Brian W. AldissPaul Kincaid (University of Illinois Press 978-0252044489, $25.00, 216pp, tp) July 2022.
“There is almost too much to say about Brian Aldiss,” observes Paul Kincaid at the beginning of this book. Indeed, “in a sixty-year career, Brian Aldiss produced over eighty books and over four hundred short stories, not counting his numerous poems, plays and other occasional writings”. These books include a notable history of the genre, A billion years of madness (1973; later revised and expanded with David Wingrove as trillion years of celebration, 1986), tomes of reminiscences, autobiography, poetry and critical essays, sequences from mainstream novels, and of course heaps and heaps of science fiction of nearly every flavor imaginable. Kincaid, whose previous works include the thoughtful non-fiction collections What we do when we read science fiction (2008) and Call and answer (2014), as well as author-specific insightful volumes Ian M. Banks (2017) and The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest (2020), is perfectly suited to the task at hand and says just the right thing. In his study of Roger Zelazny – winner in 1966 of the first Nebula Prize for Best Novel for “The Shaper” as well as Aldiss’ “The Saliva Tree” – F. Brett Cox wrote that Zelazny was “a writer whose achievements are built on a web of contradictions. Likewise, Aldiss’ extensive bibliography is full of “contrasts and contradictions”. Part of this book’s appeal and usefulness lies in Kincaid’s deft navigation of these tricky waters, often made even more complicated by baroque publishing fuss.
Kincaid’s organizational approach effectively orients us and frees us up for in-depth textual discussions of key works. Six chapters handle the trick of proceeding chronologically while conceptually grouping the main movements. In “Warrior”, we learn about Aldiss’s time in the military, which would spark “a fascination with lush, overabundant vegetation”, as well as a general sense of disappointment with “the madness of civilization”, as well as cold undercurrents of “desperation and alienation” that manifest themselves time and time again in his work. Aldiss’ productivity was there from the start: “Between 1954, when ‘Criminal Record’ first appeared, and the end of 1959, he published 56 short stories.” The 1960s, including books like Tight (1962) and Cryptozoic! (1967), are discussed in “Naturalist”. By the time we come to the mid-1960s, “Aldiss was generally hailed as Britain’s finest science fiction writer”, and this period gives way to an explosion of New Wave inventiveness, discussed in the third chapter, “Experimentalist”. Aldiss’s role as the ‘historian’ of the genre, Kincaid argues persuasively, ‘prompted much of his own fiction in the 1970s and into the 1990s, spanning such works as untied frankenstein (1973), The other island of Moreau (1980), dracula unbound (1991), and The Malacia Tapestry.” The fifth chapter sees Aldiss deploying his experience and secular worldview as a “scientist” to forge the Helliconia trilogy, “by far the longest and most ambitious single work of Brian Aldiss’s career”, although , lamentably, “the first two volumes eluded him,” the whole enterprise thus failed to deliver the commercial and critical success that Aldiss had hoped for. The concluding “utopian” is a study that gives reflect on the decline, during which much of Aldiss’ fiction is characterized by a “strong emphasis on the past.” This final survey of Aldiss’ final years captures “the drumbeat of misfortune and the ‘inability to find meaning in life’.
Throughout his study, Kincaid makes diligent but carefully skeptical use of the autobiography The wink, which, according to Kincaid, “contains too many easily rebuttable factual errors to be completely reliable”. In addition to addressing all major genre works, Kincaid gives its due to non-genre material, starting with non-fiction The Brightfount Diaries, throughout mainstream fiction Squire Quartet and beyond. Kincaid’s style is direct and inviting, sometimes refreshing and informal, as when he describes for example Bare feet in the head like “block”. He uses relevant personal experiences (for example, once, after writing in favor of John Wyndham, he received a postcard from Aldiss asking: “Why do you hate me so?”) and is frankly not disagree with historical reception whenever relevant (e.g., “I smell that untied frankenstein is a light and superficial work, but it was widely praised at the time of its publication”). His opinions can be amusing and derogatory (“white mars is marred by its atrocious sexual politics, its naivety about the practicalities of establishing a utopia, and a sense that the author of Aldiss’ previous books couldn’t believe a word of it. Besides, it’s dull”) but are never defenseless.
At the beginning of Brian W. Aldiss, I wondered why, as Kincaid points out, it should be that Aldiss’ work is “easier to admire than to love”, and in the end I had an answer. Many of Aldiss’s best novels combine themes of stasis and estrangement, wrapped up in various formally difficult schemes. Some, like Dark and Bright Years and Earthworks, are ostensibly misanthropic. Aldiss’s alternating anger and discouragement at humanity’s perpetual failures color even many of his most conventional narratives. Then there is the recurrent “priapic masculinity”, probably informed by Aldiss’s wartime experiences with sex workers, and a strong anti-colonialist position which, although sometimes prescient, can also give way to an “Orientalist attitude “. Aldiss, at his best, stylistically channels and modernizes HG Wells’ most intoxicating insights and critiques, but the sense of wonder is often replaced by cosmic disaffection. In Bury my heart at WH Smith, Aldiss writes: “Any creativity is part of a solution to a problem.” As Kincaid’s elegant outline makes clear, Aldiss’s work is not just a hymn to ceaseless creativity, but a testament to an almost compulsive preoccupation with generating new problems towards whose solution that same sparkling creativity can be directed.
This review and others like it in the October 2022 issue of Venue.
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