seems that Paul and Dr. Caron have been deemed traitors to humanity or something and have to be sent back to Earth so that the plot can get boring again. Paul escapes.

Dr. Caron is institutionalized in Houston and discovers that her communion with the orchids have given her psychic powers. Thank god she didn’t land among the chrysanthemums is all I’m saying.

She uses her psychic powers to develop opinions on human psychology by messing with the heads of all the psychologists they send in to help cure her. There’s a Freudian guy and a Frommian guy and a Pavlovian guy and she manages to convince them all that they only became psychologists in response to their own psychological issues and then manages to use their own branches of the discipline (plus psychic plant sex powers) to cure them. They go off to become car mechanics and artists.


The end of the book, though, is the weirdest damn thing. It seems that Dr. Caron is pregnant. It’s likely that the father is Paul, but there’s a chance it’s not because she went from frigid to nympho after her psychic plant sex experience.

Ladies and gentlemen, live from Secaucus, New Jersey, it’s THE PSYCHIC PLANT SEX EXPERIENCE!

The truth turns out to be a lot more disturbing than either of those options. The truth is that there are two fathers to her baby. One of them turns out to be Paul, but the other turns out to be THE ORCHID.





She’s not horrified by giving birth to a seed, either. She’s quite happy with the situation. You see, she’d often considered the ultimate fate of the universe, and this seed will help mankind survive it.


Yeah, you see, she’s long been afraid of the eventual contraction and Big Crunch of the universe.


Her plan is to have all sorts of plant babies and send them out on spaceships going so fast that they’ll escape the contraction of the universe in a few godzillion years and survive until the next one, thus giving human-orchid people a leg up in the next entirety of creation.


Aaaaaand that’s the end of the book.

I’m telling you, I didn’t see that ending coming. I mean, I sort of expected somebody to have sex with a plant at some point. Everything about the book suggested to me that it would eventually happen. I was happy that it was only psychic sex, though. Although apparently it was the kind of psychic sex that can turn a human embryo into a seed.

Scientists, I implore you, never learn how to do this.

I just have to wonder how this book came about. Did the author just have a dream about a woman giving birth to a seed and go from there, or did he start with the most inanely boring dialog he could imagine and after about 180 pages go “I’m glad that’s out of my system, time to get messed up.” I’m genuinely curious here.

This book physically exhausted me.

8 thoughts on “The Pollinators of Eden

  1. Ok, so, Boyd is obsessed with mythology — so this is a strange take on myths in a bizarre world. Perhaps this review by my friend will help you a bit — it’s definitely a work of satire of sorts. But, he too doesn’t understand all the mythological underpinnings.

    The cover is by Paul Lehr, who is one of my favorites — if you haven’t perused his listin on isfdb you should — great fun!


    1. Fascinating! I didn’t pick up on much in the way of mythology when I read it except for the references to Eden and Adam and Eve that might have been expected from the title. I would like to read The Last Starship from Earth, though.


      1. Ha, I like how you basically call out Last Starship as a crummier version of The Man in the High Castle, since another reviewer’s favorable comparison thereto is what got me curious about it. I’m a big fan of alt-history when it’s done right, which is fairly rare.

        I’m putting the Geston book on my shortlist of books to look for. It really does look like something I’d like a lot. A premise like that would cover (almost) any number of sins.


  2. Ah! This must be the book my mother described to me, the one that put her off science-fiction for life! There can’t be *two* stories with that ending, can there?


    1. Haha, while I’m amazed that anyone else in the world actually read this book (and that includes the people at the publishing company), it makes me so sad that it would help form anybody’s opinion of the genre. After all, that’s why we have Sturgeon’s Law…


  3. I read this book a very long time ago, and now I am quite confused.

    I remember the scene in which film footage taken on Eden is screened to scientists on Earth, of interaction between the alien plants. The undeniable intimacy of what they are watching is affecting to the audience. The protagonist is aware that the colors are so bright and vivid, that they had to be stepped down in order to watch the images.

    In the end, the protagonist is initiated into the practices of the scientists on Eden. A good strong plant is selected for her. Then the giant flowering plants hoist her way up into the air, and pass her around!

    The riddle faced by the scientist was that they where unable to find any animal species like insects on Earth, facilitating sexual procreation of flowering plants as on Earth. The mystery was: Who are the pollinators of Eden? And the answer revealed: We are the pollinators of Eden!


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