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Brian W. Aldiss cover

Brian W. Aldiss by Paul Kincaid

(University of Illinois Press, 2022)

Reviewed by Dev Agarwal

Neither Brian Aldiss nor Paul Kincaid needs any introduction here. These two titanic forces don’t collide so much as combine in critical symbiosis in Kincaid’s analysis of Aldiss’s work, Brian W. Aldiss (2022).

Aldiss was a SFWA Grand Master (in 1999) and inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2004. He won the Nebula and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and the Hugo twice. As part of the BSFA’s accepted lore, at one time Brian Aldiss held membership 01 in the Association, so it’s fitting that Kincaid, a voice so central to both science fiction and to the BSFA, should write this key appraisal.

Aldiss (1925 to 2017) had a writing career spanning sixty years and is famed for a range of his works. Mentioning them runs the risk of leaving seminal works out, but obvious highlights include Hothouse (1962), Frankenstein Unbound (1973), The Malacia Tapestry (1976), Brothers of the Head (1977), The Helliconia Trilogy (1982 onwards), and his own critical appraisal of our genre, Billion and Trillion Year Spree (1973 and 1986 respectively).

He also published several works of autobiography, including Bury My Heart at W.H. Smith’s: A Writing Life (1990) and The Twinkling of an Eye, or My Life as an Englishman (1998). Kincaid references both, while cautioning readers about their veracity.

Kincaid’s mission statement for his own book might be summed up in his view that “Brian Aldiss was a restless, experimental and, particularly in his early years, iconoclastic writer. In the way of things, experiments don’t always succeed, but the ones that did succeed were breathtakingly original. I hope that readers of my book will discover just how good his best work was, and why that made him undoubtedly one of the most important writers in post-war British science fiction.”

There is also the Brian Aldiss that may be personal to us as readers. I grew up reading Aldiss and am old enough to have started my journey in science fiction through second hand paperback books. My first encounter with Aldiss was my mother bringing home for me a used copy of his anthology, The Airs of Earth (1963).

Kincaid manages to hit all the major beats of Aldiss’s output, and he warn us that, “Brian Aldiss was a writer whose work was easier to admire than to love. He stood four-square in the history of science fiction. He was a colossus, unmistakable and unavoidable, who shaped not only science fiction but how science fiction perceived itself.”

Kincaid observes a central duality of Aldiss’s position as a writer: his “antagonism toward the West is accompanied by an exoticizing of the East. Although many of his stories are explicitly anticolonial…there is still an orientalist attitude, the sense that the East is a place of warmth, comfort, and sexual liberality for the Westerner, or at least for Brian Aldiss. In his autobiography, The Twinkling of an Eye (1998) he describes being ‘overwhelmed by the light, color, heat, sounds, and smells of India’, where ‘a thousand worlds seemed to be contained, with fascinations inexhaustible.’”

To understand the writer, it’s important to understand the person and how his journey through world events shaped him. This takes us back to World War 2, which recedes from us temporally as we move deeper into the twenty-first century. Culturally we are far better acquainted in Britain with events in Europe than in Asia. “The Forgotten Army” refers to those British soldiers who served, like Aldiss, in Burma against the Japanese. They were forgotten in terms of their sacrifice—far away from Europe, but also in that their struggle took place in jungles, an extreme and alien environment for the British army.

Aldiss left Britain as a “gangling teenager” in 1944. His horizons were not so much expanded as exploded by both war and sexual liberation, in sharp contrast to his childhood in Suffolk and Devon. Aldiss was exposed to war itself (destroying his confidence in peace itself) and to greater personal freedom far away from restrictive prewar Britain, and to physical environments teeming with exotic plant and animal life.

War, culture, empire and climate must have given Aldiss extreme culture shock and meant that Aldiss contains these multitudes before we even get to his six decades of fictional output. This could be overwhelming but Kincaid organises the work rigorously into six thematic and chronological chapters.

The first two chapters, “Warrior” and “Naturalist,” address the consequences of Burma and Aldiss’s return to austere and drab Britain. These led to the fictional conceits of “nature overwhelming mankind” that feature in his works, including in Hothouse and the Helliconia Trilogy.

After Hothouse, Aldiss also turned a hard eye to modern British life, infused by SF’s New Wave, with Barefoot in the Head (1969). He engaged with war, lamenting its pointlessness in Greybeard (1964) and A Rude Awakening (1978).

