Book Review: Starswarm, Brian W. Aldiss (1964)


(William Hofmann’s cover for the 1964 edition)

4/5 (collated rating: Good)

Filth.  Decay.  Mud.  Transmutation.  Brian W. Aldiss’ SF is filled with such images:  Men—with limbs removed—who are slowly (and artificially) transmuted into fish, writhe around in the mud of their tanks grasping at the last shards of their humanity;  A powerful matriarch lords over a planet where her pets transform at will;  A tall tale about a planet filled with strange life and a human hero who cannot get over the fact that everything smells like garbage…. Aldiss’ novel The Dark Light-Years (1964), despite its poor delivery, is the best example of these themes—humans encounter sentient aliens who spend their days copulating, laying around, and eating in their own fifth.  And they are happy with their lot.

Starswarm (1964) is comprised of three novelettes and five short stories with conjoining explanatory material that links the previously published short fiction into a cohesive collection.  The modus operandi of such a conjoining concerns the “Theory of Multigrade Superannuation” where “the universe is similar to the cosmic clock; the civilizations of man are not mere cogs but infinitely smaller clocks, ticking in their own right” (7).  Thus, the inhabited solar systems of Starswarm—our galaxy—will exhibit all the characteristics through which a civilization can pass” (7).  Each story with its wildly different setting concerns one particular segment of the vast galaxy inhabited by man.  As with many of Aldiss’ other collections, the organizational paradigm is evocative although the stories do not always fit nicely within it.

Unlike Galaxies Like Grains of Sand (1960) where the grafted stories fell flat despite the appealing set-up, the stories within Starswarm are vintage Aldiss. Recommended for all fans of inventive 50s/60s SF.  And Aldiss aficionados who do not own this one must procure a copy!

Brief Plot Summaries/Analysis

Note: stories marked with an (*) indicate that I reviewed them in earlier Aldiss collections.  If I disagreed with my rating I changed it.  I have also modified the earlier reviews for this review.

Sector Vermillion: *”A Kind of Artistry” (1962) novelette, 4/5 (Good): Derek Flamifew Ende is one of the few people left on Earth.  Humanity has spread across the galaxy over the millennia of spaceflight and physically transformed in a vast variety of ways.  Most human inhabitants of the Starswarm have evolved unique characteristics–fur, other limbs.  Derek is summoned away from his mother (and lover) My Lady.  She spends her day in her laboratory creating animals that can transmute into new shapes.  Derek is 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….

Sector Gray: “Hearts and Engines” (variant title: “Soldiers Running”) (1960), short story, 3.5/5 (Good):  Aldiss explores the power of induced dreams to convince even injured soldiers to be better soldiers: “In his dream he had promoted himself to colonel.  It could be mere oneiric self-aggrandizement: but more likely it was something deeper than that, another slice of prediction matching the first” (38).  Dreams as conditioning would be used to more disturbing effect in Suzy McKee Charnas’ Walk to the End of the World (1974), but the fact that Sgt. Taylor’s is recovering from an injury in a hospital bed and undergoing additional self-brainwashing to prepare his mind for another fight is evocative and disturbing.  Taylor’s fantasies of a normal life are destroyed by the mechanisms of war.

Sector Violet: “The Underprivileged” (1963) shortstory, 4/5 (Good): The Starswarm, the planets inhabited by humankind, sprawls relentlessly across the vastness of the galaxy.  In some horrific manifestation of colonialism the new worlds slated for colonization need to be prepared.  Often that means removing native populations: “The first party to disembark will the immigrants from Istinogurzibeshilaha” (40).  At first glance the arrival planet of Dansson seems luxurious.  The  story follows two natives who soon realize that they have made a horrible mistake allowing themselves to be transported off planet—at least their is an enclave of their kind on Dansson.  But it is a cage.  And there are drugs… And the nice man who followed them around is an undercover immigration office.

Sector Diamond: “The Game of God” (variant title: “Segregation) (1958), novelette, 4.5/5 (Very Good):  I found “The Game of God” one of the more complex short stories in the collection.  An old explorer, a hero among the new Planetary Ecological Survey cadets, resides for years on a planet inhabited by lizard-headed pygmies.  Each day the pygmies bring the explorer a bowl of intestines derived from small fluffy animals that they fight incessantly over.  The old explorer is caught up in a grand delusion of his lordship over the planet and comforts himself with memories of his role in propaganda films recounting his life on the planet.  A new team arrives seeking to solve the biological mysteries of the planet in order to decide whether it is suitable for colonization.  As the mystery of the pygmies and their rituals unravel so do the characters’ fantasies and delusions of control.

