Fiction Reviews

The Brian Aldiss Collection

The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s

(2013) Brian Aldiss, The Friday Project, £19.99, pbk, 864pp, ISBN 978-0-007-48208-5


The Friday Project aim to present the definitive complete works collection of Aldiss’ short, stories and novels, with this volume comprising most of his earliest ever successful literary ventures. The stories are bound to delight his fans, all the more so for how well they stand the test of time, but the collection really deserves a forward or afterword to commemorate what is a major literary event. Astonishingly there is nothing. The other thing to note is that, though this has a copyright date of 2013, it appears to have come out in 2014.

A look at the challenges faced in tracking down often obscure classics from the pulps, many appearing in print for only the second time ever, would in itself be invaluable, but the stories are presented without fuss or any sense of occasion. If any work deserved a full on fanfare, it is this one.

Naturally, it is the stories that count, and there are fifty-eight here, of which this review can only touch on highlights. Aldiss’s earliest given work is ‘A Book In Time’ in which an antiquarian book-dealer pursues a shoplifter a hundred years into the future to time when books have been banned and lost. If only time travel had been an option in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

‘Breathing Space’ and ‘Non-Stop’ are both short story variations on the then developing 1958 Aldiss novel, Non-Stop, and the short story of the same title reads like a super-abridged version of its longer development, with even character names carried forward.  ‘Breathing Space’ is an earlier darker, more tragic variation on the theme. If you were not aware whether you were on a spaceship or not, you might not want to touch certain buttons or levers.

The strangest tale has possibly the shortest title of any work in the genre, ‘T’, in which very alien creatures send a fleet of entity-piloted ships into the distant past to wipe out Earth before humanity even begins to evolve. The T vessel is piloted by a genetically generated eye on an arm, who only has a few buttons to press as the sum purpose of his existence.

The chronological order of the publication presentation sometimes gets confusing with the Galaxies Like Grains Of Sand stories, also collectively known as The Canopy Of Time as the stories were not written or initially released in a linear order. Most also have different titles in US & British editions; ‘The Dark Millennia’ as it is given in this collection, for example, was also called ‘O Ishrael’.

The ‘Galaxies’ stories are Aldiss’s stab at an Olaf Stapledon style vision of humanity and the universe itself spanning over millions of years from now to the end of time itself. Each story is set in a wildly different epoch generated in part by the consequences of events in earlier tales. The first, and conveniently the earliest to appear is ‘The War Millennia’ also released as ‘Out Of Reach’ where Earth is at war with another planet. Meanwhile on a distant utopian paradise realm, a man cut off from events millions of miles away, meets one of the beings his world is fighting and his prejudicial hostility threatens to tear apart the pleasure-planet’s whole culture and ethos. It’s a superb study of how even neutral countries (and Worlds) are changed and affected by wars in which they have no part.

The fourth story to be published in the cycle is the last of the main eight ‘Galaxies’ tales, ‘The Ultimate Millennium’, also known as ‘Visiting Amoeba’ and takes us to the brink of the end of everything. Twelve independent stories separate this from some of the later included in-between episodes in the ‘Galaxies’ cycle. The editors might have been better advised to set aside their chronology to put these at least in sequence as they read like a badly shuffled card deck when read in a single volume.

One highlight among many here is the independent novella, ‘Equator’ which screams out for movie treatment, as possibly the most action packed story I have ever read. It is a noir, complete with femme fatale; a tale of an alien invasion that might not be all it appears, a love story, and a murder mystery and Cold War commentary all in one. A group of aliens, who have been permitted a colony in equatorial Sumatra, are secretly also building their own Moon-base. A trio of astronauts go to the Moon to spy on them, but one kills another and frames the third for the killing. Back on Earth, the framed hero tries to clear his name, pursued by the aliens, secret agents, and just about everyone else. He is shot at several times, knocked unconscious, shipwrecked, marooned on a desert island, tortured, and almost turned into tinned food before he discovers the genuinely unexpected truth…

Another favourite for me amidst so many here has to be ‘The ShubShub Race’, which is a delightful science fiction take on Hans Christian Anderson, complete with a baffled king and mysterious elf (or shape-shifting alien).

A truly essential collection, with stories as capable of filling the reader with awe and joy (as well as occasional terror, as with ‘The Arm’) as when they were first discovered by readers one by one in the pages of the pulp magazines between 1955 and 1959.

Arthur Chappell

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