Thursday, May 16, 2019

Brian Aldiss, Who Can Replace a Man? / Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian Aldiss (1965)

Aldiss, Brian. Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian Aldiss. London: Faber and Faber, 1965.
______. Who Can Replace a Man? New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966.
______. Who Can Replace a Man? New York: Signet, November 1967. (My edition)

A concise bibliography at ISFdb
Who Can Replace a Man? at Goodreads

Rating:     7.5/10
Signet, 1967

In a small white box in my dad's basement, I recently discovered a selection of books I enjoyed as an early teen. At that time I experienced a relatively brief affair with science fiction, focusing mostly on short stories of the 1950s through the 1970s, and some more contemporary 1980s novels. Among my favourite short story authors was Brian Aldiss, and of his collections I preferred this one. So I thought I would re-visit, thinking I would cringe at my immature tastes, but to my pleasant surprise, I breezed quickly through the book and, with some minor exceptions, enjoyed the collection perhaps even more under the guise of my more mature self. Nuances I likely did not catch as a youth, and a greater appreciation for dark fiction, no doubt adding to my enjoyment.

The collection is a good range of science fiction story sub-genres of and 50s and 60s: distant future, near future, hard science, political fiction, cold war paranoia, elements of fantasy, new wave and dark humour. The one constant is that each story contains some element of the dark, with an emphasis of pessimistic depictions of the far future, ill treatment of human values and individuality, and the ill consequences of a mechanized future. An argument can be made that these are the best of Aldiss's pre-1965 stories, as the original title suggest, with my favourites being  "Outside" and "Who Can Replace a Man?", along with "Old Hundredth", "Not for an Age" and "Man in His Time." The collection, however, also includes two pieces that can be excised to improve the whole: "Psyclops" and, mainly, the semi-adventure paranoia piece "Basis for Negotiation."

Who Can Replace a Man?     8/10
Infinity Science Fiction, June 1958. pp 58-66 (as "But Who Can Replace a Man?")
On a cultivation farm in a dystopian future, the agricultural robots learn that humans have become extinct. Their logical minds seek a plan of action, and a small group leaves for the city. A bleak story dealing with the idea of power and anticipates man's perpetual rule over machines (at least while machines have limited AI), Aldiss manages to infuse humour in what could have become a very dated robot story, but instead remains quite solid despite the obvious 1950s design of these over-sized machines. The story infuses robots with recognizable human traits, and has them, in their own dry logic, adopt an all-too human approach to conquest. In terms of technique, the pacing is excellent, as the quiet opening escalates nicely toward chaos, until we reach that great finale.

This story is generally highly regarded and readily available online.

Not for an Age     7/10
The London Observer, 9 January 1955.
Middle aged professor Rodney Furnell has become aware that he is perpetually re-living one single, average and mundane day of his life. Though he is unable to change his actions, his thoughts are independent, and he contemplates both his situation, and the crowd of faces surrounding each scene, as some future audience is watching each moment play out.

Little detail of the future society is given, only what is essentially necessary for the story. Aldiss is not exploring the world, but rather the individual and his tragic circumstances. As in many of these stories, the twist only helps to make a tragic situation even worse.

Faber & Faber, 1965
Psyclops     5/10
New Worlds Science Fiction #49, July 1956. pp 30-39
A father tries to telepathically warn his unborn son of some great impending danger.

This is among Aldiss's many experimental new wave pieces, first published in the new wave advocate New Worlds (edited by John Carnell). I did not care for the story when I first read it as a naive and impressionable teen, and still care little for it as a jaded adult. It is not a bad idea for a story, but some of the fetal ruminations, particularly at the start, are plain bad, and much of the incidental information dropping by the father, though required for the story, is awkward and unsubtle (How do I explain to unborn child and, more importantly, the reader, that I am miles away and he is drifting off course! Whadda ya know: I just did!).

