Aldiss, Brian W

Tagged: Author | Editor | Critic

(1925-    ) UK author, anthologist, artist and critic, married to Margaret Aldiss, whose early death he commemorated in When the Feast is Finished: Reflections on Terminal Illness (1999); educated at private schools, which he disliked. He served in the Royal Signals in Burma and Sumatra, was demobilized in 1948 and worked as an assistant in Oxford bookshops, an experience he transformed into a series of fictionalized sketches about bookselling in the trade magazine The Bookseller; these were later assembled as his first book, The Brightfount Diaries (coll 1955). At about the same time, he began to publish fiction, almost all of it sf or fantasy, remaining over the next 60 years or more a dominant figure in British and world sf.

Aldiss began publishing sf with "Criminal Record" in Science Fantasy for July 1954. There followed such notable tales as "Outside" (January 1955 New Worlds), "Not for an Age" (9 January 1955 Observer) as by Arch Mendicant, which was the third-prize winner in an Observer sf competition whose stories appeared pseudonymously and were voted on by readers, "There is a Tide" (February 1956 New Worlds) and "Psyclops" (July 1956 New Worlds), all of which appeared in his first collection, Space, Time and Nathaniel (Presciences) (coll 1957). No Time Like Tomorrow (coll 1959) reprints six stories from the 14 in Space, Time and Nathaniel and adds another six. These early stories were ingenious and lyrical and dark; though exuberant, and intermittently laced with humour, Aldiss's basic frame of understanding is pessimistic, in the sense that an awareness of the inherent Entropy of existence necessarily governs the most elaborate visions of human destiny, as in the Helliconia sequence from the 1980s. Aldiss has remained a prolific writer of short stories (more than 370 stories by 2015), normally under his own name, though he has used the pseudonyms C C Shackleton, Jael Cracken and John Runciman for a few items. "All the World's Tears" (May 1957 Nebula), "Poor Little Warrior!" (April 1958 F&SF), "But Who Can Replace a Man?" (June 1958 Infinity Science Fiction; vt "Who Can Replace a Man?" in The Canopy of Time, coll 1959), "Old Hundredth" (November 1960 New Worlds) and "A Kind of Artistry" (October 1962 F&SF) are among the most memorable stories collected in The Canopy of Time (coll of linked stories 1959); of the stories listed, only "All the World's Tears" and "But Who Can Replace a Man?" appear, with expository passages that make the book into a loose Future History, in the substantially different Galaxies like Grains of Sand (coll of linked stories 1960; with 1 story added rev 1979). The Airs of Earth (coll 1963; with 2 stories omitted and 2 stories added, rev vt Starswarm 1964) and Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian W. Aldiss (coll 1965; rev 1971; vt Who Can Replace a Man? 1966) also assemble early work.

By the mid 1960s, Aldiss had become sufficiently successful that he was able to release collections on a regular basis (collections notoriously sell less well than individual tales; and do not flourish in some foreign markets). The novella The Saliva Tree (September 1965 F&SF; 1988 chap dos) won a Nebula and was included in The Saliva Tree and Other Strange Growths (coll 1966). It complexly fits an entertaining tribute to H G Wells into a plot which homages The Colour Out of Space (September 1927 Amazing; 1982 chap) by H P Lovecraft. Further volumes followed: notable titles include Intangibles Inc. (coll 1969; with 2 stories omitted and 1 added, rev vt Neanderthal Planet 1970); The Moment of Eclipse (coll 1970), which won the BSFA Award in 1972; The Book of Brian Aldiss (coll 1972; vt Comic Inferno 1973) (see Comic Inferno); Last Orders and Other Stories (coll 1977; vt Last Orders 1989); New Arrivals, Old Encounters (coll 1979); Seasons in Flight (coll 1984). Much of the best work of his first decades of publication are assembled in Best SF Stories (coll 1988; vt Man in His Time: The Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian W Aldiss 1989) and A Romance of the Equator: Best Fantasy Stories (coll 1989).

During the latter years of the century, certainly with regard to his work in the fantastic, Aldiss seemed to focus on shorter forms, as well as upon the Dickensian stage readings he assembled as Science Fiction Blues (coll 1988) which – along with Kindred Blood in Kensington Gore (1992 chap), a short play which gave him the chance to conduct on stage an exuberantly melancholy "conversation" with the posthumous Philip K Dick – took up much of his energy well into the 1990s. As the years passed, his short fiction varied more and more widely – traditional sf tales consorted with Fabulations and discursive fictionalized essays; jeux d'esprits were published cheek-by-jowl with impatient diatribes. Later collections – like A Tupolev Too Far; and Other Stories (coll 1993); The Secret of This Book: 20-Odd Stories (coll 1995); Supertoys Last All Summer Long and Other Stories of Future Time (coll 2001), which incorporates "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" (December 1969 Harper's Bazaar), the original inspiration for the Stanley Kubrick/Steven Spielberg film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001); and Cultural Breaks (coll 2005) – are therefore somewhat uneven. But out of an overall bleak jaggedness of affect, quiet gems might appear, like "Tralee of Man Young" (in Cultural Breaks), giving – as in the work of Harlan Ellison or Robert Silverberg or Gene Wolfe – a sense of the range of concerns properly addressable within the loose rules of genre. A Complete Short Stories sequence has begun with The Complete Short Stories: Volume One: The 1950s (coll 2013), with four volumes given over to 1960s work alone.