The chapter “Historian” brings us to consideration of Aldiss’s own appraisal of science fiction, Billion Year Spree (later expanded to Trillion Year Spree). “Historian” contains a further layer of genre history as Kincaid recounts Aldiss’s relationship with John Wyndham and then with Kincaid himself as a contributing critic.

It was Aldiss who labelled Wyndham “the master of the cosy catastrophe” and Kincaid considers Aldiss’s approach to contain “more than a whiff of a leading figure in one generation disdaining the work of the previous generation.”

Kincaid challenges Aldiss’s disparagement, and indeed challenged it at the time. This then leads to Kincaid’s reflection on his interaction with Aldiss. After Aldiss read Kincaid’s defence of Wyndham (and observation that Wyndham often wrote novels of catastrophe that were anything but “cosy”) Aldiss sent a postcard to Kincaid asking him “Why do you hate me so?”

An intense self-referential circularity opens up with this exchange—Aldiss criticises Wyndham. Kincaid challenges that view, Aldiss understands that his views being challenged equates to Kincaid “hating” him. And Kincaid reflects to us that this provides “questions about Aldiss’s sense of self-worth within the arena of British science fiction.”

A further self-referentiality arises in another of Aldiss’s key conceits, that of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) as the ur-text for SF. In selecting Shelley as the genre’s sole forebear, Aldiss was reacting to, and rejecting, other candidates, including Swift, Welles, Verne, Gernsback and Campbell in what Kincaid cites Aldiss as deriding his contemporaries’ “obsessive Freudian quest for a father figure.” Aldiss concludes that Shelley was an ancestor more suitable than “the jejune outpourings of Gernsback's magazines.”

Kincaid delves behind the curtain to expand on Aldiss’s hidden agenda and posits that Aldiss championed Shelley from his need to determine whether he himself was a science fiction writer at all (a position of internal debate for Aldiss following the poor reception in 1968 to his SF novel, Report on Probability A (1968)).

At the same time, in “Historian,” and through the discussion of Spree, Kincaid recounts the lasting benefit to the genre of Aldiss’s history. The book established a precedent for further histories to regularly appear and also, as critic Mark Adlard said at the time, it was stupendous and vital. The two versions of the book won Aldiss a BSFA special award and a Hugo.

Aldiss and Shelley are conjoined through Spree, but also through his fiction. Kincaid returns to Frankenstein through an appraisal of Aldiss’s novel, Frankenstein Unbound, a time travel adventure where the narrator, Joseph Bodenland, encounters the fictional inventor Victor Frankenstein in an imaginary nineteenth century Geneva.

Bodenland, acting as surrogate for Aldiss, describes his encounter with Victor Frankenstein as feeling “myself in the presence of myth, and by association, accepted myself as mythical!

With this, Aldiss writes a first-person narrator and breaks through the “fourth wall” of the novel to draw the reader’s attention to the fictional nature of another character. Aldiss’s Victor Frankenstein can never be just a character. He resonates with his fictional past as Mary Shelley’s most famous creation. So using his name is freighted with significance.

Bodenland’s meeting with Frankenstein, and his recognition that Dr Frankenstein is a character in a novel, opens the door to Bodenland’s observation of his own fictitious nature. (The use of “myth” is a device to stop the breakdown of the narrative form of Frankenstein Unbound completely). It is noteworthy that these self-reflexive moments don’t evolve further in the story and are effectively throw-away remarks. As Kincaid observes, “Though this brief exchange directly addresses the difference between the real and the fictional that seems to underlie the novel, the question is not answered and is instantly forgotten.”

Not content with Dr Frankenstein, Aldiss engineers an encounter between his first-person narrator and a fictional version of Mary Shelley herself. Effectively, Aldiss comes face to face with Shelley, author of the ur-text of SF in a time travel novel. Kincaid’s observation is that “This, surely, is Aldiss being a fanboy” as his protagonist flushes “with exhilaration.”

Kincaid observes that the purpose of the encounters between Bodenland and Shelley are not to explore the origins of Frankenstein or even to explore the meta-narrative of having the author of Frankenstein interact with both a time traveller from her future and her own characters. The purpose of the encounter is reduced to set up the sex scene that then follows.

Bodenland and Shelley have sex and we end up in the position of the writer “who can, through his creation, prove himself to be Mary (Shelley’s) perfect lover, more ideal even than Percy Shelley.” By extension, in an act of Oedipal hubris, “if Mary Shelley is the mother of science fiction, then Brian Aldiss has made himself the father.”

