Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCLXXX (Brian W. Aldiss, Judith Merril, Brian M. Stableford, and Chad Oliver)

Which books/covers/authors intrigue you? Which have you read? Disliked? Enjoyed?

1. Barefoot In the Head, Brian W. Adliss (1969)

From the back cover: “AFTER THE ACID WAR…. Rising from the dust and ashes of a Europe still reeling from the effects of the great Acid War comes Colin Charteris, a futuristic Don Quixote riding the mechanized brontosaurus of the times.

Charteris tries desperately to make sense of the drugged, chaotic world he lives in, and finds himself hailed as the new Messiah. Stranger still, Charteris himself comes to believe this.

His adventures as he tries to save the world from its insanity are brilliantly told, a satiric science fiction comment on the future of mankind.”

Initial Thoughts: I’m a huge Aldiss fan. Check out my extensive review index of his work. However, I have not really explored his more out there New Wave works like Barefoot in the Head (1969) and Report on Probability A (1968). And as a proponent of the movement, I should…. And “AFTER THE ACID WAR” is the biggest hook of the hooks!

2. Another Kind, Chad Oliver (1955)

From the inside page: “Now Oliver presents a collection of his short stories, many of which are further fascinating and illuminating variations on anthropological themes. You will go back in time to an ancient civilization which contains a misplaced citizen of the present; you will go forward to an extraterrestrial civilization which has a great deal to teach Earth. You will visit an America of the future in which a chief profession is the invention of new cultures.

In these and in the other stories in this outstanding book, you will be in the grip of one of the remarkable new talents in the science-fiction field. Chad Oliver is clearly destined for very big things, but his record so far is rich in more than promise. This fine collection shows he has already achieved fictional heights that mean delight to his readers.”

Contents: “The Mother of Necessity” (1955), “Rite of Passage” (1954), “Scientific Method” (1953), “Night” (1955), “Transformer” (1954), “Artifact” (1955), “A Star Above It” (1955).

Initial Thoughts: Chad Oliver has recently been on my mind as I’ve restarted my generation ship review series. Here’s what I’ve reviewed of his so far:

3. Shadow on the Hearth, Judith Merril (1950)

From the inside flap: “SHADOW ON THE HEARTH is the story of Gladys Mitchell, a young, attractive Westchester housewife who, through hope and courage, successfully fought the chaos in the wake of an atomic war.

This day started as it usually did. Cladys occupied herself with the irksome but satisfying routine of a pleasant and happy household. Then she half noticed the sound–a sort of far-off thunder. Soon there was the ominous feeling of something wrong; and finally the dawning, numbing comprehension… Then the frantic terror, mounting slowly as the great mushrooming cloud had mounted a few hours ago over New York Harbor.

As the holocaust reached out and seemed to envelop all, Gladys thought first of her family. Was her husband alive or dead? How could she protect her two daughters from this insidious enemy?

She found staunch and unexpected allies in her own children, in a mysterious fugitive, and in an idealistic young doctor. Together they welded courage and understanding to triumph over terror and desperation.”

Initial Thoughts: Judith Merril has long been a favorite of this site. And her first novel Shadow on the Hearth (1950) has long been on my to acquire list but priced out of reach. After reviewing Survival Ship and Other Stories (1974), I was inspired to dish out the $20 for a nice first edition.

4. Promised Land, Brian M. Stableford (1974)

From the back cover: “GRAINGER OF THE HOODED SWAN. They had set out from Earth in search of the promised land—and after centuries of flight they believed they had found it. It was already inhabited but by a primitive and peaceful humanoid race that gave them no opposition.

This was the situation when the HOODED SWAIN landed on its information-seeking mission for the vast interstellar libraries of New Alexandria. Grainger, man of the double-mind, realized early that there was something odd about the truce between the xenophobic colonists and the docile natives.

It took a fleeing wide-eyed native child to bring the Promised Land suddenly to critical mass. What was there about this little girl that could so take an entire planet to the edge of Kingdom Come? That was what Grainger’s minds had to find out–and quickly.”

Initial Thoughts: Stableford’s brand of SF has not fared well on my site. I’ve reviewed the following (including the first in the Hooded Swan sequence):

However, Promised Land (1974) is described by SF Encyclopedia as telling the story “of a society of colonists whose social structure is based on that developed over generations in the starship on which they arrived.” And considering my recent series and the possibility of reading all the pre-1985 generation ship stories…. I bought a copy.

