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HARM
Brian W. Aldiss
Del Rey, 225 pages

HARM
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: Cultural Breaks
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

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Brian Aldiss is angry. And it has resulted in the best book he has written in a long time. Perhaps since the days of his pomp in the 60s and 70s.

There is nothing particularly unusual in his anger. He is raging at the 'war on terror' and the illiberal response of so-called liberal democracies, the obscenity of Guantanamo Bay, the indefensible use of torture by nations that had long-since outlawed its use. Many of us share his outrage, and it has already fuelled novels as diverse as The Execution Channel by Ken MacLeod and Ink by Hal Duncan. But the way it has fed into this novel makes it one of the most vivid confrontations with the ethos of contemporary British and American governments that we have seen. Not so long ago the British Government instituted a law that made it illegal to glorify terrorism. It is a bad law, ill-conceived, ill-constructed and unneeded, and it has already led to at least one collection of stories (Glorifying Terrorism edited by Farah Mendlesohn). This novel is a direct challenge to that law, and to the muddled, vicious and repressive thinking that lies behind it.

Paul Fadhil Abbas Ali is a young writer. His family is Moslem but he sees himself as wholly British (he has an Irish wife), and his novel, The Pied Piper of Hamnet, is conceived as being a light comic fantasy somewhat in the very English tradition of P.G. Wodehouse. The few paragraphs we see of this novel make it hard to recognise any Wodehousian influence, but it is an inoffensive work in which an unsatisfactory here is contrasted humorously with a more idyllic elsewhere. In this brief passage the hero and heroine, in the mundane world of the novel, begin with silly exaggeration to consider ways in which the world might be made better, and one suggestion is to blow up the prime minister.

Suddenly the nature of the work is transformed. The authorities, in their rigid proto-fascism, are blind to the humour, to the fantasy, to the very fictionality of the work. In their blinkered way they see only a Moslem advocating the assassination of the prime minister.

Paul is seized, taken to an unidentified facility that may be in Syria, or perhaps Uzbekistan, and there subjected to the routine tortures, humiliations and abuses that have become such a sick and familiar part of Western response to anyone and anything they don't like. The details of his sufferings pale beside the stories that have come out of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Baghram, but Aldiss isn't really interested in the pornography of torture. It is the Kafkaesque coils of a situation in which innocence is unimagined, and therefore the truly innocent person has no defence, that interest him. In fact, one possible criticism of the book might be that Paul's situation is not sufficiently Kafkaesque; although it is nightmarish enough, there are brief scenes in which we discover that even the interrogators see the illogic of their actions. If the focus had remained strictly on Paul's experience, it might have been an even stronger book.

But Paul has a way out. In a situation that clearly parallels what we see of his novel within a novel, Paul becomes Fremant (to rub the symbolism home almost too explicitly, he is familiarly known as 'Free') on the newly colonised world of Stygia. Slowly Stygia takes over the novel, perhaps inevitably so, since Fremant's relative freedom of movement means that much more can happen there. At first, because it stands in contrast to his imprisonment, we imagine that, despite the name, Stygia is going to turn out to be a utopia; but that, we discover, is far from being the case. In fact it turns out to provide disturbing echoes of the forces that put Paul in prison and the circumstances he found there.

To start with the people who colonised Stygia arrived (aboard the ship New Worlds, one of several SF references that Aldiss artlessly slips into his novel) as downloads, and were then implanted in artificially-grown bodies. In the process they lost much that made them human: notions of family and nation, knowledge of history, culture and religion, even language. One of the more unsatisfactory aspects of an otherwise very satisfying novel is the comically debased speech that Aldiss gives these people. Scraps of memory survive in some though far from all of the colonists, but generally work to the detriment of the many. Those who remember politics make themselves dictators; those who remember religion establish harsh, puritan communities; those who remember science introduce an immoral, unfeeling scientism. Most don't even remember the circumstances of their arrival on Stygia, making them easy prey for the few who emerge as leaders. Fremant alone, transported to Stygia instantaneously from his prison cell, seems to have preserved the memory and morality that the new colony lacks, but though he is used by those around him, against their ignorance and certainties he can achieve little.

Furthermore, the planet itself is unwelcoming. Most notably, the native fauna is entirely composed of forms of insect, though these have evolved to fill a wide variety of ecological niches. There are even insect equivalents of horses. And there was an intelligent race, but practically the first act of the human colonists was to wipe them out. One of the things Fremant does, reluctantly, is set out on a quest to find if there are any survivors, and so help to assuage the collective guilt of the colony. But guilt, Aldiss seems to tell us, is the natural state of humans. Paul, in his prison, comes to wonder if he did not, subconsciously at least, want to kill the prime minister. And hence, perhaps, he is in prison legitimately.

Aldiss is a restless writer, never repeating himself, always experimenting with his writing, even if that means the occasional failure. Even within a short novel such as this there are experiments. At one point Paul, in his mind, leaves his cell for another world, but it does not work and is abandoned. You get the impression that this was an idea Aldiss was playing with, but when it ran out of steam he simply left it in the novel. But this is just one of a number of experiments with ideas and with literary techniques that Aldiss employs throughout this novel. It is significant, for instance, that of all the major works he has written during his long career, the one novel the publishers have chosen to refer to on the cover is Report on Probability A. It seems an odd choice until you realise that in the earlier novel Aldiss employed a sparse, affectless prose style to emphasise the isolation of his characters, and he does much the same thing here. Both Paul and Fremant endure agonies and the occasional moment of wonder, but the prose uses few sensual words to take us inside the characters, to make us share those feelings. The point is that we are outside, remote, unaware of another's feelings, and that is the cause and the symptom of the situation he is attacking.

HARM (the initials stand for Hostile Activities Research Ministry) is a curious work, not always easy to read, not always successful, but it is bold, daring, full of rage, and one of the most powerful books of the year.

Copyright © 2007 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. He is the co-editor of The Arthur C. Clarke Award: A Critical Anthology.


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