HBJapan 2001/09

SuperToys to A.I.

---Interview with Brian W. Aldiss (Harper's Bazaar Japan, 2001/09)

Yamagata Hiroo

Ah, Brian Aldiss! Anyone who is anybody in the Japanese SF fandom (which more often than not makes him/her a nobody in the real world...but never mind that) knows his name. One of the most prominent names in British SF scene. Author of the ecological/evolutionary masterpiece Hothouse. But his works are hard to describe; they don't have a single common style or theme...which was precisely his charm. He was unpredictable.

And that may be the reason why his works after 1980 was hardly ever translated. The Japanese science fiction market dwindled, and only the predictable stuff survived; sequels, space opera series, horrors and movie tie-ins... And much of the attention was focused on the American cyberpunk scene, which resulted in very thin coverage of the British scene. Since no news came through on Brian Aldiss, many people assumed that he had retired.

No way.

The publication of Supertoys from Take Shobo was quite a surprise for old time SF fans like myself (And personally, I was even more shocked to find out that it was "that" story; more on that in "Supertoys Karma" elsewhere in this special). What??? Is this... THE Brian Aldiss? Many Japanese SF fans were very much excited that he was still very active. And of course A.I. was inspired by (can't say "based on" here) this story? Wow. So, I was given the opportunity to condict an interview with Mr. Brian Aldiss through e-mail about the movie, the "Supertoys" story, and his recent activities.

For those of you who haven't read "Supertoys," the story describes a near-future, where over population has caused the rights for child-bearing to be alloted through a lottery. Monica and Henry Swinton, who has so far never won the lottery, has acquired an android named David and his partner robot Teddy as a surrogate child. However, Monica finds it difficult to "love" David and Teddy...

-- Surprizingly, the first "Supertoys" story originally appeared in HB, of all places. That seems very unusual. How did that happen? Was there a conscious effort to adapt the story to the readership of the magazine? And what were the responses?

Brian Aldiss (BA): As you say, it was unusual. For some reason, the role of the Fiction editor was handed over to Dr Chris Evans for HB's Christmas Number 1969. Chris was a brilliant physicist, and he asked me to write the story.
I did not make it too scientific, out of consideration for the audience. However, in the character of Monica Swinton I did satirise to a certain extent the idle type of modern woman I believed to be typical of HB readership at the time. Monica's husband, Henry Swinton, is a careerist, and the idea of having artificial tape worms to keep slim when half the world was starving -- I loved that idea. So the innocent little domestic story has some substance to it. Maybe Kubrick liked its satirical edge.

I never heard a word from the HB readership. Maybe they never read my story. Maybe they were all drunk over Christmas!

--- So how did Kubric come in contact with you? Was he a fan of your works?

BA: Kubric read my book on SF history, The Billion Year Spree, where he was praised highly. He rang me for that reason. We talked and he suggested we lunched together. We got on well and later had a second lunch. Only then did he suggest I sent him some of my books, and the possibility of filming was raised. So I sent him three of my books, and he selected "Supertoys". Kubrick knew about everything; but he did not know my fiction before he came upon BYS.

Our working style is as described in the book Supertoys. A limo would collect me from my home every morning. I would arrive at Kubrick's large mansion at about 10 a.m. After a chat, we would start serious work for two or three hours. Stanley liked to cook lunch, generally steak and runner beans. We never drank - only water or coffee. We worked through the afternoon, smoking heavily. The limo would drive me home. After supper with my wife, I would write up a scenario based on the day's notes. The results I would send by fax to Stanley. We would discuss them next day.
The fax machine was invaluable. I have often thought how Stanley would have liked email; it came into force after I had left.

---- So what was the resulting scenario like?

BA: I wrote many scenarios or bits of scenario - the equivalent of two novels! Arthue Clarke also wrote Stanley a scenario; did you know that? Once David went out into the wide wide world, other characters naturally entered, some human, some robotic. But Stanley had it in his mind to bring the Blue Fairy into the film. He had read "Pinocchio" and was keen to have David turn into a real boy, like Pinocchio. I was not enthusiastic about that; for one thing, the idea was too sentimental. I wanted Stanley to create a new myth, not resurrect an old one.

--- But I don't necessaily think that would damage the theme of the story. What was your objection?

