Brian W. Aldiss: Overview

Citation metadata

Author: Gary K. Wolfe
Editor: Jay P. Pederson
Date: 1996
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,968 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

A reasonable argument could be made that Brian W. Aldiss is the most significant English writer of science fiction since H.G. Wells. Arthur C. Clarke may have gained wider popular fame, and J.G. Ballard more immediate recognition among academic critics, but while those authors have come to be associated with almost proprietary styles and attitudes, Aldiss has ranged widely through the various tropes and techniques available to the science fiction writer of the last half-century. Like Wells, he has explored all the classic science fiction themes and put his own stamp on them; like Wells, he has extended his vision into various other modes of writing, producing a substantial body of criticism and nonfiction as well as plays, poems, and film work. Appropriately, Aldiss has also become the genre's preeminent literary historian, not only because of his lengthy study Trillion Year Spree (written in collaboration with David Wingrove), but because of his insightful revisioning of Wells, Mary Shelley, and even Bram Stoker in his own novels.

Aldiss began publishing in British science fiction magazines in 1954, and by 1957 his first collection of stories, Space, Time, and Nathaniel, appeared in England (it was later reprinted in the U.S., with some stories dropped and others added, as No Time Like Tomorrow). These early stories already reveal a uniquely existential outlook, drawing both on traditional science fiction themes and yet clearly prefiguring the "New Wave" with which Aldiss was later to be associated. More importantly, they introduce themes that would haunt Aldiss throughout his career: the fear of being unable to take meaningful action, or to act at all in a meaningless universe, and yet the necessity of some action to define being human. "Outside" (1955), for example, deals with the familiar SF theme of characters in a closed environment discovering the larger universe outside, but in Aldiss's hands the revelation fails to quite liberate the character from his own inner traps. Similarly, in "Not for an Age" (1955), a character is able to view his life from outside of time, but cannot change the fact that his life seems to consist of the same day lived over and over.

Given this interest in reinventing familiar SF themes, it is not surprising that Aldiss's first novel, Non-Stop (1958; as Starship in the U.S.), should turn to the classic notion of the "generation starship" whose inhabitants have lost all knowledge of the universe outside. While Aldiss pays homage to the familiar SF view of such a situation as an analogue of scientific discovery, he also interrogates this simple notion by suggesting that the starship's inhabitants may have evolved to suit their environment, and may even have been deliberately maintained in this environment for their own protection. Both stylistically and philosophically, Non-Stop remains a classic treatment of its theme. Aldiss followed it with a series of less distinguished novels, some of which (such as Bow Down to Nul, 1960) echoed the "galactic empire" themes of earlier space operas....

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420000130