26 September 2007

Locus Magazine reviews Brian W. Aldiss

by Faren Miller

from Locus Magazine, September 2007

HARM, Brian W. Aldiss (Del Rey 978-0-345-49671-3, $21.95, 230pp, hc) June 2007. Cover by Tifenn Python.

Brian Aldiss mastered the art of unconventional genre fiction before most other writers covered here were born. It may seem ironic, then, that his new novel HARM mingles its episodes in a modern/near-future British dystopia with scenes from the planet Stygia where he plays with tropes from the "Golden Age" of genre pulp SF, the mode that gave way to his own generation of New Wave experimentation. But while he's having fun here, he's also deadly serious — and by the way, he's found a near-perfect method of tackling the grimmest aspects of modern life (and what could be still worse to come) without turning it into a long, hard slog toward a victim's inevitable downfall.

Paul Fadhil Abbas Ali does seem to have "victim" etched in his brow, perhaps from birth and certainly from the time this British-born son of immigrant parents managed to upset the authorities with a reference to assassinating the Prime Minister, even if it's made by two drunken characters in a deliberately silly comic novel. The people who fling Paul — hereafter known as Prisoner B — into HARM, the decaying mansion now used by the Hostile Activities Research Ministry for its torture sessions, have no sense of humor; with one or two exceptions, they're just clueless sadists and government functionaries.

Aldiss avoids some of the Victim's Slog by starting in medias res with B already haggard from mistreatment and borderline delusional, and thereafter avoiding long flashbacks that show exactly how he got there. While later scenes of torture pull no punches, a vein of cool, almost amused lucidity runs through them, exposing the brutes in all their ignorant futility through the eyes of both the author and B, who tells things as he sees them and appears incapable of diplomatic waffling under any circumstance.

Not that Paul/Prisoner B is a classic model of the rational mind, since he also happens to be either a schizophrenic whose split personality takes him to an unusually vivid "other place," or some kind of psychic with a link to another planet in the Multiverse: Stygia, where he takes on the guise of a man named Fremant and has a series of (mis)adventures that will both parallel and differ sharply from the interrogation sessions going on in HARM.

In true pulpish tradition, Stygia is a stark alien planet whose life forms may look like dogs or men or horses but are all actually insectile. The invading humans' program of genocide has worked considerably better than their attempts at agriculture or setting up a sustainable civilization, and these colonists themselves are damaged, reconstituted "molecular components" stripped of all memories, social or family ties. It's not a good environment for the new generation born on Stygia, but Aldiss hasn't altogether set aside his sense of wonder; it's just laced with irony, as in this descriptive passage:

The matrix of space was a howling wilderness of elementary particles. It was a fast-moving stew, a prototemporal storm of the lethally tiny. Light permeated it without time or direction: light simply was, in the darkness. This was where God would have lived — in a creative fury, spread like weed over a pond across the universe — had he existed.

The long-running battles of science vs. religion, tyranny vs. revolution, play out on Stygia as well as Earth, and (particularly when B or Fremant's struggles give way for a while to the Big Picture) HARM offers keen insights into human nature and the ways of the cosmos as a whole.

It does retain some of the less engaging aspects of pulp, with female characters who seem more like enigmatic sex objects than people in their own right. Also, a Conversation with the author that follows the main body of the text indicates that he suppressed some of the mangled English/Joycean wordplay of the colonists, while I think he could have given that clever "literary" aspect slightly more emphasis, even in this intermingled (and occasionally rambling) Ace Double of a book.

Despite minor reservations, overall I'm impressed by the way Aldiss tackles a theme that seems thoroughly up-to-date but is actually timeless — as the master himself says in the Conversation, noting that he has taken no sudden swerve into the dystopian protest novel: "HARM is the sort of book I have been writing over the last half-century. Non-Stop, Graybeard, Forgotten Life, Super-State ... all protest against something, generally against the shortcomings of human life itself."

Read more! This is one of over two dozen reviews from the September 2007 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
Comments are welcome, but are moderated.


At Sunday, October 14, 2007 4:23:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

......a schizophrenic whose split personality......

A scizophrenic would probably argue with the voices. Someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder would strugggle with multiple personalities ...... I suppose.


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