Sector Green: “Shards” (1962) shortstory, 5/5 (Masterpiece):  One of the best stories in the collection will remain embedded in your memory.  “The way of telling time in Mudland was ingenious” (88)—Mudland is the bottom of a large tank where humans, whose limbs are periodically amputated, grasp what remains of their humanity.  The process: transformation into fish-like bodies with human minds.  The goal: exterminate the fish-like aliens that are hiding out in the depths on a new planet ripe for colonization.  The transformations that occur appear natural to the pseudo-men: “Fins had been uppermost in his mind for some time.  Fins, indeed, induced in him a whole watery way of thinking” (93).   The offhanded brutality of the situation, the physical filth of their existence, the mutation of their bodies, the horror of the goal creates a concoction bristling with unforgettable horror.

Sector Yellow: “Legends of Smith’s Burst” (1959) novelette, 3/5 (Average):  Even the weakest story in the collection still has merits—a testament to Aldiss’ abilities.  At first glance “Legends of Smith’s Burst” is a galactic romance replete with fantastic aliens and a beautiful love interest.  Hero on planet seeks a way off and must trek across the unusual landscape… However Aldiss explicitly positions the story as a tall tale, the details of which have been exaggerated and modified since the historical events occurred.  Also, Aldiss’ common themes—filth, decay, transmutation—create a landscape and feel very distinct from anything that Jack Vance wrote.  The human hero cannot help but notice the stench of the world, the piles of garbage, the slimy food he has to eat.  None of the planets inhabitants, odd bird men to a race where no two are born alike, seem to have a sense of smell.  For Aldiss, filth is a way to generate the alien and position man in opposition to the Other.

Sector Azure: “O Moon of My Delight” (variant title: “O Moon of My Delight!”) (1961) novelette, 3.5/5 (Good):  Aldiss takes the hard science problem, how to decelerate a FTL spaceship, and creates a human drama of how it would impact society: In this case the inhabitants of Tandy Two and the surrounding Flange, “a huge shock absorber, three stories deep, girdling the planet” (144).  The deceleration of a FTL spaceship literally moves Tandy Two, shifting it from night to day.  The uniform surface of the planet is used for a giant sheep station where farmers live, work, and family drama transpires.  Strange obsessions play themselves out.

The Rift: *“Old Hundredth” (1960) short story, 5/5 (Masterpiece): 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… An emotional fabulist tale that plays out in a vibrant post-human earth littered with mankind’s creations and memorials to their transubstantiation.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX


(Uncredited cover for the 1971 edition)


(Uncredited cover for the 1979 edition)


(Vincent Di Fate’s cover for the 1985 edition)


(Image Bank’s cover for the 1990 edition)

21 thoughts on “Book Review: Starswarm, Brian W. Aldiss (1964)

  1. Hate to sound like I judge books by their covers, but lets face it, when it comes to second hand books, it’s pretty hard not to. This is one of those titles where not a single cover encouraged me to pick it up. Although, I’m not entirely sure I ever saw the 1985 Di Fate, or the Signet 1971 versions.

  2. I don’t really know what to think or say.Of the few Aldiss books I’ve read,only one,”The Canopy of Time”,was a short story collection.I think I quite enjoyed some of them at the time,but it made no lasting impression on me.I don’t know if you’ve read it,but hopefully this collection is better,otherwise there’s no chance of me going after it.

    I thought the one by him in “Dangerous Visions” was quite good at the time,but I don’t remember much about it.But the ones in there were supposed to be risque.Maybe it made a difference.

    • I do not own that particular collection but I have already reviewed all but two of the stories in the collection: “Judas Danced” (1959) (darn good), “Visiting Amoeba” (1957), “Secret of a Mighty City” (1958) (masterpiece), “Who Can Replace Man?” (1959) (fine), “Blighted Profile ” (1958) (good), “All the World’s Tears ” (1957) (good), “Gene Hive” (1958) (bad), “Incentive” (1958) (bad), “Oh Ishrail” (1957) (average)…

      So, I’ve read all but two of the stories in the collection — depending on what I would rate them I’d give it a collated rating of probably a 3.75 to 4 out of 5.

  3. I’ve only read “Old Hundredth” from this, but it was a sure masterwork. Sounds like a fascinating collection, will have to put it on my list. Your point of Aldiss’ themes of waste and decay is spot-on, something I’ll take into future Aldiss novels I read.

    And I would totally buy it for that 1971 cover… Really dig that whole ’70s Signet cover series they did for Aldiss. The ’64 series wasn’t bad but I liked some of the other novels’ covers better than this one.

