Although best known as one of the prime contributors to the rapid expansion of interest in SCIENCE FICTION during the 20th c., Aldiss was involved in many other literary activities and considered himself more than just a genre writer. Educated at Framlingham College and an active member of the military during World War II, Aldiss published his collection, The Brightfount Diaries—fiction about the bookselling trade, which he had practiced upon his departure from the army in 1947—in 1955. He became the literary editor for the Oxford Mail three years later. Aldiss was an accomplished narrative experimenter whose explorations in the novel went widely unheralded, overshadowed by impressive achievements in his many collections of short stories and novels such as Non-Stop (1958; repub. as Starship, 1959), Hothouse (1962; repub. as The Long Aftermath of Earth, 1962), The Dark Light Years (1964), Frankenstein Unbound (1973), Enemies of the System (1978), and Helliconia Spring (1982), the initial entry in what many consider his masterwork, The Helliconia Trilogy. His many works of speculative fiction, whether published under his own name or pseudonymously, are characterized by intricate character development and insight over mere plot-driven space-opera constructions. Not least because of his avoidance (especially in his later work) of overusing “gee-whiz” technology in favor of constructing novels that happen to have technologically based elements, Aldiss has often been given credit for helping to make science fiction a legitimate literary genre, rather than a derided pulp ghetto.
As the cofounder, with C. S. LEWIS, of the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group (1960) and as the lead editor of the Penguin Science Fiction Series (1961–64), Aldiss has been able to build bridges between the literary and popular publishing worlds. These early and unprecedented liaisons make Aldiss a notable literary figure in at least two ways: his wordplay and his refusal of such categories as “high and low art” forms. In the former instance, his experimentations often overshadowed what some critics have seen as real weaknesses in his plot constructions and narrative structures. In the latter case (representing perhaps his greatest mark on the shifting sands of contemporary letters), he helped to eliminate the distinctions (in the minds of readers and critics alike) between “artistic” and popular texts. In this way, too, he prefigured the opening up of literary canons and the arrival of a less hierarchical literary universe.
In attempting to categorize the dizzying array of texts that Aldiss has created over the years, critics have analyzed his oeuvre in the light of themes as varied as that of the pilgrimage or quest motif, the resurrection of classical archetypes—especially those of Prometheus, Orpheus, and Proteus—and the defamiliarization of the ordinary. His prolific publishing career makes generalization dangerous, but it is generally acknowledged that Aldiss felt that he had pretty much done all he could do in the field of science fiction after writing a dozen or so books and innumerable short stories. One of the most satisfying mappings of his work in science fiction is, in fact, a reading of Aldiss’s texts as cartographic explorations (by Michael Collings) of the dimensions of existence and discovery: what it means to be human in a world/culture where technology requires mini-paradigm shifts not only from generation to generation, but often intragenerationally. Inevitably, Aldiss’s contribution to Hell’s Cartographers (1974) lends itself to a theory that Aldiss is attempting to reduce the unknowable world around us into smaller, mapped areas that allow for closer inspection—and the often delusional notion that we can “understand.” Of additional interest to contemporary scholars is the intertextual tendency that Aldiss often exhibits, most notably perhaps in The Saliva Tree (1966), a Nebula Award winner for best novella, Moreau’s Other Island (1980; repub. as An Island Called Moreau, 1981)—both homages and allusively connected to the works of H. G. WELLS. It is also easy to see this tendency in Frankenstein Unbound and Dracula Unbound (1991), with their overt connections to Mary SHELLEY and Bram STOKER, respectively. By reinvigorating classic texts—often known to his modern readers only as movies or popular culture representations rather than as novels—Aldiss serves the purposes of POSTMODERNISM by creating intertextual works that echo their predecessors at the same time that they create a “new,” more fragmented type of whole. A willful collage—or, in the language of postmodernism, a pastiche—each is more than merely the sum of its respective parts. Herein lies much of the ground for critical disagreement: although the primary definition of “pastiche” refers to a literary work comprising an assemblage of other works, a secondary connotation is more pejorative, suggesting a “hodgepodge,” or a jumbled mess. For example, A Soldier Erect (1971), the second of Aldiss’s Horatio Stubbs Trilogy, focuses upon the sexual antics of its protagonist in the midst of the chaos and banality of the British Army’s involvement in India and Burma during World War II. The unsubtle, some would say prurient, erotic events, and its echoes of other, some have said better, works have made it relatively easy to dismiss this novel. In fact, it is possible to view the considerable popular success of the trilogy as a result of the overt sexuality of the work(s), and of the scandal raised by the relentlessness of the masturbation scenes in The Hand-Reared Boy (1970), the opening novel in the trilogy.
On the other hand, even in A Soldier Erect it is possible to see Aldiss’s erudition and suggestive usage of the vast tapestry of texts about the context of Horatio Stubbs’s journey through World War II as he hints at Evelyn WAUGH, James Clavell, and other fictionalizers of the war. In contrast, for example, to Waugh’s occasionally misanthropic accounts in his own trilogy, Stubbs is often disingenuously indifferent to the wider scene of the war as he searches for his next prostitute. In this way, Aldiss calls to mind not merely British chroniclers of a particular war, but also all writers who deal with the microcosmic nature of human involvement in macroscopic events. Like the protagonist of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), who wanders unknowingly through the battle of Waterloo, Stubbs is a stand-in for each of us as we wander through history in search of ourselves. Even in this part of Aldiss’s fictionalized autobiography, we see a final stylistic touchstone of his work: his unflagging HUMOR. Even as he presents the brutality of war and the central emptiness of middle-class existence as a whole in this “lesser” trilogy, he is able to engage in the wit and self-deprecation that make his works interesting as a whole, regardless of complaints about plot construction or the dated nature of the subjects of his speculative fiction.
Bibliography Aldiss, M., The Work of B. W. A. (1992); Collings, M. R., B. A. (1986); Henighan, T., B. W. A. (1999)
Richard E. Lee
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