Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Wed Apr 04 15:13:30 EDT 1990

Raymond's Reviews #36

%T Romance of the Equator
%A Brian Aldiss
%I Atheneum
%D 1989
%O hardcover, US$18.95
%P 345
%G 0-689-12053-2

With this reissue of his (self-selected) best fantasy stories, Brian Aldiss once again demonstrates two important things about himself. One is that he can write very well; the other is that he suffers from an advanced case of Literatus Disease.

At his best, Aldiss produces prose that is luminously beautiful, crafted as exquisitely as a Persian miniature. At his worst, his stories and essays become tired divagations on the themes that 1) lit'rachure has Something Overwhelmingly Important To Say About the Universe, and 2) Words are the Most Important Thing because the Universe is only Words, don't you know, and 3) Rationality is Bad because it Alienates Humanity From Its True Ineffable Nature, and 4) All Human Action is Essentially Futile Anyhow.

This is Literatus Disease, a well-known memetic disorder of the Western intellectual. It's common. It's ugly. And even though I'm not an Objectivist and have had more than one flame war with people who are, it makes me want to club Aldiss upside the head with the collected works of Ayn Rand and scream "Stop being such a @#!!&% fuzzy-minded subjectivist!".

To see both these sides of Aldiss's nature in action, compare, say, Day Of The Doomed King to The Source. Or just reread Old Hundredth, the anthology's lead story and probably Aldiss's best known single work.

Aldiss is at his best in stories such as Old Hundred and The Small Stones Of Tu Fu in which he uses traditional SF/fantasy themes and imagery as an armature on which to layer jewel-like strangeness. Where he supplies his own philosophical "content" (as in, say, The Worm Flies) the results are embarrassingly pompous and awful. Unfortunately, because he can write so well on the micro-level, even the bad stories can exert a horrible fascination once you've stumbled into one.

Perhaps what saves Aldiss from complete wretchedness is a wry vein of self-knowledge, as in Moment Of Eclipse where the narrator (a thoroughly nasty person) observes "I had heard such rhetoric from students before. You find out later they are reading Schiller for the first time". But self-knowledge isn't, ultimately, enough; ironic detachment becomes just another pose.

That is why the material of Romance, ultimately, fails to be a romance of anything at all but Aldiss's infatuation with his own craft. To be fair, this is not his mistake alone; modern "serious literature" is dominated by such masturbation (which is why I don't read it). It's hardly unprecedented even in SF, as witness Gene Wolfe on a bad day or Harlan Ellison even on a good one. At least Aldiss still knows how to construct beautiful prose, a skill most of those caught in his trap have forgotten or never attained.

Romance Of The Equator wins the Raymond's Reviews "Too Precious to Live" award for Higher Literary Persiflage By Someone Who Oughtta Be Smart Enough To Know Better. If that offends you, you are doubtless the sort who despises my column and genre SF in general, and you might like Aldiss's book.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Wed Apr 04 15:13:30 EDT 1990

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>