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Only a couple of days before I sat down to write this page, the lady of my life came over to my desk with several Brian Aldiss books in hand—Non-Stop, Starswarm, The Dark Light Years—all obtained expressly to aid in preparing this site. It was not that I had never read those, or most of Aldiss' numerous other books; it was that I had long ago read them but at the time elected not to keep them, and now, so many years after making those many book-by-book judgments, needed to account to myself for the near-total absence from my bookshelves (only two books of fiction kept) of works by an author so very widely praised and admired (and so prolific—dozens of books).
“Are these ‘keepers’?” she asked.
“You’ve read them; instead of asking me, tell me your thoughts,” I said.
“Not unless you want to keep them.”
Well, I did not; not decades ago, not now.
Now that sounds a deal harsher than what I mean. You must recall that, though the authors whose names you see on this site are crudely rated from five stars down to one star, the full spectrum of my opinions is wider: you are only being shown a selected subset of it. My private scale runs from +5 down to -5 stars. On that scale, most of Aldiss’ work, along with that of many others of some renown, is a zero, which means I have nothing negative to say about it. The failure (if so extreme a term applies) is, to me, a matter of excellences absent rather than faults present.
Aldiss is a competent professional writer. His books are what one might call “decent reads”, a term that is not as dismissive as some critics try to make it. What they lack, for me, is anything that makes them memorable, makes them an experience I would want to repeat. (If you recall the Aldiss quotation from Trillion Year Spree—his critical history of sf—that I used in the Apologia, you will have a clue as to why.) But here I stop my general Aldiss comments, because my purpose, on this page and on this site, is not to criticize things that did not appeal to me sufficiently to make my lists. I had to say something to explain the lack of books by an author from whom I do include, and praise, but two of the very many he has written; I have done so; now let me turn to those two books.
The two books by Aldiss discussed here—Report on Probability A and The Malacia Tapestry—each not only impressed me, but impressed me strongly. They are four-star books, which is why Aldiss is listed under four-star authors. Though in their superficies the two books are about as different as books get, there is an underlying similarity: each is a tour de force, the painting at book length of a single thoroughly fascinating idea. I say “painting” advisedly, for, though prose is linear, each of these books, considered retrospectively, is a single static thing, its key idea in amber, one might say. Moreover, the two books’ key ideas are very similar—perhaps the same idea.
I am somewhat handicapped here, because I strive mightily to not disclose about any book such information as might short-circuit a reader’s enjoyment of that book. With these two, it is hard to discuss them much without tipping the author’s hand prematurely. That should not be taken to mean that they rely on some late twist of plot, for sharp turns of plot—though there assuredly are a few such—do not determine the books’ larger values; rather, the reader needs in each case to have finished the book and spent some time ruminating on it before its significance can be completely absorbed.
Well, let me see what I can say. The Malacia Tapestry, the reader will quickly find, is set in a world that seems some analogue or parallel of our own, in a place, a city-state—Malacia—that is strongly reminiscent of Renaissance Italy. Its protagonist is a likeable, faintly roguish but decent chap named Perian de Chirolo, and Perian tells the tale in the first person. He and his equally robust and energetic young friends of both genders make their youthfully carefree way through life in a time and place that is an intellectual and artistic stewpot at the boil. Their adventures are by turns trivial and profound, to themselves and to their surroundings. Here, for flavor, is the book’s opening:
Smoke was drifting through my high window, obscuring the light.
Something was added to the usual aromas of Stary Most. Among the flavours of fresh-cut timber, spices, cooking, gutters, and the incense from the corner wizard, ThroatDark, floated the smell of wood-smoke. Perhaps the sawdust-seller had set fire to his load again.
Going to my casement, I looked down into the street, which was more crowded than usual for this hour of day. The gongfermors and their carts had disappeared, but the Street of the Wood Carvers was jostling with early traffic, including among its habitual denizens a number of porters, beggars, and general hangers-on; they were doing their best either to impede or to further the progress of six burly orientals, all wearing turbans, all accompanied by lizard-boys bearing canopies over them—the latter intended as much to provide distinction as shade, since the summer sun had little force as yet.
