Sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss: Hollywood 'B' movies kindled his imagination
Brian W. Aldiss is recognized by many American readers as an influential science-fiction writer whose career has spanned 25 years. In his native Britain, where his latest novel, ''Helliconia Spring'' has reached No. 1 on best seller lists, his short stories are particularly popular, and readers know him as a critic, essayist, and novelist of ideas.
A face-to-face meeting with Brian Aldiss reveals him to be a personable and charming man, informed with an understanding of literary and political history and able to temper serious thought with a strong sense of humor and optimism.
Aldiss, whose works demonstrate his talent for effectively employing many writing styles, is a lively conversationalist able to treat you to, for instance , an almost Dickensian description of the circumstances of his boyhood while in virtually the same breath using Americanisms from a ''B'' movie.
Born in Norfolk, England, Aldiss grew up during what he calls ''the peaceful '30s of my childhood,'' dreaming among other things of becoming a cattle rustler. ''Actually,'' he says, ''I was quite keen to be a rustler. . . . I used to love cowboy films, and somewhere very early I picked up a line which I've never forgotten and which hit me with the impact of the greatest prose. It was spoken by a rustler in a 'B' movie, and he said, 'OK, let's go while the going's good.' And for a long time that was my motto. As a child I was awfully good at going while the going was good.''
As the son of a ''gentlemen's outfitter'' and grandson of a draper, Aldiss grew up in an unusually complex environment of warehouses and department stores, situated in numerous remodeled buildings. Aldiss explains, ''It really was an extraordinary, diabolic kind of environment in which to grow up,'' where silent stone staircases led through warehouses to, for instance, a room where ''six millinery ladies'' would be ''sitting around making hats, before an iron stove.''
This childhood world was a place of ''lots of little secret environments'' where, if you were being sought by an adult you could hide most successfully, ''really go to ground, among the bales of linoleum or coconut matting and 'go while the going was good!' ''
At the age of 12 Aldiss moved to Devon, a place ''reckoned to be safer during the (second world) war.'' Here he attended West Buckland School, ''built on the edge of Exmoor, I'd say about 10 minutes after the Jurassic Age ended,'' he recalls with a chuckle. A bleak, soggy, wild place, where clouds from the Atlantic cannot resist dropping their moisture, Exmoor was also ''a place of glorious freedom'' to Aldiss.
Aldiss smiles. 'I liked that school, really, but enough was enough, and it was quite pleasant to go into the comparative safety of the British Army, instead.''
At the age of 16 Aldiss joined up, ''and before I was 17 I was stepping off a troopship in Bombay.'' This marked the beginning of four formative years ''in the world of the Far East, where Aldiss enjoyed living with ''just perhaps canvas over your head, nothing more, and the stars up there - id was my idea of life, quite honestly!
Aldiss regards his Far Eastern years as ''in many respects very happy. What I liked about the tropics was that the sun rises, sizzling with excitement every day and rockets up to the zenith, whereas in England . . . it just manages to poop,'' he says (employing the British nautical term for waves breaking over the stern of a ship) ''above the chimneys at the other side of the road. It's a paler creature altogether.''
Returning reluctantly to his homeland, Aldiss found that ''the old England I knew had gone! Everything was different.'' He felt himself changed, too. ''Basically the situation was that after 10 years at public schools and six years in the Army I was unfit for society. There was no option but to be that pariah among men, the writer.''
While pursuing a book-selling job in Oxford, Aldiss set out to teach himself to write. Although he ''was brought up with what you might call formal English culture, the things that I adored as a child and beyond childhood were from popular American culture,'' including movies, popular music, and science fiction.
''I do actually love the trappings of science fiction,'' Aldiss asserts. I think they have a kind of dream validity, and that the galaxies and the starships and all the rest are intensely thrilling and romantic symbols.''
A love of these symbols, an eye for landscape, fascination with language, particularly the rhythms of English spoken as a second language, and a concern for the significance of the individual in the face of vast, even cosmic scenarios - all are the hallmarks of Aldiss's fiction. Like Thomas Hardy, whom Aldiss regards as ''the single most powerful'' literary influence upon him, Aldiss shows the apparent insignificance of the individual set against vast stretches of space, time, and happenstance before ''zooming in'' on a personal story that has the power to give importance to one small life.
Now an accomplished writer with numerous volumes in print, Aldiss can make colorful distinctions between the novel and short story forms. ''I think a novel needs, as James Joyce puts it, 'silence, exile, cunning,' and a lot more things beside. But a short story is what you wake up with in your mind in the morning, like a tune. And that's a gift from the gods. . . . It's time bound, a short story, it's a little oyster all its own, whereas (writing) a novel is like catching a whale.''
His new novel, ''Helliconia Spring,'' is Aldiss's most ambitious undertaking to date. The first volume of a trilogy, it shows the author at the apex of his career where, as he puts it, he can ''deploy into prose'' the experiences of an interesting life.
With the observation that ''three score years and ten are fairly economically dealt out to us,'' Aldiss admits that he exuberantly enjoys the vast time spans he shows as passing on the Helliconian world. Here he may play with, ''as it were, all the time in the world!''
Speaking of other writers he admires, such as Solzhenitsyn whose ''Gulag Archipelago'' represents ''an undeniable book'' which, as Pushkin hoped to do, ''lays waste the hearts of men,'' and Mary Shelley, whose ''Frankenstein'' is ''an excellently dark novel,'' Aldiss exclaims, ''There's no way of explaining these extraordinary achievements, just as there's no way of explaining Boswell and Johnson. When these things can happen in the world, the world must be a good place!''