Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1982
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, is nothing unless it justifies itself as itself, just as a cat is its own justification whether or not it catches vermin (which is not to say that sociologists, college professors, veterinarians, taxidermists, trash men, and other pillars of society cannot make use of the corpses of either, in one way or another).
Since sf is—willy nilly, and bad luck those who see it as Marxist tract or Blueprint for Future Yet Unborn—literature, it must stand or fall as literature. Since, in the magazines, it fell with such a resounding splat that only we addicts would go near the disaster area for years, the editors naturally had to wave a flag and claim that they were taking over the West or inventing spaceflight or commissioning masterpieces or fostering supermen, or whatever they used to get up to (one pretends to forget). And the readers, so desperate were they for the aforesaid world to be served piping hot and positioned as aforesaid vis-à-vis the left nostril, believed every monstrous lying word. Not only the readers—my God, what am I saying? The writers believed it, too. So did the editors. So did the critics who followed. So did—well, no names, no pack drill. Besides, that was yesterday; we know everything is much better nowadays.
Nowadays, thanks to good sense and a few lectures at Wooster, Fullerton, and other bastions of Enlightenment, we have cooled it. All we claim now is that we have taken over part of the West, only partially invented spaceflight, only commissioned part-masterpieces, only partially fostered supermen. Credulity is dead.
From the wreckage of yesteryear, I tried gamely to salvage for my book the pearls that survived among the swinery. I strove to create a volume of enjoyment, of appreciation for the literature that—so help me, and I'm going a bit thin on top as a result—has held me entranced throughout childhood and what I refer to in private as my manhood. I hope Billion Year Spree gushes forth with fountains of pleasure for what genuinely is gold among the huckster's dross. After all, the book is not directed at readers of Extrapolation, who are above pleasure, just as Extrapolation was above reviewing the bloody thing, but at the heathen who would enjoy our works of the imagination if one glimpse of a cover of Imagination—we'll maintain radio silence about the editorials, stories, Letters from the Readers, and Fandora's Box—had not sent them running for cover into the nearest sane rational copy of Iris Murdoch.
The fountains would not have gushed so copiously if I had confined my disporting to the magazines. The sf that has appealed to the general cultivated taste has been, as Dr. Samuelson well sayeth from his kneeling posture, by writers like Mary Shelley and Aldous Huxley who were uninfluenced—I almost said uncorrupted, before recalling how nursery-pure magazine sf has traditionally kept itself—by Astounding and its brothers. So it was necessary to broaden my pasturage. Talking about Scylla, you should see the way I avoided Charybdis! I refrained from going to the other extreme and aggrandising sf by claiming that John Russell Fearn, Stanley Weinbaum, and Keith Laumer were kissing kin of Homer, Dante, and the guy who wrote the Epic of Gilgamesh. That's all nonsense. Just because you borrow method and subject matter from a thousand-year-old corpse, that doesn't make you blood relations. Isn't it odd that those who claim for sf the roles of modern educator, herald of science, Time's winged messenger, and forecaster of the future, are the ones most eager to get Lucian of Samosata in on the act as well? But sf at its best is entirely excellent enough not to need all this paraphernalia of justification, while at its worst there is no justification. Which is why I observed a decent modesty (not to mention respecting fact and looking the literature I loved in the eye instead of the left nostril) and commenced operations by dilating upon a pleasant outsider's fable written by a young lady who gave a new name and concept to the language when she had scarce attained her twentieth year. For those in the back row, I refer to Mary Godwin, later Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus (which, if it had appeared as a Thrilling Long Complete Short Novel in Marvel Science Stories, would now be known as The Baron's Monster or, Wonders of Electricity). This relatively fresh and sane focus on the origins of sf, besides striking an inadvertant blow for Women's Lib, helps us to understand better the nature of science fiction, plus the additional merit of making my book a mite more readable than it would otherwise have been.
An effect of this courageous one-man operation on behalf of you all was to force me, in my modesty, to omit mention of my own superb novels in the body of the text (there is, admittedly, a reference or two in the notes scattered through the volume, but who reads the small print?) You have been wondering how I resisted such an opportunity of puffing my own wares. I must answer, hand on heart, that it came about only by studying what Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison were saying about themselves.
Unfortunately, I forgot that the long years of gullability-drill and puff-swallowing we had all undergone in the magazines had left a few residual effects. As a result of my forbearing to tout my own novels, nobody who has read Billion Year Spree believes any longer that I can possibly be the author of such classics as Starship, Long Afternoon of Earth, Galaxies Like Grains of Sand, Frankenstein Unbound, Barefoot in the Head, and other masterpieces too succulent even to mention in a dry old polemic like this. Hands up anyone who's read, even compulsorily, Dark Light Years. Nobody moved. All right, you bastards, I had a card (and my hand is on my heart again) only this last week—no, the week before—from Arthur Koestler, saying he was an old admirer of mine from way back. I'm not entirely forgotten. But the outlook is poor. My book on science fiction art, called, with a subtlety worthy of Otis Adelbert Klein, Science Fiction Art, is now at large in the land. When its readers discover that I have opened new territory for discussion as surely as I did in Billion Year Spree and my novels, they will probably forget both novels and Billion Year Spree.
Well, I shall soldier on, encouraged by responsive readers like David Samuelson. The one thing that makes my genial nature grieve is that clearly many stalwarts in the sf field so abhor any opinions which differ from their own that they dislike me (into this category I shovel almost every publisher in New York) lovable though I am, dedicated though I am to the literature. What a fate: pariah even to pariahs!
Myself, I shall continue to delight in diversity. Perish orthodoxy, I say, and all who sail in her.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4865
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. 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. . . .
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. . . .
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. . . .
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. . . .
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. . . .
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. . . .
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. . . .
[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 overworked, 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. . . .
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. . . .
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. . . .
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. . . .
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. . . .
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. . . .
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. . . .
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. . . .
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. . . .
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. . . .
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. . . .
[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. . . .
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. . . .
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. Stubbs'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. . . .
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. . . .
Perhaps the ultimate of his landscape novels, The Malaria 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. . . .
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.
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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 eloquent and practised mainstream brethren promises to polarise sf into two distinct and distanced camps. The first is to be found in the mountains of reissued paperbacks: stories stemming from the 'pulp' magazine tradition which lasted the three decades beginning in the 30's, and which embraced space opera, galactic empires and the evil and perilous planet.2
This is a tradition which depends upon a formula approach to fiction, with The Idea dominant—an exercise in puppeteering where character is subjugated to environment and where an event X happens to a token human Y, resulting in Z: chemical reactions in a vacuum of fastmoving plots that result in a predictable succession of escapist residues.
The other pole of this divergence (an aberrant cousin, if you like) has no real tradition within the genre; though its precursors could be sought elsewhere, in the works of such as Stapledon, Huxley, Zamyatin, Orwell and O'Brien. It seeks to observe society rather than change it. Its practitioners have more in common with Barth than Blish, are more akin to Amis than Asimov, and would rather be classed with Pynchon than Pohl. This is an intensely 'literary' sub-genre, the distinct characteristic of which is that it pares off the irrelevancies of science fiction to create a more muscular and dynamic form of prose poetry. Whilst it does not command the mass appeal of its distanced 'cousin', this is where the doused spirit of curiosity and experimentation, once endemic to the genre, is being re-kindled.
There need to be, of course, certain authors who act as 'bridges' in the transition, and span—within the body of their work—these two 'poles'3. Such diversions in emphasis and intent are not immediate they are gradual, and it is upon the writings of one of these bridge-builders, Brian Aldiss, that I intend now (by specific reference to his recent work and general discussion of its part in this new emphasis) to focus my attention.
"Earth disappeared like an eyeball dropping down a drain; the sun was transformed into an icicle of light, and vanished. Time became a series of equations."4
This brief excerpt from Aldiss' most recent short novel, Enemies Of The System, is illustrative of the new emphasis. In its succinct image it dispenses with the grandiose nature of inter-stellar space flight (itself the idée fixe of many earlier science fiction novels) and allows immediate access to the meat of the novel—a discursive tract upon the nature of homo sapiens by comparison with homo uniformis ('Man Alike Throughout'). It is also evidence of a sharp reaction against scientific exposition: there is no longer a stifling need to explain the mechanics—the 'magic' of technology.5 He 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—the mechanistic shackles of the old genre. The 'sense of wonder' remains in that brief and vivid description, refreshing because of its lack of explanation.
It would not harm to stay, if only momentarily, with Enemies Of The System. The book is, in essence, a dystopian novel, the direct progeny of Zamyatin's We, Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's 1984 and Gunn's Green Isle Of The Great Deep, and—like each of those books in its time—has been interpreted as a political statement on the contemporary situation in the USSR (a case of satire by extrapolation). This view is acceptable on one level, but Aldiss has never confined himself, even in his apprenticeship as a science-fiction writer pure-and-simple, to a single level. He has always attempted to relate the external events of a story6 by careful choice of metaphor and closely choreographed thematic emphasis. Like almost all of Aldiss' work it is about basic choice (a predilection not uncommon amongst literary sceptics—Burgess too plucks these strings obsessively), though in a more direct manner than his usual approach. Here, in a society a million years in our future, basic choice is denied to homo uniformis, and thus we can only evaluate by contrast, against a degenerate and 'natural' (in a truly Shakespearian sense) form of homo sapiens, the results of this apotheosis of civilisation.7
Aldiss' single bow to the rituals of explanation in this novel is his description of the 'bio-shunt', the means by which homo uniformis was created, together with their compact philosophical ethos.
By joining the Central Nervous System (motor responses), the Autonomic Nervous System (sensual system) and the Neocortex (thought system) into "one harmonious super system" (p. 26) sapiens' contrary and passionate nature has been harnessed to the yoke of logic. Looking back on old Man, one of the utopianists of this tale make the following observation:
The endotomists established the fact that man's physiological structure comprised three governance systems which were in conflict. Owing to the rapid evolutionary development of man from animal, those governance systems were not entirely compatible. We might in the same way complain of a machine that it was faulty because it contained too much wiring. The problem was one of efficiency.8
It might seem that this is no progression from the traditions of sf, yet it is Aldiss' use of this central idea of homo sapiens 'in conflict' to illustrate the contest between logic and passion throughout the novel that is evidence of the shift in emphasis.
It is thus unsurprising that in another of his recent novellas, Brothers Of The Head9, he expresses this tri-partite nature of Man in a more literal sense, with his three-headed Siamese twin, Tom/Barry (plus a dormant, evil head waiting to waken), which is described as "a mad animal fighting itself to death" (p. 74). And on yet another level, Aldiss is dealing with this same 'conflict' when he describes the three types of dream—tau, sigma and epsilon that Man is prone to, in his short story, "Journey To The Heartland"10. It is simply another expression of the concept 'Id' used in Enemies—a regressive and antisocial element which is, at the same time, a progressive and creative one—"waiting to overthrow reason"11 admittedly, but nevertheless an expression of passion—a thing Aldiss considers crucial in the human equation; essential.
