Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 60.
“A great part of the wonder of this new universe was that it had no God in it.” —Brian Aldiss on writing science fiction
In prepping for this piece, I reread a fascinating profile of Brian Aldiss in The Guardian written to coincide with the release of A.I., which was taken from an Aldiss short story. (I read it the first time back when we covered The Long Afternoon Of Earth.) The piece details Aldiss’ eventful, often sad, long and prolific life. (According to his official site, the now-84-year-old author has one novel due out in May, and two more in his publisher’s hands.) It also positions him as a key figure in the development of science fiction, a thoughtful, character-driven writer who led the new-wave charge across territory cleared by the writers of the golden age. I’ve been impressed with everything I’ve read by Aldiss so far, and I hope to read more when this project ends. Though he isn’t a household name, at least in the U.S., it seems tough to overestimate his importance to the genre.
Here’s where I take issue with the profile, however: Spinning off from a quote from William Gibson, it suggests that science fiction, unlike in Aldiss’ day, has nowhere to go, since so much of the future imagined then is happening now. That seems pretty wrong to me for a number of reasons, but if you’re going to make that argument, Aldiss doesn’t seem like the best stick with which to do your beating. The 1964 collection Starswarm (titled The Airs Of Earth in the UK) gathers eight Aldiss stories. A framing device that places them in a shared universe called Starswarm connects them all, but it’s pretty clear they were inspired by Aldiss’ here-and-now (or at least his then-and-there). The themes he’s taking on, particularly early in the collection, have a lot more to do with the anxieties of living in the final days of the British Empire than speculation about the far future. The book opens with some pseudo-scientific talk about the “Theory Of Multigrade Superannuation” that Aldiss’ narrator boils down thusly:
The Universe is similar to a cosmic clock; the civilizations of man are not mere cogs but infinitely smaller clocks ticking in their own right… It means that at any one time, the inhabited solar systems of Starswarm—our galaxy—will exhibit all the characteristics through which a civilization can pass.
In other words, things are the same all over, and they’re the same over and over again.
It makes sense, then, that we’d encounter a few familiar characters over the course of the collection. My favorite story here is “The Game Of God.” In it, a group of scientists land on a planet whose only other human inhabitant is an aged explorer called Daddy Dangerfield. Made a legend by the Starswarm’s equivalent of B-movie adventures, Dangerfield lives alone, brought food by alien “pygmies” who treat him like a god, and whom he regards with a combination of repulsion and fear. They attend to his needs, but if they ever turned on him, he knows he’d be unable to fight back. It’s a lousy situation, he knows, but it’s a living.
Into this situation drops a team of fact-finding explorers who hear Dangerfield’s explanation of the state of things: He’s tamed the pygmies. Beyond that, he has no curiosity about the planet. The explorers, on the other hand, have questions. They want to know about the temple on the hill, apparently the product of a far more advanced civilization than the pygmies have achieved. And they want to know about the animals the pygmies keep chained and separated from each other. One species looks like a Pekingese dog, the other like a tiny bear. When the team applies their inquisitiveness to the situation, they discover things aren’t at all as they first appear.
It’s a neat send-up of the colonial mindset that bends any newly encountered civilization to fit the colonizers’ preconceptions and first impressions. Aldiss seems happy to deflate the myth of the great white hero. He puts the same archetype on the couch in the collection-opening “A Kind Of Artistry,” in which an adventurer sets forth to make contact with a bizarre species, only to return from his daring feat to a depressing existence on a dying planet where he works in the service of a woman who’s simultaneously his mother and his lover. He has an urge kept in check by his service to a dead-end civilization folding in on itself when it should be pushing forward, and he ends it all with a tragic, transformative gesture. Sometimes the phases through which civilizations have to pass are the ones that bring them to an end.
Aldiss’ stories are cleverly conceived and deeply felt. “Shards” drops readers into the middle of an unpleasant existence in Mudland, where a strange creature has developed a way of telling time to compensate for his lost limbs and senses. It makes only fleeting sense until Aldiss lifts the veil on the situation in the final pages, but it’s terrifying in its details. Even his less-compelling stories have a compelling prose style and try to unpack some interesting ideas, using far-flung worlds and possible futures to reflect on the present. I don’t see that impulse ending any time soon.
More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon
“The idiot lived in a black and gray world, punctuated by the white lightning of hunger and the flickering of fear.”
Grey Lensman, by E.E. “Doc” Smith