Harm [Reading Challenge 2017]


by Brian W. Aldiss
Ballantine Books, New York, 2007

[Challenge # 10: A book based in a religion not your own.]

British SF author Brian W. Aldiss, who died recently at the age of 92, was one prolific writer. He started his SF writing career in 1954 and by the end of it, had over a hundred books and innumerable short stories, poems, articles, and essays to his credit. His last book, Comfort Zone, was published in 2013, which means he remained writing well into his eighties. Now THAT’s the kind of career I wish to emulate!

My first exposure to this author came in the form of a book of short stories, The Book of Brain W. Aldiss. I found them literate, mystifying at times, gently satirical, grandiose, and tongue-in-cheek funny. I’m sorry to say I lost that book over the years, but I still remember some stories vividly, such as “In the Arena,” the tale of a human gladiator slave on an alien-captured world, who is partnered with a young woman to kill a creature in the aliens’ arena. His Helliconia series I never got into, because it seemed too much like the 1980s commercial, crowd-pleasing SF that was then being written by old names in the field, like Harry Harrison’s West of Eden and Phillip Jose Farmer’s Dayworld series, to name two. Likewise, I had never been interested in Aldiss’s Hothouse World, either (though I am now.)

Harm, as the author explains, was written 2007 in response to the heightened terrorism threats after the 2001 World Trade Center attacks in New York. It is the story of a young half-Muslim, half-English writer who is imprisoned and tortured in a near-future London because of a throwaway line in his debut novel… a line about killing the prime minister of England. For that he is kidnapped, interrogated, and tortured. The torture is not explicitly shown, but the effects on the main character are, and the dialogue of the torturers is horrifyingly real. To escape, the writer he creates another world in his mind, the story of a man on a recently colonized planet where society is slowly collapsing and fascist politics are coming to the fore. I had originally chosen the book because of its ties to Islam, but it not so much about religion as about politics. Christianity actually figured in the story more, used as a plot element but neither derided nor espoused.

It was a fascinating, engaging read. I blazed through it on my lunch hours which was not the case with Cinder, my previous read, which had been a damn chore. I wonder why I could read something difficult and thought-provoking so readily, and something simple and spoon-fed, so slowly?

One of the things I liked about the book, and a thing I have never before seen done properly before, was how the protagonist creates the dream world he goes to. It was written in a way similar to the progression of real (sleeping) dreams, where there’s a bare skeleton of a place and situation at first that is later sketched out as the sleeping mind chugs along, incorporated pieces of real-world recent events and past memories. Aldiss explains this away as the hero’s multiple personality disorder, which leads him to disassociate. Which is too bad, because the creation aspect, to me, was clearly about the creative process of being a writer, coming up with a character and a situation, then musing on it, replaying it, and gradually adding more elements. This was the only displeasing note in the whole book, though.

Harm worked as allegory, cautionary tale, and magic realism, but there are just enough quirky details that make it more like a real-life memoir, or extended dream, some of which are thrown in but not followed up on. Again, very much like real life, which can be random in what it gives us.

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