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Cracken at Critical (SF) - Brian Aldiss ****

When I first read what might be broadly called new wave SF, back in the 70s, I assumed a lot of it was difficult to understand because it was very deep. Now I'm a writer myself, it's now pretty obvious that a lot of this impenetrability was down to sloppy writing. While there is some of Brian Aldiss's 1987 Cracken at Critical that seems to have suffered from being written quickly without much editing, the overall book is, nonetheless, impressive.

Part of the reason I think it's clever is the way that Aldiss has succeeded in re-using old material to good effect, a boon for the jobbing writer who has to earn a living from his words. What we have here is apparently alternative history science fiction story set in Finland, where Churchill was killed in the 1930s and the Germans won the Second World War. The central character is a classical composer: on the way home from a not-entirely successful symphony premier, he discovers a dead girl's body, which precipitates a dark and mysterious series of events.

So far, so normal. However, what makes this book really interesting is that the protagonist discovers in the girl's bag a pair of old science fiction novellas. He reads these at points in the plot, and we get to read them too. In one sense, what we've got is a collection of three novellas, but the way this is done makes the whole far more effective than the parts.

What's particularly interesting is the nature of these novellas. In a Guardian review printed on the back of my copy, the reviewer comments there are 'two meticulous parodies of the kind of SF story written in days long gone...' This entirely misses the point: these are not parodies, but actual stories written (and published) by Aldiss in 1958 and 1965. For me, the main point being made here is that the protagonist enjoys these straightforward stories while reflecting that his wife, who is into heavy literary fiction, would hate them. This seems like Aldiss taking on the pretentious avant garde of SF (despite sometimes being part of it). To make the joke even better, in the story the novellas were written by the dead girl's father, Jael Cracken, which was the pseudonym Aldiss used for many of his early stories, including one of these.

The book is by no means perfect. As was often the case in stories from this period, the ending is weak. And there is a degree of casual sexism. However, the approach is so clever, especially in challenging the SF literati in this undercover way, that this remains, for me, a largely forgotten little masterpiece.

The book is out of print, but available second hand.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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