Generously cramming a dozen short stories into 200 pages, Aldiss offers up tales of humanity's possible futures, in visions ranging from apocalyptic to comic. In its best moments, quite stunning; in its worst, didactic, dated, full of late-60's "new wave" pretentiousness. Fortunately the good outweighs the bad. Overall, the book demonstrates Aldiss has more range as a storyteller than most of the field's most popular practitioners.
NEW ARRIVALS, OLD ENCOUNTERS
Aldiss sticks it to The Man. A polemic masquerading as a story, about an alien world whose humanoid natives enjoy a peaceful, perfect, idyllic communal life (they're basically hippies) until big ol' mean violent greedy Earth people show up in a spaceship and fuck everything up. Thanks for the spanking, Brian.
THE SMALL STONES OF TU FU
After that groan-inducing opening, the collection settles in nicely with this gentle story about the friendship between a time-traveler and an ancient Chinese poet. A tender examination of humanity's place in the universe; suprise ending actually works.
Sobering satire about a crew of spacefarers who return to Earth after 120 years, only to find that there have been more drastic changes than they could have imagined. Some of the scenarios don't seem entirely realistic, and one gets the impression Aldiss is exaggerating to make his points, but what is convincing is the depiction of how human nature is changed by adversity, for better and for worse.
AMEN AND OUT
Brilliant satire of hypocrisy, morality and the way in which faith and science can often merge, set in the late 22nd century, where humanity worships computers and keeps thousands of 150-year-old immortal human beings alive in a special quasi-prison so that they can create new ideas future generations can apply. A funny and utterly knowing jab at the baser side of human nature that commendably avoids mean-spiritedness. Also appears in the 1972 DAW collection The Book of Brian Aldiss.
A SPOT OF KONFRONTATION
Simply terrific comedy set in a future where tourists are assigned specific compulsory vacation spots, with alloted travel miles, in order to maintain "global trade balance." When a Eurasian tourist is stranded in Tahiti by his family, and he cannot get permission for additional travel miles to fly home, he becomes involved with the local underworld. Hysterical multilingual slang permeates the dialogue, though your brain better be ready for it. Another prescient note: Europe is called the EEC (its language "spEEC"). Funniest line: "Mere thatcher. Just in case anything sputniks."
THE SOFT PREDICAMENT
Fascinating but preachy story of redemption, set in a future plagued by racial strife and overpopulation, about a man involved in dream research coming to terms with his own numerous demons. Heavy, not particularly pleasant, but undeniably well-written and thematically relevant. Also appears in the 1972 DAW collection The Book of Brian Aldiss.
Original but unsatisfying story of a scientist who sacrifices all to learn the truth about the nature of the universe. Quasi-religious theme didn't work for me; I would have liked it better had it been a study of obsession and loneliness. Should have been a bit longer, too; could have even made a novel. Moving ending.
ONE BLINK OF THE MOON
A man experiences a vision of the totality of human evolution and history from past to future. Written in some of the most breathtaking prose I've ever encountered, the story still has an anti-technology message that didn't set well with me.
SPACE FOR REFLECTION
Trenchant, witty story about a man who spends his entire life travelling the universe, seeking the meaning of it all. Often, Aldiss writes his philosophical tales in very broad strokes, and this one is no exception. Yet, here, a biting satirical edge, tempered by a genuine love of humanity, makes this one of Aldiss's most successful and entertaining forays.
SONG OF THE SILENCER
Humanity has built a massive computer out in space simply called the Ultimate Machine, that perfectly mimics the human brain — but some are predicting disaster once it is activated. You might argue (rather strongly) with the philosophical underpinnings of this story, but whether you do or not, the tale itself is undeniably sobering and attention-getting.
Excellent, if grim, story concerning a trio of cloned missionaries who land on a distant world in an effort to spread their anthropic religion, and the distressing realization one of them experiences after numerous hardships. Non-religious readers who might ordinarily be turned off by Aldiss's religious-themed tales will probably find themselves relating to this one surprisingly strongly.
THE IMPOSSIBLE PUPPET SHOW
Hilarious series of dadaist one-act plays, ostensibly (though I wonder if Aldiss is pulling our leg here) commissioned for a 1969 worldwide symposium on pollution. If true, I can imagine the looks on their faces! Gleeful nonsense had me giggling all the way through; what Monty Python could have done with sketches like these! My vote for "Best Use of Anteaters in Science Fiction."