The short story collections of Brian Aldiss have been hit-and-miss for me over the years; Who Can Replace a Man? was filled with thought-provoking entries, but Supertoys Last All Summer Long felt like a collection of weak material propped up by one famous story. Other collections I’ve read have fallen somewhere between these two in quality, albeit never lacking in original premises or ideas.
Neanderthal Planet (1970) is a compilation of four longer pieces by Aldiss. As with other collections I’ve discussed here, I’ll briefly take on the stories one by one.
“Neanderthal Planet” (1960)
“Neanderthal Planet” is a novelette originally published as “A Touch of Neanderthal” in the pulp digest Science Fiction Adventures. It tells the story of a traveller who confronts questions about the ultimate value of technology, and indeed of civilization itself.
Anderson is one of the world’s last remaining writers, living in a human “zoo” maintained by robot administrators. The governance of Anderson’s world has been taken over by machines, after a week-long nuclear attack several decades in the past. The robots in charge take an interest in Anderson after finding a science fiction story he wrote prior to the holocaust: “A Touch of Neanderthal.”
After tracking him down and questioning him, the machines send Anderson on a space shuttle to a remote colony planet Nerhu II, where contact has been lost with the intellectual humans who have settled there. Once there, he is to seek out his old mentor Dr. Arlblaster, who will presumably recognize him, and find out what happened to the settlement.
On Nehru II, Anderson finds that instead of humans, the predominant inhabitants are basically neanderthals who live without technology. A few of the colonists are around, but they have either retreated into a state of xenophobic isolation or live in a separate primitive society of “Crows,” meaning Cro-Magnons. Anderson does locate Arlbaster, only to discover that he has changed into a sort of witch-shaman for the “Crows,” and all of the other intellectuals have also cast off their civilized heritage.
Eventually, Anderson attempts to take a colonist named Alice back to his ship, but the backward ways of Nehru II have their own mysterious pull:
Alice plodded along beside him without speaking. Sun gleamed. At last the black hull of the ship became visible between the trees.
“You’ll have to work on Earth!” he taunted her. “The robocracy will direct you.”
“I’ll get married. I’ve still got some looks.”
“You’ve forgotten something, honey. Women have to have work certificates in order to marry these days. Regimentation will do you some good.”
. . . He saw her despair before she turned and was running away, back toward the settlement, calling inarticulately as she ran.
Aldiss did some things successfully and some things unsuccessfully in this story. I was not convinced with the “Neanderthal brain inside of all of us” that he pushed as the central scientific idea, but of course that may have had more traction in 1960. Anderson struggles with caveman-dreams once he lands on Nehru II, growing an anxiety over technology (throwing away his laser pistol almost immediately). The explanations behind his subsequent ability to return to his ship aren’t satisfactory.
However, Aldiss did a better job showing how the value of “culture” decays rapidly once a population is removed from a privileged environment. Once real scarcity hits, the progressive ideas tend to fade.
“Danger: Religion!” (1970)
“Danger: Religion!” is a novella featuring Time Machine-style adventures between parallel universes. Although it can be a confusing mix of characters and plot-points, this adventure story is my favorite piece of the collection.
In an opening reminiscent of Delany’s Fall of the Towers series, a party of four travelers are making their way along a long road in a desolate future Europe. The narrator Sheridan Meacher and his associates trek for hours in the rain to get to a lonely Dutch cafe. Candida, his brother’s wife, is in a coma after “becoming religious” at the sight of a massive funeral pyre (after two more world wars, the Dutch burn their dead for the energy). Once they eat, they travel on to Edinburgh (now the capital city) and go their separate ways.
Meacher soon meets a strange man named Rastell who attempts to convince him to leave his own miserable “matrix” through a trans-dimensional gate. He offers up a Wells-style exposition of the physical principles that might be involved, but it’s largely a ruse in order to push a needle into his arm. Inter-matrix travel involves a sort of electrified hoop and a drug developed by the tobacco companies.
Meacher and Rastell arrive in Rastell’s own Edinburgh, in a Europe ruled by the national Church. The economy is based on slavery, where chained humans fill the streets pedaling cabs that hold their masters on raised platforms. These parties are mixed in with horseback riders, trucks and elaborate motor vehicles serving the government:
. . . I saw no buses or private cars. Remembering how the latter class of vehicle had been forbidden in my own matrix, I asked Rastell about it.
