“Extraordinary” science fiction writer Brian Aldiss died on Saturday (19th August) after celebrating his 92nd birthday the previous day.
The author was born in Norfolk in 1925 and began his published writing career as a columnist for The Bookseller whilst working as a sales assistant in a bookshop. This experience inspired his first novel, The Brightfount Diaries (originally published by Faber, 1955), after which he became literary editor of the Oxford Mail. Six decades later he celebrated his 90th birthday with another column for The Bookseller featuring a trip to the “awful tomorrow” with no books or Sauvignon Blanc.
Described as the "Grand Old Man of British science fiction" by the Guardian, Aldiss was also a poet, playwright, critic, memoirist and artist. He was published by Faber for many years – which encouraged him to pursue science fiction - before a long-standing relationship with Penguin Random House imprint, Jonathan Cape. His backlist is now shared between Gollancz and HarperCollins imprint Voyager.
Curtis Brown represented Aldiss for three decades and his agent Gordon Wise described him as a “particular joy to work with” in a special report for The Bookseller celebrating his 90th birthday in 2015.
Aldiss, who died in the early hours of Saturday morning, wrote around 100 books and more than 300 short stories altogether.
The author of Non-stop, Hothouse and Greybeard (all originally published Faber), Aldiss’ works such as Helliconia Trilogy are seen by many as bridging the gap between classic science fiction and contemporary literature.
He was also a memoirist, notably basing his Horatio Stubbs saga on his wartime adventures in Burma and the Far East, as well as the autobiography The Twinkling of an Eye (HarperCollins).
A friend and drinking companion of Kingsley Amis and correspondent with C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien, Aldiss was a founding member of the Groucho Club in London and a judge on the 1981 Booker Prize. Awarded the Hugo Award for Science Fiction in 1962 and the Nebula Award in 1965, Aldiss’ work was well received by the critics and earned a strong following in the US and in Britain as well as being widely translated into foreign languages. In later years his “cultured world view and enduring curiosity” led to him exploring the war against terror and the logistical difficulties of accommodating different terrestrial belief systems in space within his novels.
Among his short fiction are the Supertoys stories, adapted for film as "A.I", on which Aldiss collaborated with Stanley Kubrick for over a decade before its completion by Steven Spielberg.
Felicity Bryan, agent and chair of the Oxford-based Felicity Bryan Associates, described Aldiss as a “larger-than-life figure”.
She told The Bookseller: “He was he most wonderful friend… extraordinary man. He described himself as a ‘writing animal’ and whatever happened, he would turn it into a story. He did that when his wife died and I wrote him a condolence letter and he said, ‘I am a writing animal so I am writing now about this’.
“He worked on the paper here, in Oxford…and his memoir was very funny. He did amazing theatricals too, we performed one in our house, he was a larger-than-life figure, and performed at the Oxford Literary Festival.”
Scott Pack, associate editor at Unbound, told The Bookseller that Aldiss was “unfailingly curious about the world around him”.
Pack met the author whilst he was publisher at former HarperCollins imprint, The Friday Project, which published more than 50 of Aldiss’ backlist works in 2013.
Pack said: “I was hugely fortunate to work with Brian in his later years, re-issuing some of his early books as well as publishing new novels. I wasn't sure what to expect of him at first, and I wouldn't have been surprised to be faced with a cantankerous veteran author, but instead I encountered a warm, witty man who was passionate about storytelling and full of admiration for those who helped him to tell those stories.”
He added: “He was unfailingly curious about the world around him and always tremendously excited about the next thing he was going to write. I am going to miss Brian very much indeed.”
The HarperCollins imprint was wound down following Pack’s departure in 2014 after which Aldiss was then published by fellow HarperCollins imprint, Voyager, working with Natasha Bardon, now publishing director.
Bardon told The Bookseller: "For the short time I had the pleasure of knowing Brian, there wasn’t a moment when he wasn’t writing something. His passion for language and literature was wonderful and he wielded his skill like a blade. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry: there was just no stopping him.
"Though I came to publish Brian later in his career, I feel the luckiest, because it wasn’t just the fiction I heard about. Brian told the most incredible stories: of days when he and his contemporaries were writing books that would be become classics of the genre, of evenings out amongst other giants of literature and of much cheekier tales, always told with a smile and twinkle in his eye."
She added: "It is with great sadness that we say farewell to such a beloved author and I am so proud I was able to publish him even briefly."
Aldiss’ second son, Tim, told The Bookseller that Aldiss had been active until the end. He said: “On his birthday he’d gone to the Ashmolean Museum restaurant with his partner, Alison, and his neighbour and he’d told me how busy it had been.
“He was often received as guest of honour at science fiction conventions, I remember fans always making a beeline for him. He was happy to talk about literature and was incredibly well read. When he got a job in a bookshop after the war, he read everything.”
Wise told The Bookseller it felt as though the Curtis Brown agency had lost a family member. He said: “The response to the news of Brian's passing has been spontaneous, caring, generous, wide-ranging and wise. Just like Brian himself. Here at Curtis Brown we've lost a cherished member of the family, and share his children Clive, Charlotte, Wendy and Tim, and his partner Alison's, sense of loss and of pride.”
Dr Samuel Fanous, head of publishing at the Bodleian Library Publishing, described the writer as a "truly remarkable man". He said: “We are all deeply saddened at this news and united in grief. Brian was to us an author, a friend, a colleague, and collaborator; a kindred spirit with whom we shared a common language.
“He was a truly remarkable man. A man of towering abilities and achievements...I feel so lucky to have known Brian, to have introduced him at the Oxford Literary Festival, to have lunched and dined and conversed with him, and to have counted him as a friend. His legacy is enormous. Wherever books are read, he will be mourned, there as he is here in Oxford and throughout the English speaking world.”
Aldiss’ longtime US agent, Robin Straus of the Robin Straus Agency in New York, revealed that Aldiss had recently started working on a new story.
She said: “I became Brian’s US literary agent in the early 1980s, and still marvel at his immense curiosity, boundless creativity, generosity of spirit, great personal warmth and zest for life. Just a few weeks ago, he mentioned he was working on a new story.
"A prolific writer of fiction, poetry, memoirs, illustrated diaries and history, he’s been justly recognized with all the major SF awards. Brian was a beloved presence at conferences in America, where he entertained legions of SF and Fantasy fans and friends.
“His extraordinary work will continue to find readers, I’m sure, but he will be terribly missed.”
Writer Neil Gaiman tweeted the news from The Bookseller out to his 2.64m followers from his @neilhimself account: “This just hit me like a meteor to the heart…A larger than life wise writer.”
The author discussed Aldiss' legacy on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Tuesday (22nd August) and later tweeted: "An honour to talk about Brian Aldiss on @bbcradio4today. I wish I'd had time to talk about his kindness to young writers, and of his life."
Aldiss was awarded the OBE for services to literature in 2005.
Pictures: © Aldiss Photography