I have just signed and delivered the contract which means I will be writing a book on Brian Aldiss for the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series.
This will be my third volume on a British science fiction writer, following the Modern Masters of Science Fiction volume on Iain Banks, which came out last year, and the volume on Christopher Priest that I am currently researching for Gylphi. It is also, in its way, the most problematic.
The Iain Banks book was scary, because I had never written a single work of that length before (my previous books had been collections of much shorter essays and reviews). But it was not at all scary in the sense that I knew Iain and liked (most of) his work; also, there was a single coherent narrative thread to follow, which simplified the process a great deal.
The Christopher Priest volume is slightly more problematic. I’ve known Chris a long time (he was my best man when I got married) so there is the issue of retaining a certain distance in what I write. And I am not planning to follow the same basic chronological structure that I did for the Banks book, this volume is meant to be more thematic in approach. In other words I am giving myself a little more of a structural challenge in writing the book, and I won’t really know until I am writing it whether I am up to that challenge.
But Aldiss is different. For a start, I am far more ambivalent about his work. Some of his fiction is, I think, wonderful; some of it, I think, is terrible. This is partly because Aldiss was an inveterate experimenter as a writer, and in the nature of things some experiments fail. He was also, at his peak, far more prolific than either Banks or Priest, and the scattergun technique means that a lot of the work did not hit the target. Yet, at his best he was one of the most important writers in the history of British science fiction, and somehow I have to get that dichotomy across, and explain it.
Also, he was a prickly bugger at the best of times. I remember, once, mildly disagreeing with his notion of the cosy catastrophe, and I received a postcard from him which, in effect, said: why do you hate me so? That was far from being the only such postcard I received. This prickliness, I think, comes across in his extreme ambivalence towards science fiction: he would extol it and decry it at one and the same time; he would encourage others and then try and distance himself from the genre; he would celebrate the crudest, pulpiest sf and then insist on being considered by mainstream standards; he wanted to be down in the gutter and up with the literary establishment all at the same time. I don’t think he ever resolved these contradictions, in his work or in his life. Do I have to resolve them? I certainly have to present them and try to explain them.
And structurally I feel the only way to cover the variety and the contradictions of his work is with something that is half way between the chronological approach of the Banks book and the thematic approach of the Priest book. Which means I have given myself another formal challenge just when I am approaching my most difficult subject yet.
Right now, I am pleased to have this challenge, and I am delighted if a little daunted to have the next two years plotted out for me. But my overwhelming reaction is to wonder: what on earth have I got myself into?