Supertoys supports two perceptions of Brian Aldiss, borne out also by his recent novel, White Mars: that, on the one hand, he remains as eccentrically eloquent as ever, an authentic prose artist of refreshing unpredictability; but that on the other hand he has become a repetitious curmudgeon, preaching bathetic sermons in the quaver of great age. His late books are old man's books, conceptually thin and daftly rhapsodic; and yet there lingers in them something of the style and high ingenuity that created such classics as Hothouse and The Malacia Tapestry, all those decades ago. To read the "stories of future time" in this collection is to witness, and occasionally to be dazzled by, a fading sort of greatness.
This is underlined by the fact that the volume's title story dates back to 1969, when Aldiss was at his creative peak. It's not difficult to see why Stanley Kubrick wished to use "Supertoys Last All Summer Long" as the basis for the final great SF film he did not survive to make (and which, to the certain dismay of some, Steven Spielberg is now bringing to term, as AI): "Supertoys" is a powerful short fable, a resonant meditation on capitalism, the decline of the nuclear family, and the individual as commercial product; it has the simple ring of truth. Its much more recent successor tales, "Supertoys When Winter Comes" and "Supertoys in Other Seasons", while they do flesh out their original into a novella with something like the substance of a full screenplay, seem contrived by comparison, exercises in brittle unsubtlety. The tension of the mechanical menage erodes into violence and hollow reconciliation. Still, the Supertoys triptych, together with Aldiss's long Foreword, throws useful light on Kubrick and on the mechanics of cross-media collaboration.
The remaining items in Supertoys date from the last seven years. Their common theme, for all their superficial differences, is despair; again and again, they picture the collective greed, inhumanity, and patriarchal ire of the human species as causes of personal or universal doom, a doom to be accepted with resignation, mocked (rather emptily, it is to be feared) with morbid satire, or sidestepped through the envisioning of mystically radical alternative orders of being. Each of these strategies may bear separate consideration.
Resignation. "Apogee Again" commences with some rather appealing jokes on human gender differences (women do indeed occupy pedestals), but leaves us locked in natural cycles that deny us any influence or sympathy beyond our own limited sphere, incarcerated there forever. "Nothing in Life is Ever Enough" depicts in a mood of tepid self-indulgence the plight of a self-appointed Caliban whose Miranda is stolen from him; if we sympathise with Caliban, we surrender to a grim adult grind through life, and if we don't sympathise with him (he is in fact a paedophile) we are, it must be supposed, grim adult grinders ourselves. This is a story best left uncontemplated; let it gnash its teeth in silence. "Three Types of Solitude" rather more successfully sums up the various kinds of loneliness, in a cluster of elegant but ultimately discouraging fabulations; "Steppenpferd" offers little hope of redemption to a priest whose church is a final holdout against the conversion of the entire world into junk Product; and "Dark Society", a fairly chilling meditation on the polarities of Heaven and Hell, is a glimpse of a void that cannot be avoided, of Orpheus utterly confounded. There are ghostly moans and clanking chains in the House of Aldiss; it is time to move on.
Satire. There is little to be celebrated here; Aldiss has a heavy satirical hand, and slings his insults with no great force. "III" is an anti-capitalist rant without pith or point. "The Old Mythology" is a geriatric grumble about the folly of shallow New Age idealism. "Headless" has more flair, but not much more, as it strives to send up the heedlessness (and the headlessness?) of European post-modernism. "Beef" has a beef against bovines, which it batters home with a Moral. In Earnest Capital Letters. Again, Let Us Move On. Hurriedly.
Radical-Mystical Utopias. Here Aldiss is on somewhat more fruitful ground, however much he may seem at times, despite his paeans to Reason, to clutch serely at the straws of dream. "A Matter of Mathematics" (previously published, despite the copyright page's indication to the contrary, as "An Apollo Asteroid", in the 1999 anthology Moon Shots) insists that we can burst through the doors of perception and become, as it were, beachcombers on the strand of Eternity. Lest this seem vague, Aldiss fleshes out his vision: "The Pause Button" highlights how we might practically restrain our angrier impulses; "Cognitive Ability and the Light Bulb", a peculiarly Whiggish document really, puts human ethical development in a reassuring context; and "Marvells of Utopia" helpfully and hopefully declares that ordinary Love and Death will transcend the trammels of artificial immortality. For all this, there is a tension evident between the thinking and dreaming poles of Aldiss' creative intellect: while "A Whiter Mars" (a stage dialogue that served as the germ for White Mars) is reasonably concrete as to what a sustainable future should entail, "Galaxy Zee" and "Becoming the Full Butterfly" stumble with a stylistically luminous bootlessness into rhapsodies to the purification of yang by yin. Yechh. This thesis undermined Aldiss' previous collection, The Story of This Book (in fact "Butterfly" appeared there also), giving it an aspect of cognitive befuddlement; there is less of that in Supertoys, truly a mercy. Reason may just prevail.
Aldiss is adamant that our Summer is ending, that our toys must be left behind as we face the wrath of adulthood on a planet that is dying. His new book is erratic in its rhetoric, of very uncertain focus; but it has some useful counsel in the end. May Supertoys, flawed though it is, survive beyond one summer.
More of Nick's reviews are online at Parsec.
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© Nick Gevers 24 March 2001