It is also the essence of Aldiss' work to avoid specific definitive statements—he wishes only to play games in our heads, to spark possibilities, while he sits firmly on the fence. "Journey To The Heartland" expresses Aldiss' examination of recurrence in our actions. As his characters are drawn into their own dreams they begin to re-trace past conversations which, ironically, are concerned with recurrence; a reductio ad absurdum. Aldiss' refusal, in this story, to give a single ending12 echoes his refusal in Enemies to make a definitive value judgement between uniformis and sapiens. That is always, in Aldiss' ouevre, left to the reader.
The constant, overt reference to the philosophical debate between Free Will and Predestination is taken to extreme in "The Aperture Moment"13 and "A Chinese Perspective"14 where machines are created, in the former to 'animate' Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and in the latter to predict, accurately, the actions of a man, using readings of his biological and mental activity (the idea being, essentially, that the body adjusts 'in anticipation' of its future requirements). It is all part of the same attempt within Aldiss' writing to describe the physical and mental walls Man finds surrounding him15, as dramatically demonstrated in the short story "An Appearance Of Life".16 In a vast, planet-wide museum our narrator, a Seeker, discovers two 'holocaps' (three-dimensional, pre-programmed heads—machines made to resemble their originators, relating a pre-recorded message for a 'loved one'). He discovers they are 'related', and in their limited and fading conversations, endlessly repeated, is the revelation that Man is simply a more refined 'holocap'—his limitations less evident but still existent. In the Seeker's extension of that analogy lies another of Aldiss' recurrent ideas:
As with those imprisoned images, the human species was gradually growing fainter, less able to hear the programmed responses. As with those imprisoned images, we were all drifting further apart, losing definition. As with those imprisoned images, we were doomed to root through the debris of the past, because copies can have no creative future.17
This is the idea that Man is shadow, not substance; that the sterility of modern Man and his technological obsession is a result of his inability to create. He can only remould. It is the central theme of "A Chinese Perspective" where the protagonist, Edward Maine, concludes, "he attached too much importance to self—at a time when predestination brought the whole nature of self into question" (p. 160). This uncertainty of existence is contrasted against 'Tui-either-nor', a fluid system of thought opposed to the "old either-or patterns of Western Ideology" (18). It also reflects the same conflict between certainty and uncertainty that Charteris suffers in Barefoot In The Head, that Maine reflects here, prefering "the dark glasses and white stick of certainty" (p. 181).
It is this under-mining of certainty that is the essential factor of two very similar novels, The Malacia Tapestry (1976) and A Rude Awakening (1978). Perian de Chirolo in Malacia has much in common with Horatio Stubbs in Rude Awakening.19 They are both brash young men, ensconced in the arrogance of their youthful certainty. The 'rude awakening' of both stories is an emotional one—both are tales of maturation and realisation of the World's basic uncertainty, its state of constant flux. That they also allow Aldiss to display both an opulence of style and an exuberant sense of humour are bonuses.
The town of Medan which Aldiss describes in his quasi-autobiographical recollections of Post-War Sumatra is a well visualised "gigantic organism of light and shade".20 This description is equally valid of Malacia, a city-state where change has been banned for countless millennia in a world alternate to our own; where Man is descended from Satan and dinosaurs still live, to be kept as housepets or hunted ritually. It is an opulent world he describes, a vision spawned of delirium but tethered by its own internal logic. In these two books Aldiss is a first-class fantasist as well as philosopher, and whilst his predicates and basic polemic are soundly based and lucidly and logically drawn, his images can be outrageous, his style pyrotechnic and extreme. But whereas his writing here is colourful, in his enigmas—brief literary triptychs—he indulges in a game of perspectives that occasionally wallow in delightful metaphors:
Much of the time, all I see of her is the old yellow of the roof of her mouth as she lies panting for breath. Sometimes, a great slack arm hangs down like a stalactite in veined sandstone. Bits of her broken past come upon her; for days at a time, she labours among the fragments of a bygone year. She smells bad of nights, so that I lie as far from the bed as my chains will allow. I could have done better.21
It is unsurprising that the ambiquity displayed in the enigmas was unpopular with a great many science fiction readers. This ambience is a recent factor in Aldiss' work, a deliberate ambiguity, like that of poetry. Aldiss is challenging his readers to participate in 'tui-either-nor' (see 18) and to immerse themselves in images and visions instead of sucking on the literary teat. It is also his way of expressing the idea that the universe is full of half-realised, partially conceivable truths wrapped up and presented to us as enigmas. All the clues are there, it is merely up to us to interpret: and Aldiss always allows us that experience.
In 1972 he presented the genre with his history of sf, Billion Year Spree22, the result of several years' consideration and two decades within sf's arena. Since that time his work has shown a more thoughtful and consciously literary bias. He has increasingly used elements of the real world within his fantasies23 and has deliberately used sf's gimmickry as motifs rather than as elements about which the plot may revolve. This use of motif is a process that began with stories like "Working in The Spaceship Yards"24 and which can be seen in extremis in "The Aperture Moment". I mentioned the idea in relation to Enemies Of The System, where it becomes pure image. Aldiss is stripping sf down to its metaphoric essence, and divorcing it firmly from the pulp tradition, a direction he has pursued from the beginning, always attempting to effect changes in the genre from the inside. In a recent short article in an American sf magazine, he describes five 'types' of science fiction writer and says this of the last:
This group consists of writers who are individualists, yet who do not want to get out of sf. What they want is to extend the boundaries of the material—not to escape but to enlarge. This group interests me most because I consider myself a member of it.25
Aldiss' recent writing, whether historical, experimental, mainstream or autobiographical, has reflected this desire to 'extend the boundaries', and in its literacy and vision has achieved much of its intended effect. If the message remains basically the same as it always was,26 the lucidity and range of expression has, beyond doubt, vastly improved, typified by the paring off of the irrelevant and the moulding of sf's ideative foundations into succinct motifs. The boundaries have blurred considerably and hard-cover editions with tasteful jackets, reviewed in esoteric Sunday newspapers, evidence a respectability and acceptance the most fanatical science fiction zealot of the fifties would not have believed possible. If the 'polarisation' of science fiction into 'literate' and 'escapist' categories has been a necessary concomitant of this respectability, than we can only be thankful that Aldiss, as an example of his 'camp', remains fearlessly on course, entertaining and stimulating us as only the best of sf's savants can do.
1 "A Chinese Perspective", in Anticipations, ed. Christoper Priest; Faber & Faber; 1978.
2 Aldiss has made his own archeological survey of these pulp traditions in a series of anthologies from Weidenfeld & Nicholson: Space Opera, (2 vols.) Galactic Empires, Perilous Planets and Evil Earths.
3 I admit that this is a gross over-simplification and, like Hesse's Steppenwolf, I realise that sf 'consists of a hundred or a thousand (parts), not of two'. I use the simplification here as illustrative of a general trend.
4Enemies Of The System; Jonathan Cape; 1978; p. 9.
5 Aldiss' aversion for and criticism of the technological age is another topic altogether and is illustrated quite sharply in Barefoot In The Head (Faber & Faber; 1969), The Shape Of Further Things (Faber & Faber; 1970) and several of the short stories in his two recent collections, The Moment Of Eclipse (Faber & Faber; 1970) and Last Orders (Jonathan Cape; 1978).
6 Aldiss' first novel, Non-Stop (Faber & Faber; 1958) is a classic example of this. In the story an out-of-control 'generation ship' is seen as a microcosm of Earth, mimicking on a small scale the World and its pointless rituals. It is a theme reiterated in many later stories—prominently so in "Total Environment" (Galaxy magazine; 1968).
7 Further explorations of the 'perverse nature' of civilisation, and its possible alternatives, are to be found in The Dark Light Years (Faber & Faber; 1964) and Barefoot In The Head. In the former he came up with the definition, "Civilisation is the distance between Man and his excreta".
8 p. 25. This also echoes the idea behind Hothouse (Faber & Faber; 1962), where the morel, an independent, brain-like creature merges with the simplified Men of that future age, described thus:
Men were physically stronger than morels. Though they survived the stepping-up of solar radiation, their symbiotic brains did not. They quietly died, boiled alive in the little bone shelters they had fashioned for themselves. Man was left . . . to fend for himself equipped only with his natural brains, which were no better than those of the higher animals . . . Small wonder he lost his splendid cities and took again to the trees! (p. 91)
The moral suggests, and enacts a new symbiosis, repeating the original process (when homo sapiens was formed originally), as an external control system.
9Brothers Of The Head; Pierrot Publishing; 1977. American Title: The Bang Bang.
10 In Last Orders; Jonathan Cape; 1978.
11Enemies Of The System, op. cit., p. 20.
12 He concludes this story with three interviews—the final one with himself, the author, explaining the two means by which the story could end:
The first story, you see, is just a little downbeat study of character. Whereas the science fiction story, the story with the happy ending, is an upbeat study of ideas. Whereas Angsteed's theories prove, in the first story, to be just a paranoid fixation, in the sf story they are proved to be true.
A whole range of sf stories operate like that: the screwy ideas, instead of being certifiable, turn out to mirror true reality. The hero 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. 221, Last Orders)
—there is a great deal of truth in this, and it also comments on the intentions of Aldiss in maintaining a basically ambiguous approach in all his work.
13 In Last Orders, op. cit.
14 In Anticipations, op. cit.
15 Whether self-imposed or not is another matter, rarely at the core of a story—he is not merely echoing Kafka's "a bird went in search of a cage."
16Last Orders op cit, (p. 183). This is also relevant to "a Chinese Perspective":
There are limits to the possible. There must be a formula for those limits. It might be possible to compute those limits. But then again, if we knew what the limits were, and how near we were to them, that would make the universe even more boring than it is now. Think how tired I am of my own limitations. I'm just a souped-up version of lin. (p. 162)
The 'lin' is a story-telling machine, operating with a fixed vocabulary and to a certain formula. The 'enclosed universe' is evident in its earliest form in 'Not For An Age (1955 collected in Space, Time And Nathaniel; Faber & Faber; 1957).
18 p. 166: this idea is also expressed in other ways:
Tui is the old Mandarin symbol for water a lake, for instance, signifying pleasure and fluidity. That's what we need, fluidity. (p. 167) and:
With tui-either-nor, we can nourish it, make barren logic subject to creativity, rather than the other way round as at present." (p. 166)
19 'Harry' Stubbs' previous adventures have been chronicled in two earlier novels, The Hand Reared Boy (Weidenfeld & Nicholson; 1970) and A Soldier Erect (1971). A fourth and final part is planned.
20A Rude Awakening; Weidenfeld & Nicholson; 1978, p. 118.
21 "Three Coins in Clockwork Fountains" ("Carefully Observed Women") in Last Orders, op. cit. p. 154.
22Billion Year Spree; Weidenfeld & Nicholson; 1973.
