Works by Brian Aldiss,
EARTHWORKS by Brian Aldiss (Methuen pp126 £2.95)
This novel was first published in 1965, and in some ways it was ahead of its time. Although most of the story is set aboard robot controlled, nuclear powered supertankers, in factory farms run by slave labour and in the bedrooms of a decadent elite, it is a "green" novel.
Knowle Noland is an ex-convict who has escaped from a prison farm and been helped to get a job aboard the tanker "Trieste Star". The wrecking of the boat on the African coast leads Noland to join a group of ecologists engaged in what might seem an odd mission. Africa has been united under a powerful President and is at peace. The ecologists want him out of the way so that civil war will break out, bringing a continental scale Biafra. Reduction in population pressure will relieve many of the other problems they reason, such as an end to high intensity farming and the associated chemical pollution.
The pollution affects Noland directly - he suffers from fits and hallucinations. He's a flawed hero and I'm not sure that we're meant to agree with his decision, but this book was prescient in some ways. In America now there is, apparantly, a "deep" ecological movement who hold that things like Aids are good because they are a new and natural culling which will bring the population more into balance. Rats in overpopulated cages fight to the death, rapid growth of rabbits encourages the breeding of foxes who will devour them.
"Earthworks" may mean ramparts, a metaphor for protection against the problem, or it could mean the Earth working its problems out in a natural way. "Natural" sometimes means "unconscious", and what could be more natural than people responding to the population problem by genocidal war, unconscious of a better way?
THE MALACIA TAPESTRY by Brian Aldiss (Methuen £3.50 pp 292)
This is Aldiss' alternate history novel, first published in 1976. It is set in a city south of the Alps, organised much like one of the Italian Renaissaince city states, with a murder rate just as high. Perian de Chirolo narrates the tale, and partly by accident he becomes involved in the struggle of innovators against conservatives. Malacia's government is opposed to change, and the people accept the status quo.
Perian has a job as an actor, which brings him into contact with a photographer trying to promote his new process, but Perian's interest is mainly in his love affairs. He is modelling for a potential photostrip, with his leading lady the daughter of a wealthy burgher who could introduce him to the good life. Perian's life is shallow but he is touched by intrigue and treachery before the city subsides into rest again.
In the background, though, is Malacia, unchanged for Millennia - it has lizard boys, flying people, satyrs, and still has dinosaurs - slobbergobs, snaphaunces, mangonels, devil-jaws and tyrant-greaves. Part of the interest of this book is to see how Aldiss brings things in and then lets them fade from view, when they would be climaxes in other people's work - it actually takes some close reading to decide which animal is being referred to by so homely names. When I first read The Malacia Tapestry some years ago I missed many of his tricks and references, this time I don't think I have. Like previous editions this one comes with eighteenth century illustrations, and has a new nice cover illustration by John Higgins. A lot of attention has been paid to putting this book together and it deserves it.
TRILLION YEAR SPREE: THE HISTORY OF SCIENCE FICTION
by Brian Aldiss with David Wingrove (Paladin pp688 £6.95)
Trillion Year Spree is an updated, extended and slightly re-written version of Aldiss's 1973 Billion Year Spree. By being larger it has more room for the sort of things which spoiled the earlier book, and it seems to contain some of the errors which were there in 1973.
The main failure of the book must be that while it alleges to be criticism it has few critical standards. For instance, the first three chapters are not in chronological order because the book insists that SF owes all its origins to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and begins by examining that, then goes onto Poe and then back to look at possible precursors. The first chapter uses a deep-ish critical standard to look at Mary Shelley's life and its relationship to her work, but that just disappears as the book goes on.
Similarly, in their first chapter the authors give their definition of SF: "Science fiction is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould".
However, as the book goes on the idea of critical standards just disappears, and the last chapter on writers of the last decade is just a mish-mash. Even early on, for instance, in the chapter on Wells, the role of the Gothic is absent - the section on Dr Moreau is mainly a re-telling of the story and not a discussion of the development of Gothic. This continues so that it is still missing in the much later paragraph on George R R Martin's Fevre Dream.
The authors also refrain from making judgements about the quality of an author's work. Take this discussion of Arthur C Clarke's work: "Clarke's writing has progressed considerably since novels like A Fall Of Moondust (1961). There the characters were embarassingly wooden... By the time of Imperial Earth (1975) Clark had made an effort to rectify this weakness". That an author has only "made an effort" in fourteen years, and is not said to have succeeded suggests a remarkable benefit of the doubt about his abilities and results.
This is a disappointing book, not a good history and fundamentally flawed in its claim to critical independence. It is, even worse, inconsistent and has not learned from the books it claims to discuss. On page 550 there is this paragraph: "Why should women need a language of their own? Why is the language we have insufficient for their needs? In posing and answering these questions Elgin's novel (Native Tongue - LJH) is significant, for, in its deliberately exaggerated fashion, it makes us feel how cruel the masculinity of language is." Now re-read the definition of SF quoted above which is re-printed unamended from 1973. The authors say one thing and write another. They have not seen how cruel language is.
Neil Barron's Anatomy Of Wonder is now avaialble in its third edition, and although I haven't seen it I would recommend it, unseen, to anyone who was considering buying a history of SF. That's my response to Trillion Year Spree, I'm afraid.
THE SECRET OF THIS BOOK by Brian Aldiss (HarperCollins 1996 £5.99 pp334)
"20-odd stories" is the sub-title of this book, but you might think them twenty odd stories, including the infamous "Horse Meat" from INTERZONE. Although one or two stories are vaguely mythical, there is little SF and not much fantasy in this collection. Things tend more to magical realism.
Between stories Brian Aldiss has written a linking text, which varies in its clarity. One of the more interesting links includes extracts from his notebook, including this observation "To say what you think: not as easy as you'd think", and a lot of THIS BOOK proves it. That is partly because some of the stories read less as a complete story than as episodes from something longer. Even "Horse Meat" which is one of the longest items in the book reads like an extract which loses a lot of its meaning because it seems to have been torn out of a wider context. "Making My Father Read Revered Writings" and "Sitting With Sick Wasps", which follow "Horse Meat", but are nothing to do with fantasy, both show this. What Aldiss does do in those stories as in many others is to cast himself into another nationality (Danish in the former case, Indian in the other), for reasons I cannot exactly fathom. A Danish boy reads a good book, presses his father to read it, and discovers that his father is not moved. That's it. So why could the boy not be British? What is the significance of that nationality?
Maybe the answer to that question is THE SECRET OF THIS BOOK. Or perhaps it lies elsewhere, because as Aldiss remarks earlier "Information has become a saleable commodity", but the downside is thast some information is not saleable - "One sort of information without monetary value is personal information - that is, provided the person involved is not famous or infamous ... Were you ever interested in an account of someone else's operation - however much you itched to tell about yours?" Oddly enough he does not go on to say, as fiction proves, that personal information about non-existent persons remains in demand. And surely fictional characters can be neither famour nor infamous? Or is that also THE SECRET OF THIS BOOK.
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© L J Hurst 2007