Brian Aldiss

Common Time (2)

ALDISS: Let’s move on to a more personal theme, if you don’t mind. We have both lived through the wrenching experiences of failed first marriages, so can we, from that viewpoint, approach that beautiful, though not unflawed book of yours, Fallen Star?

BLISH: Indeed. It’s almost totally autobiographic, on the surface as well as at the bottom. These events actually happened to me, I just pushed them a little further than they actually went.

ALDISS: I liked that novel when I read it. In fact, I think I was a reader for Faber when it came in, and I said yes to it. I was, nevertheless, mystified by it, and my reservation was that towards the end you had to bring an alien in, a Martian trekking across the wastes of the Antarctic, in what was otherwise an assured and complete novel. Did you feel that perhaps you were being too personal and that it had better be SF?

BLISH: This is one of my signal failures. I had three intentions in succession on that one. The events in which I had been involved were, on the surface, so comic that I thought I would make it a pure comic novel. It couldn’t possibly be funnier. As a matter of fact I left out some incidents which would have reduced it to farce as a novel. As I went into it, however, the business of the failing marriage and the emotional relationships began to sneak in under the comic elements. I have a madman in that novel; it seemed to me to be likely that in the days of flying saucer mania, which had by then been running on fifteen or twenty years, a paranoid’s delusions might very well take on a science-fictional colouration. So I gave you a madman who might or might not be a Martian, and left it to you to decide whether he was or not. The novel fails in its last line when I weighted the damned thing on the science-fictional side. That was a failure of nerve on my part, and I’m sorry for it. The central mistake was in introducing all the science-fictional elements in the middle, because I was wrong about my assumption that a mainstream audience would accept that a madman’s delusions might take a science-fictional form. Then I made the final, crucial mistake of weighting the thing a little bit on the SF side, that he was more likely a Martian than not. I should not have done that.

ALDISS: Most SF is about madness, or what is currently ruled to be madness; this is part of its attraction – it’s always playing with how much the human mind can encompass. You were being so beautifully subtle in that novel, and things work so well until the end. I think if you’d left it as an open question it would have been better.

BLISH: It’s the way I prefer to work when I have my full mind on a job; I like to leave some questions at the end open, for the reader to decide for himself, which I think will tell him something about himself.

ALDISS: One question I would like to get in – it’s a question I think always rides along in SF, and is part of the two strains of SF, not the old wave or the new wave, or anything like that, but the question of thinking vs. feeling in SF. I suppose you’d agree that SF has a large didactic element – your books have, even my books have – the wish to teach people something, to make them learn. Don’t you think that one of the main divisions is whether you want to make them think or whether you want to make them feel? Don’t you feel that your novels have changed, and that to begin with you wanted to make people think and now you want to make them feel?

BLISH: Yes, I do. A simple three word answer. I have myself changed in this direction and I hope my work has. The old business of “write what you know” is, I think, totally false after all. I have never been on Mars or Jupiter, and there are elements in all my work of many situations in which I have not been. “Write what you know” is a prison, so write what you feel, it opens up the world, and it depends on the type of man you are gradually becoming. I hope that I am becoming more open in feeling and what Philip Strick calls my “glacial surface” is simply my attempt to keep reason and passion in aesthetic balance. So far as my intent is concerned, writing what I feel is what I am doing now.

ALDISS: My own cast of mind has always inclined me to believe that your scenes on Jupiter in “Bridge”, and your scenes in interstellar space in “Common Time”, represent feelings as much as places. After all, if you set anything on the moon, you’re writing about a feeling as well as a place, you’re writing about the feeling of being alienated from Earth. Presumably that means the feeling of being alienated from your family or whatever – so there isn’t a great dichotomy.

BLISH: “Common Time” is, I think, the most perfect example of the transitional point in my writing. This is the story with all the “glacial surface” and trappings of a first inter stellar crossing, but the story is about lost love.

ALDISS: One of the objections I have against Campbell’s Astounding was that there was too little love in it. It was a very loveless magazine. They never took enough account of the feeling that is always in SF. You said, somewhere in The Issue at Hand, that if you wanted to be a writer you could always write SF and your mother could read it. I remember that, it chimed with me personally, and this is something that’s hard to grow out of, isn’t it?

BLISH: Some of us never grow out of it. I think what I actually said was that when you begin writing anything, and verge upon taboo areas such as sex, the question is “what if mom should read this and discover that I know things I’m not supposed to know?” For SF it’s perfectly possible to do this, and mom will say “it’s utterly incomprehensible and I wish you’d write something else”, and never reveal that you know things that mom would disapprove of. I think we’ve been out of that for some time now.

ALDISS: One wonders what Mrs. Philip Jose Farmer senior thinks! Now, as I’ve run out of questions, ask yourself one.

BLISH: What would you like me to ask?

ALDISS: Well, what I would like to hear is – no, I think it’s always a bad thing to ask a writer what he’s going to do next, because it tempts him to issue a platform, a futurist manifesto . . .

BLISH: But I think I can answer it. I am attempting to open out and become more receptive as best I can. Become, in particular, more conscious of the tragic consequences of our most immediate concerns, and still keep as tight a rein upon the surface control of the thing as a work of art as I ever did before. I started out as a pure technician with a little bag of tricks. I am now attempting more and more to write what I feel, and attempting to feel more and more and still retain conscious control. Into what subjects that is going to lead me I don’t know. I know where I am at the moment – in an area I’ve never been before. I have high hopes for this in my own personal terms, although whether anyone will buy it or not is another matter. I have a strong suspicion my agent will groan audibly across three thousand miles when he sees it. It is something I’m very much bound up in, and is something I feel is widening me in mind in the direction I want to go. That’s not a platform, just an ambition. I won’t consider it a finished work of art unless it not only has the wider feeling that I’m hoping for, but that it still has the control I feel an artist absolutely must have in order to say what he means.

ALDISS: We differ there very strongly, because I’m trying to lose control, not all the time, but on occasions, especially in the short stories I’m writing now. I want to lose control and see what happens.

BLISH: I did that in “Common Time” and it worked very nicely, and I may try it again, but having spent most of my life being a typewriter with a “glacial surface” I’m going to carry on being a typewriter with a “glacial surface” for a while yet, and still try to widen my emotional range and talk about what really matters to me. I don’t dare lose control because I don’t know who I’m becoming yet.

ALDISS: That’s a good line – “I don’t know who I’m becoming yet.”

BLISH: I know who I hope I’m becoming, but that’s another matter, and I may hope for something else later on. I’m approaching my 51st birthday, and my time is short to become a wider and more open person than I was before.

ALDISS: Isn’t it extraordinary how we all have such fame, how we’re household words – in a limited number of households! I wonder what the future will make of us? I suppose it won’t bother at all; the important thing is that we should bother.

BLISH: That’s where you have to start. If you can’t love yourself, there’s no point in doing anything. It’s impossible to love anyone else if you don’t love yourself, but one can try.