The Malacia Tapestry (1976)
Spine Front Cover Book Details
Brian W. Aldiss
Publication Date 1996
Format Leather-bound (230 x 150 mm)
Publisher The Easton Press
Genre Fantasy
Product Details
Series Masterpieces of Fantasy
No. of Pages 315
Paper Type Acid-neutral paper
First Edition No
Personal Details
URL This book on
Frontispiece/Illustrator Ron Walotsky; G. B. Tiepolo
Original Details
Original Publisher HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
Original Publication Year 1976
In the timeless city of Malacia, a place swathed in magic and on the brink of war, lives a young man named Perian de Chirolo - a free-spirit, a fearless lover - who embarks on a harrowing odyssey with dramatic consequences for himself and all Malacians. This is a gripping tale of wonder, lust and destiny.

Fantasy and science fiction share many identifying characteristics; some critics claim that drawing distinctions between them is impossible. Both postulate worlds that differ in some meaningful way from the everyday reality of the here and now. Both are literatures of difference, but fantasy is the literature of disjunction and science fic tion is the literature of change. Fantasy exists in a world other than our own, but science fiction exists in a world that our world might become or from which it has developed.

Science fiction lets the reader know how the present world has been changed to its new condition; the reader knows how we got here from there, by spaceship, by the passage of time, by a natural phenomenon or discovery or invention, by time machine. Fantasy's connection to the real world is magical, a passageway that can be traversed only by special people, or only at special times or in special circumstances. Science fiction exists in a world transformed by new knowledge; fantasy occurs in a world in which ancient wisdom still prevails or has been rediscovered or older powers reveal themselves or are unleashed, or in a world to which one or more persons from the real world have been admitted and whose natural laws are different, or whose natural laws or phenomena find a way into our world.

All this would be unimportant were it not for the fact that people read science fiction and fantasy in different ways and therefore a reader's first necessity is to identify the genre. If the difference in the world from the here and now has been created by a natural process, the story is organized around the way people have responded to the change in their physical and social environment, and the reader must question the text to discover what the change is and how it has occurred. Science fiction demands a skeptical reading to get from it the best of what it has to offer.

In fantasy, however, where the difference has been created by some supernatural passage or transformation or manifestation, to focus on the mechanism of the passage, transformation, or manifestation is to misread the work, or even to make a fantasy reading impossible. Fantasy concerns itself with the manner in which people would behave, and even more with the ways they would feel and think, if the events of the world were shaped by desire and will rather than thought and action. The skeptical reading required by science fiction destroys fantasy.

After the transportation of the reader to a world changed by some natural process, the characteristic structure of a science-fiction novel is the exploration of that world and of the way in which people respond to the change in their environment. After the translation of the reader to a world that operates by different principles, the characteristic form of a fantasy novel is the attempt to restore order to a world in which something has gone seriously awry.

Science fiction is about change. Fantasy is about tradition.

A good example is Brian W. Aldiss's The Malacia Tapestry, originally published in 1976. Malacia is a city state somewhat like Florence or Venice during the Renaissance. In fact, The Malacia Tapestry shares many characteristics with Renaissance Italy, including a threat of attack by the Ottoman empire. One historic event referred to in the novel is the death of Suleiman. Suleiman, (or Soliman I) was the Ottoman sul tan who reigned from 1520-1566, was called "the Magnificent" and "the Law Giver," conquered Belgrade and Budapest and other cities, and died in 1566, at the age of 71, while laying siege to Szigetvár.

The historic placement of Malacia fades into insignificance beside the fact that it has existed for thousands of years in its present condition - which fits no city in history - and has devoted itself to remaining unchanged. According to legend, the founder of Malacia was granted one wish by the First Magician, that the city being created "as a monument to the two religions should forever remain unchanged." The granting of that wish became known as the Original Curse. Since then the duty of the Supreme Council has been to protect Malacia from change.

The timeless quality of Malacia, described by Perian de Chirolo, the narrator of the novel, as "the mellow flow of existence," is what confers on the novel the characteristic concerns of fantasy, tradition and the absence of change. Around the forces pushing for change and the efforts of the establishment to keep things as they are, the action of the novel revolves.

