A HAND-REARED WRITER: Brian Aldiss

By Greg Bear

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The last time I visited with Brian Aldiss was back in 2004, in Lawrence, Kansas. I'm not sure when I first met Brian--perhaps it was in 1971-2, when he and Harry Harrison lectured at Bette Chater's science fiction class at San Diego State College. But I've known about Brian and his work since I was ten years old and my grandmother Florence sent me a fine batch of paperbacks, probably chosen with the assistance of a bookstore employee--and a great selection it was! Among the books was Aldiss's STARSHIP, published in the UK as NON-STOP. That book was so cool that I didn't have time to finish it before it was stolen by someone in my junior high class in Kodiak, Alaska. When I did get around to finishing it, in 1964 or so, the impression it left made me an Aldiss fan for life.

Brian Aldiss
Bear, Aldriss, and Harrison, 2004
Photo by Gregory Benford

Brian was of that postwar generation of UK writers who enthusiastically dashed back and forth across genres, emulating Kingsley Amis perhaps, or Anthony Burgess. Brian's autobiographical World War 2 novels, A HAND-REARED BOY and A SOLDIER ERECT, are funny and profane and horrifying in equal measure, and deserve comparison with Burgess's Malay Trilogy. They're compulsively readable, mixing as they do a boy's city life, jungle warfare, sex, and alcohol.

Brian's reach in science fiction was quick and profound. His fix-up of five "Hothouse" stories won a Hugo award for best short fiction in 1961, and was later republished as THE LONG AFTERNOON OF EARTH. His forays into what was then called the New Wave include BAREFOOT IN THE HEAD a dense tale delivered in an hallucinogenic rush of language. GREYBEARD, a post-apocalyptic novel, like NON-STOP, works marvels while faithfully adhering to the requirements of fine science fiction. And there are many others, including REPORT ON PROBABILITY A, that mesh neatly with the revolution J.G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock and a select group of others were helping to lead in the UK.

In 1987, just after the Brighton World Science Fiction Convention, Brian and his wife Margaret hosted a major party in their Oxford home. Guests were treated to great company, copious liquor, and the relaxation of a magnificent Edwardian manor where all were invited to go out back and walk across an immaculately groomed greensward, suspended in an endless English summer that was equal parts ALICE IN WONDERLAND and Robert Holdstock's MYTHAGO WOOD. Brian was showing off, perhaps, some of the money earned by the recent HELLICONIA series, and films as well. Brian's short story, "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long," was being developed by Stanley Kubrick, with Brian's initial collaboration. Later, Brian and Kubrick parted ways and Ian Watson took over, lasting, as Ian put it, "Through several changes of Stanley's phone number." Bob Shaw and Sara Maitland also worked on the story--which Kubrick never got around to directing, instead "gifting" it to Steven Spielberg, Kubrick's friend, who finally finished the film. Both Brian and Ian share credit. Spielberg confirmed to me, during a visit to the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, that the controversial "fourth act" was in fact in the script and Kubrick's storyboards. The movie is remarkable and deeply affecting.

Brian's 1973 novel FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND was filmed in 1990, directed by Roger Corman.

Brian was a regular and favorite attendee of the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, or ICFA, held in Florida.

Among my best memories of Brian was his friendship with Harry Harrison. Their classroom routine at San Diego State was classic. I wish we had filmed it. I remember them discussing taking C.S. Lewis out for a night on the town, and his drinking them both under the table.

The lunches we shared in Lawrence, Kansas, in 2004 were lovely, though at times a little sad. Gregory Benford had just lost his wife Joan, and Harry talked about when he lost his own Joan, and Brian about Margaret. Later, nostalgic about youthful enthusiasms, we shared a mutual regard for Geoffrey Household's ROGUE MALE and the works of Eric Newby. Brian proudly carried a Stanley Kubrick encyclopedia.

Now, both Harry and Brian are gone as well. But the impressions they leave in my life, our lives, are deep and enduring.

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