Aldiss's first novel, Non-Stop (1956 Science Fantasy #17; exp 1958; cut vt Starship 1959), is a brilliant treatment of the Generation Starship and also the theme of Conceptual Breakthrough in a kind of spacegoing Ruined-Earth society; it has become a classic of the field and in 2008 was awarded a retrospective British Science Fiction Association Award for best novel of 1958. Vanguard from Alpha (September-October 1958 New Worlds as "Equator"; 1959 dos US; with "Segregation" [July 1958 New Worlds] added, rev as coll, vt Equator: A Human Time Bomb from the Moon! 1961) – which itself became part of The Year Before Yesterday (stories 1958-1965 various; fixup 1987; rev vt Cracken at Critical: A Novel in Three Acts 1987) – and Bow Down to Nul (April-May 1960 New Worlds as "X for Exploitation"; cut 1960 US dos; text restored vt The Interpreter 1961) are much less successful; but The Primal Urge (1961) is an amusing treatment of Sex as an sf theme (see Lie Detectors). Always ebullient in his approach to sexual morality, Aldiss is one of the authors who changed the attitudes of sf editors and publishers in this area during the 1960s. The Long Afternoon of Earth (February-December 1961 F&SF; fixup 1962; exp vt Hothouse 1962) won him a 1962 Hugo award for its original appearance as a series of novelettes. It is one of his finest works. Set in the Far Future, when the Earth has ceased rotating, it portrays the last remnants (see Devolution) of humanity, who live in the branches of a giant, continent-spanning tree. Criticized for scientific implausibility (see Space Elevator) by James Blish and others, Hothouse (Aldiss's preferred title) demonstrates the ultimate inutility of such criticisms of a work like this title, which displays all of Aldiss's linguistic, comic and inventive talents, and dramatizes effectively a wide range of concerns: the conflict between fecundity and Entropy, between engorgement and chaos, between the rich variety of life and the silence of death.

The Dark Light Years (1964) is a lesser work, though notable for its ironized treatment of a central sf dilemma – how one comes to terms with intelligent Aliens who are physically disgusting. Greybeard (1964; text restored 1964) is perhaps Aldiss's finest single sf novel. It deals with a future in which humanity has become sterile due to an accident involving biological weapons. Almost all the characters are old people, and their reactions to the incipient death of the human race are well portrayed. Both a celebration of human life and a critique of civilization, it has been underrated, particularly in the USA, where its terminal grimness won few friends; and damagingly imitated, perhaps unconsciously, in P D James's much inferior The Children of Men (1992). Earthworks (1965; rev 1966) is a minor novel about Overpopulation. An Age (October-December 1967 New Worlds; 1967; vt Cryptozoic! 1968) is an odd and original treatment of Time Travel, which sees time as running backwards with a consequent reversal of cause and effect, comparable to Philip K Dick's Counter-Clock World (1967), published in the same year (see Time in Reverse).

During the latter half of the 1960s Aldiss was closely identified with New Wave sf, and in particular with the innovative magazine New Worlds under the fruitfully controversial editorship of Michael Moorcock; Aldiss was instrumental in obtaining a 1967 Arts Council grant for the magazine, which saved it for a few years. Though never fully at ease with New Worlds's submission to an aesthetic dominated by J G Ballard, Aldiss published some increasingly unconventional fiction here, notably his novel Report on Probability A (short version March 1967 New Worlds; 1968; written 1962 but unpublishable until the times changed), an sf transposition of the techniques of the French "anti-novelists" into a Surrealist story of enigmatic voyeurism, and his Acid-Head War stories, collected as Barefoot in the Head: A European Fantasia (fixup 1969). Set in the aftermath of a European war in which psychedelic Drugs have been used as weapons, the latter is written in a dense, punning style reminiscent of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1939); it is an ambitious tour de force of Modernism in SF.