“We happen to have more manpower than we have fuels,” he said. “And unlike your wretchedly proletarian matrix, here most free men have leisure and find no need to hurry everywhere.”
The theocracy soon disturbs Rastell, after he witnesses evidence of widespread abuse of the slave class. Many slaves have had their vocal cords crudely removed as punishment, and female slaves are passed around among citizens for sexual recreation. Meacher and other imported “extra-matricials” have been recruited with helping the Church put down a rebellion that has taken London. Most extra-matricials have embraced their mercenary status, but Meacher and another import named Mark start an uprising with the capitol building’s kitchen staff. A slave “overseer” named Andy joins in the fight, but most of the base-level slaves lack the heart to seek their freedom.
Mark and Meacher manage to flee the city and escape the Church forces, and prepare to return to their own matrices with the help of stolen equipment. This break in the action allows them to sort out the reasoning behind their miniature revolt:
“Sherry, you keep talking about slaves. I’m tired of the subject. By the Phrygian birth, forget all about them! In every matrix there must be conquerors and conquered, dogs and masters. It’s a law of human nature.”
I dropped my instruction manual and stared.
“What are you saying? We have only done what we have done, fought as we have, for the poor wretches that are enslaved here. What else did we fight for?”
He was crouching beside me. His face set hard. His words fell from his lips like little graven images.
“I’ve done nothing for any slaves. What I have done has been against the Church.”
“As far as that goes, I’m pretty startled by its conduct too. In my matrix, the Christian Church is a power for good. Although it condones war, its tenets. . .”
“Death to the Christian Church! It’s the Christian Church I fight against!” He jumped to his feet. I leaped up too, my own anger awakened by his words, and we stood glaring at each other.
This confrontation is the key of the story, illustrating the difficult collision in values between wartime allies. I suspect that Aldiss had some experience with this in his time serving as a soldier in Burma during WWII. I would go one further and assume probably held a deep skepticism over any co-called international coalitions formed to drum up support for subsequent foreign wars.
The subsequent closing section has more to do with Meacher and Rastell, with Meacher’s religious inclinations and fear of the matrix-traveling technology driving his actions. It is an interesting story that one could interpret in different ways.
“Intangibles, Inc.” (1959)
“Intangibles, Inc.” is a piece that does not share themes common to many other Aldiss stories – robots, the role of humanity, post-holocaust life, etc. – and indeed reads like a PKD or Ray Bradbury story.
Arthur and Mabel are leading a hardscrabble existence in a rural cottage on an isolated country road. They live close to a struggling small town, where Arthur works as a mechanic. An old truck appears to break down in front of their dwelling, driven by a “crinkled” old driver. The man comes inside for some watered-down soup and explains his business selling “intangibles.” He ends up challenging Arthur’s ambitions to improve their lives, claiming this his soul is in too much “conflict.”
But Arthur was feeling strong again now that he was touching Mabel.
“Go on, you pessimistic character,” he scoffed. “Mabel and me’re going to a lot of things in our life.”
The crinkled man shook his head and looked ineffably sad. For a moment they thought we would cry.
“That’s the whole trouble,” he said. “You’re not. You’re going to do nothing thousands of people aren’t doing exactly the same at exactly the same time. Too many intangibles are against you. You can’t pull in one direction alone for five minutes, never mind pulling together.”
“Intangibles, Inc.” is about the deleterious habits that ordinary people fall into, preventing a life of self-fulfillment. It appears to be a Wellsian social critique, in which an outsider has to painfully explain to the small-town bumpkins what is unacceptable about their way of life. Taken as a satire of this kind of science fiction, it works pretty well.
“Since the Assassination” (1970)
This final novelette reads like a J.G. Ballard story, with flying individuals, surrealism-inspired furniture and people chasing around their ex-partners for adulterous affairs. It must be an explicit tribute to Ballard, and maybe an acknowledgement that Aldiss getting compared to him by every SF critic at the time.
Sometime in the future, the President of the United States has been assassinated, just after learning that a time machine was being developed. The former Secretary of State, Jacob Byrnes, is approached by a former friend Russell Crompton, the current Secretary of State. Byrnes’ wife Miriam was an old partner of Crompton’s, and Byrnes has an attraction for Crompton’s current wife Rhoda. The two women seem to lead rather solitary lives, with Rhoda frequently skydiving and Miriam caring for her mentally-disabled son Marlo. She regularly gives Marlo tablets of LSD.
