Guest Blogger and WWEnd Member, Matt W. (Mattastrophic), reviews science fiction and fantasy books on his blog Strange Telemetry. Matt is a regular WWEnd contributor and he won the January GMRC Review of the Month for his review of The Dispossessed.
Published in 1958, Non-Stop (a.k.a. Starship in the UK printing) was Brian Aldiss’ first novel, and it uses as its central conceit that well-trodden SF trope, the generation ship. These are enormous, self-sustaining star-ships that can house and support multiple generations of humans living within them as the ship makes its slow way from one star to another. Only the first generation will know Earth, and only the last ones will know their destination; the middle generations will know only the ship. Barring faster-than-light travel or some form of suspended animation, this is the only way for humans to effect interstellar travel. The idea was posited in the late 1920′s/early 1930′s, and has appeared often throughout SF, and 2009′s Pandorum and Mary Robinnette Kowal’s 2011 Hugo-Award-winning short story “For Want of a Nail” (a very good story, I might add), show that there is still traction and interest in this well-worn trope. Of course, the ubiquitous element of the generation star-ship sub-genre is that something goes terribly wrong during the voyage. In the early 1940′s, Heinlein published two stories (later collected into Orphans of the Sky) about a generation starship in which the middle generations of the generation ship have forgotten that they are on a starship, since it is the only world they know, causing shipboard society to erode into a more primitive, superstitious state. Aldiss, loved the concept, but disliked Heinlein’s execution, and Non-Stop is his response.
The story follows Roy Complain, a hunter for the nomadic Greene Tribe that crawls its way through the vine-filled decks and hallways, slashing the ‘ponics, looting the rooms they come across, and leaving nothing useful in their wake to dissuade competitors. Roy has prospects, and life seems pretty decent: the tribe eats well, everyone adheres to the religion of Psychology, and he has hopes of being elevated from hunter to guard (giving him access the prime loot). But then his mate bugs him to come on a hunting trip with him, and she is captured by a neighboring tribe. Shamed and angry, Complain questions his place in the tribe and the tribe’s place in the grand scheme of things and so joins a renegade Priest named Marapper along with a handful of Greene tribesman on a wild adventure through unexplored corridors. Their goal is to find the fabled civilization of Forwards, and eventually the Captain of the ship. Of course, Roy doesn’t believe that his world is really a ship, but strange things happen along the way that shake his beliefs in who he is, why he is there, and who he can trust.
Non Stop Adventure: What Non-Stop Does Well
Non-Stop really doesn’t stop; it’s a brisk novel that rarely drags, which works both for and against the narrative. This pace benefits the narrative in that it keeps things interesting by keeping them moving: you can count on something new always lurking just around the bend. There is plenty of action, particularly towards the end, where the novel takes on a frenzied pace and bulls it’s way to the final conceptual breakthrough or revelation.
Actually, knowing that they are on a generation ship is a revelation Roy has later on and thus a kind of minor spoiler (sorry, dear readers), but A) that twist is general knowledge in regards to this novel and B) Aldiss includes plenty of other big surprises that make what happened to the ship just as interesting as what it is, if not more so. The characters know some things about the ship and the artifacts they find, but many truths about their environment have been lost to time and strife among the survivors. It’s interesting to note “the givens,” which are the things that the characters take for granted about their surroundings and how they interact with it. No one sees anything wrong in the hydroponically-grown plants that have burst their confines and overtaken most of the ship. The regularity of their environment (decks, doorways, overhead lighting) is seen as a part of nature. Indeed, when one character finally sees a real sun, he remarks that he expected it to be square just like a giant version of one of the lights within the ship. Aldiss paints a fairly restrictive, claustrophobic picture of life on the ship throughout the novel, which adds nicely to the sense of menace and paranoia built into the plot. I think I might wig out and run amok (which some characters do) due to the unceasing regularity of the environment only broken up by the thick, choking vines. The star-ship is a familiar, orderly setting that is defamiliarized and rendered strange in Aldiss’ work.
The early part of the novel has the strongest sociological speculation in it which, sadly, the story moved away from it fairly quickly to keep things moving. The way the Greene tribe is organized, the rituals and social structures they have developed, were very interesting to me as it illustrated how the people of the ship have adapted to their environment and to the needs of survival while maintaining a semblance of sanity and happiness. For example, children are weaned away from parents and siblings very early, partly, I expect, due to the ersatz religion of psychology (which enshrines consciousness as defined by Freud and Jung) but also to dissuade large families and keep the population manageable. Men don’t meet each other’s eyes, and the common greeting is “Expansion to your Ego,” with the response being “at your expense,” as an explicit albeit civil representation of the psychological power games of respect and abasement we all play. It was interesting and I had hoped for more, but for what it was I enjoyed it.
The characters held a lot of promise in the beginning for me. Roy Complain ultimately reads like a a violent, fairly unremarkable, knuckle-dragging hunter/warrior, but early on he piqued my interest with his encroaching existential crisis: why am I here, why are we here, who are we, what is this place, really? His band of adventurers seemed like a nice mix as well: the uptight Valuer (merchant/trader), the twitchy warrior, the secretive storyteller, and, most intriguing of all, the power-hungry and opportunistic priest Marapper. Marapper is a great character to love and hate: he is devious, backstabbing, dishonest, and alternately self-aggrandizing and self-abasing (whichever benefits him most at the moment).
