One billion years plus forty: Brian Aldiss and the history of sci-fi

Brian W. Aldiss

Brian W. Aldiss

One of my constant readers, Judy (whose blog demonstrates her skills as a photographer), sent me a copy of Brian W. Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction (1973), along with some cards featuring her photography. The Aldiss book was an informative and entertaining read, forcing me to think about what science fiction is and what I do. This post examines Aldiss’s historical situation and goals in writing the book, his definition of science fiction, and his treatment of the genre’s history.

But you want the fast version? Read the book: Aldiss is a writer with brains, and it shows.

Part 1: Historical context and aims

Aldiss’s book was published in 1973, so it was probably written a year or two earlier. It came toward the end of one of the more controversial periods in the genre. Emerging writers, especially in Britain, had created a “New Wave” by embracing diversity in styles, abandoning the old linear plots with objective viewpoints for more impressionistic avant-garde storytelling. They also expanded the range of the genre, leaving behind hard science and space opera for “soft science,” social sciences, politics, sexuality, and other topics previously largely ignored by genre writers.

At the same time, the science fiction community was struggling to become respectable. Authors, fans, and academics offered serious critiques of the field. The space race and Star Trek gave the field more visibility. It’s no coincidence that the Science Fiction Writers of America was founded in the 1960s.

Aldiss himself, as he notes in the introduction to Billion Year Spree, was by 1973 a recognized writer, editor, and critic of science fiction. In addition, he had an extensive background in Western literary history and contemporary literature, certainly more extensive than mine!

In Billion Year Spree, Aldiss undertakes to define “science fiction” and identify its proper place in legitimate literature. He’s also intent on defending the New Wave as a proper part of science fiction. These two aims are related. For Aldiss, the strength of the New Wave was that it expanded the range of science fiction by bringing in more mainstream techniques and concerns, and thus made science fiction more akin to mainstream literature.

Part 2: Defining science fiction

Aldiss defines science fiction as “the search for a definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mold.”[i] There’s a lot to unpack in that definition. First of all, Aldiss is claiming science fiction is serious literature, because it deals with the “definition” or nature of man, ideally by depicting mankind in terms unavailable to other genres of fiction. Second, science fiction engages science and our present reality in a meaningful way, by using, extrapolating, or changing the scientific basis of reality in what are supposed to be scientifically plausible ways. Finally, Aldiss is making science fiction a subgenre of Gothic literature,[ii] by claiming its characteristic means of expression is invoking emotions connected to the distant and unearthly.

Note what this definition excludes. It excludes any literature written prior to the Scientific Revolution. Aldiss is explicitly excluding ancient legends and ancient and medieval fantasies.[iii] For him, the first story that qualifies as real science fiction is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Aldiss also excludes stories that do not explore human nature in any substantive way, by which he means to exclude “bad” science fiction, including the many third-rate space opera and sword-and-spaceship stories from the pulps.

I’ve a problem with any definition that excludes the bulk of the stories that were first called science fiction. I think Aldiss deliberately committed the fallacy of essences with that definition, in order to establish science fiction as a proper literary genre.[iv] Personally, I think it better to define “science fiction” historically by tracing its origin in the pulps of the 1920s-1940s, and then seeing how the term was extended over time. And in fact, Aldiss actually lays out all the necessary information for such a definition in his book![v]

But even if one rejects Aldiss’s definition as a definition, it is still worth considering as an analytic tool. It can do two things for us. First, with Aldiss, we can use it to explain why we feel uneasy about considering any story before Frankenstein as science fiction. More importantly, Aldiss’s definition can serve as a yardstick to measure the aspirations of serious science fiction.

Part 3: The history of science fiction

After two chapters evaluating Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe as founding fathers of science fiction, the bulk of Aldiss’s book is a detailed examination of the history of science fiction, from the pre-Frankenstein forerunners that don’t qualify under Aldiss’s definition, to the Victorians, then to the pulps, and finally the 1950s and 1960s. Sit down and read this.[vi] I guarantee you will find a whole bunch of stories you will want to look up and read. Me, for example, I’ve been avoiding Edgar Rice Burroughs and A. Merritt, but after reading Aldiss, I know I have to tackle at least some of their books.

