A meteor shower in the skies above the rolling English countryside late in the nineteenth century fires the imagination of a young man with a penchant for science—especially when one of the falling rocks breaks off from the rest and lands at the bottom of a pond near the Benford farm. While the young man’s curiosity has been seriously aroused, Farmer Benford and his clan couldn’t be less interested—not even when there’s a sudden, curious rash of animal births, they notice odd, lingering, pervasive smells, and the family dog dies inexplicably. Still, the young man is not willing to abandon his investigation into these strange occurrences, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that to keep looking could prove injurious—and perhaps even fatal—not only to himself but to every Benford in the vicinity.
Grand Master Brian W. Aldiss wrote his wonderfully strange and gripping novella “The Saliva Tree,” as a tribute to H. G. Wells, the immortal author of The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, and it was honored with a Nebula Award. Included alongside this classic tale of creeping alien terror are nine other sparkling gems of short fiction—from the grisly baby steps of a novice serial killer, to the travels of a history professor through alternate worlds, to the journey of a young widow who has both a murderer and a monster vying for her attention.
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About the Author
Brian W. Aldiss was born in Norfolk, England, in 1925. Over a long and distinguished writing career, he published award-winning science fiction (two Hugo Awards, a Nebula Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award); bestselling popular fiction, including the three-volume Horatio Stubbs saga and the four-volume the Squire Quartet; experimental fiction such as Report on Probability A and Barefoot in the Head; and many other iconic and pioneering works, including the Helliconia Trilogy. He edited many successful anthologies and published groundbreaking nonfiction, including a magisterial history of science fiction (Billion Year Spree, later revised and expanded as Trillion Year Spree). Among his many short stories, perhaps the most famous was “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,” which was adapted for film by Stanley Kubrick and produced and directed after Kubrick’s death by Steven Spielberg as A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Brian W. Aldiss passed away in 2017 at the age of 92.
Read an Excerpt
The Saliva Tree and Other Strange Growths
By Brian W. Aldiss
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1966 Brian Aldiss
All rights reserved.
The Saliva Tree
There is neither speech nor language: but their voices are heard among them.
'You know, I'm really much exercised about the Fourth Dimension,' said the fair-haired young man, with a suitable earnestness in his voice.
'Um,' said his companion, staring up at the night sky.
'It seems very much in evidence these days. Do you not think you catch a glimpse of it in the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley?'
'Um,' said his companion.
They stood together on a low rise to the east of the sleepy East Anglian town of Cottersall, watching the stars, shivering a little in the chill February air. They are both young men in their early twenties. The one who is occupied with the Fourth Dimension is called Bruce Fox; he is tall and fair, and works as junior clerk in the Norwich firm of lawyers, Prendergast and Tout. The other, who has so far vouchsafed us only an um or two, although he is to figure largely as the hero of our account, is by name Gregory Rolles. He is tall and dark, with grey eyes set in his handsome and intelligent face. He and Fox have sworn to Think Large, thus distinguishing themselves, at least in their own minds, from all the rest of the occupants of Cottersall in these last years of the nineteenth century.
'There's another!' exclaimed Gregory, breaking at last from the realm of monosyllables. He pointed a gloved finger up at the constellation of Auriga the Charioteer. A meteor streaked across the sky like a runaway flake of the Milky Way, and died in mid-air.
'Beautiful!' they said together.
'It's funny,' Fox said, prefacing his words with an oft-used phrase, 'the stars and men's minds are so linked together and always have been, even in the centuries of ignorance before Charles Darwin. They always seem to play an ill-defined role in man's affairs. They help me think large too, don't they you, Greg?'
'You know what I think—I think that some of those stars may be occupied. By people, I mean.' He breathed heavily, overcome by what he was saying. 'People who—perhaps they are better than us, live in a just society, wonderful people ...'
'I know, Socialists to a man!' Fox exclaimed. This was one point on which he did not share his friend's advanced thinking. He had listened to Mr. Tout talking in the office, and thought he knew better than his rich friend how these socialists, of which one heard so much these days, were undermining society. 'Stars full of socialists!'
