Review: The Reluctant Orchid by Arthur C. Clarke

It’s funny yet inspirational when you consider the influence many authors have on one another. I’ve often questioned my own writing when I consider the source of my ideas, but inevitably it all comes down to the influences of these notions and how we choose to interpret and develop those ideas. Sure, what planted the seed is important, but how we chose to nurture and grow the idea is what makes it our own.

The Reluctant Orchid by science fiction icon Arthur C. Clarke is the perfect example influential writing, in more ways than one. Metaphorically, like the growth of literary ideas, the story is about the evolution of a plant. In actuality, the story is also an example of how ideas can grow into greater, even more diabolical lines of plot than from those of the predecessor.

Of Time and Stars 1978The version reviewed here is from the 1978 Puffin Publishing anthology “The Worlds of Arthur C. Clarke – Of Time and Stars” (yes, the same book that I’ve referenced here at Amazing Stories a gazillion times). The complete story text can also be found in various locations around the interweb. The story has not changed since it first appeared in the December 1956 issue of the pulp digest Satellite Science Fiction from Renown Publications, Inc., but sometimes the print version is the best way to experience classic literature.

The Reluctant Orchid is horror story about a clerk named Hercules Keating who spends all of his private time tending to his collection of orchids and cacti. Like the sensitive flowers he adores, the ironically named Hercules has an inferiority complex that tends to cause him to wither and wilt when he is away from his comfortable environment. Inevitably, this timid hero’s bane is a patronizing aunt named Henrietta who does not realize the impact of her demeaning behavior when she looks in on her favorite nephew.

When Hercules receives a rare breed of orchid from “somewhere in the Amazon region,” his interest is piqued as this plant begins to grow and take on animalistic qualities. In a fit of homicidal genius, Hercules decides to lure his aunt into the reaches of the wild orchid with hopes of making his misery go away. But Aunt Henrietta also happens to be a dog breeder with a knack for communicating with animals (ironic, since she does not do so well with her own species), so the plan is foiled when the plant shows its own timidity when facing the suddenly caring woman.

Satellite Science Fiction Dec 1956 cover
Satellite Science Fiction
Dec 1956 cover

The Reluctant Orchid is a cute story with expected irony. The main character uses the plant to destroy his enemy, but in the end, the terrifying plant is more timorous than the one it is supposed to serve. And the evil target turns out to be the character with the most patience and compassion. It’s the kind of story one expects from Clarke. Even though the outcome could be predicted, the conclusion is satisfying and the journey was entertaining.

The story begins with the narration from a character named Harry Purvis, the storyteller of other fictional tales by Clarke in a collection known as Tales from the White Hart (based on a noted London Pub once frequented by fans of literary science fiction). This story within a story technique often adds authenticity to what otherwise would be a fantastical yarn. It could have also been intended to separate Clarke from the story and allow the reader to enjoy the work without any expectations, but over time and with the obvious notoriety, this opinion is no longer valid.

Today, some readers might link the story with the popular 1960 film “The Little Shop of Horrors” written by Charles B. Griffith and directed by Roger Corman. With obvious reasons of similarities, it’s easy to see how the coloration can be made. And seeing how the Griffith tale evolved even further into theatrical plays and other works of film including directorial contributions by Frank Oz, I doubt Clarke would complain about his influence.

amazing_stories_192803On the other end of the spectrum, Clarke may be one to give credit as well when considering the legendary H.G. Wells’ short story “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” (which also can be found in text around the interweb) about a murderous plant. In fact, Clarke’s hero Hercules even notes the similarities of the events to Wells original story. First appearing in the 1895 Methuen publication of the early Wells’ collection titled The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents and later in other publications including the March 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, it is inspiring to see the progression and influence of writers across time and the appreciation of a good story.

The cyclical inspiration of works throughout literature is both amazing and comforting to fandom. Stories like The Reluctant Orchid by Arthur C. Clarke and the works that both preceded and continue to follow it is proof that the flower is just as precious as the seed when it comes to good writing.

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