As Brian Aldiss celebrates his 91st birthday, it’s a good time to remember the amazing contribution he has made to science fiction. From his first sf story (“Criminal Record”, 1954) to recent novels like Finches of Mars (2013), he has been one of the central figures in the genre. Together with J.G. Ballard, he virtually created the British New Wave; and throughout his career he has never been afraid to experiment in his fiction. As an anthologist, he has been responsible for some of the great volumes of sf short stories (The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, The Year’s Best Science Fiction series with Harry Harrison, and a host of others). On top of that he wrote one of the first and most important histories of science fiction (Billion Year Spree, later updated as Trillion Year Spree with David Wingrove); he wrote memoirs, criticism (he defined the fiction of John Wyndham as “cosy catastrophe”, he characterised sf as “hubris clobbered by nemesis”, and he influentially identified Frankenstein by Mary Shelley as the first science fiction novel); not to mention a host of highly acclaimed mainstream novels. But it’s his science fiction that really stands out; you really cannot know anything about the science fiction of the last half century or more without having read Brian Aldiss.
So here, as your introduction to one of the most important writers in the genre, are five of the best novels, chosen from very different periods of his career.
His first science fiction novel takes a classic science fiction theme, the generation starship, and upends it in a way that would become typical of his work. Society has degenerated to a primitive state, living among dense, overgrown vegetation, but one man begins to explore and discovers that their world is actually a huge spaceship. But that is not the only revelation, because it turns out that the strange and threatening beings who intrude upon their world are actually from Earth where the ship has been in orbit for long years. This is an extraordinary reinvention of familiar science fiction.
By the early 1960s, Michael Moorcock had taken on the editorship of New Worlds, and had allowed his most reliable contributors, Aldiss and Ballard, to take their fiction in new directions. Inspired by literary modernism which had, until this point, been largely ignored by science fiction, they turned their attention to what they called “inner space”, writing psychologically and politically astute fiction that explored the nature of humanity. One of the first expressions of this new mood in science fiction was this powerful novel of a world rendered sterile, in which a steadily aging population must come to terms with the gradual extinction of human life.
The new wave gave Aldiss licence to experiment in his own fiction. Ever aware of movements in mainstream literature, he wrote this intellectually daring novel in the manner of the French nouvelle roman. It starts with a writer and his wife living in a typical suburban home, but in the grounds their employees, a gardener, a chauffeur and a secretary, are each observing the minutiae of their lives and compiling a report. But these three observers are themselves being watched by beings from another dimension; but these are themselves being watched by beings from a third world, who are in turn being observed via a time machine. No-one is aware of this surveillance, and each observer interprets what they see in a different way. For a short book it can be difficult to read, but its effect is long lasting as it disturbs the way we look at our world.
In the early 80s, Aldiss changed course yet again, with the Helliconia Trilogy. These are three massive novels – Helliconia Spring (which won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award), Helliconia Summer and Helliconia Winter, collected in this monumental omnibus edition – which for the first time see Aldiss using the techniques of hard sf. Together, these carefully researched novels present the story of a world whose sun follows an eccentric orbit which means that the planet experiences a Great Year that lasts for centuries, which means that civilisations can rise and fall within the space of a year. Densely plotted, but with lots of colourful action scenes that reflect science fiction’s pulp roots, this is a vigorous and startling addition to his oeuvre.
Late in his career, Aldiss changed course again with this deeply felt and highly charged political satire that attacked the paranoia of European and American politicians in a post-9/11 world. It tells of a young British Moslem who writes comic fantasy, but one of his novels is ludicrously misinterpreted by the paranoid authorities as a threat to blow up the Prime Minister. As a result he is seized and bundled into one of the black sites where he can be tortured. But while he is in this terrible prison, he imagines himself into another world where he is a free person among people who have in different ways lost their humanity. It’s not his best novel, but it demonstrates how innovative and how relevant a writer he was throughout his career.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.