LITERARY TRIBUTE

Brian Aldiss (1925-2017) not only wrote memorable science-fiction, but also defined the genre

The British writer of, among others, The Helliconia Trilogy, died on August 19 at the age of 92.

Two days after the grand old man of British – and global – science-fiction left for his trillion-year spree never to return again, Elon Musk, Tesla and SpaceX chief, along with nearly 100 CEOs of artificial intelligence (AI) companies, signed an open letter urging the UN to ban the use of AI-driven lethal weapons before the technology gets out of hand. How would Brian W Aldiss have reacted to the news?

It was his 1969 short story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long, adapted into the Steven Spielberg film A.I., which made the technology a part of popular culture. Aldiss said that he did not believe that SF had anything to do with predicting the future, yet at the end of his story, a conversation between two AI toys seems to hint at AI taking control over real intelligence – a concern that bothers Musk and others. “Teddy said, ‘You ask such silly questions, David. Nobody knows what “real” really means.’”

For Aldiss SF was a “metaphor for the human condition”. It started as a post Industrial Revolution genre with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein being at the vanguard. The Gothic novel inspired the celebrated British SF writer to come up with a definition of science-fiction that stayed with him till a day after his 92nd birthday, when he died in his Oxford home on August 19, 2017.

What is SF? The definition was unveiled in Aldiss’s 1973 work Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction, in which he passionately and, some would say, stubbornly defended his thesis of naming Frankenstein the first SF novel. “Science fiction is the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mould,” wrote Aldiss. It is not that he retrofitted the sentence to include his personal view of SF, though all his works in the genre were created with the same belief both before and after he articulated this definition.

The man whose works breathed new life into British SF once claimed that his storytelling abilities took shape as he stood on his preparatory school dormitory bed at night regaling fellow pupils with ghost stories, ready to be pummelled if the narrative failed to scare them. Not that his SF classics are all scary, but his ability to spring a surprise or two are evident in all his notable works. Aldiss never forgot his podium – the prep dorm bed. This training helped him in becoming an intelligent raconteur.

Taking SF beyond science fiction

Described by his agent Curtis Brown as the “bridge” between “classic SF and modern literature”, Brian Aldiss was born in Norfolk in 1925. As part of the Royal Signal,s he was active in WW II. His love for Asian culture grew during this time. The horrors of the war seen by young Aldiss in the Far East found their way into his stories later.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, along with Kurt Vonnegut and JG Ballard, Aldiss paved the way for SF as we know it today. The frighteningly dystopian narratives that have become second nature to the genre began with them. They explored human foibles and the so-called “culture stories”.

Since he began his writing career in the 1950s, Aldiss wrote almost every day. He has more than a hundred works – both fiction and nonfiction – to his credit. He also edited several anthologies. While some critics say the quality of writing suffered as the years went by, there is no disagreement on one count – Aldiss was a brilliant SF writer. He received two Hugo Awards, one Nebula Award, and one John W Campbell Memorial Award. He was named the 18th Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 2000. Aldiss was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2004. In 2005, he was awarded the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to literature.

Despite being deeply rooted in the genre, Aldiss has been able to attract readers who usually do not read SF. He created a literature that addresses the crisis of the human condition going well beyond the usual orbit of SF. For the fan he was a master craftsman who let his stories grow on you.

The must-reads, if you haven’t already

Hothouse (1962)
Despite its questionable science, Hothouse is a classic. It is a nightmarish setting with the sun slowly turning into a red giant, which means the end is near. With the mercury rising, all urban settlements have apparently disappeared. Human civilisation is back to its tribal stage, and rituals and superstitions have replaced all scientific knowledge. Aldiss uses his master storytelling abilities to paper over shoddy science and weaves an apocalyptic future.

Greybeard (1964)
Greybeard starts 50 years after a nuclear explosion in space. The explosion causes mass infertility on Earth and as a result everyone is old. Aldiss creates a sad world for a couple in their fifties with no future lying ahead.

The Helliconia Trilogy (1982-1985)
Arguably one of the most ambitious works of SF, it appeared as three novels – Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer, and Helliconia Winter – set on a planet named Helliconia. Here human-like inhabitants experience seasons that lasts ages. Aldiss’s work describes the birth-to-death cycles of civilisations on the planet. The work is much more than SF – it is a multilayered narrative of epic proportions.

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