Brian Aldiss is one of Britain’s finest writers of Science Fiction. Since the mid 1950s he has been enthralling audiences worldwide with his books and has won most of the top awards in the international Science Fiction scene.
Recently, his 1973 novel, Frankenstein Unbound, was filmed by Roger Corman and the film’s release was closely followed by the publication of a companion novel, Dracula Unbound. I met with Brian on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon in April, to discuss the concepts of his Unbound novels. First though, I asked how it all began.
‘I always wanted to be a writer,’ Brian explained. ‘Even when I was in the army I was writing and when I left the army I ended up working in a bookshop. After a while I started writing a humorous column for The Bookseller, the organ of the book trade, and that was a very good place to be published because, of course, all the book sellers and publishers read it! My column was called The Brightfount Diaries and was the diary of an assistant in an imaginary bookshop in a town not unlike Oxford. One day, I got a letter from a publishing house, Faber and Faber, asking if I had ever thought of making the column into a book. In fact I had been thinking of nothing else and jumped at the opportunity.
‘Faber were incredibly good, and said they liked the book very much, and did I have any suggestions for it. As bold as brass I said “Yes. I’d like to see it illustrated.” They mumbled “Oh yes, of course, yes, yes... Who would you like to illustrate it?” “Pearl Faulkner” I said, who was a magazine illustrator that I then admired rather a lot, and they agreed!
‘When The Brightfount Diaries was published in 1955 it did rather well, and Faber gave me a lunch and asked what I was going to do next. “Well,” I said, “Errm, what I really write is umm, Science Fiction.” “Really!” they exclaimed, “We were looking for a Science Fiction writer. Marvellous! When are you going to write it?” So I told them it was called Non-Stop. “Sounds interesting,” came the reply. “Jolly good. We’ll publish that.” And they did!’
From those beginnings, Aldiss continued writing and in 1973 published a novel that in many ways broke the traditional mould of the Science Fiction novel. Frankenstein Unbound is the story of Joe Bodenland who slips back in time from the 21st Century and finds himself by Lake Geneva in 1816. Stranger still, in this world live both Mary Shelley and Baron Victor Frankenstein, authoress and protagonist in Shelley’s tale of the modern Prometheus.
I wondered how the concept for the novel was worked out.
‘Sometimes one can’t answer that question, but in this case, there’s a very clear answer. I’d decided to write a history of Science Fiction, Billion Year Spree. It seemed to me that people thought that Science Fiction either started with Homer or in some American pulp magazine in 1923, and the funny thing was that these views were often held by the same man! I wanted to clear all this nonsense away. There was also a claim that there must be a father figure for Science Fiction. Was it Hugo Gernsback or was it John W. Campbell or could it have been Homer? I thought it could be Mary Shelley. Why not have a mother figure! So my original thought was that my history could begin with Frankenstein and then I began to think of arguments to support this rather crazy idea and I reckoned I was onto something. So after much labour, I did Billion Year Spree, and at the end of it I thought; of all the thousands of books I’d read, which did I actually enjoy most in a deeper sense: what gave me most? I realised it was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
‘Basically, Frankenstein’s the tale of man taking powers, which had hitherto belonged to God, into his own hands. In a way it’s also the male usurping the female role to create a monster. However, one has to be simple and clear when presenting an argument that you know is going to be attacked very strongly, as indeed it was. I thought that most people only know Frankenstein as a horror movie and they haven’t read the book. The name conjures visions of Boris Karloff stomping about inarticulately, whereas in the book, the monster is very articulate. I wanted to persuade people to read Shelley’s book and thought that maybe one way of doing that was to write a novel which wasn’t a sequel, but which was definitely related, so that if you read it, you could see where this was happening. And that’s really how I came to write Frankenstein Unbound.’
One of the aspects of the book that intrigued me was that it looks at the events from the outside.
‘That was the purpose of it. And I think it is very successful. It has two things that the Mary Shelley novel has; it has something of the darkness of the original and it also has the sense of isolation. Never in a Frankenstein film do you ever get a feeling of isolation - the laboratory is swarming with hunchbacks and criminals - but the novel is largely about isolation which springs from Mary Shelley’s own very unhappy life story. The poor lady had four children, three of whom died almost at birth, and she had various miscarriages. I also think that she and Percy Shelley were probably badly undernourished most of the time although the biographies don’t tell you that.’
