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Brian W. Aldiss: His Life and Work

Profiled by Galen Strickland
Posted November 9, 2000, with later edits

British novelist, critic, essayist, poet, and short story writer, including both SF and mainstream themes. Following his World War 2 service in the Royal Signal Corps in Burma and Sumatra he took a position as an assistant in an Oxford bookshop. His first writings were for a booksellers trade publication and his first SF sale came in 1954 with "Criminal Record" in Science Fantasy. Following an impressive series of short stories throughout the latter half of the decade, he was a finalist for "Most Promising New Author" at the World Science Fiction Convention of 1959. [EDIT: I originally wrote he won that honor, but new evidence submitted to the offical Hugo site says no award was given in that category. It is possible the consensus was the nominees that year weren't worthy, either their fiction wasn't "scientific" enough, or it might be because three of the other finalists were women.] Certainly, much of Aldiss' work was more literary than was the norm for the genre, and thus can be seen as a precursor to the New Wave movement of the mid-to-late '60s.

UPDATE: Sad news. Brian W. Aldiss passed away on Saturday, August 19, 2017, just one day after his 92nd birthday.

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His first novel, and still one of his best, 1958's Non-Stop (variant US title - Starship), displays a unique perspective on the "generational starship" theme. 1961 proved to be a year in which SF embraced the sexual nature of man, with Aldiss' Primal Urge joining Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and Philip Jose Farmer's The Lovers in exploring this once shunned topic. Aldiss garnered another Hugo award in 1962 - and yet more criticism for scientific implausibity - for a series of novelletes, later collected in book form as Hothouse (variant US title - The Long Afternoon of Earth). Set on a far-future Earth that has ceased rotation on its axis, it explores the devolution of the remnants of humanity living in the branches of a continent-spanning tree while giant mutated spiders have spun a web connecting the Earth and its moon. This was followed in 1964 by two novels of varying quality. In my opinion The Dark Light-Years is a minor effort, but Greybeard is a major novel in terms of both style and content. It relates the tale of a future in which humanity has been rendered sterile following an accident with biological weapons. This pessimistic view of the near future would appear again in 1965's Earthworks (my favorite of his novels), in which the hero is manipulated into an assassination which will plunge the world into a war to "cleanse" the Earth of its ills of overpopulation, hunger, and disease. Both of these novels illustrate the literary mastery Aldiss brought to SF. At this time, there is only one of Aldiss' short story collections (that I have read, that is) in print, Galaxies Like Grains of Sand, which was originally issued in 1960.

In 1967, Aldiss would become more closely associated with the New Wave movement when he was instrumental in helping to obtain a British Arts Council grant for the magazine New Worlds, which was at that time edited by John (Ted) Carnell. Carnell had been the editor of Science Fantasy at the time of the publication of Aldiss's first SF story. He would publish much of his late '60s stories in New Worlds, including Report on Probability A, which had been written in 1962 but had proven to be unpublishable until later in the decade. Also appearing there were those known as the Acid-Head War stories, later printed in book form as the novel Barefoot in the Head. It concerns Europe in the aftermath of a war in which hallucinagenic drugs had been utilized as weapons and was an interesting stylistic experiment in stream-of-consciousness.

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In the early '70s, while still producing many short stories, Aldiss also wrote one of the best SF histories to date, Billion Year Spree, which was later revised and expanded (along with co-editor David Wingrove) as Trillion Year Spree. He also edited many anthologies, including the Space Opera series (Space Operas, Space Odysseys, Evil Earths, Galactic Empires, and Perilous Planets). He had previously established an editing partnership with Harry Harrison, and they produced a "Best of the Year" anthology from 1967 to 1976, as well as publishing criticism in SF Horizons. For many years he was literary editor of The Oxford Mail and reviewed, among others, hundreds of SF books. Some of these critical works have been published in book form under the titles The Pale Shadow of Science, Science Fiction as Science Fiction, ...And the Lurid Glare of the Comet, and his most recent, The Detached Retina: Aspects of SF and Fantasy. Much of his mainstream material can be viewed as mostly auto-biographical, beginning with The Hand-Reared Boy (1970) and continuing with its sequels, A Soldier Erect (1971) and A Rude Awakening (1978). Other contemporary works include Life in the West (1980), A Forgotten Life (1988), and Remembrance Days (1992).

His SF novels of the '70s proved to be less than successful, both from a critical standpoint as well as in their reception by SF readers, even though all can be considered interesting stylistic experiments. These would include Frankenstein Unbound, The Eighty-Minute Hour, The Malacia Tapestry, Brothers of the Head, and An Island Called Moreau. It would be 1982 before he would regain his previous stature as one of the major SF novelists with the publication of Helliconia Spring, which was followed the next year by a sequel, Helliconia Summer. The concluding volume of the series, Helliconia Winter, came in 1985. This was a sprawling saga of a human-like culture which undergoes massive changes during its planet's generations-long Great Year due to its sun's erratic orbit around another star, all the while being observed by Terran scientists from their orbiting laboratory.

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Aldiss has continued to produce a substatial body of short stories, essays, and poems, and although he has yet to create another such wonderfully realized SF novel (that I have read at least), his literary contributions to the genre throughout his long career resulted in his being honored in 1999 by the SFWA with a much deserved Grand Master award. He has published more mainstream work than SF for quite a few years, but several recent books has seen a return to the genre. He collaborated with Sir Roger Penrose on 1999's White Mars, and 2003 brought us the near-future speculations of Super-State. His latest fiction is HARM, a mixture of fantasy with the horrors of present-day terrorism scares.

On June 14, 2005, Brian Aldiss was honored with the Order of the British Empire for his contributions to literature.

On August 4, 2015, just two weeks prior to his 90th birthday, Aldiss released what is reportedly his last novel. No one is more disappointed than me that Finches of Mars is not very good.

RIP: Brian W. Aldiss, August 18, 1925 - August 19, 2017


Related Links:
The Official Aldiss Webpage
Aldiss' bibliography at fantasticfiction.com
Review of Hothouse by Rich Horton


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August 18, 1925

August 19, 2017

Official Website

1 Hugo
1 Nebula
SFWA Grand Master (2000)
SF Hall of Fame (2004)
John W. Campbell Memorial (Helliconia Spring)