Brian W. Aldiss Criticism - Essay

Brian Aldiss (essay date 1976)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 1982 words.)

Richard Mathews (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4865 words.)

David Wingrove (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3540 words.)

Thomas M. Disch (review date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 699 words.)

Philip Smith (review date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 462 words.)

Michael R. Collings (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3591 words.)

Michael R. Collings (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 2184 words.)

Rosemary Herbert (review date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1911 words.)

Philip E. Smith II (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4838 words.)

Gary K. Wolfe (review date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 647 words.)