Brian W. Aldiss Essay - Critical Essays

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

Short Fiction

Space, Time and Nathaniel 1957

* The Canopy of Time 1959

No Time Like Tomorrow 1959

The Airs of Earth 1963

Starswarm 1964

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

§ Equator (novel) 1958

Non-Stop (novel) 1958

Bow down to Nul (novel) 1960

** Hothouse (novel) 1961

The Male Response (novel) 1961

The Primal Urge (novel) 1961

The Dark Light Years (novel) 1964

Greybeard (novel) 1964

Earthworks (novel) 1965

Cities and Stones: A Traveller's Yugoslavia (nonfiction) 1966

††An Age (novel) 1967

Report on Probability A (novel) 1968

Barefoot in the Head: A European Fantasia (novel) 1969

The Hand-Reared Boy (novel) 1970

The Shape of Further Things (nonfiction) 1970

A Soldier Erect (novel) 1971

Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (criticism) 1973

‡‡Frankenstein Unbound (novel) 1973

The Eighty-Minute Hour: A Space Opera (novel) 1974

Science Fiction Art (nonfiction) 1975

The Malacia Tapestry (novel) 1976

A Rude Awakening (novel) 1978

Pile: Petals from St. Klaed's Computer (nonfiction) 1979

This World and Nearer Ones: Essays Exploring the Familiar (essays) 1979

Life in the West (novel) 1980

§§Moreau's Other Island (novel) 1980

Helliconia Spring (novel) 1982

Helliconia Summer (novel) 1983

Helliconia Winter (novel) 1985

The Pale Shadow of Science (nonfiction) 1985

. . . And the Lurid Glare of the Comet (nonfiction) 1986

Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction [with David Wingrove] (criticism) 1986

Ruins (novel) 1987

The Year Before Yesterday: A Novel in Three Acts (novel) 1987

Forgotten Life (novel) 1988

Dracula Unbound: A Novel (novel) 1991

Remembrance Day (novel) 1993

Somewhere East of Life (novel) 1994

*Published as Galaxies Like Grains of Sand, 1960.

†Revised edition published in 1966 as Who Can Replace a Man?

‡Published in 1973 as Comic Inferno.

§Published in 1959 as Vanguard from Alpha.

‖Published in 1959 as Starship.

#Published in 1961 as The Interpreter.

** Published in 1962 as Long Afternoon of Earth.

†† Published in 1968 as Cryptozoic!

‡‡ Adapted as a radio play of the same title in 1974 and broadcast on BBC radio.

§§ Published in 1981 as An Island Called Moreau.


Brian Aldiss (essay date 1976)

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 symbols rattled round decades ago. While some of the new authors write just as gracelessly as ever John Taine did.

In Extrapolation for December 1975 David Samuelson has an article, "The Spinning Galaxy: A Shift in Perspective on Magazine SF." In it he takes what is always a courageous step for a critic or anyone else and confesses that he was wrong. Well, slightly wrong. He no longer thinks that the sf magazines with their didactic 'hard core' are so central to the tradition of science fiction as once he did. It appears that Billion Year Spree helped to change his mind.

He labels this previously held opinion a geocentric view of sf, and then instances various heliocentric models, with different theories which might be substituted for the sun. Naturally, we find this interesting, but surely no model for a literature can be rigged to imitate a solar system. May I suggest that we abandon the idea of some one principle presiding over all science fiction? The solution to Dr. Samuelson's problem lies in non-conformity, not conformity. If you must think of the whole bag of tricks as a solar system, then pretend you are an astronomer and ask, "What sort of pleasure do I get from the whole starry expanse?"

In other words, it may be more valid to regard sf by its results. What pleasure do we get from sf (apart from arguing about it as if it were already respectably dead but had left no will)?

Obviously the pleasure that most readers derive from sf is an imaginative pleasure, whether what they are reading is hard-core (when the scientific detail, whether authentic or pure homespun phoney, will largely pass over their enraptured heads), or whether it is about Anne McCaffrey's telepathic dragons ridden by men of blue-blooded ancestry. There are degrees of imaginative response, varying from those who can see a world in a grain of sand to those who could hardly see a world if it were served piping hot and stuffed up their left nostril. All the big plonking Wonders of the field have, on the whole, been invented and perpetuated for the latter class of reader. In any other neck of the woods, they would be branded Sensationalism.

My emphasis in Billion Year Spree on the Gothic tradition in sf was placed in order to make it clear that sf is not some weird species which suddenly manifested itself on Earth in the Year of Our Lord Gernsback 1926, a creature without heirs and presumably unable to bequeath heirs.

It is a far more living and pervasive thing than that; equally, it is only a department of fantasy. Billion Year Spree—like much of my fiction, to which it is inevitably related—is an attempt at balance. I felt that a mechanistic view of sf had too long held sway—the view that justifies sf because an occasional one per cent becomes in some dubious way 'true,' or because chaps who read it get so brainwashed that they grow up to work in some lousy laboratory in California, or because it accustoms us all to change in our lives (a shibboleth exploded, or whatever shibboleths do when kicked with contraterrene force in the anal region, when we saw what asses established sf writers made of themselves in the 1960's, when younger ones changed by about five per cent and a dash of William Burroughs the game their elders and betters had hitherto been playing). Science fiction, I feel,...

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Richard Mathews (essay date 1977)

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...

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David Wingrove (essay date 1979)

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...

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Thomas M. Disch (review date 1980)

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,...

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Philip Smith (review date 1982)

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...

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Michael R. Collings (essay date 1985)

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...

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Michael R. Collings (essay date 1986)

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,...

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Rosemary Herbert (review date 1986)

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...

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Philip E. Smith II (essay date 1986)

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...

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Gary K. Wolfe (review date 1993)

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,...

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Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 135 words.)