Willis E. McNelly
Author: Brian W. Aldiss (1925-
First book publication: 1976
Type of work: Novel
Time: An indeterminate era which approximates the high Renaissance
Locale: The city-state of Malacia
The city-state of Malacia, unchanged for countless millennia, is gradually running down, and Perian de Chirolo, one of its typical citizens, comes to an acceptance of the necessity for change
PERIAN DE CHIROLO, an actor and the narrator
NiCHOLAs FATEMBER, an aging da Vinci-like fresco painter
OTro BENGHTSOHN, the inventor of the Zanhoscope, a primitive camera
BONIHATCH, his assistant
Pozzi KEMPERER, a theatrical producer
"LASINGLA," his wife and the mistress of de Chirolo
LETITIA ZLATROG, a seamstress
ARMIDA HOYTOLA, the beloved of de Chirolo
Early in this splendid, detailed portrait of a high Renaissance, quasi-Utopian society, ostensibly unchanging and unchangeable but actually grinding slowly to a halt, one character voices his intuition that ordinary life in the city-state of Malacia might go on more and more slowly until it stopped absolutely. "Like a clock stopping," another character adds. "More like a tapestry," is the response. "I mean, one day like today, things might run down and never move again, so that we and everything would hang there like a tapestry in the air for ever more."
Thus British writer Brian Aldiss states the premise which informs this complex, elegant portrayal of rich, decadent Malacia. The novel purports to answer an artistic question: What would life be like in a totally unchanging society whose original curse is that it cannot change, no matter how slightly? Every facet of this society continues in a perfectly arranged manner while the millennia tick away. Things happen, to be sure, but the incidents are utterly predictable: actors act; men and women make love; astrologers are consulted; an enemy leisurely lobs shells into the city once a day. The poor suffer, and the rich ignore everything except momentary comfort.
Aldiss has explored the problems of change, inertia, and entropy in many of his previous works. Report on Probability A (1968), for example, presents a totally unchanging environment as characters known only as C, G, and S wait quietly in a garden. Nothing happens, and nothing happens for two hundred pages. In his novel Life in the West (1980), written several years after The Malacia Tapestry, Aldiss examines the subject of change from still another point of view-that of the impact of popular culture upon contemporary society. One has the impression that after the inertia and aridity of Report on Probability A-which is, after all, an antinovel in the manner of Alain Robb6-Grillet-Aldiss felt he had not exhausted the possibilities of examining an unchanging society. He seems to have turned, in time, to still another portrait of an unchanging society, this one as rich and complex as that of Report on Probability A was spare and cold.
Yet there are other similarities. Where the earlier novel seems a "freeze frame" of life and where the characters view again and again and again the painting The Hireling Shepherd by Holman Hunt, the newer book is the work of art itself: Malacia is the tapestry, the work of art. Here Aldiss seems to contradict the old saying Ars long, vita brevis. In Malacia, life is only as long as the work of art itself, and the work of art will last only as long as life lasts. Thus many of the characters in this never-never land are artists: Perian de Chirolo, the actor-narrator of the story; Otto Benghtsohn, the inventor of a primitive camera; Nicholas Fatember, Aldiss' own "portrait of the artist as an old man"; and many more. In one way or another, every character seems to spring directly from a high Renaissance or baroque tapestry, fleshed into being by Aldiss' own artistry.
Yet for all of the familiar aspects of the Malacian society, the reader recognizes that this society seems convincing and internally consistent when it is at its strangest. For example, the members of its society go on hunts, but what is hunted are strange "ancestral" beasts with almost familiar names: bugle-wings; shatterhorns; wattle-tassets; yatterhobs; casque-bodies; and tyrant-greaves. They are called "ancestrals" because this society believes that humans are descended from dinosaurlike creatures. Only heretics, for that matter, believe in one god or in man's descent from frenetic apes.
Yet the more familiar this society is, the stranger it becomes. What can one make of an unchanging world where satyrs are real, where each family has its private astrologer, where there are two religions, the Power of Dark and the Power of Light, the Natural Religion and the High Religion; where what might be called Manichaeanism is the true faith, teaching that the world was created by Satan and that God is merely an intruder in this universe? This combination of the known with the unknown is a masterful accomplishment, and Aldiss has never created a society which is at one and the same time more credible and incredible.
