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Cultural Breaks
Brian Aldiss
Tachyon, 256 pages

Cultural Breaks
Brian W. Aldiss
Brian W. Aldiss was born in 1925 in the UK. He grew up in rural Norfolk and Devon, the son of a department store owner. He served 3 years in Burma and Asia with the Forgotten Army. This part of the world was later to become quite influential on his work. Having played a seminal role in SF's New Wave in the 60s, he is now considered by many to be the elder statesman of UK SF.

Brian W. Aldiss Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Moment of Eclipse
SF Site Review: Hothouse
SF Site Review: Non-Stop
SF Site Review: The Twinkling of an Eye, or, My Life as an Englishman

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

Brian Aldiss is a fabulous and frustrating writer. When he is on song, his prose is dynamic, disturbing and delectable. But he is a restless writer. He came into his own in the fervid and experimental atmosphere of the New Wave, and he has been driven to try the new and the different ever since. That he is still experimenting now, 50 years after his debut, is a measure of a man who has never been prepared to settle back on his laurels and rehash the same old, same old. But it is in the nature of experiments that they sometimes fail. Any collection of his short fiction, therefore, involves negotiating occasional pieces that dissipate in inconsequentiality or fizz in bravura but somehow unsatisfactory surreality in order to savour the gems.

In 'How the Gates Opened and Closed,' a storyteller is castigated for the lack of incident in his tale. He responds: "What you must learn to enjoy is the lack of event, the silences of a tale." That sounds very much like Aldiss himself speaking. 'How the Gates Opened and Closed' is actually one of the successful examples of this zen-like approach to storytelling, but the eventless tales aren't always so satisfying. 'Tralee of Man Young', for instance, in which our narrator teaches a bee to read, only for the bee eventually to buzz off, simply leaves one feeling that there must be more. The inconsequentiality, the mundanity may be part of the point of the tale, but it still reads as if the whole thing simply ran out of steam.

In contrast, the more surreal pieces, like 'Aboard the Beatitude' or 'Commander Calex Killed, Fire and Fury at Edge of World, Scones Perfect' in which a desperate journey through a vividly described, war-ravaged landscape ends incongruously in a displaced English tea room which the outside world cannot touch, could do with a little more silence in the tale. They have too much incident, and not enough connecting fibre to make that incident seem relevant or coherent. That he can make the surreal both relevant and coherent is shown in 'The Eye Opener;' a superb fable in which a gigantic head appears mysteriously in the sky, visible always in the same aspect wherever in the world one might be. How the head, without ever doing anything, subverts the very masculine perspective of the militaristic power-broker of a narrator is one of the subtlest things in this collection.

One endures the less successful experiments, because they are mostly short, and because they are surrounded by stories which deliver so much more. In this collection, for instance, there is the early promise of 'Tarzan of the Alps,' a tender little tale of how a misinterpretation of an old movie in a remote part of South America steers a couple through the misfortunes of life. (Tarzan of the Alps crops up again in 'The Man and a Man with His Mule,' a good story even if it doesn't quite match the tenderness of its predecessor.) Later in the collection there is 'The Hibernators,' a vivid and at times startling description of a world in which the human inhabitants hibernate during winter, and what happens to those who stay awake. It doesn't quite hold together all the way to the end, but the journey has some magical moments that leave you wishing the story had been a great deal longer.

But the real gems of Cultural Breaks are kept right to the end. They also happen to be, by some way, the oldest stories in the book, though that is probably just coincidence. 'A Chinese Perspective,' from 1978 tells of an inoffensive man who invents a machine to predict the future in a world in which the Chinese have become the dominant economic power. Even older is 'Total Environment' from 1968, a claustrophobic tale of accelerated evolution among a group of humans sealed inside an overcrowded artificial environment in India. India, China, South America, the cultural eclecticism of his settings, each handled with insouciant ease, reveal just what a master Brian Aldiss is. This may not be the best collection of his fiction, but it is almost archetypal in its range, its qualities, its frustrations and its sheer fabulous elations.

Copyright © 2006 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the administrator of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and reviews for most of the critical journals in science fiction, as well as contributing to numerous reference books.

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