Tag Archives: Brian Aldiss

Flash reviews — January ’10 (Happy New Year to all!)


Hello my fellow sf fans! Just in case anyone was wondering, I’m still alive and kicking. You may have noticed I haven’t posted anything in a couple of months. Actually, I haven’t been online much, and haven’t even been reading much lately. There are several reasons for this, but I won’t bore you with the nitty gritty details of my life. All that matters is that I’m going to try and get back into the swing of things now. Never fear, I still have a couple of shelves of books awaiting my attentions, and I just came from the bookstore with more. I’ll get some full reviews going again soon. For now, let me just quickly dispose of a couple of items from a few months back:

Title: The Dark Light-Years
Author: Brian Aldiss
Year: 1964
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
This book starts with a premise that I generally admire — that communication with alien species will likely be far more difficult than anyone imagines. The mindset and cultural foundations of the Utod are so utterly alien that humanity can’t bridge the gap; after all, the Utod wallow in their own excrement and consider it one of the good things in life. However, Aldiss does very little to explore or develop the premise in any interesting way, and the story and characters fall completely flat.

Title: Planet of the Apes
Author: Pierre Boulle
Year: 1963
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
After seeing the movie so many times, I thought I’d check out the source and see how they compare. I have to say the book is better, though perhaps not by a wide margin. One of the central points — that humanity is not as distinct from the other animals as most would like to think — is made more clearly in the book (especially in the stock exchange scene). The movie focused more on the other main theme, that of another species taking over after humanity destroys itself. Both forms of this classic story have their strengths, and I’d recommend the book to anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure.

Flash reviews — November ’09


Title: Breaking Point
Author: James E. Gunn
Year: 1972
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Short story collection with your standard range of quality: some good ones, some average ones, some poor ones. Solid reading, but nothing overly memorable.

Title: In the Problem Pit
Author: Frederick Pohl
Year: 1976
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Another collection, same situation as above. I really hated the title story, but some of the others made up for it. Most were fairly average. Also contains a short essay, “Golden Ages Gone Away,” about some of the early decades of sf. It’s always fascinating to me to hear about sf history from the people who were there making it, which leads to the next book……

Title: The Way the Future Was
Author: Frederick Pohl
Year: 1978
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The memoirs of a man who fell in love with science fiction, and spent his life as a fan, writer, editor, literary agent, speaker, and anything else that could be related to sf. Throughout much of sf’s history, Pohl was there, right at the center of it all, and this account of the genre and the people in it is absorbing from first page to last. Very much recommended.

More dream makers (addendum to a previous review)

dreammakerspb1A while back I did a review of Charles Platt’s Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers at Work, a collection of interviews he conducted with numerous famous authors. The particular item I was reviewing was a 1987 hardcover edition that was, I stated at the time, a merger of two previous paperback volumes by the same title. It turns out that description was not quite accurate, because I just picked up the first of those paperbacks — Dream Makers: the Uncommon People Who Write Science Fiction, published in 1980 — and found out that not all of the profiles made it into the later hardcover. It seems the hardcover edition took only about half of the profiles from each of the paperbacks, so anyone looking to get the maximum benefit would be well advised to seek out the original two volumes, rather than the later hardcover.

The 15 profiles that appear both here and in the hardcover are: Isaac Asimov, Thomas Disch, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Frederik Pohl, Alfred Bester, Algis Budrys, Philip Jose Farmer, A.E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradybury, Frank Herbert, Michael Moorcock, J.G. Ballard, and Brian Aldiss.

The 14 profiles appearing only in this first paperback edition are: Robert Sheckley, Hank Stine, Norman Spinrad, Samuel R. Delany, Barry Malzberg, Edward Bryant, C.M. Kornbluth (the interview was actually with his wife, since he died in 1958), Damon Knight, Kate Wilhelm, E.C. Tubb, Ian Watson, John Brunner, Gregory Benford, and Robert Silverberg.

I’m not going to delve into this and do any specific quoting; I’ll just say that everything in my previous review applies here as well. There’s a lot of good material here giving a glimpse into the lives and writing of some of the field’s top authors — lots of intriguing little tidbits of information here. I especially enjoyed the interviews with Norman Spinrad, Samuel Delany, and Robert Silverberg. On the other hand, there are some real downers in this bunch. Particularly depressing is Malzberg, who says he gets nothing from seeing his work in print and that he hates his career.