For book reviews consult the INDEX

For cover art posts consult the INDEX

For TV and film reviews consult the INDEX

62 thoughts on “Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCLXXX (Brian W. Aldiss, Judith Merril, Brian M. Stableford, and Chad Oliver)

  1. I’ve wanted to read the Aldiss and Merril but never run across copies. I happen to like Chad Oliver, but I’ve never seen that collection or any collection by Oliver. But the dates of the story come from a favorite period. I just don’t know much about Stableford except for some books about SF he’s written.

    My favorites of the covers are the same as the order you’ve displayed them.

  2. I haven’t read “Barefoot in the Head”. Brian Aldiss was part of the British “new wave”, his novel “Greybeard” being born from that movement. His novel written nearly ten years later, “The Eighty Minuet Hour”, seems to be at the tail end of the “new wave”, but is a honeyed cocktail, which isn’t nearly as good as “Greybeard”. I would hope it’s not a complex mess like that one.

      • I know, but it seems that Aldiss’s early “new wave” fiction is smoother and clearer than his later stuff, if “The Eighty Minuet Hour” is anything to go by. It sounds like it’s fun to read though.

          • I love “Appearance of Life” which got me to read a collection by Aldiss and a memoir. Then I bought THE BRIAN ALDISS COLLECTION: THE COMPLETE STORIES: 1950s. Aldiss wasn’t always a new wave writer. I wish all of the complete stories volumes were available here in the U.S., but they aren’t. I wish they were all available on the Kindle because the print is tiny in them. I think they are in Great Britain.

            • Yeah, if I remember correctly you read “Appearance of Life” because of my review! 🙂

              But yes, I’ve charted his evolution on my site in my reviews (lots and lots of 50s and 60s and some 70s short fiction and early novels). I’ve also read/enjoyed/but never reviewed Greybeard.

  3. I can second the vote for “Report on Probability A”. It’s sort of 60s (new wave) sf meets the contemporaneous French New Wave–for instance it reminded me of aspects of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novels.
    I like Aldiss, read a handful of his short fiction and very few of his novels, but for some reason have yet to feel impelled to read more. Maybe Hothouse next?
    I think I like the idea of Chad Oliver more than its execution! Having said that, the short story “Transformer” is well worth a look.
    Like you I have enjoyed immensely what I have read of Judith Merril’s–incidentally mostly from the NESFA collection of her short fiction. For instance, Daughters of Earth–even if its a little structurally wonky is simply a wonderful piece that stands out from the cavalcade of Campbellian “capable men” which Merril was no doubt responding to.
    I have also been tempted by Brian M. Stableford but have not read any outstanding appreciation of his work–though to be fair I haven’t tried hunting such assessments down. He is, however, a great editor and historical critic of early sf. And his work with Black Coat Press is exceptional.

    • I keep on wanting to read Hothouse and realizing that my copy is the US edition that apparently was cut by editors — not exactly sure what was changed. I need to track down a UK edition.

      Stableford is tempting. The shelves at my local stores are stocked with his 148-180 page adventures. But all three I’ve read so far are SO slight. In my response to Rich’s comment below, I linked a great interview with Stableford about his French SF in translation project.

      • Thanks for the link. I’ve always been impressed with Stableford’s scholarly sf work. To be fair to him, perhaps his fictional work outside of your purview, post 1985, are the ones to hunt down?

          • Australia is closely tied to the UK book market so most of the pre internet second hand stock here are UK prints. When i can haunt the few second bookstores that are left that is. Looking forward to a good browse or three after the current lockdown.

          • I’ve read Hothouse twice. It’s pretty far out. I wished there was an audiobook edition. Very little of Aldiss is on audio. I see that more of his work is showing up for the Kindle though. I wonder why SF fans don’t discuss him more online?

            • I need to pay more attention to Aldiss. I’ve almost always liked what i’ve read of his, and have long been a fan of his first novel Non-Stop. Time to dust
              off some of his works…

            • By the way, I read Aldiss’ “Appearance of Life” last week. What a wonderful tale. I just reread your review and agree wholeheartedly with your assessment. A story over full with the entropy of living. Methinks it may be time for a major Aldiss binge. I’m starting Hothouse tonight!