Outside     8/10
New Worlds Science Fiction #31, January 1955. pp 29-37
Six people occupy a house. Their only communication with the outside world is via "the store," a closet where every morning they find food and other random necessities or luxuries. This morning there is no food, and one of the six, Harley, begins to question their circumstances, and tries to recall why they are confined to this space. An excellent science fiction suspense story, a product of cold war fears and paranoia. Great pacing and suspense, Aldiss sets up his clues quite nicely, resulting in an effective ending.

Dumb Show     6/10
Nebula Science Fiction Number 19, December 1956. pp 58-66
In the midst of a future war, Mrs. Snowden and her granddaughter live their meager lives in Mrs. Snowden's childhood home. As the artillery for this war is sound, all is silence and the landscape is diminishing as structures collapse. Another dark Aldiss story, made darker by its finish, and one among many featuring the potential horrors of war, as weapons technology becomes both more advanced and more creative. Though a good story, the characters are overshadowed by the theme, whereas stories such as "Outside" and "Not for an Age" manage a consistent balance between the two.

The New Father Christmas     7/10
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January 1958. pp 69-74
Yet another dark future tale. In the year 2388, an elderly couple who oversee a mechanized factory, along with three "tramps" illegally boarding inside, appear to be among the last remaining humans on Earth. Christmas morning they gather for tea and discuss the changes around the factory, and their belief in the New Father Christmas. Claustrophobic and haunting, another technological horror story. Appropriately, the adults act like children, and we see how the world has progressed physically, whereas humans have digressed.

Ahead     7/10
Science Fantasy v6 #18, 1956. pp 96-109 (As "The Failed Men")
In the distant future a group of humans known as the Failed Men have buried themselves underground. The elite group, the Paulls, have meanwhile collected volunteers from different time periods to help them in handling this population. One man from their past (though our future) has become obsessed with why the group has "failed," and what they failed at, but the translating machine used to communicate with them can only translate literally, and the words lack meaning. An affecting and oddly powerful story. Re-titled "Ahead" for this collection, which in the story is what the narrator uses as reference to going to the future, its original title is far more accurate, as the story does not deal with the future, but with the isolation of this particular group, and the lack of clarity surrounding their failure.

Poor Little Warrior!     7/10
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1958. pp 125-130
In the distant future a man travels to the Jurassic age to hunt brontosaurus. A rare second person stream of consciousness story, effectively written as it adopts an aggressive tone and sarcastic title. The story features an average man, unhappy with his life, who clings to the hopes of escape via a marketing brochure. He is less a victim of the Jurassic as he is of his life, and cannot escape either. The story holds up well and has some cleverly thought out phrasing, such as: "...all destined in that awful jar-full movement to turn into bowel movement." (79)

Man on Bridge     6/10
New Writings in S-F 1, John Carnell, ed. UK: Dennis Dobson, 1964.
In a future where free thinking is prohibited and intellectuals are persecuted and forced to live in camps, a group of "cerebrals" has developed a technique of transforming men into entirely logical thinkers. One heavily lobotomized man, aptly named Adam X, claims to be a new breed of man. Though set seemingly in the far future, the story maintains an impression of the past, as it is heavily referenced with recognizable symbols of the past, such as military camps, the term "prole," and the rural farmhouse inhabited by our protagonist's family.

The Impossible Star     7/10
Worlds of Tomorrow, August 1963. pp 143-162
Four astronauts are stranded on a planetoid orbiting an incredibly massive and unusual star. As they attempt to repair their ship and communicate with the other two ships of their survey party, the members become increasingly aggressive toward one another. A good combination of hard science and psychological suspense. In this story neither space nor humanity is enviable, and the two combined is disastrous.

Basis for Negotiation     5/10
New Worlds Science Fiction #114, January 1962. pp 50-90
In a near future nuclear age, China declares war on the U.S. Britain declares neutrality, which results in civil tensions and inner turmoil. A university professor travels to London to oppose the Prime Minister's stance.

