(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1959 edition)
3.75/5 (collated rating: Good)
This collection of Brian Aldiss short stories from the mid-to-late 50s is a notch above the middling Galaxies Like Grains of Sand (1960), collated from the same period, which I reviewed a few months back. Aldiss is definitely one of the more bizarre and original (along with Philip K. Dick) sci-fi voices of the 50s (and beyond).
Most collections are purposely comprised of a mixture of good and bad stories hence the generally low collated ratings I hand out. Unlike Galaxies, most of the stories in this collection are worth reading and none are egregiously bad. ‘Not for an Age,’ ‘Judas Danced’, ‘The Failed Men’, and ‘Outside’ are all highly recommended.
Recommended for fans of inventive (mostly) non-pulp 50s science fiction.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (* some spoilers*)
‘T’ (1956) (7 pages) 3.75/5 (Good): In the distant future a strange alien mutant with one arm is breed to navigate an interstellar missile. Pumped with nutrients and subjected to periodic propaganda, it steers its deadly bulk towards Earth. The story is weakened by a silly — but funny — time travel ending. The visceral image of a mutated one-armed barely sentient alien on a suicide mission that takes thousands of years to reach its target all the while listening to the same propaganda message over and over is an incredibly disturbing vision…
‘Not for an Age’ (1955) (10 pages) 4.5/5 (Very Good): One of the better shorts in the collection…. ‘Not for an Age’ joins ‘Secret of a Mighty City’ (1958) and ‘Judas Danced’ (1958) as my favorite Aldiss shorts. Aliens in the far future have developed the technology to momentarily resurrect scenes from the past. As a result, Rodney Furnell replays the same day in his life in the 20th century over and over again. Although he cannot change what he did and is forced to recreate his actions over and over again, Rodney is dimly aware of the endless repetition, and cognizant of the speech of the gawking alien spectators. Little do the aliens know that Rodney is aware of their presence and the horrors of the purgatory they have imposed on him. Little does Rodney know that he has become little more than a tourist attraction. Unlike ‘T’ Aldiss conjures a sufficiently dark ending to match the rest of the story.
‘Poor Little Warrior!’ (1958) (7 pages) 3.5/5 (Good): A odd (semi) stream of consciousness story in the second person (!) of Claude Ford who attempts to escape from his banal life by signing up for a brontosaurus hunt in the distant past. The story moves from snippets from the hunting ad brochure and how it contrasts with Claude Ford’s own experience and how he still cannot escape his miserable life despite traveling millions of years in the past: “‘Get Away from It All’ said the time travel brochure, which mean for you getting away from Claude Ford, a husbandman as futile as his name with a terrible wife called Maude. Maude and Claude Ford. Who could not adjust themselves, to each other, or to the world they were born in. It was the best reason in the as-it-is-at-present-constituted world for coming back here to shoot giant saurians — if you were fool enough to think that one hundred and fifty million years either way made one ounce of difference to the muddle of thoughts in a man’s cerebral cortex.”
‘The Failed Men’ (1956) (16 pages) 4.25/5 (Good): In the far future, the Paulls established the Intertemporal Red Cross with the assistance of people from the the near future and people from the present. Their job is to assist The Failed Men of the extremely distant far future. These Failed Men no longer look like humans and have to be carefully dug from the ground after which they shuffle around aimlessly. Unfortunately, the exact nature of these strange human-derived beings is obscured by the Paulls’ sophisticated translator program that doesn’t seem to convey the correct meaning behind the words of the shambolic Failed Men. How exactly have they failed? Have they failed at all? What is the nature of their unusual existence? Or are the ways completely incomprehensible… Is it possible to understand if their language is comprised soley of abstractions? This inability of man to grapple with the profoundly different is one of the main themes of Aldiss’ work (for example, The Dark Light-Years).
‘Carrion Country’ (1958) (19 pages) 3.75/5 (Good): In Aldiss’ fiction the inhabitants of a sterile future are often confronted with filth and decay. ‘Carrion Country’ follows this premise in the vein of a biological mystery. Why do the centaur creatures on the verdant planet of Lancelyn II seem to suddenly rot? Why are their bodies instantaneously covered with maggots and worms? It’s up to the Planetary Ecological Survey Team to find out! And the answer is rather different than expected. A traditional strange alien planet with biological mysteries that must be solved — at least the confrontation with otherworldly putrescence is an intriguing theme.
