Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Brian Aldiss by Graham Sleight

Galaxies Like Grains of Sand, Brian Aldiss (Signet, 144pp, pb) 1960.
Non-Stop, Brian W. Aldiss (Faber and Faber, 252pp, hc) 1958. Cover by Peter Curl.
Hothouse, Brian W. Aldiss (Faber and Faber, 253pp, hc) 1962.
Barefoot in the Head: A European Fantasia Brian W. Aldiss (Faber and Faber, 282pp, hc) 1969.
Best SF Stories, Brian W. Aldiss (Gollancz 0-575-04210-9, 328pp, hc) 1988.
Helliconia, Brian Aldiss (Voyager 0-00-648223-6, xvi + 1070pp, pb) 1996. Cover by Peter Goodfellow.

Most of the time when I write this column, it’s clear enough what to write about and where to start. With Alfred Bester, you need to talk about The Stars My Destination; with Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness; and so on. With Brian Aldiss, surely an SF writer of comparable stature, there are so many books to choose from — and, in particular, so many kinds of books to choose from — that there are dozens of different selections of his works that could be discussed. With regret, I’ve passed over his many mimetic novels such as Life in the West (1980), his seminal history of SF, Billion Year Spree (1973), and the brilliant memoirs such as Bury My Heart at W.H. Smith’s (1990). I’m concentrating instead on books that are SF of one kind or another — although those are still stunningly various.

I started reading, in fact, in a slightly out-of-the-way place: the collection of linked stories Galaxies Like Grains of Sand (1960), also published (with slightly different contents) as The Canopy of Time (1959). In either form, the book contains several of Aldiss’s most famous stories, like “Who Can Replace a Man?” and “Poor Little Warrior”, but Galaxies Like Grains of Sand also contains linking passages that attempt to knit the stories into a future history covering many millions of years. These linking passages owe a lot to Wells and, more particularly, to Stapledon:

The machines understood each other. The machines evolved. For millennia, they took on complexity, created new genera and phyla, developing sensibilities, capacities, blindnesses, such as the world has never dreamed of. They increased in size; they verged on the infinitesimal.
One phylum became parasitical on others, its species developing special talents for draining molecular power from larger machines. The parasites rapidly introduced themselves into every kind of moving object, eventually to render them without function, or to goad them to madness, as the gadfly used to goad summer cattle.

But Aldiss is doing something more than just depicting a cosmos-scale view of future history. He intersperses these passages with the strivings and dilemmas of individual humans (or robots or aliens), and so never lets you forget that for every abstract noun in the linking passages, there are a thousand individual stories. Take as an example the second story here, “All the World’s Tears” (1957). It begins by following “J. Smithlao, psychodynamician,” as he flies out “to administer a hate-brace” to Charles Gunpat. Gunpat, we assume, is an immensely wealthy man. His estate stands alone in a landscape otherwise devoid of humans; but, as Smithlao comes into land, he sees a human figure approaching it on foot. He assumes it must be a “wild man”. There turn out to be two threads to the story: Smithlao’s appointment with Gunpat, and the wild man’s encounter with Gunpat’s daughter Ployploy. Ployploy is thought of as “mad” by most of society — a society that runs on logic and order. She and the wild man meet and seem to have something in common; but, because she is not permitted to mate, his touch kills her. In some respects, it’s a story done many times in SF — order and conformity versus individualism — but it’s elevated by several things. Firstly, Aldiss’s writing is so much better than what we’re used to in SF. He knows enough about the way literature has depicted this kind of romance in the past to give Ployploy and the wild man’s encounter a kind of archetypal nobility. Second, his use of Smithlao as viewpoint character and ironic commenter on the Ployploy story makes it much less simplistic than it would otherwise be. (The last line of the story, after Smithlao has thought of a smart riposte about the whole saga, is “It would be a wonderful point with which to rile Charles Gunpat the next time he needed a hate-brace.” Smithlao and Gunpat’s world will continue and Ployploy’s will be forgotten. Smithlao’s response to Ployploy’s story is detached and ironic; as readers, we have to ask ourselves what we think of that detached irony.

