Authors: Brian W. Aldiss

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English novelist, editor, artist, and short-story writer.

August 18, 1925

East Dereham, England

August 19, 2017

Oxford, England

Biography

Although most readers familiar with British writer Brian Wilson Aldiss would recognize him primarily for his science fiction, his body of work encompasses many more interests. His chief concern was with the exploration of human nature, either as he observed it around him or as he extrapolated what it would or should be in an imagined fictive place and time; in addition to his science-fiction works, he produced volumes of travel literature, short stories, autobiography, poetry, and art and literary criticism during his lifetime. No matter the form or genre, Aldiss was intent on examining what makes people tick.

Brian Aldiss.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Aldiss was born on August 18, 1925, to Elizabeth May Wilson and Stanley Aldiss. He spent his early childhood in East Dereham, in Norfolk, England, before being sent away to boarding school at the age of eight. His father later moved the family to Gorleston-on-Sea in Norfolk, where Aldiss first became acquainted with American pulp and science-fiction magazines. After leaving school in 1943, Aldiss joined the British Army and was stationed in the Far East during World War II. The experience that would later have a lasting impact on his life and writing, especially in his use of lush tropical settings and his exploration of the themes of isolation and exile.

Aldiss returned home in 1947 and went to work as an assistant in an Oxford bookshop. During this time, he submitted his first piece of fiction to John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction and began work on a novel. His first piece of published writing was The Brightfount Diaries, which originally appeared as a series of humorous short stories in Bookseller magazine under the pseudonym Peter Pica; in 1955, Faber and Faber published the collected pieces as a novel under Aldiss’s name. In 1957, Aldiss went to work as literary editor for the Oxford Mail. He also published short stories and worked on his second novel, Non-Stop, which was published in 1958. This novel, like many that followed, explores the issue of isolation; it tells the story of a failed interstellar mission whose vessel circles Earth.

One feature of Aldiss’s science fiction and fantasy writings that made them unlike the work of many other writers in the genre was the emphasis he placed on the nature of human feeling and relationships. He explored these issues in such novels as The Dark Light Years (1964), which examines the implications of humans’ first encounter with aliens; Barefoot in the Head (1969), in which the madness brought about by bombing Europe with psychedelic gases is reflected in deformations of language; and The Malacia Tapestry (1976), a sword-and-sorcery tale of a world caught up in the battle between good and evil magicians.

Aldiss’s science fiction often engages in conscious dialogue with other writers. Frankenstein Unbound (1973) and Dracula Unbound (1991) revisit two of the works Aldiss considers most significant in the history of the field. The novella The Saliva Tree, serialized in 1965 and collected in 1966, and the novel Moreau’s Other Island (1980) reply to H. G. Wells. Stepping outside the genre, Aldiss adapted French author Alain Robbe-Grillet’s multiple levels of observation to a science-fictional story in Report on Probability A (1968) and used the “Eurish” of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) to reflect the psychological and linguistic chaos of Barefoot in the Head.

Aldiss’s masterwork, in the old sense of a work that shows one’s mastery of all elements of one’s field, is the trilogy comprising Helliconia Spring (1982), Helliconia Summer (1983), and Helliconia Winter (1985). Here, Aldiss creates a new planet, complete with unusual climate and sentient and other life-forms, then peoples it richly with characters and has it observed by Earth through the same sort of multiple levels of narration used in Report on Probability A.

In addition to his science-fiction and fantasy novels, Aldiss was equally at home writing novels of the everyday. Much of his mainstream fiction deals with sexuality, often exploring individual preferences from a comic perspective. Two of his early novels, The Male Response (1961) and The Primal Urge (1961), fall into this category. More notable in this respect is his series chronicling the sexual exploits and maturation of Horatio Stubbs: The Hand-Reared Boy (1970), which traces the hero’s adolescent adventure, and its sequels, A Soldier Erect (1971) and A Rude Awakening (1978). Because of the relatively conservative temper of the time during which these books were written and their blatant treatment of their protagonist’s sexual fantasies and adventures, Aldiss initially encountered some difficulties in getting a publisher to accept them, but they were favorably received upon publication and became best-sellers in Great Britain. Aldiss’s mainstream novels often rely on his own life experiences for their themes, as in the case of Forgotten Life (1988), which portrays the lives of two brothers, Clement and Joseph Winter, whose combined careers closely parallel Aldiss’s own.

In addition to his novels of real and otherworldly adventures, Aldiss wrote hundreds of short stories during his lifetime. The story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,” first published in 1969, later served as the basis for the Steven Spielberg film A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). Of his short-story collections, many critics consider The Moment of Eclipse (1970), which won him the 1971 BSFA Award for short fiction from the British Science Fiction Association, to be among his best. The stories in this volume take their themes and inspiration from such authors as Thomas Hardy and Edgar Allan Poe and from the painter Antoine Watteau.

