Brian Aldiss is one of, if not the most versatile writer in speculative fiction. Published in a variety of forms (poetry, plays, short fiction, novel length, and non-fiction), a variety of genres and sub-genres (fantasy, science fiction, and realism—to cover the big ones) and in a variety of writing styles, his dynamism, willingness to try new modes, and experimentation with prose make him one of the most important science fiction writers alive—and still writing as he closes in on his 9 th decade. Capturing this versatility is Aldiss’ 1995 collection The Secret of This Book. Showing off nearly all the tools in his kit, it’s a mature collection of well-wrought stories that are perfect for the reader looking for variety in their genre reading.
From the opening salvo to the last, Aldiss lets the reader know art is one of the main motifs of The Secret of This Book. “Common Clay”, which opens the collection, is the story of a starving artist living in Geneva. Despising fellow artists who go commercial, he stubbornly sticks to his squalid apartment and poor ways for the principle of it all, that is, until meeting a mysterious woman. Given the conclusion, “Common Clay” may be the ultimate starving artiste tale. In fact a trio of stories, “Her Toes Were Beautiful on the Mountains” is the salvo closing the collection. Ostensibly sci-fi, each nevertheless delves into human concerns beyond the tropes of the genre. The first is the derailing of military propaganda at a shuttle launch, the second a brief piece in which Gaugin is brought to virtual life, and the third is a dialogue between two scientists about primitivism and its relation to art. Moving briskly, each vignette stands alone yet is linked thematically to the others, Gaugin, and his work in the Pacific, the centerpiece.
The title for the collection odd, Aldiss (indirectly) explains early on: “It is said there is a book called ‘The Secret of This Book’ which contains at least one story which readers cannot bear to read—some on the grounds it is too truthful, some that it is just ‘fantasy’. The matter is not yet settled.” There are several candidates. In no particular order, there is “Horse Meat”. A bleak and graphic story of a man exercising his authority to its egotistically fullest, the imagery and mood are difficult to wash from the mind after reading the last visceral, troubling page. “How the Gates Opened and Closed” is another story that seems to only go downhill. A bitter, frustrated man in war torn Yugoslavia the main character, one night in his life is enough to make the reader both angry and sympathetic. “Headless” is another story that turns the eye—though not for reasons one might expect. A work of satire, it may be more truth than ‘fantasy’. Aldiss’ pseudo-autobiographical account of how he decided to be writer, “Making My Father Read Revered Writings”, likewise contains as much imagination as reality—the father figure taken directly from a Dickens’ novel.
For the reader interested in Aldiss’ science fiction, there are a handful of very high quality shorts. “Traveling towards Humbris” is brief commentary on the Singularity, while “Three Moon Enigmas” is another trio of laterally linked vignettes. Beginning with an interview of a reclusive yogi orbiting Earth in a capsule, the three close on a story of a convicted criminal on a lunar journey to his place of execution. Moving simply but unpredictably, the stories are a delight with more than one layer to ponder upon.
Though having the same main character as the third vignette in “Three Moon Enigmas,” “A Dream of Antigone” is not in the trio. Telling of the man’s last night in prison before execution, his dreams are of a fantastical rather than science fictional hue. In dialogue with the play Antigone, it complements the earlier stories “If Hamlet’s Uncle Had Been a Nicer Guy” and “Else the Isle with Calibans”, both of which lightly tap into the most famous of English playwrights’ work. And “Traveler, Traveler, Seek Your Wife in the Forests of This Life” is a mini-play (a fairy tale playlet, in fact), about a man who goes walking in the forest one day that rounds out the inclusion of theater in the collection.
There are also stories which, by drawing upon literature as whole, defy grouping with the other works. “A Swedish Birthday Present” is an outright piece of realism that addresses involvement and indifference toward international political concerns, the Balkan War once again at stake. “The God Who Slept with Women” is a simple conceit about a Greek teen who finds herself pregnant with a god—helmet and all, and society’s (satirized) reaction. “Becoming the Full Butterfly” is a bizarre story about telepathic sex change. One of the strongest pieces in the collection, “Evans in His Moment of Glory” takes the last seconds of a man’s life and shoots it through a kaleidoscope of fantastical imagery and experience to positive, if not visual, effect.
It would be remiss to write a review of The Secret of This Book and not mention the segues. Reminiscent, slyly misleading, and erudite, Aldiss’ commentary (the best word I can think of) linking one story to the next is far from standard introduction/closing material. At times making the reader wonder whether it is not, in fact, fiction in itself, and at others subtly, humorously playful, at all times it serves to keep the collection fresh, dynamic, and moving forward, one story after another.
In the end, The Secret of This Book is an enjoyable, accomplished collection filled with a wide variety of non-standard genre material. More varied than the majority of single author collections, in fact it feels more like an anthology given the range of style, form, and story types present. The segues as enjoyable as the stories themselves, the collection never gets bogged down in repetition or navel-gazing. There is simply nothing dry or predictable about it. From art to the Balkan War, science fiction to fantasy, surrealism to the most intimate of realism, The Secret of This Book is a great buffet of literature that rewards for its fluid and imaginative delight.