This is an update of Aldiss’ 1973 Billion Year Spree with David Wingrove now along for the ride. Although this book is by two authors, I’ll be lazy and use “Aldiss” and singular pronouns to refer to them jointly.
Technically, this is not a piece of Asimov criticism, but it deserves attention by Asimov fans both because it offers a substantially different perspective on the history of the field from the Good Doctor’s own as found in his writings and because Aldiss, nautrally enough, has to deal with Asimov to some extent.
Some general comments first.
Aldiss (singular) is himself a science fiction writer of no little note and the most recent recipient of the Grand Master award from the Science Fiction Writers of America. Billion Year Spree and its update are considered standard histories of science fiction.
I’ve read some of Aldiss’ shorter fiction but none of his novels. It’s difficult to form an overall impression of his writing style here as opposed to his general style. Aldiss is one of a number of writers whose skill is undeniable but whose work generally doesn’t speak to me personally. Here he displays an encyclopedic knowledge of the field, but in a dense prose style replete with aphorisms which can be hard to follow at times.
If Asimov characterized sf as a literature of ideas, Aldiss characterizes it as a literature of ideas. Asimov tends to be more forgiving of works with poor literary quality which are nonetheless expressive of interesting ideas, Aldiss rather less so and is instead more likely to praise something of interesting literary merit with only slight scientific content. Certainly Aldiss is infinitely more sympathetic to New Wave sf than Asimov and tends to look to J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick as among the best writers the 1960’ and subsequent decades.
Aldiss tend towards the high-brow but is always willing to listen to a well-told yarn. He likes the early Burroughs better than the later H.G. Wells, because Burroughs was telling stories well and Wells badly. A rip-roaring adventure à la Burroughs or E.E. “Doc” Smith with one-dimensional characters, cliché-infested dialog, and wholly impossible science can still be worthwhile.
Asimov generally restricts his interest in sf to the publishing genre born from the pulp magazines, sometimes playfully going beyond them to earlier works. Aldiss feels that sf is a mode of writing and has numerous important works prior to the pulps and outside of the pulp-inspired tradition. Indeed, he sees Gernsback’s influence on the field in the creation of the genre as wholly negative. A ghetto is a ghetto, and even if the walls of the sf ghetto are self-made and the insiders see themselves as God’s new chosen people, that barrier is an impedement to the development of the field as a whole.
Strangely, however, Aldiss tends to ignore sf-like material marketed outside of the genre; the novels of Michael Crichton spring to mind. Of course, Michael Crichton is not considered a literary luminary on the order of, say, Kafka or even Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie; perhaps this is why.
Taken as a whole, the book is fascinating, albeit not flawless. Aldiss’ grasp of his material starts to break down towards the end, where the field becomes so large that he cannot really follow its general trends; his narrative there becomes a series of short reviews of his favorite authors and books. His coverage is also spotty, as mentioned. He discusses some lesser known writers at great length but gives scant treatment to people like Connie Willis, Orson Scott Card, and even Norman Spinrad.
It’s a double pity that he cannot provide a solid narrative beyond the 1970’s and that he doesn’t have a third edition out covering the 1990’s; his views are interesting and thought-provoking and well worth paying attention to.
As for Aldiss as an Asimov critic, he finds himself rather puzzled. He enjoyed the Foundation series when it came out originally and rather less so when he reread it in book form. He can’t quite fathom its continued popularity. This is actually odd, because it’s quite simple: The Foundation books are a power fantasy. Science, the ultimate tool of nerdy geeks everywhere, will control human destinies and those who control the science will become the masters of all. (And they can manipulate people into liking them against their will, something many sf fans would dearly like to do.)
He knows Asimov’s limitations and lists them without prejudice. He does the same for other authors, too, which has enraged some Heinlein fans. He admires Asimov’s range and likes him personally. “What does one say in praise of Asimov,” he wrly asks, “that Asimov hasn’t already said himself?” He knows Asimov’s context and explains it. He does a good job of discussing the Good Doctor, although one wishes more space were devoted to that discussion.
At the same time, he wishes that Asimov were to be more of a risk-taker in a literary sense. The Foundation and robot books don’t really explore how people would change in changing societies. The original stories are “safe” and perfectly in line with John W. Campbell’s Astounding. Aldiss contrasts The Currents of Space (serialized in Astounding) with “The Martian Way” (published in Galaxy): the former is unremarkable and derivative, the latter more risk-taking and interesting.
For Aldiss, The End of Eternity shows Asimov at the peak of his form. The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun are good, solid sf-detective novels: but they don’t illuminate the human condition in any truly interesting way, or ask any of the profound questions of mankind and his relationship to the universe that Aldiss finds most interesting.
Asimov is one of a number of writers discussed in their 1980’s avatars in a chapter neatly titled “How to be a Dinosaur.” One must not get the impression that his view of these authors is wholly negative. He has three (Asimov, Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard) who write successfully in the 1980’s by churning out pretty much the same kind of material as they did before. He contrasts them with other dinosaurs such as Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, and Fred Pohl, who do have new things to say and do say them well. Dinosaurdom isn’t Aldiss’ problem with the later Asimov. Tying together the robot and Foundation books, at great length, without having anything particularly new in way of insights to offer along the way—that is his problem.
And one cannot but agree.
Asimov admitted in print that one reason he returned to writing novels in the 1980’s was his sense that Death was chasing him and he wouldn’t have much time left. Money to last his lifetime he had and felt no need for; money to provide comfortably for Janet, Robyn, and David after his death he did not have, and felt that the more he did along those lines, the better. From this perspective, the later Foundation and robot novels could be dismissed by a harsher critic than even Aldiss as just hack-work. Certainly they are longer than the original books from the 1950’s and I, at least, would agree that they are too long and not quite up to snuff.
There’s a fair chunk, then, in Trillion Year Spree with which I diagree, sometimes vehemently. And the story falls apart as we get closer to the present. But that’s OK. Aldiss (and Wingrove) have written a solid, thought-provoking book, worth reading and rereading and rereading again.