Aldiss, Brian W(ilson)
Brian W(ilson) Aldiss 1925-
(Has also written under pseudonyms of Peter Pica and C. C. Shackleton) English short story writer, novelist, critic, historian, editor, autobiographer, nonfiction writer, travel writer, and poet.
An author who has experimented with a variety of literary forms and styles throughout his career, Aldiss is best known as a prolific and popular author and critic of contemporary science fiction. His major contribution to the science fiction field has been to develop a more thoughtful and humane literature that challenges the standard assumptions and beliefs of its audience. In his fiction Aldiss usually focuses on perceptual ambiguities, dualities, and paradoxes not generally addressed by other science fiction authors. Although some critics consider Aldiss's stories pedantic and his characters unconvincing, he is generally praised for his confident, energetic style and the depth and scope of his ideas. Aldiss is also regarded as an observant critic of the science fiction genre, and has published numerous essays, reviews, and columns both under his own name and under the pseudonym of C. C. Shackleton. His Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1973) is considered a definitive study of the genre, serving as both an introduction to the field and as a reference volume for enthusiasts.
Aldiss was born in East Dereham, Norfolk, England, the only son of Stanley and Elizabeth May Aldiss. Aldiss's experiences as a soldier in the Far East during World War II have had a strong impact on his fiction. Jungle settings and the sense of exile he felt upon returning to post-war England are reflected in much of his work. Aldiss began his career by writing what he termed "ordinary fiction," but he soon became interested in a variety of genres, including moralistic comedy, poetry, occult literature, detective fiction, and science fiction. His first mainstream book, The Brightfount Diaries (1955), written under the pseudonym of Peter Pica, is a collection of interrelated short stories about the domestic life of a bookshop assistant.
Aldiss is known for his continual innovations in literary form, style, and content. Much of Aldiss's early science fiction originally appeared as short stories in various magazines. Aldiss received a Hugo Award for most promising new author for the collection The Canopy of Time (1959; published in the United States as Galaxies Like Grains of Sand). This book contains his most popular and widely anthologized short story, "Who Can Replace a Man?," which chronicles the end of humanity and the ascendance of machines. Aldiss received a Hugo Award for best short fiction for the short stories he later revised as the novel Hothouse (1962). This work, which is set in a jungle of giant plants and insects, relates the adventures of dwarfish humans attempting to survive in a hostile environment. Aldiss also won a Nebula Award for best novella for The Saliva Tree, the title story of The Saliva Tree and Other Strange Growths (1966). In this tribute to H. G. Wells, a space machine arrives on an English farm in order to fatten animals and humans for alien consumption. The Moment of Eclipse (1972), another of Aldiss's well-regarded collections of short stories, is a diverse blend of science fiction, comedy, horror, and mainstream literature. In the dystopian short novel Enemies of the System: A Tale of Homo Uniformis (1978), a futuristic military elite is faced with an impending need for evolutionary adaptation and must decide whether or not to defy the fixed beliefs of their totalitarian system. The stories in Aldiss's Last Orders and Other Stories (1977), including "Live? Our Computers Will Do That for Us" and "The Aperture Moment," are experimental in both style and content, focusing on subjects not commonly addressed in science fiction, including human emotion, psychology, and art. In his 1993 collection, A Tupolev Too Far, Aldiss continues the literary experimentation he began in Last Orders; the stories include "Better Morphosis," in which a cockroach is transformed into Franz Kafka, and the title story, in which a Russian airplane enters another timeline.
Aldiss's literary experimentation has at times been poorly received by critics, who have castigated him for treating what they characterize as tasteless, nonliterary subjects, and have faulted him for focusing too heavily upon stylistic concerns to the exclusion of fully developed narratives and characters. Tom Hosty, for example, has judged some of the stories in Last Orders self-indulgent and prone to "the final, sterile triumph of mere expertise, of technique over matter." Despite such criticisms, Aldiss is widely respected as an author who is unafraid to explore new ideas rather than continue to write according to reliable literary formulas. Richard Matthews has admired Aldiss's "unique and challenging imagination," and David Wingrove has asserted that, in his works, Aldiss "has omitted the once statutory pages of clinical nuts-and-bolts description of 'process' and instead gives us the poetic 'meaning': dense, compact and lacking any superficial cluttering of the old [science fiction] genre. The 'sense of wonder' remains in that brief and vivid description, refreshing because of its lack of explanation."