23 He uses Anna Kavan, the writer (whom he praised extensively in Billion Year Spree) as a character in several of the Zodiacal Planet short stories (to be found in Last Orders, and in "A Chinese Perspective"). He also uses Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in Frankenstein Unbound (Jonathan Cape; 1973), as well as Mary Shelley herself, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley; and Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, primarily as inspiration for his anti-novel, Report On Probability A (Faber & Faber; 1968), and later in several short stories ("That Uncomfortable Pause Between Life And Art . . .", "The Aperture Moment").
24 In The Moment of Eclipse, op cit.
25 'The Sf State', Algol magazine; Winter 1977/78.
26 Two expressions of which are:
You feel art should tidy everything up and look steadfastly on the cheery side . . . You don't see that any real art must contain, must be big enough to contain, all of experience.
("Ninian's Experience", Nebula 31, June 1958).
I had to admit that I liked the idea of an answer being a question. It was part of the rules of single combat, and of life.
("The Game With The Big Heavy Ball", New Writings In Sf 30, 1977).
There is the core of tui-either-nor in each of these views, founded on a wide-ranging eclectism.
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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 story, although inwardly he longs to be dominated by it."
Truly, the only way this listener is ever going to like that story is by some greater torture than having to read it (which I did, every word). It isn't as though Aldiss were incapable of high humor, philosophic aplomb, agreeable whimsey, or sheer madcap invention. But sometimes (it seems) he wakes up in the morning with an ashy taste in his mouth and decides that writing is a bum's business and that he'll revenge himself on the fact by writing something fascinatingly abominable. He's capable of writing a whole book under that impetus (e.g., The Eighty Minute Hours), but usually his dyspepsia is dispelled by a single tale.
"Space for Reflection" is perversely (i.e. deliberately) bad; Aldiss also has days when he merely nods, and the result (again, with an interpolated self-criticism) rambles on like this (from "Song of the Silencer"):
". . . I recognize that your intentions, and the intentions of government are good. That you have become tainted by power is inescapable. Such is human nature. Power warps imagination."
"Cut the verbosity!"
'That is my endeavour. I'm nervous, can't you see?"
If Aldiss can't resist the impulse to conquer his bluer moments by writing them away, at least he should be able to recognize, with a year or two of hindsight, that the bottom of his barrel is far inferior to the top of his bent and that the twain should never meet in one collection. With a little more patience, New Arrivals, Old Encounters might have been a thoroughly good book—indeed, a classic collection—rather than a miscellany of hits and misses, for Aldiss has that essential virtue of the compleat short-story writer, Range.
The three best stories in the book exhibit that range at full stretch. "The Small Stones of Tu Fu" is an extended metaphor in the most graceful of chinoiserie frames, the narrative equivalent of a perfectly turned sonnet that yet avoids becoming that hybrid anomaly, a prose poem. "A Spot of Konfrontation" is broad farce, skillfully constructed and richly ornamented, set in a future Tahiti, where—But why spoil good jokes by telegraphing their punch lines? Enough to say that Aldiss here combines the mellow bawdry of his mainstream novels, such as A Soldier Erect, with the verbal ingenuities of Barefoot In The Head. "Indifference" is sf of classic simplicity both in design and execution. The drama is subdued but heartfelt. It treats of philosophical matters that all too easily (on the evidence of "Song of the Silencer") could lead the author into hollow pontifications, but because the ideas are grounded in characters roundly and ironically imagined, their expression has the timbre of life.
When Aldiss is good, he is very, very good, but when he is bad he longs inwardly to be dominated by an editor. Thus Spake Dumb Dragon.
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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 wartime experiences there tells an exiled Indonesian about his frustrating attempts to find a dead lover's house in Medan. He has discovered instead the depth of his own feelings about the past. In "Frontiers" a British doctor on assignment from the U.N. must try to discern the truth of the refugee problem in a fictional country much like Cambodia. He views the facts of suffering through the lenses of his own skepticism, his hosts' Communist ideology, and the reports of a young Dutch girl he meets and rescues. "Boat Animals" makes into a beast fable the problems and politics of refugee Vietnamese boat people in Singapore. "A Romance of the Equator" and "Back from Java" are concerned with love and the tropics the first story is a fable of a man who cannot choose between two magical lovers, one dark, one fair; the second is about the dream vision of an academic who has returned from Java to England and to his dying grandmother, absent wife, and a punk teenage temptress. The closing fable, "The Skeleton," captures in one and a half pages the wish of a Westerner to be one with the people of the East, even if he must affirm his likeness by stripping away flesh and skin.
These are minor stories from a major writer, but they are worth reading as visions of an important part of Aldiss's, and our, world.
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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 first definitive statement of that crisis occurs in a thin novella, published in 1977, intriguingly entitled Brothers of the Head. If the novel immediately preceding Brothers of the Head, The Malacia Tapestry, is among Aldiss's longest and most complex works, diffusing its power carefully and consciously over many pages, Brothers is in its concise economy among his most powerful; it is in addition, as David Wingrove claims, "the most perfect of Aldiss's novellas."2 On the surface a story of the brief musical career of Tom and Barry Howe, Siamese twins joined at the waist, it is far more than that; it is one of Aldiss's most penetrating and enigmatic landscapes to date.
Deceptively simple in structure, Brothers of the Head explores narrative techniques through the theme of pop culture, making it a relative, as it were, of Barefoot in the Head. While one might assume from their titles that the two novels are related, they are so only peripherally through theme and treatment.3Barefoot defines an inner landscape of perception altered by hallucinatory drugs; it is a subjective account of consciousness. Brothers of the Head is equally about an inner landscape of perception, but here the territory to be mapped has become objectified, externalized, viewed without the intervening veil of drugs.
To speak of Aldiss's novels in terms of "landscapes" is nearly a critical commonplace; Richard Mathews in fact refers to The Malacia Tapestry as "perhaps the ultimate of his landscape novels."4 Yet in the case of Brothers of the Head the image is accurate and implicit in the opening pages. That Brothers of the Head followed Malacia by only a year suggests that the imagistic similarities are intentional. Aldiss's novels frequently interweave, as when lines from Report on Probability A repeat in Barefoot in the Head Wingrove refers to Aldiss's oeuvre as a "tapestry of interwoven and often self-referential works, but rarely are the individual works so potently illustrative of the whole range of Aldissian thought as Brothers is."5 This suggests the importance of the narrative as an Aldissian landscape.
The novella takes its form from the nineteenth-century epistolary fiction Aldiss had already successfully made his own with Frankenstein Unbound. The difference here is that each of the chapters recounts the perceptions and perspectives of alternating narrators. Roberta Howe, the twins' sister, contributes the introduction, the fifth chapter, and the conclusion. Other narrators include Henry Couling, the twins' lawyer; Laura Ashworth, their lover; Nikolas Sidney and Zak Bedderwick, representatives of the pop music subculture; and Dr. Alyson Collins, the twins' physician. Each narrator brings a singular viewpoint to bear on the central plot—the twins' history, their rapid rise to stardom as rock musicians, their equally rapid physical and psychical disintegration,6 and their deaths. The accounts are individually complex, frequently contradictory. Here, in contrast to Frankenstein Unbound, in which Joe Bodenland remains essentially the only narrator of importance, Aldiss may move freely through the facts of the case history, altering them as he creates not only interesting narratives but also equally interesting narrators. As in a Henry James short story, the reader must be able—and willing—to penetrate the public guises of the narrators, to sift through conflicting reports, and finally to reconstruct the entire history of the Howe twins. There are crises and cataclysms, but again, as in Report, the most important of these are presented obliquely; characters frequently say that what happened at a given point was "too private" or "too personal" and then move on to more neutral matters. The result is an ambiguous ("multi-valued," to use Aldiss's own term) novel constructed of psychological studies and the self-revelation of narrators as they define and paradoxically obscure the tragedy of the Howe twins. Although they are at the core of the novel, the twins never speak for themselves, as is both necessary and appropriate.
The title of the book refers specifically to the Howes and at the same time to Aldiss's most intriguing contribution to a tradition of allegorical treatments of humanity divided against itself.7 The Howes are not merely Siamese twins joined at the shoulder and hip; they are literally brothers of a third head, an unformed third member, a somnolent, aged-looking head growing from Barry's shoulder. The three brothers thus remind the reader forcibly of Rachel and Mrs. Grales in Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz.8 Aldiss's triad suggests, among other things, the ego, the id, and the superego of Freudian psychology, or—to use terms drawn from Aldiss's own imagery—the intellect, the emotion, and the dreaming subconscious. Tom is fair-haired and light-skinned, rational, contemplative, and somewhat withdrawn; Barry is dark of hair and skin, surly, ill-tempered, prone to irrational emotional and physical outbursts; and the head is, for most of the novel, unconscious, waking only after Barry's head has "died" from heart failure. As the novel explores the continuing conflict among the three for dominance of the twins' interconnected bodies, it becomes a discussion of the individual's struggles for coherence and unity. Wingrove defines the theme rather more particularly with more direct focus as he argues that the twins represent.
Modern Man, divided (quite literally here) between his animal nature and his spiritual nature. The quiet, reflective Tom and the savage, instinctive Barry each represent an aspect of Man's conscious mentality . . . Through this, the personal situation of the twins, we see the dilemma of Modern Man in the Age of the Machine: a creature divorced irrevocably from the maternal influence of Nature and with the paternal element of technological progress totally indifferent to the quality of its life—cultivating uniformity and isolation.9
Aldiss's next novel, Enemies of the System: A Tale of Homo Uniformis (1978), would continue his investigations into the threat of technologically induced uniformity in human society. Brothers of the Head seems more essentially related to isolation, primarily because of the tremendous power Aldiss communicates through his imagery and symbols. The reader acquires the conviction that there is much in this short narrative to repay multiple readings.
The sense that the narrative is primarily symbolic is conveyed even before the "novel" begins. The opening passage is an introduction by Roberta Howe presented as a preface to the various reports by other observers. She provides background about the twins, but more important she describes their home, an isolated portion of the Norfolk coast called L'Estrange Head. The name is, of course, critical; that Roberta repeats "the Head" four times within five lines emphasizes its importance and highlights the puns implicit in it. The "strange head" is both the headland and the deformity growing from Barry's shoulder; "estranged head" refers to both the isolated exterior landscape and the tripartite division of the Howes. Shortly after this series of repetitions, Roberta compares her brothers' lives to a plant called the sea wrack, forging another appropriate connection between the terrain of the novel and the characters' lives, which are literally "wracked," that is, destroyed by violence. The sense of isolation is carefully enhanced throughout, as are suggestions of decay and of what Roberta calls "recession rather than progress," a theme consonant with Aldiss's concerns in preceding—and subsequent—novels.
