Wednesday book: Memoirs of a time traveller

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"SCIENCE FICTION has a remarkable and expanding history this century. It was developed from cheap paperbacks and magazines to influence all forms of culture, whether acknowledged or otherwise. How strange that it is not better attended to by those deep in literary studies. The loss is theirs." So writes Brian Aldiss, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and one of the five major British writers of science fiction (and much else) in this century. The others are JG Ballard, John Wyndham, Olaf Stapledon and John Christopher. If one were to add to those names the major British writers who have moved in and out of science fiction, the list would take in Kingsley Amis, HG Wells, William Golding, Rudyard Kipling, CS Lewis, Doris Lessing, Anthony Burgess and even Salman Rushdie.

And yet (and this is the continuing burden of Aldiss's memoirs), the genre is confined to the outskirts of "proper literature". To acknowledge that one likes it in literary society is to confess to nerddom. Aldiss tells how a journalist from a leading broadsheet was sent to take the piss out of a conference of science fiction writers. He liked what he saw and wrote about it in friendly terms - only to have his copy repissified, so to speak, by his editor.

Long ago, CP Snow wrote of the "Two Cultures", science and the arts. He got it wrong. The two cultures are science and anti-science. At my school during the uneasy transition from war to peace, two programmes were introduced: one to introduce the scientists to "culture" ("Civilising the C Block," it was called), one to introduce the classicists to science. Brilliantly conceived by a pioneer in the field, it was still bitterly resented, even sulked through, by the cream of the classical sixth form - Oxbridge open scholars, one and all. The two cultures had already been established in the run-in to O-levels, if not in the indifferent way that mathematics was taught at primary and prep schools.

Aldiss's autobiography takes him from a lower middle-class childhood in the pre-war West Country through war service in India, Burma and Sumatra (in the Signals) to Oxford. He never attended the university there, but the city remained for him the focus of his life thereafter - continually deserted, as continually returned to. I met him briefly there in 1950. He was working in Parker's bookshop, on the Turl, having moved there from Sanders' bookshop on the High, three stories down from the double room in Oriel in which I celebrated my 21st birthday. Both shops have now disappeared, Parker's into an annexe of Blackwell's.

These dates place him fair and square among the British school of writers usually and erroneously identified as the Angry Young Men. Its leading figures were the young Kingsley Amis, John Wain, John Braine and Iris Murdoch. Essentially, they were analogues of the 18th-century picaresque novelists; what they shared was a settled and secure childhood, suddenly interrupted by the war. At the stroke of a bureaucrat's pen, it dispatched them hither and thither all over the world, subjecting them to control by, often, third-rate self-important shits, in conditions of primitive if not barbaric disorder.

Survival with one's sense of selfhood unbroken by all the assaults on it was all-important; and rebellion against attempts by military and other authorities to humiliate and break them is a common theme of this group's early novels.

Aldiss differed only in that he served in south-east Asia. His use of this wartime experience in the Tom Stubbs novels (beginning with A Hand- reared Boy) was uproariously memorable.

Aldiss's memoirs are maddeningly bitty, often reading like jottings in a writer's notebook. But out of these jottings there emerges, pointilliste- style, a literary and confessional autobiography of the first order. This is not merely because the life he has led and the books he has written put him fairly and squarely on the border between "respectable" literature and science fiction, but also for the unnervingly accurate picture he gives of his (and my) generation. His is a book to be dipped into, read slowly and savoured for its continuous evocation of the past 75 years of the century in an England which his generation loved and fought for.

In a recent article the young Tory historian, Andrew Roberts, expressed his envy of those who lived through and fought in the Second World War. This is a book which should be read by all the instant geniuses of the media today. There is, after all, something to be said for being an old fart and telling it like it was.