Note: This interview originally appeared in Amazing Stories Magazine February 12, 2014.
Author’s note: I set out, as is typical for me, supplying a list of questions to the author. What I received back was something much more rewarding than what I expected. I am honored and pleased to present the entire letter I received from the amazing Brian W. Aldiss in its entirety. Where relevant, I have inserted back some portion of my original question. I hope you enjoy his responses as much as I have.
Today we are joined by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) Grand Master Brian W. Aldiss. Brian is one of the true legends of science fiction, influencing the industry as an author, editor, historian, and catalyst. His stories entertain while expanding the horizon of possibilities. His short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” inspired filmmakers Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg to create the motion picture A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
The science fiction anthologies Brian has edited remain some of the best collections ever assembled. His non-fiction works capture the history of the industry and include his famous Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. Brian helped shape the face of science fiction today. His efforts to secure an Arts Council grant for New Worlds Magazine in the 1960s helped keep the standard-bearer of the New Wave alive.
Brian has been recognized for his excellence through many distinguished awards. He has received two Hugos, a Nebula, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. In addition to his status as a Grand Master, Brian has been inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and he has been awarded the title of Officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. When not dining with royalty, Brian works on expanding the human experience beyond its current limitations.
BRIAN W. ALDISS: Greetings, Mr Troughton—I received your request for an interview for AMAZING.
This I am about to do though I find it a bit of a challenge. For instance I must confess that my SF career is longer than you might suspect.
Example. My parents sent me away to a boarding preparatory school. The preparatory was to prepare a pupil to enter the British system of public schools. These were essential crammers of a certain social class. No toys were allowed at the prep school. I took with me instead a microscope and a volume entitled ‘The Treasury of Knowledge.’ Age five! It’s true and I marvel at it.
So upset was I at leaving my parental home, I began to piss my bed. So that the other boys in the dormitory would not scorn me, at once after Lights Out I would tell them tales of horror and haunting. When a boy cried, “Shut up, Aldiss, you bastard!”, I was delighted. Early applause.
Apologies for this preamble. It is intended to show that writing was not something I took up. Story-telling was something I always did. At the age of possibly fourteen, I filled two hardbound exercise books with stories of ‘Whip Donovan Among the Planets.’ These I illustrated—liberally—by watercolour paintings. Painting was something also I always did. Fourteen? That was in WW2. It’s a wonder that these two volumes survived. They were found recently by researchers in the Bodleian Library of Oxford. And now my cherished publisher, ‘The Friday Project,’ is about to publish Whip Donovan in facsimile.
So thank you for your kindly introduction. I will now get down to responding to your questions.
R. K. TROUGHTON FOR AMAZING STORIES: Welcome to Amazing Stories, Brian. You are part of the great generation that served civilization in World War II. After your time in the war, you began publishing some of the stories you had written, culminating in 1958 when you were recognized as the “most promising newcomer”. Please share with us about your time in the service and how that influenced you as a writer.
BWA: I volunteered for Army service at age seventeen. Instead of being sent to fight Hitler’s third Reich, I was installed on a troopship and shipped out to India, and thence to Burma, to fight the Japanese invaders. That we did—and won. With the aid of Gurkas and other troops.
I then visited Singapore, Malaya, Sumatra, Hong Kong, and China.
China was wonderful, and so were lovely Chinese women. For four years I was away in the East, long after hostilities were over. It was a wonderful adventurous time. Good old British Army!
Back in England at last. I was homeless. I got a job in an Oxford bookshop. All booksellers subscribed to a weekly periodical, “The Bookseller.” I took to writing a weekly comic piece for the paper. It became popular and eventually Faber & Faber wrote and asked me to make my pieces into a book. That book was my first: “The Brightfount Diaries.” I feared the pubic might not laugh. They did laugh. I was away. And my next volumes were science fiction, “Space Time and Nathaniel” (short stories) and “Non-Stop.” These short stories were published in 1957. In the following year, F&SF published my story “Poor Little Warrior,” which I was told was very popular. I like it about as well as any of my hundreds of stories; strong moral element!
ASM: How did you first discover science fiction?
