Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Old Hundredth by Brian Aldiss

First published in New Worlds, November 1960.
Amis is largely dismissive of the New Wave. Moorcock’s Cornelius novels ‘give rise to little more than incurious bewilderment if read with any close attention.’ J G Ballard’s own sense of his limitations has led him to write novels like Crash and Concrete Island ‘the one takes physical disgust about as far as I have ever seen in print, the other is a kind of urban non-escape story overcrowded with realistic detail. Thomas Disch has ‘real but unorganised talent’, John Sladek is ‘an experimentaliser in a mode sometimes compared with Kurt Vonnegut’, and Norman Spinrad is ‘notable for his use of four letter words’.

I don’t agree with Amis’s assessment of these writers, but on the other hand I do think he gets the deleterious effect of the New Wave pretty much right.
‘SF’ itself, a time-sanctioned abbreviation, came to stand for, not ‘science fiction’ but ‘speculative fiction’, a phrase signifying either a boldly liberating adventurism or a fairly frank admission that anything went.

While he’s dismissive of New Wave writers generally, Amis singles out Brian Aldiss for particular praise: ‘Aldiss may have his limitations, too, but he has yet to reach them. There seems no theme or style, from the ‘hard core’ of the genre to its modernist fringe and beyond that this talented and prolific writer won’t attempt.’ He goes on to draw particular attention to Report of Probability A and Barefoot in the Head.

This story was written especially for the one-hundredth issue of New Worlds magazine, then edited by John Carnell and included in Aldiss’s 1963 collection from Faber & Faber, The Airs of Earth. This places it right at the end of Amis’s Golden Age, and so it has some of the characteristics of the coming New Wave.

The most obvious of these is its sense of millenarian decadence and ennui. This is an ancient world, tired and near its end. It’s like M John Harrison’s Viriconium, any of Moorcock’s sixties and seventies SF and fantasy series, and the particular atmosphere of Vermillion Sands.

In this story, humanity has fled and left only ruins. The Earth is home to layers of history that allow the writer to show off both their erudition and ability to depict a psychedelic experience of future-senses through tricksy prose.
His view of what she saw enriched hers. He knew the history, the myth behind this forsaken land. He could stock the tired old landscape with pageantry, delighting her and surprising her. Back and forward he went, flicking her pictures; the Youdicans, the Lombards, the Ex-Europa Emissary, the Grites, the Risorgimento, the Involuters – and catchwords, costumes, customs, courtesans, pelted briefly through Dandi Lashadusa’s mind. Ah, she though admiringly, who could truly live without these priestly, beastly, erudite, erratic mentors.
These aren’t new ideas for SF – the ancient Earth and the advanced cognitive state – but writers describing them previously have done so without resorting to alliteration and assonance. This kind of over-literariness is identified by Amis as producing ‘leaden fables with some science fiction trimmings to their verbal tricksiness’. It’s not laid on as thickly here as it would be by later writers, but it’s clearly present in this story, this desire to sing where speaking is more effective.

The apocalyptic setting reflects the mental state of the main character herself, introduced as ‘old Dandi Lashadusa’. After seventy years she’s tired of life and seeks to follow humanity into the transcendent state beyond the Involute.
Each Involute carried thousands or even millions of people. They were, not dead, not living. How they exulted or wept in the transubstantiation, nobody left could say. Only the could be said: man had gone and a great emptiness was fallen over the Earth.
It’s a very New Wave apocalypse. It’s not the end, it’s a change of form, an ascendancy to a purer state of being. In a way, this story and stories like it betray the very core of Amis’s vision of SF. They don’t describe life in a godless universe. They replace God with science and use it to offer the same comforting lies: there is no death, you are more than flesh, the best is yet to come.

It’s not only that I don’t believe in God and heaven, it’s that I believe that the state of perfection offered by conventional Christianity and in stories like this is inimical to the process of being alive. This is a religious story for atheists, where I can only imagine we’re supposed to feel satisfaction that Dandi ends up in the futuristic version of heaven that I don’t believe in either. Pain, struggle, work and grind – these are the essential elements of human life and when your body grows sick and tired, you don’t ascend, you die. 

Themes: ancient Earth, transcendence,  uplifted animals, verbal tricksiness, New Wave.

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