Brian Aldiss, science-fiction writer behind Steven Spielberg's A.I., dies at 92

Renowned British science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss died on Aug 19 at his home in Oxford at the age of 92.
Renowned British science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss died on Aug 19 at his home in Oxford at the age of 92. PHOTO: ST FILE

(Washington Post) - Brian Aldiss, a British science-fiction writer whose inventive tales of climate change, alien civilisation and the loneliness of robots - including a five-page magazine story that formed the basis of Steven Spielberg's movie A.I. - helped elevate a genre many critics had long dismissed as mass-market pulp, died on Aug 19 at his home in Oxford, England, one day after turning 92.

A daughter, Wendy Aldiss, said he had a stroke in 2016 and had a pacemaker in his heart - "which he loved, because it made him part robot".

Aldiss was part of sci-fi's 1960s New Wave period, when writers such as Arthur Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) and J.G. Ballard (The Wind From Nowhere) wrote books that featured politically charged themes and experimental literary techniques.

In part, their work was a reaction to the violence and tumult of World War II, during which Aldiss served in an army signals unit in Southeast Asia and said he returned to England feeling like an outsider. "I didn't like British society," he told the Glasgow Sunday Herald in 2001. "I couldn't tell a florin from a half crown. I thought it was all c***, the social order and everything. So as an outsider, I naturally gravitated to the outsider's literature, which was science fiction."

Beginning with the 1958 space-travel novel Non-Stop, he wrote dozens of science-fiction novels and hundreds of short stories, including the 1980s Helliconia trilogy, about a planet where seasons last for hundreds of years, throwing civilisations into ruin during centuries-long ice ages.

Aldiss was hailed as "the Grand Old Man of British science fiction" by Britain's Guardian newspaper, and he received another stately title - Grand Master, a lifetime achievement honour - from the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America in 2000.

It was one of several top sci-fi prizes Aldiss received in his career, including a Nebula Award (given by writers) in 1965 for his novella The Saliva Tree and a Hugo Award (given by fans) in 1962 for Hothouse, a novel that described a dystopian future in which half of the Earth is covered by a towering banyan tree.

One possible fan, Queen Elizabeth II, named Aldiss an officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2005.

Aldiss was a critic of science fiction as well as a practitioner, and wrote a lengthy history of the genre - Billion Year Spree (1973), revised with David Wingrove as Trillion Year Spree (1986) - that traced its roots from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to the films of Stanley Kubrick, whom Aldiss described as perhaps the greatest sci-fi practitioner of the modern era.

The praise sparked the interest of Kubrick, who invited Aldiss to lunch and soon became enamoured with a short, 2,000-word story Aldiss had published in Harper's Bazaar. Titled Supertoys Last All Summer Long, it described an overpopulated future in which a woman and her son, an artificially intelligent robot named David, struggle to connect - a plot that, like many of Aldiss's stories, was drawn from the author's life.

Kubrick soon bought the rights to the piece, kicking off a decade-long period of intermittent collaboration with Aldiss.

"Every morning for nearly a year he would send a limousine at 10am, and I would be whisked off to castle Kubrick where we'd work all day, smoking heavily, drinking lots of coffee and getting almost nowhere," Aldiss told the Sunday Times of London in 2002. "Sadly, it didn't work out - he wanted my little android boy, David, to become a real boy like Pinocchio. But I didn't want to simply recreate a story from the past, so he gave me the push."

After Kubrick's death in 1999, Spielberg took over as director, maintaining the fairy-tale focus Aldiss had sought to avoid. The film was finally released as A.I. in 2001, starring Haley Joel Osment as the android David.

"A.I. is the best fairy tale - the most disturbing, complex and intellectually challenging boy's adventure story - Spielberg has made," wrote New York Times film critic A.O. Scott. Aldiss was less enamoured, calling it "a lousy film" while singling out the story as one of his most personal works.

He told the biographical source Contemporary Authors, "There's a neat irony in that, of my over 300 short stories, the most remunerative should concern a small boy who never could please his mother."

Brian Wilson Aldiss was born in East Dereham, near Norwich, on Aug 18, 1925. His father was a shopkeeper who, Aldiss recalled, beat him and then made him shake hands afterwards, "to prove that we were still friends". His mother was haunted by a stillborn daughter who preceded Aldiss; she later sent him away, after the birth of a younger sister, to a boarding school where Aldiss recalled being beaten for telling ghost stories after dark.

His experiences at school inspired The Hand-Reared Boy (1970), the first of three best-selling novels starring Horatio Stubbs, a fictionalised version of Aldiss. The book and its sequels, A Soldier Erect (1971) and A Rude Awakening (1978), set aside science fiction for sexually charged realism, drawing from Aldiss' years in combat zones and Macau brothels during World War II.

He worked at a bookstore in Oxford after the war, and in 1954 began writing a popular serial in Britain's Bookseller trade magazine, The Brightfound Diaries, which became his first book in 1955.

A marriage to Olive Fortescue ended in divorce. Aldiss said he left home with nothing but a papier-mache suitcase after the birth of his second child, and told the Guardian in 2001 he felt he was repeating "the pattern of his own childhood". His divorce, and a subsequent separation from his children, inspired Greybeard, a 1964 novel that imagined a world without young people and became one of his most popular books.

One year later he married Margaret Manson, who died in 1997.

Survivors include his partner, Alison Soskice; two children from his first marriage; two children from his second marriage; and seven grandchildren.

While Aldiss was best known for his science fiction, he also received acclaim for earthbound works that included a memoir, The Twinkling Of An Eye (1998), and Life In The West (1980), a Cold War-era comedy that Anthony Burgess listed in 1984 as one of the 99 best modern novels.

But he insisted his realist works were no more important than his science fiction, and the genre - if it could be called that - was broad enough to encompass any kind of story.

"I don't look upon science fiction as a genre at all; rather, it contains genres," he told Publishers Weekly in 1985. "For a bit it was the space opera that was in vogue. Then the catastrophe novel. For every kind of story that gets used up, another will always take its place."