            • Another book by Aldiss that made me impressed with his work is Bury My Heart at W. H. Smith’s: A Writing Life. It’s a memoir. Aldiss should have been a lot more famous.

            • I’m intrigued by Aldiss’ other life as a bookseller. His first published book, The Brightfount Diaries, was based upon his time working as a bookseller in Oxford. My chief interest here is that I spent/wasted 20 years of my life working in bookstores. Fame, on the other hand, I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.

            • More of a nightmare after all those years! A lot of book lovers imagine working in a bookstore would be a grand thing. Sometimes is almost is, but in the end it’s just another retail job, managing the occasional shitty customer and the drudgery of unpacking, processing and shelving books.

            • Yeah, I understand — I guess I crave the relative calm vs. the physical/mental exhaustion that comes with teaching at my school. Not a fan of getting pushed by a rowdy student (at least they were suspended).

            • And in the US there’s a major K-12 teacher shortage…. exacerbated by the devastation wrought by Covid and the skill gaps that have emerged. And so much additional stress is dumped on a teacher’s shoulders as if they alone can catch a kid up the two grade-levels they have plummeted in the last two year.

            • I’m a serious fan of the story as well. I love the idea that a vast arcology populated by robots serves as a museum… there are so many fascinating ideas in that story treated in a remarkably vivid way.

      • “Hothouse” was originally published as 5 novelets in F&SF, as the ISFDB notes. THE LONG AFTERNOON OF EARTH — the abridged US edition — apparently has only 3 parts. On that basis I have assumed that it omits two of the original novelets. But if the abridgement is only “slight” — as the ISFDB says — that can’t be right — a 40% cut is not “slight”.

        I read HOTHOUSE first quite late — in the 2000 reprint edition from House of Stratus. My review is here: https://www.sfsite.com/06a/hh105.htm.

        My actual belief, based on the page count differences, is that THE LONG AFTERNOON OF EARTH is likely rather more that “slightly” cut, though I’m not sure exactly how — does it really omit one or two of the original stories? Or are there cuts throughout. I’ll have to find a copy and check. I wonder if all the editions under that title are the cut editions? The first full US edition seems to have been the Gregg Press 1976 edition called HOTHOUSE. But there were later reprints of THE LONG AFTERNOON OF EARTH, including one from the SFBC. Were those restored?

        Finally, the “Hothouse” series of stories won the 1962 Hugo for Best Short Fiction. On merit, that award is deserved, at least by comparison with the other nominees. I don’t know how the nomination/voting went — I kind of suspect that nominations for any of the stories were combined into a series nominations, and the voting then was just for the series. But I honestly don’t know.

        Though I say its award was “deserved”, I only mean that it is a) a very good set of stories, of Hugo quality; and b) better than the rest of the nomination list. But there were at least two stories published in 1961 that were better (in my opinion) than the “Hothouse” stories: “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night”, by Algis Budrys; and “The Sources of the Nile”, by Avram Davidson. And indeed “The Sources of the Nile” is one of my very favorite short stories of all time. (There were also a couple of Cordwainer Smith stories that deserved a look, and a good Judith Merril story, and good stories by Ballard and Vonnegut.)

        • Yes, Rich, both ‘Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night’ and ‘The Sources of the Nile’ are very fine. The latter my favorite Davidson story by far. The former, part of a big uptick in quality that Budrys’s stories took at the tail end of the 1950s and through the 1960s; though he wrote much less — very little compared to his 1950s output, in which there’s a lot of dross aside from items like ‘The End of Summer’ and ‘Nobody Bothers Gus’ — his 1960s-era stories, such as ‘For Love’ and ‘Be Merry,’ are kind of the missing link in a tradition of dark SF that runs from Kornbluth to Tiptree.

          As far as the material JB brings up here, I’ve read the Aldiss and the Stableford. And in both cases hardly recall a thing about the book in question.

          In the case of the Aldiss, it’s because at the time — as they say of the Sixties in general, if you remember them you weren’t really there — I was doing some of what’s caused a breakdown of society across Europe in Aldiss’s novel. I remember standing in a London Tube station as a train arrived in 1970, forex, and having a vision of a giant flaming asteroid; and wandering around Berkeley on my first night in California and forgetting my own name. I do recall that parts of ‘Barefoot in the Head’ were published in Moorcock’s NEW WORLDS when it was in its glossy-pamphlet, Arts Council-subsidized era and at its New Wave-iest, and that the ‘Charteris’ character basically seemed to be a sociopath.

