I certainly encountered Brian Aldiss’s fiction no later than 1967, the year my Dad bought me a subscription to F&SF. In love with the magazine, I started buying back issues at local used-book stores, and soon had run into Aldiss’s Hothouse stories and that great novelette, “The Saliva Tree.” But with my memory hosting its own jumble sale, I can’t definitely swear that I did not bump into “Poor Little Warrior!” or “But Who Can Replace a Man?” even earlier, in some anthology or other. Certainly I retain vivid impressions from this general period of taking down the US hardcover edition of Greybeard from a library shelf, bringing it home, devouring it, returning it, then immediately taking it out again after it was replaced in its niche.
So in all cases it’s safe to say that I have been reading Aldiss’s work with intense delight for something over forty-five years. That is one long, stable, intense “marriage” between a writer and a reader.
Naturally, then, I was both thrilled and depressed by the appearance of Finches of Mars, touted initially in several press releases as Aldiss’s last novel. Great, a new book from Brian! Damn, the final one! (Of course, finality, intentional or not, is always possible with any writer, but more so with one rapidly approaching his ninetieth year.) I was getting the same melancholy yet gratitude-laden sensations I did when Jack Vance announced his retirement. But it soon eventuated that at least one more new novel, Comfort Zone, is due to appear in December 2013, and also some new shorter fiction in various collections. So there’s promised flow from the Aldiss fountain yet.
Finches of Mars certainly does not disappoint, and in fact shows Aldiss at the top of his game. The book is not as linear and plot-driven as Greybeard, nor as diffuse and anti-novelistic as Report on Probability A or Barefoot in the Head. It’s somewhere in a hybrid realm: full of incident and history and character, yet also somewhat rambling and aleatory, breaking off into philosophical passages and introducing new characters right up till the end, against all best-seller patternings. It’s truly a novel of ideas, in the manner of late-period Wells (“Brian at the end of his tether?”) or perhaps one of the Euro-SF authors like Lem. If you mashed up Winesburg, Ohio with the near-future bits from Last and First Men, you might get something like it.
One thing the book is, is a fantasia or “answer song” to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars saga. This is not the first time Aldiss has essayed such a response, having produced White Mars in the year 2000. I reviewed that earlier book then, and, while hazy on its particulars some dozen years onward, I believe that the current volume is unconnected, being rather another stab at the target.
We start “centuries after the Titanic,” thus at least in the year 2112. Life on Earth is a mess: the usual catalog of forecasted wars, hatreds, and environmental disasters. Aldiss’s grim relish for describing this is salutary. Out of this swamp arise the United Universities, a global alliance of sanity and resources and willpower. (Their founder and theoretician, Herbert Mangalian, plays a kind of Jubal Harshaw role throughout the book.) The UU fund the colonization of Mars, a one-way trip for the pioneers. The voyage and their life on the Red Planet are an estranging leap into the void. New names are assigned, new cultural and political rituals established. There are no pets, no place for poetry or the arts or, especially, religion, that blighting curse of Earth. Six large towers, clustered fairly close together, representing different Earthly ethnicities, form a tenuous beachhead amidst alien beauty and terror. Our narrative follows one main thread: the inability of the settlers to bring any live babies into the colony, due to various Martian factors. Along the way, we witness love affairs and adventures, tragedies and triumphs.
Aldiss succeeds in creating a truly non-contemporary “umwelt,” to use one of his essential terms here. I immediately recalled John Crowley’s “In Blue,” which I always rank as one of the most successful laterally displaced portraits of a new way of thinking and apprehending the universe. At the same time he manages to capture eternal human verities, such as in this Lawrentian epiphanical passage:
One of her arms, her hands, lay on the edge of the table. How intimate that hand was with all the parts of her body. Why had either of them come to this sterile place? What had they been escaping? Why? What did they most deeply, intensely, hope for: for they could not just be, like the leaves of the ranunculus; there must be something moving, deeper, something inexpressible, nevertheless being expressed by the silence between them, as they looked at each other.
At times, Aldiss attains a Vonneguttian sardonic loftiness that almost reads like self-satire: “Now every man and woman in the crowd experienced themselves as solitary beings, each with a finite life span, faced with failure.” But his tragic vision continues to embrace, as it always has, plenty of droll distance, and he never falls into a pit of despair. Rather, like his explorer who descends into a subterranean Martian reservoir and emerges with native life, he goes down in darkness and emerges with marvels. The totally unpredictable yet perfect rousing and expansive ending to this book shows humanity once again escaping defeat by the skin of our lucky teeth, with credit for more nobility than we might objectively deserve: Aldiss’s theme for his whole distinguished career.