The influential science fiction writer Brian Aldiss, who as a young bookseller penned columns for The Bookseller which later formed the basis for his first novel The Brightfount Diaries (Faber, 1955), celebrates his 90th birthday today (Tuesday 18th August). We mark the occasion with a new Aldiss column, in which he imagines a somewhat sinister trip to the future…
STILL SPEAKING VOLUMES
The place looked vaguely familiar.
There I stood, or stumbled rather, looking about me. There were those plastic telescope-like things, there were the screens, the ranks of switches, the TV remotes, the yards of cream cable, the objects for which I had no name. And there stood the young fellow in overalls with the posh haircut.
Oh, of course! I must be on the news on BBC One!
But hang on... I had not been on television at all. I had been in my own cosy little flat, talking to Harold Ainscott, an acknowledged medical genius. And why should the likes of Ainscott be talking to me, a correspondent on The Bookseller? He had been married to Elsie, my sister, although they were now divorced. Under new laws passed just after the recent General Election, marriages were not permitted to last for more than five years, in order to give competitors a chance.
And Harold had had his laugh at my shelves filled with books. “It’s high time you lived in the present, Brian,” he quipped, taking another sip of his alcohol-fairly-free Sauvignon Greuze.
He could afford to be haughty. Harold had just been awarded the Platowski Prize for his discovery of a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, and Alzheimer’s dread cancer prospect.
This cure he proposed to demonstrate on me.
The last few years had been brilliant for a succession of new developments. Not merely for driverless cars, but for riderless bicycles, lawless parking schemes, toothless dentures, non-stop trains from Perth to Billingsgate, and now non-crying infants. These advances have been in part ascribed to climate change, which has brought with it not only the ever-hot hot-water bottle but fresh trains of thought for cooler minds.
So Harold, after a few more glasses of the Sauvignon, switched on various lights, tied me to the sofa, gave me an injection and brought his various zap-lights into play.
"Are you sure this will be okay?" I asked.
"'Okay’? That is a bit old-fash, is it not?” And he switched on the main beam.
I knew at once something was wrong. For one thing I don’t have Alzheimer’s. And I saw Harold had stuck the wrong plug into the wrong hole on his alzometer.
So in the next second, there I was in the future, among all those BBC1 type things. Yes, and cold and shivering. Ainscott stamped his foot. “Even you must have known about climate change,” he muttered.
I knew very well I was now in the future, in the awful tomorrow. It always happens in science fiction stories. That’s why people hate SF. They know you get older in futures, and cannot adapt, and take diuretics. And there I was with a white beard. Standing about, flabbergasted, needing a toilet, and looking round fearfully for visitors from Mars.
And of course I was in a place with no books. But at least this was reality. Or reality of a kind. Because Harold had realised his mistake. He immediately switched off his apparatus.
“Blimey! Sorry, old chap,’’ he said, lapsing into the demotic. “Some idiot must have jogged my arm.”
A faint pop sounded and lo and behold as, bless us, we once used to say - there I was, back in our beloved present. Okay, it was raining, but I was again in a world where there are still books, and people stay married for ages, and take the TLS, and hospitals are doing good business still.
And Sauvignon Blanc is still available in wine shops.