Brian Aldiss, 18 August 1925 – 19 August 2017

Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, Michael Kustow, and JG Ballard at the 1968 Brighton Arts Festival.

By an Aldissian cosmic coincidence, I missed notice of Aldiss’s death for several days, even as I was reading his ‘The Worm That Flies’ in Gardner Dozois’ 1991 Modern Classics of Science Fiction.

Aldiss was such an inventive writer he would surely be recognised today as a literary great if his work had not been dismissed by the literary establishment as ‘science fiction’ – a category forever sullied by the cheapness of pulp paper, American privateers, and the juvenile trappings of its big and small screen re-incarnations.

While Aldiss was drawing his last breaths, creeping surreptitiously past his 92nd birthday, I was reading his 1968 lamentation of a far future, in which only two stars remain to illuminate the blank sky of an almost extinguished universe.  These stars are observed with fearful timidity by immortal beings who might once have been human, suddenly confronted with the stark remembrance of having been children, long ago, as if this were a subversive thought after millennia of evolutionary indifference to reproduction.  And with that remembrance of childhood comes also the certainty of another banished thought: death.  The worm that flies through time and space despite immortality.  It seems now a bitterly ironic thought that I read Aldiss’s own lamentation of losing youth, wasting maturity, and of a postponed death nevertheless being inevitable.

In the 1970s Aldiss confused me with his allegorical, poetic style.  He was not a favourite then, and probably not now either.  But he was a towering figure nonetheless for his critiques, in a very British style I found easier to empathise with than the American brashness of a people born under the intellectual yoke of religious extremism, imprinted even on the consciousness of New World heretics, with its demand for absolutes, black and whites, and nary a thing in between.

Aldiss’s 1973 history of science fiction, Billion Year Spree, was a steadfast companion for me in the thin years of finding my taste, and struggling with the shallow goal of reading the ‘right’ things, while being bored stiff by the content thus defined in the elite circles which get to arbitrate this matter.

Aldiss was one of three or four authors who have responded to my letters, which I once wrote with a dogged determination, in my naïve anticipation they would answer for me questions I could not answer for myself about the stories I read.  In the 1970s I wrote to Aldiss, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, AE Van Vogt, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Samuel Delaney, EE Doc Smith (I had no idea he was already dead at the time), Michael Moorcock, and many others.  Always care of the publisher of the book or magazine in which I found the stories that raised my questions.

Aldiss was the only one who responded to those laboriously handwritten, schoolboy letters.  His response, too, arrived as mine had gone out.  In one of those awkwardly-sized British envelopes, suited to no kind of conventional paper format, meaning that the contents always had to be folded like origami sculptures to fit.

He had responded by hand, not typewriter.  It was a single sheet of flimsy paper.  The handwriting was graphic and entirely legible, in blue-black ink of the kind I imagined filled my own fountain pens.  His letter forms included a distinct flourish for the descenders of the gs and ys that now form part of my own all but illegible handwriting, possibly as a boyish emulation I thought might make a writer of me, by some hocus pocus cargo cult method.

I don’t recall the question I asked.  And the Aldiss letter is lost, clamped between the pages of a book by him that disappeared in floodwaters (The Saliva Tree anthology?), like an element in one of his fables about lost memories and distant pasts, made sad and inaccessible by great age and distant futures.

His letter said something like: ‘As for your confusion on the meaning, I cannot help.  You will have to choose your own way of filling in the blanks.’  It was advice that struck me as at once kind in acknowledging the struggle of a juvenile mind with art it was not yet equipped to master, and gently reproachful about my indolence in not working harder to cover the intellectual ground myself.  I took it as an encouragement not to fail in that way too much more in my own future.

It seems that Aldiss had a strong interest in the noblesse oblige idea of giving back: he encouraged young writers and the establishment of a British science fiction magazine culture to let them experiment and showcase their works before they were able to command publishing contracts in their own right.

Christopher Priest, in the Guardian obituary, wrote:

… Aldiss’s commitment to literature, and in particular to SF literature, was fierce. In the mid-60s he was instrumental in obtaining a crucial Arts Council grant for New Worlds, the pioneering British SF magazine. All his working life he did much behind the scenes to encourage, support and promote younger writers. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Literary Society in 1989, and was appointed OBE in 2005. He bore these awards, and many others, with pride.

Yet in his last years he expressed a lasting regret that his own work was never acknowledged as literature proper.  A couple of days after he died, the Telegraph printed a 2015 interview by Jack Kerridge, that contained the following:

I quote to him something he wrote in 1990: “Just as the [literary] establishment is philistine about science, the bulk of the science-fiction readership is philistine about literature.” “Ha!” he cries gleefully, “offends both parties.” …

“Why am I treated as though I’m a hack?”

