Most SF is about madness, or what is currently ruled to be madness; this is part of its attraction — it's always playing with how much the human mind can encompass.
"In Conversation: Brian Aldiss & James Blish" in Cypher (October 1973); republished in The Tale That Wags the God (1987) by James Blish
One of the objections I have against Campbell's Astounding was that there was too little love in it. It was a very loveless magazine. They never took enough account of the feeling that is always in SF.
"In Conversation: Brian Aldiss & James Blish" in Cypher (October 1973)
Writers must fortify themselves with pride and egotism as best they can. The process is analogous to using sandbags and loose timbers to protect a house against flood. Writers are vulnerable creatures like anyone else. For what do they have in reality? Not sandbags, not timbers. Just a flimsy reputation and a name.
"Apéritif" in Bury My Heart at W.H. Smith's (1990)
Whatever creativity is, it is in part a solution to a problem.
"Apéritif" in Bury My Heart at W.H. Smith's (1990)
I was hardly fit for human society. Thus destiny shaped me to be a science fiction writer.
The Twinkling of an Eye: My Life as an Englishman (1998) Unsourced variant: "Why had I become a writer in the first place? Because I wasn't fit for society; I didn't fit into the system."
Digging deep in a Martian desert men discovered an enormous brain...
Digging deep in a Martian desert
men discovered an enormous brain.
It suddenly started to think at them —
So they covered it up again...
"The Deceptive Truth", The Dark Sun Rises (2002)
Most of my poetry lies beyond the SF field, yet here I am corralled into 'SF poetry' as part of this poetry weekend. Of course, some might say, 'you've made your own bed — now you must lie in it!' But, while fully accepting that dictum, I'm not yet quite prepared to lie down...
We must find out what's wrong here. Either we are victims of some ghastly experiment — or we're all monsters!.
First published in New Worlds Science Fiction' (January 1955), later in the anthology No Time Like Tomorrow (1959)
The house was a rambling affair. It had few windows, and such as there were did not open, were unbreakable and admitted no light. Darkness lay everywhere; illumination from an invisible source followed one's entry into a room — the black had to be entered before it faded. Every room was furnished, but with odd pieces that bore little relation to each other, as if there was no purpose for the room. Rooms equipped for purposeless beings have that air about them.
The thing was not discussable, even with a near acquaintance like Calvin because … because of the nature of the thing … because one had to behave like a normal, unworried human being. That at least was sound and clear and gave him comfort: behave like a normal human being.
Did the others here feel the disquiet he felt? Had they a reason for concealing that disquiet? And another question:
Where was "here"?
He shut that one down sharply.
Deal with one thing at a time. Grope your way gently to the abyss. Categorize your knowledge.
They came, by what means he did not know, from outside, the vast abstraction that none of them had ever seen. He had a mental picture of a starry void in which men and monsters swam or battled, and then swiftly erased it. Such ideas did not conform with the quiet behavior of his companions; if they never spoke about outside, did they think about it?
Irreconcilables: he should stay here and conform; he should — not stay here (remembering no time when he was not here, Harley could frame the second idea no more clearly than that). Another point of pain was that "here" and "not here" seemed to be not two halves of a homogeneous whole, but two dissonances.
Jagger had gone through there. Harley also went through. Somewhere he did not know, somewhere whose existence he had not guessed.… Somewhere that wasn't the house.…
"There's a way outside. We're — we've got to find out what we are." His voice rose to an hysterical pitch. He was shaking Calvin again. "We must find out what's wrong here. Either we are victims of some ghastly experiment — or we're all monsters!"
That house, whatever it was, was the embodiment of all the coldness in his mind. Harley said to himself: "Whatever has been done to me, I've been cheated. Someone has robbed me of something so thoroughly I don't even know what it is. It's been a cheat, a cheat.…"
Frank's chromosome conquered everywhere. Peace was guaranteed.
First published in Science-Fantasy #23 (1957)
The midwife bustled out to the four in the antechamber and announced that the Almighty (who had recently become a Protestant) had seen fit to bless milady with a son.
A later generation could have explained the miracle to Sir Frank — though explaining in terms he would not have understood. Though he knew well enough the theory of family traits and likenesses, it would have been impossible then to make him comprehend the intricacy of a chromosome which carries inside it — not merely the stereotypes of parental hair or temperament — but the secret knowledge of how to breathe, how to work the muscles to move the bones, how to grow, how to remember, how to commence the processes of thought … all the infinite number of secret "how to's" that have to be passed on for life to stay above jelly level.
A freak chromosome in Sir Frank ensured he passed on, together with these usual secrets, the secret of his individual consciousness.
It was extraordinary to be in two places at once, doing two different things — extraordinary, but not confusing. He merely had two bodies which were as integrated as his two hands had been.