    • “Shards” is worth the price of the collection alone. Darn good… There is a ton of overlap in Aldiss collections — for example, The Canopy of Time collection mentioned by Richard, I’ve read all but two of the collections in OTHER collections! But, only two in this one… and both were darn good.

  4. I remember vaguely the “Judas Danced” one.I think I found it quite readable even if I didn’t entirely understand it,but don’t remember what it was about.Isn’t “Who Can Replace Man”,the one about the robots inheriting the Earth?That one think I preferered to JD,which was quite an atmospheric piece as I remember.

    This was from my very early sf reading days.

  5. The more and more I read of Aldiss, the more I realize his best works are not those touted so loudly, e.g. Hothouse or Non-Stop or Helliconia. They’re good books, but The Malacia Tapestry, Brothers of the Head, Greybeard, and his short work (A Man in His Time is superb) are better. The Secret of this Book is one of the best collections I’ve read, yet you’ll hear about it only in a select few places, and it seems Starswarm is too.

    Was Starswarm ever published under a different name? My fuzzy, middle-aged brain seems to recall yes, but could easily be wrong.

    • The ISFDB doesn’t list it as a variant, but the original UK title was “The Airs of Earth” (1963).

      • A little more research reveals that “The Airs of Earth” had eight stories, as does “Starswarm,” but only five stories from “The Airs of Earth” appear in “Starswarm.”

        “The Airs of Earth” includes three stories not found in “Starswarm”: “How to be a Soldier,” “Basis for Negotiation,” and “The International Smile.”

        “Starswarm” includes three stories not found in “The Airs of Earth”: “Hearts and Engines,” “The Underprivileged,” and “Legends of Smith’s Burst.”

        Both books contain “A Kind of Artistry,” “Shards,” “O Moon of My Delight,” “The Game of God,” and “Old Hundredth.”

        • Quote from ISFDB.

          “A number of the short stories in this fix-up originally appeared in the 1963 collection ”The Airs of Earth”.”

          Also, keep in mind the variant titles I listed — for example, “How to Be a Soldier” was rewritten for this collection.

  6. I found a copy of the 1971 Signet edition of this on the weekend. Checked to see if you’d reviewed it, and sure enough! I continue to be impressed by your coverage. I’m now tempted to kick this one to the top of the to read list.

  7. This was the first, and so far only, exposure I’ve ever had to Aldiss. I’m eager to add that he’s definitely become a favorite of mine by the merits of this collection alone.

    Some thoughts on the individual stories:

    Sector Vermillion – A Kind of Artistry: Might resolve to be my favorite. The somewhat haunting wonders contained here give way to a formal exploration of suppression and evolution

    Sector Gray – Hearts and Engines: Dreary oneirism within a war story. Contains pulses of action — though its more sad than thrilling; ultimately kept me at arms length

    Sector Violet – The Underprivileged: Was very wowed by this one… a tense, uncertain tour through a Twilight Zone-esque cityscape. Any perceived dullness came from my underestimating the ferocity of the upcoming twist. Here we have a chilling, intricately woven parable

    Sector Diamond – The Game of God: I’ve been impressed with Aldiss’ skewering of certain oppressive systems and trends so far. This anti-colonialist novelette doesn’t quite compare. A valiant attempt for 1958, which ultimately resolves with merely some trivial naval-gazing

    Sector Green – Shards: Poetical, discursive and bawdy. A curious exercise in mystery and irony. One of the more comical in the collection so far; one of the more unsettling. Also, rather bite-sized. I’ve heard it theorized that hiccups are a remnant of our fish-brained ancestors. I got hiccups immediately after reading…true story

    Sector Yellow – Legends of Smith’s Burst: A whimsical, sidelong outwandering of something like “Science-Mythology”; picaresque and grimy. Set in a curdling world of contradictions, and weaving a tall-tale of known disrepute. The rather eye-rolling inclusion of a doting love interest feels tone-accurate yet questionable

    Sector Azure – O Moon of My Delight!: The scenery, perspective and science of this story are vivid with clarity and color. Our narrator, on the other hand, holds a certain contempt for much of the cast, and none moreso than its women. Perhaps commentary is being given on the romantic dehumanization thrust at women; women as objects, especially poor women, seems to be on this story’s mind

    The Rift – Old Hundredth: The final story resolves Starswarm with a melancholic recollection of endings and transformations. A ghostly, contemplative eulogy which tugs at the symbols and theming employed across the rest of the collection to arrange them into new forms

    My story rankings:

    (From least favorite to favorite)
    The Game of God
    Hearts and Engines
    Legends of Smith’s Burst
    O Moon of My Delight!
    The Underprivileged
    Old Hundredth
    A Kind of Artistry

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