Thursday, February 27, 2014

Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss

Back on February 14 of this year I read Brian Aldiss’s famous short story “Who Can Replace a Man?” and found it lame. As a teenager I loved Aldiss’s novel of an alternate Renaissance Italy full of dinosaurs, Malacia Tapestry, and as an adult I thought the first two Helliconia books and The Primal Urge had good ideas but forgettable characters and plots, so, while mixed, my attitude towards Aldiss was still moderately positive, even after reading “Who Can Replace a Man?” In hopes of reading something really good by Aldiss, last week I took out Non-Stop, which Joachim Boaz praised highly when he read it over three years ago, from the library, and today finished it.  It's good, so Aldiss's stock with me is a little higher today than it was a week ago.

I read a 2000 edition of this 1958 novel. A note at the beginning indicates that Aldiss made revisions to 48 of the book’s pages. Another note tells you in advance that the theme of the novel is that humanity is insignificant and weak, and that human ideas are (unlike nature’s “effects”) “unbalanced,” and we must keep in mind our insignificance and not let our ideas “gobble up our lives.” Is this note supposed to make you eager to read the rest of the book?

Like Robert Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky (1941) and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun (1993-1996), Non-Stop is about the inhabitants of a huge generation ship who come to realize the true nature of their lives and the universe. I seem to remember the Heinlein and Wolfe books being basically optimistic; the passengers in those books land on a planet and start new lives. Non-Stop, on the other hand, is pessimistic; it turns out that the generation ship long ago dropped off the colonists, and, mission accomplished, was heading home to Earth when disaster struck.  The ship's systems went haywire and the crew reverted to primitivism; when the characters in the novel find the ship's control room it is a shambles! In fact, the ship has been orbiting the Earth for generations, and the people of Earth have been keeping the ship’s denizens in quarantine and in ignorance, studying them like they would rats in a maze!

Just about everyone in the novel acts in an irrational or immoral way, believing stupid things and acting callously or carelessly. The long space mission was abusive to the space crew, the Earth people treat their descendents no better, and when the primitives get their hands on a powerful laser, they use it recklessly and destroy the ship which has been their home for centuries! In Aldiss’s novel, human science, technology, and ambition, instead of achieving something admirable, cause misery and death. One character even says that the Nazi Holocaust is a “fitting token” of the technological age!

The plot and setting of Non-Stop are good. A tribe of humans is eking out an existence in a small portion of the corridors and rooms of the ship, which is overgrown with untended hydroponics plants and inhabited by feral dogs and pigs, as well as small groups of mutant hermits and other, presumably hostile, tribes. The tribe is nomadic, slowly exploring the ship, opening new doors looking for treasure (like ray pistols and flashlights) left behind by the people who built the ship, and periodically moving their protective barriers further along the corridors. One of the more educated members of the tribe gets his hands on a map of the entire ship, and he leads a small party forward through the wild corridors, hoping to get to the control room and fly the ship to a “natural” world where men belong. These adventurers make their way to less overgrown parts of the ship and encounter various other groups of ship dwellers, including intelligent rats.  In the bow of the ship they set off the crisis which leads to their climactic exposure to reality and destroys the ship. The whole thing is pretty exciting and vivid; Aldiss does a good job of describing this creepy milieu, and the adventure elements (exploring, fighting, getting captured and escaping, etc.) are well done.

One of the themes of Non-Stop is Freudian psychoanalysis. Over the generations since the disaster that caused the modern scientific elite that crewed the ship to revert to primitivism, a religion has grown up around vague scraps of Freudian theory and therapy. Aldiss seems to be making fun of religion and perhaps Freudianism, though at times he also seems to endorse Freudian thinking. (On page 82 of this edition the omniscient narrator gives a little Psych101 lecture on the “death wish” or “death drive,” and on page 184 a character recovers from his “death wish” by following the dictates of his Freudian-derived religion.)

I thought the style of the book had some weaknesses; Aldiss takes the omniscient narrator route, so that, when the characters find a camera or an electric fan, Aldiss just comes right out and tells us what they have found, even though the characters themselves have no idea what those items are. Aldiss also uses metaphors and similes that we 20th century people get but the characters, who have no books or TV, would not get. (Examples: on page 110 of this edition Aldiss compares the path taken through the ship to the rifling inside the barrel of a firearm; this is a good analogy, but the characters don’t have such firearms. On page 179 shadows are like bats, but these people have never seen bats. On page 143 Aldiss uses the word “proslambanomenos;” I had never encountered the word before, and no doubt the people in the story would never encounter it either.) Personally, I think stories of alien worlds are more effective when told from the point of view of one of the characters, or at least from the point of view of someone living in the world depicted.

This edition also contains quite a few typos, particularly regarding quotation marks (or “inverted commas,” as British people might call them.) Perhaps these are scanning errors (on page 161 we get “alarnting” for “alarming.”) Another run through by a proofreader would have really improved the text.

These problems didn’t sink the book for me, though. This is classic science fiction adventure with a huge space ship, mutants, ray guns, and a weird future society facing a paradigm shift. I love these traditional SF elements, and I always enjoy it when somebody uses them effectively; Aldiss does a good job with them here, so I enjoyed Non-Stop, and recommend it to other classic SF fans.


  1. I think this might be one of the best SF novels from the 50s.... Along with A Canticle for Leibowitz. In my top ten from that decade for sure. Glad you loved it.

  2. I'm wondering if this is my favorite Aldiss novel; it was more memorable than the Helliconia books and Primal Urge. Next week I'll read Malacia Tapestry and see if I enjoy it as much as I did in my youth.