Brian Aldiss's Billion Year Spree: An Interview

By Tibbetts, John C. | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Brian Aldiss's Billion Year Spree: An Interview


Tibbetts, John C., Literature/Film Quarterly


"This making and unmaking of ideas doth very properly denominate the mind active...."

Bishop Berkeley's challenge to the creative imagination, written in the eighteenth century, is appended to Brian W. Aldiss's most recent collection of essays, The Detached Retina: Aspects of Science Fiction and Fantasy (1995). For Aldiss, as well as for Berkeley, it constitutes a credo of the speculative mind.

Cineastes know Aldiss from several films that have been adapted from his work, including Roger Corman's Frankenstein Unbound (1990) and Steven Spielberg's A.I. (2001). The latter film derives from extensive notes and script drafts that Aldiss and Stanley Kubrick worked on during the years of their collaboration, from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. Moreover, science fiction readers and fans know that Aldiss holds a distinguished place in the ranks of science fiction litterateurs. (I hasten to add that he always refers to himself as more of a surrealist than a maker of what he describes as "that tired old oxymoron, science fiction.") Now approaching his eightieth birthday, Aldiss has garnered every conceivable honor and award in the field, including the prestigious Hugo and Nebula Awards, the British Science Fiction Award, and the first James Blish Award. In addition to his prolific output of speculative fiction, he is a noted novelist, critic, anthologist, and essayist. His trilogy of novels derived from and expanding upon Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and H. G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau-respectively, Frankenstein Unbound (1973), Dracula Unbound (1991), and An Island Called Moreau (1980)-are classics in the postmodern interrogation of the Gothic Tradition. Hothouse (1962) and Report on Probability (1967) launched the "New Wave" of British experimental speculative fiction. His Helliconia Trilogy (1982-1985) is ranked among the modern classics of apocalyptic fables. His autobiographical works include A Soldier Erect (1971), a chronicle of his years in Burma during the Second World War. No more thoughtful and sharply intelligent examinations of the history of science fiction exist than his two volumes, The Billion Year Spree (1973) and its sequel, The Trillion Year Spree (1986). He writes and speaks with equal authority on the works of Sophocles, the aforementioned Bishop Berkeley, William Godwin, G. K. Chesterton, Aldous Huxley, and Philip K. Dick. And threading through most of his works is the scarlet thread of an irrepressible, picaresque humor, placing him in a tradition extending from Rabelais to his late friend, Kingsley Amis. Film enthusiasts perhaps know him best for his short story, "Supertoys Last All Summer Long," which inspired the Spielberg-Kubrick film, A.I.

In short, Brian Aldiss is an outstanding example of that vanishing breed, the Man of Letters.

Aldiss came to the University of Kansas in July 2004, where he was being inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Under the guidance of author and educator James Gunn, the University has for many years been the site of the Institute of Science Fiction Studies and its annual summer writers' seminars. The Institute founded the Hall of Fame several years ago. Next year the Hall of Fame will be relocated to the newly built Science Fiction Museum in Seattle, Washington. Surrounded by his many colleagues, including' his longtime friend, writer Harry Harrison (also an inductee), and writers James Gunn, Greg Bear, and Gregory Benford, Aldiss was in top form during the installation. He clearly enjoyed himself, discoursing to the packed hall at length about his life and work.

"It seems that when you get fossilized, it's time to start a museum," Aldiss said at the time, wryly. "I remember twelve years back when the Conference of the Fantastic was negotiating for a Hall of Fame. It was to be near Clearwater. We were pretty sold on that, but it never came off. And then it almost went to Cleveland. Rock 'n roll claimed it instead. …

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