“Since the Assassination” describes the strange preoccupations of the rich and powerful. The four adult characters seem to worry more about their personal affairs than the fate of the country, in a time of acute crisis. It was not a story that resonated with me (I may have burnt out on too many Ballard stories), and I thought the theme of decadence was handled far better in Aldiss’ novel The Malacia Tapestry.
Four longer stories make up a reasonable collection, here. They share little publication history outside of it; this is only indicative of the fact that Aldiss had reached a level of success at this point in his career, where he didn’t have to schlep his work to various periodicals anymore.*
An accomplished critic and anthologist, Aldiss has showcased his inspiration from a few authors in this collection. The first two had much to do with Wells, and “Intangibles, Inc.” may have also been. Ballard’s dominance over the British “New Wave” motif was shown in “Since the Assassination,” even if I didn’t appreciate it as much. My favorite was clearly “Danger: Religion!”, but I found three solid reads in Neanderthal Planet. 6/10.
* “Intangibles, Inc.” was also first printed in Science Fantasy in 1959 – I was thrown off by isfdb.org when I first wrote this article. The point stands with reference to the later two stories, however.
My copy (same edition as yours) arrived this morning. Not a long book, should finish it over the long weekend. This is your last chance, Brian Aldiss! 😉
(I wish I’d gotten the Punchatz cover).
Burnt out on too many Ballard stories? I feel that way when I get to his early 70s short fic/novels… I never burn out on 60s Ballard!
Fascinating review. Aldiss has always been a favorite.
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I hit the wall with his Atrocity Exhibition, but there were plenty of 1970’s Ballard books that I’ve enjoyed – Concrete Island and High-Rise in particular.
Aldiss seems to get compared to Ballard more than any other writer, which is strange considering how Ballard had a much greater tendency to obsess over the same themes and imagery. Malzberg would seem a more likely author to compare to Ballard. Aldiss covered a broader range of themes and genres.
Just finished the title story. I figure I’ll do one post responding to each. More efficient.
Neanderthal Planet was published in 1960 (copyright 1959), under the title A Touch of Neanderthal, in Science Fiction Adventures, a British pulp magazine, though it actually began as a medium for reprinting stories from an earlier American magazine of that name, and there was yet another one before that. None of them seem to have lasted very long.
It’s full of fascinating ideas, and is very badly written. So badly written, it’s a pain to read, and to review.
At this stage of his career, Aldiss had some of the same problems as Philip K. Dick, but worse. So much worse. That’s me being kind. If I wanted to be cruel, I’d compare his style to L. Ron Hubbard’s. This is precisely the kind of writing that made Donald Westlake despair of the genre as a whole. (That, and the putrid pay-rates.)
I recognized many many things from later stories I like–like ‘New New York’ and sentient robots turning themselves into parodies of humans. How many Futurama episodes did Aldiss inspire, I wonder? But the Futurama writers could digest these ideas, and make them work. He can’t. Not yet, anyway.
Pete, I must point out an error in your review–that I blame Aldiss for, not you. Part of what you’re responding to as if it’s part of the central narrative is actually Anderson’s story within a story, that he dismissed as a young writer’s folly. But he does this so clumsily, it’s hard to see the transition.
My guess is that Anderson’s story was Aldiss’s story–what he originally published. And a decade later, realizing what he’d written was ludicrously bad anthropology, he repurposed it–used the framing device with the robots, so he could get at the same ideas without seeming to literally say that our problems stem from a schism in our genes.
And maybe this works better than the original, but then again, you’re a very smart guy, who reads a lot of SF, and you didn’t pick up on it. Maybe he should have just let it go. Neanderthals were mainly meat eaters, and there’s no reason to think they were any gentler than us, and we know they used tools. I think the underlying idea is that we have to let go of our animal past to become what we’re meant to be, but we don’t want to, so our machines can do it for us. Um–okay. Honestly, there is much here I’m sympathetic to. But he can’t commit to anything in it. Arthur C. Clarke did something comparable in Childhood’s End, which is far better written–and I find its conclusions ghastly. I’m not sympathetic to that book’s ideas. But I find them to be coherently presented, with characters I can care about.
