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Aldiss, Brian 1925–
Aldiss is a British science fiction writer, novelist, critic, short story writer, essayist, and editor. His Billion Year Spree, a critical history of science fiction, confirmed his continuing efforts to present science fiction as a serious literary genre. He received the Hugo Award in 1962 for Hothouse and a Nebula in 1966 for The Saliva Tree. A non-science fiction portrayal of English middle-class life is presented in the first two novels of a planned series: The Hand-Reared Boy and A Soldier Erect. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
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The failure of most recent s.f. novels to say anything new and important, or even very interesting, makes a novel like Brian W. Aldiss's Vanguard from Alpha, flawed as it is, worthy of note.
Aldiss writes pointed, dry, highly stylized short stories that pack a great deal into a small space. His novels, those we have seen so far, are pot-boilers. (p. 243)
But even in his comic-book writing, Aldiss is more perceptive than most. The final solution of his puzzle is ingenious and reasonably satisfying; his future world has at least touches of reality, because it's as idiotically patched-together and complicated as our own….
If this writer ever does a novel with his right hand, it will be something worth waiting for. (p. 244)
Damon Knight, "Decadent," in his In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction (copyright © 1956, 1967, by Damon Knight; reprinted by courtesy of Advent: Publishers, Inc.), revised edition, Advent, 1967, pp. 241-47.∗
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[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. (p. 4)
[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. Science fiction was the ideal form for Aldiss, who later observes in the same introduction, "The corsets of conformity pinch on all sides." Aldiss needs the infinite space that science fiction allows him, and yet he continually brings us back to ponder the dignity and worthiness of a single human being.
His fascination with personal insight and character quirks adds liveliness to even the most abstract tale, and one of the strengths of these early stories is their characterizations, which are far richer than those usually encountered in the pulp fiction of those days.
Coupled with his theoretical framework of space-time continuum, and the creation of believable and rounded human characters, is Aldiss's delight and skill with literary style, with the words themselves. He purposefully enriched his writing with stylistic techniques capable of adding depth to his fiction. For example, as a gesture to the poetic career he had imagined for himself, he arranged the contents page of this first collection so that the titles of the three types of story are laid out in octet and sextet form, like a sonnet. There are fourteen titles. (pp. 5-6)
Aldiss's concern for structure includes both the macrocosm and microcosm, and in this group of stories he manifests his structural skill in small details (like the arrangement of the contents page) as well as in the overall progression of the stories themselves and their organization into a larger whole…. Among the best stories are "Dumb Show" and "The Failed Men" (also called "Ahead"). Both of these demonstrate quite clearly a multi-level awareness of structure which was part of Aldiss's science fiction from the first. (p. 6)
In the skillfully enigmatic stories of Space, Time and Nathaniel, Aldiss establishes the terrain he will explore. His concerns with space, time, individual character, growth (change), and language remain prominent throughout the rest of his writing…. [The collection] demonstrates a remarkable mastery of form, and an original discovery of worthy subjects. (p. 7)
Most of Aldiss's earliest work was written in shorter forms…. All of the most exciting developments in the short story during the late '50s and throughout the '60s took place in science fiction, and Aldiss was among the ground-breakers…. Even in the years 1964–67, though he had mastered an original novel technique quite unlike the structure of his short stories, he continued to exercise his talents in abbreviated and concise narratives…. It is important to recognize Aldiss's complete mastery of the short story and novella forms. When he first discovered the French anti-novel, and fully developed his own complex novelistic structures in Report on Probability A (written in 1962), the book from which one can date his full emergence as a novelist, Aldiss found that the linked stories of Hothouse had already begun to evolve in that direction. He recognized in the French New Novel, particularly Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy and Michel Butor's Passing Time, the perfect direction for his own next step. His publishers didn't agree, however, and his novel didn't see print until 1968. (p. 8)
