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.