Legendary British author Brain Aldiss (1925-2017) died last weekend, after an extremely long and productive writing career. Best known for his science fiction novels, he also published many short stories, criticism, essay collections and literary fiction.
Having read many of his titles over the years, I had been considering putting together a “primer” article, but not until finishing A Billion Year Spree and his Helliconia trilogy. Until then, this tribute list is a modest description of my experiences with Aldiss.
Hothouse (1962), also titled The Long Afternoon of the Earth, is a vibrant adventure story of a far-future Earth dominated by tropical wildlife. A series of linked stories follows the struggle for survival by a tribe of post-civilization humans, who have adapted (albeit incompletely) to this bizarre environment. 9/10.
Greybeard (1964) is an evocative description of a future world after the end of children. Not as chaotic and more convincing than the Children of Men movie that shared its premise. 9/10.
Non-Stop (1958), also published as Starship, features another primitive society of people isolated from the rest of humanity. It is my favorite “generation spaceship”-type of tale. 8/10.
Who Can Replace a Man? (1965), also called The Best S.F. Stories of Brain W. Aldiss, is his strongest collection of short fiction. This might be considered a re-collection of stories from earlier collections. The most famous one is the title story about the life of robots carrying on after the extinction of the creators and masters. 8/10.
Life in the West (1980) is the first novel in the loosely-connected Squire Quartet, following the life and relationships of a successful but deeply troubled television producer. Not really SF, but instead a blend of mystery, spy and psychological fiction. A unique and interesting read. 8/10.
The Brightfount Diaries (1955). Aldiss’ first novel, based on his early years working in a provincial bookstore, living in a rented room and attempting to keep a girlfriend. 7/10.
Starswarm (1963). Also, The Airs of the Earth. Collection of short stories, which I think all belong to his “future history” series. 7/10.
The Saliva Tree and Other Strange Growths (1966) features the novella “The Saliva Tree,” a fantastic blended tribute to both H.G. Wells and H.P. Lovecraft. Some of the most entertaining Aldiss material comes from his pastiches of past masters. 7/10.
Cryptozoic (1967), also An Age, is an interesting novel about time travel – dinosaurs are involved, but the story focuses on the pursuit of rival travelers across the ages. It’s not often considered a major work of his, but worth finding and reading. 7/10.
The Hand-Reared Boy (1970) and A Soldier Erect (1971) are the first two volumes of the appreciably dirty Horatio Stubbs saga, which mixes together sexual misadventures, wartime action and much humor. 7/10 for each book.
Frankenstein Unbound (1973) is a wild sequel and stylistic tribute to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, featuring the monster, his (intact) bride and even Shelley herself. Really worth a look for fans of the original masterpiece. 7/10.
The Malacia Tapestry (1976) is an elaborate mash-up of a Renaissance-era costume drama, hot air balloons, entropy theory and among many other things, dinosaurs. There is very florid language and a high density of ideas, but for the most part it works as a novel. I suspect that I will get more from it in a second read someday, because this was obviously a product of much effort and understanding. 7/10.
The Pale Shadow of Science (1985) is an interesting collection of essays, including direct recollections of Aldiss’ boarding school and military experiences. I was fortunate to find a copy at the university library. 7/10.
Forgotten Life (1988). The second of the Squire Quartet, in which a man investigates the life of his deceased brother. Of the Squire books, this has the most supernatural content, and even this is very focused in application. 7/10.
Remembrance Day (1993) is the third Squire novel, detailing the lives of people affected by a hotel bombing at a resort carried out by terrorists. This is an opposite perspective of his early novel Earthworks, and is the superior book. 7/10.
Somewhere East of Life (1994) is the conclusion to the Squire Quartet, which focuses on traveling through some relatively lawless areas of Central Asia. 7/10.
Space, Time and Nathaniel (1957) is the first collection of SF short stories. I remember it being a mixed bag. 6/10.
Canopy of Time (1959) is another collection of short stories, but I didn’t enjoy them as much. 4/10.
Earthworks (1966) is an interesting short novel about the recruitment of a terrorist. Terrorism is a theme Aldiss tackled from different perspectives over his career. 5/10.
Barefoot in the Head (1969) is Aldiss’ experimental novel about a Europe ruined by pervasive psychedelic hallucinogens. The fractured language he used to narrate the story made for very difficult reading. 3/10.
Brothers of the Head (1977) is a strange novel about two up-and-coming rock stars who are also conjoined twins. This was actually made into a movie. 6/10.
A Rude Awakening (1978) is the conclusion to the Horatio Stubbs Trilogy and does not match the energy of the first two volumes. 4/10.
Supertoys Last All Summer Long (2001) is a collection featuring the title story and two sequels, which are associated with the (underrated) movie A.I. However, I did not find much to like in the other stories. 4/10.
HARM (2007) is a late-career, anger-fueled novel on the theme of terrorism, this time focusing on the detention and maltreatment of an innocent man. Some will find this story heavy-handed. 6/10.
The above list is not complete, and I will have to update it once I read through Walcot, The Billion Year Spree and the Helliconia books, at a minimum. However, we can see the large range of genres, styles and themes covered by Aldiss (and I haven’t covered his criticism or poetry here), as well as the large swath of favorites. We recently lost a true Grand Master last weekend, arguably the last of their stature.