It’s also interesting to read what sf authors have to say about other sf authors. In some cases, the various authors included in this book have criticisms to level at each other, as well as at others. Two of these authors, for instance, state their belief that Heinlein is totally unreadable. And E.C. Tubb offers a strongly negative opinion of ANY new wave or “literary” writer, such as Delany (he calls Dhalgren a “monument of unreadability”). Some of these authors also share their criticism of the genre as a whole, or its fans.

I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of stuff fascinating, and I quickly zipped through the profiles here that were new to me. I can’t wait to find the second paperback volume to finish off Platt’s wonderful interview project.

The makers of our science fiction dreams

I just finished a fascinating book called Dream Makers: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers At Work, by Charles Platt. It’s a book of author profiles based on interviews Platt (an editor and writer himself) conducted in the late 1970′s. The work was originally published in two paperbacks in the early 80′s; this 1987 hardcover volume is a “new and revised” merger of those two earlier editions. The authors covered are: Isaac Asimov, Jerry Pournelle, James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon), L. Ron Hubbard, Algis Budrys, Harry Harrison, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Frederick Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, A. E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Philip Jose Farmer, Thomas Disch, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, Fritz Leiber, Piers Anthony, Keith Laumer, Alfred Bester, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and Stephen King.

Platt’s introduction tells us something about his goals:

I started doing profiles of science-fiction authors (and other writers of imaginative literature) because I knew from personal experience that they could be just as interesting — sometimes, just as bizarre — as their own books. Also, I believed that the personality of the writer was relevant to his work. Most critics focus exclusively on the text itself, as if it might be “improper” to make deductions or inquiries about a writer’s life. To me, this is snobbish and arbitrary. We can appreciate their work more if we know more about them as people.

And I do know more about these authors as people, after reading these profiles. I learned a lot about these authors, about the way they live, the way they write, the things they’re passionate about, that made me appreciate many of them more (and a few of them less). Most of the material presented is direct quotation from the authors, with a minimum of Platt’s commentary. Which is fine, because Platt’s comments and questions are rather dull most of the time (with a few insightful opinions now and then). It’s the words of the writers themselves that really make this book shine. I’d like to share some of the more interesting quotes and tidbits of information I picked up from this book.

Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.) and her husband both worked for the CIA in its early days, in relatively important positions (cool — a spy and a science fiction writer). Alice had a degree in psychology, and one of her comments was:

“Man does not change his behavior, he adapts to the results of it. That is, to me, the most grisly truth I learned from psychology.”

Harry Harrison shared his opinions about the corruption of sf awards, the lack of respect (and decent pay) for sf writers, and the dirty behavior of publishers and Hollywood. It all culminates in this recollection:

“Someone once sent me a clipping from some magazine, an interview with George Lucas, saying ‘I grew up reading science fiction, I really was a fan of science fiction, but I didn’t like things written by people like Heinlein or Bradbury, I thought Harry Harrison was my god, and I enjoyed everything he wrote.’ That kind of thing. I thought, ‘Well! Why the hell didn’t you write to me and have me do a god damned script for you, you know, if that’s what you feel, old son, I’d be very happy to come over and make some money from this rotten field.’ Oh there’s no justice in this field.”

Frederick Pohl is (or was back then) quite politically active; he also sometimes lectured/preached at churches (mostly Unitarian). But he was pessimistic about whether anyone really listened to him:

“I remember talking to a group in Chicago once and saying that the primary requisite for achieving a viable relationship between our society and the planet’s ecology was individual self-control. They stood up and cheered me. Then the next speaker said exactly the opposite and they stood up and cheered him too.”

A. E. van Vogt spent much of his interview babbling about Dianetics, est training, and other psycho-nonsense. He came across as a total crackpot, saying that psychology needed saving and he might be the one to save it. Mighty humble, that one.

Philip K. Dick talked about…. well, the kooky stuff PKD is so well known for. From much of what he said, his unfortunate mental problems are all too apparent. However, even with his problems, he came across as more modest, intelligent, and likable than van Vogt.