You’ll also pick up some ideas that will seem obvious in retrospect. Gulliver’s Travels is about as close to science fiction as you can get without a modern sense of science, and it even comes close to that. Poe’s science fiction stories are among his worst, but so many of his non-science fiction stories, thanks to their Gothic element, are borderline sci-fi. In fact, a number of writers straddle the border between fantasy and science fiction to the point of blurring the boundary. I knew H. P. Lovecraft did, but Aldiss points out that Bulwer-Lytton, he of “It was a dark and stormy night” fame, did likewise.[vii] H.G. Wells was torn between being a writer and an educator, and the educator won out, which is why his later books are little read.[viii]

Not that I agree with Aldiss 100% of the time. Claiming Thomas Hardy for science fiction strikes me as a stretch, I don’t care how much he was influenced by evolution; Aldiss is on stronger ground when he claims Nathaniel Hawthorne. His criticism of Clark Ashton Smith as unreadable, standing without further explanation, seems to be more due to Aldiss’s low opinion of Smith’s colleague Lovecraft than to anything Smith wrote.[ix] Conversely, I can understand why Aldiss thinks so highly of Olaf Stapledon’s cosmic sagas, but I found them lacking in human interest; I prefer Odd John and Sirius, which Aldiss considers lesser works, myself.

Once we hit the post-World War II era, Aldiss’s treatment changes. He is still trying to trace the changes in the field, most notably by showing how the New Wave legitimately fit into science fiction, often by standing the genre’s conventions on their heads. But it’s difficult to trace changes while they are going on. If I get around to reading Aldiss’s revision of Billion Year Spree, namely Trillion Year Spree (1986), I’ll be very interested in seeing how he has revised his treatment of science fiction after 1945. The other problem with these later chapters is that Aldiss seems determined to name-check as many post-1945 writers as he can, either because he was afraid of missing a notable name, was trying to please the sci-fi authors’ community, or just because he didn’t feel he could pick and choose which ones were notable.


I had never read a book-length treatment of science fiction’s history before. This was worth the trouble, both to gain a solid historical perspective and to use Aldiss’s definition of the genre to think about what science fiction is and should be. Oh, and let’s not forget thinking about the relationship between his definition and my own writing!

[i] Brian W. Aldiss, Billion Year Spree: The True History of Science Fiction (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1973), p. 8.

[ii] I’ve been leading up to this post by writing previous posts on the Gothic writers Mrs. Radcliffe and “Monk” Lewis, and providing an excellent example of a writer of Gothic novels, Daphne du Maurier, adding science fiction to her work in the novel The House on the Strand.

[iii] Before we go any further, I should note that Aldiss’s analysis is by and large confined to European literature and its American offshoots.

[iv] The fallacy of essences in this context is the belief that a term must have a basic definition that encompasses all legitimate examples of that term, and nothing else. But the English language doesn’t necessarily work that way. People often develop terms that apply to one set of examples, and then extend that term to other things that resemble the original set in significant ways. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued that the term “game” evolved that way. When you think about it, there are quite a few English terms that are hard to define succinctly, but “you know it when you see it.”

[v] Aldiss, Billion Year Spree, chap. 7-11.

[vi] Or read Aldiss’s later and expanded version, Trillion Year Spree (1986), which I haven’t got to, yet.

[vii] I can’t believe I’m writing this, but thanks to Aldiss I have to read some Bulwer-Lytton!

[viii] A cautionary tale for this historian-author!

[ix] I’ve written a post on Clark Ashton Smith and his influence on me. What I can’t understand is how Aldiss is so critical of Smith, and yet can have a kind word to say for William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, which is well-nigh unreadable due to Hodgson’s use of archaic language.

About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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15 Responses to One billion years plus forty: Brian Aldiss and the history of sci-fi

  1. Judy says:

    Well, I had so much FUN reading your review of this book!! Made me smile all the way through. Aldiss is opinionated of course and so I expected a few differences of opinion. My favourite thing about having found this book is that it really made me think about what science fiction was in the early context of changing attitudes towards religion, science, and man’s general quest for meaning in the universe. I feel so happy to think that a book I was so impressed with is now a valued resource for someone else, especially someone with a much deeper literary base than certainly I possess!! This is fun because I have so few associates or friends who enjoy sci fi let alone an entire book on its history!!

    I think when you read Edgar Rice Burroughs that you will appreciate his story telling. I raced through all the Tarzan books and others in about the 7th grade I guess. I used to be filled with disgust over TV interpretations of the character and if you’ve never read the original story (ies) you will see why. And, if you read, The Son of Tarzan, well its not insipid like TV and movie depictions of the son. But, there is so much to read and darned little time!!

    Aldiss– the works of his whose imagery has stuck in my mind the most are probably the Helliconia books.

    Super review!!

  2. Brian Bixby says:

    Glad you enjoyed the review, Judy. I had to pare it back a bit to keep it manageable within the blog. Some things had to go, such as a paragraph or two on why series of books, which we think of as being a modern development, goes back to the origins of sci-fi.

    At some point, we’ll have to have a blog post about favorite sci-fi books and why they are so. Of course, that means I’ll have to sit down and work out my own list, which after reading Aldiss will be a bit different!

