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Brian W. Aldiss coverThis is a study of the writing of Brian Aldiss, one of the great twentieth-century British science fiction authors. Paul Kincaid has done a service to us all in reading everything that Aldiss published; the book’s exemplary bibliography of Aldiss’s works runs to seventeen pages, thirteen of which list the short stories. He has structured the Aldiss oeuvre into six themed chapters, in a valiant attempt to map the writing onto Aldiss’s life, under the headings of Warrior, Naturalist, Experimentalist, Historian, Scientist, and Utopian. By this work Aldiss has been given a thorough assessment, and almost all of his work has been found lacking.

As befits a book from a good quality university press, this is a work of scholarship, demonstrating a sound knowledge of the subject, written from an admirably objective perspective, but without getting bogged down in theoretical approaches. Kincaid has repeatedly and dutifully flagged up instances in Aldiss’s novels and stories of racism, sexism, and misanthropy that detract from their impact or quality. Similarly, his criticisms of the flaws in Aldiss’s works are evenhanded, applied each time he feels he has reasonable cause to issue quality control warnings to the reader: very few works escape this judicious criticism. Kincaid is particularly merciless in not letting Aldiss get away with shoddy writing or poor plotting.

Kincaid’s resolute intent to speak the whole truth and nothing but the truth also reveals a truly shocking amount of what he discreetly calls Aldiss’s “priapic masculinity”: how Aldiss valorised sex in his life and writing, how he wrote women, and his attitudes to women in his own life. I was particularly offended while reading Kincaid’s analysis of Aldiss’s wish-fulfilment sex fantasy featuring Mary Shelley in Frankenstein Unbound (1973). After Aldiss nominated her in his groundbreaking history of science fiction, Billion Year Spree (1973), as the author of the first science fiction novel in English, Aldiss then goes and rewrites Frankenstein, in which he as hero arrives at the Swiss chalet and treats Mary Shelley like an object for sex, not as a brilliant intellect and the author he himself has nominated for greatness. If Kincaid’s discussion of these linked texts is accurate, and I’ve no reason to think that it isn’t, Aldiss’s audacity is breathtaking and his ego is monstrous. Aldiss’s point was—what? To shag the mother of science fiction to prove what, exactly? He later wrote a revised version of Oedipus Rex (called Jocasta: Wife and Mother [2005]), in which he claimed that Jocasta knew it was her son in her bed all along. It seems indisputable that Aldiss had real, certifiable problems with sex and his relationships with women. The (white, straight, Western) patriarchal culture for whom he was writing and whose approval he probably expected supported this crassness. The New Wave science fiction that I’ve read from the 1970s was similarly appalling in its overbearing attitude of male sexual entitlement to the bodies of women (I don’t think homosexuality featured much in Aldiss’s writing).

Kincaid does not excuse Aldiss for this lifelong character flaw, but he does attempt to explain it by linking Aldiss’s obsession with his sexual requirements with “the most significant experience of his life, his time with the Forgotten Army in Burma” (p. 139) during the Second World War, where Aldiss revelled in the camaraderie of soldiering and masculine fellowship. Kincaid reports that “the war in Burma, toxic, secret and brutal, was a fight many soldiers were eager to avoid, but Aldiss seems to have almost welcomed the prospect” (p. 1). “His loving descriptions of the awfulness of some of the army camps in India and Burma are always offset by suggestions that his schooldays were worse” (p. 2). Aldiss later wrote a non-science fiction trilogy about a soldier who was sexually initiated as a youth by the matron of his boarding school and later cut “a swath through the whores of India” (p. 85). Nothing is reported about what Aldiss felt about the slaughter and brutality of war, or indeed about what the “whores of India” might have felt about this colonial onslaught. Kincaid notes, from a reading of Aldiss’s non-SF novel Forgotten Life (1988), that “its overall message is that the time Aldiss spent in Burma and his various priapic adventures both before and during his two marriages are what was important and gave his life savor, while science fiction is associated with a dull and empty life” (p. 139).

