Throughout his career, Brian Aldiss has written short stories to rank alongside his novels in ambition and quality. At both lengths he has also displayed a chameleon-like stylistic ability, approaching his science-fictional subjects from a surprising variety of angles and making successes in areas as far removed from one another as traditional space adventure and "New Wave" experimentation.
Given the sharpness of his intelligence and the breadth of his understanding of the field, one would almost expect his approach to the short story to have settled into a comfortable mold by now: the wisdom of his years must surely shine through, and the command he has of the language must surely be mellowed, clarified, and perhaps even fortified, in the way of a fine wine.
His new collection from San Francisco's Tachyon Publications, Cultural Breaks, does to a degree reward this expectation. Aldiss engages in some of that stylistic hopscotch he has always practiced, moving from one fictional voice to another; and as always some of these voices and approaches are more successful than others. What surprised me as a reader, however, was the experience of reading through the collection front to back to find myself pleased with some works and fairly uninterested by several—and then to examine the publication record of the stories to find that on the whole the uninteresting or at least less compelling ones represented older work.
Contrary to my expectation upon setting my reading teeth into the collection, what we have in Cultural Breaks is not all new Aldiss, although there is a considerable amount of recent material here, including three quite short pieces new to print. Instead we have a mixture. The greater proportion of stories have appeared within the last few years; the others originally appeared in 1995, 1993, 1978, and 1968.
By and large the stories from the 2000s are the ones of greatest interest. The finest stories in the collection, to my mind, are linked in having a curious run-on character to their titles: "The Man and a Man with His Mule," which appeared in 2002 in Pataphysics: Psychomilitary Issue, and "Commander Calex Killed, Fire and Fury at Edge of World, Scones Perfect," from 2003 in Third Alternative #33.
As do several others of the recent stories, "The Man and a Man with His Mule" takes place in locations much like the ones found in our everyday world, but which are given fanciful, imaginary names. The narrator is returning home by train at the end of an unsatisfactory vacation, trying to read an entertaining novel while also trying to ignore a voluble stranger intent on sharing his troubles. The intersection of the unwanted stranger's tale and the traveler's longed-for escape into light reading provides the moment of frisson at tale's end. It is a straightforward, nonfantastic tale on the surface of it, but one that nevertheless travels away from our world of normalcy and into another one ever so slightly infected with magic, where an odd conjunction of events can shimmer with a sense of significance.
"Commander Calex," on the other hand, overtly sunders itself from normalcy, immediately plunging into a world not our own, a postapocalyptic one. It then takes several surreal turns, so that when the reader arrives at the part of the story quite honestly described by the end of the title, "Scones Perfect," he has already been carried along by a narrative that has thrown our consensus reality completely out the window. The story has a freshness and joy to it; so much so that it makes me wish the volume as a whole had been slimmer, leaving out the older works that weigh down these newer, lighter ones.
The three stories new to print are "Tralee of Man Young," "Dusk Flight," and "The National Heritage." The last is the most substantial of the trio: its proud narrator describes his acquaintance with a man obsessed with recording all his utterances, with the avowed aim of staying aware of his own "silliness." The narrator becomes convinced the man's attention to silliness is vitally important to archive, to keep as an important part of his country's culture; when the recordings slip out of his fingers, the narrator finds his own pride, which is palpable at the beginning of the story, transformed into an awareness of his own silliness—which he then, paradoxically, begins to view as being of national importance. Short as it is, the story employs a transformative reversal of the kind found in "The Man and a Man with His Mule." It is also an exploration of a concern important in Aldiss's work since at least the 1960s, when he published the short story "The Girl and the Robot with Flowers," questioning the significance of the writer, of narrative, and even of science fiction.
In the 2005 story "The National Heritage," the man with the "strange obsession" of recording his every utterance becomes the author of a recorded work seen to be "of unique international importance." Even when viewed in this exalted way, the nature of these recorded utterances as "silliness" remains unchallenged. If anything, it is this aspect of silliness that gives the recorded work its importance. The author of silliness might be taken as standing in for the author of pieces that are, literally, "fantasy."
In the 1965 story "The Girl and the Robot with Flowers," the narrator is a figure the reader takes to be Aldiss himself, describing moments on a sunny afternoon when he is experiencing doubt about a story he has started to write, a conventional SF tale he comes to compare unfavorably to the reality that surrounds him, consisting of his own rewarding domestic situation populated by refrigerator, lover, and cat.
Although on its surface the 1965 story seems more autobiographical vignette than short story, it can be read as a description of the crisis some writers of popular fiction must face. The question arises as to what could possibly be of value about such an enterprise. Where lies its significance? Doubt as to the value of what one is pursuing can be disastrous for the science fiction writer: for if the writer of SF loses faith in SF, what remains for the writer to do in that genre? How can one regain one's seriousness of intent, when one realizes one is writing silliness?
The 1965 story does give one answer to the question. Essentially the narrator abandons SF for the real world he inhabits. It is an abandonment that was in a sense a real one for Aldiss, as it was for other writers profoundly affected by and involved in the creation of the New Wave movement of that decade. Aldiss, being a writer of concept-oriented science fiction, as opposed to idea-oriented science fiction, may have felt the crisis even more profoundly than did other writers; in its quiet way, "Girl" is the cry of lament from a literary figure in danger of losing his bearings.
One other story in Cultural Breaks speaks to this concern: "How the Gates Opened and Closed," first published in 1995. The story presents a meeting of storytellers in which one named Callow speaks up and says, among other things, "I would like to tell you a tale with nothing happening in it. Because my life has been empty."
Something within Aldiss compels him to reapproach the question of the storyteller's adherence to conventional storytelling, and to wonder how it is that sheer honesty can so often be trumped by convention. At the end of "How the Gates Opened and Closed," Callow is feeling insufficient among his fellow storytellers: "He had imagined that to conjure up a portrait of a calm evening was enough to engage his listeners."
This may seem like one of the smallest of ambitions in a storyteller, to try to portray a moment of calm, as does the narrator in "How the Gates Opened and Closed"; and it might seem a small ambition for a writer of Aldiss’s stature to concern himself so much with a simple moment of contentment, as he does in "Girl," when a galaxy of excitement and thrills might be had just as easily.
Yet it is not a small ambition. Aldiss is dealing with a difficult question, one that he has yet to answer to his own full satisfaction, to judge from these new stories. Watching him wrestle with it is one of the many rewards they offer.
Mark Rich has reviewed books for the New York Review of Science Fiction and has had fiction appear in Analog, Amazing Stories, and SF Age, among other publications. He has poetry upcoming in Ship of Fools, Anna Tambour's Medlar Circle website, and Asimov's SF, and fiction upcoming in Electric Velocipede and Irregular Quarterly. He lives, writes, and plays music in Wisconsin with bandmate Martha Borchardt.
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