Space, Time and Nathaniel 1957
* The Canopy of Time 1959
No Time Like Tomorrow 1959
The Airs of Earth 1963
† Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian Aldiss 1965
The Saliva Tree, and Other Strange Growths 1966
Intangibles Inc., and Other Stories: Five Novellas 1969
Neanderthal Planet 1969
The Moment of Eclipse 1971
‡ The Book of Brian Aldiss 1972
Brothers of the Head (novella) 1977
Last Orders and Other Stories 1977
Enemis of the System: A Tale of Homo Uniformis (novella) 1978
New Arrivals, Old Encounters 1979
Foreign Bodies 1981
Seasons in Flight 1984
Best SF Stories of Brian W. Aldiss 1988
Science Fiction Blues: The Show That Brian Aldiss Took on the Road 1988
Man in His Time: The Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian W. Aldiss 1989
A Tupolev Too Far 1993
Other Major Works
The Brightfount Diaries (novel) 1955
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SOURCE: "On Being a Literary Pariah," in Extrapolation, Vol. 17, No. 2, May, 1976, pp. 168-71.
[In the following essay, Aldiss comments on his innovative and often controversial view that science fiction is "only a department of fantasy" fiction.]
And of course literary pariahs don't hang around the perimeter howling to be let in. They're daring everyone inside to come out . . .
Science fiction does not form the future; it is the future which forms sf.
A truism to begin with, to lull everyone into a false sense of security. All is change—an eternal truth always having to be relearned, often with tears, and re-emphasised in this present decade with the shifting power-balances of the world, such as the enormous growth of Soviet military power, the steady ascendancy of China, the Power Crisis (linked with the new-found political consciousness of the Arab World), the events in Africa, the rise of Brazil, coupled with the slow decline of Europe. None of these events was exactly predicted by sf, but they will shape its future.
Science fiction reflects the present.
It reflects the past also: a task of digestion undertaken by all literature. It is unique in that, still being in part magazine-based, it reflects its own past. The spaceships and telepathic powers which rattle around in the fiction of 1976 are no different from the same...
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SOURCE: Aldiss Unbound: The Science Fiction of Brian W. Aldiss, Borgo Press, 1977, 64 p.
[In the following excerpt, Mathews examines the thematic and stylistic characteristics of Aldiss's major works, including the author's use of satire and irony.]
[Aldiss] finds the boundaries of simple popularity a limitation, and clearly wishes to venture beyond these limits into the uncharted waters of the experimental and esoteric.
Like any prophet, or any writer, he is concerned with the language he uses to communicate—with words that shift and play games, with words that challenge and reveal. Committed to growth and change, he also steadfastly and painfully insists on examining his own nature, his moral stature, and his place in the universe. . . .
[In his remarkable first collection of short stories, Space, Time and Nathaniel (1957),] we recognize the unique and challenging imagination which unwinds through countless Aldiss plots. Space and time are of paramount concern. He begins with the abstract theoretical foundations which are the assumptions behind our perceptions of reality. Added to this conceptual frame of reference is the individual perspective which gives it meaning—Nathaniel. Aldiss's world constantly stresses the limits and implications of relativity. The individual is more clearly revealed when set against the boundless perspectives of space....
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SOURCE: "Thinking in Fuzzy Sets: The Recent SF of Brian W. Aldiss," in Pacific Quarterly, Vol. IV, No. 3, July, 1979, pp. 288-94.
[In the following essay, Wingrove examines several of Aldiss's works from the middle to late 1970s, including Enemies of the System and several short stories, and illustrates how Aldiss departs from the mainstream of science fiction and creates a more "literary" subgenre.]
Whilst the mainstream has shuffled gently away from the secure paths of 'romantic' realism and now draws from the armoury of sf visions for its literary weaponry, several of sf's tried and truest practitioners have made their presence known in the mainstream. The accolade given to Michael Moorcock, in the form of the 1977 Guardian Fiction Award for The Condition Of Musak, is a sign of the times. The boundaries have blurred and—in Aldiss' words—we have now to "think in fuzzy sets".1
Within the sf genre there is a growing consciousness that the things for which sf has formerly been valued by its initiates—as social barometer, as oracle and preparation for change—are no longer exclusive to itself.
It is, thankfully, no longer a 'crank' literature, though in some respects its new-found respectability threatens its characteristic exuberance and audacity (of both style and idea). The competition of its more respected and (in many cases) more...