Frank II liked Spain. Philip's capital was gayer, warmer, and more sanitary than London. It was intoxicating to enjoy the best of both courts. It proved also extremely remunerative: the shared consciousness of Frank I and II was by far the quickest communicational link between the two rival countries, and as such was worth money. Not that Frank revealed his secret to a soul, but he let it be known he had a fleet of capable spies who moved without risk of detection between England and Spain. Burly Lord Burleigh beamed upon him. So did the Duke of Medina Sidonia.
As long as the chromosome reproduced itself in sufficient dominance, he was immortal! To him, in an unscientific age, the problem did not present itself quite like that; but he realized that there was a trait to be kept in the family.
Frank II had been back in the aptly named Mother Country for only a few months when a lady of his acquaintance presented him with Frank IV. Frank IV was a girl, christened Berenice. The state of coma which had ensnared Frank II for so long did not afflict Berenice, or any other of his descendants.
Another tremendous adjustment in the shared consciousness had to be made. That also had its compensations; Frank was the first man ever really to appreciate the woman's point of view.
Full of years, Sir Frank's body died. The diphtheria which carried him off caused him as much suffering as it would have done an ordinary man; dying was not eased by his unique gift. He slid out into the long darkness — but his consciousness continued unabated in eight other bodies.
These people, scattered all over the country, a few of them on the continent, were much like normal people. To outsiders, their relationship was not apparent; they certainly never revealed it; they never met. They became traders, captains of ships that traded with the Indies, soldiers, parliamentarians, agriculturists; some plunged into, some avoided, the constitutional struggles that dogged most of the seventeenth century. But they were all — male or female — Franks. They had the inexpressible benefit of their progenitor's one hundred and seventy-odd years' experience, and not only of his, but of all the other Franks. It was small wonder that, with few exceptions, whatever they did they prospered.
The ambition of the original Frank had not died; it had grown subtler. It had become a wish to sample everything. The more bodily habitations there were with which to sample, the more tantalizing the idea seemed: for many experiences, belonging only to one brief era, are never repeated, and may be gone before they are perceived and tasted.
Many Franks of the sixteenth generation were killed in the muck of the trenches, he died not once but many times, developing an obsessive dread of war which never left him.
By the time the Americans entered the war, he was turning his many thoughts to politics.
Frank's chromosome was now breeding as true as ever. Blood group, creed, colour of skin — nothing was proof against it. The numbers with shared consciousness, procreating for all they were worth, trebled every generation.
Many modifications in private and public life took place. Privacy ceasing to exist, all new houses were glass-built, curtains abolished, walls pulled down. Police went, the entire legal structure vanished overnight — a man does not litigate against himself. A parody of Parliament remained, to deal with foreign affairs, but party politics, elections, leaders in newspapers (even newspapers themselves) were scrapped.
Frank's chromosome conquered everywhere. Peace was guaranteed.
By the end of another century's ruthless intermarriage, Russia and Asia were engulfed as thoroughly as Europe, and by the same loving methods. Billions of people: one consciousness.
All page numbers from the mass market edition published by Signet
One of the characteristics of age was that all avenues of talk led backward in time.
Chapter 1 “The River: Sparcot” (p. 21)
It’s a national failing to think of politics as something that goes on in Parliament. It isn’t; it’s something that goes on inside us.
Chapter 2 “Cowley” (p. 47)
The hardship of it was a pleasure. Life was a pleasure; he looked back at its moments, many of them as shrouded in mist as the opposite bank of the Thames. Objectively, many of them held only misery, fear, confusion; but afterward, and even at the time, he had known an exhilaration stronger than the misery, fear, or confusion. A fragment of belief came to him from another epoch: Cogito ergo sum. For him that had not been true; his truth had been: Sentio ergo sum. I feel, so I exist. He enjoyed this fearful, miserable, confused life, and not only because it made more sense than nonlife. He could never explain that to anyone.
Chapter 3 “The River: Swifford Fair” (p. 75)
Perhaps the first fire, the first tool, the first wheel, the first carving in a limestone cave, had each possessed a symbolic rather than a practical value, had each been pressed to serve distortion rather than reality. It was a sort of madness that had driven man from his humble sites on the edges of the woods into towns and cities, into arts and wars, into religious crusades, into martyrdom and prostitution, into dyspepsia and fasting, into love and hatred, into this present cul-de-sac; it had all come about in pursuit of symbols. In the beginning was the symbol, and darkness was over the face of the Earth.
Chapter 3 (p. 91)
What were several fewer species of animals compared with a hundred-mile advance and another medal on another general?
Chapter 4 “Washington” (p. 110)
Let’s have a toast—to the future generation of consumers, however many heads or assholes they have!
