Monday, September 04, 2017

Who Can Replace A Brian?

An appreciation of the late, great Brian Aldiss, published in Locus. Dave Langford's Ansible has also published a fine collection of tributes. The photograph was taken by Steve Jones at a signing in the World Science Fiction Convention, London, 2014.

In 1989, when I was working at Oxford University and was also a fledgling SF author, I was lucky enough to visit Brian Aldiss at his home in the leafy village of Boars Hill. The rambling house, with its airy living room, a broad lawn running out to woodland, and large square study lined with packed bookshelves, was everything a successful author could desire. ‘All you have to do,’ Brian told me, with a mischievous twinkle, ‘is publish a book a year, and you’ll have something like this too.’

Brian’s productivity considerably outran that modest ideal. In a writing career spanning more than sixty years, he published fifty novels and around thirty short-story collections, as well as memoirs, plays and volumes of poetry, essays and criticism. He also edited numerous anthologies of SF stories, including the three hugely successful Penguin anthologies that, still in print today, comprise a definitive overview of sixty years of science fiction history. 

His career as an SF writer began in the 1950s, when the genre was still dominated by the big beasts of the Golden Age, almost all of them American. He invigorated over-familiar tropes with a distinctive, wryly British slant, and like Olaf Stapledon and HG Wells, some of his best works are unsentimental but not unsympathetic depictions of humanity’s petty triumphs and foolishness set against enormous backdrops of time and space. Galaxies Like Grains of Sand is a series of interlinked stories that spans forty million years of human history; Hothouse (aka The Long Afternoon of Earth) is a lush, melancholic vision of the deep future, when humanity and its works have become little more than ghostly memories, and our distant descendants have been stripped by evolution of unnecessary intelligence, and struggle to survive in the mazy branches of a vast world-tree. 

Hothouse, published in 1962, is one of my all-time favourite SF novels, as is Greybeard (1964), a pastoral apocalypse set some fifty years after humanity was sterilised by nuclear bomb tests. And let’s not forget Non-Stop, The Dark Light Years, Cryptozoic! Earthworks . . . It was my great good fortune that my personal golden age as an avid teenage SF reader coincided with Brian’s golden age as an SF writer. As the British New Wave developed he embraced a range of experimental techniques, from the fractured language of Barefoot in the Head to the infinite regression of observers in Report on Probability A, but his masterpiece, the densely imagined Helliconia trilogy, is superficially more conventional, describing the rise and fall of civilisations on a planet whose seasons span centuries, a perfect synthesis of pulp SF and serious speculations about cycles in history. 

By then, he’d also published two series of literary novels, the Squire Quartet and the rambunctious, best-selling Horatio Stubbs trilogy. And while many of his later novels were similarly character-led, he continued to be a prominent figure in SF, genial, generous, tirelessly promoting the genre as a serious literary endeavour. The last time we met was at the World Science Fiction Convention in London, where we shared a signing table for an hour and I watched him treat a stream of fans with gruff good-humour, Afterwards I had him sign my first edition of Helliconia Spring. To Paul, he wrote in a typically generous gesture, with much love. Hard to think that his ebullient imagination and busy pen are finally stilled.

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