Book Review: Who Can Replace a Man? (variant title: Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian W. Aldiss), Brian W. Aldiss (1965)

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(Don Puchatz’s cover for the 1967 edition)

4/5 (collated rating: Good)

Seven of the 1950s short stories in Brian W. Aldiss’ best of collection Who Can Replace a Man? (1965) I’ve reviewed before in No Time Like Tomorrow (1959) and Galaxies Like Grains of Sand (1960).  However, the collection contains seven additional 50s and 60s novellas/short stories that make up the majority of pages.  I’ve indicated the old material in the review with an asterisk (*).

I’ve been on an early Aldiss’ short work kick as of late, and for good reason.  I find him to be one of the more inventive — along with Philip K. Dick — writers of the 50s and 60s.  I tentatively suggest that his early novels, with the exception of the masterpiece Starship (variant title: Non-stop) (1958), simply do not display the same level of brilliance.

A few of the 60s shorts in this collection tackle more negative portrayals of the space program — astronauts go insane, kill each other, and are plague by strange “diseases.”  At moments he reminds me of C. M. Kornbluth’s 50s space program critiques — although Aldiss’ are more psychologically dark and poignant.

Speculation on far future forms of humanity (and post-mankind earthly sentience) and the destructive tendencies of man — hence the title — forms the thematic backbone of the collection.

Highly recommended for fans of Aldiss and 50s/60s science fiction in general.  At the very least track down ‘The Impossible Star’ (1963), ‘Not For An Age’ (1955), ‘Outside’ (1955), and ‘Old Hundredth’ (1960).

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

*’Who Can Replace a Man?’ (1958) (9 pages) 3.75/5 (Good):  Few people survive Smithalao’s age.  Those that remained created vast farms staffed by robots.  When humans disappear from a farm the robots are left to fend for themselves.  Which robots seize power?  And what will the bands of robots do when they encounter other robots with more sophisticated brains?  And what will they do when they suddenly come across one of the few remaining men?  Robots in science fiction needed Asimov to offer more sophisticated way that humans would program their mechanical helpers.  Here, Aldiss’ programing simply means obeying man.  One would think we’d be so much more carefully in delineating what a robot can or cannot do.  A rather simplistic take on a very complicated issue.

*’Not For An Age’ (1955) (9 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 no more than a tourist attraction.

*‘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.

‘Dumb Show’ (1956) (6 pages) 5/5 (Very Good): Tied with ‘Old Hundredth’ as the best work in the collection.  A disturbing tale of the effects of a super weapon that causes an entire population to become deaf.  An older woman communicates with her three-year-old charge via cards — for example, she “shouts” “DON’T” when the child runs around bashing pots and jumping on the furniture.  In the evening the old woman watches silent movies in her living room replete with dialogue intertitles, waiting for another deployment of the sound weapon.  But instead a new and terrifying weapon hits — and the three-year-old child literally grows up at an extraordinary rate.

*‘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.

*’Ahead’ (variant title: ‘The Failed Men’) (1956) (13 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).

*‘Poor Little Warrior!’ (1958) (6 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.”

‘Man on Bridge’ (1964) (17 pages) 3.25/5 (Good):  The premise is pure Aldiss: in the far future blissful uncomplicated happiness is ultimate goal — genetic and surgical manipulation of the species results in two groups of humans, those who want to be blissfully happy (and ignorant), labelled Proles, and those who still want higher brain functions, labelled the Cerebrals.  The Cerebrals, who receive a C in their uniforms, are relegating to camps where they are allowed to talk freely on science and other scholarly topics.  In the camp a C scientist develops a new brain-altering technique that creates an emotionless but analytical drone-like human….  The Proles, in their perpetual ignorance, are intrigued by the experiment.  Unfortunately, Adam, the subject of the experiment, wishes to end his own life.

‘The Impossible Star’ (1963) (21 pages) 4.5/5 (Very Good):  Hard science fiction meets psychological drama… A group of astronaut explorers on a “deep penetration cartographic ship” land on a strange planetoid in an attempt to repare their vessel and recontact other survey ships they’ve become separated from.  However, by this point severe psychological damage of isolation has almost crippled the crew — one believes he is dead, another resorts to murder…  They soon discover that the unusual planetoid on which they have landed is hurtling towards an equally unusual star, dubbed Big Bertha.  At points, swirling atmosphere sweeps around the plantoid — and the gravimetric pressures of Big Bertha literally, press in on the crew sending them toward mental and physical crisis.

