The prior assassination of Margaret Thatcher.
On the week that Hilary Mantel publishes her story The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher to a degree of controversy in our largely Tory press, it is interesting to go back to Nicholas Royle's assassination of same. In The Sculptor's Hand Thatcher is not named, but the story was written while she was serving as Prime Minister, and the Premier is throughout referred to as "she."
The narrator is a sculptor in the classical style. While on a business trip to Glasgow he is involved in a minor train crash and escapes with a knock on the head. Upon leaving hospital he notes the arrival of the Premier, her entourage, and a media scrum. He pauses only to express relief that he escaped meeting her. A month later, by a bizarre coincidence, perhaps, he is involved in another train crash, this one rather more serious. He loses his arm, a disaster for a man of his occupation. Almost as bad, he is unable to avoid being consoled by the Premier in hospital and, to his horror, these images are widely televised. The media, of course, are much taken with the coincidence of his having been involved in both accidents, but when they seek his opinion his answers are not what they want to hear - rather than look to his own luck as cause, he blames cuts in spending on public transport infrastructure. This opinion is widely derided by a media which would rather believe that the narrator is labouring under a personal curse. After all, there is no such thing as society; only individual men and women, and their luck. If their luck is bad, well, personal responsibility is everything.
By this point the narrator is reeling. His art and business have begun to suffer - a slew of lost orders and canceled shows take their toll. He becomes convinced that he is being punished for speaking out, convinced also that the Premier has struck a vendetta against him - almost a Mafia-style contract by means of public sector cuts. He takes a plane to Belfast to attend the opening of his new exhibition. The plane crashes on the runway. This time he loses a leg. In hospital he is again confronted by his nemesis - the Premier. The public notes that if he is at the scene of every disaster, so is she - but, as Premier, she has every right to be there, while he has no right to be the victim of every accident. Upon release from hospital, complete with false leg, he attends his show in Belfast and smashes every figure, breaking their arms and legs to reflect his own loss - the media take this as yet more evidence of his refusal to shoulder personal responsibility.
Finally, in order to restore faith in Britain's crumbling infrastructure, the Premier issues the narrator with a challenge - she will fly with him and by her good grace he will be safe. She will make him her personal responsibility. This irony is too much for the narrator, who makes quite deliberate arrangements to ensure neither of them will survive his next journey...
It is a matter of regret that this vivid and inventive story is not more widely known. Royle confronts Thatcherism by giving its every victim the same face, thereby dismissing the notion that accidents are mere accidents - if the victims are the same every time, then they are the targets. They could be teachers, nurses, coal-miners... Because, in Thatcher's own words, "Any man who rides a bus to work after the age of 30 can count himself a failure in life."
Like A Life of Matter and Death below, The Sculptor's Hand can be found in the Fifth Interzone Anthology. And you can read more about Thatcher's disastrous public transport policies here.
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.