Saturday, 6 June 2009

Intangibles Inc. and Other Stories - Brian Aldiss

A collection of five novellas written between 1959 and 1968, this displays Aldiss’s wide ranging talent and the influence (intended or otherwise) of other notable writers of the period. The oldest and, to my mind, the best story is ‘Intangibles Inc.’ It has the feel of a Bradbury story – small town America captured in fine if incidental detail – and is not remotely science fictional. Yet it does have an otherworldliness about it that puts it almost in the class of being a fairy tale. It is a moral fable in which a man, peddling Intangibles, allows a person to argue themselves into a wager, saying they have sufficient will-power to leave a cruet set where it is and never move it again. We visit the man and his family at periods through his life to find out just what he has sacrificed in order to stick to a worthless principle. Cleverly told, beautifully written, it leaves it to the reader to draw conclusions.

‘Neanderthal Planet’ and ‘Randy’s Syndrome’ are explorations of inner space within futuristic settings and here, Aldiss’s own voice and preoccupations are becoming apparent. Whilst they may be coloured with a touch of Ballard, it is clear that Aldiss has found his own voice by this period. Indeed, the latter was written during that remarkable latter half of the ‘60s when Aldiss produced what I consider his finest work.

The other two novellas are also explorations of inner space. ‘Send Her Victorious’ reads like a sketch for a novel that was wisely left as a shorter piece. It has elements of Harry Harrison that wander swiftly into P K Dick territory. Whilst interesting, it feels like it never quite gets off the ground. The same is true of ‘Since The Assassination’. The elements of politics, thriller and sci fi don’t quite meld as the political/thriller aspect is not well realised, although the underlying sci fi conceit (of overpopulation, an anti-aging serum, and the possibility that the ‘problems’ have been solved by time travel) deserves a great deal more exploration.

It is difficult to know whether Aldiss’s chameleon like writing is an intentional homage to writers he admires or whether it is someone trying to find his own voice at a time when strong voices were already making themselves heard. Perhaps a bit of both as Aldiss certainly displays a unique style in both earlier and later works; and we certainly see many of the ideas that have preoccupied him throughout his writing in these and other stories of the period. And even if you pick this up just for the title story, you will be well rewarded by the others in the volume.