Aldiss also wrote a history of science-fiction literature, originally published as Billion Year Spree in 1973, updated with coauthor David Wingrove as Trillion Year Spree in 1986. This study provides an entertaining and informative chronicle of the genre Aldiss knew best and gives thorough and useful background for those interested in learning about the roots of contemporary science fiction. Finally, Aldiss published poetry, travel literature, and essays; created artwork; and served as the editor for numerous science-fiction anthologies. His prodigious and varied output offers readers the opportunity to enjoy his capable storytelling without feeling as though they are simply covering familiar territory one more time. Aldiss crossed generic boundaries, something that was unusual for writers of standard science-fiction fare.

Among the numerous honors Aldiss received during his lifetime, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1989, was chosen to receive the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) Grand Master Award in 2000, was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2004, and was made an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2005. In 2008 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Liverpool.

Aldiss married Olive Fortescue in 1948. They divorced in 1965, after which he married his second wife, Margaret Manson. Following Manson’s death in 1997, Aldiss entered into a long-term relationship with Alison Soskice. He had four children, two from each of his marriages. Aldiss died in Oxford, England, on August 19, 2017, the day after his ninety-second birthday.

Author Works Long Fiction: The Brightfount Diaries, 1955 Non-Stop, 1958 (published in US as Starship, 1959) Equator, 1958 (serial), 1961 (book; novella; published in US as Vanguard from Alpha, 1959) Bow Down to Nul, 1960 (also known as The Interpreter, 1961) The Male Response, 1961 The Primal Urge, 1961 Hothouse, 1962 (published in US as The Long Afternoon of Earth, 1962) The Dark Light Years, 1964 Greybeard, 1964 Earthworks, 1965 An Age, 1967 (published in US as Cryptozoic!, 1968) Report on Probability A, 1967 (serial), 1968 (book) Barefoot in the Head: A European Fantasia, 1969 The Hand-Reared Boy, 1970 A Soldier Erect; or, Further Adventures of the Hand-Reared Boy, 1971 Frankenstein Unbound, 1973 The Eighty-Minute Hour, 1974 The Malacia Tapestry, 1976 Brothers of the Head, 1977 A Chinese Perspective, 1978 (anthology), 2000 (book; novella) Enemies of the System, 1978 A Rude Awakening, 1978 Life in the West, 1980 Moreau’s Other Island, 1980 (published in US as An Island Called Moreau, 1981) Helliconia Spring, 1982 Helliconia Summer, 1983 Helliconia Winter, 1985 The Year before Yesterday: A Novel in Three Acts, 1987 (also known as Cracken at Critical, 1987) Ruins, 1988 Forgotten Life, 1988 Dracula Unbound, 1991 Remembrance Day, 1993 Somewhere East of Life, 1994 White Mars; or, The Mind Set Free: A 21st Century Utopia, 1999 (with Roger Penrose) The Cretan Teat, 2002 Super-State: A Novel of a Future Europe, 2002 Affairs at Hampden Ferrers, 2004 Sanity and the Lady, 2005 Jocasta, 2006 HARM, 2007 Walcot, 2009 Finches of Mars, 2012 Comfort Zone: A Novel of Present Day Discontents, 2013 Short Fiction: Space, Time and Nathaniel: Presciences, 1957 The Canopy of Time, 1959 No Time Like Tomorrow, 1959 Galaxies Like Grains of Sand, 1960 The Airs of Earth, 1963 Starswarm, 1964 Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian W. Aldiss, 1965, 1971 (also known as Who Can Replace a Man?, 1966) The Saliva Tree and Other Strange Growths, 1966 Intangibles Inc., and Other Stories, 1969 The Moment of Eclipse, 1970 Neanderthal Planet, 1970 The Book of Brian Aldiss, 1972 (also known as The Comic Inferno, 1973) Last Orders, and Other Stories, 1977 New Arrivals, Old Encounters: Twelve Stories, 1979 Foreign Bodies, 1981 Seasons in Flight, 1984 The Magic of the Past, 1987 Best SF Stories of Brian W. Aldiss, 1988 (also known as Man in His Time: The Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian W. Aldiss, 1988) A Romance of the Equator: Best Fantasy Stories, 1989 Bodily Functions, 1991 A Tupolev Too Far, and Other Stories, 1993 The Secret of This Book: 20-Odd Stories, 1995 (published in US as Common Clay: 20-Odd Stories, 1996) Supertoys Last All Summer Long, and Other Stories of Future Time, 2001 Cultural Breaks, 2005 The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s, 2013 The Invention of Happiness, 2013 The Complete Short Stories: The 1960s, 2015 (4 volumes) Drama: Distant Encounters, pr. 1978 (adaptation of several of Aldiss’s short stories) Poetry: Pile: Petals from St. Klaed’s Computer, 1979 Farewell to a Child, 1982 Home