I really think he may be the most under-rated writer in England today. I am continually surprised by the range of his accomplishments. Years ago I scanned in a large extract from the opening of one of his books about the British Army in Indonesia after the war, written in a flawlessly naturalistic register. Yet he can also do “poetic” in a way that thousands of science fiction writers do their teeth-aching best to persuade you just can’t be done. Here is the opening of his very short story Creatures of the Apogee:
From a distance, the one-storey palace appeared to float on the ocean like a wafer.
Three beings came springing out of the lighted rooms of the palace behind the long colonnade, he. She, and she. They ran over the flagstones, laughing. Night crackled overhead in tones of deep blue and sherbet. Joy flared like lightning across two opposed points.
From the chambers behind them, music overflowed. In that music moved nothing but harmony itself, complete in its own cadences, yet the key in which it was pitched carried an oblique reference to the particular loaded time changes of this world. Things grew, eyes sparkled, joints were as nimble; yet this was this fateful planet and no other in the universe.
Take that great terrace, paved with flagstones in which mica emicated beneath advancing feet: across its expanse, illumination played with as many variations as the music. The night itself was a great source of light and, like an upturned cauldron, the sky spilled its nourishments over the intricacies of the building. Into the vaulted ceiling behind the colonnades, the sea smuggled its own messages of light, for oceans have better memories for heat and day than does air. The glaciers, too, and seven tiny moons, all contributed their share of luminance.
And yet those three who ran laughing – they rejoiced in night, he, She, and she, rejoiced and lived for its qualities. Now they had reached the very end of the terrace, and rested against the last slender column, with its faded paintings of sorcerers and cephalopods. Their regard went first, instinctively, to the lapping waves, as if to penetrate beneath them and view the creatures who lay waiting in the depths, waiting for the appropriate season. They smiled wryly. They raised their heads.
It’s in his collection Last Orders which the FWB found at a remainders stall over the weekend. It’s almost the whole of Stapledon painted on an enamel miniature.
I don’t terribly like a lot of his work: in particular, in the Sixties his imagination had a hermetic and surreal quality to that repels me. But that’s a complaint quite separate from admiring his technical skill and it seems to me that anyone wanting to know how to write (British) English that is simultaneously disciplined and colloquial could learn at least as much from Aldiss as from Amis the Elder. From Amis the Younger, there is nothing but an Awful Warning.