Satire in [The Primal Urge (1961) is] indicative of an evolution in Aldiss's writing techniques and thematic material. Initially approaching his themes from a serious perspective, he now probes and cross examines the motifs until he begins to develop a self-consciously ironic appreciation for his own intensity; suddenly he turns what were serious stylistic questions into humorous entertainment. (p. 11)
In his continuing explorations of the powers and functions of language, Aldiss treats both the external effects of communication—as evident, for instance in "Dumb Show," or the circumstances of Non-Stop—and the internal basis for communication: "Thought. Thought: that field of force still to be analysed. Thought: as inseparable from a higher being as gravity from a planet." It is not as if he has divorced language and communication from thought in his earlier published books, but here he specifically moves to explore the internal mental landscape from the very first sentence. The first-person narrator—the Nul Wattol Forlie—speaks in the opening pages, putting us close to the individual consciousness, and revealing the interior distances between characters. Thought is as necessary to proper performance of a translator's functions as idea or theme is necessary to successful fiction. The thoughtful, problem-ridden translator of "The Failed Men" is fleshed out in another guise in "The Interpreter," and one can almost hear Aldiss himself in the "I" of the book: "Thought…. It wraps around me, as my senses go about their endless job of turning all the external world into symbols." The issue is clear from the start: "I can know no external thing without its being touched—perhaps in some unguessable way transmuted—by my thought … was it real, or a misinterpretation in my mind." Even the physical perspective of this Nul reminds us of Aldiss's technique as a writer: "I lie flat on the wide wall by the old harbour, gazing up at the universe." Like the best authors of fantastic fiction, Aldiss succeeds in treating convincing action in a vast universe by making the familiar objects—single characters, or a comfortably recognizable old wall by a harbor—reassuringly present to lend an air of authenticity and reality to the fiction. (pp. 11-12)
More strongly than any of the earlier novels, Urge juxtaposes the primal and futuristic, using irony and humor to make a delightful game of the whole situation. Aldiss's light-handed "Author's Note" is an apology for using real people (like Aldous Huxley) and real brand-names … in what is obviously a piece of fiction, one not "really" about modern-day Britain ("Even the weather is too good to be true"). The settings for most of his earlier fiction are far from home, but this location is at "once unreal and typically English." Why has this reality suddenly moved so close to what we recognize?
We can know little of what Aldiss intended to accomplish in the shift, but we can discuss the effects. In the first place, he was attempting something new in style and tone, something fresh in science fiction. Behind this novel is the special tradition of English satire. It is part of a widely shared pleasure in tongue-in-cheek extravagance which runs from Jonathan Swift through Evelyn Waugh (The Loved One) to Anthony Burgess and Brian Aldiss. The closest parallels to this mode of science fiction are Orwell's Animal Farm, and Burgess's The Eve of St. Venus—in fact, Burgess and Aldiss have many things in common as contemporary writers of English science fiction, including the British touch for satire, and a passionate influence from James Joyce. There are similar elements in Orwell's 1984 or Huxley's Brave New World, but Aldiss hits closer to home with this double satire touching Britain's economic doldrums, the new permissiveness and the functions of power in the welfare state's relations with its public and foreign nations. In the ironic frame of mind, it is difficult to see clearly just what the primal urge is: sex or power, passion or reason, body or soul. (pp. 13-14)
[No Time Like Tomorrow (1959) and Who Can Replace a Man? (1966)] are collections of multi-faceted stories with common thematic motifs, each maintaining its own integrity. In both Starswarm and Galaxies Like Grains of Sand, Aldiss … has bound [his stories] together with a linked narrative commentary which is distracting and artificial. The running narration of the bridge material spoils the individual character of the stories, and by trying to unify them artificially, Aldiss has only placed them like fine diamonds in overly ornate settings: the conspicuous surrounding prevents a clear view of the stones.
The best practitioners of SF short story construction have created innovations in two directions: they have developed forms in which traditional demands of characterization can be flagrantly violated in favor of strong imaginative action and theme, with thematic material often incorporated in a manner which earlier would have been found more appropriate to the essay than to fiction; and, they have enlarged the conception of setting and space to include interior space, exploring psychological space in geographical narrative terms which unite what might be called "stream of consciousness" techniques with intensely involving narrative story lines to create curious crossbreeds and hybrids.