    And Aldiss himself . . . the only thing I can recall reading of his is “The Saliva Tree,” with which I was favorably impressed. (Well, I did see the movie version of “Frankenstein Unbound;” now, having read this book, I can understand why Aldiss would write such a story.)

    So, thank you again for the book!

  3. E. J. Barnes says:

    Edgar AllAn Poe
    Aldiss’s attempt to define science-fiction so as to exclude space opera and other sensationalist pulp material comes, oddly, about 20 years after Sturgeon’s Law was first expressed!

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I can never remember which letter is the second vowel in Poe’s middle name, and what’s annoying is that I actually did look it up not long before I composed this essay, and still got it wrong. Sigh. Thanks for catching that!

      Sturgeon’s Law dates from 1958. For those of you who don’t know it, it’s the flip side of Aldiss’s approach to establishing the legitimacy of science fiction. Aldiss claims that not all science fiction is crap, that it produces some good works. Sturgeon accepts that 90% of sci fi is crap, but says that’s true of any kind of literature (or films).

  4. crimsonprose says:

    Another succinct and informative review. And in reference to my comment to your previous comment to mine, I lose. Most of these authors I have actually read. Though the tome in question I have not. (I must check it out) Aldiss has been my bed-companion on many a night, though less so these days, and I get what he means of sci-fi being valid literature when it’s used to explore the human psyche. I once explained fantasy to a friend in similar terms. By creating the world, the rules, the givens, etc the author is able to explore how humans would react and survive, thus revealing yet more of our make-up. And yes, it was very much the thing in 70’s & 80’s British sci-fi/fantasy scene.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Don’t take it too hard, CP: if you go dipping in the pages, you can find a few authors you’ve not read. 😉
      Certainly after having read Neve through from beginning to just before today’s installment, I’d say Raesan certainly tests the limits of being human. 🙂

  5. L. Palmer says:

    A helpful review, although Aldiss doesn’t sound like he knows how to have fun in Sci-Fi.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      His tone is fairly serious throughout, probably because he’s taking great pains to make science fiction serious, which when you’re discussing Edgar Rice Burroughs is admittedly a bit of a stretch. I’ve not read enough of him to know if this is his usual tone. I do recall that in “The Saliva Tree” there’s a fairly grim joke about interstellar tourists, but it won’t bring the house down!

  6. What a fantastic read. Thank you. It’s one that I don’t have on my shelf but now intend to 🙂

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I did a double-take on your name, thinking, “hey, maybe this is a relative of Brian Aldiss’s,” and then realizing that if you were, you’d probably have already read his book! 🙂

      (And for the record, I’m at best only distantly related to the few almost-famous famous people who have been named Bixby.)

      • Well I’m sorry to disappoint you but I am Brian’s poorly read son! Keeping watch over his website and social media accounts your wonderful post popped up. I forwarded the link to dad and he has suggested that I post the following:

        “Oh and you could could say this, about Bulwer-Lytton’s THE COMING RACE. It was published in 1870 – I think – when Britain was waking into a new more modern world, Many new items were suddenly available, including two which ride in on the great popularity of THE COMING RACE, where the people underground use, not electricity, but vryl, VRYL!
        So then onto the market come BOVRIL, still popular, and VIROL – a sort of toffee medicine. VIROL seems to be off the market now (I ate and loved it as a kid). These are two striking examples of SF impingeing on the outside world! ”

        He was prolific – a poor excuse for me not reading all of his work – but at least it will keep me busy for some time to come.

        Thanks again

        • Brian Bixby says:

          Stuck my foot in my mouth, did I? You are kind not to be reprimanding me for it. Now I will feel obliged to read another of your father’s books before the end of the year; it will not be a tough obligation to fulfill!

          Thanks both to you and your father. And “The Coming Race” was what I had in mind for Bulwer-Lytton, so I’ll be reading it with a smile while remembering this.

          • Judy says:

            Not so tough. Trillion is already enroute!! 🙂 I bought it to read but dragged my feet, you deserve it so you can have the rest of the story while Billion is fresh!! Too Cool!!!! Does this mean you are not related to The Incredible Hulk?

            • Brian Bixby says:

              “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find . . .” Why, thank you, Judy!

              Most people in the United States with Bixby as their surname are descended from Joseph Bixby (b. 1620-1 Little Waldingfield, England, d. 1701 Boxford, Massachusetts). I do not know the entire family tree, but both Bill Bixby (1934 – 93), the TV Incredible Hulk’s normal character, and Jerome Bixby (1923 – 98), the science fiction writer who contributed to both “The Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek,” were Californians by birth, which means they are likely to be descended from a different son of Joseph than I am. That makes us about 8th cousins. The Habsburgs we are not.

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