Monday, 21 August 2017

RIP Brian W. Aldiss

One of the titans of science fiction has left us. Brian Aldiss (often published as Brian W. Aldiss) has passed away at the age of 92.

Aldiss is one of the most fascinating authors in the science fiction canon, comfortable writing stories rooted in scientific ideas but much more interested in writing tales which experimented with language and character. He was arguably in the New Wave of SF two decades before the New Wave really took off, writing books fairly seething with intelligence and artistry. He was a friend and intellectual sparring partner of J.G. Ballard, and if Aldiss was not quite as adept as Ballard as crossing into the mainstream (his love of spaceships and alien worlds drawing him back into hard SF whilst Ballard firmly crossed over with his disturbing novel Crash), he was every bit his equal in terms of sheer writing ability.

To read an Aldiss novel is to drown in evocative prose and strange, compelling ideas, all transmitted through human, flawed characters. His first novel, The Brightfount Diaries (1955), was mainstream fiction, but his second, Non-Stop (1958), is a rightly-acknowledged classic of science fiction, one of the earliest books to explore the idea of a generation ship which takes centuries to travel between stars. Non-Stop is contemporary of early Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, but is set apart from them by its fantastic language and the way Aldiss mirrors the decrepit and failing nature of the Ship against that of humanity itself.

His second major work of SF was Hothouse, set on a future Earth beset by global warming where plant life has run out of control and the remnants of humanity are trying to survive in the ruins. The fact this novel was written in 1962 remains jaw-dropping; the prose is evocative and its grasp of human nature is assured. The imagery, of a vast banyan tree covering the entire Indian subcontinent and of immense webs linking the Earth to the Moon, travelled by creatures beyond human understanding, remains unrivalled in science fiction. The 1962 novel was assembled out of five pre-existing short stories; the science fiction fan community bent the rules slightly to collectively award the short stories the 1962 Hugo Award for Short Fiction at the third WorldCon in Chicago. In those days of less-sophisticated international communications, the first Aldiss knew of the award was when it showed up on his doorstep.

Works of profound science fiction power followed: The Dark Light Years (1964), Greybeard (1964), Earthworks (1965) and the intensely strange Report on Probability A (1967), in which Aldiss explores the uncertainty principle and the quantum notion of observer and observed about twenty years before most SF authors even thought of tackling it. Barefoot in the Head (1969) was Aldiss's most experimental novel, a nod at 1960s acid counterculture. Frankenstein Unbound (1973) was a more straightforward novel, a sequel to Frankenstein involving time travel. Roger Corman produced a film version in 1990.

Other major works proceeded at this time. Aldiss wrote the semi-autobiographical Horatio Stubbs trilogy in the 1970s, consisting of The Hand-Reared Boy (1970), A Soldier Erect (1971) and A Rude Awakening (1978). These novels were rooted in Aldiss's own experiences during the Second World War. The Malacia Tapestry (1976) was a triumphant return to science fiction, followed by Moreau's Other Island (1980).

Aldiss spent a large chunk of the late 1970s working with film maker Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick had fallen in love with Aldiss's 1969 novella Supertoys Last All Summer Long and asked Aldiss to collaborate on a film version of the same idea. Aldiss suspected that Kubrick was trying to replicate the success he'd had with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), on which Kubrick had collaborated with the altogether more straightforward writer Arthur C. Clarke. Aldiss worked on the project for a decade, going as far as writing two sequel novellas to the original short story (Supertoys When Summer Comes and Supertoys in Other Seasons) to extend the narrative to support the length of a film. Aldiss eventually left the project in 1989. It reached the screen in 2001 under the title A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, with Stephen Spielberg directing after Kubrick's untimely death in 1999.

In the early 1980s Aldiss wrote what many consider to be his magnum opus, a vast and sprawling trilogy set on a meticulously-detailed world where the seasons last for years and strange, threatening creatures threaten from the north. The Helliconia Trilogy (Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer, Helliconia Winter) is one of the most accomplished works of science fiction ever written, and certainly the pinnacle of SF worldbuilding, outstripping in its convincing detail even Frank Herbert's Dune and Kim Stanley Robinson's vision of Mars. The first novel in the trilogy won the BSFA Award and the Campbell Memorial Award.

Aldiss's later career continue to result in notable work: Seasons in Flight (1984), Man in His Time (1989), Dracula Unbound (1990) and White Mars, or the Mind Set Free (1999) are all strong works. Super-State (2002) and HARM (2007), the latter riffing on the War on Terror was remarkable power, showed his powers were undimmed in his later years. Walcot (2010), an accomplished 600-page-long family saga spanning the entire 20th Century, was published when he was 85. His last SF novel, Finches of Mars was published in 2012 and his last mainstream book, Comfort Zone, a year later.

Aldiss was not just a writer of science fiction, but had an academic interest in the genre; in 1973 he wrote Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. In 1986 he expanded the book as Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (helped by David Wingrove), which won the 1987 Hugo Award for Best Related Work. Holding aloft the award - his first Hugo since Hothouse 25 years earlier - he yelled, "It's been a long time since you gave me one of these, you bastards!" to cheers and applause. He later wrote two autobiographies: Bury My Heart at W.H. Smith's (1990) and An Exile on Planet Earth (2012).

Aldiss's death has attracted tributes from fellow authors such as Neil Gaiman and Adam Roberts, whilst Blur guitarist Graham Coxon also paid his respects.

Brian Aldiss leaves behind a formidable body of work and a long shadow over the genre. His wit, his humour, his humanity and his words will be missed.

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