BA: The question of why I wanted David to remain an android applies only to the screenplay. Even an SF movie is forced into realms of realism into which novels do not have to tread. It just seemed to me unlikely that audiences would want David to become human, or to find the transformation credible. More deeply, I was struggling against Stanley Kubrick's determination to make a new version of 'Pinocchio'. I hoped he would create a new myth. - in which the poor little android boy would remain forever android.

I can only say that I loved David and Teddy.

---- What does Spielberg think about this? Have you ever discussed about the film with him? (At the time of the interviewm, neither of us had actually seen AI, so we had no idea that it actually was made into a Pinnocio and EXTREMELY sentimental.)

BA: I can only guess. As you know, Spielberg bought "Supertoys 2" and "Supoertoys 3" from me. Maybe we shall see David encountering numerous copies of himself in the film. Kubrick had amassed much of the scenario. I believe he always secretly wished to write the whole thing himself.

Incidentally, I believe that Teddy in the Spielberg movie is much smaller than David. I always saw them as exactly the same size.

--- I'm interested in your view of the story itself. Is it the cruelty of forcing people into adopt a robot as a child that you wanted to highlight, or is it the inability of the people to love somthing just because its a robot?

BA: There is truth in both your diagnoses One and Two. There is no real conflict when we consider the context in which these people live. It is clearly a hard unspiritual world, and a greedy one, as the continued sales of Cresswell tapes indicate. However over-populated the world, it is surely a cruel thing to have the possibility of childbearing by a lottery. There must be a better way.

David and Teddy can be loved: many of the readers of the story love them! As one can love dogs and talk to them (I pass every day a black dog exiled to a little garden. He is genuinely glad to see me, has no reservations about our friendship. Do I not love that responsive dog?) Perhaps Monica could try harder to love her android kids: but do you not think that she dares to exercise on them that indifference she feels towards her husband she may not show? There is also the case that David is pretty boring and predictable. He is programmed to love Monica, in the belief that he is a real boy; but Synthank has not yet been able to programme him to be interesting.

--- So I guess you prefer to leave some ambiguity there...

BA: Excactly. 'What does 'real' really mean?', asks Teddy. Answer: the ambiguity inherent in the nature of things. We hope to reform society, never ourselves.

--- None of your recent works have been translated into Japanese. Not even the Heliconia Trilogy. Can you tell us about your recent works?

BA: My private life has suffered upheaval recently. My beloved wife Margaret died of cancer in November 1997. I wrote my autobiography with Margaret's help. I was also working on a long-term project with Sir Roger Penrose, a utopia, White Mars Or, The Mind Set Free (Little Brown 1999). Immediately after her funeral, I began to write of Margaret's death and life and of our happy family (When the Feast is Finished, (Little Brown 1999). Since then, my quartet of contemporary novels, The Squire Quartet, has been published in paperback (also Little Brown).
And now Supertoys is out - and I must mention that the most splendid edition by far is the translation published by Take Shobo of Tokyo. I am so pleased with this edition!

Three new non-SF novels are due to be published in coming months Early next year, Super-State, will come out. It's about Europe and global-warming forty years from now. I really think this is my best-ever novel, very noir, very sharp and funny.

--- We've been doing this interview through e-mail, and yet, in many of your stories, virtual environments and networks are used to illustrate a sense of discommunication and fakeness, like Monica and Henry's house in Supertoys. And yet, I believe that the world is increasingly becoming media-oriented and network oriented. Can you comment on your view on these matters?

BA: Perhaps I am sceptical about virtual environments. To live in such a place is like returning to the womb. I have quite a large garden, which I tend the best I can. I water and weed and get my hands dirty. I plant trees. I see things change week by week. Some plants fail, most succeed, because the soil is good. Every year comes the miracle of things springing up and flowering and looking beautiful. I have fish and frogs and birds here. This is LIFE! - I love to live it among real things, while otherwise I am writing my non-real stories!

Lastly, what do I think about media and network environments? They are tremendous extensions of our imaginative lives. What's that song in "Thoroughly Modern Minnie"?

Everything today is thoroughly modern -
Everything today makes yesterday slow...

My god, how boring and slow yesterday was! Gimme Today any old time. Can you imagine having to conduct this conversation by Air Mail?! Don't make me yawn! Of course, the media suffers from Dumbing-down. Perhaps that is the result of the greater multitude of participants who are now players. Don't forget the words of Socrates, "The majority is always wrong"...

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