Saturday, September 06, 2008

Gentlemen, cognite your engines...

Thoughts on reading a new old book by Brian Aldiss

The wise old owl sat in the court
The less he knew, the more he thought,

The more he knew he thought, the less he thought he knew -
Why can't he think he knows it all like me and you?

- Myself

I recently bought a book of non-recent essays by Brian Aldiss, This World and Nearer Ones: Essays exploring the familiar. They're from the late 1970s or thereabouts, but they're new to me. Aldiss has written so much, and so much of it is so very different to all the other stuff that he writes, that this is a relatively common experience for people. Aldiss suffers from the predicament of the prolific author: not only will you never get to the end of what he writes, you sometimes hardly get to the beginning of it, either. On the other hand, such is his ability to churn out new ideas, and make old ideas seem fresh, that every book you get a hold of is an adventure - so it all balances out nicely.

And most of what you'll find of Aldiss, too, in the bookshops, is from the 1960s and 50s, a time when he churned out a number of high-grade science-fiction novels, like Hothouse (think futuristic jungles where people are hunted by plants, and giant spiders spin vast webs between the planets) and Non-Stop (a weird pastiche novel involving dwarves and Jungian archetypes on a interstellar ship somewhere in outer space). Oftentimes his publishers try to excuse his elaborate flights of science-fantasy with cover blurbs that explain how he's been an editor of literary supplements, a film and art critic, a journalist, and a poet. Sometimes they'll even threaten to confront you with evidence of this. All I can say is I've never really seen it.

Aldiss, by contrast doesn't even seem to be interested in excuses of this sort. What he's done in books like this is to write about science fiction as a critic. By this I mean, he hasn't just published a collection of reviews of science fiction books, or judged the rest of world literature by the extent to which it echoes or is influenced by science fiction - he seems, thankfully, entirely disinterested in this sort of self justification. No, what he's done is write a collection of playful critical essays reflecting upon new themes that have arisen in science fiction, meditated upon the connections between science, art and progress 'Since the Enlightenment' (the title of the introductory essay), written about encounters with fellow fantasy authors, looked at images of science and fantasy and surreal in the work of pulp artists, and even written one or two essays on ideas that would previously have only been the basis of science fiction stories or novels. What's good for the author is good for the critic as well, it seems:

Mr Chairman, Fellow Mortals I suppose you all know what death is. It's that last great MOT test in the skies, that undiscovered bun-fight from whose custard-pies no traveller revives. Undertakers used to charge £95 per head for it; this week it's gone up to £120 per head, and I daren't tell you how much for the body.

That's from 'Looking Forward to 2001', an address to the Oxford Union, and it's worth buying the book just for that piece alone.

Coming to think about his novels now, I suspect that he's approached a lot of his fiction like a critic. His novels will satirise or imitate the work of other authors, or he will argue with himself, or at his worst (a worst which is better than the best of some other science fiction writers) he will belabour a theme or idea in his writing so that it becomes slow-moving and pedantic. So, too, I get a sense that he approaches criticism like science fiction. He makes so much of it up; it is so full of fast-moving arguments and opinions that sometimes you are unable to stop and pin him down to an argument. He can rely on glib journalistic generalisations and his arguments can be designed to put people in their place. In 'California, Where They Drink Buck Rogers', he says 'on the whole, these are culture-free people'. Culture here could have several meanings, but this sentence is primarily designed to appeal to an English audience - it was written for the Guardian. So it's a put down. Elsewhere, we get: '... that Man (rarely Woman) has various God-like abilities. In the knockabout farces of their pulp universe, Man always won through by force...' But Man can have different definitions here, too - 'Humanity' or 'males'. He teases with one definition and then makes clear that it is the other, probably to imply his sympathy with a feminist readership.

Occasionally he attempts to clobber you with strange, unheard of words from the depths of his home dictionary:

The basic imaginative donné of the pulps...

In fact, according to both and the Oxford Dictionary, this word is 'donnée'*. If you tease the reader with obscure words then get the spelling wrong, you're unlikely to be caught out. But it means you're probably doing it more to impress than to make an argumentative point.

Elsewhere: he criticises the eminently criticisable original series of Star Trek, but in a strange way. He's picked the right show to tick off, but the wrong reasons. He says 'the nice guys are of course all American, and, indeed, All-American'. Maybe the show did reflect an American ethos, but this is the ethos of an immigrant culture: the main characters number among them Russians, African-Americans, Scottish, and Chinese (and, of course, one Vulcan). In 'Looking Forward to 2001' he claims to be 'a firm admirer of America', but you get the sense that he wants to categorise them, too. The urge to categorise in this sense may be meant as critical - but it seems like a kind of social categorisation, too.

