Tuesday, 26 January 2016


Brian Aldiss Greybeard (1965)
Just to recap, the things which drive me nuts when it comes to Brian Aldiss are principally his dismissal of John Wyndham as an author of cosy catastrophes - as Brian termed them - and that he writes such bloody awful short stories, which I discovered the hard way, picking up no less than five Aldiss short story collections second hand before I'd realised any of this; and of course it's rare that I'll leave a book unread or unfinished no matter how painful it gets. These things drive me particularly nuts because they contrast so starkly with how great his writing can be at its absolute best, by which I'm referring to the novels.

Greybeard occurs after the collapse of civilisation with the dwindling remains of humanity living a pseudo-mediaeval existence in the wilderness. The Accident has left everyone sterile, so no children have been born for a while, and the youngest generation are now in their fifties. It comes fairly close to pastoral science-fiction in the tradition of Simak, although I've a feeling this may actually be Aldiss saying Oi Wyndham! This is how it's supposed to be done, it being a distinctly Wyndhamesque catastrophe stripped of those supposedly cosy elements, and certainly there's nothing too comforting here; although we tend not to notice this, the focus being on the main characters surviving from one moment to the next.

Curiously, Greybeard seems to hold some clues as to why the novels of Aldiss work so much better than his shorter pieces. As I've mentioned in previous reviews, his great strength seems to be in the environments with which he populates his people - always something familiar by some terms but distorted into weird, unorthodox shapes; Greybeard's world is accordingly familiar and yet utterly alien, and is mapped out in the behaviour of the people who live there, which I guess requires a decent page count. Perhaps it is simply that Aldiss doesn't get the room to do this, to really expand, in short form, so the settings are sketchy with the narrative reliant on details at which he is less adept. Greybeard is punctuated by three flashback sequences to times before and during the Accident, all taking place in more familiar domestic settings, but significantly less engaging than the main part of the tale, not least because they don't really tell us anything we don't already know, and they almost read as parodies of Wyndham - the usual stuff with rationing and barricades and assorted colonels discussing what is to be done.

Anyway, minor reservations aside, Greybeard is beautifully written beyond expectation and has the sort of narrative confidence which really makes me wonder how it never - at least not to my knowledge - became a classroom standard alongside Lord of the Flies and others, seeing as how Golding's book gets a mention on the cover of my copy. Aldiss will be ninety this year, and given that we're no longer exactly swimming in science-fiction authors of either his vintage or stature, we should probably make the effort to appreciate him whilst we can.

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