Report On Probability Aldiss
♦ British sci fi legend Brian Aldiss passed away last week and Tripwire’s Contributing Writer JAMES DC took a look at his impressive career…
Born in 1925, in Dereham, Norfolk, to a middle class draper’s family, Brian had a troubled childhood, having been sent to a boarding school which he ended up hating because of the various kinds of abuse that habitually went on there, under the radar. He also had a very difficult relationship with his depressive mother, which gave the young boy a rather melancholic, inward looking disposition, and probably paved the way for his escapist imagination to soar in later years. Despite his growing pains, the boy Aldiss possessed an innately curious mind about the world around him, and would often stare up, in awe, at the moon – a cosmic omen of later achievements. He was a voracious reader and began writing stories at a very young age, often spellbinding his classmates with amazing, made-up ‘space’ tales, which partly appeased the school bullies, whilst facilitating a temporary reprieve from his then humdrum existence. In 1943 Aldiss joined the Royal Corps of Signals and saw action in various countries in the Far East, especially Burma, where he was part of the famous ‘Forgotten’ 14th Army. Rather like his peer J.G. Ballard, his traumatic yet inextricably exciting wartime experiences fed into much of his work, decades later; his celebrated, Hugo award-winning novel Hothouse (1962) features steaming, exotic jungles, predatory plant-like creatures and strange, fear inducing dangers, no doubt inspired by the grim, violent reality, years earlier.
Demobbed in 1947, Aldiss worked as a bookshop assistant in Oxford, where he began to write satirical sketches for a book trade magazine based on his humorous experiences among the dusty bookshelves and fusty academics; these became relatively successful and were later collected as The Brightfount Diaries, published by Faber in 1955. Brian Aldiss had arrived. Space, Time and Nathaniel came in 1957, a collection of short stories previously published in various SF pulp magazines, and his first SF novel, Non-Stop, a ‘generation starship’ story, now considered a classic, was published in 1958. From there, Aldiss’s popularity grew as he joined the burgeoning yet still somewhat cloistered and untrammeled world of the British SF community, to eventually become one of the seminal figures in its heyday, the 1960s and ’70s, alongside his close friends J.G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock, as well as Arthur C. Clarke, John Brunner, Christopher Priest, and a scant few others possessing the same level of wide-ranging skill.
A man of many talents, Aldiss intermittently supplemented his genre work with more mainstream fare, from poetry, plays, travelogues, film scenarios, and a series of humorous novels; the Horatio Stubbs trilogy (1970-78), partly based on his bawdy sexual exploits in the Far East during World War Two, to the well received Squire Quartet (1980-1994). In the late 1980s he wrote and performed in an anarchic comedy revue called Science Fiction Blues, co-produced with madcap theatre director Ken Campbell. Later, in his twilight years, he tried his hand at painting and collage, of a vibrantly colourful, abstract bent. But what he will be most remembered for was his science fiction, in which he elicited a pin-sharp, fecund imagination, laced with lyrical symbolism, a cynical yet forgiving wit and, perhaps most importantly, a real sense of humanity. Aldiss’s writing ranged across multifarious styles, from rip-roaring, pulp-like adventures in the 1950s, to full-on ‘New Wave’ avant-gardism in the ’60s and ’70s, and epic, fantasy tinged worldbuilding in the 1980s. He toyed with pretty much every classical SF theme and concept but also invented or tweaked quite a few too, underpinning even his lesser stories with an incisive sociopolitical, ethical, or philosophical subtext.
Aldiss was a prolific author of more than 100 books and 300 short stories (as well as 40 edited anthologies) and he often threw caution to the wind in order to try out unfamiliar forms, structures and concepts – unlike many of his contemporaries. Two of Aldiss’s most potent, experimental projects were his cultish novels Report on Probability A (1967) and Barefoot in the Head (1969), the former of which he could not get published until the inestimable Michael Moorcock took a punt on it, in his legendarily radical SF magazine, New Worlds. I would argue that the ‘Nouveau Roman’ inspired Report on Probability A is Aldiss’s absurdist, dryly witty masterpiece (even if it does have a few flaws) and is quite unlike anything else you will ever read. As for his numerous short story collections, or the countless anthologies he edited or co-edited (usually with his best mate and travelling companion, Harry Harrison) pretty much anything with Aldiss’s name on the cover is worth giving a go; as with all the best SF novelists he was also a master of the short story.