Buried under all this terrible writing, bad anthropology, and fanciful cybernetics, is something that could be made to work, if he could create characters, both human and machine, who were something more than just crudely fashioned vehicles for their creator’s convoluted concepts.
I would think one reason for this anthology to exist is for Aldiss to show how his writing progressed over the course of a decade. Curious to see if it did.
One small glory of the internet–detailed online bibliographies for science fiction authors. Praise obsessives.
Looks like you’re right about Anderson’s story actually being what the “Dominant” robot read, after hauling Anderson in from his hiding-place among the “humots.” I didn’t start writing my review until I was finished with the entire collection, so that detail slipped by me. In any case, Anderson serves as an unreliable narrator who seems to be in a real crisis about how much technology he’s prepared to rely on; he obviously comes off as a crank when trying to disguise himself in the beginning.
I remember really liking Childhood’s End. The Overlords were memorable aliens, and the book had a grand sweeping momentum right to the end. Clarke really set a high standard for himself with that one … I don’t think he quite met it with 2001 or Rendezvous With Rama (but that’s not really my style of SF, anyway), but Earthlight was good.
It’s a classic. Clarke’s best work.
But I tend to agree with the great ornithologist and field biologist, Alexander Skutch, who wrote in a more philsophical vein about how the entire biosphere–every living thing, ever species of animal and plant–is just raw material to turn humanity into circuits in some celestial supercomputer–and Clarke seems to think this is cool. The Overlords actually envy the humans because they can’t do it too. And unnecessary. I can’t agree with it, and nor does it make any sense on a scientific level. Clarke really wants to destroy all life on earth, to escape the boundaries of our genetic past. So there’s nothing to come back to.
Octavia Butler does something similar in her Lilith books, but her way is better, and her Overlords more merciful.
Danger: Religion is a *much* better story than Neanderthal Planet, with a much worse title, so just as well they didn’t name the anthology after it. Misleading title. Perhaps intentionally so.
His writing is much tighter in this, his sense of style has improved, he’s not bogged down in jargon, there are no jarring discontinuities, this feels all of a piece. But being a story about alternate realities, it comes with certain inherent problems. Hard enough to create just one fictional reality that feels believable. Swift did this centuries earlier in Gulliver’s Travels (self-evidently one of Aldiss’ favorite books), but spent a lot more time establishing each of his satiric realms.
A basic knowledge of hunter-gatherer cultures tells us that his explanation of where religion comes from is wrong. But that’s presented through an unreliable source, so he’s hedging his bets.
A bit weird that he posits a dimension ruled by the Mithras Cult–since a subsect of atheists keep insisting Christianity was modeled after that, and Jesus is a purely mythic being, modeled after the stories of Mithras (or the Egyptians, or something else they invariably know very little about). What little we do know about that shortlived pagan religion tells us it’s most unlikely it could ever have dominated anything. But it’s still funny. The whole story is very funny, but I’d call it kidding on the square.
The problem with writing history in miniature is that you oversimplify everything. All the more when your knowledge of history is a bit sketchy, though I’ve no doubt he knew much more than the average bloke. Self-taught, mainly. I studied European history at the graduate level for a few years, and what it mainly taught me is that anything you say about history is bound to be wrong.
Again, what a wealth of ideas–no doubt in my mind the Bros. Wachowski Bros. read this one. I dn’t just mean because of the word ‘matrix’ either–the way the protagonist is brought into the new reality is pretty much the way Morpheus lures Neo down the rabbit hole. Way too similar to be coincidence. I’d have sued. Probably lost. Movie/TV producers almost never admit their influences when they’re still under copyright.
Very nice point about allies with radically different values, influenced by Aldiss’ experiences overseas. And the underlying recognition, that no matter how much we disparage the reality we were raised in, we still think of that as ‘normal’ and better than anyone else’s.
His theme, I now see, is cultural evolution–and devolution. He’s still not very good at creating individual characters, though. His protagonists are all basically variations on himself, which is a valid approach, but also limiting if you don’t have the capacity to find a great variety of selves within yourself. How much did he progress in this regard? Two more stories to go.
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Intangibles, Inc.–is not science fiction. I’d call it more of a Twilight Zone ep. The crinkled man would be played by Burgess Meredith. Or the English equivalent thereof.