Once one enters the narrative itself, beginning with Couling's description of his first visit to the Head, the sense of outer landscape mirroring inner intensifies.10 One of Couling's initial observations is that the Head is neither true headland nor true island; it is intermediate and indeterminate. The resulting image seems to suggest Matthew Arnold's
Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born,
lines particularly evocative in this novel that depicts a "crisis of faith" such as Arnold described. The passage is equally reminiscent of John Donne's "Devotions XVII"; the phrase "no man is an island" might well stand as epigram for the book. The three parts of the Howe twins—the three psychological components of each human individual, by extension—have been separated, but not completely. The twins are insular but, like the headland on which they live, connected by a maze of tissue. As Couling says of the Head: "To determine its geographical status under law, one would have to decide whether its baffling system of marshes, creeks, and rivulets link it with or divide it from the mainland,"12 just as one must decide whether the fleshy ligaments join or divide the Howes. They are three individuals yet are symbolically and psychically divided portions of a single individual; thus, they embody the theological suggestion of trinity within unity in a world demonstrably without a sense of God. The crux of disagreement between Barry and Tom is the issue of who will control their joint body, while the sleeping head, speaking to Roberta after it has awakened, sees both of the others as having usurped its life. Borrowing images not only from Tom's dream but also from The Tempest, the head says: "I have been penned in this tree all my days . . . Now I am escaping . . . The two wicked ones who imprisoned me will be punished" (pp. 97-98). One of them is dead already; the other remains. This division of one life between three heads leads directly to the bloody tragedy of the final scene. One must triumph, yet due to their interdependence, even in victory there will be defeat. As Wingrove observes, the Howes' inability to create harmony within themselves foreshadows humanity's own inability to reconcile itself with itself.13
There is more to be seen on L'Estrange Head than just the Howe twins, however. Couling notes a stone ruin standing between the Howes' ramshackle house and the sea: "Ordinance maps label the ruin L'Estrange Abbey" (p. 16). Part of the book details the moral censure to which the Howes were subjected for performing in public despite their deformity; another major section describes the moral censure imposed on Laura Ashworth for loving the twins. Aldiss never overtly describes that love, but Laura does tell Roberta about sharing physical intimacy with both twins—and with others. Sensing the twins' isolation from "normal humanity" and their need for love, Roberta approves. Her approval occurs in the shadow of the ruined, deteriorating church. Landscape supports this theme of religious and moral decay.
This theme expands to suggest the emptiness of organized religion and the failure of spirituality in the modern world as the reader leaves L'Estrange Head and Couling's narrative to follow Laura Ashworth's history, moves away from the decaying physical structure to discover an equally decaying, empty spiritual structure. Much of Laura's report deals less with her relationship to the twins than with her father's life. Aldiss meticulously reveals her gradual discovery of the barrenness within the organized religions represented by her father, an Anglican clergyman who eventually leaves his own church. Significantly, her early life was spent in the vicarage, a place she describes as being "dark and awful. But I loved it. The rooms were like jungles. I was a little wild beast" (p. 32). The church, which should have lent stability and civility to her life, has distintegrated. Her father preaches "trendy" doctrine, but with the head only; his heart is too weak to allow the full engagement with Christianity his calling requires. Like the twins' hearts, his heart is incapable of supporting the burden it must bear—and he leaves the church. Roberta, too, leaves the church: "I was a Christian once and it hurt too much. I gave it up. I saw my father was preaching hogwash. I hated him then" (p. 35). Her father resigns his post; the vicarage itself, with its freight of darkness and tradition, is torn down and replaced by a "trendy" modern flat, equally devoid of any spiritual strength. Thus, one of the main supports that might have provided order and unity in the twins' lives, religion, is absent, both literally and figuratively. The Howes remain, ironically, the single suggestion of any "trinity" in the narrative.
But other supports fail as well. When Couling passes through the shadows of the abbey into the Howe's home, the first thing he notes is Albert Howe's taxidermy collection, "stuffed mementoes of the living world outside; wherever one looked, dead eyes glinted" (p. 17). This dead, isolated existence has shaped the twins for eighteen years. With neither mother (who died while they were infants) nor caring father, they remove themselves more and more from humanity. While this forces them to rely more on each other, it also paradoxically enforces an estrangement between them. Tom, we learn, would naturally have withdrawn from his more aggressive brother, but could not because of the connecting ligament. Barry, we also learn, might not have been so aggressive had he been able to enjoy some privacy. Their isolation works ambiguously, both dividing and uniting them.
Couling then enters the kitchen, where he sees a dead seabird crucified, "stretched out on a board with its pinions taped outspread and its gizzard slit open" (p. 17). This image is reflected throughout the narrative. The Howes are removed from the Head, taken to London, and exhibited, exposed to a humanity with which they have little connection. Because of their deformity, their singing group, the "Bang-Bang," was not, as Couling explains, "a solo singer, nor was it a pop group. It was Siamese twins. And the twins' first and most perennial song—as Zak Bedderwick had calculated—provoked the ever-interesting question: what was their sex life like?" (p. 30). The twins are anatomized by society, just as they are anatomized by the various reports Roberta Howe collects, and ultimately they are anatomized by Aldiss himself, who lays bare their psychic as well as their physical aberrations.
Later, after their return to the Head and the escalation of their hatred for one other, the twins become one with the Head's animal life. Aldiss metaphorically associates them with wild things and savage beasts. Simultaneously, the now poisonous waters of the Head kill off the wildlife, just as the Head's isolation has in effect destroyed the twins. The twins' tragedy is foreshadowed by the ruin of nature itself. The weather turns scorching hot and precipitates a drought; the heat kills the Howe's retriever, ironically named Hope.
The twins revert entirely to wild creatures who run naked through the desolation. They are "feral," a "minotaur," a "four-legged beast." Finally, Robert says, "They were not my brothers anymore. Instead they were something—elemental is perhaps the best word" (p. 72). Their dissent forces them into a continuous state of warfare: They pummel one another, and each tries to starve the other into submission. The human psyche is symbolically isolated and divided against itself.
The result is tragedy. Barry's heart fails, as throughout the narrative hearts fail both to supply bodies with blood and to provide the love and warmth necessary for human life. Barry's head suffers brain damage when Tom's heart proves too weak to supply sufficient blood for their shared circulatory system. An artificial heart is implanted, but Tom is still linked to two unconscious heads and must consciously manipulate two bodies.
Gradually, the third head—the symbolic subconscious—awakens from its dream state and attempts to destroy Tom and gain full control over the bodies. In the final chapter Tom experiences three dreams; each reflects his own psychological state, and each prepares the reader for the awakening of the third head and the final, horrific struggle for control. The message of the third head, Wingrove argues, is that in suppressing its animal nature, as Tom has done in surpressing Barry, mankind awakens the "violent, uncontrolled" forces of the subconscious. "The movement of Modern Man towards nuclear war," he continues, drawing perhaps too specific a moral from the narrative, "is thus seen in a new light. As ever in Aldiss, microcosm reflects macrocosm."14
Tom's brief moment of peace is shattered with the awakening of the increasingly active and malevolent third head, which uses Barry's body in an attempt to strangle Tom while he sleeps. Finally, in a fit of bestial rage, the twins/triplets (at this point, clear definitions fail) flee from the house and disappear into the barrenness of L'Estrange Head. Unseen, they battle for final control; Tom wins, but only at the cost of his own life.
Roberta and Laura find the corpses. The third head is bruised and bloody where Tom had hit it with a stone, and Tom's dead hand still clutches the scallop shell with which he had removed the artificial heart from Barry's body. But, Roberta concludes, "He must have died almost as soon as the other one. The load on his heart would have been great" (p. 101). Again—finally—hearts fail and life stops. Tom's triumph is subsumed by the larger tragedy that their struggle could lead only to defeat.15
For all of its brevity, Brothers of the Head is powerful, imaginatively conceived, and carefully developed. Underneath this parable of the human psyche is a discussion of perennial Aldissian issues: the intersection of art and reality, particularly in those instances when the twins incorporate the title of Aldiss's 1976 short story "Year by Year the Evil Gains" into their songs; entropy, as old values disappear to be replaced by a "suspension of life" (p. 70); and the potential in language for multiple meanings and ambiguity. Aldiss looks backward to his own works, as Wingrove has noted. This is particularly the case in such passages as Dr. Collins' warning that replacing Barry's heart with an APPCOR (Auto-Powered Prosthetic Cardiac Organ Replacement) would make the operating physician "little better than Victor Frankenstein, bringing a creature to life without any thought of what might follow" (p. 77). Ironically, the creature in this case is not Barry but the malevolent, terrifying, and incomprehensible "Other" that has until now existed only in a dream world. And Brothers of the Head looks forward as well; it incorporates brief references to Marxism and capitalism that become central in Aldiss's next novel, Enemies of the System, and a larger imagistic sense of decay and decline within Western civilization that develops into his unfairly neglected non-science fiction novel, Life in the West,16 and his masterwork (to date), the Helliconia volumes.
Short though it may be, Brothers of the Head is both impressive and weighty. It leaves the reader ultimately unsatisfied in the best possible way. There must be more to life than this, one feels, but what? That question drives the reader back to the psychological landscape of the narrative in a search for one more clue to a final answer that is ultimately as elusive as the lives of Barry, Tom, and the Other. Everyone around them observes and reports, presuming to "explain" the twins, who never speak for themselves. Their greatest moments—and their worst—go unrecorded. Those moments are given life through the narrative, but it is a life that exists only in the imaginations of the readers.
1 Brian Aldiss, letter to Lawrence Ashmead, 23 January 1968.
2 David Wingrove and Brian Griffin, Apertures: A Study of the Writings of Brian W. Aldiss (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1984), p. 211.
3 Richard Mathews, writing while Brothers of the Head was still in the galley stage, notes that readers might assume the later work to be a sequel to Barefoot in the Head but that such an assumption would be inaccurate. See Aldiss Unbound: The Science Fiction of Brian W. Aldiss (San Bernardino, Calif.: Borge Press, 1977), p. 59.
4 Mathews, p. 59.
5 Wingrove, p. 215. A subsequent footnote traces the "familial resemblances" between Brothers of the Head and Aldiss's earlier novels and short stories.
6 The pun is both intentional and tragic.
7 Wingrove, p. 213.
8 In light of the theological levels implicit in Aldiss's novel, it is worth noting that in both Brothers of the Head and Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1959) individuals and worlds destory themselves. The implication is that a technological society has moved beyond the control of morality.
9 Wingrove, pp. 211-12.
10 Yet, in a typically Aldissian paradox, inner also mirrors outer: As in Report on Probability A, this ultimately leaves the reader with no "key" for identifying the matrix of observations and assumptions.
11 Matthew Arnold, "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse," 11. 85-86.
12 Brian W. Aldiss, Brothers of the Head and Where the Lines Converge (London: Panther, 1979), p. 11. Pagination for further citations from the text are given parenthetically.
13 Wingrove, p. 212.
14 Ibid., p. 213.
15 Ibid., p. 212.
16 For a brief discussion of Life in the West, see my review in Fantasy Review 67 (May 1984): 24.
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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 Orders and Other Stories (1977), New Arrivals, Old Encounters (1980), Foreign Bodies (1981), Best of Aldiss (1983; a British magazine collection), and Seasons in Flight (1984).
