In a week that has been notable for a famous (or infamous) woman, I want to write about a famous man.
Last Friday, Cathy and I went to a meeting of the Birmingham Science Fiction Group to see Brian W. Aldiss. He is now 88, but his mind is (generally) still as sharp as ever – and he is still the wit, raconteur and silver-tongued devil…
(For those who do not know, Aldiss is not only one of the UK’s foremost science fiction writers with a career spanning nearly sixty years, but is also a leading mainstream literary author with many fine novels to his credit.)
He has long been an honourary president of the BSFG; it was all the more important for him to come to talk to us given that the BSFG lost Harry Harrison, the other president, in the last year. Aldiss talked about a lot of things, but his main theme was one of what science fiction is about – dislocation, the effect of finding that the world is not as you thought it was. In the end, he said, that is the theme of all the best science fiction. After his talk, I had the chance to chat with him a little, and I was able to tell him that the first science fiction novel I read was his novel Report on Probability A. This is a novel about an infinite series of observers in an infinite series of parallel universes, watching each other without understanding that they themselves were being watched. It is a weird, non-linear narrative, and I read it at the age of 14 or so because my father brought it home from the library one Saturday in the mistaken belief that it was a Mills & Boon romance novel of the sort my mother enjoyed so much. He always selected Mum’s Mills & Boons by their cover picture, and the cover of Report on Probability A was a pastoral scene by the pre-Raphaelite Holman Hunt (which plays a part in the novel); and he mistook it for a romance. On realising it wasn’t, he gave it to me.
I hardly understood a word of it; but I was so impressed that someone could even begin to think about writing a novel like it that I determined to look out for more. “That was weird,” I thought, “but there must be something really clever going on there. I wonder what else there is out there?” And I told Brian Aldiss this much. “I didn’t understand it, but it was exciting!” I said – a perfect example of his ideas on dislocation. Just as the ancient Greeks looked on their drama as a vehicle for the cleansing of the psyche that they called catharsis, which they regarded as healthy, so I took to science fiction as a vehicle for keeping my world-view nimble on its feet. Science fiction isn’t just mere escapism; at root, it’s a literature that always asks “What if…?”, and in a rapidly changing world, being able to look at change and embrace it is a distinct advantage.
Of course, in the past couple of weeks another science fiction author has been in the news, for a bad reason. I’ve written here before about Iain Banks; the news of his diagnosis with terminal cancer put me in a state of shock for quite some time. It seems like only yesterday that I was asking him “You used to be an enfant terrible, now the Guardian is calling you an ‘elder statesman of British sf’ – when did that happen?”. Now we have to come to terms with his not being with us for much longer. I recently reviewed his newest science fiction novel, The Hydrogen Sonata, on LibraryThing, where I suggested that it perhaps wasn’t great Banks – the McGuffin of the plot was revealed early on and most of the story is a certain amount of running around with the central character being chased by various baddies because she Knows A Great Secret – but that in time we would regard it as a solid if unspectacular mid-series book in his stories of the Culture, his galactic civilization. Instead, it will almost certainly be his last word on the subject. Iain Banks will probably turn out to be the Brian Aldiss of his generation, a writer who encompassed both mainstream and genre writing. Aldiss made sf respectable for the post-war British reader, and he played a major part in the “New Wave” promoted by Michael Moorcock and the writers who appeared in New Worlds in the 1960s. Together with J.G. Ballard, Aldiss made British SF into something new and cutting-edge; 25 years later, Banks was amongst a number of British writers who took sf tropes, such as space opera (big spaceships, interplanetary war and a vast universe of inhabited worlds to experience) and gave them a contemporary feel with dark humour, an off-the-wall approach and a well-honed political and social sensibility. We are lucky to have such people, and we must honour them whilst we can.