Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCCVIII (Brian W. Aldiss, D. G. Compton, and Shirley Jackson)

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

1. The Sundial, Shirley Jackson (1958)

From the back cover: “THE SUNDIAL is a chilling, suspenseful, bloodcurdlingly macabre novel of twelve strange people awaiting the end of the world in a fantastical house like no other on earth.” SF Encyclopedia describes The Sundial as “the closet to SF she came.”

Initial Thoughts: I’ve read “The Lottery” (1948) (of course!). I haven’t read anything else by Jackson.

2. Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction, Brian W. Aldiss (1973)

From the inside flap: “‘Science fiction is a parade ground where private fantasy and public events meet,” Writes Brian W. Aldiss. And in this engrossing study the popular author of numerous novels, short stories and critical pieces presents a most thoughtful history of the genre which examines its growth from its earliest origins to its present state of divergence.

Contrary to the belief that science fiction began in the plays of the ancient Greeks as held by many critics, or in the pulp magazines of the 1920’s as claimed in more modern interpretations. Mr. Aldiss finds that it was born in the heart of the English Romantic movement with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus. And through careful analysis of the novel he demonstrates the special characteristics which he feels have distinguished the field from its starts.

Using this same technique on important works from various other periods, Mr. Aldiss traces the entire development of science fiction through its writers–Edgar Allen Poe, H. G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Campbell, and on into the present–placing them against the technological and human evolution of their times. The result is a detailed and thoroughly entertaining look at this unique form which at last gives it its proper position in our literary tradition.”

Initial Thoughts: I recently read and enjoyed Paul Kincaid’s monograph Brian W. Aldiss (2022) and decided to track down some of Aldiss’ nonfiction. I’ve previously reviewed 47 Aldiss short stories and 3 novels (never got around to reviewing Gerybeard) on the site — he’s long been a favorite of mine. As I’m implied before, I am not convinced of Aldiss central argument about the origins of science fiction in Billion Year Spree but I am increasingly interested in SF non-fiction as a whole so thought I’d track down a copy.

3. The Shape of Further Things, Brian W. Aldiss (1970)

From the back cover: “THE SHAPE OF FURTHER THINGS by Brian Aldiss is a profoundly original and thought-provoking book by one of the leading writers of science fiction. It is a critical appraisal of the way science fiction has evolved and the part it plays in society today. But more than that, it is an intelligent and highly credible glimpse into a future in which science fiction will rapidly become science fact…”

Initial Thoughts: See my comments for Aldiss’ Billion Year Spree above!

4. Windows, D. G. Compton (1979)

From the inside flap: “Rod was the Man-With-the-TV-Eyes, the ultimate reporter whose eyes, thanks to the wonders of micro-surgery, had become cameras. He looked into the darkest corners of people’s lives–literally-and found that he enjoyed it. He began living through his subjects, and his own life slowly disintegrated. Then one day, horrified by what he had become and by the effect his relentless proving had on one valiant dying woman, he burned out the delicate, expensive circuits.

Now he is blind. Blind and bitter and filled with self-hate. Before him lies the seemingly insurmountable task of learning to believe in himself again: to believe he deserves the unfailing love of his wife and son, deserves to see again, deserves even to live.

His internal struggle is complicated by the public attention that his act of self-mutilation has drawn. Considered by some a hero, by others an object of disgust, Rod and his family are never left alone. They accept an invitation from an old friend–Marcus Wolfe–to stay with him at his secluded villa in Italy. But Wolfe’s offer of shelter is a lie: he is in the employ of a fanatical political group, and Rod’s family is his prisoner. Fighting to save his life and regain his freedom, Rod finally allows light to pierce his spiritual darkness.

Windows is a starkly powerful, unsentimental view of a new-future society and of human relationships. And though the view is dark, there remains always the saving ray of hope.”