While the sheer number of volumes attests to his productivity, it does not indicate the care with which the individual collections were assembled; in many instances, they approach the coherence and unity of novels, while several of his novels—including Hothouse, Barefoot, Report, and parts of Malacia—appeared first as short stories. Clearly, the dividing line between the two genres is unusually fluid for Aldiss.
In a study as limited as this, it is impossible to examine the short fiction as carefully as it deserves. But from his earliest stories, the hallmarks of his imagination, humor, and deep concern for humanity are present. In his first collection, STAN [Space, Time and Nathaniel], for example, we already see much that Aldiss will refine during the next decades. STAN is impressive, even after almost thirty years and over two-hundred more stories. It defines its themes in its title and in the arrangement of the Table of Contents: four stories under the heading "Space"; four under "Time"; and six under "Nathaniel and Other People." In the stories, Aldiss examines the relationship of space and time and their impact upon humanity. To return to the initial metaphor of Aldiss as map-maker, STAN begins surveying the landscape that Aldiss would explore throughout his career.
The first story, "T," demonstrates the control that marks Aldiss as a writer. It is a curious tale, shorn of many elements one expects in a science-fiction story from the late 1950s. There is essentially only one character, T, a biological construct sent to destroy the Earth. Aldiss distorts space and time as T moves backward through time to destroy Earth before it threatens the empire. A plot summary suggests stereotypic space opera, but that is precisely what the story does not deliver. Instead, Aldiss creates empathy for T, defining coldly and dispassionately the genetic and biological engineering that created the lump of barely sentient and barely animate tissue, without thought or loneliness or self-awareness, whose only function is to watch a thin red/green line moving through the space-time continuum. His fellows are destroyed through a number of accidents, until only three of the original twelve appear in the solar system, some two-hundred years later in T's time-frame but before the appearance of life on Earth.
T and his fellows fulfill their mission—to destroy the seventh planet, counting inward from the boundaries of the system. And then Aldiss springs his joke, pointing up the inherent absurdities of a tale based on time travel. The plan succeeds; the sixth planet is shattered accidentally, and the seventh destroyed. But they had read the map backward: "If they had read it aright, they would have seen. . . ." Sol originally had nine planets; Earth is the seventh only after the asteroid planet and T's planet have been destroyed. The future remains unchanged.
That Aldiss intended his collections as quasi-novels is quite clear in Galaxies Like Grains of Sand. Although all of the stories had earlier appeared in magazines, Aldiss organized them into a coherent unity, ignoring the chronology of publication and giving them additional titles to suggest the place of each in his narrative: "The War Millennia," "The Sterile Millennia," "The Robot Millennia," and so on, culminating in "The Megalopolis Millennia" and "The Ultimate Millennia." Between each section, he interpolates interchapters, bridging narrative gaps and swinging the reader's attention to the new tale. The collection begins with "a strange past world, where clouds of nationalism have gathered and broken into a storm of war. Over the forgotten continents—Asia, America, Africa—missiles of destruction fly" (Ch. 1). Aldiss systematically describes permutations in society and humanity over generations, each story focusing on a particular change, until, in "The Ultimate Millennia . . . Visiting Amoeba," Aldiss describes the dissolution of the galaxy itself. The story is powerful, imaginative and iconoclastic, from its initial second-person narrative stance to its final evocation of triumph and defeat. "Nothing is meant to last," Aldiss writes, echoing C. S. Lewis' Oyarsa and Sorns on Malacandra; even galaxies must die. Into the old galaxy something new has intruded, a character whose molecules are themselves new, powerful. He is "the one fresh factor in an exhausted galaxy (Ch. 8, section 8). Through him, humanity, represented by the Highest, discovers the mortality of the galaxy . . . and the fact that the intrusion of new elements has hastened its death. "What should be told to the people of the Galaxy," the Highest asks.
"Tell them what a galaxy is. . . . Don't soften it. They are brave. Explain to them once more that there are galaxies like grains of sand, each galaxy a cosmic laboratory for the blind experiments of nature. Explain to them how little individual lives mean compared to the unknown goals of the race. Tell them—tell them that this laboratory is closing. A newer one, with more modern equipment, is opening just down the street."
"They shall be told," the Highest said, his face a shadow as night fell upon the old city and the stars (Ch. 8, section 8).
Of the collections, Last Orders is perhaps the most powerful and the most difficult. It is a complex of maps and mapmakers, from the map-like cracks on the roof in "Last Orders" to "cartographic excursions" in "The Immortality Crew," a non-story segment of "Enigma 2: Diagrams for Three Stories"; to Chin Ping Neverson's map and "homeopathic finches" that chart out the future in "Waiting for the Universe to Begin," part one of "Enigma 3: The Aperture Moment"; to "predestinographologists in "Live? Our Computers Will Do That For Us." Aldiss refers back to his earlier novels, to themes he has dealt with before, including art and life, time, stasis and change. In turn, subsequent novels borrow from Last Orders: "Creatures of Apogee" reads like a sketch for Helliconia.
Philip E. Smith's "Last Orders and First Principles for the Interpretation of Aldiss' Enigmas" argues that Last Orders presents a blueprint for Aldiss' theories of science fiction. Beginning with the "Author's Note," a narrative fragment initialled B. W. A., and the first story, "Last Orders," the collection "contains mutually referential, reflexive, self-aware fictions concerned with the interplay of reality and artifice; its structure and content suggest not only a method of reading and interpreting the text, but also a theory about science fiction."1 Among other things, Smith points to the "Enigmas," which Aldiss describes as
. . . slightly surreal escapades grouped in threesomes—a form which provides the chance for cross references and certain small alternatives not always available in one story. I've always admired fiction which avoids glib explanations and espouses the sheer inexplicability of the universe (hence an affection, I suppose, for Hardy, Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Kavan); these attempts are dedicated to the enigmatic universe in which we find ourselves.2
In Last Orders, the five sets of enigmas vary from completed narratives to sketches for possibilities to imagistic suggestions. In part, the difficulty of the collection (and its power) lies in its transferring part of the responsibility for interpretation onto the reader. Aldiss is willing to suggest—to provide maps—but the reader must follow those maps and determine precisely where they lead.
In the "Author's Note" Aldiss writes:
And the man in the sharp suit said, "People want to be cheered up. They want to hear about real things."
"One or the other you can have. Not both. See, my stories are about human woes, non-communication, disappointment, endurance, acceptance, love. Aren't those things real enough? Nobody's fool enough to imagine that any near-future developments will obliterate them. Change there will be . . . But the new old blues sing on forever . . ."
Everyone in the crowd was drinking fast, laughing and gesticulating. They knew the world was going to end next week.
That range of possibility, coupled with the imminence of a disaster frozen in time (what Aldiss elsewhere calls the "paralysis of time") forms Last Orders, as it formed so many of Aldiss' other fictions.
Following LO [ Last Orders], Aldiss published several other collections. Foreign Bodies has the distinction of being perhaps the scarcest first edition of his works; published in Singapore by Chopmen in an edition of two hundred, it is more mainstream than science fiction. Two of the stories, however, touch upon the fantastic. "Boat Animals" is a fantastic/allegorical treatment of the plight of the Boat People in the Far East. Ironic and humorous, it becomes fiercely biting at times, in both its situations and in its fine details. "The Skeleton" is brief, enigmatic, yet ultimately convincing—within its simplicity is a strong sense of meaning, relating East with West. The longest piece, "Frontiers," is less strictly fantastic, defining instead the balance between East and West in contemporary Asia.
Aldiss' most recent collection, Seasons in Flight (1984), continues his explorations into landscapes and style. The ten tales include two older stories—"The O in Jose" (1966) and "A Romance of the Equator" (1979)—along with eight others originally published since 1982: "The Other Side of the Lake," "The Gods in Flight," "The Blue Background," "Igur and the Mountain," "Incident in a Far Country," "The Girl Who Sang," "The Plain, The Endless Plain," and "Consolations of Age." As in his other collections, the stories here merge to suggest at least the outlines of a completed fiction; they use varying landscapes to trace the themes of war, of conflict between cultural beliefs, of pasts and futures that impinge upon the present. "The Girl Who Sang," for example, examines these themes against the backdrop of Helliconia. "The Other Side of the Lake," on the other hand, seems clearly located somewhere on our world, in our time; but there is a curiously timeless quality about the narrative that makes identifying a specific setting unnecessary. "The Plain, the Endless Plain" uses the abstraction of myth as it details the development of the Tribe through countless generations, through an unnamed land in an unnamed time, yet it finally redounds upon us as The Tribe finally sees the goal they have struggled for since Generation One—the misty outline of mountains against the edge of the unending plain:
The Tribe landed again, abuzz with excitement.
And at that moment enormous lights lit the sky overhead, such as none had ever known. And there were huge roaring noises. The ground shook. And a dazzling brilliance such as they had never known shone down from above and extinguished them.
Aldiss allows the reader final interpretation, but the analogues with Western culture are clear. As always, Seasons in Flight both satisfies and stimulates; the stories are self-contained narratives while simultaneously part of a larger whole—the vision of Brian Aldiss.
In general, Aldiss' short fiction defies easy classification. Each individual story must be considered on its own ground. Some seem straightforward science-fictional adventure, "Tyrant's Territory" (1962) for example. Others press beyond the conventional boundaries of science fiction: "Where the Lines Converge" (1977) or "The Small Stones of Tu Fu" (1978). Some, like the award-winning "The Saliva Tree," (1966), Reflect Aldiss' literary heritage; others, including "Total Environment" (1968) and "That Uncomfortable Pause Between Life and Art" (1969) indicate Aldiss' concern for society, for problems such as overcrowding, and for the purposes of art. Many deserve special attention: "The New Father Christmas" (1958), with its eerie evocation of the fate of dying humanity in a machine culture; "Tyrant's Territory" (1962), with its finely realized alien life-forms; "Full Sun," with its intriguingly science-fictional perspective on the werewolf traditions of horror-fantasy ; or "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long," with its understated irony. But no matter which story he tells, Aldiss can be counted on to provide interesting excursions into possibilities, excursions which not only entertain but engage the reader's imagination and intellect.
1 The paper was read at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, sponsored by Florida Atlantic University, March 1983 It is scheduled for publication in volume four of the conference proceedings.
2 Citing Brian W. Aldiss, "Afterword" to "Diagram for Three Enigmatic Stories," in Final Stages, ed. Edward L. Ferman and Barry N. Malzberg (New York: Charterhouse, 1974; rpt. New York: Penguin, 1975), p. 90.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1911
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 science fiction or a story revealing a human foible, Aldiss always enlightens us about himself as a thinker.
