Brian Aldiss (1925-2017)

Brian Aldiss

Brian Aldiss, who marked the start of his career with a nomination for the Best New Writer Hugo (1959), gained a place in the SF Hall of Fame (2004), and received honors from the Queen (2005), died in his sleep August 19, the day after his 92nd birthday.

Everything in life was a source of material for Aldiss. He served in the British army in WWII in Burma, experience that later backgrounded his “Horatio Stubbs” series of non-sf novels. After demobilization in 1947, he was hired as a bookshop assistant in Oxford, and wrote humorous fictional sketches about his work for The Bookseller, a trade magazine. That material, rounded into a novel, became his first book, The Brightfount Diaries (1955).

By then Aldiss had also started to write sf. The SF Encyclopedia lists his first published sf story as “Criminal Record” in Science Fantasy (July 1954), and other stories appeared in 1954-1955.

But it wasn’t until 1956 that he had his first encounter with fandom. Why did it take so long? He told Rob Hansen (THEN) in a letter:

In the war I received a badly mimeographed flier for a fan group. I must have written for it. It carried a photo of the group. My father seized it at the breakfast table, shouted ‘They’re all perverts!’ and flung the brochure on the fire. So I had no acquaintance with fandom until they got in touch with me in 1956, after I had won the Observer prize for a short story set in the year 2500 AD. My contact then was Helen Winnick, who worked in London in Hanging Sword Passage. We went down to the White Horse, where I met Sam Youd and John Brunner….

The 1957 Worldcon in London was his first convention. The prolific and popular author rapidly became an important figure in sf. He served as President of the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) from 1960-1964, an office that was an honorary figurehead, and ceremonial in purpose. He gained international acclaim when the five novelettes of his “Hothouse” series collectively won the 1962 Best Short Fiction Hugo.

His “Hothouse” series would be novelized as The Long Afternoon of Earth (1962), and together with his first sf novel, Non-Stop (1958), and Greybeard (1964), ranks among his best sf.

Also highly regarded is the Helliconia trilogy: Helliconia Spring (1982), Summer (1983) and Winter (1985). Helliconia Spring won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Spring and Winter also received Nebula nominations. All three books won the British SF Association’s Best Novel award.

Aldiss wrote a great deal of important nonfiction about sf, too, such as the memorable Billion Year Spree (1973), which, when revised as the Trillion Year Spree (1986) in collaboration with David Wingrove, won the Best Nonfiction Book Hugo.

He received many career awards. He was named a SFWA Grand Master (2000), was a Living Inductee to the Science Fiction Hall of Fame (2004), recognized with the Science Fiction Research Association’s Pilgrim Award (1978), and with the Prix Utopia (1999) for life achievement from the French Utopiales International Festival. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Literary Society in 1989.

In 2005 he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. He joked with Ansible’s editor:

I was greatly chuffed by the award “for services to Literature” — a euphemism in this case for SF…. But when chatting to Her Majesty, I was disappointed to find she had only got as far as John Wyndham and the triffids. “What do you like about it?” I asked. She replied, “Oh, it’s such a cosy catastrophe.” I blushed.

While many prolific authors with long careers have been frustrated to see their work go out of print, Aldiss was rescued from that fate by former HarperCollins imprint, The Friday Project, which published more than 50 of Aldiss’ backlist works in 2013.

Aldiss was twice guest of honor at British Worldcons (Loncon II, 1965; Seacon, 1979) and toastmaster at a third (Conspiracy, 1987). He reciprocated fandom’s affection for his writing and himself, as Jonathan Cowie (Concatenation) explains:

SF and SF fandom ranked highly in Brian’s life: he liked to say that fandom was the unusual kingdom in which the serfs threw feasts for the kings rather than the other way around.  However family came first which came as a surprise to the 2001 Eurocon organisers that originally had us both down as guests (mine was lowly fan GoH) but I e-mailed him to enquire whether we might travel together: safety in numbers and all that when travelling overseas. But Brian had to decline as his family was throwing him a special get-together at that time.  Rest assured, though family came first, SF fandom as a priority came not long after. At a US gathering he showed an invitation he had from Buckingham Palace for a reception wit the Queen but  that clashed with the US convention: the SF convention easily took priority, no contest.

And at the Loncon 3 (2014) closing ceremonies, which fell on his birthday, August 18, he was serenaded with a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” by the entire audience. For many who journeyed to the con it was also a kind of farewell.

Brian Aldiss being serenaded with “Happy Birthday” at LonCon 3 in 2014.

Aldiss’ first marriage was to Olive Fortescue (1948-1965, ending in divorce), and his second was to Margaret Manson, who predeceased him in 1997. He is survived by his partner, Alison Soskice, and four children: Clive and Wendy from his first marriage, and Timothy and Charlotte from his second.

This appreciation has focused more on Aldiss’ connection with fandom. Here are links to several insightful appreciations about his writing and literary impact.

[Thanks to Stuart Gale, Michael J. Walsh, Michael Brian Bentley, Jonathan Cowie, Andrew Porter, Steve Davidson, and John King Tarpinian for the story.]

10 thoughts on “Brian Aldiss (1925-2017)

  1. Posted this in an earlier thread, but here it is again:

    Sad to see Brian Aldiss go, although he did have a good innings (as we say in lesser Britain). Hothouse was the first grown-up SF I read, and I read many more from him over the years, and enjoyed almost all (tho’ Report On Probability A bored me to death (so how come I’m still here, huh?) and The Malacia Tapestry was almost as dull). Still, anyone who invents the convention pork-pie wars with Harry Harrison has to be a fannish hero.

    So long, Brian. An honour to have met you in the lift at an Eastercon, once.

  2. Is Hothouse/The Long Afternoon of Earth a story about how the earth and moon are now tidally locked and Earth is now basically a vast, gargantuan jungle and humans get to the moon by hiding in vegetable pods?

    Because if it is, I read something of Aldiss’s as a young teenager and it’s clearly stuck with me, even if I couldn’t remember the title or author.

  3. Yep, that’s Hothouse. Loved that book, and read it three or four times. Mind you, I read Greybeard and The Canopy of Time just as many. Adolescence, where are you now that I really need you?

  4. Should also mention Non-Stop. Even though I recognised at the time it was basically a reworking or Heinlein’s Orphans In The Sky, I still rated it very highly. God, I’d love to find the time to go back and re-read that stuff.

  5. Somewhere in a box I have a copy of Billion Year Spree with a lurid purple cover of the “what were they thinking” type. However, the contents were lucid and often sent me off to encounter works I might not have found on my own.

  6. A wonderful writer, whose collection, “Galaxies Like Grains of Sand,” and brilliant novel “Non-Stop” (“Starship” in the USA) were highlights of my early teenage years. I was able to publish articles by him in my ALGOL.

    In 1987, following the Brighton World Science Fiction Convention, I attended a party at his Oxford home. He lived next door to Richard Adams, whose “Watership Down” is so famous. For someone new to England, the landscape around Brian’s house was mystical and mythical. The party, whose attendees includes authors and editors including Geoff Ryman, Robert Silverberg, Stephen Jones, Jo Fletcher, and Ellen Datlow amongst many others, remains a highlight of my memories from that year.

    Farewell, Brian; you have gone on, but your novels, short stories and many other works remain—and in print, too!

  7. Actually, he didn’t live next door to Richard Adams: he lived next door to the brother of William Horwood, and the wood at the end of his garden was Duncton Wood, made famous by Horwood’s series of novels.

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