Last reviewed: June 2018
English novelist, editor, artist, and short-story writer.
August 18, 1925
East Dereham, England
August 19, 2017
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.
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.