A Life of Matter and Death: by Brian Aldiss

Every so often you happen across the template for a generation of stories. Some of these templates are famous and some are not. This is not. A Life of Matter and Death was published in Interzone in 1991 and made that year's best-of anthology. I don't recall reading it at the time, perhaps because I was in my first year at university, having my brain addled with James Joyce. In fact, my tutors would have been well-served to set aside their annotated editions of Ulysses to spare an hour for Aldiss. They might even have come to share my own conviction that literature, real literature, is not literary fiction, but is rather the best of genre fiction. Though I doubt it - they were always too far gone in a stream of salaried consciousness. And sadly, my own conviction did not arrive till some years later, when it was much to late to argue the point.

A Life of Matter and Death contains all the major elements that currently subjugate much modern genre fiction. Ostensibly the story is about flesh-eating aliens; two brothers carry the body of their father down a South American mountain, only to find that the ground won't accept his remains. One brother descends into local magic realism, inventing infamous headlines for newspapers - the other brother sets about making those headlines a reality and inadvertently changes the way humanity treats with death. Rejecting the ground that refused his father's body, he sails the oceans, happening upon a stricken alien craft - all he can rescue from the wreckage are several eggs which hatch and away. These winged creatures begin to prey on the world's newly dead. And as the world is such a charnel house, they have plenty of feed with which to establish themselves. At first the Odonata, as they come to be called, are treated as vermin; gradually, as their almost angelic qualities grow familiar, then comforting, their purposes become part of the ritual of burial, and the disposal of bodies is given over to them as a matter of ceremony, religious in nature. Huge towers are built to offer up the dead of the world. And so the brothers need not have carried their father down the mountain - they should have finished the climb and left his remains for the Odonata. But these would not have existed if they had acted otherwise.

Put thusly: flesh-eating aliens become beautiful angels when they bring acceptance through cultural exchange settling dysfunctional family arrangements and satisfying eco wish-fulfilment and religious pieties in the process; all of these put together as a sort of difference engine which consumes smoke to produce mirrors. The story is splendid.

I have to admit I haven't been the closest Aldiss reader. Of his contemporaries at New Worlds - J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock and Barrington J. Bayley - I much preferred Ballard and Bayley - I may have to think again. Currently I am of the opinion that the best work of Aldiss is to be found in his shorter fiction; and, in fact, A Life of Matter and Death is subtitled, A Novel in One Chapter. I think he can go one better - a genre in one chapter.


  1. literature, real literature, is not literary fiction, but is rather the best of genre fiction

    I think Gore Vidal makes this point somewhere, probably while tearing into John Barth. I'm not sure he goes so far as to call genre fiction literature, but he does give it credit for being a bit more intellectually lively than your average 800-page postmodern campus behemoth. Which sort of makes it all worthwhile.

  2. I think it's an opinion that's becoming more widespread. Isn't there a movement to have "literary fiction" - that is, fiction that identifies itself as literature upon publication - treated as simply another genre?

    I'm reminded of a comment made by one of the recent finalists for an all-female literary prize - she said she didn't like to feature technology in her texts because it dated them very badly. That amused me no end.

  3. "Excuse me, can you tell me where the mainstream books are?"
    "You know - fiction that isn't crime, horror, romance, science fiction, historical, fantasy or avant-garde."
    "Oh, that. It doesn't have a separate section any more. Those books are scattered all through the shop, because the authors all turned out to be writing crime, horror, romance, science fiction, historical, fantasy and avant-garde while nobody was looking."
    "That's outrageous. Mainstream authors would never write that stuff. They only use the tools."
    "Exactly. You'll find them on the bottom shelf for each genre, under Diluted."

  4. haha, exactly. :]

    Having said that, my local library recently got rid of its sf/fantasy section and scattered the books throughout the "mainstream" shelves, so now it's a real chore to browse. I keep finding books that say "masterpiece" on them - hundreds of them. I suppose masterpiece must be a sub-genre of literary.