[July 7, 1960] Frankenstein’s Timeline (Brian Aldiss’ Galaxies like Grains of Sand)

Themed collections, a book containing stories by the same author in a common universe, are interesting things.  Isaac Asimov’s Foundation is one of the more famous examples, and when a collection of Zenna Henderson’s The People stories comes out, that will be one of the best ever.

Sometimes, an author is tempted to shoehorn a number of unrelated stories into a single timeline.  Then the stories can be re-released as a “novel” rather than as just a compiled group of shorts (of the type Sheckley releases). 

It can work, but not always.  Every story is written with a set of assumptions in mind, and it is often difficult to do a polished rewrite such that the original assumptions can be masked.

Galaxies Like Grains of Sand is a new book from seasoned young British writer Brian Aldiss.  It contains eight previously published stories stitched together in timeline chronological order with italicized linking text.  The book ostensibly covers some forty million years of future history.  It’s a cute conceit, but does it really hold up under scrutiny?  Let’s look at each of the parts and see if the whole is greater than their sum (it should be noted that I hadn’t read most of these stories before since they came out primarily in British mags):

The War Millenia was originally published as Out of Reach in Authentic Science Fiction.  In this first story, humanity is in the midst of atomic destruction and has burrowed into shelters deep beneath the Earth where they convalesce in a narcotic dream haze most of the time.  On the eve of the global war, Earth is visited by a race of advanced humanoids called “Solites”, who take a keen interest in salvaging as much of Earth’s creatures and cultures as possible.  One Solite even marries a human and transports him to the Solite world, a futuristic but bleak place.  Tired of being kept in the dark as to the true nature of the secretive Solites, he hijacks a matter-transmitter and beams himself back to Earth, where he ends up in a dream house for therapeutic treatment.  The kicker to the story (and it’s easily predicted) is that the Solites are not aliens–they are simply evolved humans from thousands of years in the future. 

In The Sterile Millenia, (All the World’s Tears, published in Nebula Science Fiction), it is four thousand years after the war described in the first tale.  The “color war” is over, and the “Blacks” have won.  But only just.  The Earth is largely a wasteland, and breeding is strictly, coldly controlled by committee.  Emotionless logic (with the occasional stimulated bout of hatred to promote vigor) characterizes human personality.  One prominent politician has a daughter who is a throwback: not only does she feel, but she’s an albino to boot.  Her abortive affair with another throwback ends abruptly and fatally, genetic freaks being equipped with bombs to preclude their breeding.

Flash forward countless thousands of years to The Robot Millenia (Who Can Replace a Man from Infinity Science Fiction), my favorite story of the book.  Humanity has been on a continuous decline since the war, increasingly supported by vast networks of more-or-less sentient robots.  When it is rumored that the last human has died (at least on Earth–the stitching text describes an exodus to the stars) the robots attempt to strike out on their own.  They make something of a hash of it.  Aldiss captures the conniving relationships of an emotionless race quite nicely.

This is followed by The Dark Millenia (Oh Ishrail! in New Worlds Science Fiction).  It is not specified when this takes place, but it is some time after the Solite period of ascendancy described in the first story.  The tale revolves around Ishrail, a fellow banished to Earth by the interstellar confederation of galactic colonies.  At least, we’re led to believe it is Earth, recolonized by one of the diasporic groups. 

Close on this story’s heels, chronologically, is The Star Millenia (Incentive in New Worlds Science Fiction), in which an emissary of the aforementioned confederation visits the Earth, on a whim changes its name to “Yinnisfar”, and teaches us “Galingua”, a universal language that not only allows mutual intelligibility throughout the galaxy, but also instant interstellar travel.

This proves problematic, however, in The Mutant Millenia (Gene-Hive or Journey to the Interior in Nebula Science Fiction) when it turns out that too much facility with Galingua leaves one vulnerable to assimilation into a cancerous mutation of humanity that tries to absorb everyone it touches.  Per the subsequent interstitial explanation, baseline humans win by giving up Galingua.

That takes us to The Megalopolis Millenia (Secret of a Mighty City in Fantasy and Science Fiction, which I do remember reading).  This story is really a satire of the modern television industry, in which the work of a visionary filmmaker/anthropologist, who exposes the seamy underside of a sprawling megacity, becomes the subject of a new show twenty years later–with all the meaningful bits removed.  Of all of the stories that make up the book, this one’s inclusion feels the most contrived, and it is probably not a coincidence that it is preceded by the most new linking material.

