Brian Aldiss’ Trillion Year Spree is a mammoth narrative history of the genre of science fiction, written together with author David Wingrove. It is in fact an updated version of Billion Year Spree, by Aldiss alone. Aldiss is, of course, a science fiction author himself and a successful one, so he is writing about his own backyard. He provides a very comprehensive overview of SF as literature up to the date this book was published, 1986. Of course, decades have gone by since then and the genre has evolved in many interesting ways, but that does not mean that Aldiss’ history is a bad one. If you have any interest in learning about the origin and development of the genre up to the 1980s, this book is very insightful.
Although I don’t particularly like Aldiss’s writing style. He sounds defensive and pompous. This doesn’t read like an academic work but like an opinion piece. There is a lot of name-throwing of 19th century writers that makes me think that Aldiss is trying to sell something to literature majors instead of writing something interesting to the casual SF reader. But say one thing about him, say that he did his research.
Aldiss focuses on key figures in the history of SF, like Shelley, Verne, Wells, Burroughs and gives short biographies to highlight the social context in which they wrote their stories. An image forms of SF always reacting to or against the prevailing ideas of the time. The evolution of the genre becomes clear, changing in step with social changes and philosophies, and with the developing printing industry of course.
On the Origin of Species: Frankenstein, Jules Verne and others
Aldiss places the origin of science fiction as we know it today in the 19th century, as an outgrowth of the gothic romance. In the era of the Industrial Revolution, when steam trains and clocks became forces to reckon with and an idea of progress and cumulative change began to take hold, the gothic romance novel appeared on the scene to make sense of it all as a kind of middle class literature. At first, the gothic romance looked into the past with nostalgia, but the priests and monsters that populated the stories would later be filled in by scientists and aliens. Technological progress and the theory of evolution made people question the place of humanity in the cosmos and SF filled that alienation in a poetic way at a time when the sciences and the arts were still closely linked.
This idea, that SF originated in the 19th century and that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein might be the first real SF novel, is now often repeated but, according to Aldiss, he was the one who first proposed it in an earlier version of this book, Billion Year Spree, written 2 decades earlier. At the time, the idea was ridiculed. So, he spends a lot of pages building this thesis of his, and to be fair, Frankenstein has been swarmed upon by literary critics like flies to honey ever since, so Aldiss’ “discovery” had merit.
The amount of science-fiction-like stories published in previous centuries is far greater than I suspected. Aldiss mentions that in the 18th century alone, more than two hundred stories were published about journeys to the moon! All these stories, together with numerous satires, utopias and wondrous travels like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels could be seen as science fiction, but Aldiss makes the point that these stories are all time-locked. They show no awareness of the idea of progress. That came with Frankenstein.
Early 20th Century crap
The 1910s and 1920s were just full of crap, though. Horrible crap. On the one hand you had H.G. Wells who began to write boring didactic tomes about world governments, and on the other hand you had adolescent crap about lost primitives and exotic women on Mars by writers like H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Aldiss loves H.G. Wells in this book but even he doesn’t have much good to say about these decades.
Aldiss has even fewer good words for the branch of American SF that originated in magazines. “Low-brow stories” that have lead to an “SF-ghetto from which readers and writers still try to escape”. “Neither dreams nor culture can warm” the stories that appeared in Hugo Gernsback’s magazines. Hugo: “one of the worst disasters ever to hit the science fiction field”. But these were also the years of Capek, Kafka and Huxley’s Brave New World as an antidote to Wells’ utopias. And of Olaf Stapledon, for whom Aldiss genuflects in awe and terror.
E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith was perhaps the greatest of this American magazine ghetto, Aldiss says, but if that is so, then the rest must have been truly horrible. I thought Smith was nearly unreadable. Only when the magazines of John W. Campbell appeared and writers like Asimov and Heinlein popped up in the 1940s, did stories appear that are enjoyable to this day. What is interesting is that the magazines fostered a kind of milieu, a community of writers and fans who influenced each other and that shaped the genre ever since.
After WWII, hippies and drugs
The bubble of the SF ghetto popped after the Atomic Bomb was dropped and Neal Armstrong set foot on the Moon. Reality had done the impossible and that burst the power-fantasies of SF into mainstream thought, as if reality had become an extension of SF. Right now, the COVID pandemic feels the same to me, an extension of SF into reality. You can’t write an SF pandemic story anymore without the COVID years in the back of your head.
Back in the fifties and sixties, SF was pretty much doing what it is still doing to this day. Makes me wonder how much SF is capable of changing, if at all. Themes like alienation, surviving the pressures of society, dehumanisation in the face of the stars… People still write books about robots or aliens. Maybe these are basic fears – alienation and dehumanisation – that will always remain relevant. Another view on this is that no theme ever becomes extinct in literature. Themes are just added on as society grows into the future, but we can still understand where we came from.
There were fewer than a dozen full-time SF writers when the 1960s began. But at the end of that decade it was already impossible to assimilate all that was published and all SF that was already written. There is some tension between the urge to remember and to become familiar with earlier work, and the onslaught of new publications that obliterates the past by sheer weight of numbers. It is interesting that in every era, the same question pops up: is the SF of today better or worse than of the good old days? Is it deteriorating? Even in those 20th century times, there was diversification and splintering. Aldiss was ultimately positive about this, and I think we can be too when looking at the situation today.
The 1970s transformed SF radically too. Female writers were entering the field more and more, which also made the male writers realise that they don’t cater to a strictly male audience (some dinosaurs like Asimov never got the memo). Besides feminist themes, add the New Wave experiments and greater critical attention, and the genre became a versatile, rich field. Interesting also that the 1970s kicked out the short story as the dominant form for the novel, and the 1980s moved from the novel to the trilogy.
Some criticism of Aldiss as a pompous idiot
Aldiss is very polite to his fellow writers when he doesn’t like something (except perhaps to Hugo Gernback). But I do have some criticism. He has a chapter on SF movies and computer games that he could have omitted. He makes blunt declarations without showing that he knows anything at all about those entertainment forms, and clearly just doesn’t appreciate the differences between books and movies. Get your snobby fingers off my movies!
It is strange how Aldiss praises some books above others without giving any good reasons for it, like (I’m paraphrasing): “Delany’s Nova is by far his best work, head and shoulders above Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and almost reaching the level of Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Or: “Anna Kavan goes as far beyond Ballard as Ballard is beyond Wyndham.” What does any of this mean? How are you comparing these books and authors? He assumes things are self-evident, but he isn’t writing as an analyst, but as someone in love with his own words.
Sometimes I have no idea what he’s on about. Look at this:
Le Guin suffered a different fate. She was temporarily canonized out of existence. She was adopted as the ne plus ultra of the new and proliferating critical community in SF. She alone washed whiter than white. She was, for a time, buried alive beneath a vast and ever-growing mound of criticism; laid out in the fine gold vestments with amphorae of food and drink to nourish her on the journey to Godhead.
The book is full of this kind of rambling, where I have no idea what he’s actually trying to say. What is this babble.
I like how he craps all over Asimov and Heinlein for degenerating in their later output, while praising Herbert, Clarke and Pohl for developing and getting with the times. He’s mostly fair. The predictions about writers from the 80s are sometimes off, understandably. He praises Gibson, Bear, Wolfe and Scott Card, completely dismisses Kim Stanley Robinson, and talks at length about Paul O. Williams’ Pelbar Cycle, which nobody talks about, ever.
My TBR list has grown alarmingly. Please help.