Saturday, May 14, 2016

Review of The Moment of Eclipse by Brian Aldiss

Brian Aldiss has a long, successful career, with many of his novels lauded by both mainstream and more sophisticated genre readers. Non-Stop and Hothouse perhaps his most popular works, novels like Report on Probability A, Frankenstein Unbound, The Malacia Tapestry, Super-State, and others represent Aldiss’ deeper understanding of art, existence, and all subject matter between. What Aldiss is perhaps least known for is his short fiction. And yet, his short work is often equal to the best of his novels and series. Publishing several collections in his career, 1970’s The Moment of the Eclipse, while not the best of them, contains enough examples how Aldiss could make a smaller frame as powerful as a larger one.

The title story tells of a licentious Danish filmmaker, fresh off his second divorce, who finds his next target in a Danish poetess. Billowing confidence, he heads to Africa to make his next film, and coincidentaly where the poetess will be with her husband. Rooted in a Thomas Hardy poem on the moon, things do not turn out as planned for the filmmaker. A short piece, “That Uncomfortable Pause Between Life and Art...” tells of a writer’s encounter with an elderly lady at an art exhibit. Clever, Aldiss delicately treads the line between pretension and portention. A hilarious bit of satire, “Working in the Spaceship Yards” tells of a man’s life as a manual laborer building space ships, and the androids he works with. An exercise in decadence, “The Day We Embarked for Cythera...” tells of a bohemiam intellectual and his friends as they enjoy a day in the fields philosophizing, while about them satyrs and gnomes play—a surreal, wonderfully written piece that doesn’t give a damn how you taxonomize it.

A handful of the stories in The Moment of Eclipse are set in India. Using the setting to highlight post-colonial concerns, first to appear is “Orgy of the Living and the Dying.” About an expat Brit living gung-ho on the sub-continent, his capers oscillate between empathetic and despicable. Tugging the heart strings harder, “The Village Swindler” further touches upon social concerns, particularly caste, as a doctor has a heart attack on a train and receives unexpected assistance in the countryside. Two halves of a complementary pair, “The Circulation of the Blood ...” and “. . . And the Stagnation of the Heart” tell of a British researcher living on a remote Indian island, the domestic troubles he experiences there, as well as the history-changing research he uncovers. The latter story putting matters in proper human perspective, Aldiss’ debt to H.G. Wells comes through strongly.

The Moment of Eclipse remains an extremely varied collection despite the four stories set in India, “Super Toys Last All Summer Long” tells a haunting story about an android boy, his teddy bear, and a future wherein AI is a near-reality. The basis for Spielberg’s film A.I., Aldiss thankfully forewent the feel-good alien ending, and instead kept to human implications. Wildly different is the story closing the collection. “Swastika!” finds Hitler alive and well in small-town Britain, and in conversation with a writer named Brian. About the presence of Hitler’s ideology alive in the world, particularly the US in the 60s, Aldiss does WWII no disrespect. Not a story and instead an exercise in imagination, “Confluence” is an alien dictionary. Aldiss witty and intelligent, the dictionary is, of course, more a commentary on the possibilities and meaning of language than fiction. “Heresies of the Huge God,” while never openly stating itself as such, is the holy word of a futuristic religion that puts an amusing yet bittersweet spin on human endeavor no matter the era.

In the end, The Moment of the Eclipse is a solid collection of Aldiss’ shorts that will have the reader thoroughly engaged at times, laughing out loud at others, thinking back upon sub-layers with some, and shaking their head at the depth of Aldiss’ imagination with nearly always. Varied across near-future to fantastical worlds, fictional dictionaries to futuristic sacred texts, Aldiss showcases a wide breadth of ideas. But all remains centered on the human condition—and therein lies Aldiss’ greatest strength and talent as a writer.

The following are the fourteen stories collected in The Moment of the Eclipse:

The Moment of Eclipse
The Day We Embarked for Cythera...
Orgy of the Living and the Dying
Super-Toys Last All Summer Long
The Village Swindler
Down the Up Escalation
That Uncomfortable Pause Between Life and Art...
Heresies of the Huge God
The Circulation of the Blood ...
. . . And the Stagnation of the Heart
The Worm that Flies
Working in the Spaceship Yards

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