Brian Aldiss | Literary Legend

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Science fiction writer and editor BRIAN ALDISS, OBE celebrated his 90th birthday recently. His incredibly detailed and impressive catalogue of accomplishments includes two Hugo Awards, one Nebula Award, and one John W. Campbell Memorial Award. He was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 2000, and continues to add to his long list of published work to this day. STARBURST paid him a visit to find out more about what makes him tick…


STARBURST: When did you start telling stories?
Brian Aldiss: When I was three. My mother liked them, bound them up with some unused wallpaper and put them on the nursery shelf; thank god they’ve disappeared!
It kept the other boys quiet, later when I went to public school. I hand wrote my stories, bound them in paper and charged the other boys a penny a read. The boys were very keen to read them, but equally I was very keen that they should read them so I didn’t make many pennies. I always left them waiting for the next bit.

Do you still use cliffhangers?
I really don’t know. I mean I’m still working on the problem. I find it’s best to keep the little buggers worrying about what’s going to happen next. Even at my prep school, I would tell stories after dark, and when one of the other boys would say ‘Shut up Aldiss, you bastard’. Triumph!

When did you start writing science fiction?
I’ll tell you a little story. I was four and a half. I walked into out sunlit lounge and someone had left the wireless on. The announcer was saying that Clyde Tombaugh had sighted a planet that would be called Pluto. I cannot tell you how thrilled I was. It was as if he was speaking personally to me… Immediately, I thought how wonderful it would be to get to the planet Pluto. As we know, it’s only this year that we have managed to get a machine to Pluto.

What do you say to do those who say Pluto is not a planet?
It’s balls. Absolute rubbish. What is it if it’s not a planet?

Does Science spoil science fiction?
Science should be the basis of all good science fiction. It could be other things, it can be psychological. The parameters have changed now.

Has the market for science fiction changed?
Back in the forties, if there was a science fiction magazine it would be run by one guy, who had a little money. They would feel compelled to do produce them. There was a chap in London who edited Authentic. The magazine was rather short lived, but I wrote a story for them called Pogsmith and I met up with him. We took a stroll through the streets of London, in those days it was considerably less crowded than now. I thought he was marvellous, but he hadn’t got the money to keep a magazine running. A one-man band is very hard work, you know. Harder work to edit and to write the stories.

Then there was Ted Carnell. He worked for some printers just looking down on the Thames. He ran New Worlds and Science Fantasy. He kept publishing that magazine year after year, month after month. The magazine came out regularly and paid regularly. But then came a time when even Ted Carnell wearied and handed it over to Michael Moorcock, then a well-known eccentric. England must have been improving a slight bit then, because they had a man, Lord Goodman, and he could fund cultural events and magazines. Mike Moorcock and I got together and rehearsed what we could say to appeal to Lord Goodman. We thought it was very unlikely that we’d get the funding for a mere science fiction magazine. Eventually, we were shown into his presence. And he said “I understand you want your magazine subsidised. Well I’m the man to do it”. Low and behold, they did subsidise New Worlds! Mike caught fire, and so vastly improved New Worlds that the incentive we had didn’t cover all of the expenses. Again, there was a magazine going broke.

Dear old Mike. He had a very patient wife. To keep the fans away, he had a big notice on the door that said in very plain English “Fuck Off”. On the weekend, he would lock himself in his bedroom with his typewriter and he would write. He could knock out a whole novel over a weekend and then sell to a firm in the US called Lancet. They were renegades, even amongst publishers. They didn’t live in New York, the lived in Kentucky and they would buy his work for a thousand bucks in total. For the complete thing. Mike would use that money to keep New Worlds afloat.

Which of your works are you most proud of?
I think very well of the Helliconia novels. When I planned Helliconia, I took two years off when I researched the whole matter. My wife wondered if I was going to write again. I was, I was working on Helliconia. It’s an Earth-like planet and it has an Earth-like sun, but it’s been captured by a giant sun on its journey through the universe. It’s about the struggles and difficulties that people have living on this planet, because the seasons last for so long, you see. The first volume takes place in spring, the second in summer and the third in the oncoming winter.

It attracted the interested of a very celebrated publisher in this country and also in the United States from a company called Atheneum. The volumes were being published at exactly the same time on both sides of the Atlantic. It did mean that a volume had to come out every 18 months. Why? Gets more punters, they said. I was unaccustomed to the speed. I would send the manuscripts to the publisher in the UK and the US. I got to know the publisher, he was a remarkable man in the way that all publishers are. Let’s not say anything about the writers. 

Now the publisher over here worked without a copy editor. The USA was much more professional. I sent in the first volume and I got a 25-page letter from the copy editor who told me what I had gone adrift on. I was furious. I said to myself this is typical of the bloody Yanks! I started to read what she said, it made very good sense. To give you an example, she’d say “This meeting is beautifully done, but it follows another meeting. If you did those scenes the other way round, you would find that it was better”. All of this I took in. I was converted. I took in her suggestions. It was almost like a collaboration. Of course, that’s what I suggested to my English publisher and meekly they followed. It was the strength of this woman and her engagement that really supplemented my rather hasty execution. Three volumes were published with moderate success, I mean the bloody things are being reprinted still!

