Monday, 9 April 2018


Brian Aldiss Cryptozoic! (1967)
The subject of Brian Aldiss came up recently on facebook, some friend of a friend's conversation about an unrelated topic in which one Ashley Davies observed, I did a building job at a house next door to Aldiss in the eighties and I can't unsee him whinging and grumpily watering his garden in a very un-sci-fi way! The observation seems concordant with my having noticed how life, the universe, and everything in it seems to have succumbed to a process of simplification of late. Maybe a world in which some random friend of a friend once stood watching Brian Aldiss over a fence doesn't have so many people in it as once seemed to be the case. This is also the point of Cryptozoic!, or one of them, and having dutifully shoehorned the above anecdote into the review, I'll get to that in a minute.

Aldiss left us recently, which was sad if probably not a huge surprise given his being ninety-two, and was undeniably one of the all-time greats. Personally, I've mostly found his greatness to be concentrated in the novels, having had occasion to loathe many of his short stories with such passion as to give me cause to wonder how they could have been written by the same guy. Cryptozoic! is an odd one in being a novel which does a lot of the things I never liked in his short stories. It starts well, then suddenly takes to swerving off at seemingly arbitrary tangents as though the writer is trying to keep himself interested, then invoking an explanatory dollop of exposition which resembles science but isn't - the kind of ludicrous stretching of credibility which works if you're Michael Moorcock, but apparently not if you're anyone else.

To start at the beginning, the people of Cryptozoic! have developed a sort of telepathic time travel and are able to project themselves back - although not forward - and so visit various prehistoric ages in incorporeal form, which is something to do with entropy. This projection is effected by means of a drug called CSD, an acronym of seemingly sufficient proximity to that of LSD as to qualify this as one of those novels about the great leap forward in terms of human consciousness, evolution, and all that good stuff. After all, it was the sixties.

She snuggled against him. 'I need someone to mind-travel with. I'd be frightened to let go on my own. My mother wouldn't mind-travel to save her life! People of that generation will never take to it, I suppose. Wow, I wish we could mind back just a little way—you know, one generation—because I'd so like to see my old man courting my mother and making love to her. I bet they made a proper muck-up of it, just as they did of anything else!'

Aside from the slightly peculiar allusion to incest, to which the book returns from time to time without ever quite saying anything, this is essentially the same challenge to the establishment to which sixties youth culture aspired.

They're getting hold of bootleg CSD; it comes in from abroad. They're disaffected elements, and they represent a threat to the regime—to you and me, Bush.

Mind-travel and CSD usage is tied into the arts and freedom of expression in a general sense, and Bush - our main character - is a painter who travels back to the Mesozoic so as to paint it. This is the point at which both message and narrative get a bit lost - something about the sixties obsession with Victoriana, modernism, maybe even the dead end of post-modernism.

The greatest novelist of our age, Marston Orston, created in Fullbright a deliberately unfinished novel of over four million words that solely concerns the actions of a young girl rising to open her bedroom window.

No idea, mate, although the title refers to the Cryptozoic or Precambrian era constituting the first seven eighths of the Earth's history, the period about which little is known through being largely unrepresented in the fossil record. The mind-travellers of the novel have trouble getting so far back as the Cryptozoic, and the era comes to stand for everything we don't know, possibly including ourselves.

Unfortunately, one of the things we didn't know but which we find out is that time travels backwards towards a simpler, more ordered cosmos, and we're only able to go forward to the age of dinosaurs because memories of the same have been recorded in the collective unconsciousness of earlier - or possibly later - mind-travellers; which is a bit of a dog's dinner in terms of narrative cohesion, and Philip K. Dick did it better in Counter Clock World a couple of years before; and did it better with a sense of humour, and without time's reverse trajectory explained in two or three chapter's worth of unrelenting exposition which read like some rambling acid freakout.

However, once past the seemingly endless explanatory monologue, we get our story back with a revelation which almost saves the day, or at least enough so as to keep the book from feeling as though it's all been a massive waste of the reader's time. It's a close thing, admittedly, but it just about gets there with a final chapter seeming to suggest the possibility of this being Brian Aldiss writing something you could loosely call a Philip K. Dick novel, and it's really only the lack of humour which stifles its full potential as such.

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