Later highlights included the celebrated Helliconia trilogy (1982-85), and three promising film adaptations: Frankenstein Unbound (1990, directed by Roger Corman), A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001, Steven Spielberg), and Brothers of the Head (2005, Keith Fulton/Louis Pepe). Unfortunately, in the final analysis, these were all middling productions, but they will have increased Aldiss’s exposure, to a point, which can only be a good thing. Coinciding with his intense output, the awards came thick and fast too, with over 40, including the prestigious Hugo, Nebula, Grand Master of Science Fiction, and finally, in 2005, an OBE. Throughout most of his life Aldiss was compelled to write every single day, and he continued up until the very end, with Finches of Mars and Comfort Zone being his last two major novels, in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
An extremely well read man, especially of the literary Classics (as well as, of course, all types of SF, Fantasy and genre fiction), Aldiss counted Tolstoy as one of his favourite authors; he also knew and corresponded with various luminaries, including Kingsley Amiss, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien – many of whom were regular customers at the Oxford bookshop where he worked, in his youth. If nothing else, Aldiss was truly eclectic in his tastes, and such a ‘Catholic’ attitude served him well, in his fiction.
As a flesh and blood person Aldiss was, in a way, even more thrilling than his work; perhaps his ‘stint’ as a well-rounded, empathetic, cheerful and always friendly human being was his most supreme accomplishment. Moreover, he was a tirelessly positive advocate of SF and Fantasy in all its forms, and – unlike some of his po-faced, pompous or precious contemporaries – was always generous with his time and entirely approachable when it came to fans, colleagues or up-and-coming authors. He constantly fought the intellectual corner in regard to cultural snobbery from the high and mighty, closed-minded literary establishment, and produced many thought-provoking, perceptive interpretations of what science fiction is, can be, or should be, through a series of talks, lectures and critical essays – not to mention down the pub! Many will attest to countless wonderful evenings carousing with Aldiss the raconteur and occasional prankster; if he were in attendance, then invariably it was he who was the life and soul of the party. Significantly, Aldiss wrote one of the seminal, and very readable, histories of SF: Billion Year Spree (1973, later updated as Trillion Year Spree, 1986, with David Wingrove), in which he argued for Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein to be considered the ubertext of proto-SF – at the time this was quite a controversial opinion to bandy around. But since his championing of Shelley’s novel, most literary and academic historians now conform to such a femalecentric inception for science fiction.
On a more personal note, I interviewed Brian Aldiss for a three hour radio show in 2012, for London’s Resonance 104.4FM. I had met him without any introductions and completely out of the blue, but he was incredibly trusting and invited me to his splendid house in Oxford, on three separate occasions, to do the interview. Despite his slightly frail health at the time, he was the perfect host, making me tea and scones, and I stayed all day and well over the allotted time on each visit, chatting and laughing, and eventually had to whittle the recorded conversation down from over 5 hours, in all. Suffice to say, it was one of my most enjoyable interviews – and experiences, in general. (Unfortunately, through no fault of my own, there is no copy available online at the moment, which I hope to rectify soon: watch this space.) I like to think that my interview with Aldiss is a pretty comprehensive overview of his life and career, yet so much of that was down to Aldiss’s willingness to engage fully, and openly, with others, whoever they were. Off the record, Aldiss was just as gregarious, witty and recondite, regaling me with wild and quite ‘naughty’ anecdotes regarding his various exploits with other SF authors, over the years, as well as his general thoughts on life, the universe, science, literature and art; he possessed a wonderful mind, jammed with a lifetime of knowledge and insight. But, perhaps Aldiss’s greatest virtue was that he didn’t take himself – or some others, for that matter – too seriously. Pretentious he was not.
As well as possessing a trenchant, probing intellect and a formidable talent as a writer, Brian Aldiss was a true gentleman and an all-round humanitarian, and I very much doubt if the field of science fiction will ever produce another author of such bountiful calibre.
Brian Wilson Aldiss was married twice and is survived by four children and six grandchildren.
The following is a select list of what are generally considered to be the highlights of Brian Aldiss’s oeuvre, including some bone fide classics. (I, myself, have read many of these, but not all.) As for short story collections or edited anthologies, almost all of his are brilliant or, at the very least, worthwhile.
The Dark Light Years (1964)
Report on Probability A (1967)
Barefoot in the Head (1969)
Brothers of the Head (1977)
Enemies of the System (1978)
Helliconia trilogy (1982-85)
The Shape of Further Things: Speculations on Change (1970)
Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1973, later updated as Trillion Year Spree, 1986, with David Wingrove)
Hell’s Cartographers (1975, co-edited with Harry Harrison)
This World and Nearer Ones: Essays Exploring the Familiar (1979)
Bury my Heart at W.H. Smith’s: A Writing Life (1990)
The Detached Retina: Aspects of SF and Fantasy (1995)
The Twinkling of an Eye, or My Life as an Englishman (1998)
More info: http://brianaldiss.co.uk/