Report on Probability A by Brian Aldiss

I was saddened to learn last month of the passing of the great British sci-fi author Brian Aldiss, although of course he *had* lived a long and productive life. I own quite a number of his books as you can see:

And yes, I do have two copies of “Saliva Tree”, and no I don’t know why! I’ve only read a couple of his works so far (“The Brightfount Diaries” and some of the short stories) but I’ve loved what I’ve read, so now seemed a good time to pick up one of his books, and I went for the one which had intrigued me most – “Report on Probability A”.

The blurb is interesting, and the plot – well, the plot as such is hard to pin down… The action is set around a house in which live Mr. Mary and his wife. As the book opens, we meet G, the ex-gardener who lives in a derelict building in the grounds of the Marys’ house and who is intent on watching the place even though he’s no longer employed by them. His fascination seems to be with Mrs. Mary (or Mr. Mary’s wife, as she is often referred to) and he watches the house for glimpses of her and pops over the road to the nearby cafe at one point. The second section of the book introduces S, Mr. Mary’s ex-secretary who is lurking in the loft of the Marys’ old coach house. He too is watching the house and Mrs. Mary. Then there is C, the ex-chauffeur, who lives above the garage and yes, you’ve guessed it, is also fascinated with Mrs. Mary and observing away merrily. Add into the mix a pigeon known as X and a black and white cat who stalks the pigeon and you have something of a disquieting set up.

Yet little seems to happen to these people. It rains (and roofs leak); Violet the charlady gives food to some of the watchers; Mrs. Mary goes out and comes back; the Marys have a row. The narrative is repetitious, with details and descriptions being played out again and again with slight variations, and this is unsettling. And then we have the other watchers… Because the descriptions of the events at the Marys’ house are actually a report being read by some observers. However, they in their turn are being observed, as are those watchers, and the chain of surveillance goes back and back until it’s not quite clear who is real and who is not and who is watching who. And will anything of substance happen in this strange little world?

He stared through the window at a road. The road ran south-east. On the other side of it was a wide pavement; a tall man wearing black overalls and a grey felt hat passed along the pavement, followed at some distance by two men in blue carrying a stretcher on which lay a bicycle with two flat tyres; the frame of the bicycle was covered in blood. The surface of the road was of a dark crumbling texture. Cars passed along it, four of them bearing black crepe ribbons tied to their radiators.

“Report…” is a thoroughly intriguing, thoroughly unsettling and very sophisticated book which left my brain buzzing with ideas after reading it. Although ostensibly set on Earth it isn’t really clear if this place is our world or another. Superficially the location seems normal enough, but there are places where there are little jolts, like the sudden insertion of a burrowing, live garden hose, that makes the reader wonder. Unexpected and surreal paragraphs with no explanation are dropped into the narrative and perplex. The repetitions, in themselves, give a sinister flavour to the narrative and there are times when you think you’re encountering something familiar which is then twisted and becomes something else. A case in point is a painting, a reproduction of which appears in the dwellings of G , S and C: “The Hireling Shepherd” by William Holman Hunt. The picture is described in some detail throughout the book, and a number of the watchers appear to know who Hunt is – but the Hunt in their domain is a very different one from the Pre-Raphaelite painter we know!

The Holman Hunt pic

So what, actually, is the book about, and is there a conclusion? Well, not as such, no (although Pigeon X and the cat reach closure); we can make inferences, draw certain conclusions from the oblique narrative, but there can be no real absolutes and I think that’s Aldiss’s point. I’ve seen the book described as an anti-novel and certainly it seems to deconstruct the usual constraints and structure of such a work. The various observers could be real, could live in parallel universes or could simply be figments of somebody’s imagination. Nothing much actually *happens*, yet the book is somehow gripping, and very much draws on the basic sense humans have of something else in the universe, of being watched by outside forces. Often, when alone, we think someone or something is looking at us, and in this book they really are!

Now they…were subjecting those objects to a second scrutiny. They were having to determine WHAT WAS OF VALUE; until that was decided, this life was valueless. Find significance and all is found.

I felt the need to do a bit of research on the book after I’d finished it, and apparently Aldiss wrote it in 1962 but no publisher would touch it and it eventually appeared in New Worlds in 1967. I certainly found it a stunning read, a refreshingly original tour de force and very thought-provoking, making me appreciate that actually everything *is* relative and there may well be no absolutes. Our view of the world around us is entirely subjective, depending on our own individual perceptions of it, and how do we even know others see things the same way? I’m no doubt going to keep thinking about “Report on Probability A” for some time, and also pondering on what finally happened to Mr. and Mrs. Mary and their watchers…