“He's an explorer of ideas, of political issues, the nature of human beings, ethical concerns," says Richard Matthews. "He's a Victorian in the scope of his interest. His brain is just astonishing to me."
What writer is Matthews, a University of Tampa English professor, talking about?
That would be Brian Aldiss, author of more than 40 novels and 300-plus short stories, critic, poet, a grand master of the Science Fiction Writers of America and a member of the Order of the British Empire.
Aldiss will be the featured guest at the Science Fiction Symposium IV tonight at the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa.
Matthews will be on the panel, too, along with SF writers John Clute and Harry Harrison, USF chemistry professor Brian Space and moderator Rick Wilber, a USF mass communications professor and SF author.
People who don't read science fiction may be surprised to see it get such serious scholarly treatment. But SF has come a long way since its birth in pulp magazines nearly a century ago.
Aldiss, Matthews says, "is at least partly responsible for science fiction being taken more seriously. He's been a very public, highly visible literary figure, especially in the United Kingdom, and that has allowed him to be both this kooky science fiction writer and a genuine man of letters."
Although the majority of his work is SF, Aldiss has also written literary novels, autobiography, critical studies, poetry and plays.
His short story Supertoys Last All Summer Long was the source for Steven Spielberg's 2001 movie Artificial Intelligence: AI, and two of Aldiss' novels have become films, Brothers of the Head (2005), about a pair of conjoined twins who become rock stars, and Frankenstein Unbound (1990), a time-traveling twist on the classic story.
The most recent novel by Aldiss, 82, is Harm, published in 2007 and boasting a cover blurb from Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing. Compared by critics to the work of George Orwell and Franz Kafka, Harm explores the timely topics of terrorism and torture.
"It's written in this stream-of-consciousness, hallucinatory style, so that you're not ever sure whether the torture is real," Matthews says.
Harm employs a fictional device Aldiss is known for, the generational starship, conceived to explain how humans can cross vast expanses of space — by planning for one group of people to begin the trip and their descendants to complete it.
This time, Matthews says, the twist is that the human passengers are "deconstructed into DNA, then randomly reassembled. They all have these odd mixtures of memories. It's a brilliant concept: What does it mean to be human, to be an individual?"
Once reassembled, the people "immediately begin having religious and political conflicts. Brian is always relevant. His ideas are as lively and fresh in Harm as they are in his earlier work."
Matthews, who also is a poet and critic, the director of the UT Press and an editor of the literary journal Tampa Review, specializes in teaching creative writing and Victorian literature.
His interest in SF grew out of his teenage enthusiasm for the form, but he says it fits in well with his other scholarly pursuits. Elements of science fiction and fantasy infuse Victorian literature, he says, from Alice in Wonderland to H.G. Wells.
Matthews wrote the first full-length study of Aldiss' work 40 years ago. "He's just a fascinating person."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.