Novels of the 1970s include Frankenstein Unbound (1973), a Time-Travel fantasia which features Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley as a major character (see Billion Year Spree below); and The Eighty-Minute Hour: A Space Opera (1974), a comedy in which Aldiss's penchant for puns and extravagant invention was perhaps overindulged. His long fantasy novel The Malacia Tapestry (1976) is a much more balanced work. A love story with fantastic elements set in a mysterious, never-changing City, it is a restatement of Aldiss's obsessions with Entropy, fecundity and the role of the artist, and was perhaps his best novel since Greybeard. Brothers of the Head (1977), about Siamese-twin rock stars and their third, dormant head, is a short but intense exercise in Grand Guignol, adapted for film as the "mockumentary" Brothers of the Head (2005); with an additional story, it was also assembled as Brothers of the Head, and Where the Lines Converge (coll 1979). Enemies of the System: A Tale of Homo Uniformis (1978) is a somewhat disgruntled Dystopian novella. During this period, Aldiss was also engaged upon two non-fantastic series: the Horatio Stubbs tales beginning with The Hand-Reared Boy (1970), with some autobiographical elements referring to his early years; and the Squire Quartet beginning with Life in the West (1980), which treats of more recent and similarly transubstantiated real-life experiences.

Moreau's Other Island (1980; vt An Island Called Moreau 1981) plays fruitfully with themes from H G Wells: during a nuclear war a US official discovers that bioengineering experiments performed on a deserted island are a secret project run by his own department. It was not, however, received with much acclaim. It was also around this time that Aldiss became an influential figure amongst writers and readers of Flash Fiction, producing much short material and even inventing an entire variant of the form, known as the "mini-saga", of just 50 words: he persuaded the UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph to run a mini-saga competition in 1982 – attracting some 33,000 entries – and edited the resulting The Book of Mini-Sagas I (anth 1985). Further Telegraph competitions and anthologies followed. Some years had passed since his last popular success as an sf novelist when Aldiss suddenly reasserted his eminence in the field with the publication of the Helliconia books – Helliconia Spring (1982), which won the 1983 John W Campbell Memorial Award, Helliconia Summer (1983) and Helliconia Winter (1985) – three massive, thoroughly researched, deeply through-composed tales set on a planet whose primary sun is set in an eccentric orbit around another star, so that the planet orbiting that first star experiences both small seasons and an aeon-long Great Year, during the course of which radical changes afflict its human-like inhabitants. Cultures are born in spring, flourish over the summer, and die with the onset of the generations-long winter. A team from an exhausted Terran civilization observes the spectacle from an orbiting Space Station. Throughout all three volumes, Aldiss pays homage to various high moments of Pulp magazine sf, rewriting several classic action climaxes into a dark idiom that befits Helliconia. As an exercise in world-building, the Helliconia books lie unassailably at the heart of modern sf; as a demonstration of the complexities inherent in the mode of the Planetary Romance when taken seriously, they are exemplary; as a Heraclitean reverie upon the implications of the Great Year for human pretensions, they are (as is usual with Aldiss's work) heterodox.

Dracula Unbound (1991) continues through a similar Time-Travel plot the explorations of Frankenstein Unbound, although this time in a lighter vein and with a Vampire theme. No novels of sf interest then appeared until White Mars; or, The Mind Set Free: A 21st Century Utopia (1999) with Roger Penrose, a mathematical physicist, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. Narratively congested – the tale incorporates an animate Olympus Mons which manifests Penrosian theories of the physicality of mind, a Robinsonade, a swipe against (and homage to) Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars sequence, and very much more – the book fails perhaps through being too short. If so, the impulse to concision was worthy. Further late novels of genre interest include Super-State: A Novel of Future Europe (2002); Jocasta: "Wife and Mother" (dated 2004 but 2005; rev vt Jocasta: Wife and Mother: And Antigone 2014), which retells Sophocles's Oedipus Rex through the eyes of his knowing, vigorous, doom-haunted wife; Sanity and the Lady (2005), in which virus-like Aliens accidentally intersect our solar system, infiltrating themselves into random hosts (with whom they establish talkative commensal relationships; see Parasitism and Symbiosis), but at the same time awaken post-2001 fears on the part of the American government, with devastating results; HARM (2007), a Dystopian tale of repression and political Paranoia, set in a very Near-Future UK where an innocent British Muslim or ex-Muslim is ruthlessly Tortured; and Finches of Mars (2013), set deeper into the future, on a Mars colonized in Dystopian fashion by the warring power blocs of Earth. Aldiss announced the last as his final sf novel.

Aldiss has also published numerous volumes of poetry with definite genre influences, beginning with Pile: Petals from St Klaed's Computer (graph 1979) illustrated by Mike Wilks, going on to publish numerous volumes of verse, including At the Caligula Hotel and Other Poems (1995); Mortal Morning (2011), is a good representative assembly.