Though Aldiss has stories which explore both terrains, he has made particular contributions to expanding SF possibilities interiorly. When these efforts first reached public attention in the mid-1960's, along with those of other British SF writers, the movement came to be known collectively as the "New Wave." Although this term has been over-worked, it is still useful as a designation of the new narrative approach to stream-of-consciousness fiction, an approach which makes an interior wave in Aldiss's best short stories. The wave comes in on the tide of a new sea discovered by the three authors of short fiction who seem to be obvious influences on Aldiss: Poe, Kafka and Joyce. From Poe he inherits the ability to center fiction on mystery, particularly on abnormal perspectives and situations, containing the whole within an ironically rational point of view. From Kafka, Aldiss has adopted the habit of writing in realistic universals. Often, the realities of Aldiss's fiction are achieved not through details of setting or character, but through the contact with convincing universals: a form of symbolic writing, close to allegory, in which characters and incidents seem to take on the quality of symbols for less tangible forces and principles. While Kafka explored the similarity between man and animals or insects, Aldiss carries this a step forward by comparing man to vegetables and machines. Like Kafka, he is concerned with individual man's relationship to large and intricate systems—governments, bureaucracies, armies, and so forth. From Joyce he adopts a great sensitivity to, and playfulness with, language and sound, the interior monologue (which Aldiss blends with active narration and dialogue), and the story moment referred to in Joyce's works as "epiphany," a sudden, central flash of understanding that bursts upon a reader, not in a climax of action, but of consciousness. In addition, he provides from book to book an evolving portrait of an artist, and attempts to unify morality, theology, and art.
In 1962 Aldiss published what some critics still regard as his most important work, Hothouse. Sections of the book had already appeared in various periodicals, but the finished novel achieves a whole much greater than any of the parts. The successful wedding of these smaller units into a unified creation shows great structural skill, and a significant advance over his thematically-assembled short story collections. Hothouse documents a progression from Blakean innocence through experience to a higher experience. By turns, it denies and then affirms individual experience: but it remains primarily a novel of opposing cosmic forces rather than a story of an individual character. In fact, Aldiss makes a point of this, particularly in the earlier parts of the novel, where he builds sympathy for a string of individual characters, only to kill them off immediately. This repeated plot device gradually brings home both the distinct individuality of life, and the universal principle of arbitrary death. Exercising his ironic sense of time, Aldiss begins the novel in the far future, with a primitive race of tiny humans in a vegetable world which seems at first more primeval than modern. The thrust of the tale, with its quest-structure, is to delineate a world of dichotomies taking the form of numerous either/or choices: life vs. death, good vs. evil, mind vs. body, animal vs. vegetable, heat vs. cold, light vs. dark; and, having established these dichotomies, to explore the middle ground, the area where one becomes the other, where life becomes death or the past becomes the future. It is no accident that so much of the crucial action near the end of the novel takes place in that no man's land of gray between the unfailingly dark and the eternally light parts of this futuristic world. Nor is it an accident that [the central character] Gren opts at the end of the book to remain where he was born, having come through his learning process to know it more fully and love it more deeply. (pp. 17-19)
Stylistically, Aldiss uses a beautifully shifting form, imitating the shifting realities of the novel; and the gradually maturing consciousness of Gren. The book begins simply, almost as a child's story, with uncomplicated thoughts and direct action. By the end of the book, we have moved through two very complex cerebral organisms, the morel and Sodal Ye. Form imitates content in an altogether pleasing manner. (p. 19)
Gren experiences something like an acid trip, an uncanny piece of writing that closely evokes mystical experience, overwhelming even the rationality of the morel. Aldiss links abstract and concrete impressions in such a way that the words constantly seem to mean more than they say, implying something just beyond our grasp. It is characteristic of Aldiss to include not only mind-boggling visions of space and time, but also an unparaphrastic dimension of experience which can only be labeled mystical. This vision is yet another reality, a true and intense one, and comprises one of the most glorious of human capabilities, a brief glimpse of universal unity and eternity. Aldiss may have attempted a paraphrase of this mystical perception through his awareness of the drug experience—hallucination was another dimension associated with the New Wave—but it remains for Aldiss, more than any of the other writers of the '60s and '70s, to make the profound connections between such experience, the scientific understanding of Heisenberg and Einstein, and the traditional religious and mythical frameworks which have striven to reveal something of this same transcendent human potential. The interior monolog provided here is close to the experience of ecstasy recorded by Christian saints in their union with God. It reaches its absurd extreme in the later hallucinatory novel, Barefoot in the Head.
In this instance, Gren returns to normal reality because the transformation he nearly undergoes is reserved for the mindless vegetal forms which fill the Hothouse Earth. Nonetheless, the experience makes a deep and abiding impression and colors the rest of the book…. Head and tail, beginning and end, past and future: the extremes are shown not as opposites, but as identities in the cyclical process of creative change, a process which is Aldiss's bedrock of belief. It is a faith which affirms the Christian paradox that "in my end is my beginning."