Initial Thoughts: I’d completely forgotten that Compton wrote a sequel to his masterpiece The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974). I know little about how it measures up to its illustrious predecessor…

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28 thoughts on “Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCCVIII (Brian W. Aldiss, D. G. Compton, and Shirley Jackson)

  1. I’d honestly never heard of THE SUNDIAL. I’m very intrigued! (Incidentally, I strongly recommend Jackson’s short story “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts”.)

    I read both of those Aldiss books as a teenager, and was very impressed. I wonder what I’d think now?

    I knew there was a sequel to THE CONTINUOUS KATHERINE MORTENHOE … I’m not sure it needed a sequel, to be honest, though the description seems at least promising. But I’ve got lots more Compton to get to first. (He actually recommended ASCENDANCIES to me when I had a conversation with him about the Cordwainer Smith award. He was also rather self-deprecating concerning his earlier crime fiction.)

    • Me neither until I read a chapter of Lisa Yaszek’s Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction (2008). She features it prominently — along with “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts” and a few of her other short fictions that approach SF.

      I agree re-the idea of a sequel to The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe… we shall see!

  2. I hope the read of BILLION-YEAR SPREE is a success. It’s a fascinating subject, and Aldiss has a very coherent take on it. I’m not sure anyone can ever really fully define something as immense as a whole strand of cultural behavior but he very usefully describes the territory from an interesting angle. Guessing that THE SHAPE OF FURTHER THINGS will be similar….
    The Compton and the Jackson are unknown to me so I’ll eagerly await your takes.

  3. I have Windows, although I have yet to read it. Interestingly, it was never published in the UK.

    I have, however, read The Shape of Further Things, and it’s astonishingly self-centred. It’s mildly interesting when Aldiss discusses his fiction, but his futurism is laughable.

    • As I mentioned re-Billion Year Spree to Expendable above, “as an artifact of the 70s and a window into Aldiss’ concerns and interests, I suspect it’ll be fascinating.” That’s really all I’m expecting to get from both volumes.

      I look forward to whenever you post a review of Windows! I recently rewatched the Tavernier film Deathwatch (1980) so I feel a bit inspired to read more Compton.

  4. I wanna get Trillion Year Spree, which is apparently a heavily revised redo of Billion Year Spree, to the point of being considered a separate book. I’ve read a bit of it and Aldiss certainly makes some arguments.

    • Because I know I’ll get annoyed at some of his arguments (goes with the territory) I wanted to read the original one first as I’ll treat it more as a window into 70s views on genre and his own SF concerns. And it’s all Paul Kincaid’s fault as I read his recent monograph on Aldiss! muahaha

  5. I never had a copy of “Billion Year Spree”, only a library edition. I had it out twice, but I couldn’t be bothered to read it all, because much of it I didn’t find that interesting. I only searched for the authors I wanted to read about. I think it can be called a seminal book about the subject though, probably being the most complete and up-to-date overview of the written genre there’d been at the time.

    When I bought the revised edition, “Trillion Year Spree”, written in tandem with the eminent critic David Wingrove, needless to say I did read it all. My interest in SF had broadened by then, and it’s history and in-depth discussion was more thorough than the previous version. Several if not many authors are deservedly discussed at length, some perhaps less so, and others that you might think important, more briefly, probably to their detriment. It’s still an excellent account of the written history of SF though, probably due to the fact that Wingrove is more of an academic than Aldiss.

    I think you’ll agree that SF has a very old cultural history, the term Gothic itself being an idiom that’s quite ancient, seeping into our language and literature. If it didn’t develop from Gothic literature, then I don’t know what to think. You said that it probably applies to the British tradition, but you probably think that the American branch of the genre developed independently.

    • I am not saying that Gothic literature didn’t influence science fiction… It obviously did. But if we’re going to define the origin of a SF genre, I (as of now) ascribe to scholarly arguments that place the 1920s as the beginning.

      • I can see what you mean. There were also authors like Olaf Stapledon who were writing SF within the general literary realm at the same time as the old pulp magazines, whose place is more difficult to define, but both greatly influenced the modern genre.