'Better than stars full of Christians! Why, if the stars were full of Christians, no doubt they would already have sent missionaries down here to preach their Gospel.'
'I wonder if there ever will be planetary journeys as predicted by Nunsowe Greene and Monsieur Jules Verne—' Fox said, when the appearance of a fresh meteor stopped him in mid-sentence.
Like the last this meteor seemed to come from the general direction of Auriga. It travelled slowly, and it glowed red, and it sailed grandly towards them. They both exclaimed at once, and gripped each other by the arm. The magnificent spark burned in the sky, larger now, so that its red aura appeared to encase a brighter orange glow. It passed overhead (afterwards, they argued whether it had not made a slight noise as it passed), and disappeared below a clump of willow. They knew it had been near. For an instant, the land had shone with its light.
Gregory was the first to break the silence.
'Bruce, Bruce, did you see that? That was no ordinary fireball!'
'It was so big! What was it?'
'Perhaps our heavenly visitor has come at last!'
'Hey, Greg, it must have landed by your friends' farm—the Grendon place—mustn't it?'
'You're right! I must pay old Mr. Grendon a visit tomorrow and see if he or his family saw anything of this.'
They talked excitedly, stamping their feet as they exercised their lungs. Their conversation was the conversation of optimistic young men, and included much speculative matter that began 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if—', or 'Just supposing—'. Then they stopped and laughed at their own absurd beliefs.
'It must be nearly nine o'clock,' Fox said at last. 'I didn't mean to be so late tonight. It's funny how fast time passes. We'd best be getting back, Greg.'
They had brought no lantern, since the night was both clear and dry. It was but two miles by the track back to the outlying houses of Cottersall. They stepped it out lustily, arm linked in arm in case one of them tripped in cart ruts, for Fox had to be up at five in the morning if he was to bicycle to his work punctually. The little village lay silent, or almost so. In the baker's house where Gregory lodged, a gaslight burned and a piano could be heard. As they halted smartly at the side door, Fox said slyly, 'So you'll be seeing all the Grendon family tomorrow?'
'It seems probable, unless that red hot planetary ship has already borne them off to a better world.'
'Tell us true, Greg—you really go to see that pretty Nancy Grendon, don't you?'
Gregory struck his friend playfully on the shoulder.
'No need for your jealousy, Bruce! I go to see the father, not the daughter. Though the one is female, the other is progressive and that must interest me more just yet. Nancy has beauty, true, but her father—ah, her father has electricity!'
Laughing, they cheerfully shook hands and parted for the night.
On Grendon's farm, things were a deal less tranquil, as Gregory was to discover.
Gregory Rolles rose before seven next morning as was his custom. It was while he was lighting his gas mantle, and wishing the baker would install electricity, that a swift train of thought led him to reflect again on the phenomenal thing in the previous night's sky. Mrs. Fenn, the baker's wife, who had already lit his fire, brought him up hot water for washing and scalding water for shaving and, later, a mighty tray full of breakfast. Throughout this activity, and indeed while he ate his porridge and chops, Gregory remained abstracted, letting his mind wander luxuriously over all the possibilities that the 'meteor' illuminated. He decided that he would ride out to see Mr. Grendon within the hour.
He was lucky in being able, at this stage in his life, to please himself largely as to how his days were spent, for his father was a person of some substance. Edward Rolles had had the fortune, at the time of the Crimean War, to meet Escoffier, and with some help from the great chef had brought onto the market a baking powder, 'Eugenol', that, being slightly more palatable and less deleterious to the human system than its rivals, had achieved great commercial success. As a result, Gregory had attended one of the Cambridge colleges.
Now, having gained a degree, he was poised on the verge of a career. But which career? He had acquired—more as a result of his intercourse with other students than with those officially deputed to instruct him—some understanding of the sciences; his essays had been praised and some of his poetry published, so that he inclined towards literature; and an uneasy sense that life for everyone outside the privileged classes contained too large a proportion of misery led him to think seriously of a political career. In Divinity, too, he was well-grounded; but at least the idea of Holy Orders did not tempt him.
