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Obituary Brian Aldiss: A seriously speculative entertainer

MANY years ago, I winced at Brian Aldiss’s polite but emphatic battering of a hapless presenter during a disastrous Radio 4 interview.

So I was nervous when The Third Alternative magazine commissioned me to interview Aldiss in 2003. Brutal with poorly framed questions, he was nevertheless generous with his time and profligate with his witty asides.

Disgusted with consumerism, corporate greed, religion and literary snobbery, he could also be scathing about science fiction, the genre for which he is best known: “Fans threatened to break my legs when they first read Billion Year Spree [Aldiss’s history of SF], illiterates that they were,” he revealed during the interview. “Of course things have settled down a bit over the years but I am still a constitutional non-joiner.”

When the constitutional “non-joiner” returned from south-east Asia after WWII, he disliked Britain’s stagnant social order and staid mainstream literature. For Aldiss, SF was an alternative to writing that ignored global changes and threats: “In order to engage with an unstable world, the deadly realism of the older type of novel is surely inadequate,” he said. “That is why so much present-day SF has a strong flavour of the fantastic to it. How else to cope with reality?”

His earliest stories, from the 1950s on, were innovative in theme and style. Non-Stop blended SF invention, mystery, an anti-heroic tone and a gradually unfolding cosmic joke. Reflecting on the story Outside, writer and critic Colin Wilson said: “In a story of less than 5,000 words, Mr Aldiss has succeeded in in creating an effective symbol of the human condition and posing the problem ‘Who am I?’ in a new and startling way.”

In the 1960s, Aldiss’s writing was a revelation. Greybeard tackles sustainability and human custodianship of the planet, while balancing the needs of humanity and those of our ecosystem.

“The higher you climb up the totem pole, the greedier you get. From this factor stems one source of our global problems: the greed for oil. Am I advocating going back to the horse and cart? Certainly not. The problem is too complex, too circular for that: we have better dentistry and medical treatment because of fossil fuels and their use.”

Barefoot in the Head, an experimental new-wave novel, imagines Britain in a state of mass stupor induced by hallucinogenic bombs. A sense of social collapse, revolutionary change and ambiguous perception is heightened by a fragmented structure and quasi-Joycean stream of consciousness:

“Life was going on, drugs were going in,” Aldiss told me. “It occurred to me that it merely needed an ill-intentioned person to pour a bucket of LSD into Staines reservoir to ruin, not only JG Ballard’s career, but the entire social structure of Britain. An ideal time for false messiahs to arise.”

The anti-novel Report on Probability A (1968) also uses an unconventional structure and its regressive narrative challenged the expectations of SF readers. Aldiss often questioned the scaffolding of traditional narrative structure and its lack of denouement as “coitus without orgasm.”

His most ambitious work of the 1970s was The Malacia Tapestry (1976), in which the city of the book’s title is vibrant but steeped in stagnant tradition and superstition and the narrative blends traditional fantasy with satirical sideswipes at snobbery, class and social stasis.

It reflects Aldiss’s view that he perhaps functioned best as a satirist because “a satirist is a man who loathes his target and yet, from a perverse affection, does not necessarily wish it to go away. Especially, that is, if his target is the human race.”

The Helliconia Trilogy (1982-5) concerns the rise and fall of civilisation on an Earth-like planet as it moves through seasons lasting for hundreds of years. Aldiss creates richly imagined histories, ecosystems, geographical features and belief systems.

Characters — including the sexually perverted crew of the space station Avernus — are based on aspects of humanity and Aldiss tackled sex with a directness and humour seldom found in SF and fantasy.

“The subject of sex is constantly on our minds,” he asserted. “Of course you write about it. The rather prissy popular SF with which I grew up was totally mute on the subject, or else totally inept. I had to have a go! Serious though sexual matters are, they are, like all serious things, a subject for comedy.”

As the 21st century dawned, Aldiss continued to write angry and adventurous books. Super-Toys Last All Summer Long — the basis for Steven Spielberg’s film AI: Artificial Intelligence — tackles the dangers of collective greed, untrammelled capitalism and patriarchal stupidity and the satirical and visionary Super-State makes telling observations about class, wealth, consumerism, sex and climate change: “I wouldn’t think anyone reading Super-State would imagine I had mellowed. Not when I seek to prove that all humanity is not sane.”

Aldiss was funny, forthright and genial. He took his work seriously but wasn’t precious about status or reputation. He was open in his admiration of Iain M Banks, Leo Tolstoy and Philip K Dick — he was a “Dickhead” in the best sense of the word.

A leading light of new-wave experimentation, he helped establish environmental sustainability as a theme in SF and raged against the absurdities of consumerism. It has much to answer for as “one of the cancers on the backside of capitalism,” he said.

Few authors have his energy, creativity and ability to entertain. Editor, critic and SF historian, Aldiss provoked philosophical, social, political and scientific speculation. He will be missed.


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