Always a crucial figure at the heart of British sf, Aldiss was the first president of the modern British Science Fiction Association, serving from 1960-1964. With Harry Harrison he also founded and edited the early, short-lived, critical journal SF Horizons in 1964-1965. Amongst the authors and critics published in SF Horizons was C S Lewis, with whom Aldiss had set up the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group in 1960. Much of Aldiss's nonfiction has a critical relation to the genre, often couched in a generically complex fashion, like The Shape of Further Things (1970), which typically combines autobiography and criticism, as does, more loosely, The Detached Retina: Aspects of SF and Fantasy (coll 1995). Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1973), a large survey of sf marked by iconoclasms, enthusiasms, and impatience, is Aldiss's most important nonfiction work (see History of SF) as far as the genre is concerned; its central argument – that sf is a child of the intersection of Gothic romance (see Gothic SF) with the Industrial Revolution, and that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831) is the founding text of the genre – gives profound pleasure as a myth of origin. Though it fails circumstantially to be altogether convincing, its focus on the early nineteenth century, a period during which Western consciousness underwent revolutionary change (see Fantastika), remains salutary, as is its downgrading (sometimes intemperate) of twentieth-century American sf. The book was much expanded and, perhaps inevitably, somewhat diluted in effect as Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1986) with David Wingrove, which won a Hugo. Science Fiction Art (graph 1975) is an attractively produced selection of sf Illustration with commentary, mostly from the years of the Pulp magazines, and Science Fiction Art (graph 1976) – note identical title – presents a portfolio of Chris Foss's art. This World and Nearer Ones (coll 1979), The Pale Shadow of Science (coll 1985) and ... And the Lurid Glare of the Comet (coll 1986) – much of the content of the latter two volumes was resorted into The Detached Retina: Aspects of SF and Fantasy (coll 1995) – assemble some of his reviews and speculative essays. Much of this material had its first iteration at various conventions and conferences, for Aldiss is perhaps the most widely-travelled and clubbable sf writer of stature. He is a passionate supporter of internationalism in sf and all other spheres of life – he was a founding Trustee of World SF in 1982, and served as its president in 1983 and later – and has been a consistent attacker of the parochialism that continues in his view to deface both British and American sf. For many years he served as Permanent Special Guest of the annual conference of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts. His three volumes of autobiography – Bury My Heart at W H Smith's: A Writing Life (1990); The Twinkling of an Eye; or, My Life as an Englishman (1998), which vividly retails his life story in general; and When the Feast is Finished (1999), which focuses on the death of his wife, Margaret Aldiss – give some necessary shape to this life. There are substantial archives of Aldiss's papers at the Bodleian Library, Oxford University; and at the University of Liverpool as part of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection. As a writer of fiction, as an anthologist (see list below) and critic of sf, and as an ambassador from the concentrated world of his chosen field to the larger worlds of letters, Brian Aldiss became long ago and has remained the central man of letters of sf.

Over his large career, he received a succession of honours: a Special Plaque Hugo Award in 1958 as "most promising newcomer"; a British Science Fiction Association special award in 1970; the SFWA Grand Master Award in 1999; the Prix Apollo in 1999; and he was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2004. For his critical contributions to the field, he received a Pilgrim Award in 1978, and the IAFA Award as Distinguished Guest Scholar in 1986. He was given an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 2005. [JC/DP]

see also: Absurdist SF; Adam and Eve; Anthologies; Anti-Intellectualism in SF; Astounding Science-Fiction; Black Holes; Boys' Papers; Clichés; Cosy Catastrophe; Critical and Historical Works About SF; Definitions of SF; Dinosaurs; Disaster; Eaton Award; Ecology; ESP; Evolution; Fantastic Voyages; Genetic Engineering; Gods and Demons; Golden Age of SF; Hive Minds; Horror in SF; Identity; Immortality; Islands; Metaphysics; Music; New Writings in SF; Optimism and Pessimism; Parallel Worlds; Pastoral; Perception; Pocket Universe; Poetry; Post-Holocaust; Proto SF; Psychology; Radio; Recursive SF; Robots; Sociology.

Brian Wilson Aldiss, OBE

born East Dereham, Norfolk: 18 August 1925




Horatio Stubbs

The Squire Quartet


  • Helliconia (London: Jonathan Cape, 1982) [Helliconia: hb/Mon Mohan]
  • Helliconia (London: Jonathan Cape, 1983) [Helliconia: hb/Mon Mohan]
  • Helliconia (London: Jonathan Cape, 1985) [Helliconia: hb/Mon Mohan]
    • (London: Voyager, 1996) [omni of the above three: The Helliconia Trilogy from 1985 is the title of a box containing the three original volumes: Helliconia: hb/Peter Goodfellow]

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