More strange and wondrous are various mispellings and slips of the fingers. He mentions horror writer L P Lovecraft (a confusion of L P Hartley and H P Lovecraft, perhaps?) In an essay on French writer Jules Verne, Aldiss compares him to the 'two great English writers Henrik Ibsen and Leo Tolstoy'. Has Aldiss arranged some kind of posthumous English-Russian writerly exchange program? I would love to see a novel by the English author Leo Tolstoy. Or, for that matter, a play by the Russian writer Oscar Wilde. These Aldissian Slips are signs of the speed and prolixity with which the author is able to rattle of cultural references and names and are quite tantalising in their own way: by not saying what their writer means, they mean more than they should.

He is good on mistakes and misappropriations of others; his piece 'SF Art: Strangeness with Beauty' is affectionate criticism. Talking of an early 20th century astronomer who looked through his telescope and concluded that the planet Venus was in the midst of 'a Carboniferous age, with luxuriant vegetation growing in hot cloudy conditions', Aldiss deduces 'From this inspired - and totally incorrect - guess have sprung a thousand Planet Stories scenarios'. And then there is this:

When the technophile Gustave Eiffel erected his great iron tower in Paris in 1889... it was an inspiration to technophiles everywhere - so much so that the tower appeared truncated on a Wonder Stories cover some years later as mining equipment on Pluto.

Also of interest is the way this book as a whole prefigures and echoes themes which occur in other Aldiss books. The various travels that Aldiss takes to the Soviet Union, Sumatra, the USA, and the Balkans have obvious parallels elsewhere in his ouevre, including the short stories in A Tupolev Too Far, his Life in the West quartet, and (a book I'd love to get) his travellers guide to the Balkans. He mentions in his essay on SF art a project by enlightenment artist Philip James de Loutherbourg to create 'moving pictures, ingenious optical effects, and, again, striking effects of light' - a forerunner of the cinema. Something like this appears in his alternative-history fantasy A Malacia Tapestry. Also appearing in that novel are hot air balloons as a form of air transport, which he mentions (follow me here) in his book The Detached Retina, in passing, in an essay on Mary Shelley's little known book The Lost Man, which contains fantastic passages about voyages across a plague-ridden Europe in hot air balloons and dirigibles.

This World and Nearer Ones is an oxymoron in more ways than one - it is big for its size; it is a single book that contains multitudes. Aldiss is always even handed, and where he sometimes has a habit of contradicting history, as noted above, he also has a way of contradicting himself. The self, for him, is as much a matter of opinion as is history. These contradictions are splendidly obvious in 'Looking Forward to 2001', though there is another in 'From History to Timelessness', a standard (for Aldiss) exposition of the right-brain/left-brain dichotomy. Aldiss has always been banging on about the person as two-in-one - body against flesh, mind against soul. In The Detached Retina, however, almost on a whim, he speculates that maybe inside people there are seven separate and distinct persons who emerge at different times in one's life. I'd like to think that this endless capacity for contradiction demonstrates Aldiss' ongoing vigour of mind and creativity.

Now, after speaking of another writers contradictions, I have to admit to doing a bit of an Aldiss myself on reading his essay 'Burroughs: Less Lucid than Lucian' - having to pull myself up halfway through when I realised he was writing about ER Burroughs, not William Burroughs.

Doing an Aldiss Slip. Is there room in the Oxford Dictionary for that, do you think?

*The subject, theme, or motif of a story, play, etc.; a datum; a basic fact, assumption, etc - Oxford Dictionary


Mild Colonial Boy, Esq. said...

L.P. Lovecraft?

Didn't he write the famous line: ""The past is a foreign country: they worship Cthulhu there"?

Tim said...

What a great review! I have never really gotten to grips with Aldiss, although I'm not sure why. The one book of his I've read in recent years is Greybeard, which I enjoyed but also found a bit annoying and twee. A bit "Sixties" maybe. (Although I'm not sure that that is necessarily a derogatory comment. There are lots of good things that are a bit Sixties.)

Tim said...

OT: You'll get a kick out of this, Tim.

TimT said...


I appreciated the massive mindfuck that Aldiss' book Cryptozoic gave me back in, oh, 1998 and have felt affectionate towards him ever since then. Some of his writing does fall flat, but when he's good, there's no-one like him.

TimT said...

I guess that must be the one, MCB, Esq.

Email: timhtrain - at -

eXTReMe Tracker

Blog Archive