‘Judas Danced’ (1958) (15 pages) 4.75/5 (Very Good): Perhaps the most bizarre (and complex) story in the collection. Alex Abel Crowe, who is most likely mad, has a strange fixation — he believes that he is Christ. In his fascinating future, there are no texts — rather, the past is viewed by means of time screens that observe past events as they are happening. Alex sees the Crucifixion on one of these screens. What complicates the matter is Alex’s crime — killing a man named Parowen Scryban. View time travel officials bring Parowen back to life only for Alex to kill him again. An unusual ending follows Alex to a cafe where he can watch the time screens and notes that there is no history, rather the past is continuously going on. A fascinating, often verging on inscrutable, story that deserves a reread.
‘Psyclops’ (1956) (10 pages) 2.75/5 (Bad): I labor through these types of pseudo-grandiose exercises. The first lines, “Mmmm I. First statement: I am I. I am everything. Everything, Everywhere.” Our narrator babbles alternatively about being the universe, a shadow, a vague memory of itself, another universe, babbles about feelings, and color and form, etc. As in, a coming into being, a futuristic birth, a realizing what you really are type of story. As it progresses little tidbits of narrative emerge, a comatose state, telepathic abilities, a disaster…
‘Outside’ (1955) (11 pages) 4.5/5 (Very Good): A group of what appear to be humans live in a house that they never leave. Their food arrives in a room inside called the store. They make the same jokes. They play card games. They play the piano and always seem to sleep very well at night. For a long time no one thinks about leaving the house. Eventually Harley becomes curious after the food fails to arrive. His confusion is piqued when he realizes that one of his housemates was absent during part of the night. Little does he know the entire experience is an experiment. And, despite his protestations, he might not even be human. One of the best in the collection. If you love Philip K. Dick’s short stories you’ll love this one.
‘Gesture of Farewell’ (1957) (28 pages) 3/5 (Average): A weak pulp sci-fi tale about Lester Nixon, the governor of the penal colony Risim, and his desire to transform a war torn planet. The planet is characterized by the massive war wounds of a human vs Risim war that saw Risim’s inhabitants annihilated, the planet’s atmosphere destroyed by fearsome super weapons, and craters and scars strewn across its surface. Lester’s wife doesn’t like the planet and hates Lester’s creator complex i.e. his overwhelming desire to create a new world. After melodramatic bickering and the death of their daughter everything, including the possibility that the planet was booby trapped by the enemy before their annihilation, comes to head.
‘The New Father Christmas’ (1958) (7 pages) 3/5 (Average): A different sort of Christmas tale… A group of tramps live in an automated factory. After The Terrible Sweeper sweeps through the factor, all the tramps are shocked to find out that it is indeed Christmas day. The tramps appear to be uncertain whether people even exist outside of the factory. A letter arrives, perhaps automated, that appears to be sent to the wrong factory. Little do they know that a new father Christmas would soon arrive.
‘Blighted Profile’ (1958) (11 pages) 3.75 (Average): Outside a village near a blighted valley eight where two ancient war machines still duel it out streaked with rust, eight year old Yalleranda watches an old man ride his white stallion across the landscape. She follows him into the village where he reminisces with his wife about his travels, his life, the time before the war. The city-dwelling children come visit their old parents and talk about the new way of life, a literate way of life in the big city. A rumination on the passing of generations with a savage twist. An evocative, if somewhat preaching, piece…
‘Our Kind of Knowledge’ (1955) (15 pages) (3/5) (Average): In a future where the Arctic Circle is verdant, a group of explorers with special abilities discover a spaceship. The implication is that Earth’s inhabitants no longer need technology to travel across space. When they turn the spaceship on they come in contact with technologically driven humans. Predictably, the one with nature/post-technology type advanced beings (human alien hybrids) ideologically clash with their polar opposites, their human ancestors. A disappointing end to the collection.
(Uncredited cover for the 1971 edition)
For more reviews consult the INDEX