Brian Aldiss talks us through key books from his career via their covers. Jonathan Wright listens in photography by joby sessions
The venerable author gives us a career retrospective.
The folders have been lovingly assembled. Each contains not just images of the book jackets that have graced Brian Aldiss’s work down the years, but the author’s own notes on what he remembers of writing these volumes. Assembling these folders was, he says, “jolly expensive to do because I had to get every cover photographed”.
At one point, there was talk of Oxford’s Bodleian Library creating a book from this project. It never quite happened. “They stalled because they realised they’d have to pay for copyright [ to reprint the artwork],” says Aldiss.
Shame, but all is not lost. With Aldiss turning 90 in August, these folders offer a prism through which to view one of the most remarkable careers in SF, which is how SFX comes to be sitting with Aldiss in his living room in Headington, a room that overlooks a somehow appropriately fantastical garden where the pond, on closer inspection, turns out to be a former swimming pool half- choked with water weed.
The topic of our discussion? Seven books and their various covers, why these books are important to Brian, and why he likes – or in certain cases, dislikes – the imagery used to sell them. Perhaps, considering his occasional disdain for the jackets, he should have done his own covers? After all, he’s exhibited his artwork. Moreover, publishers Voyager are currently preparing a facsimile edition of his first, unpublished book, The Adventures Of Whip Donovan Among the Planets, which he not only wrote but illustrated when he was 14, “mainly to amuse my sister, Betty”.
Aldiss harrumphs, something at which he’s adept. “There was always enough going on,” he says.
Non- Stop ( 1958)
The book: Aldiss’s first science fiction novel is a claustrophobic tale of life aboard a multigenerational starship where knowledge of the ship and its purpose has been lost. “There was intense feeling behind that book where I felt that I was imprisoned by circumstance,” he says. “That’s what it’s about really.”
Aldiss is referring to his experiences in the wake of serving in the jungle in Burma during World War Two. “After the Japanese capitulated, one was still stuck out there [ in south- east Asia],” he says. “It was impossible to get back to the UK.”
When he did travel home, aboard RMS Arundel Castle rather than a spaceship, arriving in England was miserable. “We all said to each other, ‘ Wow, three years away, there’s going to be a great celebration when we get back there, bound to give us a party.’ We sailed into Liverpool docks, empty, not even a lousy sergeant- major, no one there at all, nobody cared. And indeed, to get back into grimy little Britain, they celebrated my return by putting bread on ration.” The cover: Aldiss says he hates the numerous covers that show a starship. In contrast, “I was particularly pleased by this cover by this Polish artist 1 , who showed the interior of the ship, where after all everything happens, looking out on the world.”
Hothouse ( 1962)
The book: Initially serialised in The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Hothouse imagines an Earth where ( the jungle again) one side side constantly faces the Sun. It’s a “world gone mad, all covered with forest” and where rampant plants have largely usurped animals.
A key moment of inspiration came in Calcutta while Aldiss waited to return to
Blighty after serving in the army and went to see the Great Banyon Tree, famed for its vast canopy and believed to be around 1,200 years old.
“I took a little boat across the River Hooghly to Calcutta Botanic Garden, and there they had what was claimed, on a large billboard, as the biggest tree in the world,” he says. “Well most of us think of the biggest trees as like sequoias, going up. This didn’t go up, it went outwards and was greatly cared for. Most of these things are eaten by goats – goats climb up into the branches.”
Goats in trees, that’s fascinating… “Yes, you could see them all over the place, it kind of summed up what a shithole we thought India was.”
The cover: “I had a friend in Oxford, an artist, Oscar Mellor, and I got him a commission to do the cover [ of the first edition] 2 . And yes, I like it well enough. I thought there could be something more explosive, but that was what he did.”
Greybeard ( 1964)
The book: In so many respects one of Aldiss’s bleakest books, Greybeard is set on a world where the population has been sterilised as a result of nuclear tests. The tale of Algy Timberlane grew from Aldiss “falling into hard times” amidst troubles with his marriage to his first wife, Olive Fortescue.
“Suddenly this dear wife of mine decided she hated Oxford and she would take the children, who were then very small, away to
"I'd become sick of all those stories where chaps in uniforms tramp over Mars"
live on the Isle of Wight,” remembers Aldiss.
Aldiss sold the family home to pay for the relocation, but, in part reasoning that even “the lowliest American publisher” wouldn’t have heard of the Isle of Wight, remained in Oxford himself. “I went to live in one room in what was then known as Paradise Square, which was a kind of Oxford slum, and really I was lost,” he says. But he continued working, writing the “dreadful novel” that would be published as Greybeard.
“It sold like mad all over the place,” he says. “Why? Because there must be very many people who are in a very unhappy parental or marital situation, and Greybeard kind of rings a bell. I don’t know why, nor did I realise it was to be sold as science fiction.”
The cover: More than half a century later, the first cover for the US market, by James and Ruth McCrea, still doesn’t much impress Aldiss. “I didn’t like that,” he says simply. 3
Billion Year Spree: The True History Of Science Fiction ( 1973)
The book: Why did Aldiss choose to write a history of sci- fi? “Everyone was getting it wrong, but I knew how to get it right.”
