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  • Apr 16, 2014
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British sci-fi novelist Brian Aldiss talks about his Comfort Zone

British science fiction's venerable elder statesman Brian Aldiss sums up his comfort zones for Stuart Kelly

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 December, 2013, 5:19pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 December, 2013, 5:19pm

There is something curiously appropriate about Brian Aldiss, the grand old man of British science fiction, living in Headington, a village now absorbed into Oxford, in central-southern England. So he lives in Oxford, but not in Oxford; just as he is in the canon - he has recently been republished as a Penguin modern classic - but, as a writer of speculative fiction, excluded from the literary mainstream.

"There's a certain lowliness about Headington," he says, with a chuckle. A wry and spry 88 years old, Aldiss has written almost every day since he was 14, and has just seen his entire backlist republished by HarperCollins' digital Friday Project - "the Friday whatnot" as he refers to it - alongside a new novel.

There's no doubt that those of us who'd been in the Far East had a different view of life. That has certainly shaped me

The new work, Comfort Zone, is not science fiction. It has elements of Jane Gardam's Old Filth - tetchy pensioners struggling with the ignominy of ageing - coupled with social commentary, dealing with, among other things, the war in Iraq, female circumcision and a plan to build a mosque in Headington. This reminds me of H.G. Wells and the odd appearance of a mosque in War of the Worlds - the Martians blow one up in Woking.

No social realist writer thought to note this phenomenon. Do SF writers have, as it were, slightly more sensitive antennae? "It needs a bit of consideration," Aldiss says. "I have to admit to you these days I don't read any science fiction - or do I? Now I only read Tolstoy. It seems to me that Tolstoy with his marvellous, imperial objection to many of the things that were going on, his loathing of the behaviour of the church … the government - well, he put himself into quite a degree of peril. But nevertheless his popularity was a defence for him.

"Would you like to be a writer like that? Well you would love to be able to write like that but you wouldn't want to actually be Tolstoy. Resurrection is the novel I most like, and it's made me give up meat. I've become a vegetarian because I am persuaded that Tolstoy's right: one shouldn't kill animals."

When we return to ageing, Aldiss is wonderfully optimistic. "The John Radcliffe [hospital] being across the road is terribly convenient. I had a heart attack so they whipped me in there. I've had two stays recently."

At mention of Greybeard, a novel he wrote 39 years ago in which humanity is ageing and unable to procreate any more, he swiftly moves from its obvious theme to a more personal recollection.

" Greybeard was not about old age, it was about the fact that my first marriage had broken up and my children had been taken away from me. They had gone with their mother to the Isle of Wight and I was absolutely bereft. I went and lived in one room in Paradise Square in Sheffield. I was 40 and had been reduced to living in one room and above all I feared I had lost those dear children. As I wrote Greybeard, I thought no one's going to read this, it's far too miserable, but it seems I didn't know much about the world because it was rather successful. Extraordinary."

Like his earlier science fiction novel Finches of Mars, Comfort Zone is sceptical about religion. "I can't believe there's some extraordinary creature that watches over us. It must have been a prehistoric invention. I have a wonderful book from a Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition about Chinese painting from the year 700 onwards. They were interested in metaphysical aspects of the world but they are not bugged by a great redeemer - not loaded down with some terrible, terrible visionary being up there."

It was the second world war, which began when he was 14, that made him a science fiction writer. "When I came back after some years in the army in the Far East [he joined the Royal Signals in 1943], I was terribly detached from everything. I couldn't do family life any more. My return to England was celebrated by bread going on ration, so that there was nothing really to engender my affection for the country."

Having been in Sumatra, China and India, writing was an escape from the drab and dingy Britain to which Aldiss returned. "I had written when I was at school: two hardcover volumes of The Adventures of Whip Donovan Among the Planets … those two volumes turned up in the Bodleian Library a couple of years ago. They had survived everything - the war, the cold war. There they were with my illustrations in them. I don't know now what the stories are like, but the watercolour illustrations are really rather fun. And so my nice publishers who are publishing everything I ever wrote - what are they called again, the Friday Dilemma? - will do a limited, unedited version of Whip Donovan. Fancy! I was 14 when I wrote that."

Eventually, Aldiss was approached by Faber editor Charles Monteith and Non-Stop, his first novel, was published in 1958.

So which novels is Aldiss most proud of and which does he think have been unfairly neglected? "Of course almost every one is neglected and misunderstood by the critics! But I did four volumes of social commentary [the Squire quartet, released by different publishers]. It was only Anthony Burgess who had the energy to seek them out.

"I most like the Helliconia books [from the early 1980s] because I worked very hard on them. Two years doing nothing but asking questions. The advantage of living in Oxford is you can knock on any old door and the cobwebs depart as the door opens and there is someone who knows everything. Dining, well lunching, with the then-president of one college who had written a history of the world, I had to ask him if a civilisation would survive 5,000 years and he gave me a very suitable answer: it depends."

As with J.G. Ballard and Burgess, the experience of the colonies and the East has left an indelible mark on Aldiss. "There's no doubt that those of us who'd been in the Far East had a different view of life. That has certainly shaped me, even though I haven't written about the East per se. I find that rather hard to do." Why? He pauses for a long time. "Because well, I don't know why. I have to admit to a whole lot of shame that went on. One was an adolescent."

On the train back home, I reread Non-Stop and am struck by the description of the hunters in the "ponic jungle, where the flies are ubiquitous and the heat unbearable", and wonder whether or not, actually, every one of his books has been about that time in some way. In Non-Stop, the protagonist, Complain, says he that doesn't want Paradise, just a choice of where he suffers.

Headington, it transpires, is a curiously benevolent Purgatory.

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