I took this photo of Brian Aldiss the last time I saw him, at the World Science Fiction Convention in London, three years ago this summer. He was busily signing books at the PS Publishing table (alongside Paul McAuley, in the background), at the head of a very long line of supplicants, so I didn't think I'd get to chat with him at all. But Brian's partner, Alison Soskice, saw me lurking about, hailed me, and brought me behind the table, where she and I yakked happily for several minutes.
Brian chatted with the customers the whole time, seemingly oblivious to us. But then he slowly reared back in his swivel chair, putting his large head beside ours, and gruffly asked Alison, "What do you mean, talking to this rogue?" Then he twinkled at me, rocked forward again, and greeted another customer.
When done with her, he reared back again and asked me, with a hopeful air, "Where's Sydney?" (meaning my wife, of course). "She's at home, I'm afraid," I replied. His face darkened comically, like a panto villain's. "What good are you, then?" he snarled, then twinkled, and sat forward again.
That's how it went for the next half-hour or so. Between customers, he'd rear back, say something cheerfully insulting to me, then twinkle, and sit forward again. This photo is of one of the twinkles.
Of the many obituaries, I best liked Christopher Priest's in The Guardian. "He wrote lively, intelligent prose, shot through with subversive humour, linguistic novelty and human observation. ... One of the most exhilarating aspects of reading Aldiss is the diversity of his imagination." Priest also notes, "All his working life he did much behind the scenes to encourage, support and promote younger writers." I can attest to that personally, and I'm sure Priest can as well.
I tried to describe what Brian meant to me in my introduction to his collection Cultural Breaks (Tachyon, 2005), but it deteriorated into mere anecdote, as usual. Here are some relevant, slightly revised, excerpts from that essay.
I loved Brian W. Aldiss the writer for most of my reading life, but in the 1990s I came to love Brian W. Aldiss the person as well. I met Brian through an annual event we both attended, the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts. Note the aplomb with which I toss off "we both attended," as if we were peers, old cronies from New Worlds before that kid Moorcock took it over. In fact, Brian was a living legend, with the ICFA title of Permanent Special Guest, when I first showed up as a graduate student.
I had read and admired his books since I was a kid, when I first plucked them off the shelves of the public library in Batesburg, South Carolina, where the librarian helpfully stamped each one -- even Billion Year Spree, which I read with delight, cover to cover, at age twelve -- with the little red rocketship that meant "science fiction." So being in his presence as an adult still reduced me to awe, to the level of the whining schoolboy, with his satchel.
My letter of transit to Brian was my then-girlfriend, now wife, Sydney, whom he promptly recruited, on sight, into the unofficial stock company that peopled the one-act plays he staged at ICFA each year. One year, I remember, there were several rehearsals, and at each rehearsal Sydney's role got bigger. Some of the script pages were handwritten. Brian was going back to his hotel room and writing whole monologues just for Sydney. "If Sydney's in it," Brian liked to say, "it's fireproof!" Since I was hanging around anyway, Brian was good enough to toss me a role occasionally. As a result, Sydney and I got to play the robot child's troubled parents in Brian's own stage version of "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long," years before what's-her-name and what's-his-face played the roles in Spielberg's A.I.
One of Brian's ICFA plays was Drinks with the Spider King. Brian and I both were typecast, he as the Spider King and I as a brainless minion. My role was to sit at his feet, gnaw an imaginary haunch of meat and gaze up at him with fearsome adoration. This I found easy to do. I had ample time -- for it was a rather long play -- to study, up close, Brian's marvelous face. I was fascinated by its creases, jowls, and bristles, and the zest with which Brian animated them. It was an old vaudevillian's face, a face that could be instantly read from the cheapest seats in the house. It had many stories yet to tell, that face.
In later years, Sydney spent several summers at Oxford University, as a teacher and administrator in the Alabama at Oxford program. Oxford was, of course, Brian's hometown, so Sydney and I were fortunate enough to visit him repeatedly in much more congenial settings than a convention hotel. When we went to dinner or to a pub, we didn't even wear name tags! How liberating. On a number of memorable occasions, Brian was the most welcoming and gracious host one could imagine, and a marvelous tour guide to his beloved Oxfordshire.
With Brian, we lounged on the lazy banks of the Windrush in the ragged shadow of the dismantled Minster Lovell Hall, where a vault once was opened to reveal a skeleton sitting upright at a writing-table, surrounded by books. (No wonder Brian loved the place.) With Brian, we navigated country lanes to the old stone village of Langford (in which, Brian joked, Dave Langford had no economic interest), and a fabulous pub called the Bell Inn, where the lamb was divine and the conversation even better. With Brian, we had a long and luxurious cream tea at a sidewalk cafe in Burford, which Brian's then-young son, in the wake of Brian's 1969 novel Barefoot in the Head, christened Burford-in-the-Head. ("I thought that was rather good," Brian said, still the proud papa thirty-six years later.) Our Burford tea party was so lush and attractive, we actually drew bees. We also attracted a passer-by who asked, "Excuse me, aren't you Brian Aldiss?" -- a first in my writerly experience, and an instance of Brian's celebrity in his homeland.
On another occasion, as he and I sat side by side on a rough-hewn bench in an extraordinary Oxford seafood restaurant called Fishers, as the two of us munched fistfuls of deep-fried whitebait, with lemons and sea salt, Brian delighted me with a long, impassioned, funny, profane denunciation of a new critical anthology. I had contributed a chapter to that wicked anthology, hence my delight. I wonder whether Brian really had forgotten that I had helped write the book, or only pretended to forget.
Best of all, I think, was our chance to see Brian's house, his study, his library (which was pretty much coexistent with his house), and his amazing garden -- a vast, lovingly tended tangle full of surprises, into which the wanderer quickly disappeared. Goldfish thrived in the murk of what only a soulless cynic would call an abandoned pool.
Speaking of pools, in closing, I offer an ICFA anecdote that Brian doubtless did not remember, as it occurred before I met Sydney and before he even knew my name. Late one night, I sat poolside with a group of my fellow graduate students. By ones and twos, the group drifted off to bed, leaving only two of us, a young man and a young woman, deep in a high-octane critical conversation about something or other. We both gradually became aware of the sound of someone in the pool, gently swimming toward us -- at 2 a.m. We looked up. Bobbing there, a few yards away, was the conference's distinguished Permanent Special Guest, gray hair plastered across his head, beaming at us. When he spoke, his voice was barely a murmur, but the acoustics of the pool ferried it directly into our ears, like a confidence. "Come on," Brian cooed. "Don't be shy. Come in. Come into the water." He then winked, turned, and glided away, as graceful and amoral as an otter.