Life with Cats, 1992 At the Caligula Hotel, and Other Poems, 1995 Songs from the Steppes of Central Asia: The Collected Poems of Makhtumkuli, Eighteenth Century Poet-Hero of Turkmenistan, 1995 (versification of Youssef Azemoun’s prose translations) A Plutonian Monologue on His Wife’s Death, 2000 At a Bigger House, 2002 The Dark Sun Rises, 2002 A Prehistory of Mind, 2008 (includes new short story) Mortal Morning, 2011 Nonfiction: Cities and Stones: A Traveller’s Jugoslavia, 1966 The Shape of Further Things: Speculations on Change, 1970 Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, 1973 Science Fiction as Science Fiction, 1978 This World and Nearer Ones: Essays Exploring the Familiar, 1979 Science Fiction Quiz, 1983 The Pale Shadow of Science, 1985 . . . And the Lurid Glare of the Comet, 1986 Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, 1986, 2001 (revision of Billion Year Spree; with David Wingrove) Bury My Heart at W. H. Smith’s: A Writing Life, 1990 The Detached Retina: Aspects of SF and Fantasy, 1995 The Twinkling of an Eye; or, My Life as an Englishman, 1998 When the Feast Is Finished: Reflections on Terminal Illness, 1999 (also known as When the Feast Is Finished: A Memoir of Love and Bereavement, 2015; with Margaret Aldiss) Edited Texts: Penguin Science Fiction: An Anthology, 1961 Best Fantasy Stories, 1962 More Penguin Science Fiction: An Anthology, 1963 Yet More Penguin Science Fiction: An Anthology, 1964 Introducing SF: A Science Fiction Anthology, 1967 Nebula Award Stories, volume 2, 1967 (with Harry Harrison) Farewell, Fantastic Venus! A History of the Planet Venus in Fact and Fiction, 1968 (assisted by Harry Harrison) The Year’s Best Science Fiction, 1968–76 (9 volumes; with Harry Harrison) The Astounding-Analog Reader, 1973 (2 volumes; with Harry Harrison) The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus: An Anthology, 1973 (collects three previous Penguin Science Fiction anthologies) Space Opera: An Anthology of Way-Back-When Futures, 1974 Decade, the 1940s, 1975 (with Harry Harrison) Evil Earths: An Anthology of Way-Back-When Futures, 1975 Hell’s Cartographers: Some Personal Histories of Science Fiction Writers, 1975 (with Harry Harrison) Science Fiction Art, 1975 Space Odysseys: An Anthology of Way-Back-When Futures, 1975 (published in US as Space Odysseys: A New Look at Yesterday’s Futures, 1976) Decade, the 1950s, 1976 (with Harry Harrison) Galactic Empires: An Anthology of Way-Back-When Futures, 1976 (2 volumes) Decade, the 1960s, 1977 (with Harry Harrison) Perilous Planets: An Anthology of Way-Back-When Futures, 1978 The Book of Mini Sagas from the Telegraph Sunday Magazine, 1985 The Penguin World Omnibus of Science Fiction: An Anthology, 1986 (with Sam J. Lundwall) Mini Sagas from the Daily Telegraph Competition, 1997 A Science Fiction Omnibus, 2007 Bibliography Aldiss, Margaret. The Work of Brian W. Aldiss: An Annotated Bibliography & Guide. Edited by Boden Clarke, Borgo Press, 1992. A bibliography of Aldiss’s works. Collings, Michael R. Brian Aldiss. Starmont House, 1986. A reader’s guide to Aldiss’s works. Includes an index and a bibliography. Greenland, Colin. The Entropy Exhibition: Michael Moorcock and the British “New Wave” in Science Fiction. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983. Discusses Aldiss at length as both a mentor figure to the younger writers who led this 1960s movement and an exemplar of its finest experimental traditions. Griffin, Brian, and David Wingrove. Apertures: A Study of the Writings of Brian W. Aldiss. Greenwood Press, 1984. Argues that Aldiss represents the leap from older pulp and adventure science fiction to the post–“new wave” genre. Compares his work to that of the early mainstream literary modernists. Hellekson, Karen. The Alternate History: Refiguring Historical Time. Kent State UP, 2001. A critical study that covers works by Aldiss, Ward Moore, and Philip K. Dick. Focuses on The Malacia Tapestry. Henighan, Tom. Brian W. Aldiss. Twayne Publishers, 1999. A standard biography. Mathews, Richard. Aldiss Unbound: The Science Fiction of Brian W. Aldiss. Borgo Press, 1977. A brief monograph touching on the high points of Aldiss’s work. Platt, Charles. Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers at Work. Rev. ed., Ungar, 1987. Includes an interview in which Aldiss discusses his work. Roberts, Sam. “Brian Aldiss, Author of Science Fiction and Much More, Dies at 92.” The New York Times, 24 Aug. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/08/24/books/brian-aldiss-author-of-science-fiction-and-much-more-dies-at-92.html. Accessed 26 Sept. 2017. A detailed obituary of Aldiss.

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