Book Review: HARM by Brian Aldiss

Brian Aldiss is known for being a Socialist who injects political statements into his writing. And by a “Socialist” I mean the true definition, not the quasi-paranoid accusation that gets banded around (and barely resembles actual Socialism) by the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party. In the last ten years there has been no greater rallying call for Socialism than the mistreatment of Muslims in the west following 9/11 and on the back of it, the “Freedom for Palestine” movement.

This is the story of a science fiction writer in the near future who falls foul of an extremist regime built on Islamophobia. The writer himself is a secular Muslim who writes a satire in which a couple of drunks make off the cuff remarks about throwing a bomb into Downing Street. For this, he is arrested, incarcerated and tortured. Various evidences of his extremist point of view are thrown at him and the authorities try to break him.

A heavy political statement then, not everybody’s cup of tea and when the story opens the torturers are very much the stereotype of knuckle-dragging government henchmen of the generic dystopia. Where the story begins to have depth is in a little side story that develops out of our protagonist’s coping mechanism. As a science fiction writer, he knows how to create fantasy world and inside his mind, this is exactly what he does. Fremant is a colonist arriving on Stygia having escaped persecution only the find that on this remote world, humanity is suppressing a race of sentient insects. Out of the frying pan and into the fire it seems. Gradually, the two plot lines merge and you start to wonder which of the threads is real and which is the fantasy… or is it somewhere in the middle?

This is the first of Aldiss’ work that I have read and I can’t say I was particularly impressed. Sure, it feels very much written in the style of British sci fi generation that Aldiss is a part (and one of the last) and that is a plus point, classic yet modern and topical. Unfortunately, unlike a lot of that generation of writing, it really fails to hold the attention. It is a short novel and should have taken me 3-4 nights of reading for about 2-3 hours each. But I’ve dipped in and out over the last couple of weeks mostly because it did not grip me. The characters in the dystopia thread are rather one dimensional and as we follow mostly interrogations, I kept wanting for something to happen instead of the monotony of a thug hitting, swearing and accusin our protagonist of all sorts of things. It gets really tiresome.

In the other thread, though the world was far more illustrated, I found I did not really care enough about the characters or the place to absorb myself in the book. Besides which, as the other story thread was so weak, it made enjoying this part of the book just that little bit harder. That is probably the reason for why my attention tended to drift rather a lot while reading it.

This is not a bad book, but neither will it go down as a sci fi classic. If you prefer not to be bludgeoned with political statements in novels, or would rather that social issues were handled in a more clever or subtle manner then this book is probably not for you. As it is, Aldiss tends to let his political rhetoric get in the way a little too often for my liking – and that is regardless of whether I agreed with him or not.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: HARM by Brian Aldiss

  1. I admire your persistence. If I story doesn’t keep my interest, I put the book down, and never pick it back up. But, this actually sounds like something I might read. Maybe. Thanks for the review.

    • To be fair I have given up on two books already this year, most recently “The Black Swan” a couple of weeks ago when I stopped during the second chapter. I thought I’d best not make it a third so soon!

  2. I recommend his earlier works. Non-Stop (alt title Starship) (1959) is a classic about a generation ship… Earthworks (1965) is about massive pollution wrecking earth…. He’s much more of an ideas writer then character writer — definitely track down a few of his earlier works :)

    • Thanks! I’ve by no means given up on his work because I wasn’t keen on this. I appreciate that if he was a bad writer his career would have been over long ago.

      Thanks for those recommendations, I will check them out some time.

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