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.