In this chapter, Kincaid guides us through Aldiss’s career as historian of SF and the synergies of Spree and Frankenstein Unbound. Spree is the theory, Unbound is the practice in cementing Mary Shelley as the mother of science fiction and Aldiss its father. Kincaid concludes that Aldiss’s novel is a “slight, superficial work.” Rather like Frankenstein’s monster, it’s Oedipal origins offer the intrigue that the story itself lacks, and which Kincaid explores in depth.

No discussion of Aldiss would be complete without tackling his Helliconia trilogy, which features in the chapter “Scientist.” Kincaid also observes that “The Helliconia Trilogy was clearly intended to be Aldiss’s masterwork, a huge saga spanning centuries that encompassed sweeping environmental and societal change.”

A number of Aldissian obsessions come together in the trilogy: religion and societal control, war and its futility, cultures aging and stagnating, the natural world as a harsh and unforgiving environment. The role of the observer is also a significant element, as the alien realm of Helliconia, distant from Earth, is still subject to its scrutiny through the Earth Observation Station Avernus, which forms a sterile and stifled community in orbit.

Kincaid observes that the first novel in the trilogy “fits into the broad pattern of Aldiss’s work in two ways. First, the environment tends to be hostile, second, humanity tends towards violence and depravity.”

These motifs carry through to each of the subsequent books. Kincaid concludes that, in terms of literary effort, “I think the first two volumes of the trilogy got away from him; their rather ponderous length makes them somewhat otiose… The final volume makes the whole thing tighter, more controlled, more carefully structured.” Giving Aldiss a word himself, he observed that “I could tell my writing was improving: my sales figures kept getting worse.”

Kincaid’s overall assessment is that “The Helliconia Trilogy is a somber work that, even at its most colorful, never quite escapes the sense of human failure and decline that underlines everything that Aldiss wrote.”

This leads us into the final chapter of both Kincaid’s work and Aldiss’s life, “Utopian.” This captures “the drumbeat of unhappiness and the failure to find meaning in life.” This chapter discusses not only the frustration and unhappiness that Aldiss imbues his characters with, but his movement away from genre works, and his work on the mainstream Squire quartet of books. These books share connective tissue with Aldiss's final genre works, which Kincaid identifies as Aldiss writing ostensibly about the present but really gazing backwards, either to the historic past or his own personal one.

Notable genre works of this period include White Mars (1999), which Kincaid records is marred by “atrocious sexual politics” and is “remorselessly dull” in its diatribe of utopianism. There was also Super-State (2002) and HARM (2007). Regarding HARM, Kincaid’s observations are that he finds the novel “jerky, awkwardly constructed (and) often unconvincing…yet it has a vigour, a passion that makes it stand out from Aldiss’s other late work.”

HARM is noteworthy to those studying Aldiss’s career as it’s both a novel about how utopia becomes dystopia and also “a novel about writing a novel, or more particularly about Aldiss's career as a novelist, the way his perceptions of the outer world are inevitably reflected within the imagined worlds.”

Reading Kincaid’s dissection of the ingredients that made Aldiss the speculative writer he was is to create a speculation of its own. What would Aldiss have been as a writer without the huge dislocation of World War 2? The war swept him up and transplanted him to India and Burma—nations he was unlikely to otherwise encounter at a formative age.

Kincaid’s Brian W. Aldiss is both an analysis of the colossus of Aldiss as a writer and also of the history of how science fiction shaped him. Kincaid delivers on both subjects, taking us through a biography of Aldiss and through him, an analysis of science fiction from the postwar years to the twenty-first century. Therefore, to recommend Brian W. Aldiss to readers is to recommend a study in depth of both twentieth and twenty-first century science fiction.

An outcome of Kincaid’s work is that it has sent me back to my bookshelf to reopen Aldiss’s works—which I think is a success for any critical analysis.

To the annoyance of some readers, Kincaid’s Brian W. Aldiss is no hagiography. Had Aldiss lived, would this biography have warranted another dismayed postcard from him to Kincaid? With that purely imaginary postcard in mind, and quoting from Kincaid’s work, I can give Brian Aldiss the last word. Aldiss once wrote: “Whatever creativity is, it is in part a solution to a problem.” Brian W. Aldiss reflects both Kincaid’s dedication to his analysis and the depth of Aldiss’s creativity as a writer.

Review from BSFA Review 21 - Download your copy here.


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