Last month, the science fiction world lost a giant. Brian Aldiss was both a prolific author and editor in the field, as well as one of its foremost commentators and historians. Known for books such as his Helliconia trilogy and Hothouse, as well as genre histories such as The Trillion Year Spree, he’s been called one of the most significant writers of science fiction.
Aldiss was born on August 18th, 1925 in Norfolk, England, and began writing at a very early age. He was drafted during the Second World War, and ended up serving in Burma. At the end of the war, he ended up working in a bookstore, but found that he was “detached from everything. I couldn’t do family life anymore,” and ended up turning to writing as a means to escape.
He used his experience as a bookseller as the basis of ‘A Book in Time,” his first published short story, which appeared in a trade magazine called The Bookseller. He later parlayed his work into a short series of stories, which he collected into a book called The Brightfount Diaries in 1955. He was also selling science fiction stories: his first, ‘Criminal Record,’ appeared in the July 1954 issue of Science Fantasy. He continued to write and eventually left bookselling to write full time, publishing a collection of short science fiction stories, Space, Time, and Nathaniel in 1957. The SF Encyclopedia noted that these early stories were “ingeniously dark, lyrically exuberant, and intermittently laced with humour,” but were laced with pessimism, something that would appear throughout his works.
From the 1950s, he continued to write short fiction, appearing in magazines such as Fantasy & Science Fiction, Infinity Science Fiction, New Worlds, and many others. In 1961, he published a series of novelettes (‘Hothouse’, ‘Nomansland’, ‘Undergrowth’, ‘Timberline’, and ‘Evergreen’) in Fantasy & Science Fiction which he later collected into his 1962 novel Hothouse. Published in the US as an abridged edition, The Long Afternoon of Earth earned him his first Hugo Award in 1962. In his The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts notes that while the book is conventionally plotted, “this is a novel that deconstructs notions of character to remarkable effect.”
Aldiss continued to publish prolifically throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and was associated with the New Wave movement of the 1960s alongside authors such as J.G. Ballard and Michael Moorecock. He also edited a number of popular anthologies for Penguin Books, such as Penguin Science Fiction (1961), More Penguin Science Fiction (1963), and Yet More Penguin Science Fiction (1964), as well as numerous other themed anthologies throughout the 1970s.
In the 1980s, Aldiss published his Helliconia trilogy (Hellonia Spring (1982), Hellonica Summer (1983), and Hellonica Winter (1985)), a cycle set in the distant future on a planet known as Helliconia, in which a single year is the equivalent of 2500 Earth years. He uses this trilogy to chronicle the rise and fall of this world, calling back to pulp planetary romances, and earning considerable critical acclaim for the series, including nominations for the Nebula Award.
Aldiss is also well known for his short story ‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’, which was first published in the December 1969 issue of Harper's Bazaar, and later collected in Aldiss’s 1970 collection The Moment of Eclipse. The story follows Monica, a woman who is having trouble bonding with her robotic son, David, who in turn is having bonding troubles of his own with his ‘mother.’ The story attracted the attention of director Stanley Kubrick in the 1980s, who began to develop it into a film. Before his death, he passed the project to Steven Spielberg, who released an adaptation under the title A.I. Artificial Intelligence in 2001.
In 2000, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America awarded Aldiss the Grand Master Award, putting him into the company of the likes of Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Usular K. Le Guin, and other notable storytellers.
While Aldiss published hundreds of short stories and novels throughout his lifetime, he earned the most attention for his definitive history of the genre, Billion Year Spree published in 1973 (and later, The Trillion Year Spree). He described science fiction literature as “one of the major literary success areas of the second half of the twentieth century,” and that it is “the fiction of a technological age,” largely beginning with Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. He notes that while science fiction doesn’t always deal with reality, it “helped make reality clearer to us.” The book is a landmark examination of the genre that helps place it into context in the larger literary canon.