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Short Fiction
Thursday 12 April 2001

A.I. as Brian Aldiss Would Have It?
by Mark R. Kelly
(Excerpted from the column to appear in the May 2001 issue of Locus Magazine)

  • Brian Aldiss, Supertoys Last All Summer Long and other stories of future time
    (UK: Little Brown/Orbit 1-84149-043-1, £6.99, 19+232pp, tpb, January 2001)

    ‘‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’’, a short story first published in 1969 and now the title story of Brian Aldiss’s new collection, has gained a certain notoriety over the years for its association with one of filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s long-planned but never completed projects, a film about a boy android set in (as it was often described) the greenhouse future of a flooded New York City. Recently, Aldiss wrote two sequel stories, ‘‘Supertoys When Winter Comes’’ and ‘‘Supertoys in Other Seasons’’, purchased by Steven Spielberg for incorporation into his vision of Kubrick’s project, and published for the first time in this book. Spielberg’s film, A.I., starring The Sixth Sense boy-wonder Haley Joel Osment, is due for release in June.

    The primary interest of the stories, then, is for their association with a film of extraordinary pedigree, and one that’s potentially a major SF film. For all the intense interest that’s likely to be directed at them, and the exposure they’re gaining through the title and publicity of this new collection, however, the stories themselves are modest, solid and occasionally touching, but not groundbreaking or particularly deep; much less so than Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘‘The Sentinel’’, basis for 2001, Aldiss’s stories would not be gaining the exposure of this new book without the tie-in with the film. (Though, admittedly, Clarke’s story had only two anthology reprints in the decade and a half before the release of 2001 -– with of course dozens since -- Aldiss’s original ‘‘Supertoys’’ has so far never been reprinted outside a couple of Aldiss’s own collections.)

    The original story, ‘‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’’, is about a woman, Monica Swinton, who maintains a holo garden always set to summer that is occupied by her 5 year old son David, whom she finds hard to love. (It’s worth remarking that Osment is at least twice that age –- but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.) He pays more attention to his Teddy than to her; he’s always running off; and –- he’s not real. Alternating scenes show her husband Henry in business meetings as his company prepares to launch the latest, newest and most improved synthetic lifeform, a serving-man that’s been given a computer for a brain. In the final scene, Monica is overjoyed that their lottery number has finally come up allowing the couple to conceive a child of their own. It’s a brief story that pays off in sad ironies: we see that David’s love for his mother, however artificial, is genuine, though his primitive synthetic mind is incapable of fully expressing it; while his parents are ready to abandon him as soon as they’re given the chance to replace him with a real child.

    From that 11-page vignette grew Kubrick’s vision of a flooded New York, his ambition to make an SF blockbuster (with fairy tale overtones) to rival Star Wars. Aldiss tried to dissuade him from some of his ideas, and got dismissed. Only after Kubrick’s death did Aldiss decide to write down his idea of how he felt the ‘‘Supertoys’’ premise should be developed into a film-length story.

    In ‘‘Supertoys When Winter Comes’’ Monica’s own child has died, David still plays in a garden now programmed for winter, and Henry pursues business deals to replace synthetic brains with real ones. The key development comes when Monica, in a fit of anger, tells David the truth about himself, and David sees that truth in the cracked plastic face of his Teddy.

    In ‘‘Supertoys in Other Seasons’’ Henry, his grandiose business ambitions in ruins, rescues David from Throwaway Town, a place where obsolete machines are discarded, and takes him to the factory he first came from for an upgrade to a neural brain. This story depicts the notion that Aldiss first expressed in a letter, that David might meet with a thousand replicas of himself, a notion that so appealed to Spielberg he wanted to buy the sentence containing the idea –- just the sentence.

    Aldiss completed the two sequel stories, and all three eventually became Spielberg’s property. But Aldiss ends the foreword to this new book with his understanding that Spielberg had agreed to do the film ‘‘as Kubrick was planning to do’’ –- which presumably does not incorporate Aldiss’s ideas.

    Knowing only the rumored sketches of Kubrick’s plans, and the evidence of Aldiss’s texts, it’s difficult to choose which version might have made the better film. Kubrick’s notion of a Pinocchio fable, even to the inclusion of the Blue Fairy, sounds mawkish, not to mention uncharacteristic of the icy Kubrick –- yet it’s all too easy to see how the idea would appeal to the sentimental Spielberg, who emotionally seems the antithesis of Kubrick.

    Yet Aldiss’s stories don’t avoid the opportunity for mawkish sentiment either, or SFnal cliché. The two new stories are remarkable for the way they maintain the delicacy of the original. These aren’t hard SF stories about artificial intelligence –- they’re Bradburyesque technofables about the heartbreak of technology. The subtle gestures of Aldiss’s prose, the way (like Bradbury) he suggests complex technology through casual descriptions or mere terms (like ‘‘Ambient’’, a term from the first story to mean just what we mean today by ‘‘Internet’’) would never survive the literalization of the big screen. (Though the pink rose that appears in two stories does recall a Spielberg moment.) Aldiss’s scenario even flirts with dramatic clichés: the key moment of the second story recalls a thousand haywire androids from movies and TV, and the key scene of the third story bears a rather uncomfortable resemblance to a passage from The Bicentennial Man. It would be difficult to film Aldiss’s version without eliciting just those observations from film critics and moviegoers, who respond first to similarities with other films before considering a new film on its own terms.

    But this isn’t to criticize Aldiss’s stories for the problems a film based on them might have, and that’s really the point of this speculative comparison. Stories are stories and movies are movies. Read Brian Aldiss’s three stories as the elegant, humanistic technofables they are (and forget about any movies they may remind you of), and in a couple months go see Spielberg’s A.I., and never mind what Spielberg took or did not take from Aldiss’s inspiration.

    Mark R. Kelly has written short fiction reviews for Locus Magazine since 1988. He is the editor and e-publisher of Locus Online, and the compiler and publisher of The Locus Index to Science Fiction Awards, a much-expanded and updated edition of which will be posted Real Soon Now. By day he is a software engineer for a major aerospace firm.

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