A quiet streak of subversion

Forty years as a professional writer, and Brian Aldiss shows no sign of slowing down: three books out this year and three on the go.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"Henry James was a great admirer of the science fiction novels of HG Wells, you know. James once suggested they collaborate on a novel set on Mars. Had that come about, maybe the literary establishment would look differently on SF."

Brian Aldiss, one of the world's premier science fiction authors, produces this little known piece of information with a dry chuckle. He's spent years trying to get rid of science fiction's nerd image. "I was attracted to SF at the start because I was a rebellious spirit and I liked the fact that the genre was rather despised. But now that I'm older and sillier, I think non-SF readers are missing something. I have a fairly good opinion of some of my own books. They are certainly not generic SF, and people would enjoy them who have nothing to do with SF. My friend Doris Lessing lost much of her audience when she started writing the books she rather irritatingly called 'space fiction' - but she got a new, younger audience. I believe, before, she hated being pigeon-holed as a feminist. All writers hate being pigeon-holed."

Aldiss is something of a literary phenomenon. All the dozens of novels and short story collections he has published in a 40-year professional writing career are still in print. He has edited numerous science fiction anthologies, written travel books, an autobiography, several volumes of essays and three collections of poetry. The published bibliography of his work runs to 360 pages. He's a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, has been President of the Society of Authors, a Booker judge and a member of the Arts Council's literature panel.

To celebrate his 70th birthday, he has three books published this year. His latest collection of poetry, At the Caligula Hotel, came out from Sinclair Stevenson just before the axe fell on the imprint; Liverpool University Press have published The Detached Retina, his witty collection of essays; and HarperCollins will shortly publish The Secret of this Book, a collection of "stories, lies and anecdotes". "I'm a creative force," he explains, only half joking.

He is talking in the book-lined study of the Edwardian mansion just outside Oxford that he shares with Margaret, his wife of 30 years, and their four children. A tall, slightly shambling man, his energy and enthusiasm belie his years. Although he claims he writes because he is inarticulate, he is a fluent talker, his conversational manner an engaging mix of the casual and the rhetorical ("And furthermore, let me tell you this..." is the kind of thing).

Not all his fiction is SF and it rankles that, while he has won pretty much every major SF award, his other fiction is overlooked. "Anthony Burgess included my novel Life in the West among his 99 best novels, someone else called me the best prose writer in England, but in this country my four most recent novels - none of which was SF - were scarcely reviewed." The four will be republished next year as the Squire Quartet. "Maybe they'll get more attention then," he says, not looking as if he holds out much hope.

Aldiss has been writing since childhood. A Norfolk shopkeeper's son, he was packed off at the age of seven to the first of a series of prep and boarding schools whose common feature was the bullying and beatings he received there. He was never able completely to forgive his mother for sending him away. "I felt I was being incarcerated in these places because I was a nuisance in the family."

At first in school he was nicknamed the Professor, because he was bit of an inventor. When the family moved to Devon at the outbreak of war and Aldiss went to a friendlier school, he became better known for his pornography. "I had already started writing science fiction and crime stories - re-writing Shakespeare as gangster stories - but by the age of 16 I was including mild pornography to titillate other boys. Most schoolboys are obsessed with sex, and some of the tales were full of erotic activities so tame by today's standards."

Aldiss recently retrieved from its hiding place in the school grounds the tin box to which he consigned the stories when, in 1943, he left school for "the comparative safety and comfort of the British army".

He fought in the Far East and was awarded the Burma Star. He's ambivalent about the dropping of "Little Boy" on Hiroshima. At the time, still a teenager, he was about to go to almost certain death as the British forces attempted to take Japan's well-defended positions in Malaya. He'd always felt an outsider, but the war deepened that feeling. "I am a Steppenwolf," he says. "I have calmed down now, but essentially I don't really belong in society. I've had a quiet streak of subversion since I was a child."

After the war he became a bookseller in Oxford. "I was very nervous in those days. I took to the typewriter because it wouldn't answer back." His first novel, The Brightfound Diaries, was published in 1955. When his first science fiction novel, Nonstop, was published in 1957, he threw in his job and turned professional.

His writing is characterised by a sharp sense of humour. "You don't need to be earnest to be serious," he notes. His new collection of essays is peppered with witty insights. It begins with a piece about Salvador Dali. Aldiss met him many years ago at the London Planetarium, when both were helping to launch a poetry book. "Dali was working hard at giving an impression of great eccentricity. I was slightly disappointed, but that's because he suffered from the Napoleon-was-a-bit-short syndrome. When I met Jeffrey Archer, another of the greats, the same thought flashed across my mind. There was a kind of rotting Edwardian stylishness about Dali. Whereas Archer is unmitigatedly Eighties - the Hush Puppy school."

Aldiss has collaborated with another well-known - if much more reclusive - eccentric: the film director Stanley Kubrick. "I've worked with Kubrick about three times - never to much avail - but since the man is clearly a genius it was quite exciting. He'd send a car over to take me to his pad - his pad being about the size of Blenheim Palace. He's a very secretive man, but also hilarious. We did a lot of laughing, and a lot of sweating, too."

More recently he worked on a five-part mini-series for the BBC. "I wasted two years with a partner of mine adapting a Phillip K Dick novel. The BBC said they didn't want to do it. It seemed to us they turned it down on a whim and did another hospital drama instead."

He doesn't like to waste time, perhaps because during the Seventies he was obliged to waste quite a lot. For quite some time he suffered from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. "It was a pretty protracted business - horrendous, too, since you lose your memory among other things. I wrote with a dreadful lethargy and when I'd written a paragraph I would be unable to remember what had come before."

The syndrome prompted what he calls a "general crisis of being". "My doctor said a lot of people around Oxford suffered from it. Talented and ambitious people who find at a certain time in their life they haven't yet reached the goals they expected to reach. In many ways, I suppose, that was me. The recognition thing again. But the outcome was I think I was reborn. I became a completely different person. I did believe a new psyche was coming into being and I thought if I could get through it I would have fresh power. And it happened. I felt renewed."

Although well past retiring age, he shows no sign of letting up, with a second autobiography and two novels on the go. "Life is great," he says cheerily. "I've so enjoyed my sixties," adding, with only a hint of a smile, "the future is looking good."

n 'The Detached Retina' (LUP, hbk pounds 25; pbk pounds 11.75); 'The Secret of this Book' (HarperCollins) will be published in the autumn