An overlong and dated story, very much a product of its time. It is saved by decent writing, an interesting eventual bit of irony (though after thirty-plus pages), and the fact that Aldiss does not preach but tosses out a couple different viewpoints. Each opinion is consistent in its claim that Britain is ruined, they differ only in the detail of which set of politics or social class did the ruining. Aldiss also hammers these points until they become dull. Interestingly, after its original printing in 1962, the story was included in three separate collections/anthologies by 1965, and in an omnibus collection in 1969, after which it fell off everyone's radar. It might only be remembered in the future for having been selected for inclusion in Aldiss's first Best of collection. (The anthology reprint was for a book edited by John Carnell, then editor of New Worlds where the story first appeared. This can imply that Carnell and Aldiss were really the only two who saw value in the story. Since they did work closely with New Worlds, perhaps it came about from a discussion or proposal of some kind. No other editor seemed interested in keeping it in print.)

Old Hundredth     8/10
New Worlds Science Fiction #100, November 1960. pp 62-73
Once again Aldiss presents us with a distant future Earth, only on this Earth there are no humans. At least not in form. Having long since transcended matter, humans exist as wisps of light, or as music or other forms of non-matter. On Earth dwell creatures to whom humans have granted sentience on their experimental Venusian labs, as Venus had long ago taken the place of the moon and revolves alongside Earth around the sun. We follow re-purposed giant sloth Dandi Lashadusa, a musicologist studying the "musicolumns" that house those who have trans-substantiated into music. Quite detailed and complex for such a short story, Aldiss succeeds in creating an unusual, potent world. With a touch of fantasy, Aldiss makes something so potentially abstract into a world quite concrete.

Unlike "Basis for Negotiation," "Old Hundredth" has been reprinted consistently throughout the decades since its initial publication. It was included in Judith Merrill's The 6th Annual of the World's Best SF (NY: Simon & Schuster, October 1961).

A Kind of Artistry     7/10
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1962. pp 6-27
In the far flung future, humanity has reached deep into the galaxy, taking on new knowledge and new ideas, and in doing so taking on new forms; only Earthborns retain some semblance of the original human being. One such man, Derek Flamifew Ende is tasked with making contact with the Cliff, a sentient asteroid that has crashed into a distant planet.

A complex story of ideas. The title refers to both suffering and happiness being "a kind of artistry." Humans have lost both purpose and drive as they have become self-preservationist. Derek lives with his "Mistress" in the matriarchy of old Earth, and while he is devoted to her, he is in constant need of being away from her. The secret of their relationship, which we learn late in the story, reveals how inward and self-interested this future society has become.

Man in His Time     7/10
Science Fantasy, April 1965. pp 5-32
Jack Westermark, the sole surviving astronaut of a British expedition to Mars, returns with an odd condition: He is living 3.3077 minutes in the future. The theory is that each planet exists within its own time frame, and while some might be ahead of Earth time, others might be lagging behind. (It is not explained why the affected astronaut returns to Earth maintaining Martian time, rather than re-adapting to Earth time, as depicted in a similar situation in the Christopher Nolan film Interstellar.)

The story is more philosophical than scientific, and above anything it is character driven. The plot is set up through a series of sequences, most of which are set at Westermark's home, and much of it through his wife's point of view. It was refreshing to read a story, among a number of heavily male-centric pieces, focusing primarily on a woman (uncommon for the period), and science aside, in a sympathetic and all-too human way. As interesting as the premise may be, it is presented as a tragedy, for both the victim and those around him. A short story finalist of both the Nebula and Hugo, it was included in Nebula Award Stories 1967 (co-edited by Aldiss and Harry Harrison).

For more of this week`s Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Todd Mason's blog.

1 comment:

Rick Robinson said...

I had this paperback at one time, but I found Aldis, at any length, to be a little too disturbing for my comfort, and always preferred the stories of Clarke, Russell, Anderson and others.

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