Brian W Aldiss: Knight of the New Wave

“Science fiction is no more written for scientists that ghost stories are written for ghosts.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Stephen Jones, World Fantasy Convention 2013.

When I was about 12 years old, one of my prized possessions was a postcard. On the back of it was written something like – “So you want to be a science fiction writer? Well, if you have a good idea, write it and try sending it to New English Library. Good luck with your dreams!”

I honestly can’t remember exactly what it said. What I do know is who it came from. It was signed – “Best wishes, Brian W. Aldiss.” I had written a letter to Aldiss when I was about 12 years old, saying how much I enjoyed his books and asking him how I could become a Science Fiction writer. He had been kind enough to encourage me with a personally written reply.

I think the first story I read by Aldiss was “Hothouse”. This was the abridged version, the novella, in the “Out Of This World” anthology that could be found in so many UK libraries in those days. Perhaps the second story I read was “The Saliva Tree”. It was enough to get me hooked, and enough to set me on a path which was decidedly not a straight and narrow one …

because those were the days of the New Wave.

Brian W. Aldiss OBE (18 August 1925 – 19 August 2017) was one of Britain’s most literary and thought-provoking authors. He wrote not only science fiction but mainstream “literary” fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and was an accomplished artist.

He’s probably most well-known for writing the short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long”, which was the basis for Spielberg’s movie “A. I. – Artificial Intelligence”. Two other film adaptations of his work have attracted large cult followings – the  1973 novel Frankenstein Unbound (1990) and the 1977 book Brothers of the Head (2006).

 He won the Nebula award for his novel Hothouse in 1962. He won the Hugo award for Helliconia Spring, the first of a trilogy, written in 1982. Interesting piece of Trivia: the Helliconia series has a suspiciously similar premise to Book 1 of the “Game of Thrones” series … written in the 1990s.

He was given a SFWA Grand Master Award in 2000 and made an OBE in 2005 for his services to literature.

His most outstanding contribution, however, was to the New Wave of Science Fiction. 

The term “New Wave” is usually applied to the musical groups and styles that appeared in the mid-70s in the UK and USA following the Punk Rock explosion – but the world of Science Fiction literature had a New Wave as well. In the early Sixties, a number of authors turned away from the literary conventions of outer space, and explored “inner space”, new themes examined with experimental writing techniques. The movement was championed in the USA by Harlan Ellison and the “Dangerous Visions” anthology. In the UK it was spearheaded by the New Worlds magazine, edited by Michael Moorcock. Along with Moorcock, other shining lights of the New Wave were J. G. Ballard, Christopher Priest, and BWA.

There had always been a surreal element to Aldiss’ fiction. Right from his first novel, “Non-Stop” (1958), he was putting his characters in breathtaking and audacious situations. As the New Wave gathered force, his literary experiments went into bizarreness overdrive.

The novel “Earthworks” (1965) is basically a political thriller, but the hallucinatory prose catapaults it into New Wave territory. Just read this first paragraph …

“The dead man drifted along in the breeze. He walked upright on his hind legs like a performing nanny goat …traveling light above the surface of the complacent South Atlantic. He was coming out from Africa, moving steadily for me.” 

“Earthworks” is also notable for predicting the real-life rise of the Travelers who were to become Britain’s Folk Devils in the Eighties and Nineties, and also the emergence of the “Land Art” movement.

“Report from Probability A” (1967) is a masterpiece of existential literature.It presents a recursive universe where “Mrs. Mary” (in what appears to be our world) is being watched by her three servants, G, S and C, who are being watched by some aliens from a parallel universe, who are being watched by scientists observing a rift in reality on the top of a hill, who are being watched by … well, you get the idea.

“Barefoot in the Head” (1968) is Aldiss’s most experimental novel, and his most controversial work, because it’s aroused extreme opinions both acclaiming and decrying it. The setting is a future war-torn Earth where Europe has been attacked with bombs releasing huge quantities of long-lived hallucinogenic drugs. The main character finds himself turning into a messiah figure transcending reality, and as the story progresses the narration and dialogue melts into abstract but complex phrases and allusions, echoing such transgressive works as “Finnegans Wake” and “The Naked Lunch”.

“I don’t agree with those people who think science fiction as some kind of prediction of the future,” Aldiss said on Desert Island Discs in 2007.

“I think it’s a metaphor for the human condition.”

Aldiss was one of the finest writers for doing so.

 

 

 

 

 

About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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