Other stories in the book offer similar layers of irony and revelation. In “Who Can Replace a Man?” (1958), human-created robots argue (in a very funny robotish way) about how best to serve humans in a world now almost devoid of them: I at least was strongly reminded of a lot of the best bits of WALL-E (2008). Aldiss wants to use fiction as a vehicle for talking about grand, abstract ideas, but he also wants to tell the stories of individuals. It’s in the gap between these two that the irony so characteristic of his work is generated; if you have both the omniscient and the human-scale picture, the latter is always going to have less information about the true state of the world than the former. The struggles of Aldiss’s protagonists are often made more poignant by our knowledge as readers of how much bigger the frame story is.

Both of these tendencies are visible in Aldiss’s first great SF novel, Non-Stop (1958). It’s prefaced by a brief note saying, among other things:

An idea, which is man-conceived, unlike most of the myriad effects which comprise our universe, is seldom perfectly balanced. Inevitably, it bears the imprint of man’s own frailty; it may fluctuate from the meagre to the grandiose. This is the story of a grandiose idea.

To the community, it was more than an idea: it became existence itself. For the idea, as ideas will, had gone wrong and gobbled up their real lives.

The idea, in this case, is an SF staple: the generation starship, a huge vehicle that has taken so long to travel between stars that those on board at the end of the voyage no longer remember its original purpose. Again, it’s not the idea itself but its execution that shows Aldiss’s originality. His protagonist, Roy Complain, starts off as a hunter in the “Greene tribe,” which knows little about its environment. Gradually, he discovers more about the true nature of the world — through the process Peter Nicholls has labelled as conceptual breakthrough. It seems especially important to me that, in Non-Stop, that knowledge isn’t comforting. Complain might well have been happier without knowing all the things he learns about his position in the universe. Aldiss’s universe always has those, like Gunpat, who live by comforting lies.

I don’t want to make Non-Stop sound dry or abstract, though. The bulk of it is taken up with an adventure story, and an exciting and suspenseful one at that. Complain’s odyssey through the ship is grimly realistic and costly. One feature of Non-Stop especially worth noting is its final pages. Aldiss has always had an instinct — rarer and rarer as bloat has set into SF over the last few decades — that a story should keep revealing itself right up to the end. So the last dozen or so pages of Non-Stop are filled with revelation and explanation. In other circumstances, this might be dismissable as “infodump”; but here, because so many bizarre parts of the story are rendered explicable, the reader is grateful for it. And then, on the very last page, comes one of the most memorable images in the whole of SF, a logical culmination of what has gone before and also a demonstration that what’s happened in this story is irrevocable.

Much of Non-Stop takes place in the jungle-like environment of the overgrown “ponics” infesting the ship. It’s not too outlandish to suggest that Aldiss’s fascination with this kind of environment comes from his time as a soldier in Burma, or that these experiences find even more intense expression in Hothouse (1962) (expanded from The Long Afternoon of Earth: lots of Aldiss books have variant titles). It’s set on a far-future Earth locked into facing the sun: the lit side is dominated by a single huge tree, inhabited by human descendants who scramble around its bark to survive.

More than any other book, this is the one that showcases Aldiss’s protean inventiveness. The creatures and entities of his world keep coming: traversers, burnurns, berrywhisks, termights. Each has its place in the elaborately imagined world, and each contributes to its unique atmosphere: the “green light” we’re everywhere reminded of, and the humid stink of the jungle. The story itself is another young man’s quest that winds up revealing the nature of the world, and includes a memorably fraught sea-voyage. But in this case, Aldiss finds himself subverting SF expectations even more than in Non-Stop. His protagonist, Gren, doesn’t use the knowledge he’s gained to transcend his world or make it a better place. He refuses the stars and stays home instead: a far more human ending than the usual SF-hero-who-earns-being-a-godling.

That said, there is at least talk of godlings in the next book on my list. Aldiss was one of the central figures in the ferment of experimentation around the Michael Moorcock-edited New Worlds in the 1960s, and several of his novels from around that time show how much he found the magazine’s concerns in tune with his own. Representative of this phase of his work is Barefoot in the Head: A European Fantasia (1969), a book that reads now more than most Aldiss as a response to its times. (In this respect, it has something in common with HARM (2007), with its scathing commentary on Guantanamo Bay.) The book’s epigraph is General Curtis LeMay’s famous quotation about bombing Vietnam back to the Stone Age; its premise is that near-future Europe has suffered a bombing of hallucinogens that renders a once familiar landscape unstable.