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SOURCE: A review of New Arrivals, Old Encounters, in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Vol. 59, No. 1, July, 1980, pp. 44-52.
[In the following excerpted review of New Arrivals, Old Encounters, Disch offers a mixed assessment of the stories, arguing that the quality of Aldiss's writing is uneven and the stories in the collection range from very good to extremely poor.]
[Of the twelve stories in Brian Aldiss's New Arrivals, Old Encounters], three are among his most accomplished, another three or four are middling-to-good, a few are only so-so, and one, "Space for Reflection" is godawful—full of lame jokes, woozy philosophizing, slipshod prose, and interpolated fables of smug whimsicality, all thrown into a shapeless picaresque bundle of Candide as told to Kurt Vonnegut. Not only is it as bad as all that, but Aldiss knows it is, even as he writes it. Witness this bit of dialogue between Dumb Dragon and the hero, who is touring the universe in search of truth:
"I really must tell you" [says Dumb Dragon] "one of my latest animal stories. Do you mind very much?"
Jeffris enjoyed the man's company. "Make me like it."
"That's good. Story-tellers are brave men—they always battle with the listener's wish to dislike what they [sic] hear, for the listener wishes to be ruler of the...
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SOURCE: A review of Foreign Bodies, in Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Review, No. 7, September, 1982, p. 16.
[In the following review, Smith notes the Asian emphasis in Foreign Bodies, and maintains that the collection is comprised of "minor stories from a major writer. "]
Brian Aldiss claims that he is the first person to introduce the East into SF. Since his service in Asia during World War I, he has had a passionate interest in the region which he has expressed not only in his SF but also in two of his three novels about Horatio Stubbs, A Soldier Erect (1971) and A Rude Awakening (1978). The latter novel, Aldiss says in an author's note in Foreign Bodies, has a close resemblance to The Malacia Tapestry (1976): "Fantasy is reality in fancy dress."
The stories in Foreign Bodies and Aldiss's decision to have them published in Singapore show his continued fascination with the fantasy and the reality of S.E. Asia. All but one of the six stories are set in the region; four of the six were written especially for this book. Three stories are fables, three are non-SF, realistic stories.
The collection is unified by a concern for finding the emotional truth in a part of the world where everything seems to be a deception. In the title story a displaced European who has returned to Sumatra 30 years after his...
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SOURCE: "Brothers of the Head: Brian W. Aldiss's Psychological Landscape," in Spectrum of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Sixth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, edited by Donald Palumbo, Greenwood Press, 1985, pp. 119-26.
[In the following essay, Collings analyzes the novella Brothers of the Head, revealing the psychological elements of the narrative and lauding the book's structure and treatment of the human condition.]
In a 1968 letter, Brian Aldiss described the declining state of the West:
It's a curious climate over here at present—people very uneasy, with devaluation and now the withdrawals from Singapore, etc.; suddenly it's as if we hardly knew the world. The next few years look as if they could be tough. It seems the States also has similar feelings of unease over Vietnam. With that, and with de Gaulle ruling with his dead hands in Europe, it seems as if the western world is in for a crisis of confidence or something similarly uncomfortable.1
This image of a "crisis of confidence" developed graphically in Aldiss's novels of the early seventies and through the eighties. To culminate (to this point, at least) in Life in the West and the Helliconia volumes, works explicitly connected with the malaise Aldiss perceives as endemic in Western culture. Yet in a sense, his...
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SOURCE: "The Short Fiction," in Brian Aldiss, Starmont House, 1986, pp. 78-82.
[In the following essay, Collings surveys Aldiss's short fiction, discussing the author's approach to and handling of the various settings, themes, and subjects in his works.]
While much of Aldiss' energy has been directed toward novels, he has also published over three-hundred short stories, making him one of the most prolific authors in the field. While many of his short stories are inaccessible to most readers (for example, a number appeared in the British New Worlds SF, which is quite difficult to find), Aldiss published others as parts of collections. Beginning with Space, Time and Nathaniel in 1957, Aldiss has published No Time Like Tomorrow (1959), The Canopy of Time (1959), Galaxies Like Grains of Sand (1960), Equator (1961), The Airs of Earth (1963), Starswarm (1964), Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian W. Aldiss (1966; reprinted as But Who Can Replace a Man?), The Saliva Tree and Other Strange Growths (1966), Intangibles, Inc., and Other Stories (1969), A Brian Aldiss Omnibus (1969), Neanderthal Planet (1970), The Moment of Eclipse (1970), The Book of Brian Aldiss (1972; reprinted as The Comic Inferno), Last...
