Brian Aldiss (1925-2017)

By Patrick Parrinder

Our Vice-President Brian Aldiss was, first and foremost, one of the greats of post-war British science fiction. His career began with Non-Stop (1958), passed through the experimental ‘New Wave’ of the late 1960s (which he spearheaded with Michael Moorcock and J. G. Ballard), and led on to such triumphs as The Malacia Tapestry (1976) and the Helliconia trilogy (1982-5). He paid homage to his literary predecessors in fictions such as Frankenstein Unbound (1973) and Moreau’s Other Island (1980) – where Moreau’s successor in pursuing secret genetic research on a Pacific island is working for the US military. But Brian was much more than a science-fiction writer. Like Wells, he was also a comic novelist, and he was a distinguished editor and anthologist, a literary critic and historian, and, for a time, a journalist on the Oxford Mail. A keen conference-goer and memorable public speaker, he was the author of memoirs and even of humorous verse. In fact, Brian was the quintessential all-round man of letters, in similar vein to his much-admired friend Kingsley Amis. And it was Brian who in his historical survey Billion Year Spree (later revised with David Wingrove as Trillion Year Spree) placed H. G. Wells at the centre of his literary stage as the ‘Shakespeare of science fiction’.

Those of us with long memories will recall Brian’s appearance alongside Doris Lessing and Arthur C. Clarke at our major international conference at Imperial College in 1986. There he gave a splendidly witty paper, ‘Wells and the Leopard Lady’, which appears in the volume of conference proceedings, H. G. Wells under Revision (1990). Brian gave another keynote address at our 1998 centenary conference on The War of the Worlds, and sent a message of support to our 2010 conference which he regretted being unable to attend due to his advancing age. Throughout his long life Brian was a wonderful companion, a generous man and an inveterate traveller whose loss will be felt by science-fiction fans all over the world. We were very lucky to have him as one of our Vice-Presidents, and we will not forget his many contributions both to our Society and to the international appreciation of H. G. Wells.


Here it began, Here it Ends

By Christopher Priest

In 1962 I was working in the City of London as the world’s worst trainee accountant. I hated the job, and they hated me too. They should have fired me, but they couldn’t because we had signed articles (a binding agreement for five years) that meant I could not leave and they could not fire me. (In 1965, the articles came to an end. They fired me.)

However, early in 1962 I was still there, and a teenage passion for science fiction had suddenly made life more interesting. One of the writers I most admired was Brian Aldiss, who had written several intriguingly unusual short stories, and two or three novels which I thought were pretty good. One of them, Non-Stop, a brilliantly mad and inventive subversion of a trad American science fiction theme (a big spaceship lost in space), had so enthralled me that it had convinced me I should one day like to become a writer too. It took a while to get there, but I never forgot the epiphany of realizing that writing was a human activity that was achievable. Brian Aldiss had also published an anthology called Penguin Science Fiction. (Published by Penguin Books, and full of science fiction, of course.) In the short biography of the editor it mentioned that Mr Aldiss was the president of something called the British Science Fiction Association — I imagined it to be a place where people with mighty minds and vivid imaginations would meet in conclave.

One evening I read a review in the London Evening News of a new novel by John Christopher called The World in Winter. The review gave extravagant praise to this book, but ruined everything by going on to complain that the novel had been marketed as science fiction, which the idiot reviewer described (but not in so many words) as a despicable commercial genre that of course no one could take seriously. This is a customary put-down of science fiction (still in use, no sign yet of its fall from usefulness) deployed by inexperienced reviewers who are trying to impress readers they assume to be even more stupid than themselves. Although I was only 18 I had already spotted this type. I felt weary contempt for whoever it was. Didn’t know what to say.

Not Brian Aldiss, who had also seen this annoying review, and as president of the BSFA wrote a witty letter of complaint to the newspaper, pointing out what a dullard their reviewer was. They published his address at the end of his letter.

I therefore wrote to Mr Aldiss, complimented him on his letter, and timidly asked if it was possible for nonentities like me to join the BSFA, or was it only for writers? Brian Aldiss responded at once, complimented me on having the right attitude, said that of course the BSFA was open to anyone (and passed on the contact address) and went on to urge me to attend the annual science fiction convention, where he would love to meet me and have a good conversation.

It was a marvellous letter for an insecure and bookish teenager to receive. I treasured it and kept it, and to this day it remains the first item in my huge archive of correspondence.

In fact, I was too hard up and too shy to go the SF convention, and did not meet Brian Aldiss in person until about 1965. Then, when he found out my name, he said, ‘I remember you — you wrote me that intelligent letter! Come and have a drink!’ It was the first moment of a friendship that was to last, with the usual ups and downs of any friendship between two difficult men, for more than half a century.

This is a photograph taken in June 1970, by Margaret, Brian Aldiss’s second wife. Brian had generously invited me down to their house in Oxfordshire to celebrate the publication of my first novel Indoctrinaire. Also there was Charles Monteith, who was not only my editor at the publishers Faber & Faber, he was Brian’s too. He had been responsible for buying and publishing all the early Aldiss books, including those short stories I had admired so much, and the fabulous bravura of Non-Stop.

Today I learned that Brian had died, one day after his 92nd birthday. When someone has had such a long life, living to a great age, the end will not come as a surprise to those around, but none the less this news came as a profound and upsetting shock. I was privileged to write a long obituary for the Guardian, but a formal article is not the appropriate place to express fondness and gratitude for everything. His work shines out as an example to us all, a standard to strive to equal. His professionalism was legendary. His conversation was something to stay up all night for, and his sense of fun was marvellous. He is irreplaceable.


Brian’s earlier books and short stories were a great influence on my reading as a teenager when I was consuming a great deal of SF as it was known then. His Non-Stop and Hothouse stood out in particular.
Meeting him at society meetings was therefore an unexpected pleasure. He was a very straight talker who didn’t suffer fools. I remember him at the AGM when I was elected treasurer making a joke…I hope it was a joke…. about whether I could be trusted with the money!

In addition to his writing he was a staunch enthusiast and advocate of the SF genre and believed it should be considered of equal importance to other fields of literature. His works particularly the early works in my view clearly demonstrate the case. His legacy and influence I hope will live on.

-Paul Allen

(All obituaries and tributes republished with permission)