Frank Herbert was also an amateur scientist and inventor. He and an electronics engineer friend once tried to design their own new kind of computer. He also experimented with harnessing wind power and came up with some pretty cutting-edge designs.

Piers Anthony is a hyperactive tour-de-force. He talks fast, moves fast, works fast — fast and non-stop. And even though he has a very successful writing career, he lives humbly:

“I am not foolish about money at all. I don’t waste it, you don’t see me going off and buying Cadillacs, no you see me out there splitting wood, because we have a wood-burning stove, and solar-powered water heating, if the sun doesn’t shine we don’t bother with hot water, because I don’t like paying fuel bills. I’m a miser!”

Alfred Bester had one of the most fun profiles to read. Asked about his method of dealing with rejection letters, his answer was: “drink more!” Did you know Bester, while an editor for Holiday magazine, was responsible for talking Peter Benchley into turning what was then just a story into an entire novel — Jaws? When asked about retirement, he said:

“Retire? Yeah, I want to retire with my head in the typewriter. That’s my idea of retirement.”

One of the things I liked about Platt’s style was that he helped to give a feel for the authors by describing their homes (most of the interviews were in person), and particularly their work areas used for writing. There was quite a variety, from Ballard’s desk by a big window facing his back yard, to Anthony’s office barn, to Farmer’s windowless basement room with walls covered in erotic art.

There’s a lot more I could mention — this book is full of great stuff! And somehow, in some mysterious way, my “to read” list has grown longer. Funny how that happens all the time. :lol:

Starship: vehicle for an unexceptional story

I just finished Starship by Brian Aldiss (published in 1958 and known as Non-Stop in the UK), and I just can’t find a whole lot to say about it. It neither impressed me with greatness nor offended me with shabbiness. It was passable, serviceable, tolerable, but nothing more.

The basic plot device is intriguing enough. It’s about a group of primitive people who are descended from the crew of a colony starship that takes generations to make its journey (it’s on the return trip home). Somewhere along the way something goes wrong, and these descendants lose all knowledge of where or who they are. Their entire world consists of rooms and corridors, but they have no idea all this is contained within a vessel moving between the stars; they think the metal walls around them are the natural world.

That’s a fascinating concept to work from, but Aldiss doesn’t seem to make the best use of it. Before I even started reading the book, I was expecting a big payoff at the end, a big awe-inspiring moment when the characters finally discovered the truth and had their minds blown away. But that was pretty much ruined by the fact that some of them already had some idea of what was going on, even very early in the book; and even those who didn’t have a clue didn’t seem appropriately awed when they finally found themselves gazing upon the stars.

In addition to that problem, Aldiss included some strange elements and plot choices that I didn’t much care for, and that didn’t add anything to the story as far as I could tell. For example, the intelligent rats and the telepathic rabbits and moths — too strange for my taste. Also, the people on the ship had gone through some odd changes during their descent from the original crew, and consequently they live four times faster than ordinary humans. This had something to do with why they couldn’t leave the ship after learning the truth; this wasn’t explained too well and seemed an ad hoc justification for keeping them where they were, which was necessary for the ending in which they all stress out and start tearing the ship apart.

Some of the characters were halfway interesting (but only some, and only halfway), and also some of the mythology they had built up over the generations. But there were some things that didn’t hold up well to logic and required quite a stretch to swallow. I also thought the overall writing style was a bit dry. All in all, a very unexceptionable novel.

The Science Fiction Phenomenon

I found this documentary called Brave New Worlds: the Science Fiction Phenomenon, from back in 1993, which was broadcast in the UK, I believe. It’s pretty interesting, especially the commentary from various authors such as Robert Silverberg, Arthur C. Clarke, J. G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Octavia Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson, William Gibson, as well as SF critic John Clute, some film people such as Paul Verhoeven, and others. Running time: about 54 minutes.

Note: even though in English, the videos are subtitled in a some other language, but it’s easy enough to ignore. Also, several minutes of sound are covered by static in part 2. I don’t know what that’s about, but these are the only copies I could find.

Part 1:

Part 2: