‘The Moment of Eclipse’ by Brian Aldiss

Sometimes books walk into your life. One a day a friend knocked on the door with a cardboard box. “My teacher colleague’s leaving England, he’s going to Saudi Arabia to teach princes,” she tells me. “The princes aren’t bothered about English, all they care about is their falcons – each one has to have its own seat on the plane. Anyway, he can’t take these, so help yourself.” I open the box, not small, and it’s crammed with science fiction books. “Thanks, I will!” Plenty of space opera, which I’ve never had time to read, but other jewels were in there. My diamond – and again it was the cover which first drew my eye – was, still is, Best SF Stories of Brian Aldiss. Published by Faber from the days when they were still committed to putting out science fiction. (In Charles Monteith, Brian Aldiss had found his dream editor, to whom he gives fulsome praise at the beginning of this volume).
There are so many good stories here. ‘The Moment of Eclipse’ is a dazzler. Aldiss throws so many elements into the narrative that you don’t believe he’ll possibly be able to pull it off. How’s he going to develop and resolve them all? In a novel, maybe. In a short story, no chance. Yet he does, and with style. In his Introduction (dated July 1970) Aldiss speaks of writing from “an ill-defined place within which one is aware of a mystery”, or of those occasional stories which open “gates in the mind”. Into this narrow category which might crudely be labelled ‘total success’ he places only this story, ‘The Moment of Eclipse’, and ‘Old Hundredth’. The sly hint is that something effortless has happened, that those obstacles which ordinarily inhibit or stultify creativity came down and, so, the story rushed in fully formed, a tidal wave over a breached seawall. It’s a nice fairy tale – if I understand the hint, which I may not have – but I don’t buy it. I think he must have had to work his arse off to make ‘The Moment of Eclipse’ such a triumph. And perhaps it is very very slightly rushed towards the end. But that would be to pick the most unreasonable of holes. Better by far to immerse yourself and feel the heft. Taking apart a story as complex as this may not be a great idea, in case it doesn’t go back together again afterwards.

First published in The Moment of Eclipse, Faber, 1970, and collected in Best SF Stories of Brian W. Aldiss, Faber, 1971 and The Complete Short Stories: The 1960s (Part 4), Harper Voyager, 2015

‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’ by Brian Aldiss

Aldiss was a key figure in the new wave of science fiction writing in Britain in in the 1960s and 70s, and immensely prolific (80 novels, more than 300 short stories). Fifty years on ‘Supertoys Last All Summer Long’ is – no surprise – dated in many of its assumptions and entirely off-message for modern readers when it comes to female agency. The then-future technologies will seem quaint to today’s reader – “the photostat in her hand, still moist from the wall-receiver” – although Aldiss is bang on the money when it comes to the internet and retina scanning. He also anticipates the loneliness and boredom of modern life, the isolation (in particular) of women in a male hegemony.

In a starving world there’s also an obesity problem, mentioned in this clunky bit of exposition:

Though three-quarters of the overcrowded world are starving, we are lucky here to have more than enough, thanks to population control. Obesity’s our problem, not malnutrition. I guess there’s nobody round this table who doesn’t have a Crosswell working for him in the small intestine, a perfectly safe parasite tape-worm that enables its host to eat up to fifty percent more food and still keep his or her figure. Right?

Yeah, right.

I realise I’m not making a strong case for this. But I recall being spellbound as I read the story in our local library as an unhappy teenager, and brooding for days afterwards on what reality was, and how to figure out my place in my family and in the world. It triggered in me a disabling self-awareness and lack of ease. I’m still living with that.

The story was optioned by Stanley Kubrick and spent many years not being made before it was eventually released as A.I. Artificial Intelligencein 2001, directed by Steven Spielberg. I haven’t seen it.

First published in Harper’s Bazaar, December 1969, and collected in The Moment of Eclipse, Faber, 1970, and widely thereafter. It is available to read online here. Picked by David Collard. David is a writer and researcher based in London. His latest book is About a Girl (CB editions) and he is currently working on a group biography of writers associated with Ian Hamilton’s New Review in the 1970s. His previous contributions to A Personal Anthology can be read here.