(Short Story Criticism)

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."