Although most readers will recognize the British writer Brian Wilson Aldiss as the creator of popular science fiction, his list of work encompasses many more interests. His chief concern is with the exploration of human nature, either as he observes it around him or as he extrapolates what it would or should be in an imagined fictive place and time. In addition, he has produced volumes of travel literature, short stories, autobiography, and art and literary criticism. No matter the form or genre, Aldiss is intent on examining what makes people tick.
Aldiss was born in 1925 to Stanley and Elizabeth May Wilson Aldiss. He spent his early childhood in East Dereham, England, and was sent away to boarding school at the age of eight. His father later moved the family to Gorleston-on-Sea in Norfolk, where, Aldiss observes, he first made an acquaintance with American pulp magazines and science fiction. After leaving school in 1943, Aldiss joined the British Army and was stationed in the Far East, an experience which he believes had a lasting impact on his life and writing, especially in his use of lush tropical settings and in his exploration of the themes of isolation and exile.
Aldiss returned home from the war in 1947 and went to work as an assistant in an Oxford bookshop, submitting his first piece of fiction to John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction and beginning work on a still-unpublished novel. His first piece of published writing ran serially for two years as “The Brightfount Diaries” in the magazine Bookseller under the pseudonym Peter Pica. In 1955, Faber and Faber published the collected pieces as a novel under Aldiss’s name. In 1957, Aldiss went to work as literary editor for the Oxford Mail. He also published short stories and worked on Non-Stop, which appeared in 1958. This novel, like many that followed, explores the issue of isolation; it tells the story of a failed interstellar mission whose vessel circles Earth.
One feature of Aldiss’s science fiction and fantasy that makes it unlike the work of many other writers in the genre is that he places considerable emphasis on the nature of human feeling and relationships. Aldiss explores these issues in such science-fiction and fantasy novels as The Dark Light Years, a book that examines the implications of humans’ first encounter with aliens; Barefoot in the Head, in which the madness brought about by a bombing of Europe with psychedelic gases is reflected in deformations of language; and The Malacia Tapestry, a sword-and-sorcery tale of a world caught up in the battle between good and evil magicians. Aldiss’s science fiction often engages in conscious dialogue with other writers. Frankenstein Unbound and Dracula Unbound revisit two of the works Aldiss considers most significant in the history of the field. The Saliva Tree and Moreau’s Other Island reply to H. G. Wells. Stepping outside the genre, Aldiss adapts Alain Robbe-Grillet’s multiple levels of observation to a science-fictional story in Report on Probability A and uses the “Eurish” of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to reflect the psychological and linguistic chaos of Barefoot in the Head.
Aldiss’s masterwork, in the old sense of a work which shows his mastery of all elements of the field, is the trilogy comprising Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer, and Helliconia Winter. Here Aldiss creates a new planet, complete with unusual climate and sentient and other life-forms, peoples it richly with characters, and even has it observed by Earth through the same sort of multiple levels of narration he used in Report on Probability...
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Besides writing science fiction and fantasy, however, Aldiss is equally at home in novels of the everyday. Much of his mainstream fiction deals with sexuality, often exploring individual preferences from a comic perspective. Two of his early novels, The Male Response and The Primal Urge, fall into this category. More important is his series chronicling the sexual exploits and maturation of Horatio Stubbs: The Hand-Reared Boy, which traces the hero’s adolescent adventure, and its sequels, A Soldier Erect and A Rude Awakening. Because of the relatively conservative temper of the time during which these books were written, and their blatant treatment of their protagonist’s sexual fantasies and adventures, Aldiss initially encountered some difficulties in getting a publisher to accept them, but they were favorably received and became best-sellers in Great Britain. Aldiss’s mainstream novels often rely on his own life experiences for their themes, as in the case of Forgotten Life, which portrays the lives of two brothers, Clement and Joseph Winter, whose combined careers closely parallel Aldiss’s own.
In addition to his novels of real and otherworldly adventures, Aldiss has produced many volumes of short stories that take up the same issues as his longer fiction, including what many critics believe to be his best, The Moment of Eclipse, which won for Aldiss the British Science Fiction Association Award. In this volume, Aldiss takes his themes and inspiration from such authors as Thomas Hardy and Edgar Allan Poe and from the painter Antoine Watteau.
Aldiss has also written a history of science-fiction literature, originally published as Billion Year Spree, updated with coauthor David Wingrove as Trillion Year Spree. This study provides readers with an entertaining and informative chronicle of the genre Aldiss knows best and gives thorough and useful background for those interested in learning about the roots of contemporary science fiction. Finally, Aldiss has published poetry, travel literature, and essays, and has served as the editor for collections of science-fiction and fantasy short stories. His prodigious and varied output offers readers the opportunity to enjoy his capable storytelling without feeling as though they are simply covering familiar territory one more time. Aldiss crosses generic boundaries, something that is unusual for writers of standard science-fiction fare.