Aldiss was disgruntled with the way, as he saw it, “the Americans thought they’d invented science fiction” and decided to offer a different perspective. “The Americans had never heard of Jules Verne, Mary Shelley,” he says. “What were they on about? So one day I sat down and started to write this whole, all- embracing book, and that’s the way I have worked, on the whole, through life. If I wanted to do something, I would do it and see it through.”
He acknowledges this may not be the best way to work and remembers Frederick Pohl advising him to get an editor “interested from the start”, a way to prevent difficulties later: “‘ Thanks Fred, I know that’s good advice,’ and from Fred it was good advice, he’d started writing as a child. But I wouldn’t do it the way he wanted to do it, I wanted to do it my way.”
The cover: Aldiss wanted the cover to be bright to attract attention, hence the yellow of the first edition 4 . He also gave serious thought to the title: “‘ Spree’ is not actually a word I greatly like. After all, this is a very serious volume, but I thought if it was called
Billion Year Spree, people will think well this can’t be too bad and they would read it anyhow. Well, it appears to have worked.”
The Malacia Tapestry ( 1976)
The book: The tale of thespian ne’er- do- well Perian de Chirolo is a picaresque fantasy that was partly inspired by the work of Italian artist GB Tiepolo ( 1696- 1770).
It was also a book rooted in Aldiss’s worries about his homeland. “My feeling was at the time that England was kind of stagnant, although it boasted about making progress, it wasn’t making progress and everyone who was in a tight spot would forever be in a tight spot,” he says. “And as you see, here I am stuck with inquisitors…”
Originally, Aldiss planned another novel set in the same fictional nd world. “There’s mention in the book of another rival society, a hundred miles down the road as it were,” he says. “And I thought if I wrote about Malacia, I could then write about this better- run place down the road, but I couldn’t think what a better- run place would be like, so I abandoned the idea. ”
The cover: The UK first edition 5 features, appropriately, an etching by GB Tiepolo. An American paperback cover from 1978 for Ace Books is rather more lurid. When an editor from the company wrote to Aldiss requesting permission to do a reprint, he said yes, providing it didn’t feature “this dinosaur feeling into the girl’s bosom”. The publisher’s reply: “That’s what sold the book.”
Helliconia trilogy ( 1982- 85)
The book: Aldiss’s magnum opus, an epic of the rise and fall of a civilisation on a planet where the seasons last for centuries.
“I wanted to get it right,” he says. “You see, I was under the impression the previous books I had written were actually not science fiction, and so I wanted to do it, but do it properly. For two years, I wrote nothing, I just researched the project.”
Seeing Didcot power station from the train helped Aldiss conjure up Helliconia’s vegetation. “It was towards sunset and these six towers were emitting steam, which was blowing southwards, and with the sun behind them, these out- breathings looked black. And I thought, ‘ Yeah, Helliconia foliage!’ This gave me the idea of the fact leaves don’t fall [ from the planet’s trees] in the winter, they shrink back into the trunk, which then seals itself.”
In 2011, it was announced that Nasa’s Kepler space telescope had found a “new Earth”, an exoplanet located 600 light years away in the so- called “Goldilocks zone” of its solar system. “The bastards didn’t call it Helliconia. It’s Planet ZXQ15 or something…”
The cover: “It’s the top of a marvellous painting,” he says of the image on the first edition of Helliconia Spring, which shows a detail from The Battle Of Alexander At Issus ( 1529) by German artist Albrecht Altdorfer 6 . “I stood and looked at it for an hour. I chose it. It was part of the reason that I wanted to write the book, so I could use that cover.”
Finches Of Mars ( 2013)
The book: Finches imagines a future where humankind has colonised the Red Planet, but where settlers are unable to have children.
Although the book was billed as Aldiss’s farewell to SF, the man himself appears to be having second thoughts. “No, I don’t think it’s my last science fiction novel,” he says. “It depends how long I can go on without interference from you people. Who knows? Come on, there’s so much to be said and all the time things are changing.”
Whatever the future might hold, it’s a novel with roots deep in Aldiss’s past. “The basis of this, although it’s fairly recent, is the fact that my mother gave birth to a baby girl who died on delivery,” he says. “And that started off all kinds of strange family doings, which I don’t think we’ll go into. So how long? Fifty or 60 years later, it’s still on my mind.”
There was another reason to concentrate on problems in childbirth, it was to give a female perspective on exploring the solar system: “I had actually become sick of all those stories where chaps in uniforms tramp over bits of Mars. Very rarely a woman tramping over Mars.”
The cover: “This is the sort of cover that they do, what else can one say?” says Aldiss, dismissively. What would he have done? “I think I would have had a landscape, possibly with a stream of dead babies coming out of the nearest crater, much more appealing.” 7
Note the “W” in the name that was later dropped.
Aldiss is 90 in August and isn’t finished writing yet.
All these books are from Aldiss’s own collection.