conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Report on Probability A

by Brian Aldiss

Essay by Ted Gioia
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A long time ago, some prehistoric innovator made up the first
story. Then along came the clever inventor of the meta-narrative,
who gave us the "story within a story." But it took Brian Aldiss
to come up with a story within a story within a story within a story
within a story.  

On just such a precarious concept was born Mr.
Aldiss's
Report on Probability A, perhaps the
most peculiar novel in the oeuvre of an author
who pushed genre fiction to the outer limits,
and sometimes a step or two beyond. Alas,
few science fiction fans were willing to travel
along on this circuitous novel, in which very little
happens, and what few things do take place,
get repeated over and over again. One critic
dismissed
Report on Probability A in the most
succinct terms, entitling his review “Report on a
Total Waste of Time.”  

Publishers apparently shared this verdict.
Although Aldiss wrote the book in 1962, five years elapsed
before
Report on Probability A was published. In the interim it
was turned down by editors in three countries.

Others, more generous in spirit or perhaps merely more patient,
have lauded Aldiss's willingness to sacrifice plot and development
in favor of high concept stasis. They see
Report on Probability A
as a kind of anti-novel or a British sci-fi variant of the so-called
'New Novel' movement associated with Alain Robbe-Grillet.
Indeed, the influence of Robbe-Grillet, especially his
The Voyeur
from 1955, is marked throughout Report on Probability A, not just
in narrative style, but even to the point of subject matter (Aldiss's
book could justly been named
The Voyeurs) and a fastidious
imitation of the French author’s use of abnormally precise language
in describing settings and situations. But to Aldiss's credit
(or discredit), he develops this conceit even further than Robbe-
Grillet, creating a novel in which the precision of the observation
becomes so extreme that it overwhelms the few paltry incidents
observed.  

The book is divided into three sections, with each describing
an individual who is watching the house of Mr. Mary. In part one,
G (the former gardener) watches from a wooden hut a few
meters away from the house. In part 2, S (the former secretary)
is on the lookout from an old stable at the back of the house.
In part 3, C (the former chauffeur) is staking out the house
from a garage on the other side of the residence.  

I couldn't help being reminded, throughout my reading of this
exercise in excessive scrutiny, of the opening lines of Samuel
Johnson's poem "The Vanity of Human Wishes":

Let observation with excessive view
Suvey mankind from China to Peru….

The trio of vision words (observation, view, survey) here are
perhaps two too many.  Johnson’s phrase is elegant, but might
as well be paraphrased as "Let the watcher watch watchfully."  
And that, my dear reader, is exactly what happens in
Report on
Probability A
—watchful watching at the chamber door…merely
that and nothing more.

But these three observers are also studied by a group of people
in another location, perhaps an alternate universe or different
facet of the known universe. These observers, researchers
with unusual names (Domoladossa, Midlakemela) are reading
a report about G, S and C. And these second-order watchers
are themselves under scrutiny, studied by a group of so-called
Distinguishers who are perhaps located in a still different
universe or dimension, and can view Domoladossa and
Midlakemela via a manifestation on a hillside. The Distinguishers
are watched, in turn, by some gentlemen in New York. The
men in New York are watched by two men and a boy in a
warehouse…..

You get the idea. We never quite get to China and Peru. Even
so, Samuel Johsnon seems like he's sleeping on the night watch
by comparison with Aldiss's vigilant crew. Never before in fiction
have so few been watched by so many to such little purpose.

Aldiss claimed that he was inspired, in part, by the hypothesis,
linked to Werner Heisenberg (and often confused with his
"uncertainty principle"), that the act of observation influences
the phenomenon observed. But, in the case of
Report on
Probability A
, it is hard to comprehend even the most basic
implications of the phenomena under observation, let alone
how they are changed by the long chain of watchers and
meta-watchers. Our observant former household employees
stare long and hard at Mr. Mary's house, sometimes with the
aid of a telescope and periscope, but they don’t see much—
an occasional movement in a window, a woman at a sink, a
man talking (or at least his lips are moving, although what he
might be saying remains a mystery) to another woman, who
appears upset or sad, a cat in the garden stalking a pigeon,
the changing illumination of afternoon, dusk, evening.  
Occasionally one of the characters travels to a café across
the street, and engages in a curt, almost incoherent
conversation with the proprietor.

As the story unfolds—or rather fails to unfold, instead merely
repeats—the reader begins to detect a few strange details in
the world under observation. All three of the characters watching
the house have a reproduction of the same work of art in their
respective hideaways, namely William Holman Hunt's
The
Hireling Shepherd
. The community in which these individuals
live suffers from an epidemic of flat tires on vehicles, and hints
of death and strife are conveyed in several indirect ways. But
the closest any of the characters comes to an actual conflict
arrives in a fleeting moment, when the man in the house,
presumably Mr. Mary, appears briefly in the window carrying
a rifle.  But, contrary to Chekhov’s famous rule, no shots are
fired. This isn't that kind of a novel.

But the second- and third-order observers watch on in rapt
fascination. Domoladossa and Midlakemela scrutinize every
bit of information, hoping to learn how closely this world of
Mr. Mary and his ex-employees matches their own. And so
on down the chain of observers, each hoping for some
revealing moment or exciting bit of action. And at the very
end of the line, we find the poor readers of Mr. Aldiss's novel,
who watch the whole lot of these watchers. Alas, if they are
hoping for a payoff from all this time invested in observation,
they will be sadly disappointed.

Indeed, I walked away from this book reminded of Yogi Berra's
famous tautology: "You can observe a lot just by watching."
Obviously Berra never read
Report on Probability A.  (Okay,
we will forgive him—Yogi was busy winning a World Series
the year this book was written.) If he had, he would have
assured us that you don't observe much if you just watch the
watchers watch the watchers watch the watchers. Or better
yet, he would have told you to pick up another book.


Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His next book,
a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Publication Date: September 15, 2014
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

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Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal


Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
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Great Books Guide
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Ted Gioia on Twitter

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