Malacia is a city of privilege and poverty, of opportunity for advancement by good fortune or recognition or marriage, of street merchants and taverns - like any Renaissance city. It also is a city that places reliance on astrologers and fortune tellers and even on the practice of magic. All of this pales beside one enormous fact: Malacia and the world in which it exists traces its origins to reptilian ancestors. Its inhabitants believe that they descended from dinosaurs. This might be dismissed as mere myth were it not for the fact that "flighted people" and "lizard-men" and "ancestral animals" continue to exist in and around Malacia, as well as mythological creatures such as satyrs. The ancestral animals have strange names such as slobbergobs, shaggy tusks (mammoths?), marshbags, tyrant-greaves (tyrannosaurus rex?) casque bodies, hauberks, halberd-heads, and wattle-tassets.

What kind of world is it in which the dinosaurs were not eliminated by a change in climate or a meteor strike? Does The Malacia Tapestry offer an alternate history in which the dinosaurs survived, like Harry Harrison's later Eden trilogy? At one point Perian's scholarly father speculates "that our world is only one of a number of alchemaically conceived worlds. In some other worlds of possibility, to take an extreme case, homo saurus may have been wiped out entirely .- say at the great battle of Itssobeshiquetazilaha, over three million, one thousand and seven hundred years ago. The result would be a nightmare world in which one of the other human races had supremacy and Malacia never existed. . ."

If the reader is to accept all these aspects of Malacia as significant to the understanding of the novel, the reader might be forced to find some logical explanation for the historical development of this world in ways that replicate, in many ways, our own. Is the author saying that history would have occurred in almost identical fashion no matter what the origins of humanity or the crucial events of the past? But this would be to read The Malacia Tapestry as alternate history and science fiction, and that is to misread it. The saurian ancestors, the satyrs, the historical parallels - these are threads in the multi-colored tapestry that is Malacia. Unravel it at your peril.

Gary K. Wolfe in St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers offers the suggestion that the author of this remarkable novel may be "the most significant English writer of science fiction since H. G Wells." Born in East Dereham, Norfolk, in 1925, Aldiss served in Burma and Sumatra during World War II and on his return to England worked in Oxford book shops. Fictionalized sketches about bookselling, collected as The Brightfount Diaries in 1955, began his writing career. He turned to science fiction in 1954 and to the main stream bestseller in 1970 with his autobiographical novels The Hand- Reared Boy, A Soldier Erect (1971), and A Rude Awakening (1978). His "Squire Quartet" was launched in 1980 with Life in the West. He became associated with the British New Wave when it was created in the pages of New Worlds beginning in 1964, but he retained his appreciation for traditional SF.

Aldiss's bibliography runs to nearly 90 books and plays, and the editorship of another 30 volumes. Among his most honored novels have been Hothouse (Hugo, 1962), Barefoot in the Head (1969), Frankenstein Unbound (1973; filmed by Roger Corman in 1990), and, most especially, his thoroughly researched hard-SF Helliconia trilogy, based on a planet with an eccentric orbit around two suns that give it a cycle of seasons lasting for millennia and corresponding adaptations to which its population is forced. The first of these, Helliconia Spring (1982) won the John W. Campbell Award for the best SF novel of the year, and was followed by Helliconia Summer (1983) and Helliconia Winter (1985).

Aldiss also has been productive at the shorter lengths. His "The Saliva Tree" won a Nebula Award in 1965, and he has published more than 25 collections of short stories. In addition to his other contributions to SF, he has been an active scholar and critic, editing SFHorizons with Harrison in the early 1970s, putting together collections of essays and reviews, and writing a carefully considered history of science fiction, Billion Year Spree (1973), revised (with David Wingrove) in 1986 when it won the Hugo Award. He has received the Pilgrim Award of the Science Fiction Research Association, the J. Lloyd Eaton Award, and the IAFA distinguished scholarship award. He was guest of honor at the World Science Fiction Convention in 1965 and 1979, and was a founding trustee, and later president, of World SF.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction called The Malacia Tapestry "a love story with fantastic elements." That could also be a description of Aldiss's relationship with science fiction.

James Gunn
Lawrence, Kansas