Space, Time and Nathaniel

This is a collection of short stories written by Brian Aldiss in the mid 50s.  The cover shows a bug-eyed alien in a ruined city-scape; the stories within seem very dated now, and their concerns are not the concerns of modern science fiction. These were the first short stories that Aldiss wrote, before he truly found his (counter-culture inflected) own voice.  Nonetheless, they all have historical interest at least, and some of them still stand up as interesting and absorbing in their own right.  I’ve read some of Aldiss’s conventional science fiction in the past and found it patchy, but I am, nonetheless, a fan.  In part this is because of his status as grand sieur of the British science fiction scene, but, more importantly, it’s because he occasionally reveals an imagination that is totally unlike any of those science fiction writers that are typically considered his peers and because, typically, his prose is just better than theirs.  The novel that cemented my status as fan, though not widely discussed, is The Malacia Tapestry.  It’s set in a dreamy world (something like a renaissance Italian city state drenched in magic) with a plot that feels like honey.

One story in this collection deals with the impossibility of altering the past, one with foetal telepathy; one’s a mash-up of The Truman Show with Groundhog Day, another deals with alien nihilism and existential angst in a far-flung future Earth.  The twist in one is that the protagonist was the alien all along, the twist in another (which really shows up the collection’s age) is that the protagonists were actually black, not white (shock!).  I couldn’t help thinking as I read them whether the basic premise would be recognisably dated if the stories were rewritten so that their science fiction conceits reflected current SF sensibilities.  There’s one, for example, where a kind of biological-machine hybrid is attacking Earth.  I wonder what kind of David Cronenburg style technoflesh monster a present day writer might create if given such a vague outline.

One problem that the stories must unfairly deal with is epitomised by one of my earlier summaries.  At the time they were written there was no Groundhog Day and there was no Truman Show.  With our spoiled eyes it’s hard to see just how fresh and innovative these stories must have been at the time.  This problem is partially avoided when the story is grounded in humour rather than out-of-nowhere plot twists that modern readers can see coming a mile off.  Recognising the comic potential of blustering aliens who represent galaxy spanning empires with ridiculous names, one of the stongest stories finds Aldiss having fun with trappings that we would now identify as belonging to the space opera tradition.  Another strong one deals with themes of hyper population (also seen in Ballard’s short story Billennium) and hyper consumerism.  This one also has a good dose of humour, and the themes, and the way in which he deals with them, still seem very relevant (perhaps more so now than ever).

Worth picking through for the strongest stories if you come across a copy, but, sadly, of little interest beyond the historical.  Stick to his later, more major, works.

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