Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, March 18, 2016


The Primal Urge by Brian Aldiss (1961)

In a career spanning over 60 years Brian Aldiss has steadily showcasing and experimenting with  his considerable literary talents.  His Hothouse series of stories won a Hugo Award in 1962.  He served as literay editor of the Oxford Mail for eleven years. beginning in 1958.  With his colleague Harry Harrison, he co-founded the first magazine of science fiction criticism.  Also with Harrison, he edited a critically acclaimed annual series of the year's best science fiction from 1968 to 1976.  His novella "The Saliva Tree" won a Nebula award in 1964.  His "Acid Head War" series (published in book form as Barefoot in the Head) was a hallmark of the New Wave movement in science fiction, owing its sensibilty in both the drug culture of the time and a deconstruction of Joycian works.  His 1973 history of science fiction, The Billion Year Spree, won a special award from the British Science Fiction Association; its 1986 revised and expanded edition (published as The Trillion Year Spree) picked up a Hugo Award for best nonfiction work.  His 1968 novel Report on Probability A has been called the first science fiction anti-novel.  His collection The Moment of Eclipse was a BSFA award winner.  His 1986 novel The Eighty Minute Hour is a "space opera" in which the characters actually sing.  His deconstructions of well-known science fiction and fantasy novels -- Frankenstein Unbound, Dracula Unbound, and Moreau's Other Island -- display a deep respect for the original novels while expanding their literary boundries.  Frankenstein Unbound was made into a 1990 film directed by Roger Corman.  His book Brothers of the Head (about Siamese-twinned rock stars who have a third head growing out of them) was also made into a film which remains a cult favorite.  His short story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" was to be made into a film by Stanley Kubrick; the project was completed by Stephen Speilberg after Kubrick's death as A.I.:  Artificial Intelligence.  He has been credited with inventing an extremely short form of story called the Ministory.  He was the president of the H. G. Wells Society and served as co-president of the Birmingham Science Fiction Group.  He has been named a Grand Master by The Science Fiction Writers of America and has been inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.  He was elected to The Royal Society of Literature and has been given an OBE for services to literature.  In 2013 Aldiss was given a World Fantasy Special Award.  The three books in his Helliconia series (Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer, and Helliconia Winter) have won a BSFA Award and a Campbell Award, and have been nominated for two additional BSFA Awards, two Nebula Awards, and two Locus Awards.  Aldiss is also a respected poet, essayist, and critic.  His mainstream novels include the Horatio Stubbs Trilogy and the Squire Quartet.  His love for traditional science fiction, as well as for the expanding boundaries of the genre, has led to a number of ground-breaking anthologies, including the early Penguin Science Fiction series.

Phew.  And that's just scratching the surface.  Suffice to say that Aldiss is one of the best writers (not only of science fiction and fantasy, but of any category) we have today.  His unending curiosity and sly sense of humor have embued his work longer than many of us have been alive.  Now, at age 90, he says the he has published his last novel and a retrospective series of collections covering his career decade by decade has just been published.

Even if Aldiss never publishes another word, he has a rich legacy for us to mine.  Case in point, this week's Forgotten Book.

The Primal Urge is the story of an England that has abandoned its traditional British reserve.  A neat little invention called the Emotional Register, or ER, is a circular metal object (the book refers to it as tin, but the metal may not be tin) is surgically implanted one's permanent -- it cannot be removed and, by law, every British citizen is manddated to have one installed.  The device measures (to put it nicely) one's desires, or (to put it bluntly) one's sexual attraction to others by turning shades of red -- from a faint pink, indicating a mild (or incipient) sexual interest, to a bright cerise, indicating boy howdie.  There is, of course, some opposition to this enforced plan, along with (surprisingly) a great deal of support.  Can a new age of openness and honesty be on the horizon?

Jimmy Solent, a sexually awkward young man, is one of the first to get an ER.  He lives with his elder brother (a minor official for the British Industrial Liasons party) and his brother's girlfriend -- neither of whom plan to get an ER and thus face imprisonment.  Jimmy works at the nonprofit Imternaational Book Association, organizing an exhibit on Haiti's literary tradition.  The worlds of the BIL and the BIA soon intertwine with those of British politics and the manufacturers of the ER.  Strange conspiracies and hidden agendas soon draw in Jimmy and his friends, only to be compounded by Jimmy's brief liason with a mystrious woman calling herself Rose English.  As the deadline for full compliance with the ER mandate comes closer, other nations begin to clamor for the technology.  But England wants to foist the technology onto its enemies -- why turns out to be the final twist in this entertaining novel

This satire is marked with glorious language, wicked wit, and sly invention.  In lesser hands this could have been a mere exercise in salaciousness.  With Aldiss, it's a smooth romp that never lowers itself to that level.

I really liked this one.


  1. Aldiss, like a number of other (particularly) British sf writers, always seems to have enjoyed the challenge of taking a fairly ridiculous speculative notion, such as these implants, and building the most convincing story around it he could. I haven't read this one yet, but have in a vague way been meaning to for years.

    I think it should be noted that such work as THE BRIGHTFOUNT DIARIES and A HAND-REARED BOY also gained Aldiss a readership beyond and along with speculative fiction audiences...and the first was his first novel.

    Also, I'll disagree to a small extent that SF HORIZONS, edited and published by Aldiss and Harrison, was the first sf critical magazine, though it was one of the best-presented so far; Damon Knight and Lester Del Rey's SCIENCE FICTION FORUM preceded it (and likewise only lasted two issues, well before the SFWA began and revived the title), and such fairly elaborate magazines as SAFARI and INSIDE SCIENCE FICTION (which became RIVERSIDE QUARTERLY), even though they were fanzines of serious purpose and some handsome appearance, also rolled in earlier. I suspect that SKYHOOK, like early issues of INSIDE, was more like the typical fanzine in appearance, even if, like Damon Knight's early SNIDE or Fritz Leiber's NEW PURPOSES, they included fairly sophisticated attempts at critical approach.

  2. Brian Aldiss is an underrated SF writer. I prefer his short fiction to his novels.

  3. Aldis wrote some Very Odd things, and for me they were a bit hard to wade through, regardless of brillance.