Brian Aldiss is one of the few SF authors still alive today who got started back in SF’s Golden Age, the 1950s. The English author has won two Hugos, a Nebula, and a John W. Campbell award, was a Grand Master of the Science Fiction Writers of America, and is a vice-president in the H.G. Wells Society. I’ve only read one of his novels thus far, the brilliant Non-Stop, but given the pedigree of Aldiss’ bibliography and how much I liked Non-Stop. Greybeard is one that’s been on my list for a while now since I’m interested in apocalypses; it’s an apocalypse-by-infertility that brings to mind P.D. James’ Children of Men.
Algy Timberlane, now called Greybeard, is one of the youngest men in the world at the age of 56. His wife Martha is one of the youngest women at 56. Within his lifetime, Greybeard lived through the Accident that sterilized most higher mammals, fought in the wars over the remaining children of earth. For the past few decades he’s been living in an England where government has collapsed and reverted back to isolated societies. With his wife Martha, his friend Charley, the distant but reliable Jeff Pitt, and a few others, Greybeard escapes an isolated, paranoid village to travel along the Thames. They pass through the ruins of the old world and the remnants of an infirm population, a tour of how the world ends, lit by faint rays of hope amongst the darkness.
The first chapter sets the tone: a rich blend of pastoral decay and the bleak resignation towards an apocalypse that’s a foregone conclusion. Aldiss notes in the introduction that he wrote the novel as catharsis—he’d went through a messy divorce, and lost custody of his two children to his wife—which makes the novel’s themes of sterility more personal and poignant. The loss of youth is an important theme, but what’s more striking is what that loss represents—the breakdown of society, as without any children to enjoy the fruits of the labor the aging population loses interest in creating or working for the future, breaking down into anarchy and madness.
This brave new future fascinates me with its eccentricities; without any form of governance or communication, rumors and plague spread like wildfire. Nature’s unchecked resurgence leads to reported hordes of badgers and stoats; others claim gnomes have reclaimed the woods, or that swarms of fish-like humanoids will emerge from the Thames to reclaim the land. Rumors spread of an invasion of Scots—something that can be little more than rumor, given how aged and infirm these invaders would be. Octogenarians incur phantom pregnancies, where they’re sure their withered bodies are harboring new life. Real children are mutated abnormalities: some are killed at birth, others are paraded around like a Medieval freakshow as onlookers gasp at the concept of youth. And profiteering hucksters hawk miracle cures to a population ready to gamble anything for a chance to be young again. It’s a fascinating hodge-podge where rumor, myth, and fear blend together to create an unsettling and bleak atmosphere.
Greybeard is a fascinating character; we see his fears, his doubts and hopes, his regrets over mistakes and dreams for a life that could have been, all of which make him a realistic and sympathetic character. That goes for most of the characters: Greybeard’s wife Martha is a strong and well-realized female figure despite her tribulations, and Jeff Pitt’s standoffish personality is explained by a complex turn in his past. Over time we learn that Greybeard worked for the unfortunately-named Documentation of Contemporary History (England) or DOUCH(E); the idea behind it—to capture and record moment’s of humanity’s collapse and extinction—is brilliant, though the acronym is so juvenile that when it was introduced I almost did a spit-take.
The apocalypse Greybeard presents is a quiet one; though it has its moments of violence, humanity is left to wither away with a whimper. The themes are about aging and what will replace humanity when it’s gone—nature having already reclaimed most of the world. Aldiss’ quality writing carries the novel along, its often poetic prose depicting nature’s encroachment and the half-mad survivors, a bittersweet exploration of the human race and its dignified march towards extinction. Characterization is built through flashbacks weaved into the main narrative, something I appreciated as an explanation of past events (e.g. an explanation of the Accident). I noticed a few awkward tendencies, especially with some of the dialogue, and at times it felt like the chapters stretched on forever (there are seven chapters in this 240-page book). Overall these are minor element in a grand work.
I wasn’t sure what to expect with Greybeard, but in hindsight it’s one of those books I should have read ages ago. Aldiss is an excellent storyteller who’s created an intricate world, displaying the beauty and the grotesque with bittersweet grandeur. There’s a lot of thought in Greybeard, not just about the lack of children but about aging and dying, and those themes of entropy work wonders when combined with the apocalypse. As a strong and literate novel, Greybeard stands as one of the most underrated of gems, an excellent idea with a brilliant execution.
The characters are likable and realistic; the book is very readable with its tight plotting. It brings a reposeful philosophy and a fine vision of a frighteningly realistic yet thankfully fictional future. While it may not appeal to every reader due to its somber, quiet tone, Greybeard is a novel that any SF reader should consider reading. I’m dead serious when I say it’s a nigh-forgotten masterwork in the genre.