Brian Aldiss: Kubrick, Spielberg and me

The visionary sci-fi of Brian Aldiss was the inspiration for A.I. ? the 30-year project planned by Stanley Kubrick and directed by Steven Spielberg. But Matthew Sweet finds the writer lukewarm about the end result
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It's 7pm on Monday, 10 September, and Brian Aldiss, the septuagenarian author and elder statesman of British science fiction, is sitting down at the front row of the Warner Brothers' preview theatre in Holborn to watch a movie. He's arrived five minutes before the blackout, missed the canapés and drinkies, and is so preoccupied that he forgets to remove the reserved notice from his seat. Understandable. A.I. Artificial Intelligence – a movie almost three decades in the making, a movie bequeathed to Steven Spielberg by the dying Stanley Kubrick, a movie extrapolated from three short stories by Aldiss himself – is the $90 million consequence of a footnote that he wrote, rather casually, in 1973.

First, however, let's hear his immediate reaction to the film: "I was certainly awake," he breezes. "I think Spielberg's put a bit of sugar into Kubrick's wine, but at least he's completed it in an intelligible way." Bluntly, he's relieved it's not a disaster. A month ago, he was sent a bootleg copy of such atrocious quality – the fruits of some clandestine camcordering at a preview screening in the States – that he expected the movie to be "dismal and almost incomprehensible. But to see it in Warner Brothers in full colour was quite a different thing. It's an engaging and involving film with some pretensions to intellect, unlike some of the other recent blockbusters. Have you seen Planet of the Apes?"

And now, how a tiny footnote made movie history. In 1973, Aldiss published Billion Year Spree, a survey of science fiction that included, hidden in the small print, a suggestion that Stanley Kubrick was "the great sf writer of the age". Kubrick, on reading this remark at a railway bookstand, phoned Aldiss and invited him up to his manorial retreat near St Albans to talk robots and starships and alien worlds. They got on famously, and made a second date. Then Kubrick offered to buy the rights to Aldiss's "Super Toys Last All Summer Long", a short story written for Harper's Bazaar in 1969. It's set in an overpopulated future, in which a woman denied organic motherhood by government policy finds herself utterly unable to love the android child she and her husband have adopted as a substitute. It's a pitch-perfect piece of dystopian sci-fi. Its central relationship (or the absence of one) is conveyed with heartbreaking clarity.

But it's also only 2,000 words long, and Aldiss was unconvinced that it was suitable material from which he and Kubrick could mould a grand space opera.

Moreover, the terms of the contract that he was being offered were crankily Kubrickian: "Among other things," recalls Aldiss, "if I called in an agent to negotiate for me, the deal was immediately off. If, on the completed film, the credit read just 'Script by Brian Aldiss and Stanley Kubrick', I would be paid $2 million. But if he called in another writer, I got zilch." Another clause forbade Aldiss to leave the country while work was in progress on the movie. So when Kubrick went into production with The Shining, the author went on a trip to Florida, and sent Kubrick a postcard. On his return, he found he had been fired. The pair didn't speak for five years.

Then, in 1990, the phone rang again. "I believe we had a difference of opinion," said the caller. "But that was many years ago." Aldiss was engaged to work on the script again, picked up every morning from his house in Oxford, and driven to the Kubrick mansion. The director now wanted a sentimental epic in the style of ET, a sci-fi re-telling of Pinocchio; a story about an android boy who, like Carlo Collodi's hero, goes in search of a Blue Fairy who will effect his transformation into flesh. A.I., Kubrick's new title for the project, reflected his enthusiasm for Spielberg's work.

"Kubrick always told me that if you had a six or eight-part episodic structure, then you'd got the film made. He kept saying to me, 'Look, Brian, forget about narrative. What we want are six non-submersible units.' That was his philosophy. You can really see it working well in 2001, with these disparate elements that don't quite connect, and that's what gives the film its mystery. You have to work to make the connection yourself; the most brilliant one, of course, being when the ape-man throws the femur up into the air and Kubrick cuts to the space vehicle. If ever you want to prove Kubrick's genius, then you only need look at the juxtaposition of those two shots."

An impossible genius, however. When Aldiss took his family on holiday, he found he'd been fired again, on the same pretext as before. Kubrick called in other writers – including Arthur C Clarke – to cast their eyes over the material. In the meantime, Aldiss wrote a sequel to his original story. When Steven Spielberg took over the project, Kubrick's brother-in-law and business manager, Jan Harlan, sent a copy of this to A.I.'s new custodian. The director proposed to buy it. Aldiss wrote Spielberg a letter, suggesting how the story might move on further. Spielberg offered to buy one sentence from the letter for more than Aldiss's customary advance for a novel. Obligingly, the author fleshed the idea into another piece of short fiction before taking the cheque. Spielberg now owned the rights to what had, haphazardly, become the Super Toys trilogy.

"I was surprised to see how much of my stories had survived, considering the time that's elapsed and the transformations that have taken place," Aldiss reflects. "But really, it's hard to take a remote view of the thing. One sells a short story to the movies and you know it's got to be translated, and blown-up out of recognition."

However, A.I.'s so-so performance at the American box-office puzzles Aldiss. "Perhaps it hasn't done well with the public because there's no central luurrve affair. There's a boy loving his mother but that's not quite the same as a boy and girl and a bit of leg-over." He ruminates on this question, tootling a line from Tom Lehrer's song about Oedipus Rex.

The film's structural problems, he suggests, might also explain its failure to drive US audiences wild with pleasure. "It's as if Spielberg had got Kubrick's idea of the non-submersible units, but hadn't quite managed to work them out. They're not all that submersible; the links between them seem rather arbitrary." Jude Law's role as an android gigolo, for instance, is rather underdeveloped. "There doesn't seem much reason for him to be there. Unless he's the reason why the human race is seen to die out in the short space of 2,000 years. Perhaps he satisfied all the women without impregnating them!"

Despite these reservations, Aldiss is keen to accentuate the positive: "Warner Brothers and Spielberg have treated me very well. Don't let anybody tell you that movie people are villains who'll try and rip you off. But I can't help wishing that some gloomy French director had got hold of my stories and filmed them as they were, as an inward psychological drama.

"Kubrick always wanted to include global warming, the eventual triumph of the robots, and one other factor: the Blue Fairy." And Spielberg being Spielberg, the Blue Fairy has remained a prominent part of the story. "I thought," says Aldiss, a little regretfully, "that Kubrick was the man who could generate a new futuristic myth, and the Blue Fairy was a bit backward-looking. That was why we parted company." There's a little pause. "Actually, I wanted to nuke the bloody Blue Fairy."

'A.I.' is released 21 September 2001