Saturday, August 26, 2017

Farewell to Brian Aldiss

It's a strange feeling being a middle-aged fan these days. When I first started reading adult-level science fiction and fantasy back in the 80s, the giants of the Golden Age and New Wave still walked the Earth, and more importantly, were still publishing. One by one, over the years, the stories stopped, and their lives came to a close. A week ago, Time claimed another: Brian Aldiss.

My first encounter with Aldiss' work was as a teenager in 1989, when I read "Let's be Frank" in the anthology Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories: 19 (1957), edited by Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. The short story chronicles the life/lives of Frank, a minor noble born at the time of King Henry VIII, who passes a genetic mutation down to some of his descendants, causing them to become new vessels of his consciousness. They are not clones/separate versions of Frank; rather, a single mind existing simultaneously throughout every member of the family who shares this gene (like a fully biological version of The Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation). This allows Frank to live forever, gain wealth and power, and eventually spread his mind across the world until, through his many descendants, he constitutes about half to two-thirds of the Earth's population. It was a clever little story, and a bit funny, but there was something sad (though this isn't reflected in the story's tone — it's just my impression) and disturbing about it too, with all those new humans being born, but more and more of them just being more and more of the same old Frank, rather than unique individuals.

Over the years, I read other Aldiss short stories and novels from time to time. Some, like Super-State, were okay reads, but didn't leave much of an impression, while others, like Frankenstein Unbound, were absorbing, unsettling and left a permanent mark (the protagonist desperately treading existential water as realities shift around him with increasing frequency; the mating dance of the monsters). On the shelf right now, Harm and the Helliconia trilogy are still waiting for me to crack them open. There were also movies based on his work: Roger Corman's version of Frankenstein Unbound wasn't very good, but Spielberg and Kubrick's A.I. — Artificial Intelligence (based on "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long") was deeply affecting in places (Teddy settling resignedly back as David leans forward against the windscreen of the submerged copter, desperately praying to the Blue Fairy statue in the murky distance for ages until their power cells run out gets me every time).

One afternoon at Worldcon 2014 in London, I was trying to choose between a number of program options. One of them was a session with Brian Aldiss. While the other panels, presentations, etc looked interesting, I thought there aren't many chances to sit and listen to one of the giants of the field reminisce, and (yeah, I know, this was a bit morbid) Aldiss wasn't getting any younger, so there might not be many more to come. I met up with my buddy Geordie (who has some nice stories about meeting Aldiss at conventions throughout the years) outside, and, along with way too many other fans, we jammed ourselves into a room that was much too small and listened to Brian talk about his life and his work. Sure it was uncomfortable seating, and yeah, the AC just couldn't keep up with the heat generated by all those bodies, but it was worth every minute. Brian was funny, charming, and interesting. At the end, the con organizers wrapped up the session by leading us all in a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday". I'm glad I had the chance to be part of it.

Brian Aldiss died on August 19, 2017 at the age of 92.


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