… he feels that his finest achievements have been critically neglected, notably his mighty Helliconia trilogy (1983-85), set on an Earthlike planet where each season lasts for several centuries.

“For two years I did nothing but research. My wife said, ‘Are you ever going to write again?’ And do you know, that cosmological set-up now has been shown to exist in deep space. There is somewhere like that. So why am I treated as though I’m a hack? Why didn’t the TLS ever review those books?” he says, cuffing the pile beside him.

What’s his answer? “Snobbery! But I believe that science fiction has a great importance. …”

In the endlessly bitchy world of British literary pretension, Aldiss’s comments might have seemed like the lamentations of an ungrateful old sod already honoured beyond the rewards bestowed on others who are thought, and think themselves, more deserving.  Not so, I think.  Just as Chaucer and Shakespeare were thought purveyors of popular trash aimed at ill-educated louts in their own times, so contemporary writers with popular audiences may not be recognised for their work until they have become the immaterially living dead – no longer alive anywhere but in their words, and maybe also the memories of those words in the lives of those who are still alive.

 

Gardner Dozois, in his introduction to ‘The Worm That Flies’, managed densely packed hyperbole that nevertheless missed out some critical grounding:

In many ways, Brian W. Aldiss was the enfant terrible of the late-’50s, exploding into the science fiction world and shaking it up with the ferocious verve and pyrotechnic verbal brilliance of stories like “Poor Little Warrior!,” “Outside,” “The New Father Christmas,” “Who Can Replace a Man?,” “A Kind of Artistry,” and “Old Hundredth,” and with the somber beauty and unsettling poetic vision – in the main, of a world where Mankind signally has not triumphantly conquered the universe, as the Campbellian dogma of the time insisted that he would – of his classic novels Starship and The Long Afternoons of Earth (Non-Stop and Hothouse, respectively, in Britain). All this made him one of the most controversial writers of the day … and, some years later, he’d be one of the most controversial figures of the New Wave era as well, shaking up the SF world of the mid-‘60s in an even more dramatic and drastic fashion with the ferociously Joycean “acidhead war” stories that would be melded into Barefoot in the Head, with the irreverent Cryptozoic!, and with his surrealistic anti-novel Report on Probability A.

Aldiss in 2015.

Where did this creativity spring from, like a lurker from a mannered British hedgerow?  Aldiss was bundled off to boarding schools for much of his youth, which he suggested was a much greater hardship to endure than his service in WWII.  I can relate to some part of that experience, having suffered the British school system myself, and recalling it as the most demanding test of my will to live even decades later.

It seems his creative muse was the exposure to the Imperial outposts of the Far East, perhaps steeping him in the connection to empire that also inspired Kipling, or maybe just shaking him out of the torpor that can accompany the drab experience of British post war decline, resigned to suffer an unchanged class snobbery, assigning to each their station in life, and rigidly restricting with it the zenith of their aspirations, achievements, and rewards.

The Washington Post Obituary featured a quote about his return to Britain I couldn’t find at its source (the virtues of a ‘clippings’ library?):

“I didn’t like British society,” he told the Glasgow Sunday Herald in 2001. “I couldn’t tell a florin from a half crown. I thought it was all crap, the social order and everything. So as an outsider, I naturally gravitated to the outsider’s literature, which was science fiction.”

It is clear, though, that the draper’s son was no slouch in imagination or erudition.  His stories always struck me as less gosh-wow and more glancing back to Dante, and stopping at all stations forward to something not yet defined – as on a derailed British train journey that leaves behind the commuter stops for the far future, revealed to us as not immune to our own present discontents, but also not as the variations on ideological absolutes that is the recurring motif of American writers’ obsession with its religionism, whether theological or secular.

Most likely Aldiss would have cursed me for not being complimentary about his Helliconia trilogy; I never made it all the way through Helliconia Spring, and ignored entirely the sequels Helliconia Summer and Helliconia Winter.  In fact, I have sampled only very sparsely from his prolific writings, being exposed predominantly to his earlier, award winning work, which included The Long Afternoon of Earth (Hugo Award, 1962), ‘The Saliva Tree’ (Nebula Award, 1965), and Starship (Prix Jules Verne, 1977).

In fact, I am not much of a ‘fan’ at all.  More of an inconstant reader, and taking too much for granted that Aldiss was always around.  And he will be.  His books will outlast him by far.  Perhaps there is still time for me to look into his varied treatises on growing old in a world also apparently wizened by the progress of its progeny.

Still, of all the famous people who died in recent years, and the countless less famous ones, I wonder whether it was not Aldiss who deserved another lifetime … just for being, in a world obsessed with celebrity, and celebrities obsessed with themselves, a man who took the time and trouble to hold out a helping hand to the generations that would succeed him.

Links to the Guardian obituary, the 2015 Telegraph interview, and the Washington Post obituary.

 

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