The identity of beginning and end is a part of the heat and cold imagery running through the novel. Temperature is, of course, a natural function of setting and environment, and something one could expect to find in practically any story by Aldiss; from Equator onward, however, temperature becomes a particularly important factor. Even the title, Hothouse, proclaims the importance to Aldiss of this imagery. (pp. 21-2)
Is Hothouse science fiction? The novel is short on outright scientific explanations, and there are mystical realms left totally unexplained. The appearance of the philosophical and priestly Sodal Ye at the book's end moves the fiction further outside the boundaries of science. Sodal Ye is more a prophet than a scientist, despite his considerable practical and scientific knowledge. (p. 22)
The threat of extinction looms over the entire human race, rather than any alien population, in Aldiss's Greybeard. Here, as in much of Aldiss's fiction, the men of the future have suffered the effects of globally devastating radiation. Though published in 1964, this novel is still valid as a commentary upon continued flirtation with nuclear weapons…. The world of Aldiss's novel depicts a future inhabited by senior citizens, who as a result of radiation have lost the ability to reproduce. There are no children. In addition, civilization has moved rapidly backward…. Man has entered a second period of superstition and conflict in Aldiss's world, similar in many respects to the Dark Ages. (p. 26)
Hothouse deals with a vegetal profusion of growth, and with human efforts to survive the overwhelming force of nature; Greybeard presents a strongly cyclical view of nature, a picture of secession, of changing domination, and a grand parade of dominant forms alternating with one another. Although the central problem in the narrative is that there will be no new human generation, the repeated images of life's revolving cycles suggest a force at work throughout the universe for renewing existence, one more powerful than whatever man-made forces may oppose the continuation of life. (p. 27)
Based on a short story with a macabre pun-title, "Skeleton Crew," Earthworks  begins with the strongest death images and feelings of alienation yet to appear in [Aldiss's] published work. Cut off from any link with the land and nearly alone on an automated ship, the characters are hostile to one another as well as out of touch with their environment…. The first scene of the novel is unforgettable, as a dead man slowly comes toward the ship, apparently walking across the water. Religious implications are clearly mixed with the heritage of technology which forms part of the futuristic environment. Here is an apparent miracle which echoes Christ, but in Aldiss's tale, there is no resurrection; the dead man is horribly dead, and offers no hope of salvation. The book begins "on the day of this new dead man," and the personal associations of the book are reinforced by the fact that it is told in first person, making it quite close to the individual consciousness of its narrator, Knowle Noland. The name suggests uprooted and alienated knowledge: knowing, with no land to connect it or oneself to. The narrative style is full of pain and alienation. The voice is excruciatingly self-conscious, and aware of "the imprisonment words bring." The narrator is bound by his name, his knowledge, his head. He is imprisoned by his job—as narrator and crew member—on a vessel with a skeleton crew to look after the automatic machinery which does all the work, adrift on one of those "great grey ships sailing the seas and rarely touching land."
Through a kind of hallucination, we are brought to the central focus of the book. "The Travellers," we are told, "represented some sort of initiative for the future in a continent full of dead ends" (my italics).
It is in this section that we begin to witness the resurrection of the book, a life-restoring creative practice of an ancient art: "You need courage because writing is confessing, and my biggest confession of all must come in this section. I love the Travellers, yet I betrayed Jess!… I have performed a sort of resurrection of this ancient art form." The narrator becomes a vehicle for Aldiss to confess his inner instincts as a serious writer, attempting to build a vital literature in the 20th century, when the book has already become old-fashioned. (pp. 30-1)
In his selection of a literary approach, Noland picked as his primary one the journey archetype which has run from Odysseus to the Time Traveller. But one cannot actually become a Traveller until one has been sterilized; "A pregnancy was as good as a death sentence to a travelling woman." To be merely a traditional Traveller for Aldiss (the writer) would be sterile and uncreative. Earthworks is a prelude to a period of new stylistic fertility in both form and narrative structure. Even its self-conscious narrator-without-a-country, subject to hallucinations which cripple and reveal his life, prefigures the hallucinogenic prose of Probability A and Barefoot in the Head. (p. 31)
The narrative is a type of picaresque, a series of linked occurrences held together by common thematic concerns, common images, and the personality of the narrator. Highly episodic, it uses cinematic techniques in "fading out," and making associational "cuts" from one scene to the next. As the narrator struggles in the verbal medium, he feels the enormous difficulty of communication…. Increasingly, imagistic and thematic materials are thrown together into a context of hallucination, an uncertain sense of reality, an awareness of scale so immense that it is impossible to obtain a comfortable perspective; clear antipathies are difficult to discern. The infinity of exterior space is mirrored by an equally unpredictable and infinite interior space.
