Brian Aldiss Essay - Aldiss, Brian (Vol. 5)

Aldiss, Brian (Vol. 5)

Aldiss, Brian 1925–

Aldiss, a British science-fiction anthologist and critic, writes prize-winning novels and short stories, usually on science-fiction themes. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

I find it curious that the overall effect of [the] comic, racy and ingenious novel [A Soldier Erect] is in fact rather depressing, monotonous and ingenuous. It is the second instalment of the life and shames of Horatio Stubbs, whose earlier misdemeanours got themselves so compassionately recorded in The Hand-Reared Boy. Here, in its successor, this self-abused autobiographist has become a Soldier Boy: he is now larger and older but remains vigorously incapable of feeling anything at all except his erect sexual organ. This disheartening fact is rendered all the sadder by reason of the coincidence that most of the other characters in the book—all of them, like Stubbs, soldiers in India, then Burma—happen to be in exactly the same permanently cocked condition. Nothing, except the faculty of indulging in dialogues of inexhaustible and brilliant filthiness, in any way distinguishes these characters from the masturbatory exhibitionists in the monkey cages of the London Zoo….

What is, I think, more interesting is that on pages 96 and 97 either Horatio Stubbs or Brian Aldiss has constructed what must be one of the finest as it is certainly one of the longest sentences in contemporary pornographic literature. It goes to some 800 words. And Aldiss's real gifts as a novelist appear very clearly in the last chapter, which describes the battle for a little hill in Burma. This chapter is a moving and compassionate piece of writing.

George Barker, "Low Feelings," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1971), March 25, 1971, p. 389.

Horatio Stubbs, the hero of ["A Soldier Erect"], first appeared in an earlier book: "The Hand-Reared Boy," and though he is no longer an English student but now an English soldier, he still has primarily one thing on his mind. Whether on embarkation leave in England, on bivouac in India, or in the thick of the Burma campaign of 1944, Stubbs must be the randiest private in the China-Burma-India theater of operation. His zest for whoring declines only during bouts of dysentery.

Along with his priapic location, Stubbs shoulders the burden of being a radio man in some very unpleasant jungle fighting in the mountains of Assam. Mr. Aldiss brings to life this long-dead war, with its vanished mystique and its forgiven and forgotten enemies. He is a military observer who extracts the incongruous humor as well as the horror of the combat soldier's predicament. (pp. 22, 24)

Martin Levin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 22, 1971.

What is important in [science-fiction] is that any situation, however bizarre to present-day conditions, should in fact be logical within its own framework.

It is because of the strangeness of the setting and events in S-F that the author must be doubly careful to ensure that nothing jolts the reader into disbelief. Mr Aldiss tells us that he wished to call this collection of some of his short stories [Best SF Stories] 'The Second Best', and one would not quarrel with that. Brian Aldiss is one of the foremost of British S-F writers, one whose talents are not limited to this type, and this collection might serve to interest those readers who have not ventured previously into the pages of S-F, for the quality of English usage is higher than that of most authors today.

The first story is a mocking reflection of man's behaviour. Machines with different grades of brain have taken over various functions of man, working in the fields; mechanical farm labourers. All perform more or less to perfection, the routine being followed as per instructions, when a snag arises. Warehouse Three is locked and the field-minder cannot obtain the seed potatoes it requires.

All right, so we accept that machines have taken over from men. What I find baffling is why, with machines in control, the warehouse needed locking in the first place? Are we supposed to deduce that the machines are now so advanced as separate intelligences that they are capable of theft? It is at this point that the logic within the framework breaks down, destroying the illusion of reality.

The second story, Not For An Age, is a science-fiction version on a theme written as fantasy in the early years of this century by a woman, May Sinclair. The central character is caught up in one of Blake's eternal circles of damnation in Hell, condemned to ever-lasting torment. May Sinclair's tale, Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched, is, in my opinion, a small masterpiece. Mr Aldiss's is run of the mill.

The last story in the collection. Another Little Boy, deals with the future, a future in which sex, orgies and orgasm loom large, but take second place to the might of world mass spectaculars, with an agency seeking to put on something vast to celebrate the centenary of August 6th, 1944. First they have to find out why the date is significant—the world has forgotten Hiroshima. But when they find out what the date means, they celebrate with a repeat performance. Again, all right. But why is the original A-bomb described as weighing 10,000 tons? This sort of tiny slip can destroy the illusion out of all proportion.