Let’s move away from the unpleasantness of Aldiss and sex. I remember quite liking his novels Hothouse (1962) and Greybeard (1964) many years ago. Helliconia Spring (1982) was a revelation, though a slog, and I tried very hard with Helliconia Summer (1983) before it defeated me (I never got around to Helliconia Winter [1985]). I taught “Who Can Replace a Man?” to my students but they and I found it quite old-fashioned. Reading Kincaid’s book about Aldiss as a writer of whom I have had some experience was curious, because I was waiting for reasons to rediscover Aldiss, for some encouragement to try him again, to discover novels that I had missed. Instead, I was repelled, precisely because of Kincaid’s judicious approach.

It is very hard to find positivity in Kincaid’s analysis of Aldiss’s work. Not one work is deemed sufficiently good to be The One That We Must All Read. The Helliconia trilogy is referred to in passing several times as a masterpiece, yet it is not clear why this is so. Kincaid’s analysis is mostly descriptive, consisting of useful plot summaries and more focused discussion to draw out the points that characterise the works best. As an example, in discussing The Primal Urge (1961)—which Kincaid describes as “a more overtly science-fictional novel because it involves a shiny metal disc known as an Emotional Register (ER) that is inserted into the forehead and glows pink when the wearer feels sexual attraction for someone” (p. 26)—he goes on to note:

This narrow-minded, self-satisfied country, Aldiss is saying, is in desperate need of a jolt of the sexual liberation he enjoyed in the East. This connection is made explicit when he talks of “waves of sex flow[ing] out overpoweringly above the audience, drowning them like a breeze from an Indian village.” (p. 27)

In this instance Kincaid doesn’t step back to consider how such a novel of obvious coercion, and with such an oppressive focus on sex, might be read today, post-#MeToo, or might have been read at the time of its publication by women, who were the choiceless and voiceless objects of overbearing attention from this “priapic” force. But then, if he had done that for all such instances the book would have been far too long.

In a work that is structured both thematically and chronologically—a tricky combination that Kincaid handles well—there isn’t room for a sustained discussion of Aldiss’s best works. Kincaid does note that “of the eighty books or more that Brian Aldiss wrote, perhaps ten or a dozen will, or at least should, survive” (p. 166). The problem with Aldiss is that the flaws grossly outnumber the gems, which are, sadly, only occasional. Indeed, this book contains all too many damning transition lines like this: “Then came an opportunity to express his misanthropic view of humanity once more in all its bitterness” (p. 159).

We need some balance in this very off-putting assessment of an acknowledged genius writer whose work was mostly irredeemably flawed, perhaps a sense of what Aldiss did with his life when he wasn’t writing, even if it was “dull and empty.” He had copious affairs during two marriages, which is not a character recommendation. There must have been something attractive in his personality that lured so many women his way; he was certainly a friend of many people and a popular guest. His second wife, Margaret, is referred to only in terms of being Aldiss’s bibliographer, house secretary, and quietly devoted helpmeet: a dire description of a married woman with her own interests, skills, opinions, and personality. Perhaps these were the only terms by which Aldiss referred to her in his memoirs. During the last days of Margaret’s life, Aldiss described himself as being sustained by the drama of her death. Perhaps narcissism should be added to his personality traits.

Kincaid has done a fine job with an unattractive subject, whose works do not come out shining, clean, and fresh from the tumble-dryer of critical appraisal. The reader might well ask, why was this book even written, if there is so little to praise unreservedly? Negative evidence is valuable, of course, and a book that sets out arguments about the works for readers to get their teeth into and discuss is certainly worth writing.

Will this book change the popular consensus of opinion about Brian Aldiss, member no. 1 of the British Science Fiction Association? It might solidify a vague feeling of dissatisfaction or even indifference about his works into active dislike. Certainly, after reading Kincaid’s book I am very unlikely to reread Aldiss again.

Kate Macdonald is a publisher and a literary historian, and writes reviews of the books about which she has something to say. She is a secretive writer of SFF. Her first published story appeared in the 2019 edition of Best of British Science Fiction.
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