It’s a commentary on the pointlessless and pretensions of working class/lower middle class life, and marriage. And it seems a bit cruel. As satire so often is, but what’s being satirized here? Plenty of people with little or no education have rich inner lives, and many who went to university are dull as ditchwater. This is, of course, the background Aldiss himself came from–a road not traveled? People he knew growing up, who didn’t go off and see the world like him, become writers? Neither of them seems all that intelligent, so how are we supposed to believe they failed to live up to their potential?
The crinkled man, who never ages, whose rickety truck just goes on running for a whole lifetime, is some kind of demon, but tempting people not with any of the sexy things, but rather playing on their innate stubborness and lack of imagination.
Well written, interesting, characters are a bit more carefully drawn, and I did not like it. I know what you mean about Ray Bradbury, but he’d have somehow made it more compassionate, more alive (it would be hard to exaggerate how much better a writer than Aldiss he was). I don’t think he could have stood these people long enough to write about them.
PKD I don’t see at all. There’s not enough ideas in it. Really just one–the small obsessions that can take hold of people who have no real purpose in life. But since the crinkly man essentially intervenes to distract Arthur from finding a purpose……
My own small obsession, I confess for the first time to anyone, ever, is that there’s this young man I see quite often on the subway, on my way to work. We both get off at the same elevated stop, and have to go down a flight of stairs to the street below. He wears a lot of Marvel comics shirts. Somehow, we got into the habit of racing each other to the bus stop (we have never exchanged a single word). He’s faster than me, quickler on the stairs, but I’ve found various ways to defeat him. However, if he beats me down the stairs, I take a cab. That way, I still win. I don’t see him most days lately, since I usually get an earlier train. I’m way ahead on points. Just have to hold on until retirement…….
So not saying Aldiss is entirely wrong here. I just didn’t think the story was very good.
I’m probably not reading any more of him once this is over. I’d be reading him just to prove I was right that he’s a bit overrated. And there’s so much to read in this world.
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Aldiss must have been proud of this one, or it was well-received, because there’s another 1969 Aldiss anthology that showcases it, and in fact it’s the title story.
Also, I question whether any of these stories are long enough to qualify as novellas.
Long short stories, more like.
I go by isfdb.org when deciding to call them short stories, novelettes or novellas. That doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes (or inherit them from the database), but I try to be consistent since these terms can have drifting meanings otherwise. I don’t go by whatever the cover of the book says.
Fair enough. It’s an indistinct term, anyway.
I was thinking of the 1950’s PKD who wrote relatively focused stories about everyday people, e.g. “The Builder” and “The King of the Elves”, when I mentioned him (not the novelist of the 1960s and 1970s). I probably threw his name in there because it feels unfair to compare a genre writer to Ray Bradbury.
In terms of word painting, it’s almost unfair to compare any 20th century writer to him. Genre or not.
In terms of ideas, he could get a bit repetitive, as a painter will return to the same scenes, over and over.
He wasn’t ‘The World’s Greatest Science Fiction Writer’, but he was Ray Bradbury, and that was quite enough.
He was also a bit of a fool, but that goes with being an artist, sometimes.
After the Assassination–I just gave up on, after the first few pages. I couldn’t compare this favorably to Michael Crichton (and it’s got quite a lot in common with that kind of storytelling).
What a confusing choice of stories to represent his growth as a writer. An interesting but muddled journeyman effort (perhaps somewhat retooled for republication), then a quantum leap forward, then something that isn’t even properly in the genre, then the worst of all possible worlds. The overall effect was to persuade me this is a very intelligent perceptive man who is all over the place as a writer. Less than meets the eye. But given his high standing in SF, I’m reluctant to draw that conclusion.
Maybe the short story (or at least the long short story) wasn’t his metier. If you can recommend one novel that shows him at his very best, I’ll try it sometime.
But it may just be that I’m not an Aldiss reader.
SINCE The Assassination, sorry.
one Aldiss novel to try: Greybeard
re his inconsistent short fiction: No arguments here. It looks like I liked the collection a bit more than you, but I wasn’t impressed with “Since the Assassination” either. It appears that like most of his collections, you have to take the bad with the good in this one.
I have a few lesser-known Aldiss novels to get through sometime this year, and at some later point I’ll have to crack open his SF opus, the Helliconia series.
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