Chapter 4 (p. 112)
That’s one thing about these religious boys—they reckon that if they are on God’s side, then the enemy must be on the devil’s, and so they have no qualms about giving it to ’em hot and strong.
Chapter 4 (p. 112)
“Sounds to me as if you want journalists,” Timberlane said.
“No, sir, we require steady men with integrity. This is not a scoop, it’s a way of life.”
Chapter 4 (p. 115)
Relax, enjoy yourself. Have another drink. It’s patriotic to overconsume.
Chapter 4 (p. 121)
I’ve no objection to morality, except that it’s obsolete.
Chapter 4 (p. 122)
All over the world there must be far-reaching changes in animal behavior and habitat; if only one could have another life in which to chart it all....Ah, well, that’s not a fruitful thing to wish, is it?
Chapter 5 “The River: Oxford” (p. 147)
As Flitch dryly remarked when Greybeard commented on the graveyard, “Ah, they keep a-planting of ’em, but there ain’t any more of ’em growing up.”
Chapter 5 (p. 148)
“Are you a religious man, Joe?”
Flitch pulled a face. “I leaves that sort of thing to women.”
Chapter 5 (p. 149)
The shuffle only demonstrated people’s fatuous belief in a political cure for a human condition.
Chapter 6 “London” (p. 170)
All of which pointed to a moral that they should have learned long before, Arthur thought: Never trust a bunch of lousy politicians to do your thinking for you.
Chapter 6 (p. 171)
If more people had put their fellow human beings before abstractions last century, we shouldn’t be where we are now.
Chapter 7 “The River: The End” (p. 190)
However you envisage your role in life, all you can do is perform it as best you can.
In Mrs. Swinton's garden, it was always summer. The lovely almond trees stood about it in perpetual leaf. Monica Swinton plucked a saffron-colored rose and showed it to David.
She had tried to love him.
Monica Swinton, twenty-nine, of graceful shape and lambent eye, went and sat in her living room, arranging her limbs with taste. She began by sitting and thinking; soon she was just sitting. Time waited on her shoulder with the maniac slowth it reserves for children, the insane, and wives whose husbands are away improving the world.
An overcrowded world is the ideal place in which to be lonely.
The directors of Synthank were eating an enormous luncheon to celebrate the launching of their new product. Some of them wore the plastic face-masks popular at the time. All were elegantly slender, despite the rich food and drink they were putting away. Their wives were elegantly slender, despite the food and drink they too were putting away. An earlier and less sophisticated generation would have regarded them as beautiful people, apart from their eyes.
There have been mechanicals on the market with mini-computers for brains — plastic things without life, super-toys — but we have at last found a way to link computer circuitry with synthetic flesh.
"Teddy, you know what I was thinking? How do you tell what are real things from what aren't real things?"
The bear shuffled its alternatives. "Real things are good."
"I wonder if time is good. I don't think Mummy likes time very much. The other day, lots of days ago, she said that time went by her. Is time real, Teddy?"
"You and I are real, Teddy, aren't we?"
The bear's eyes regarded the boy unflinchingly. "You and I are real, David." It specialized in comfort.
Amid all the triumphs of our civilization — yes, and amid the crushing problems of overpopulation too — it is sad to reflect how many millions of people suffer from increasing loneliness and isolation. Our serving-man will be a boon to them; he will always answer, and the most vapid conversation cannot bore him.
For the future, we plan more models, male and female — some of them without the limitations of this first one, I promise you! — of more advanced design, true bio-electronic beings.
Not only will they possess their own computer, capable of individual programming; they will be linked to the World Data Network. Thus everyone will be able to enjoy the equivalent of an Einstein in their own homes. Personal isolation will then be banished forever!
"I'm no good, Teddy. Let's run away!"
"You're a very good boy. Your Mummy loves you."
Slowly, he shook his head. "If she loved me, then why can't I talk to her?"
"You're being silly, David. Mummy's lonely. That's why she had you."
"She's got Daddy. I've got nobody 'cept you, and I'm lonely."
Synthetic life-forms were less than ten years old, the old android mechanicals less than sixteen; the faults of their systems were still being ironed out, year by year.
He let out a yell of joy. They danced round the room. Pressure of population was such that reproduction had to be strict, controlled. Childbirth required government permission. For this moment, they had waited four years. Incoherently they cried their delight.
"Teddy — I suppose Mummy and Daddy are real, aren't they?"
Teddy said, "You ask such silly questions, David. Nobody knows what 'real' really means. Let's go indoors."
"First I'm going to have another rose!" Plucking a bright pink flower, he carried it with him into the house. It could lie on the pillow as he went to sleep. Its beauty and softness reminded him of Mummy.