Overall, what I enjoyed most from this novel was the growing sense of claustrophobia and menace that underlies the exploration of this familiar setting (the starship) rendered strange through the characters’ limited understanding of their environment. This ominous atmosphere was at its prime when the non-human creatures start to appear, some of which really creeped me out (I have a problem with moths, so moths with psychic powers in a confined, claustrophobic space makes me feel uncomfortable to say the least). The action and revelations kept a brisk pace and didn’t let things drag much, and early on in particular the ways in which Complain wrestles with the outward pressures of the tribe and the inward pressures compelling him to leave and discover what is really going on were palpable and helped me sympathize with him a great deal.
Complaints for Complain: Where Non-Stop Could Have Been Better
I found myself frequently frustrated at the inconsistencies in the book’s sociological/phenomenological perspective. To provide an example, early on in the book, Marapper reads aloud from a technical manual he found and Roy doesn’t understand much of what he is hearing (he only knows the syllables), but later Roy and his love interest read through the Captain’s diary without linguistic difficulty even though they are separated from the author by many, many societal decay generations. Which is it, can they read or not? Also, Aldiss frequently uses contemporary cliches or turns of phrase that are way too out of place for the third-person limited perspective of Roy Complain. The best articulation I found of this was from a review on the website Geek Chocolate:
While not unintelligent, the tribes are most certainly uneducated, and told from Complain’s point of view, the novel should reflect this, yet the reader’s vicarious rendering is described using vocabulary that would be beyond his comprehension. “The tight spiralling traced by the rifling in the barrel” would be meaningless to him, as the only projectile weapon the tribes have is bow and arrow, and he is likely similarly ignorant of ancient Greek musical notation, yet apparently the atmospheric systems sound “like a proslambanomenos implementing a sustained chord.”
Aldiss’ writing is good and heart-wrenching in places, but in a novel of this type–where one culture is encountering another that is significantly different and more advanced–the writing should reflect the phenomenological experience of the characters. For example, we know its just a swimming pool, but to Roy–who hasn’t seen so much water before–it’s an awe-inspiring ocean, and the narrative should help us experience that with Roy. It does in places, but inconsistencies in the tribes’ level of education and technological understanding, and Aldiss’ use of contemporary cliches and turns-of-phrase, pulled me out of the experience of encountering the mystery of the ship as the characters perceive it. This made me feel like the worldbuilding–the construction of the world as the characters understood it–was only half done, or that Aldiss was defeating himself in trying to evoke the strange with familiar, contemporary narrative devices.
While I had great enthusiasm for the characters in the beginning, by the end I felt that characterization in this book was fairly flat, which may be the effect of the non-stop, briskly-paced narrative. Roy seems primed to under go some kind of change as his worldviews (literally) are challenged, but he basically remains a predictable, short-tempered hunter-warrior throughout. Aldiss tries to signal a change in Roy that I either didn’t get or that didn’t feel warranted by the narrative. There is one moment when the whole ship is going ape that his love interest, Vyann, reflects that at least he is keeping his humanity and is changing into some kind of better person… at the same moment that Roy, elsewhere, is beating and threatening someone to compel his cooperation. He didn’t change all that much, and thus the character arc was pretty flat and forced if anything. Perhaps this is because the narrative can’t stop to contemplate these changes in more depth and detail, so characters kind of remain in given archetypes. Roy’s love interest, Vyann, begins as a cold, calculating woman who represents the more civilized, advanced people of the Forwards section of the ship, but she melts like butter for Roy. Once again, to quote the review on Geek Chocoloate (because I can’t say it any better): “Laur Vyann, representing the more advanced Forwards section, [is] cold and efficient, yet apparently waiting for the right inbred knuckle-dragger from the rear section of the ship to shamble along and unleash the woman within.” This is a very typical example of the “male gaze,” but one that renders a strong, seemingly complex female character into a simple damsel. By the end, only Marrapper with his barely-contained egoism and opportunism remained interesting to me.
The brisk pace of the plot doesn’t only harm characterization, however, as overall plot structure suffers as well. The plot is facilitated by a series of lucky breaks or coincidental revelations that help drive the action and, after a while, felt fairly contrived. The novel moves quickly enough though that it didn’t bother me much as long as I didn’t think about it much, but there were several plot elements that didn’t feel resolved. The big find of the Captain’s diary is just a big data dump that isn’t adequately explored, the threat of the belligerent non-humans doesn’t go beyond being a nuisance, and the conclusion itself feels rather abrupt.
Despite it’s flaws, I can see why Non-Stop was re-printed in the SF Masterworks series. While the world-building felt inconsistent and the characters half done, Non-Stop is still enjoyable since it maintains a brisk pace, has plenty of action, keeps the discoveries rolling, and houses it all in a menacing but intriguing environment of the starship-turned-wilderness. It’s an interesting exemplar of how sociological concerns play into the generation ship narrative and indeed into all space exploration stories.