While he wrestled with his future, he undertook to live away from home, since his relations with his father were never smooth. By rusticating himself in the heart of East Anglia, he hoped to gather material for a volume tentatively entitled 'Wanderings with a Socialist Naturalist', which would assuage all sides of his ambitions. Nancy Grendon, who had a pretty hand with a pencil, might even execute a little emblem for the title page ... Perhaps he might be permitted to dedicate it to his author friend, Mr. Herbert George Wells ...
He dressed himself warmly, for the morning was cold as well as dull, and went down to the baker's stables. When he had saddled his mare, Daisy, he swung himself up and set out along a road that the horse knew well.
The sun had been up for something over an hour, yet the sky and the landscape were drab in the extreme. Two sorts of East Anglian landscape met here, trapped by the confused wanderings of the River Oast: the unfarmable heathland and the unfarmable fen. There were few trees, and those stunted, so that the four fine elms that stood on one side of the Grendon farm made a cynosure for miles around.
The land rose slightly towards the farm, the area about the house forming something of a little island amid marshy ground and irregular stretches of water that gave back to the sky its own dun tone. The gate over the little bridge was, as always, open wide; Daisy picked her way through the mud to the stables, where Gregory left her to champ oats contentedly. Cuff and her pup, Lardie, barked loudly about Gregory's heels as usual, and he patted their heads on his way over to the house.
Nancy came hurrying out to meet him before he got to the front door.
'We had some excitement last night, Gregory,' she said. He noted with pleasure she had at last brought herself to use his first name.
'Something bright and glaring!' she said. 'I was retiring, when this noise come and then this light, and I rush to look out through the curtains, and there's this here great thing like an egg sinking into our pond.' In her speech, and particularly when she was excited, she carried the lilting accent of Norfolk.
The meteor!' Gregory exclaimed. 'Bruce Fox and I were out last night as we were the night before, watching for the lovely Aurigids that arrive every February, when we saw an extra big one. I said then it was coming over very near here.'
'Why, it almost landed on our house,' Nancy said. She looked very pleasing this morning, with her lips red, her cheeks shining, and her chestnut curls all astray. As she spoke, her mother appeared in apron and cap, with a wrap hurriedly thrown over her shoulders.
'Nancy, you come in, standing freezing like that! You ent daft, girl, are you? Hello, Gregory, how be going on? I didn't reckon as we'd see you today. Come in and warm yourself.'
'Good-day to you, Mrs. Grendon. I'm hearing about your wonderful meteor of last night.'
'It was a falling star, according to Bert Neckland. I ent sure what it was, but it certainly stirred up the animals, that I do know.'
'Can you see anything of it in the pond?' Gregory asked.
'Let me show you,' Nancy said.
Mrs. Grendon returned indoors. She went slowly and grandly, her back very straight and an unaccustomed load before her. Nancy was her only daughter; there was a younger son, Archie, a stubborn lad who had fallen at odds with his father and now was apprenticed to a blacksmith in Norwich; and no other children living. Three infants had not survived the mixture of fogs alternating with bitter east winds that comprised the typical Cottersall winter. But now the farmer's wife was unexpectedly gravid again, and would bear her husband another baby when the spring came in.
As Nancy led Gregory over to the pond, he saw Grendon with his two labourers working in the West Field, but they did not wave.
'Was your father not excited by the arrival last night?'
'That he was—when it happened! He went out with his shot gun, and Bert Neckland with him. But there was nothing to see but bubbles in the pond and steam over it, and this morning he wouldn't discuss it, and said that work must go on whatever happen.'
They stood beside the pond, a dark and extensive slab of water with rushes on the farther bank and open country beyond. As they looked at its ruffled surface, they stood with the windmill black and bulky on their left hand. It was to this that Nancy now pointed.
Mud had been splashed across the boards high up the sides of the mill; some was to be seen even on the tip of the nearest white sail. Gregory surveyed it all with interest. Nancy, however, was still pursuing her own line of thought.
'Don't you reckon Father works too hard, Gregory? When he ent outside doing jobs, he's in reading his pamphlets and his electricity manuals. He never rests but when he sleeps.'
'Um. Whatever went into the pond went in with a great smack! There's no sign of anything there now, is there? Not that you can see an inch below the surface.'