Most interestingly, these new volumes shed light on Aldiss, both directly, in the autobiographical essays in The Pale Shadow of Science, and indirectly, through his comments on human nature embodied in his short stories. In the essays there are vignettes of Aldiss as a boy in the world of an English boarding school and as an adult on a troopship headed for India or in the hectic confines of a science-fiction convention. In the stories, boys and men function within very different worlds, but their reactions to the conditions of being human are universal.
Take, for example, a segment from an essay in The Pale Shadow of Science entitled "A Monster for All Seasons." This essay is central to the book because it combines personal anecdotes with self-satire and information about the development of science fiction with a wry comment on science fiction as it is today. The essay also shows Aldiss as the jester he is, juggling words and echoes of great literary phrases and titles with great agility and originality.
But first, a story. The scene is the main convention hall of a science fiction convention, New York, in 1975, Lunacon, held in the crumbling Commodore Hotel, New York, in 1975. Famous critic, fan, and collector, Sam Moskowitz, is holding forth from the platform. Fans are slouching around in the hall, sleeping, listening, or necking. I am sitting towards the back of the hall, conversing with a learned and attractive lady behind me or else gazing ahead, watching interestedly the way Moskowitz's lips move. In short, the usual hectic convention scene.
Fans who happen to be aware of my presence turn around occasionally to stare at me. I interpret these glances as the inescapable tributes of fame, and take care to look natural, though not undistinguished, and thoroughly absorbed in the speech.
Later, someone comes up to me and says, admiringly, "Gee, you were real cool while Moskowitz was attacking you."
That is how I gained my reputation for English sang froid (or snag froid, as my typewriter puts it). The acoustics in the hall were so appalling that I could not hear a word Moskowitz was saying against me.
It seems that Moskowitz was bewailing some of the judgments made by Aldiss in his literary history of science fiction, The Billion Year Spree (1973). In "A Monster for All Seasons," Aldiss discusses the book that took three years to complete.
I had no financial support, and was assisted by no seat of learning. I favored no clique. I used my own library. I consulted no one. Really, it was a bit of a gamble, since I have a wife and children to support by my writing.
It was also a labor of love.
I looked inward to the sf field itself and outward to the general reader, Samuel Johnson's and Virginia Woolf's common reader; I wished to argue against certain misconceptions which vexed me, and I hoped to demonstrate what those who did not read sf were missing.
Along the way, Aldiss discovered and discussed the progenitors of today's science fiction and provided definitions of science ficiton. Characteristically, he came up with two definitions, one for academics and others to chew upon—which they eagerly did—and one to savor:
Science fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge [science], and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould.
SF is about hubris clobbered by nemesis.
In its earliest days, and in the hands of Aldiss today, science fiction had a "stinging function," says Aldiss. It was concerned with spiritual isolation and with digging at society's ills. It attracted both satirist and thinker.
In "A Monster for All Seasons," Aldiss sees today's sf as all too often "fixed to suit mass taste." "Instant Whip" formulae are applied to sf producing a "blander product." And Aldiss sees a
fundamental ambivalence . . . towards science itself. Even technology-oriented authors like Arthur C. Clarke show science superceded by or transcended by mysticism and religion; such surely is the meaning of [Clarke's] most famous short story, "The Nine Billion Names of God." It is not science but the fulfillment of religion which brings about the termination of the universe. The world ends not with a bang but with a vesper.
Here is Aldiss at his best, serving up information that startles with its phrasing, something many academics who carefully study science fiction seem incapable of doing. In the same essay, Aldiss observes their appearance on the science fictional landscape, notes their limitations shrewdly, but treats them with kindness, just as he does many of his characters.
As we have already seen in the science fiction convention anecdote, Aldiss is gifted in telling nonfiction as a story. "Preparation for What?" is a recollection, told in almost Dickensian terms, of Aldiss' first, bleak boarding school experience. The headmaster was Mr. Fangby,
a smoothly porcine man with a thin nose and thinning hair swept and stuck back over a domelike head. I never really disliked him for much of the time, though it is hard to say why. His wife looked after their child and, when meals were over, Mr. Fangby could be seen doing the washing up and dolorously drying the dishes on an old baby's napkin.
Sunday was the day when the local lads triumphed, when our humiliation was greatest. For the fool Fangby, impelled to destruction by some folk myth of decent schools which he had never seen, made his boarders dress in Sunday best. This meant black pin-stripe trousers, black jackets, ties and Eton collars. Eton collars are wide and stiff, permitting the wearer about as much freedom and comfort as an ox gets from a yoke. In this loathed outfit, and with the addition of straw boaters, the twelve of us were made to march in crocodile five miles to Mundesley Church for the morning service.
What a rare show for the local lads. In their hobnails, cords, collarless shirts and braces, they would turn up and laugh or trip or kick us as we passed. It was a relief to arrive at the church.
But Aldiss and his peers were not always the underdogs. When a small Italian-Jewish boy was admitted to the school, the other boys had no pity on him and treated him cruelly. They teased him about his foreign clothes, stole his treasured belongings; "we excelled in being unpleasant," Aldiss recalls. "We made his life a misery. We made his every day a torment."
"Why did we do it? . . . Why had we no compassion? . . . Was it the a barbarity of the Anglo-Saxon way of life? Or was it something more basic, more cruel in human behavior?" Aldiss asks himself. "My remorse did not develop till some years later, when I started to comprehend the world from an adult viewpoint. Compassion springs from a position of some security."
But if one Aldiss story is to be believed, compassion may lead nowhere, even when it is offered from a position of security. "Incident in a Far Country" is one of ten stories told in a folkloric tone and style anthologized in Seasons of Flight The story tells of a privileged prince who had every skill and advantage life could offer, but had the strange desire to free his slaves. His sense of equality among men results in his own enslavement and the downfall of his kingdom. The slaves, having tasted power, demand more, and a neighboring kingdom, perceiving weakness in the prince's realm, greedily takes it over. The story is deceptively simple and enriched along the way with profound comments on human interaction. For example, a slave first awakens the prince's awareness of the slave's integrity by looking straight at his sovereign, a forbidden act in that society. "It was said afterwards that his look was one of defiance. The prince took it merely as a look of understanding. The astonishing fact is that, despite thousands of years of practice, men and women still do not comprehend each other's expressions."
Aldiss recognizes that despite countless lessons, human beings cannot control their warlike nature. "The Gods in Flight" is the story of a tourist haunt in the Southern Hemisphere. The last Northern visitors to arrive are refugees from the nuclear holocaust that they, as officers and politicians, have caused. And in "The Plain, the Endless Plain" ten generations base their society on ceaseless flight from an ancient, unknown, superior enemy.
In the finest story in Seasons in Flight, Aldiss uses understatement to move the reader. In "The Blue Background," a poor country boy finds himself drawn to the primitive, carved crucifix in a ruined church where no one worships. When a stranger arrives in the village to document the countryside photographically, the boy leads him to the crucifix. Years pass and the photographer is forgotten. The boy "grew to manhood and married . . . For a few weeks life for them was paradise; but the demands of toil eroded the edge of their happiness. There was no freedom from the fields. They became just another couple." The church crumbles, finally, in a rain storm, and, later, a large, impressive book of photographs arrives. The boy, now a man, looks at the image of the crucifix only briefly and returns to his toil in the fields with contempt for the photographer. "He had photographed the old timber figure, certainly. But his photograph was in sepia. It failed to capture the blue background, the glimpse of infinity, that Lajah had once loved, before life closed in."
Although life closes in on this character, for Aldiss life is not a trap but an endless supply of material to write about, wryly, bitingly, and movingly. His latest books prove that he has attained a mastery over a wide array of situaitons and ideas. Whether he writes literary criticism or autobiographical sketches, stories with a scope encompassing ten generations or the small, insignificant cares of one peasant, Aldiss' work is exciting, mature, insightful, and filled with welcome surprises.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4838
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).
When an author like Aldiss interviews himself at the end of one of his stories, provides two endings, and insists upon the primacy of interpretation, readers do well to take him at his word and reread his stories with new attentiveness to critical method. Aldiss's suggestion led me to read and reread Last Orders (1977), a collection of fourteen mutually referential, reflexive, self-aware fictions concerned with the interplay of reality and artifice; its structure and content suggest not only a method of reading and interpreting the text, but also a theory about science fiction.
I base my approach to Last Orders on the enabling assumptions of pragmatic and inductive criticism: first, that we are not solipsists, but a community of readers who agree that we can read and interpret the same text; second, that the goal of critical reading is to produce hypotheses that propose ways of trying to find and understand the unity of structure and intended meaning in any text, especially in a collection like this one. Such interpretive hypotheses might also suggest ways of understanding the collection itself as part of the author's oeuvre. Further, I assume that as readers and critics we bring to our reading and hypotheses important information, ideas, attitudes, and expectations about an author or genre as well as about modern literature and its social and cultural contexts. These two complementary approaches, first inward through close heuristic analysis of structure, and then outward by means of the identification and comparative interpretation of allusive references, can be only briefly demonstrated here.
A reader's first exploration of a text provides the occasion for inductive analysis of structure and of cumulative revelations or perceptions of continuities in ideas, characterization, or structures. This kind of heuristic, inward reading tests analytical expectations and responses against a text's later revelations, and, when applied to Last Orders, it provides the grounds for asserting that the collection suggests its own method of reading.
To begin at the beginning, inspection of the contents and acknowledgments pages for clues about the structure of Last Orders reveals not only the presence of an "Author's Note" followed by the title story in the significant position of beginning the collection, but also the numerical listing of several stories called "Enigmas" (one through five) among the other nine unnumbered stories. A comparison of the dates of original publication found on the acknowledgments page with their arrangement in Last Orders shows that the stories are not chronologically ordered. The ninth and tenth stories were the earliest published (1973), while the second story was the last to be published (1977). One may infer that a purposive structuring has occurred, and that the arrangement from first to last constitutes an interpretable design.
The "Author's Note" implies both the thematic coherence of Last Orders as a collection of stories and the awareness that it should be read and understood from the start as exhibiting self-consciousness of its place as a text within its genre of science fiction. Cast in the form of a parable, the "Author's Note" recounts a meeting, in a small room crowded with drinking, smoking, laughing people, between a well-dressed man and another man playing sentences on a piano-sized typewriter (p. 8). The sharp dresser represents the mainstream reader, the outsider; when he asks why the typewriter player turns out "that fantasy stuff," he provokes a statement about genre and intentions: "I believe in what I do. This is where I sing the science fiction blues" (p. 9). The sf-blues player recognizes that his genre is out of the mainstream, and that his own work creates offense among readers, but he prefers to operate from an antagonistic position. When the well-dressed man objects that people prefer to be made happy and "to hear about real things," the typewriter player responds that readers can't have it both ways: "See, my stories are about human woes, non-communication, disappointment, endurance, acceptance, love. Aren't those things real enough? Nobody's fool enough to imagine that any near-future developments will obliterate them. Change there will be. . . . But the new old blues sing on for ever . . ." (p. 9).
