Everything I’ve heard about Brian Aldiss has been good. He’s won two Hugos, a Nebula, and a John W. Campbell Memorial Award. And several of the novels he’s written have had glowing endorsements: the Helliconia Trilogy, Hothouse, and in particular his first novel, Non-Stop. Of course, I haven’t actually read anything by him, even though I have the first two Helliconia books stashed away. But a trip to a Bargain Books left me with a cheap copy of Non-Stop, so I thought I’d give it a whirl.
I’m leery about spoilers, since the novel relies heavily on shocking twists and a gradual realization within the reader, but consider: the first (and most important) of several major “surprises” is revealed three chapters in, it’s the title of the North American edition, and it’s spoiled on the back cover on my copy. So, while I’ll do my best to avoid giving anything major away—I usually try that, unless I’m writing about a sequel, which makes it pretty hard—if you’re truly paranoid about spoilers, however slight, that will probably be spoiled everywhere else, jump down to the final paragraph.
The American copy was given the droll name of Starship, revealing what the reader knows well before the characters do: they’re all the descendents of passengers on a generation ship which suffered a horrible accident, and which is now flying unchecked through space. With that in mind, some of the novel’s weirder parts fall into place, such as the group of feral humans trekking through corridors, creeping through doorways, and sleeping in rooms. It’s a dark and unforgiving tale meant to counter earlier generation ship stories, such as Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky (first published as two novellas in the ’40s).
Roy Complain is a hunter for one such primitive tribe, the Greene tribe, eking out a living in the dense tangle of jungle called the ‘ponics. A transitory tribe, the Greenes slowly move through the Quarters section of ‘ponics along an overgrown and rotting corridor, scavenging old materials left behind by the precursor “Giants” who first rule the world. The Greene tribe is somewhat secure from the bands of raiders, mutants, Giants, “outsiders,” and strange mutant animals which dwell in the ‘ponics… but not secure enough, as Roy finds his mate taken off/killed while out hunting. With this upheaval in his social situation within the Greene tribe—he couldn’t protect his mate, and now the tribe is short on women, so Roy’s a bachelor forevermore—Roy is coerced by the priest Marapper to leave Quarters as part of an epic journey. Marapper’s goal: find a mythical Control Room at the other end of their world, thanks to documents he purloined.
The novel is a journey tale, but not as straightforward as you’d think. On more than one occasion, there’s some real twists for our brave explorers, including run-ins with some of the ‘ponics more dangerous inhabitants. The horror and stagnation of the overall situation becomes apparent as each new detail about the world is fleshed out: that the Greene tribe kills its mutated children to keep purity, the Teachings Marapper preaches which idolize self-preservation of the individual and discourage eye-contact and honesty, the strange animals living between the decks… it’s a convincing world, familiar in concept but altogether foreign. For the reader, the reality of this world is often clear, but that doesn’t make it any less alien. There’s really nothing else like it in existence.
Aldiss has an amazing hand at prose. It has a distinct British quality, not just in grammar but in that wry, almost nihilistic tone the Brits can adopt. Most of all, it’s strong writing; Aldiss is a very readable author, with simplistic but splendid prose. The dialogue is sharp, and it lacks the typical ’50s overuse of “As you know, Bob” (and authorial equivalent) exposition dumps, which would have ruined the exotic atmosphere. The pacing is odd; early on, while plodding through the ‘ponics, the novel is sluggish, while the last fourth of the book is a cacophony of revelation, new characters, romance, action, combat, you name it. It’s not bad—I was so enthralled with each detail about the world, I didn’t mind the slow pacing, and the finale has all the punch and speed required for a novel of this magnitude—it just felt odd.
Don’t take my lack of text to be an indication of low quality; I just don’t want to give away more than I have to, because the novel is such a mind-blowing experience. Sense-of-wonder in the term’s purest form. Each new chapter brings with it new and interesting developments, new revelations about the world. The plot is fantastic, the world is a beautiful construct, and the entire experience is memorable. It’s not a novel without flaws, but I think its strengths outweigh them. This ranks up there with the best of the ’50s-era novels, and I give it a high recommendation—thumbs up, gold stars and all that. It’s a masterpiece, one every SF fan should read.