Illusion and reality struggle throughout the novel, perhaps personified by the mysterious "Figure" which haunts the narrator from the very first pages, and increases in impact as the book progresses…. Aldiss at his most alienated, at his most death-preoccupied, has created a narrator philosophically and emotionally at sea, who desperately grounds his ship…. (p. 32)
Earthworks succeeds in wedding the psychological and metaphysical realities in a convincing and compelling narrative structure which sets in motion new direction for Aldiss's SF. It faces the difficulties of language, psychology, and metaphysics, insisting that they should be a serious part of the science fiction writer's explorations. The voice of the narrator reads convincingly as a voice for Aldiss himself: "Philosophy is not my strong point, though I have tried many a time to make sense of my life, and of the killing drag of history, but I tried then to review the phantasies that my sickness had inflicted on me. Some I have set down in this narrative. At the time, they held as firm a place in my understanding as parts of the real world, and the continents of delusion which I had been forced to march were no more fantastic than Africa or England." As Noland waits with the rifle to kill the only leader able to preserve a precarious political order in the world, he is about to unleash the irrational forces of war; as Aldiss seeks to explore human significance amidst alienation, he is about to unleash the psychedelic forces of creative madness. (p. 34)
Time-warps and folds enhance the narrative pleasures of [An Age (1967), also published as Cryptozoic (1968)]. Bush, a master mind-traveller, is coerced into the service of the Mind Travel Police Patrol, and then turns counter-agent when he is persuaded to serve with subversives and revolutionaries. The twists of the adventure mirror the intricacies of time, and rational understanding assumes the aspect of theoretical gamesmanship, in which Aldiss shows himself a master, spinning and unspinning whole theoretical constructions of the temporal universe. It is interesting and appropriate to note the lack of technological hardware in this tale. An Age explores the abstract in concrete terms, and echoes the concern for a metaphysical dimension expressed in Earthworks. Essentially a theoretical and conceptual book, the novel presents a future society in 2093 becoming increasingly non-material, in both literal and figurative terms, as more and more people escape into the realm of mind-travel…. The problem is largely a question of escapism versus purpose and intent, and like the artist-hero, this aspect reflects a critical awareness of struggle over the purposes of SF…. Aldiss comes down clearly on the side of those who [are concerned with] purposeful creative and intellectual growth. (p. 36)
[With Report on Probability A (1968)] Aldiss has succeeded in creating an English novel as fresh in both style and conception as anything produced by the flurry of activity surrounding the much-touted anti-novel. His book is distinctly English, with dialog which approaches the fine ear of his gifted contemporary Harold Pinter. And the careful rendering of detail, which has so long been an effective device for lending reality to science fiction, is perfectly at home in this slice into parallel worlds. We confront a hall of mirrors, a corridor not of time (as in An Age) but of probability.
Halfway through the novel, the perspective is still not clear. One has encountered innumerable reflections, but has yet to distinguish the mirror from the image being reflected. One is led to conclude that certainty in these matters is not to be found. (p. 40)
Again and again through both the form and the style of [Report], Aldiss involves his readers in experience which is not smooth and continuous. The flow of time and the build-up of sequential observations are never allowed to create the illusion of coherence. Coherence would be an assumption of meaning, or absolute truth, and this assumption can never be allowed to come from the author here. It is left to the reader to supply it for himself, if he can.