‘Basis for Negotiation’ (1962) (36 pages)  3/5 (Average):  One of the least interesting stories of the collection – and unfortunately, the longest.  The United States enters a war with The People’s Republic of China — and to the surprise of the Americans, their so-called Allies, the British, decide to remain neutral under the disillusion that they are still a first class power and can decide their own path.  Aldiss is clearly engaging with the British politics of the day…  Unfortunately, the Aldiss falters at straight-forward near-future political science fiction.

‘Old Hundredth’ (1960) (12 pages) 5/5 (Very Good):  A masterpiece!  Humankind has vanished completely from Earth — at least, physically.  They have “transubstantiated” themselves into some other states of existence.  The transubstantiation shrines remain, litered across the landscape.  Some humans transformed themselves into music — musicolumns punctuate the wild expanses, which when a living creature approaches creates ethereal music.  Dandi Lashadusa, a massive sentient sloth with modified hands (humans created sentiences in other species), desires to transubstantiate herself into a piece of music in imitation of her creators.  She is tethered telepathically to her Mentor, a sentient dolphin that resides in an underwater monastery.  He is perplexed by her desire….  He sends her mental images of sentient tunneling moles…  And fragments of dead languages… A strangely emotional fabulist tale — a vibrant post-human earth littered with mankind’s creations and memorials to their transubstantiation.

‘A Kind of Artistry’ (1962) (23 pages) 4/5 (Good): Derek Flamifew Ende is one of the few people left on Earth, and one of the few humans to still look like a human.  Humanity has spread across the galaxy over the millennia of spaceflight and physically transformed in a vast variety of ways.  He is summoned from the grips of his creator My Lady (In her laboratory she create animals that can transform into other animals… ) to investigate The Cliff.  The Cliff is a semi-sentient asteroid that impacted itself on a planet where it destroys approaching vessels.  Another unusual rumination on the nature of sentience and far future human development.  As a story, more thought provoking than satisfying….

‘Man in His Time’ (1965) (24 pages) 3.75/5 (Good):  An overtly experimental yet highly readable work (poetic titles describe emotions, scenes, and characters every few paragraphs) on an astronaut’s unusual affliction, time-displacement.  A character focused, rather than science heavy, tale about the breakdown of a family.  Captain Jack Westermark is the only surviving member of the Mars expedition.  When they finally fish him out of his capsule in the Atlantic, they discover that he is displaced in time — as in, he is 3.3077 minutes ahead of the rest of Earth.  Is it a phenomenon of local time or a symptom of his insanity, if he is even insane…. Jack retreats farther and father into himself, strangely separated from his own family.

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18 thoughts on “Book Review: Who Can Replace a Man? (variant title: Best Science Fiction Stories of Brian W. Aldiss), Brian W. Aldiss (1965)

    • Ah, haha. I defended the proposal a week ago in front of my four faculty and an audience of my peers. Now I have to finish research and write the behemoth — I’ll defend my actual dissertation probably in two years — need to head to France, England, and Austria for research….

      Essentially, I’m interested in how Medieval authors in their historical chronicles organize, understand, and remember the era of Christian persecution under the Roman emperors…. So, how the earlier traditions are reread, re-understood, and reinterpreted in relation to their current political, intellectual, and social environment… Evolving medieval notions of persecution, victim, violence, cruelty, etc…

      • Sounds great! Thanks for answering – I am sure you are sick of people asking that question. Having been a victim of the cruel sic et non exercises, I genuinely find your topic interesting.

        • No problem.

          HEHE, tangentially: the original sic and non type exercises (often in books of sentences — Peter Lombard, etc.) were used to teach medieval students the basics of philosophy — they do not illustrate the actual central preoccupations of philosophers as some would suggest…

          So, they are like “The French woman is fat. The Chinese woman eats toast.” type exercises in intro language books.

      • Well he’s out of my chronological knowledge — too late. Oh those 17th century philosophers…

        But some of these types of statements were meant to be argued by the student from an Aristotelian understanding of philosophy and a counter argument. Of course, if it was pre-Aristotle is allowed to be read in Paris (unbanned in the 13th century) there was a logical right answer 😉 Again, I’m talking more of the sentence type texts meant for students.

      • Congrats on the proposal defense. Good luck on the research and getting it written. You’ve got a great topic. Writing the dissertation is exciting, tedious, difficult, and rewarding all at the same time. Defending it and being done with it is heaven.

  1. The short story that forms the title of the book,is definitely the one I read in “The Canopy of Time” during my very early sf reading days.My recollections are vague,but I dimly recall it was moody and atmosphereic,and of course the robots.

    Very stirring and makes you long for those long ago days.

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