BWA: Judged as art, the stories in several U.S. magazines did not amount to much, while the Brits were even worse when Vargo Statten SF Magazine appeared in 1954. Many of the stories there were written by John Fearn, also known as Volstead Gridban. ‘New Worlds,’ edited by John Carnell, showed improvements, and published stories by Mike Moorcock and me.
But I, at least, was aware that something closely resembling SF had been published and proved popular for centuries.
Better not go into what those Continentals were doing, but—to give a British instance—Bishop Francis Godwin published ‘Man in the Moone” in 1638. It remained popular for two centuries.
Of course, the novel was based on an assumption—the reasonable assumption that Earth and Moone shared an atmosphere. Most of today’s SF is based on assumptions. We tend to assume that we can travel in space. ‘Space’ is itself an assumption. The vacuities between planets are filled by teeming electrodes and alien bodies that could kill us the moment we tried for Mars.
So often, something from real life can fortify an imagining. Many a year ago, I took a little ferry across the River Hooghly in order to have a look at the Calcutta Botanical Gardens. I found there a tree labeled as the biggest in the world. No, not a sequoia. This one grows outward and is carefully protected from marauding creatures. I thought, Assume it goes on growing like this, and covers the world?
Eventually “Hothouse” emerged in “F&SF” in parts.
ASM: You have written much about the history of science fiction. Your book Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction was later updated in your follow-up book Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. In the books, you discuss the quality of stories inside such magazines as Amazing Stories and Wonder Stories during the 1920s and 1930s as “unutterably poor.” Hugo Gernsback reprinted some of the greats like Verne, Wells, and Poe to mingle in with those young and inexperienced authors.
BWA: Hugo Gernsback’s magazines were doing well. He wanted an originator for SF. Jules Verne? Himself? I could not resist it. I wrote “Billion Year Spree,” offering not merely an ancient name but a female name, Mary Shelley. Mary Shelley was no exile from the palisades of literature. She had married the atheist poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and was friendly with Lord Byron and other writers. Her great fantasy is still read and quoted.
Mary’s father was the philosopher, famed in his time, William Godwin.
Godwin also wrote novels, of which the best is the thunderous black “Caleb Williams.”
Something of this latter novel’s influence, in the prose, can be felt in ‘Frankenstein,” but of course we owe Mary’s novel and her parentless monster to the death of Mary’s mother in childbirth. This I well understand. I was forty years old when my marriage broke down and my wife took my beloved small kiddies away from Oxford and from me. She also commanded all my cash. I went to live in one room in a comfortable Oxford slum. I was then literary editor of ‘The Oxford Mail,’ and was able to hold that post. It was in that slum room I began to write ‘Greybeard,’ a story of an England sinking into hostile wilderness because there are no children, and no more children being born. “Jesus,” I said to myself, ‘no one’s going to read this. It’s far too miserable.’ “Greybeard” is now a Penguin Modern Classic.
Just shows how many people suffer from broken marriages and/or lost children, and need consolation.
ASM: You have announced that Finches of Mars will be your final science fiction novel. Locus Magazine listed it at the top of its recommended reading list for 2013. What other projects are you working on that we can look forward to seeing?
BWA: My pursuit in life is writing, SF and mainstream fiction, and in my style of painting (called isolees). I don’t make a lot of money, but writing is its own reward. And I was delighted to see the recent grand Chinese edition of “Billion Year Spree.” I keep a massive Journal, illustrated and in hard covers. It is illustrated and has now reached Vol.78. It will go to the Bodleian Library when I die, as my brain will go to research.
Such are the workings of destiny and its entanglements, that I was able to have back my children—a boy and a girl. Now they are adult, we remain close. Public opinion whispers that sex is madly enjoyable, secretly, after the divorce. I’m with public opinion in this private matter.
Later, in a second marriage, my new wife delivered another boy and girl. The boy, Tim, is now a man who (voluntarily) runs my website.
I am currently writing a novel entitled “As the Lena Flows.” The title will have to change. Maybe I shall finish it. Sometimes novels require a lot of work. For two years I did almost no writing; instead researching, talking to the originator of the Gaia concept and other learned Oxford men, before beginning to write.