The experienced reader in these fields—indeed, I suspect, even the novice reader not a lackwit—will sense familiar ground here: the parallel world with a history that, though close to ours, is its own, which leaves the author free to have her or his characters parade and prank to heart’s desire. As one gets on in the book, the ground shifts a bit—the parallels are seen to be less close—but the basic premise seems solid. We see, or seem to see, an author probing the familiar historical question “What would have happened in such-and-such a place at such-and-such a time had thus-and-so chanced?” Meanwhile, adventures by turn amusing, frightening, profound, and trivial befall our characters, who comport themselves delightfully; indeed, I think it safe to say that a reader who never does see the larger issues themed here would still vastly enjoy the book from one end to the other simply as a rambling and rambunctious tale. (Right-Pondians may here add an amusing term to their vocabularies.)
Beyond what I have already said, my lips—well, my keyboard—must be sealed. Ultimately, you perceive the larger idea or you don’t: the responsibility for that must be entirely on Aldiss’ shoulders.
The Malacia Tapestry as a tale can be well covered by the single adjective lusty; for Report on Probability A, the wanted term, I think, is sterile. Compare the beginning above to this one:
The Report begins:
One afternoon early in a certain January, the weather showed a lack of character. There was no frost or wind; the trees in the garden did not stir. There was no rain, although anybody accustomed to predicting rain might have forecast it with a fair expectation of being right before nightfall. Cloud lay thickly over the sky. The face of the sun was not visible. Consequently, shadows had no form.
A single window on the north-west side of the house reflected the light back in a dull fashion, without movement, except once when the reflection of a pigeon, wheeling above the garden, splashed across it. No movement came from the house. No sound came from the house.
G lived not in the house but in a wooden bungalow in the garden, overlooked by the window set high in the north-west side of the house. The bungalow, which contained only one room, measured about five by four metres, being longer than it was deep. It was raised above the ground on low pillars of brick. It was constructed of planks arranged vertically on the front and rear and horizontally on the sides. Its roof was also of planks, covered by asphalt; the asphalt was secured in place by large flat-headed nails which dug into the black material. Cracks ran around many of the nails.
Once we accept that that was not written by a retarded 15-year-old as a classroom assignment (something that the grammar and syntax alone ought to tell us), we understand, or ought to understand, that we are very likely on the threshold of a work of genius, albeit a peculiar genius.
And again, my keyboard must be sealed. The book goes on. What you think you know turns out not to be quite right, then not to be right at all. And when you finish, you think “Aha! I have just read a moderately clever turn on a familiar theme—parallel worlds.” Right; and James Joyce was just a punster.
First of all, the book is, to repeat myself, a tour de force. Creating prose, consistent prose, of the kind found in it is vastly harder a task than it might at first seem. Then there is the developing atmosphere: Aldiss turns the psychological screw with excruciating patience and unstoppable force.
That is not a lot of explanation of those two books from a reviewer trying his mightiest to entice you to read them, but perhaps that reticence—or at least my belief in the need for it—will itself stimulate your interest.
The last thing I can and will say about these books is that the following is the flyleaf quotation Aldiss set at the head of Report on Probability A:
Do not, I beg you, look for anything behind phenomena. They are themselves their own lesson.
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Brian W. Aldiss, The Official Website is just what its name says.
The Templeton Gate site has a most useful Aldiss page.
The British Council’s Literature division has an Aldiss page that includes a “Critical perspective” section.
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has a useful Aldiss page.
The Guardian has a fairly extensive obituary of Aldiss by Christopher Priest.
The New York Times also has an extensive Aldiss obituary.
And The Washington Post is yet another with an extensive Aldiss obituary.
There is a useful Aldiss page at “The Modern Novel” web site.
There is a review of Report on Probability A at the “Speculiction” web site.
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The only book about Aldiss I could find is A is for Brian, a 65th-birthday “present” to Aldiss composed of stories, articles, appreciations, and suchlike to, for, and about Aldiss by a host of well-known writers.
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