If we can see our difficulties, there is a way of resolving them, or the hope of a way.
Plato would have no actors in his republic, in case pretence devoured what was real. Plato's fears have proved well-grounded. Actors, despised, almost outcast, until last century, have become something more than respectable. They, together with all those imitation actors, pop stars, TV celebrities, people who are famous for being famous, now receive adulation. They are the millionaires, the courtesans of our system. Solzhenitsyn, escaping to a West he had once admired, snarled at the meretricious falsity of what he found. We have built illusions round us and see no way out of the glass forest.
If we can see our difficulties, there is a way of resolving them, or the hope of a way.
Here is what I wrote about SF. If it has a familiar ring, my publishers liked it well enough to make it into a postcard for publicity purposes. 'I love SF for its surrealist verve, its loony non-reality, its piercing truths, its wit, its masked melancholy, its nose for damnation, its bunkum, its contempt for home comforts, its slewed astronomy, its xenophilia, its hip, its classlessness, its mysterious machines, its gaudy backdrops, its tragic insecurity.' Science fiction has always seemed to me such a polyglot, an exotic mistress, a parasite, a kind of new language coined for the purpose of giving tongue to the demented twentieth century.
I'm lucky that SFWA has such a short memory. I was always the Young Turk, the gadfly. Part of the New Wave, although I didn't fit in there either! I spent years, and two histories, putting the so-called Old Guard in their place, and now I'm one of them!
That first novel of mine, Non-Stop, is directly attributable to Heinlein. His "Common Sense" seemed to me such a good story, but bereft of any human feelings. I thought long about that story, and then I thought how wonderful it would be to write about a spaceship in which people have been imprisoned for generations and to put in something of the human feeling. So that novel is directly attributable to Heinlein. I thought, in my youthful arrogance, that I could do it better — I didn't! I thought I could do it differently, and I think I did do it differently. And I suppose that on the whole, I've concentrated on doing things differently ever since.
My wife Margaret and I sold our house to Sir Roger Penrose and his wife... Talking to Roger, I found we both agreed that AI, as they call it, is not going to be achieved by present-day machines."Artificial Intelligence" — that makes it sound simple, but what you're really talking about is artificial consciousness, AC. And I don't think there's any way we can achieve artificial consciousness, at least until we've understood the sources of our own consciousness. I believe consciousness is a mind/body creation, literally interwoven with the body and the body's support systems. Well, you don't get that sort of thing with a robot.
I can't help believing that these things that come from the subconscious mind have a sort of truth to them. It may not be a scientific truth, but it's psychological truth.
Why do so many people dislike science fiction? The answer goes like this: You have to think of science fiction in contrast to its nearest competitor, heroic fantasy. In heroic fantasy, by and large, things are pretty stable, and then some terrible evil comes along that's going to take over the world. People have to fight it. In the end they win, of course, so the earth is restored to what it was. The status quo comes back. Science fiction's quite different. With science fiction, the world's in some sort of a state, and something awful happens. It may not be evil, it may be good or neutral, just an accident. Whatever they do in the novel, at the end the world is changed forever. That's the difference between the two genres — and it's an almighty difference! And the truth is science fiction, because we all live in a world that's changed forever. It's never going to go back to what it was in the '60s or the '70s or the '30s, or whatever. It's changed.
The story returns over and over to the painting The Hireling Shepherd by Holman Hunt, which becomes a recurring unresolved image which has no final meaning, only whatever speculation it's benighted observers bring to bear on it.
Aldiss' New Wave masterpiece is Report On Probability A. … The minutiae of all the involved's lives are the only thing; the act of observation is the only plot. The science fiction happens when it becomes apparent that there are Other watchers, and watchers watching those watchers, stretching back to what seems to be citizens of our own reality. Report On Probability A is about the metaphor of circular vision, manifested in the narrative by the round fields of view of the various optical devices and windows through which S, G, and C observe their world, expanding macrocosmically with the vast circle of observers observing the observers. As banality merges with paranoia, drawn only by whatever the reader brings to the narrative, there is no conclusion, no story, only facts. The story returns over and over to the painting The Hireling Shepherd by Holman Hunt, which becomes a recurring unresolved image which has no final meaning, only whatever speculation it's benighted observers bring to bear on it. Every character is searching for a meaning which may, or may not, exist as actual Truth. Behind each level of truth lies another; who is to say how far the chain goes or which part of it is more Actual? … The simplicity of the "story" masks an investigation into uncertainty and the nature of reality itself. The seeming bankruptcy of plot opens the reader to question the act of observation, of reporting, of writing itself. Truth is what Report On Probability A is all about, and Aldiss points out that it is a plastic thing that depends on who is trying to figure it out, and an ambiguous thing that may, at it's root, be unknowable.