Review: An Age (Brian Aldiss)

An Age by Brian Aldiss takes an age to get to the point, and by the time it’s been reached it’s too late.

A Funny history.

I’ve had a funny history with this book. A friend lent it to me about about 2 years ago, and I’m rather embarrassed to admit that it had sat untouched on my bedside cabinet for pretty much about the same length of time. The ‘trouble’ was was that there were always other seemingly better time travel books to be read.

An Age by Brian Aldiss - OK at best.
An Age by Brian Aldiss

And of course there’s the front cover which looks far from sci fi / time travelly. It would give the impression to someone watching me read it that I was reading a slushy romance that I might have picked up from a 2nd hand store (you can read these kinds of books only once…).

Nothing wrong in that, apart from it wouldn’t be true.

Well, apart from one thing; it turned out that whilst packing my house up in a series of boxes for a house move, I came across two copies of The Age. It turned out that I had indeed bought this novel from a second hand store, and had confined it to my bookshelf.

The back cover blurb mentions that the lead character, James Bush, traverses across geological ages and starts to question the direction of the flow of time. That’s what probably what motivated me to buy the thing, though I suspect the further description going on about something to do with being a “psychosexual thriller” (what the hell is that?) relegated it to “to be read under cases of extreme emergency”.

First things first, give copy back to my friend. Second things second – let’s not forget that in any other position we’d be talking chaos – move house. Third, find an emergency.

The Emergency

It turns out that after my house move my commute time has been cut in half on the train. Previously, my train journey was so long I stopped reading and writing for pleasure and started using commute time for work (hence my long hiatus on this blog).

Now I’m back to an hour on the train, but it’s not a direct journey; there’s a connection in between 2 legs. And at the top of my legs, there’s usually no connection between my arse and a seat because it’s so busy (I’m talking here about the train..!). All in all it makes for a difficult work atmosphere, so I’ve gone back to reading. How I’ll get to making notes with one hand holding a book, and the other clinging onto a metal bar in the train for dear support I don’t know yet, but I’ll work something out….

And fourth: find a nice bookmark. My youngest daughter makes them for me frequently, so choice, rather that finding, was more the case.

So after an age, I started reading An Age.

A time An Age for everything.

(Butchered from Ecclesiastes 3.1-8)

It took an age to start.

It took me an age to get into it.

And it seemed to take me an age to get to the end – even though I ended up skip reading this trash.

I couldn’t find a focus; the clearest sense of a story line was only to be found on the back cover. Regarding the “psychosexual thriller” bit, the main character makes out with a lady and there are repeated references to his mistrust of women. I guess that was it.

The thing which did rouse my interest (and here I use my wording a little carefully given the content of the last paragraph) was that there was a mysterious shadowy lady who seemed to be watching the main character. Of course this instantly reminded me of Stephen Baxter and his darned Gaijin (Japanese for “foreigner”) – mysterious beings or creatures which watch and observe from a distance – that he crow-bars into just about anything he writes – Time’s Eye, for example, Time, Space, his so-called “sequel” to H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (The Time Ships), and so on. Was An Age the source of Baxter’s ‘inspiration’?

Anyway, rambling aside, the explanation behind this shadowy lady is interesting, but it’s presented badly because it’s garbled out very quickly in a page or so after about 150 pages of nothingness. It reminded me of Selected Shorts and other Methods of Time Travel (David Goodberg) which does the same thing – a slow moving (short) story, then even the author seems to lose his patience and hurriedly hurls the key to unlocking a weak mystery, allowing him to wrap up the book and start again with something new (and hopefully better).

The time travel element

The time travel mechanism is “minding”. This involves the use of a chemical to allow “mind time travel”, though any more detail into the time travel methodology is absent, other than the mention of travel along an entropy gradient and feeling dizzy whilst doing so (similar to H. G. Wells’ time traveler feeling dizzy whilst twisting through the time dimension).

Book – and time – flow

The novel is divided into two parts. The first part, or “Book One” as we’re invited to call it, seems to be at best a huge character introduction, full of thought, a bit of history and a load of events which have nothing to do with what happens in Book Two. It’s incredibly tedious going which might work in a film where it would only take a few minutes to view, but here it fails.

Book 2 should be Book 1, i.e., where the novel should start, but by page 97 (of 187) I was hardly in the mood to push forwards much further. I award myself a few points for doing so, though admittedly I should give it another try another time with more attention, because there was a nice idea – as mentioned in the back cover blurb – that time runs backwards.

It seemed to me that the idea was spewed out rather quickly with little grounding behind it, but what made it interesting was some of the secondary effects and the meaning they held for the meaning of life. A down side was an omnipotent all knowing all wise all powerful blandness (even named here as God, or the God of the Galaxy) which was more cheesy than a Dutch cheese market.

I’d like to suggest that this is hardly an original idea (think of Arthur C. Clarke’s Space Odyssey) but then again, An Age was published in 1967 so not only might this idea of all-knowingness be (the) original, it could also possibly be the initiator of the idea – even of those mysterious Gaijin observers too.

Final thoughts and rating * * *

I love the dive into the real consequences of the reverse flow of time, and I’m nearly always up for biological / mental methods of time travel. (In that latter respect I really recommend reading Bonnie Rozanski’s The Mindtraveler, or for chemically induced time travel then Fabien Roy’s Buckyball 🙂 )

I also like the ideas of observers and omnipotence, though the latter seemed somewhat unnecessary in The Age.

However, these interesting sparks of time travel and writing techniques come towards the end of the novel – after an exceedingly slow and irrelevant ‘beginning’ which drags out for seven eighths of the novel and dulls the senses. Sadly it means that the final part couldn’t be enjoyed.

All in all An Age by Brian Aldiss is an exceedingly slow moving story and moves at about the same rate as the passage of the geological epochs I think the main character might be wandering through.

If you were to pick up a copy of this novel at a second hand book store, you’re welcome! 🙂 – though I do apologise for the coffee stains on the first few pages where a fellow train passenger spilt some over me when our train lurched to one side. Secondly, I think I left my bookmark in there. You’re welcome to that too – as I said, I have a large incoming supply!

Lastly, I’d recommend starting at the beginning of Book 2. Or just go straight to the concluding pages right at the end.

Paul

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Star ratings:

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