THE TWINKLING OF AN EYE

My Life as an Englishman

By Brian W. Aldiss

St. Martin's. 465 pp. $32.50

Britain has produced many important science fiction and fantasy writers in the latter half of the 20th century: Arthur C. Clarke, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett. But the writer who has done the most to advance British sf is a lesser-known figure: Brian Aldiss.

Aldiss, born in 1925, has been involved in many phases of British science fiction in his 45-year career. In the 1950s, he was one of the first British writers who tried to move the genre away from its pulp roots. In the 1960s, he was at the center of the "New Wave," a movement to make sf more literate and experimental. But while many of his New Wave colleagues saw their careers crash and burn, Aldiss continued to be productive, completing such important works as "The Helliconia Trilogy" (1982-85). He has also produced a substantial amount of sf criticism, most notably "Trillion Year Spree" (1986), a provocative history of the genre.

But while Aldiss pursued his science fiction career, he has also written eight other novels. Most science fiction writers (such as Philip K. Dick and Alfred Bester) who have tried to write contemporary novels have failed. But mainstream fiction is like a second language to Aldiss. At one time he specialized in raunchy military comedies like "A Soldier Erect" (1971). He later discovered the world of tortured intellectuals and think-tank types, which provided him with material for his quite interesting (and shamefully neglected) "Squire Quartet" (1980-1994).

America, Aldiss writes, sees itself as an optimistic country, but "in Britain the prevailing mood is more one of scepticism. It suits us better." So he presents his life, particularly in his early years, as one in which stiff-upper-lip types keep muddling along.

Aldiss grew up in East Dereham, a small Norfolk village. His father helped run the family business, a general store. Like those of many children of the Depression, his early life was one of small pleasures and a great deal of suffering--lengthy and protracted diseases, a hellish, primitive boarding school. It was in the 1930s that Aldiss discovered science fiction, particularly the fiction of A.E. van Vogt. He found such work to be "subversive messages at the time--holding every meaning alien to the received opinions of East Dereham."

World War II substantially expanded Aldiss's horizons. Sent to the Indian front, he found that life in the tropics suited him; the lush jungle landscape was almost as alien as an imaginary sf world. "Because everything was new," he writes, "I remained in a state of subdued excitement."

Returning home in 1947, Aldiss struggled to launch a literary career. He landed a job in an Oxford bookshop, which gave him the material for his first novel, "The Brightfount Diaries" (1955), as well as exposure to the literary celebrities of the age who were striving to get rid of their review copies. (John Betjeman was courtly, Aldiss recalls, while Evelyn Waugh presented himself as a dyspeptic "minor devil . . . with a smell not of brimstone but an equally noxious mixture of cigars and lavender water.")

The last half of "The Twinkling of an Eye" details Aldiss's literary career. It's a chronicle of professional success--steadily rising sales, travel and occasional dalliances with television, theater and Hollywood, including a wasted year toiling for Stanley Kubrick. (Had Kubrick lived, his next project was to be based on an Aldiss short story.)

Aldiss also has become increasingly disillusioned with science fiction. In the 1960s and 1970s, he argues, it was "a new kind of art form or maybe anti-art form . . . breaking with tradition, yet strengthened by its own traditions." But he argues that the genre today "flounders like an old whale in a miry sea of commercial fantasy."

There's much about Aldiss's life that he has chosen to make obscure. You're never quite sure, for example, what caused his first marriage to collapse. The book would have been strengthened by more details about his work in the science fiction field.

But Brian Aldiss is one of the most important sf writers of his generation, and "The Twinkling of an Eye" serves as a capstone to a successful career.