          In the case of the Stableford, I don’t remembermuch because it was pretty undistinguished. I sit between you, Rich, and you, JB. I read all the ‘Hooded Swan’ novels and most of the ‘Daedalus’ series later, IIRC, and I think Wollheim was hoping that Stableford would be for DAW what Silverberg and Brunner had been for Ace. But while Stableford was certainly as prolific as those gentlemen, he was also prolix, and weak on characterization besides. In fact, it’s not clear he ever fully learned how to write fiction.

          God knows plenty of SF writers are like that. Stephen Baxter is a current example (except when he uses 1st person POV). But Baxter has as many SFnal ideas as any SF writer has ever had. Stableford didn’t, particularly, except in his biotech-themed Emortality novels in the 1990s through the decade of the noughties — as you say, Rich, those are the Stablefords worth looking at. Even then, that series turned to porridge by the fourth or fifth book. Eventually, readers stopped reading him and publishers stopped buying his novels, and today Stableford doesn’t have a career except as an academic/translator of SF.

          • Yeah, the Emortality series, like so many, petered out by the end. And certainly characterization was not Stableford’s forte — but his ideas were pretty cool. I liked his odd series of vampire stories, from Interzone in the ’90s, also — and I usually don’t much go for vampires.

            As for Budrys — yes, in the late ’50s he grew enormously as a writer, stories as you say rather dark, and full of obsessives. I do love “The End of Summer” — a very good story that seems a couple of small choices towards the end short of utterly brilliant. But as his output dwindled, each story seemed outstanding, on through his ’70s stuff like “The Nuptial Flight of Warbirds” and MICHAELMAS, and through his last very short novel HARD LANDING.

            • Algis Budrys’ “Wall of Crystal, Eye of Night” is not one of his I’ve read yet — although I’ve reviewed quite a few of his novels and short stories on the site. Never cared for Michaelmas… as I think Rich already knows! hah

              I have a collection of his 50s stories on the burner. I might get to it soon (I’m all for “dark, and full of obsessives”).

              I agree both of your descriptions of Stableford. Often great ideas but weakened inordinately by his poor characterization and by-the-numbers plots.

  4. I read the Hooded Swan books along with Stableford’s other early series, Daedalus, decades ago. I don’t recall them well, but I remember thinking them enjoyable but far from great. Stableford grew tremendously as a writer between his prolific ’70s novels and sometime in the ’90 and 2000s, culminating in the Emortality book. He’s also made major contributions as a translator of early French SF, and as a scholar.

    We’ve already discussed on Twitter the Aldiss novel. It is definitely on the list (along with Report on Probability A) of Aldiss novels I need to try again — I simply wasn’t ready for them when I ran across them at the local library in 1975 or so.

    • I’ve only read the first in the Hooded Swan sequence (link to my review provided above). My final thoughts:

      “The power of the prologue dissipates with hardly a whimper… Other than in the prologue, the alien “conscience” is not used to great effect. The moment the novel devolves into a primarily plot-driven exercise, Stableford effectively removes the potential for revealing dialogue. As we know so little about the other characters, Grainger’s later decisions don’t merit any real reflection. The rest of the novel contains a smattering of fascinating ideas–decadent races that live separated from other societies in domed (and doomed) cities, a lost alien home world, aliens with hyperthymesia…. In each case Stableford operates like a blunderbuss, blasting in a general direction hoping to hit something. Most of the pellets bounced off my breastplate.”

      I respect his editorial work greatly. I know the wonderful Rachel at SF in Translation interviewed him about his French SF project: Check the interview out if you haven’t already! https://www.sfintranslation.com/?p=4408

  5. Some cool stuff there. I think back in the day the the Dillan cover for the Aldiss would have been called mod. (But I could be wrong) It really suits the book and period. I quite like the Chad Oliver cover. I remain an unashamed Stableford fan and this is part of the Hooded Swan series, I liked the first book The Halcyon Drift and have been meaning to read the rest.

    All the best

    • I look forward to any reviews of the sequels to Halcyon Drift — as I mentioned above, only tempted in this one due to its exploration of a society descended from a generation ship (not a common theme)

  6. I am playing catchup here. I mentioned Stableford’s translations on Jagged Orbit yesterday so I will now read the interview you linked to.

    Thanks Guy

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