I was sorry to hear of Brian Aldiss’s death at the weekend. Like almost everyone else I know in SF and Fantasy circles, his writing was an early discovery to draw me into the genre and an influence thereafter, from his short fiction to his Helliconia books and beyond. I also had the great good fortune to meet him and hear him talking about well, life, the universe and everything else on various occasions over more than thirty years.
The first occasion was as an undergraduate, when he was a guest at the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group annual dinner. He had been instrumental in founding the society, along with C.S. Lewis. He explained with withering sarcasm how the Powers That Were at the time refused to allow it to be called a Science Fiction club, in case the word ‘science’ misled anyone into thinking there would be serious, academic discussions and pursuits involved. It was very apparent he did not suffer fools gladly.
Hearing him give a talk or being interviewed, it was equally apparent he was wholly unsentimental about his early life, the ups and downs of writing and publishing and indeed, about old age. One of the last times I saw him was when we did an event in support of a local library six years or so ago, where we talked to a packed audience about our respective careers and approaches to writing SF and to writing Fantasy. Sharing a stage with Brian Aldiss on that basis? Imposter syndrome – I had it!
Anyway, given where we both lived, I was happy to help out the organisers, by going to pick him up, drive him to the venue, and take him home afterwards. So after he’d invited me into his home to show me a new piece of art he was very excited about, we chatted in the car all the way there and later, all the way back. Among any number of other topics, he told me with great animation about the display the Bodleian Library was planning about his life and work, so he couldn’t possibly die before that. Then there was the new book of articles and such coming out, An Exile on Planet Earth, so he couldn’t possibly die before that. That was the secret to living as long as possible, he reckoned sunnily; keeping the diary full!
Unsentimental and not suffering fools gladly? If that makes him sound unapproachable, nothing could be further from the truth, certainly in my experience. At that library event, he was genuinely and keenly interested in everything I had to say about my own approach to writing, comparing and contrasting his experiences and my own. There was no hint that he considered SF in any way superior to Fantasy. Good writing: that was the thing, regardless of genre.
Subsequently, he sent me an invitation to the launch party for An Exile on Planet Earth where I had the great pleasure of meeting many of his friends, family members and admirers. That was a busy evening, at the end of a very long day for him. When I went to get my copy signed, he greeted me with a charming smile and said, ‘now, my dear, you’ll have to forgive me, I am an old man. Remind me who we are to each other?’ I cannot think of a more straightforward and gracious way of handling that moment when you can’t quite place someone. He wasn’t going to bluff or dissemble, that simply wasn’t in his character. So I smiled back and mentioned the library event we’d done. ‘Oh, yes!’ he said with enthusiasm, going on to ask how I was getting on with various writing projects we’d discussed in the car.
It was a pleasure and a privilege to have spent such time with him.