There is one sense in which experience is continuous, however. Whatever verb tense is used, the consciousness. Aldiss imposes on his readers gives the impression of continuous present-time. Every event, character and detail must be recorded, often with identical description, each time it is encountered. People move from one room to the next, and as they emerge into different space they must be described anew. They may or may not be the same people. In any case, we are rarely allowed easy assumptions of knowledge built up from past experience. (p. 41)
What does a science fiction writer do when he finds he has written himself out of science fiction [as Aldiss said he had after completing Barefoot in the Head]? The answer in Aldiss's case was to go back to where he had started. "I wrote ordinary novels instead," Aldiss explains. Returning to where he started, in "ordinary" fiction like The Brightfount Diaries, Aldiss produced two books which became instant best-sellers in England. He also completed a personal reminiscence, The Shape of Further Things, assembled the most comprehensive critical history of science fiction yet to be published (Billion Year Spree), and issued several collections of short stories. The period 1969–73 was a time for looking back to his roots, for reflecting upon the history and evolution of the science fiction genre, and constructing a personal memoir which helped put his own past in perspective. He had pushed himself beyond the boundaries of language, history, and genre, and it was time to retrench.
"Ordinary" is a word to be used in its best sense when applied to The Hand-Reared Boy (1970); its recording of male rites of passage before the war is one with which any man can identify. The hero is Horatio Stubbs—a name which combines the sublime with the ridiculous—and in this readable and amusing novel, Stubbs comes convincingly to life. His history is continued in A Soldier Erect (1971), which follows Stubbs into the early 1940s as he joins the Royal Mendip Borderers, and is dispatched overseas to India. Stubb's battles are mainly for women, and the barracks humor is broader and more genial than anything Aldiss had written earlier. Neither of these novels has been widely read in America, probably because, as Aldiss says, "They embodied too British an experience." But Aldiss also believes "A Soldier Erect is probably the best of all my novels, shot through with pain and humour." Whether or not the assessment is accurate, these novels are significant in marking his return to standard fiction devices, without the aid of stylistic inventions or SF gimmicks. The author has thoroughly mastered the fundamentals of writing and the interlude in which these novels were written strengthened his mastery of the form. Horatio Stubbs is one of his most human characters. (pp. 48-9)
Aldiss joyously resurrects old SF stereotypes in The Eighty Minute Hour (1975)…. By reducing the genre of his serious writing to convention format, Aldiss shows himself the detached observer of his own fiction. His own contribution to Space Opera has about it an amused self-consciousness, stylistic flair and dexterity, and a double-edged humor based in the comic multiple meanings of language. These techniques stretch the limits of style and genre with the same exaggeration and audacity as the cramming of 80 minutes into an hour. (p. 54)
Perhaps the ultimate of his landscape novels, The Malacia Tapestry  concludes with a human landscape, imperfect and ordinary, but flawlessly beautiful nonetheless….
Whether or not it is his best is difficult to say, but this refreshingly different and masterfully-written book restates once more the depth and breadth of literary scope practiced by Aldiss, and is undoubtedly his best work since Frankenstein Unbound. (p. 59)
As he returns again and again to the themes, images, and symbols which occupy his mind, [Aldiss's] Protean changes in form and style catch the reader constantly by surprise. It was change which attracted him to science fiction in the first place—a fiction with more space for change. His later novels are difficult to classify within SF as a narrow genre; Aldiss will not stay within neat boundaries. (pp. 60-1)
Richard Mathews, in his Aldiss Unbound: The Science Fiction of Brian W. Aldiss (copyright © 1977 by Richard Mathews), The Borgo Press, 1977, 64 p.
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Enemies of the System is essentially derivative, almost a lash-up of elements from Huxley, Wells, Orwell, anthropological accounts of cargo cults and so on. It does not further either the analysis or the resolution of the problem of what happens to an advanced but stagnant culture when it meets a primitive but vital and evolving one. Indeed, Mr Aldiss weakens his central antithesis by revealing that his Utopia includes 'the dreaded reason police.' The System must therefore be in a state of internal revolt, but the matter is never developed. Mr Aldiss seems to have found difficulty in resisting the allure of any theme that has proved its worth in other books, whether relevant to his own or not.
Possibly as a further consequence of the basic lack of purpose, the text is full of inconsistencies. All right, the culture is stagnant but, after a million years which has seen the introduction of interstellar travel, would holiday-makers still drive about in coaches with tyres and squealing brakes? Towards the end of the book it is revealed that much more sophisticated transport systems are available. The coach is thus unmasked as merely a literary device to enable contact with the primitives to be established. Even more unconvincing is the mode of expression of the Biocom citizens. They continually regale each other with rustic saws such as: 'As the teat grows thinner, the kid sucks with greater vehemence'. Hardly what one expects from star-roving gulfhoppers. The truth is that the level of imaginative penetration of an alien, future society achieved by this book is about that of a routine episode of Star Trek.