The initials "B. W. A." at the bottom of the page, as well as the heading "Author's Note," make the identification of Aldiss with the typewriter player obvious and necessary. Yet the choice of parable rather than direct statement implies that the reader must be aware of the function of its narrative form. Despite this attempt at distancing, if analysis and interpretation of the author's parable seem easy and obvious, they also invite the reader into the work to test the parable's meaning against the stories to come: will they constitute the fictional form of the new-old science fiction blues? Will they be written in a style that offends? Will they be about the real things in human experience which outlast near-future developments? Will they differ from both mainstream fiction and ordinary science fiction? Such questions and expectations should remind the reader that there are both inward and outward kinds of analysis implied here: inward technical analysis of structure, based on close reading, comparative thinking, and induction; outward comparative and judgmental analysis based on knowledge of Aldiss's other works, of the genre, and of modern mainstream fiction.
The bar or party setting for the "Author's Note" seems to mirror a particularly modern milieu: it is full of people who "knew the world was going to end next week" (p. 9). There is a continuity in the apolcalyptic situation extending between the "Author's Note" and the collection's eponymous opening story, which takes its title from the English bartenders' cry at closing time. Drinking up at the end of the world is precisely what the three characters in the story do. Aldiss sketches briefly some of the components of a cosmic collision story like H. G. Wells's "The Star" then overturns the generic expectations by refusing to complete the plot pattern implied by the story's exposition. There is no account of a planetary disaster followed by a Wellsian meditation on life as viewed from the cosmic perspective; nor is there a Heinleinesque adventure in which Man, aided by technology and the survival instinct, triumphs over Nature. The opening seven or eight paragraphs establish the situation: the moon, fissured and shattered, is approaching Earth, and Jim, a capable police captain on a rescue mission, is picking up the last remaining inhabitants of the planet. He finds two people chatting in a bar—they are happy to talk and tell stories, and they do not find the threat of the world ending significant enough to want seriously to be rescued. They are average citizens of a future world: an extraterrestrial-swimming-pool engineer and an older unmarried woman. Because of their ordinariness they would be unlikely characters in most action-adventure science fiction—they are more like the ordinary people who appear in the fiction of Dickens, Kafka, and Dick.
As it becomes clear that the Captain's rescue mission will fail because the victims prefer drinking and conversation, and as the Captain is drawn into their comfortable way of talking and storytelling, "Last Orders" becomes an overture or fable that enacts the subversion of the standard themes, plots, and characters of science fiction. The attraction of companionship, storytelling, stories, and their subjects (frustrated romance, works of art, the patterns of cracks in a ceiling, maps, an antique chest with a secret drawer in which a woman hid a secret diary) suggest that readers of the remaining stories should not expect science fiction's stock in trade, but should prepare for the interpretation of patterns, of maps, fissures, cracks, of the meaning of secret diaries in secret drawers, of the significance of art masterpieces such as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling (in Houston), and of copies of art (the engineer has built an off-Earth swimming pool with a million-piece mosaic copy of Michelangelo's "Creation" at the bottom).
If one is drawn away from generic expectations of apocalyptic disaster or adventurous rescue, and if one goes willingly into the bar with Captain Jim, and finally if one is content to take a drink and enter the back parlor for more stories, then the text has subverted the reader, too.
The end of the world still threatens, but it is frozen, incomplete, a looming iceberg rather than an irresistible process. Like the swimming-pool engineer, fascinated by old works of art in new settings, one must also look for the patterns and cracks, the fissures and indeterminacies that suggest maps of meaning and unexpected ways of thinking about science fiction.
Thus the "Author's Note" and "Last Orders" suggest the outline of a heuristic interpretive approach that itself will be modified by other stories in the collection, beginning with the next fable, "Creatures of Apogee," which beautifully complements the previous tale of the end of the world as faced (or ignored) by three storytelling humans. In "Creatures of Apogee" three aliens contemplate the severe, cyclical, climatic changes (prefiguring those described in Aldiss's Helliconia novels) about to occur as their planet approaches its sun along an extended elliptical orbit. Their race will have to retire from the surface for many generations, to be replaced by the creatures of perihelion, another form of planetary life that lies dormant and then revives to live out its active generations when the annual great changes occur. While the three humans of "Last Orders" retire to tell stories, the three aliens retire "to rest, to sleep, to dream" (p. 27). If "Last Orders" can be interpreted as a story that subverts the expectations of science fiction readers for action and adventure and suggests that readers think about the fictionality of what they read as well as the function and value of storytelling in everyday life, then "Creatures of Apogee" complements "Last Orders" interpretively, too, because just as the humans go to tell stories, the aliens go to dream.
Dream and storytelling both involve creative and interpretive manifestations of the imagination or subconscious mind. Both modes reflect and reify a reality known to the dreamer or storyteller, just as the collection, Last Orders, reflects and reifies in its stories a reality known to Brian Aldiss and frozen in words for his readers. His stories and dreams ask us to reflect a new ways about the reality we share with the author, and also about the ways we capture that reality in stories, dreams, and even stories-as-dreams or dreams-as-stories.
Aldiss, who has shown his fascination with the theory of fiction and with dreams in many ways and in many texts—Report on Probability A being best known in this respect to his readers—opens Last Orders with three suggestive and instructive pieces that call upon the reader to think not only about life under the threatening conditions of potential environmental, cosmic, or nuclear disaster—the end of the world—which seem to overshadow us in the second half of this century, but also about the ways in which we write, dream, and read stories, especially within the genre of science fiction. The topics of dreaming and storytelling extend throughout most of Last Orders, and one inward approach to analysis of the collection would be to continue testing, serially and heuristically, my hypothesis about the stories as self-conscious fictions.
Had we but world enough and time, this kind of criticism were no crime; but the consequence of what might be called (with apologies to Andrew Marvell) "vegetable criticism"—the close, inductive analysis of structure and meaning—is that it can "grow / Vaster than empires and more slow." The remaining stories in Last Orders could be analyzed and interpreted in the same inward and fruitful way, but there are so many additional avenues outward, so many correspondences of topics, ideas, characters, and techniques, such a complex texture of allusions and cross references, of reflexive dreaming, and of self-conscious humor, that they can only be mentioned and sampled briefly here. I will concentrate on those aspects that reveal the mutually reflexive relationship of artifice and reality already shown in the first three pieces.
The concern for artifice may be found not only in the structure of parallelisms and correspondences related to storytelling, dreaming, and interpretation; it is also present in the texture of allusions to some of Aldiss's other fictions, to fiction and poetry by other writers, and to paintings and painters. Such allusions, like the presence of Aldiss as the subject of the interview which concludes Last Orders, insist on interpretation of fiction as artifice, but simultaneously force recognition of "The Uncomfortable Pause Between Life and Art," the apposite title of an Aldiss story collected in The Moment of Eclipse (1970). Not only is the title relevant, but so is the story itself: Aldiss appears as the narrator and directs the story to an audience unfamiliar with his status as science-fiction writer (it was originally published in Queen, a British magazine aimed at an affluent general readership). Aldiss describes himself as having just viewed an exhibition of William Holman Hunt's paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and he mentions, "Since there is no danger that any of my present readers have heard of Report on Probability A, I might as well say that one of my themes was a paralysis of time, which I pretended to detect and find exemplified in the anecdotalism of this canvas [Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd], and similar Victorian paintings."2
References to Hunt's paintings in Aldiss's fiction suggest how he uses fiction to comment upon and remake art, just as artists often choose moments from fiction as subjects for illustration. Hunt's paintings appear several times in Last Orders, most notably in "Enigma 3: The Aperture Moment," a set of three stories in which the relationship of art to insanity and to self-knowledge is juxtaposed with ideas of frozen time and animated paintings, especially Hunt's The Awakening Conscience. The same story includes the animating of another Victorian painting, Sir Edward Poynter's Faithful Unto Death, which has an apocalyptic personal resonance for Aldiss—he recalls it in the opening paragraph of an essay, "The Fireby-Wireby Book": "My maternal grandmother's home was in Peter-borough, a prim house built of Fletton brick. . . . Upstairs was a forbidding picture which made the way to bed terrible: Sir Edward Poynter's Faithful Unto Death, showing the Roman centurion at Pompeii about to be engulfed by lava, while the population fled."3
Aldiss suggests interpretations for the Hunt and Poynter paintings, and others, when he fictionally animates them into new contexts in Last Orders. That such interpretations beget others should also be expected: for example, Poynter's centurion about to perish nobly at Pompeii suggests Captain Jim of the Space Police in "Last Orders," and also, therefore, all the dutiful heroes of science fiction who are subverted in Aldiss's fiction. There is another correspondence: Captain Jim retires into frozen time at the end of "Last Orders," figuratively to hear told the stories that make up the rest of the volume; conversely, the centurion in Poynter's painting is animated by the artist of "The Aperture Moment" as the artist's way of escaping from his conviction that time is frozen. Hildegarde Neverson, or Neff as he is also named, claims that humans live inside an iceberg of time suspended between the temporal closure of one universe and the beginning of another. Neff imagines that a new Big Bang will start the cosmic clock again; "Till then we retain in our heads the broken dreams of a past universe" Last Orders, (p. 103). When another character asks the artist whether he will be freed from the ice when his paintings move, he answers, enigmatically, "A start has to be made somewhere" (p. 101). These characters provide, in my interpretation, a true estimation of themselves: they are frozen in Aldiss's language; if the fiction (and art works in fiction) that contains them like an iceberg could be animated, then the characters, like Pirandello's famous Six, would begin to live.
The metaphor of frozen life and the paradox of life in an iceberg are parts of another network of allusions in Last Orders. These, too, suggest the paradoxical artificiality and reality of fiction and they imply similarities between Last Orders itself and the "artifiction" written by the artist of "The Aperture Moment," Hildegarde Neff. Significantly, Aldiss describes this mode of writing as containing many simulacra; as in "artification," so in Last Orders, where the British novelist Anna Kavan exists as a simulacrum, an image or semblance of her real self. Aldiss adapts the title and central metaphor of Kavan's last novel, Ice (1967) to his metaphor of frozen time and frozen life. Kavan, who died of a drug overdose in 1968, is resurrected into a kind of shadow life in Aldiss's fiction. She appears in five stories in this collection, and Ice is recommended by one character to another in a sixth. Her resurrection is appropriately fictional, since her own name was a fictional construct uniting one of her character's names with the name of Franz Kafka. Named Helen Woods at birth, she legally changed her name to Anna Kavan after writing six novels. She also dyed her dark hair to the same platinum blonde color that she gave the hair of her unnamed female protagonist in Ice. It figures constantly in the novel's imagery as a correlative of the metaphoric power and presence of ice. Aldiss selected Ice as the best science fiction novel of 1967 and met Kavan not long before her death. She was surprised to learn that she had been writing science fiction. In Billion Year Spree Aldiss describes Ice as "its own self, mysterious, in some ways unsatisfactory, an enigma—like all the greatest science fiction, approaching despair; but in its acceptance of the insoluble, also full of a blind force much like hope."4
In Last Orders Aldiss animates the simulacrum of Anna Kavan variously as writer, lover, and object of desire; the stories sometimes refer to her as having died in an automobile accident on the ice, recalling the conclusion of Ice itself, wherein the two major characters are in a car driving fatalistically through a "cold world of ice and death."5 In such stories she becomes what she intended for the heroine of Ice to be, an archetype of desire. At least, so the characters in the closing story of Last Orders, "Journey to the Heartland," interpret her: Alice recommends and offers to lend Ice to Rose-Jean, suggesting that if she reads it, she will "understand what I mean by the pursuit of archetypes" (p. 206).
