Brian Aldiss: The Grand Master behind ‘A.I.’ and many more

Gautham Shenoy September 2, 2017

On August 19, 2017, the world of science fiction, nay literature, was left poorer following the death of Brian Aldiss, an author who was as accomplished as he was versatile, and in more ways than one – not least as a writer – helped contribute to the genre’s growth and popularity.

Born in 1925 in Norfolk in England, Aldiss was sent off at age six to a boarding school, where he honed his storytelling abilities in the most unusual manner but for a very practical purpose – to stave off bullying and abuse by his schoolmates. He’d be safe from a pummelling if he regaled them, if his ghost stories scared them or his tales held their interest enough to leave him be for another day. It was at this time that he would discover science fiction in the form of the magazine, Astounding Science Fiction, and fall in love with the genre and contribute enough to it, to be considered amongst its greats, a giant of SF.

Brian Aldiss would soon see action in Burma during World War 2 as part of the Royal Signals, and his exploits and experiences in school and later the war would form the basis for a trilogy of randy novels featuring the hero, Horatio Stubbs. After the war, Aldiss returned to England to work as a bookseller in Oxford, but would soon turn full-time writer after having some of his stories published in science fiction magazines, most notably in New Worlds.

In later years, when New Worlds – by then edited by Michael Moorcock – was facing certain closure, it was Brian Aldiss who would secure an Arts Council grant for the magazine which would keep it running for longer, and operating independently. And this is important because it would be New Worlds magazine that would set the tone for what is now known as the New Wave of SF (following the ‘Golden Age’) and in a time where Brian Aldiss – with fellow SF authors like Kurt Vonnegut, the aforementioned Moorcock, Thomas Disch and JG Ballard, to name a few – would turn the focus of science fiction a bit more towards the human condition within the larger context of technology and its effects, shaping, reshaping and expanding the possibilities of speculative fiction. In 1964, Brian Aldiss himself, with Harry Harrison would start a short-lived journal of science fiction criticism called Science Fiction Horizons. And all this while he was writing SF classics himself.

Aldiss was a past master at turning his life experiences and memories into inspiration for his stories. Like the 1962 SF classic Hothouse – about a future earth which has stopped rotating and is now populated by elvish humans who live on a giant banyan tree that covers the whole of one hemisphere – which was born out of a visit to Calcutta’s Great Banyan Tree while he was on leave following the conclusion of WW2. His divorce from his first wife and separation from his children would provide the spark for the poignant and evocative 1964 novel, Greybeard about a world without children, with an ageing, sterile – and hence childless – human population. Perhaps his greatest SF series was the 80s Helliconia trilogy. A series of novels that are rich in detail and expansive in scope where the primary ‘hero’ is a planet in a binary system, Heliconia with its era-spanning seasons in which cultures rise, live and die.

By this time, Brian Aldiss had also established himself as a notable, capable and successful anthologist who could take science fiction to new audiences and readers, starting with Introducing SF, a collection of stories that gave a reader glimpses into the many themes of science fiction. Over the course of his lifetime, the prodigious and prolific Brian Aldiss would edit almost 40 anthologies, write more than 80 books, both fiction and non-fiction, SF and non-SF – including autobiographies, drama, and even an excellent critical retelling of myth in Jocasta, the reworking Sophocles’ classic Theban plays, Oedipus Rex and Antigone – and over 300 short stories.

The most famous of his short stories is, of course, the 1969 classic Supertoys Last All Summer Long – the film adaptation of which he worked first with Stanley Kubrick, and later with Steven Spielberg – which would form the basis for the 2001 movie, A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The other major film adaptation of his work was the 1990 movie based on a novel of the same name, Frankenstein Unbound – the last directorial venture of the Pope of Pop Cinema, Roger Corman – about a man transported from the mid-21st century to 19th century Switzerland where he meets Victor Frankenstein and a young woman called Mary Shelley.

Beyond his writings that influenced enough SF writers that were to come and his anthologies which brought new readers into sci-fi, Brian Aldiss was also a tireless advocate of SF – be it science fiction & fantasy or speculative fiction as some would call it – and arguably the finest ambassador of the genre to the world of literature and the world at large, and one who in the words of his literary agent, ‘bridged the gap between classic science fiction and contemporary literature.’ Brian Aldiss also wrote one of the most seminal histories of SF, Billion Year Spree – later expanded into Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction in 1986, along with David Wingrove and which was the first to argue for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to be considered the ubertext of proto-SF.

It was in recognition of this, his other writings and a lifetime of contributions to SF that in 2000, Brian Aldiss was named a ‘Grand Master’ by the SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) and inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2004. Needless to say, over the course of his career, Aldiss had won more awards to fill a shelf or three, including two Hugos and a Nebula.

All fair things perish, we know,

Yet death is a horrid surprise –

So wrote Brian Aldiss in a poem titled Being a Little Well – for he was an accomplished poet too – and it was quite the horrid surprise to find out that the ‘grand old man of science fiction’ is no more. But his legacy and his work will live on, and his stories continue to entertain and inspire those that read them.

He once said of writers, that “There are two kinds of writers: those that make you think, and those that make you wonder.” Brian Aldiss was both kinds, and one of a kind.

R.I.P. Brian Aldiss.


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