But between the stories mentioned you can safely assume that there will be something to interest, enlighten, even delight. Brian Aldiss is no mean artist. (pp. vii-viii)

John Boland, "In Other Times," in Books and Bookmen (© John Boland 1972), August, 1972.

Science has got out of hand [in Frankenstein Unbound] and the solar system is in the throes of an ecological disaster—hence the myth of Frankenstein has particular symbolic significance. Exploring what constitutes myth and what constitutes reality against an unpredictably shifting temporal background can only be taken as an attempt at seriousness. But nothing can alter the fact that having the driver of an atomic car go back two centuries to meet celebrated literary figures ("Shelley was all electricity where Byron was all beef") is nothing if not extremely silly. There is a lot of hearty punning between the two poets and Mary Shelley cries "Let your sunlight and my moonlight mingle" to the infatuated Bodenland [the protagonist] who [sounds] less like an American from 2020 and more like the ex-literary editor of a provincial British newspaper from half a century earlier. The writing improves in the desolate landscape at the end, where there's less to be embarrassing about, but not before one of the immortal truths of the last century has reasserted itself: the one about the perils of too much hand-rearing. (p. 1377)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced by permission), November 9, 1973.

Brian Aldiss disarmingly subtitles [The Eighty-Minute Hour] "A Space Opera", which should prepare his readers for the buffo element even before they happen on the facetious names of his characters. Glamis Fevertrees, Devlin Carnate and Monty Zoomer take us into a sort of galactic D'Oyly Carte production and, given the author's predilection for referring to literary figures such as Thomas Hardy, we are probably lucky not to have a character named Immanent Will. The plot, like that of most operas, is not easy to follow due to the frequent scene-shifting. Broadly, it concerns a post-holocaust world (of Britain and Ireland nothing has survived save the Koh-i-Noor diamond) whose remaining nations have formed themselves into either the Capitalist-Communist Alliance (no ideological explanation given) or the opposing League of Dissident Nations. There is also a third, more sinister force, the Computer Complex, which is trying to infiltrate and control mankind by means of implanted antennae. Computerized androids and the eighty-minute hour are two more of CC's ambitious projects.

Notwithstanding the intermittent arias for soloists and chorus (in verse), it is a familiar Aldiss libretto … [with] the similes more extravagant than meaningful ("He became silent, as silent as greengage jelly"), the mock-Gothic episodes deriving from Peake and Thurber. But just as familiar are those sudden patches where the writing comes alive: the landing of a spaceship on a forest roof two kilometres above the actual surface of a planet whose ecology is based on hydrogen is particularly imaginative. The difficulty is in knowing whether any of it is intended seriously, perhaps as a satirical if apolitical and simplified projection of present trends. Some of the characters are actually computer analogues, but it is never quite clear which, thus ruling out most human interest.

One is left with what Edmund Crispin referred to as the "plot as hero", and this one seems largely concerned with the question of free will…. If you find that [his] way of portraying determinism sounds familiar, it is probably because, in common with Mr. Aldiss, you have read The Sirens of Titan. But Kurt Vonnegut, for all his sentimentality, did it better; clearer narrative, more serious characters and, above all, no arias.

"Aldiss and Heaven Too," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1974; reproduced by permission), April 5, 1974, p. 357.

The Eighty-Minute Hour is Aldiss's Science's Sensations Satirised, a perverse and reversible logomachia. Life, which would mean more under any other name, feeds precariously off the rapidly shifting surfaces of an hallucogenic Earth. Every possible doom has worked its miracle of transformation, and the planet has become a raddled honeycomb of times and tides. Until we grow our sixth and seventh senses, the ultimate pollution must be that of the time continuum—that well-known invention of the realistic novelist. And within Aldiss's "electronic zoomatigina of confusion," time cracks up and displays all the symptoms of dementia praecox….

The Eighty-Minute Hour is the opera bouffe of the new language, the new Eden from which unhappy silence has been expelled. It is continually surprising with its kollidoscrape of sounds and images, as the movie-go-round goes on for ever and a day. And there are some happy touches: the boardroom of the World Executive Council, the leathery postlude to the Big Bang, "on the walls of which hung among other treasures the only Tiepolo etching to have survived the war. It depicted the flight into Egypt, and was reputed to be more valuable than Egypt itself." Next to it hangs, as the apotheosis of a future hero, an oil painting of Sir Noel Coward. A new design for living. (p. 485)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), April 20, 1974.