The Malacia Tapestry has a plot, of course, but its incidents, twists, and turns serve principally to stitch together the novel's varied thematic concerns. True, the reader is genuinely interested in what happens to Perian, for his actions over a relatively brief period of time constitute the basic outline of the novel. It is what Perian sees, however, almost as a painter sees, that commands the reader's attention. The kaleidoscopic landscape of Malacia unfolds before the reader just as it does before Perian. One inches through the city as he does, visiting an astrologer, consulting a priest, and acting in an absurd play whose "beauties of plot would enrich, if not terminate, world drama." When he performs an absurd heroic action-floating over the city in a "hydrogenous balloon"-one can rejoice with him while recognizing how ultimately futile or ludicrous the action is. This quality of empathy lies at the heart of Aldiss' amalgam of art and life.
Throughout the book, the reader is aware that Malacia lies upon the threshold of change, and part of the fun of this delightful book is in watching how obdurate Perian can be in the face of this approaching change. Perian is not a true believer in anything except his art, but he is traditional enough-or has been brainwashed enough-to see the familiar rather than the new and tend to reject change rather than embrace it. At the end of the book, however, having been shocked by the cruelty of Armida, his well-born mistress, and of the class she represents, he is ready at least to admit the possibility of change and to consider joining an underground which is working toward it.
Aldiss has revealed that The Malacia Tapestry is the first part of a projected trilogy. Part two, presumably, will concern itself with the fall of the quasiUtopian Malacia, and part three will deal with its reconstruction. Whatever form they take, these future volumes are likely to restate Aldiss' perennial concerns, for he returns to his themes again and again in book after book, refining them, reconsidering them, illuminating them once more. For example, at the heart of The Malacia Tapestry is an ancestral hunt in the Juracia, a primeval forest directly outside the city. Here one cannot help but be reminded of Aldiss' earlier novel An Age (1967; also known as Cryptozoic!, 1968), parts of which were set in a primordial era. The attenuated wisps of Malacian society will remind other readers of that evocative postbellum apocalypse, Greybeard (1964).
One of the most satisfying aspects of The Malacia Tapestry is its richness of texture. The novel's high Renaissance world-spiced with baroque and rococo motifs-is evoked with lavish care. Aldiss is one of the late-twentieth century's finest stylists working in fantasy or science fiction, and his careful attention to detail manifests itself throughout the book. Thus the lush Malacian life and landscape become an integral part of the story itself, indeed almost as important as the turns and twists of plot. Aldiss has consistently been concerned with landscape, in the spirit of the nineteenth century British landscape painters whose works he so much admires. Landscape was integral to Frankenstein Unbound (1973), for example, and many of his earlier works, and if the landscape of Barefoot in the Head (1969) seems addled by some psychedelic drug, the landscape of Malacia suggests a lush Victorian hothouse.
If change, though imminent, has not yet come to Malacia at the novel's end, it has already come to Perian. In one of the central passages of the novel, Perian, together with some members of the decadent aristocracy, engage in an ancestral hunt. Perian faces-and ultimately kills-the giant devil-jaw and sees, as the beast dies, that its eyes are "suddenly full of b, wisdom, pity-no savagery there." Perian is transformed by this encounter and a subsequent one with a satanic incarnation of satyrs and goats. In the end of the book, Perian no longer accepts- the moral absolutes of Malacia and its Supreme Council. Rather, he relaxes in the arms of another man's wife: "The light of my candle, already diluted by grey shadows stealing through the casement, built a small enchanted landscape of the curves that made up her brow, her eyelids, her cheek, her chin. I tucked my arm round her and fell asleep."
The ending of the novel, then, advocates quiet acceptance of whatever the future will bring. There is no struggle to maintain the status quo, no insistence on obsolete, quasi-theological tenets. Instead, Aldiss prefers openness, a quiet recognition of the challenges of change as well as its terrors.
Willis E. McNelly
McNelly, Willis E. "Brian W. Aldiss," in Science Fiction Writers, 1982. Edited by E. F. Bleiler.
Mathews, Richard. Aldiss Unbound: The Science Fiction of Brian W. Aldiss, 1977.