Finally, we have The Ultimate Millenia (Visiting Amoeba or What Triumphs from Authentic Science Fiction).  It turns out that the energy of our galaxy is slowly dwindling toward heat death, though its inhabitants are unaware of this decay.  It also develops that the human diaspora went beyond our galaxy, and humanity’s children exist in other island collections of stars.  One of them contrives to assemble a large fleet on the edge of the Milky Way, blast his way spectacularly to old Earth, and deliver the message that humanity, at least all of us in our home galaxy, are doomed.  Thanks.  So ends forty million years of history.

Does it work?  I have my reservations.  The style is inconsistent throughout.  Sometimes Aldiss takes care to create alien lexicons and names.  Others, he seems to fall on 20th Century convention.  There is no chronological rhyme or reason to his choices.  Also, I feel as if baseline humanity stays awfully human throughout–except when we evolve into unbelievably different creatures as described in the Mutant and Ultimate Milennia. 

So, as a whole, it isn’t a complete success.  As for the pieces, with the exception of story #3 (and perhaps #7), I found the book to be something of a difficult bore to plow through.  And while I find it admirable that Aldiss includes non-Whites as protagonists in some of his stories (a thread that disappears by story #4), women are virtually absent. 

2.5 stars.  As always, your mileage may vary, and I welcome your thoughts.

I’m off to another convention this week, but I am taking my trusty typewriter with me.  Expect pictures and more fiction reviews in a few days!

6 thoughts on “[July 7, 1960] Frankenstein’s Timeline (Brian Aldiss’ Galaxies like Grains of Sand)”

  1. Aldiss is one of those writers I want to like a lot more than I do. His ideas are often interesting, his writing is very good, but there’s just something missing for me. I don’t know what it is. I do like the occasional story, but my overall impression is not terribly enthusiastic.

    Apparently this collection was originally published in the UK as The Canopy of Time, though there are some differences as well. Aldiss supposedly prefers this version.

    The fix-up has been an important part of science fiction publishing for many years now. Sometimes it works better than others. I suppose the key factor is just how well the author has done building the universe of his future history. If he’s done his best at keeping the internal rules and recurring characters consistent, then there’s no reason a fix-up shouldn’t work. Asimov has done it, Heinlein probably could (speaking of whom, today is his 53rd birthday; I hadn’t realized he was just a couple of weeks older than I am), even van Vogt has pulled it off more or less well. But stories covering such a huge expanse of time with such big gaps aren’t likely to have been written with the same universe in mind.

    1. Van Vogt did it with The Mixed Men, which was excellent (though I think those stories were all in the same universe).  Leinster could do it with the Med Service series.

      Oh well.  Aldiss suckered me out of 35 cents, so that’s a win for him.

      1. I was familiar with “The Mixed Men” under various titles as a novel.  (I know I bought it at least twice, to find out it was the same story with a different name.) I found the original magazine version not long ago, along with some of his other stuff.

        The magazine versions, to my surprise, were MUCH better than the novels; tightly written and without the bizarre scene jumps and digressions so common to his novelized works, which mostly seem to be jammed together Frankenstein-like out of pieces of earlier books and short stories.

        Since then I’ve thumbed the used-magazine piles looking for more van Vogt.

  2. General agreement.  This particular fix-up is extremely forced.  I don’t see what’s wrong with just a collection of stories.  (I guess novels and fake novels sell better than collections.)

    “Who Can Replace a Man?” is the most memorable story in the book.  A touch of Asimov, perhaps.

    I very much liked this author’s story “Poor Little Warrior!” in F&SF a while back, which was a tour de force of style.

    1. Very astute, re: the robot story.  I don’t remember the F&SF story…  but then, until I began this project, I didn’t put my thoughts on paper, so everything tends to blur.

  3. (OOC: I have that exact edition. First printing, 1960. XD)

    I’m afraid I’m in the same boat here as everyone else – I want to like this collection, and Brian Aldiss as a writer, more than I actually do. And like Demetrios, I can’t quite put my finger on why I don’t. There’s nothing particularly wrong with his work, but it… somehow it just doesn’t ignite my imagination and enthusiasm the way I keep thinking it should. Particularly with a collection title like this one. Galaxies like Grains of Sand. That’s quite good! I like that more than the stories!

    Still, it was a pleasant enough read; I don’t feel I’ve wasted my 37¢. I wish they’d given a bit more space to the painting on the cover, though. It’s an interesting piece of spaceship design, and I’d’ve liked to see more of it.

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