I wrote a letter to this lady to thank her for collaboration, and I sent her a dozen red rose. She phoned me, which was unheard off. She told me “No one ever thanked me before.” Just think of that; the bastards who had worked with her before had never thanked her.

That was the best thing with Helliconia. Except two years ago, NASA they found a world with two suns. Everyone who had dismissed it for having two suns was wrong. I had done my research, I had asked Astronomers. I live in Oxford, you can knock on any door and find some poor sod who longs to talk about their discipline. They didn’t call it Helliconia though.

With so much self-publishing available now, how important are gate-keepers?
Has it changed? The publishers will always drive you mad. They have their difficulties, just as booksellers do.

How has your writing changed?
I suppose you would hope that you would improve quite a bit. I don’t know. With experience you do improve. Much of my experience came when I was younger. I am surrounded with nice people that I like oblige as much as possible. The fact is I also have a very good secretary. We’ve worked together for years and we’ve behaved in a very sensible way. She’s very good on short hand, so I said I’ll stand here and we’ll invent a story. We’ve done that with three stories. One of them is one of the best stories I’ve ever wrote, The Invention of Happiness. It contains a reference to the Venerable Bede. He was a diviner. Imagine him sitting in a hall one dreadful winter’s night and a sparrow flies through the door. Bede said “Our life resembles the live of a sparrow; we come through one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged.” Isn’t that fantastic? Isn’t that just it! Especially if Christianity has slipped off from you. I do have some regret about that. The Venerable Bede got it just right.

What would you say to the sixteen-year-old version of yourself?
Try not to age. Get laid as often as possible.

What experiences shaped your writing?
When World War Two broke out I was at public school and the recruiting chap had a book with all the things you could join. You could join submarines and I wasn’t dumb and I thought of course they want more people in submarines, they’re also being sunk. So I joined Royal Signals and I was sent out to Burma to fight the Japanese. Luckily, we won. After that, we went to India, Sumatra, Singapore and Hong Kong. We were three years away from home. When we got home we expected a reception, there was bound to be a party. There was no one. They had been ordered not to receive us with any measure of honour and I’ve always had that grudge. I still cannot swallow it…

Did that drive your writing?
I don’t write escapism, I want to make the bastards suffer. Hothouse was inspired by Sumatra, of course. When I came back to England, I felt that people enjoyed being miserable. I was wrong, I think.

How different is Hothouse from your more recent work like Comfort Zone?
From Hothouse to Comfort Zone? Jesus - that has been a long journey! It was one of the good things that came from that time abroad back then. One time, I took a ferry across the Hooghly in order to have a look at the Calcutta Botanical Gardens. I found there a tree labelled as the biggest in the world. Not like sequoia, it was a banyan. It was very carefully guarded so goats couldn’t eat the buds. It was immense. I sat there for the afternoon watching this lovely thing grow. When I got home, I read an article by Thomas Huxley and he talks about this very tree and how it could almost cover the world. I thought, hey, there’s a story there. So I started to write.

Do you have any more stories to tell?
Yes I do. I dread to say this, but it’s set in Russia in the 18th century when things aren’t too bad. It’s a big Russian novel, where the chap has to walk ten thousand miles because the motor car hasn’t been invented. It will be a very happy novel.

Would you rewrite any of your older works
I would never do that. I was younger then. I had a beautiful young family and a wife who had also been through WWII. I love her memory still. We had two children and by then I had become Literary Editor of the Oxford Mail. Which sounds like a grand title; really, that’s all it was and I wrote stories. Suddenly, she said she wanted to move from Oxford, I didn’t. I won’t go into details, but in the end, she went away with the kids. So I sold the house to buy her a house and I moved into one room into an Oxford slum. I was forty. I wrote a book about a world where the children had ceased to exist. I was thinking “god, no one is going to read this, it is so miserable”. When you’re really down, you find such unexpected kindness. The wife had taken my typewriter and a friend had got me a brand new Hermes typewriter. The kindness of the man.

That book, Greybeard, was very successful.
It wasn’t that I felt that it was bad book, I just felt it was extremely sad. They published it as science fiction because they thought it would sell better. Now I think that they are people who are suffering and the book helps them. They’ve lost something and this anecdote is an antidote.

If you could save one book so it would survive eternity, what would it be?
Leo Tolstoy’s Resurrection. It’s a wonderful book. Why do I like it better than Thomas Hardy or Dickens? Somehow Tolstoy got through to me so I would spare his final novel, Resurrection.

A full catalogue of Brian Aldiss’ work can be found at brianaldiss.co.uk


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