After quite a long gap, we find ourselves faced with Dracula Unbound. How did that come about?
‘You must realise that I spent the eighties working very hard. I spent a very long time on the three big Helliconia novels which took quite a lot of research, then I completed Trillion Year Spree, the revised edition of my previous history, which nearly killed me and without David Wingrove I wouldn’t have done it, and then I wrote Forgotten Life, which to my mind was a major effort, so I wanted to relax a bit. As it happened, very opportunely, along came Roger Corman and we had great fun filming Frankenstein Unbound. One day we had Corman to dinner and I said to him, “Well Roger, you’ll have to make a sequel you know ... Bodenland survives ...” “What sort of sequel?” he asked and Dracula Unbound was born.
‘These two novels are the Scylla and Charybdis of the Nineteenth Century; they’re both diseased resurrection myths when you think of it. Frankenstein’s creature and the vampires have this bizarre parody of the Christian afterlife, very interesting, and this is why the common judgement has been right in grouping these books together. There is this affinity between them. It’s very interesting that when Bram Stoker wrote Dracula he sent a first copy to his old mother living back in Ireland, and she wrote him a very nice letter back, which you can find in print, saying “It’s more frightening than Frankenstein”. Stoker’s very first critic likened it to Frankenstein. I think that’s very interesting. I adopted the same procedure that I had used in the other one: Bodenland goes back in time and in this case he meets Bram Stoker. Stoker’s a marvellous character to have in a book, larger than life, lovely to do.’
At the conclusion of Frankenstein Unbound, Bodenland has tracked the monster to a futuristic city in an icy wasteland where he settles down to await his fate, however in Dracula Unbound he is in charge of a scientific complex investigating the freezing of objects in time. Brian admits that he was a bit puzzled at how Bodenland escaped from the ending of the first book himself, but sees Dracula Unbound very much as a companion and not as a sequel. However, the concept for the re-working of the vampire myth is more easily explained.
‘If you’re going to do Dracula you’ve got to have the vampires, but vampires have been done and done and done. What could there be new to say about vampires? What if they didn’t actually like having to drink human blood, it was all they’d got, it made them feel ill - we poisoned them as they poisoned us. Great idea! How could that be? Supposing they had evolved not from human beings but from something else? The pteranadons! OK, there’s an idea, and from there came all the ideas for the beginning of the book, with the desert and the K/T Boundary (the layer of ash in the Earth’s crust which marks the end of the dinosaurs)...’
Frankenstein Unbound ... Dracula Unbound ... I wondered what came next ... Werewolf Unbound perhaps, or Hunchback Unbound?
‘I was wondering when you were going to ask me about Prospero Unbound! Another of my great fondnesses is Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I was very fortunate in that I saw a performance of it when I was very young, and found the sense of a golden island with this very benevolent white bearded old man looking after and ordering everything, pretty daunting, although I now think that Prospero was a very horrible and autocratic man with a nasty little wimp of a daughter. My sympathies are all with Caliban, but then my sympathies are always with the monster anyway.
‘Seriously, I’ve got two other books I’m writing this year. One that I’ve been working on for I don’t know how long, is called Remembrance Day, which as Dracula Unbound is a companion to Frankenstein Unbound so Remembrance Day will be a companion to Forgotten Life, the two sort of go together. It’s actually about the lives people lived in the mid ‘80s during the Thatcherite years. Those who were very unsuccessful and went to the wall and, on the other hand, those who were very successful and who went to Wall Street. I’m enjoying doing that immensely and its a matter of slow accretion. Something like Dracula Unbound takes a long time to plan but then you write the novel very quickly, whereas with a book like Remembrance Day, you have an ultimate destination - which in this case is the IRA blowing up a small hotel in Great Yarmouth - but getting there is a matter of slow accretion rather than sitting and writing it.
‘Following Dracula Unbound, I don’t know whether I should strain the credulity of my readers with Prospero Unbound - it’s a good title though isn’t it?’