Paul Ableman, "Gulf-hopping," in The Spectator (© 1978 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 240, No. 7821, May 27, 1978, p. 25.
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Enemies of the System has all the easy interest of any cleanly-imagined futurist novel, and effectively juxtaposes its hyper-evolved Biocom tourists with the kangaroo-like, regressed but sporadically dignified human species on the remote planet the tourists visit. Given all this, it's mostly a simple exercise in transposition. Statute-books become computerised statute-banks; fathers are replaced by directors of crèches. All amusing enough, except that the characterisation is rudimentary, the narrative linear, and the dialogue either crudely ideological or absurdly expository…. (p. 748)
Jeremy Treglown, "Drunk Dreams," in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 95, No. 2463, June 2, 1978, pp. 747-48.∗
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Brian Aldiss is astonishingly prolific, and surprisingly humane and solid. The first characteristic he shares with other science fiction writers …, but the other qualities are much more rare….
[New Arrivals, Old Encounters and This World and Nearer Ones] are very humanly likeable. They are, in other words, without the excesses of mutual abuse and mutual parody SF writers increasingly seem to go in for—the unsavoury consequences of having only partially emerged from their despised but profitable ghetto, their 'small cemeteries on the fringes of a book page' as Mr. Aldiss phrases it. He himself is doing his level best to still the internecine feuds, and to emphasize the creative connections between SF and the ordinary novel.
Of course for him the ordinary novel is a rather tired affair. The stories in New Arrivals, Old Encounters with their pared down, if not actually cloned characters, and their plots casually based on superputers and time-defeating communications, make that very clear. From his point of view fictional realism is bound to look like a shortsighted episode between worlds based on total religion or total science….
[The] recurrent theme is the spring-cleaning of men's atavistic fears and hates, and the transformation of metaphysics into a science. The culminating piece, 'Difference,' imagines that process as nearly complete, and injects a further doubt—whether the desired universal theocracy may not always remain a premature solution. 'Men always cheat their gods,' it's said in another story ('Amen and Out'): the future lies in dialogue between the expanding known and the retreating unknown.
These are, as Mr. Aldiss is the first to acknowledge, hoary old ideas. They're rescued by some fetching images, like the dignified characters of 'Amen and Out' …—and by—after all—touches of ordinary realism, which enabled him to convey, for example, how it feels to know that 'whatever we are, whoever we are, whether young or old' we're part of the same pattern. It feels rotten, a bit like a bad hangover.
He needs realism to make this stick; he would argue, though, that realism needs fantasy to keep up its side of the dialogue too. The pieces in This World and Nearer Ones touch on such arguments. Not, however, as interestingly as the stories do. Mr. Aldiss's tone here is good-natured and relaxed (perhaps too relaxed, unless his reference to 'two great English writers, Henrick Ibsen and Leo Tolstoy' is some sort of specialist joke I've missed)….
There are worries about anarchy, and worries about order, and some useful remarks about the commercial and critical standing on SF. It's all a bit desultory, though what does stand out is his contention that the best of British SF is characterised by 'continuing scepticism; above all, scepticism about man's supremacy over nature and the benefits of unremitting technology.'
You could say the same about the best of Brian Aldiss—that while he registers all the glamour of Utopias, orderly and otherwise, he remains humorously, sanely sceptical.
Lorna Sage, "Other Edens," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), No. 9809, August 26, 1979, p. 36.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 114
[New Arrivals, Old Encounters] will appeal to those who like their fantasies given a dressing of Arnoldian high seriousness. My loss, no doubt, but I am left a little cold by such solemnities as 'the universe has a dark corner, the human soul, which is its reflection'—the winning contribution of a five-year-old to a galaxy-wide competition. A bureaucratic nirvana is nicely described in one short story, 'A Spot of Konfrontation': another, 'One Blink of the Moon' is effectively phantasmagoric and spooky; but too often the entertainment is overlaid with vague gestures towards presumed significance. (p. 313)
Jeremy Tambling, "Caged," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 98, No. 2527, August 31, 1979, pp. 312-13.
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