brian Ald­iss

Brian Ald­iss talks us through key books from his ca­reer via their cov­ers. Jonathan Wright lis­tens in pho­tog­ra­phy by joby ses­sions

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents -

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.

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All these books are from Ald­iss’s own col­lec­tion.

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