'You being a friend of his, Mum thought perhaps as you'd say something to him. He don't go to bed till ever so late—sometimes it's near midnight, and then he's up again at three and a half o'clock. Would you speak to him? You know Mother dassent.'
'Nancy, we ought to see whatever it was that went in the pond. It can't have dissolved. How deep is the water? Is it very deep?'
'Oh, you aren't listening, Gregory Rolles! Bother the old meteor!'
'This is a matter of science, Nancy. Don't you see—'
'Oh, rotten old science, is it? Then I don't want to hear. I'm cold, standing out here. You can have a good look if you like, but I'm going in before I gets froze. It was only an old stone out of the sky, because I heard Father and Bert Neckland agree to it'.
'Fat lot Bert Neckland knows about such things!' he called to her departing back. She had the prettiest ringlets on her neck, but really he didn't want to get involved with a nineteen-year old farmer's daughter. It was a pity more girls didn't believe in Free Love, as did most of his male acquaintances.
He looked down at the dark water. Whatever it was that had arrived last night, it was here, only a few feet from him. He longed to discover what remained of it. Vivid pictures entered his mind: his name in headlines in 'The Morning Post', the Royal Society making him an honorary member, his father embracing him and pressing him to return home.
Thoughtfully, he walked over to the barn. Hens ran clucking out of his way as he entered and stood looking up, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. There, as he remembered it, was a little rowing boat. Perhaps in his courting days old Mr. Grendon had taken his prospective wife out for excursions on the Oast in it. Surely it had not been used in years.
He moved the long ladder over to climb and inspect it, and a cat went flying across the rafters in retreat. The inside of the boat was filthy, but two oars lay there, and it seemed intact. The craft had been hitched to its present position by two ropes thrown over a higher beam; it was a simple enough matter to lower it to the ground.
At that point, Gregory had a moment of prudence for other people's property. He went into the farm and asked Mrs. Grendon if he might embark on the pond with it. That complaisant lady said he might do as he wished, and accordingly he dragged the boat from the barn and launched it in the shallows of the pond. It floated. The boards had dried, and water leaked through a couple of seams, but not nearly enough to deter him. Climbing delicately in among the straw and filth, he pushed off.
From here, the farm, or such of it as he could see, presented a somewhat sinister aspect. The mill loomed above him, dismal and tarred black, only its sails white and creaking in the slight wind. To his other side, the blank-faced end of the barn looked immense and meaningless. Behind it he could see the backs of cowsheds with, beyond them, the raw new brick of the back of Grendon's machine house, where he made electricity. Between barn and mill, he could see the farmhouse, but the upper storey only, because of the lie of the land. Its decrepit humps of thatch and the tall stack of its chimney gave it a forbidding sir. He mused on the strangeness that overcame one from looking at human works from an angle from which they were never designed to be seen, and wondered if there were similar angles in nature. Presumably there were, for behind him where the pond ended were only ragged willows topping reed beds. It looked as if there should have been something else—a little land at least—but no land showed, only the willows and the watery sky.
Now he was over the approximate centre of the pond. He shipped his oars and peered over the side. There was an agitation in the water, and nothing could be seen, although he imagined much.
As he stared over the one side, the boat unexpectedly tipped to the other. Gregory swung round. The boat listed heavily to the left, so that the oars rolled over that way. He could see nothing. Yet—he heard something. It was a sound much like a hound slowly panting. And whatever made it was about to capsize the boat.
'What is it?' he said, as all the skin pricked up his back and skull.
The boat lurched, for all the world as if someone invisible were trying to get into it. Frightened, he grasped the oar, and, without thinking, swept it over that side of the rowing boat.
It struck something solid where there was only air.
Dropping the oar in surprise, he put out his hand. It touched Something yielding. At the same time, his arm was violently struck.
Excerpted from The Saliva Tree and Other Strange Growths by Brian W. Aldiss. Copyright © 1966 Brian Aldiss. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsThe Saliva Tree,
The Lonely Habit,
A Pleasure Shared,
One Role with Relish,
Legends of Smith's Burst,
The Day of the Doomed King,
The Girl and the Robot with Flowers,