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SOURCE: "Anecdotes and Self-Satire," in The Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 6, No. 3, February, 1986, pp. 13-15.
[In the following analysis of The Pale Shadow of Science and Seasons in Flight, Herbert praises Aldiss's writing, which she characterizes as "exciting, mature, insightful, and filled with welcome surprises."]
Although one is nonfiction and the other a collection of short stories, Brian Aldiss' latest books will satisfy a common appetite. Both volumes offer a feast for those who have a taste for highly inventive language and a clever turn of phrase blended with clear prose that makes thought-provoking sense. Sometimes the fare is so delicious that one pictures Aldiss sitting before his typewriter smacking his lips at his own words.
Both Pale Shadow of Science and Seasons in Flight are anthologies representing recent work by the author of the Helliconia trilogy. The Pale Shadow of Science is a collection of essays while Seasons in Flight is a short-story anthology, but they are related by more than a flair for clear and clever writing. In both, the author shows himself to be adept at skewering all the things he cares about. His prey includes society, the human condition, the warlike nature of man, science fiction as Big Business, academe, and even himself. Whether it is an essay about the latest developments in...
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SOURCE: "Last Orders and First Principles for the Interpretation of Aldiss's Enigmas," in Reflections on the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fourth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, edited by Michael R. Collings, Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 69-78.
[In the following essay, Smith explains how Aldiss's "Enigma" stories in Last Orders provide insight into his theories of science fiction.]
Brian Aldiss writes himself into the last part of "Journey to the Heartland," the concluding story in Last Orders, as the subject of the third interview with characters and author about the story. As Author, he offers a pair of alternate endings: one a "sad . . . non-sf ending," the other a happy ending appropriate to science fiction.1 He comments, apropos of the second ending, that many science fiction stories end that way: "the screwy ideas, instead of being certifiable, turn out to mirror true reality. The hero is proved right and everyone else is proved wrong, from Aristotle onwards. Paranoia triumphs, logic is defeated. That's one of the reasons why outsiders believe sf to be a load of nonsense" (p. 220). When Aldiss-the-Interviewer objects that the character whose madness would thus triumph is only interpreting dreams, Aldiss-the-Author responds that "interpretation is everything—and not merely in my story" (p. 221).
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SOURCE: A review of A Tupolev Too Far, in Locus, Vol. 31, No. 4, October, 1993, p. 57.
[In the following excerpt, Wolfe praises A Tupolev Too Far, commending Aldiss for taking literary risks and experimenting with style and content.]
Ask a successful novelist why he or she spends time and energy on far less lucrative short stories and you'll likely get a string of high-minded sentiments about how this is an opportunity to experiment, explore new techniques, and escape the constrictions of the mass market. Everybody says this, but Brian Aldiss actually does it. Readers who fear that Forgotten Life and Remembrance Day—both fine, shapely mainstream novels—represent a taming of Aldiss' legendary imagination should be pleased, if not actually taken aback, at the stories in A Tupolev Too Far. With the exception of a short piece from a 1967 Punch, all of the dozen stories in the book date from 1989 or later, and they take risks that a writer of Aldiss' stature clearly doesn't need to take—stories embedded in other stories, dreamlike stories that take off at right angles to themselves, stories in the form of glossaries or alphabets, hommages to other writers and texts. For the most part, these experiments work brilliantly if often mysteriously; Aldiss' narrative authority is such that he convinces you he knows exactly what he's doing, even when...
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Aldiss, Margaret. The Work of Brian W. Aldiss: An Annotated Bibliography and Guide. San Bernardino: Borgo Press, 1992, 360 p.
Book-length, annotated bibliography compiled by Aldiss's wife, which includes two autobiographical essays by Brian Aldiss.
Herbert, Rosemary. "Brian W. Aldiss: Maverick." The Bloomsbury Review 6, No. 3 (February 1986): 12-14.
Provides biographical details about Aldiss's life.
Griffin, Brian, and David Wingrove. Apertures: A Study of the Writings of Brian W. Aldiss. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1984, 261 p.
Book-length study of Aldiss's works through 1984.
Additional coverage of Aldiss's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, First Revision, Vols. 5-8; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 5, 28; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 5, 14, 40; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 14; Discovering Authors: Novelists Module ; Major 20th-century Writers ; and Something about the Author, Vol. 34.
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