        • I just worked out you’ve had the conversation on Gothic already! I generally agree with the argument about clearly delimiting SF to 1926 and after even if I have reservations–and indeed one must! Perhaps more controversially I believe SF died in the early/mid1970s or thereabouts. Still working on this thesis…

          • No worries! My issue has more to do with proclaiming a work is “SF” before a conception of the genre exists. It clearly wasn’t conceived of as such at the time and the conventions weren’t established. The work can, of course, be influential for later formulations and contain many elements that would later become convention.

          • Also by unearthing earlier and earlier examples of “SF” (oh look this 12th century morality allegory is really SF!) you’re shearing them from the the context in which they were conceived and how they might be subversively interacting with other genre conceptions of the day. But that’s my two cents.

      • That’s an interesting way to look at it. What actually defines the beginning of a new genre? I don’t really have a good answer for that. Does it need to have an official name? It appears that Hugo Gernsback was the first to coin a name for the genre although he originally started with scientifiction and didn’t use science fiction until 1929. He also included some older stories that were retroactively considered SF in the first issue of Amazing in 1926 by authors like Poe, Wells and Verne. So there is a good case that Gernsback created the SF genre by publishing a magazine of stories that were similar in ideas that extrapolated the current science into what-if scenarios. Gernsback explained what type of stories he was publishing in his magazine in his editorial “A New Kind of Magazine” so that readers would understand what this new genre was about. To further spread an interest in this new genre he had a lively letters column and promoted the idea of readers getting together by forming fan groups. The concept of SF existed in many novels and stories before 1926 but there was no effort before then to identify those novels as forming a new type of literature the way Gernsback did.

  6. I read Billion Year Spree what seems like a trillion years ago. Very sketchy memories from a time when my thoughts on the New Wave and its aftermath was less than coherent. I really need to return to Aldiss both as critic and author. I’d be interested to hear why you aren’t a fan of his Gothic influence thesis. I feel it has a lot of weight for a genre that doesn’t really cohere until it’s ascendant phase, 1920s-1960s.
    Has anyone else noticed that the Windows logo was ripped directly off of the cover of 1979 Windows!?

  7. I believe we’re in furious agreement here! In a related note, I feel that the Aldiss (and Merril?) thesis that SF was a collosal detour is similarly deeply problematic. Apart from the sheer fact of SF it also seems to imply there is this thing called literature that stands outside of the space time of history, and the developments in the capitalist markets in cultural production in particular. But I digress, as per usual.

  8. I read ‘The Lottery’ and ‘The Beautiful Stranger’ by Shirley Jackson. The latter is an interesting psychological drama about a woman experiencing an identity crisis when her husband returns from a business trip. There’s a foreboding feeling as her sanity begins to slip while she questions the nature of reality like a character in a Philip K. Dick novel. Jackson proved she could make you feel uncomfortable without resorting to typical horror tropes.

    • I assume you’re then intrigued by The Sundial? I have fond memories of “The Lottery.” I’m not sure where I read it. Perhaps in high school or perhaps in some collection my parents had at home…

      • I love ‘The Lottery’. It’s one of my favourite short stories of all time. Very deep and philosophical without beating you over the head with its message, which in its case can be interpreted as the dangers of continuing ancient rituals and customs without questioning their intent (religion comes to mind). It can also be an allegory of conformity and groupthink in general. I also love how the story starts off innocently enough but becomes bizarrely horrific in its final paragraph.

        There’s also a short film adaptation available on YouTube if you’re interested: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s1TV1R1kK9A

        I want to check out ‘The Sundial’ because I like the apocalypse in SF (such as ‘The Genocides’) and how it affects a community’s mindset. ‘Termush’ is on my list but I struggle to find a translated copy anywhere.

        • When I bought my copy of Termush, it was the ONLY available copy online. We can only hope that a press interested in older unknown classics might reprint it.

          I did not know about a film adaptation. I’ll check it out when I’m home. It obviously cast a long shadow over SF. Kit Reed’s wonderful “The Wait” (1958) is inspired by the Jackson story. As with stuff like Alice Glaser’s “The Tunnel Ahead” (1961) which I really need to review!

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