BWA: Helliconia appeared in three volumes, published simultaneously in New York and London, with New York—thank heaven!—doing the proof-reading. In 2011, NASA’s telescopes detected a planet subject to two linked suns, a bigger and a lesser, this is to find in space something already described in a book. The one dumb thing is that this cosmological set-up is labeled Kepler 16B. Come on, guys, this should be called Helliconia. I did two years research on this one!
ASM: New Worlds Magazine carried the banner of the New Wave proudly. When the magazine needed help to stay in print, you led the charge for the Arts Council grant that allowed Michael Moorcock to keep it alive. Please tell us about the events surrounding your efforts and this moment in science fiction history.
ASM: What insight can you give us into the amazing Michael Moorcock?
BWA: To answer at least one of your questions. Mike Moorcock was—is—special. WHEN HE TOOK OVER AS EDITOR, HE DECIDED HE WANTED A MAGAZINE OF THE DAY, NOT SOMETHING THAT LOOKED AS IF IT HAD SURVIVED WW2.
We carefully planned what we would say when we faced the Home Secretary to ask for a grant. We entered the sacred offices. The Home Sec was amiability itself. We had hardly said a word before he said he would be glad to offer per issue—a generous. This was state-funded SF, guys! Even then, it was not enough for the restless genius of Moorcock. He would lock himself of a weekend into his bedroom, accompanied only by a flask of coffee and a bottle of whisky. And he would write a fantasy novel, 65,000 words. This he would sell in its entirety to a U.S. publisher situated in the boonies, and the resultant cash would go into the next issue of Mike’s new “New Worlds.” (It’s a wonderful tale! And true. Or, if not true, then a thing of legend…)
ASM: Your short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” inspired filmmakers Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg. Kubrick began the journey to bring your ideas to film until the time of his death, when Spielberg took up the charge to complete the film. The motion picture A.I. hit theaters to mixed reviews.
BWA: I said about ‘Supertoys,’ didn’t I? Roger Corman, that pleasant clever man, made a pretty good movie of ‘Frankenstein Unbound’. He dined with us in Oxford, and later I persuaded Roger and his nice wife Judy to be the Guests of Honor one year at the Conference of the Fantatic—where of course they were a great success. For twenty years I went every year to that conference in Florida, under my close pal, William Senior. Terrific! Better than Burma.
Oh and a really punchy little film was made of my “Brothers of the Head.” That avant-garde story was illustrated by Ian Pollock, no less. Ten thousand copies were printed and five thousand of them despatched to New York. But here in U.K., they sold out almost at once. The publisher flew to New York, grabbed back the copies and sold them here in a month. The movie had charm, shot in my old home county of Norfolk.
Now I am pretty ancient—mature like a good wine—and live in my elegant house, with a sizeable garden, in a quiet Oxford street, I don’t read much SF or anything else, really, except for the TLS every Thursday. I read Tolstoy’s last novel, “Resurrection,” over and over.
And—here and there—another Russian I happened on long long ago, when I was about ten. That’s “The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff.” A darling book, written when Marie herself was not much older than ten, but astonishingly sophisticated, and living in exile in Nice. Art was what she cared about most. Marie must have been as much of an influence as Mr H. G. Wells.
Regrettably, I cannot answer some of your questions. I would guess that SF these days, with movies, video, operas, plays, etc. is much more a part of people’s backgrounds than ever it was. One of the best SF movies yet made is Tarkovski’s ‘Solaris” (oh my god, the Ruskies again!), with that intelligent ocean.
ASM: Thank you for joining us today. Your contributions to the science fiction industry helped make it a part of our global culture. We appreciate your imagination and effort. Before you go, is there anything else you would like to share with the readers of Amazing Stories?
Yes, I greatly enjoy life. I’m proud of the O.B.E., presented to me by the genial Prince of Wales at a ceremony in Buckingham Palace.
I have a gorgeous witty lady for company and a family where each member loves all the others—to varying degrees, naturally—and does not smoke or quarrel. No one could ask for more. But of course one does.
BRIAN W. ALDISS