A Field Guide to Surreal Botany is a slim trade paperback published by Two Cranes Press in August 2008. It contains descriptions of forty seven species of surreal plants and one surreal fungus, describing the habits and ecology of each, along with some description of the plants' discovery and beautiful watercolor illustrations.
Surreal botany is not a well-known field. As the editors of the Field Guide remind us in their introduction, those who devote themselves to the study of fantastical plants must expect to be lampooned, shunned and excommunicated by the scientific community at large. Their discoveries will be denied, their methodology questioned, and their personal habits sharply scrutinized. In many cases, mainstream botanists will accuse them of abusing non-surreal psychoactive plant derivatives.
Many surreal botanists have thus been driven underground, forced to publish their findings as science fiction in order to find a more receptive audience. In the end, however, botany's loss is SF's gain, as the Field Guide to Surreal Botany has been getting generally favorable reviews, and many of its contributors have announced their intent to continue writing speculative fiction of the nonbotanical variety.
I've always liked reading SF presented as nonfiction, whether it's tourist guides to the galaxy, books about gnomes and other secretive species, or reviews of imaginary movies, and the Field Guide to Surreal Botany is a very good example of this sub-genre. It's especially interesting because, unlike most books of this variety, it's actually an anthology with entries written by several dozen authors, so it contains many different approaches to the idea of "surreal botany" and varied writing techniques.
Some of the entries are humorous. Others are very dark. Some are dark and humorous. In some, "surreal" means "fantastic", while others are truly surreal. In a few cases, the account of the plant's discovery is a miniature story in its own right. The quality of the entries varies, and they are not all equally interesting, but there's a very good ratio of hits to misses.
This is a very special kind of fiction, where the author has the bare minimum of space to build a story - most of the entries are only one page long, and none of them are more than two, including a half-page illustration. At this length, you don't have room to do much more than set the stage and plant the seed of a story by suggestion. It's not easy to pull that off, but a surprising number of the Field Guide's contributors manage the trick.
This does mean, though, that this book won't satisfy everyone's SF craving, since we generally expect a bit more narrative in our skiffy. The Field Guide reads more like a book of poetry - scant narrative, more mise en scene and implication. This is not a book for reading cover to cover in one setting. The plants all blend together if you do that. It's better to read one or two entries at a time, thinking about the content that wasn't written and letting your mind play with the possibilities of each plant. Careful readers will also be rewarded by a number of details that are easily overlooked in a casual reading. Even the copyright page and occasional footnotes contain little Easter Eggs that contribute to the experience.
The Field Guide is also a good book for SF and/or botany geeks to share with friends or leave out on coffee tables for unsuspecting guests. Janet Chui's delicate illustrations are wondrously faithful to the tradition of old-fashioned field guides, and the book's design mimics those same guides with a high degree of authenticity. The editors and owners of Two Cranes, Jason Erik Lundberg and Janet Chui, have not just picked out a sampling of neat ideas, but packaged them beautifully, putting together a gorgeous book where everything counts.
All in all, a whimsical little book full of details to spark an SF writer's imagination or amuse a scientifically minded reader. Everyone should have a guide to plants like the Big Yellow Flower of Unnecessarily Obvious Details, Queen Victoria's Bloomers, the Leonidas Bloom and the (Floating) Armor of the Dark Blue Heart.
A final Easter Egg for E2 readers: one of the plants in this book was discovered by one of our fellow noders - and no, it's not me.