Monday, March 10, 2014

The Malacia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss

Back in the 1980s, as a teenager, I read Brian Aldiss's Malacia Tapestry and I loved it.  I enjoyed it so much that it is one of the few science fiction books I have retained over the decades.  While most of the SF paperbacks I read in my youth have been sold or are now in the custody of my brother back in New Jersey, my 1985 paperback copy of this 1976 novel has stayed in my possession over 25 years and traveled with me cross country, because I knew I would reread it someday.  This weekend this paperback's odyssey reached its conclusion when I reread it.

The novel is a smoothly paced first person narrative by Perian de Chirolo, an actor residing in his native town of Malacia, an Italian city state in an alternate universe. I had thought the time period was based on the Renaissance, maybe because the word "Renaissance" appears on the back cover, but some of the men in the novel seem to wear 18th century fashions (breeches and silk stockings, tricorn hats, powedered wigs or hair in a queue held by ribbons) and the illustrations in the book are reproductions of Tiepolos. Some of the capers in the book remind me of the Casanova I have read.  Of course, Aldiss isn't confining himself to one period; there are triremes and dinosaurs, after all, Byzantium is a going concern, and a man in the novel invents a camera and talks the Marxist jargon of exploitation, class enemies and revolution.

Malacia, though a vibrant and exciting center of commerce and culture, is a conservative place; characters say it has not changed in thousands of years, and Perian tells us that the city government's "immemorial duty is to protect Malacia from change." Progressives are burned at the stake or secretly murdered in a dungeon. Despite the efforts of the secretive city government and the predjudices of most of the populace, one of the main characters of the book, inventor and revolutionary Otto Bengsthon, an immigrant from a northern country (he was thrown out of his native town because of his radical ideas) is determined to bring change to Malacia. He not only is revolutionizing the world of art with his camera, but employs hydrogen balloons against the Turkish army which is laying siege to Malacia. (Some of his revolutionary comrades think that their cause will be helped by allowing the Turks to demolish the city, but Bengshton insists that first the "Turks must be defeated, then revolution comes from within.") Perian is in the middle of all these efforts, even though he himself has little interest in revolutionary politics; working with Bengshton allows him opportunities to impress Armida, the beautiful daughter of the inventor's patron, successful merchant Hoytola.

Perian goes to great lengths to woo Armida and impress Armida's father, and succeeds in winning Armida's love; she agrees to a secret betrothal. Despite his protestations of love for Armida, Perian is an incurable ladies man, and enjoys dalliances with many women behind Armida's back.  His promiscuity gets him in trouble with both the revolutionaries and the wealthy members of the middle classes.

Are we to admire Perian de Chirolo for his zest for life, his commitment to his art?  Or are we to deplore him for the way he treats women, how he betrays his friends, his indiference to the social problems which exercise Bengsthon?  Bengsthon, Armida, and others certainly lecture Perian often enough on his selfish and superficial attitude.  In part, the novel is the story of Perian's gaining knowledge and maturity, though Aldiss does not suggest that greater knowledge and maturity necessarily lead to greater happiness.  At the end of the novel the city council has taken care of their Turkish and Bengsthon problems, but it still seems possible that Bengsthon's followers are going to bathe the city in blood, and that Perian may actually join them.  Perhaps we can hope that Perian, who has had wide experiences in a broad cross section of Malacian society, can moderate the radicals and help lead Malacia through a period of peaceful reforms?     

Aldiss includes lots of entertaining elements in the novel: the characters discuss art; Aldiss describes their religion, which I guess you could call Manichean; and of course there is the theme of class struggle, social justice and change.  Even without the Turks or Bengsthon, it seems that Malacia's way of life is threatened; the dinosaurs are dying out and trade with Byzantium is drying up.  Perian's father's fortunes are in severe decline, and with his erudite monomania with historical trivia (a scholar, he spends countless hours researching what Philip and Alexander of Macedon ate) he seems like an examplar or synecdoche of Malacia as a society with a sterile or counterproductive obsession with the past.

I was surprised by how good the style and pacing were, how effortlessly and pleasantly the book flowed; I remember Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer, and Primal Urge being ponderous and at times tedious. I even laughed out loud at some of the jokes in Malacia Tapestry.  There are lots of characters, but Aldiss makes sure each is different and interesting and memorable. 

(On the bad side, this edition has lots of typos.)

It might be worth considering whether Malacia Tapestry is really science fiction or rather should be categorized as fantasy.  The prophecies of the many priests and wizards in the novel seem uncannily accurate, though we learn that these prophets are susceptible to bribes and not above lying.  Most of the characters believe in spells and magic and wear amulets.  Perian has weird visions that reminded me somewhat of the allegorical visions the protagonist in Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain has.  (Also as in Magic Mountain, we have a character whom competing theorists try to sway to their way of thinking about how the world should be.)  There is also the strange fact that Armida's hair is jet black when she is first introduced (page 35) but after Perian's most vivid vision and the dinosaur hunt in which he slays a towering therapod and "becomes a man," Armida's hair is described as "golden" (page 329.)  And then there are the satyrs (people who are half man and half goat) and the people who have wings growing out their backs and fly nude around the city.         

However we categorize it, Malacia Tapestry is a great, fun read.  I guess as a teenager I had pretty good taste!  Highly recommended.

3 comments:

  1. As a person involved in the book's first US edition (in the 70s), I'm pleased to hear that you enjoyed it as much as I did and that it held up for you so many years later.

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  2. What do you think about a comparison of Malacia to a Jack Vance novel? A rogue in a magisterial city occasionally fighting thunder lizards who perpetually gets himself caught up in witty, humorous dialogue... To be clear, I do not think the two are analogous nor that Aldiss was imitating Vance, but I've yet to encounter another book which captures a little Vancian something as well as Malacia. What do you think?

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    1. I never thought of that comparison before, but maybe you have something. One reason it didn't occur to me to compare Malacia Tapestry to a Vance novel is that even the pretty peripatetic or picaresque ones like the two Cugel books or Big Planet or the Planet of Adventure books feel very plot driven--a guy is on a mission or a quest, like trying to get from point A to point B or figure out a mystery or catch up to some malefactor. To me Malacia Tapestry doesn't feel very plot driven, or perhaps its plot is about a character's changing relationships and psychology, like we expect from a literary novel, while Vance, though he has a literary style, when it comes to plot and structure is using a genre or adventure template. (Not that I am complaining--I love a good adventure story.)

      Silverberg in that first Majipoor book tried to do the Vance thing, and while it was successful commercially, I thought it weak.

      Michael Shea is said to do Vancian things (he even wrote a Cugel novel) but I don't think I've ever read anything by him.

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