Monday, 4 September 2017

Brian Aldiss
(1925 – 2017)

This is a somewhat belated Deathblog I’m afraid, but I actually recently learned of the death of Brian Aldiss, who passed away last month, one day after his 92nd birthday.

Although I don’t currently know enough about Aldiss’s personality, private life or beliefs to discuss him on that level, or to really miss his presence on earth in an emotional sense, I have nonetheless been in the process of familiarising myself with his core science fiction novels over the past couple of years, and have been enjoying them immensely.

Of course, ‘Frankenstein Unbound’ (1973) was always one of my favourite time/reality-bending ‘headfuck’ novels from back in my teenage years, and I’ve always enjoyed Aldiss’s short stories here and there, but, more recently, I’ve caught up with ‘Non-Stop’ (1958), ‘Hothouse’ (1962) and ‘Greybeard’ (1964), and can recommend all three in the highest possible terms; in fact I think you’d be hard-pressed to find as excellent a trio of SF books completed by any author within a five year period. Needless to say, I have a small pile of other Aldiss’s lined up to read in the near future, beginning with 1969’s presumably somewhat psychedelically-inclined ‘Barefoot in the Head’.

Though Aldiss never really crossed over into mainstream success or cult legend in the manner of Dick, Ballard, Kneale or Moorcock, his combination of wildly unhinged imagination, rich aesthetic vision and genuine literary chops increasingly make me feel that he really deserved to.

Frankly, I can only assume it was only the highly varied and profligate nature of his output – combined perhaps with the square/low key nature of his public persona – that keeps him confined to the dusty hearts of the hardcore SF crowd, rather than filtering through to Penguin Classics lists, student bookshelves and conferences about what it means to be “Aldiss-esque”.

Seemingly a veritable writing machine throughout his life, Aldiss’s work also encompasses vast quantities of literary fiction, criticism, essays, auto-biography and miscellaneous non-fiction, not to mention his successful trilogy of saucy, quasi-autobiographical ‘Horatio Biggs’ novels – all of which I am, again, not currently well placed to comment upon, but I can at least point you in the direction of Christopher Priest’s excellent obituary for The Guardian to fill in the gaps.

For the lack of anything else to add, I’ll simply treat you to a quick gallery of various Aldiss paperbacks that I currently have scattered around my shelves. They’re not necessarily always the most attractive designs that graced his books (although I love the Four-Square ‘Earthworks’ cover), and they’re definitely not in the best condition for the most part, but I hope they might at least give newcomers a feel for the breadth of his SF writing and the challenges it posed to cover designers.

(Dates given below are for the edition pictured, not the dates of original publication. Cover artists are all unknown/unaccredited, sadly.)








Gregor said...

Belatedly I decided to have an Aldissathon to commemorate the guy. I started reading Moreau's Other Island on Friday and am now half way through Frankenstein Unbound

I'd say that was the kind of thing that he excelled at- in writing intelligent and clearly written scientific romance stories where he launched himself into unashamed adventures whilst overlaying them with more interesting ideas, characters and dialogues than usual. He obviously learned a lot from HG Wells' early science fiction novels (my all time favourite sci fi).

Sadly, some of Aldiss's work could be pretentious and did attempt to be overly literary in using pulp tropes. Like I remember in The Malacia Tapestry which might have been his best concept novel, he wrote a boring description of a carriage being attacked by a dinosaur with a kind of post modern cringiness to it. Now, I understand a grown man feeling somewhat self-conscious in writing about a dino trying to eat his protagonist, but what could have been a blend of adrenaline or at least unintentional comedy from the likes of someone like Guy N Smith, just came across as rather a tired attempt to salvage some literary credibility from the pulpiest of ideas and being neither classic pulp nor literary.

He could also be accused of taking Freudianism a bit too seriously, and there feels something almost dated to me at least about the quasi religious awe with which he writes about women and their bodies (never much of a dichotomy for Brian).

But if Aldiss can be accused of overextending his talents in some works, his ambition merited respect and I think that's why I actually preferred him to JG Ballard who preferred to stick to a comfort zone of writing prose poetry with little emotional resonance. If some of Aldiss's works could be pretentious, it possibly laid the foundations for the Squire Quartet where he writes with a science fiction writers' perspective about modern and slightly futuristic (possibly retro-futuristic now) Europe. Admittedly I have only read Somewhere East of Life but thought it was probably the best of his novels I've read, and the rest are on the to-read list. Just after Dracula Unbound.

Whilst the highs and lows and possible legacy of the 'new wave' movement are a long subject, I would guess that if Aldiss will continue to be appreciated maybe it will be in a retrofuturistic way as someone who was firmly of their time and yet wrote in fantasies with a futuristic veneer. Oddly, I think the aesthetic of the new wave for me at least was summed up by Stanley Kubrick of whom Aldiss was a fan and who wanted to adapt an Aldiss story. Unfortunately for me, Kubrick bequeathed the project to possibly my least favourite director of all time and whilst I got the DVD in a charity shop a while ago I still haven't steeled myself to watch AI.

Ben said...

Thank you so much for such an interesting comment Gregor - you clearly have a deeper knowledge of and insight into Aldiss's work than I currently do (as mentioned, I've just read a few of his early novels thus far), so hopefully your thoughts will prove helpful to anyone who stumbles on this post in future! I will try to prioritise some of the books you mention for future reading...

I can see the similarity in approach with HG Wells though, definitely, and no, I've never been able to face prospect of having to watch 'AI' either... I can't possibly imagine the finished product would be any good, but who knows.