Brian Aldiss, certainly one of the tip-top science fiction writers of all time, passed away a couple weeks ago, and in honor I decided to pull one of my unread Aldiss novels off the shelf and have a go. No two pieces of Aldiss’ fiction the same, it was impossible to predict what The Malacia Tapestry (1976) would be. And the cover is zero help. Unless the reader has read an adept review or two, then it’s very likely the pulp image would entirely misguide them. But this is Aldiss we’re discussing, and The Malacia Tapestry is much more than Golden Age escapism. In an interesting twist, Jack Vance might have played a hand, however…
The Malacia Tapestry is about Perian de Chirolo and what is likely the most formative year of his life. Playboy actor working the stage in the Renassaince-ish, Italian-ish city of Malacia, he lives in poverty yet devotes his life to pleasures—chasing women, bumming a good meal, and getting drunk with equally lascivious friends. A complete cad, Perian’s life takes a new direction (little to his knowledge) when he agrees to a job acting, rather posing, for scenes in a new type of still-life art created by a renegade inventor/artist named Bergstohn. Bergstohn part da Vinci and part Wagner, he is a Progressive who has developed a zahnatascope (primitive camera) that he intends to use, under the sponsorship of a wealthy Malacian lord named Hoytola, to create a series of images that will tell a politically dissident story. Hoytola’s daughter, the beautiful Armida, has likewise agreed to act in the still-life play, and Perian falls madly in love. Bergstohn having many other subversive plans for Malacia, time will tell the effect on Perian as he is drawn deeper into Armida’s web.
Perian a rogue with a witty, sharp tongue, half the joy of The Malacia Tapestry is his interaction with the world. It is not imitation Jack Vance, but certainly parallels can be drawn to Cugel, his priggish charm, and the larger fantastical world he lives in. The humans in Malacia seeming to have reptiles rather than apes as ancestors (Aldiss never explains this, seeming to leave it open as an urban myth rather than biological “reality”), dinosaur-esque creatures are scattered around the city and forests, even as obtuse street wizards divine the future for Malacia’s citizens, again reminding the reader of a Vancian world which retains its strong analogies to human cultures.
One of the few things I knew about The Malacia Tapestry prior to reading it is that is set in a culture that has not changed for a millennium. Believing that Aldiss would devote a portion of the novel to explaining just how a society could be so static, I was thankfully wrong; The Malacia Tapestry has different aims. One is the fundamental change in Perian’s character. The rogue the reader is introduced to at the start of the story is a different type of rogue by the end. This is not to say warm, mature and wholesome, rather at least wiser and more aware. Wisdom and awareness at the reader’s level is another of the novel’s aims, among the areas targeted are the significance of history, its tendency toward regular upheavals, and the risks inherent to close-mindedness regarding change.
In the end, The Malacia Tapestry is just one more example why Aldiss was and is one of the tip-top best. Written at a point in his career he’d mastered technique, everything about the novel, from dialogue to pace, details of setting to characterization, fits perfectly the type of story being told. And what is that? Well, to answer that, I’m going to quote Kirkus as I don’t think I could say it better: “A provocative, remarkably successful marriage of breezy jeu d'esprit and historical reflection”. (Along with the Kirkus review, have a read of MPorcius’ as well as it makes interesting comparisons.)
My condolences to the family, and thanks to Brian Aldiss for the bevy of stories, poetry, plays, and art keeping his spirit alive.