The book follows a man named Colin Charteris through this disintegrating world; he becomes a kind of messiah to some. As if to enact his fragmenting consciousness, the narrative of the book is broken up too by typographical games and poems. These poems aren’t merely to crystallise a particular mood or moment; they also offer alternative perspectives on some of the book’s characters and events. An obvious parallel in many ways is Delany’s Dhalgren (1974), with its own formal games and its marginalia commenting on the main text. But Aldiss goes further than Delany, both into Joycean wordplay and into making parallels between his imagined world and the hallucinatory experiences that were so important for so many people then. Barefoot in the Head reads now as an epitaph on the ’60s and a scorning of the powers (especially the military-industrial ones) that corroded those years.

Aldiss’s shorter work, as collected in the career retrospective Best SF Stories (1988, reprinted 1989 as Man in His Time), shares with Barefoot in the Head a kind of playfulness not always present in the novels. For instance, “Confluence”, a story largely told through a dictionary of an alien civilisation, is hard to imagine working at anything more than its eight-page length. “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” is a perfect little vignette of a robot boy failing to grasp his lack of humanity, subsequently made famous by the Kubrick/Spielberg film A.I. (2001). “The Saliva Tree” is an exuberant extended homage to Wells and the scientific romance tradition. “My Country ‘Tis Not Only of Thee” is, like Barefoot in the Head, a blistering response to the Vietnam war that asks how we’d feel if it really were happening in our backyards. There are a dozen other stories as good and as different here.

Aldiss spent much of the 1970s engaged in fields other than SF, producing books like A Soldier Erect (1971) and A Rude Awakening (1978). But he returned to science fiction with the Helliconia trilogy, comprising Helliconia Spring (1982), Helliconia Summer (1983), and Helliconia Winter (1985), and subsequently assembled as an omnibus. At this point, a confession is necessary. Normally, my reading for this column gets spread out over weeks or more, and so I have the chance to digest each book before moving on to the rest. But I read the Aldiss books listed above over the course of ten days or so while stuck in bed recovering from a broken leg. Reading the Helliconia books back-to-back in this way was a very different experience from my first encounter with them, where I had a year or more’s break between each volume: more concentrated, and making clearer the implacable architecture of Aldiss’s vision. The planet Helliconia has a complex orbit around two stars that gives it a “Great Year” of 2,592 Earth years. As the planet becomes warmer, it becomes more congenial to the human population; but during the long winter, the alien phagors are in the ascendant.

Each of the three novels has a very different atmosphere. Spring begins with the wintry story of Yuli, another of Aldiss’s young men out to make sense of the world, in this case against the depredations of the phagors. Only slowly do the effects of the planet’s warming become apparent. Summer is lush, elaborate, filled with court intrigue and the renaissance of humanity. Winter, inevitably, is grim, but with human defiance (in the shape of the hero Luterin’s story) burning bright. Throughout, the planet is watched over by the Earth-crewed space station Avernus, providing again the kind of omniscient perspective that recurs again and again in Aldiss:

[The scientists on Avernus] charted not only the movement of human populations, but also those of the phagorian populations, both white and black. Every advance or retreat was transformed into an an impulse which would eventually make its way across the light-years to the globe and computers back in the Helliconian Centronics Institute on Earth.

From the window of the station, the team could observe the planet below, and the progress of the eclipse, as it spread a grey narcosis over the oceans and the tropical continent.

But beneath this all-seeing eye are a set of stories of, again, individual survival and continuity. In conversation, Gary Wolfe suggested that the texture of Helliconia owed a great deal to the family sagas of Thomas Hardy, and I think this is right, both in the specific case, and in making the more general point that Aldiss always lets his wide reading outside the field leak into his SF. He begins and ends the trilogy with quotations from Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura on the inescapable nature of change. Aldiss’s central concern may be change: how it happens, how humans affect and are affected by it; how difficult it is to perceive fully when you’re in the middle of it; what it means to live a good or full life in the middle of change. Helliconia is Aldiss’s fullest and most thoroughly worked-out exploration of these ideas.

The final thing to say about Aldiss is that the books I’ve discussed here are very far from being the end of the story. Looking just at SF and fantasy, I could just as easily have talked about Greybeard (1964), Frankenstein Unbound (1973), The Malacia Tapestry (1976), or HARM (2007). There’s the sense, even after such a long career, that he may still have something astonishing left to say.

This review was first published in the December 2009 issue of Locus Magazine.

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