Kavan's fictional persona in life and her life as transformed and idealized in fiction are both reflected in the way Aldiss develops the enigmatic style of the fictions in Last Orders. If Ice to him seems "an enigma" worth imitating, then the influence of Kavan appears both as homage to her fictional techniques and as resurrection of her simulacrum in fictional alternate identities in the enigmatic stories where Aldiss animates her character.
Enigmas, technically, are short prose or verse compositions in which something is described by intentionally obscure metaphors—in other words, they are obscure or allusive compositions like riddles or parables. The adaptation of the form to science fiction is one of Aldiss's significant accomplishments; he has brought enigmas from the fantastic yet everyday worlds of Kafka and Kavan into the genre, which, at its best, ambiguously and enigmatically exalts and deplores positivistic extrapolation into the ftiture. Aldiss describes his awareness of the form and its users in an afterword originally published with "Enigma 2: Diagrams for Three Stories" when it appeared for the first time in the anthology, Final Stage:
I've been trying recently to construct what, for want of a better word, are called Enigmas. These are slightly surreal escapades grouped in threesomes—a form which provides the chance for cross references and certain small alternatives not always available in one story. I've always admired fiction which avoids glib explanations and espouses the sheer inexplicability of the universe (hence an affection, I suppose, for Hardy, Dostoevsky, Kafka, and Kavan); these attempts are dedicated to the enigmatic universe in which we find ourselves.6
The three parts of "Enigma 2" are united, Aldiss says, by a theme of confusion of identity (p. 47); they also are united by concerns for dreaming, for interpreting the meanings of dreams, and for the role of art in culture. Anna Kavan appears in the first and third parts, and the deliberate confusion of her fictional identity with the allusion to her real self and circumstances epitomizes other such deliberate confusions in the three parts. Near the end of the third part, Aldiss includes a meditative section that refers to the problem contained in Kavan's presence and in the title of his earlier short story, "The Uncomfortable Pause Between Life and Art." The section appears as notes for the continuation of the story:
Try to show how difficult life is for people, even for aliens.
How difficult art is. How it dies when reduced to a formula.
How art perhaps should be difficult and not have wide appeal. Even how enigmatic the universe is, full of paradoxes and unpredictable side-effects.
How arbitrary everything is. . . ." (p. 70)
These remarks help elucidate both the enigma and the thematics of deliberate difficulty which are present in Aldiss's work and in his theory of science fiction. Paradoxically, too, Aldiss's enigmas are not so difficult that they cannot be solved or interpreted. There exists in his work as much of an impulse to be understood as to be difficult, and it appears not only in privileged paragraphs that contain key ideas for unlocking enigmas, but also in the networks of allusions within and among his works. The network of references to Anna Kavan remains the most apposite example for Last Orders, since these allusions tie together several stories and since they are also related to a more general thematic concern for artifice and reality, which pervades the collection and extends beyond it to outside texts and art works.
One more significant appearance by Anna Kavan remains to be discussed: she is one of the three characters in "Backwater," the story separating the third and fourth Enigmas in Last Orders. Her presence reaffirms the links between Ice and Last Orders; doing so creates another one of the several fictional lives that Aldiss imagines for her; and, implicitly, suggests comparisons and links to her other lives in other stories and to her own "real" and self-created identities. Here she lives as the lover of an obscure novelist in Yuma, drinking and celebrating life (she has already spoken for death, and has been killed, in "Live? Our Computers Will Do That for Us," the fifth story in Last Orders). She functions in "Backwater" as one of a triad of characters who present views on life, art, and criticism. The other two, the novelist Jimmy Petersen, and the "theories-critic" Frank Krawstadt, carry on a desultory, ironic debate with one another and with Anna. The only one to find what he is searching for is Krawstadt, who has come to Yuma to inspect Petersen's collection of antique twentieth-century pinball machines. Petersen mistakenly believes Krawstadt to be interested in his fiction; when Petersen finds that he is valued only for his collection, he despairs. Anna, in this story impersonating a boozy embodiment of the Life Force, wins Petersen back to an acceptance of his life and work. As he decides that he can continue to write his novel-in-progress, Anna suggests that he name it Now that the Future Is Safely Past. Time, once more, has been frozen, here into an eternal present.
If Anna speaks for life and Petersen for art, Krawstadt represents the critic and historian of twentieth-century culture. According to his "Total Environment" theory, pinball machines and science fiction were two important "reactives" helping to shape the culture of the past: "science fiction began as a palatable way to serve up science-fact to the young, and later spawned futurology and what is now called philofiction. I find, paradoxically, that the most neglected arts are often seen to be the most potent reactives when viewed in the light of my theory" (pp. 131-32).
Anna scoffs at such theories, and Petersen, at this point convinced that Krawstadt wants to "rediscover" his autobiographical novels, scoffs at Krawstadt. At the end of the story, however, with Petersen redeemed from despair, the grouping suggests the kind of science-fictional happy ending Aldiss mentions in the closing interview of Last Orders: Petersen and Anna are ready to continue life and art together, and Krawstadt is upstairs delightedly rummaging through galleries of Ballys, making theories and interpretations out of the artifacts of popular culture. Aldiss's idea of a happy ending, if applied there, would suggest that Krawstadt's critical theory, instead of being certifiable, turns out to "mirror true reality" and to vindicate the practice of serious criticism of pinball machines and of science fiction.
There are constellations of meaning for such critics to trace among the galaxies of delight in Last Orders, those enigmatic triads of "philofiction" or "artifiction" stories which, in turn, contain enigmatic triads of characters (from the three inhabitants of the bar in the title story, to the three aliens in "Creatures of Apogee," to the triads of major characters in "Journey to the Heartland" and "Backwater") Thus Last Orders self-consciously implies a theory of enigmatic science fiction as a genre of literature which both reflects and paralyzes the portents of apocalypse in our time. The stories, considered as the new-old, science fiction blues, capture the themes Aldiss finds important and "real": "Human woes, non-communication, disappointment, endurance, acceptance, love" (p. 9). But Aldiss's experiments with form insure that the stories produce ironies of artifice as well as the joys of discovery when puzzling cracks and fissures in a fictional structure resolve into a map of understanding, or when enigmas are discovered to have a secret drawer in which the author has hidden some pages from a secret diary. Some enigmas defy divination and keep their secrets while in shifting ways the stories present versions and visions of the relationships between life and art, between criticism and fiction, between dreaming and storytelling.
While mysteries will remain unsolved, and critics will differ about proposed readings, there will continue to be a need for interpretation of these enigmas. By positing some first principles for interpretation—both Aldiss's and my own—I have tried to show that the stories in Last Orders can be analyzed inwardly and inductively to adduce from structure their reflexive and enigmatic meanings. I have also tried to show that interpretation may be aided by referring to a texture or network of allusions that extends outward among the stories, outward into Aldiss's fiction and non-fiction, and outward further into other texts and art works. A lengthy commentary that considered simultaneously both internal and external contexts could conceivably account in large measure for the thematic and structural coherences and for the richness of meaning in Last Orders's narrative development, irony, and allusions. But such analysis and interpretation are beyond the scope of this paper, and would perhaps better befit Frank Krawstadt's Total Environment theory of criticism: they would constitute a totality only imaginable in fiction, never achievable in life.
1 Brian Aldiss, "Journey to the Heartland," Last Orders and Other Stories (London: Cape, 1977; rpt. London: Panther, 1979), 219. Further references to the Panther paperback edition of Last Orders will be made parenthetically in the text.
2 Brian Aldiss, "The Uncomfortable Pause Between Life and Art," The Moment of Eclipse (London: Faber & Faber, 1970; rpt. London: Panther, 1973), 92.
3 Brian Aldiss, "The Fireby-Wireby Book," This World and Nearer Ones (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1979), 143.
4 Brian Aldiss, Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction (New York: Doubleday, 1973; rpt. New York: Schocken, 1974), 317.
5 Anna Kavan, Ice (New York: Doubleday, 1970), 176.
6 Brian Aldiss, "Afterword" to "Diagrams for Three Enigmatic Stories," in Final Stage, ed. E. L. Ferman and B. N. Malzberg (New York: Charterhouse, 1974; rpt. New York: Penguin, 1975), 90.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 647
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 you don't.
Probably the closest thing to a traditional sf scenario in the book is the title story, in which a Russian airliner passes through a mysterious light and lands in an alternate timeline. But we soon recognize this alternate world as our own; it's the protagonist who comes from another history. With its multiple narrators and embedded tales, this is far more than a twist on a Twilight Zone plot, and instead turns into a haunting meditation on the randomness of history. "Ratbird", also with multiple narrators, is a similar meditation on alternate evolution. (The story may already be familiar to many readers from the current Year's Best Fantasy and Horror anthology.) "FOAM" reveals a clever sf premise—the idea that someone else may steal your memory—but mostly uses this premise to mount a magnificent game of manipulating point of view. And "A Day in the Life of a Galactic Empire" sounds like it's going to be grand old space opera, but instead raises interesting philosophical questions about the nature of human aggression.
Two stories are essentially literary hommages. "Better Morphosis", about a cockroach transformed into Franz Kafka, is an absolutely hilarious stand-up comedy routine that someone might have thought up years ago, if comedians were more literate. The more serious "Summertime Was Nearly Over" returns to Aldiss' beloved Frankenstein myth, and somehow makes the monster seem even more tragic and desperate than Shelley—or Aldiss himself—ever did before. "North of the Abyss" isn't a hommage to literature, but rather to Aldiss' travels in Egypt, which becomes a convincingly mythic landscape to contrast with the seedy domestic dispute that frames the tale.
This juxtaposition of the mundane with the exotic, in fact, may be the hallmark of the book. Aldiss repeatedly convinces us we're in a mainstream story, then sends us right over the edge. In "Three Degrees Over", an Oxford professor brings a crude American woman into her home and soon finds her garden—and her husband—given over to primitive pagan orgies. "A Life of Matter and Death", subtitled "A Novel in One Chapter", is exactly that—a convoluted tale of sibling rivalry and alien intervention covering several decades and several continents. In some of these tales, Aldiss seems to be showing off his mastery of technique—his ability to take a story wherever he wants to, despite our expectations, and to convince us that it ends up where it belongs. Not very many writers ought to try this, but Aldiss knows how, and never fails to provoke and enlighten.