4.75/5 (Very Good)
A generation ship! Science run amok! A brilliant work from the late 50s which must be read! Brian Aldiss’ Non-Stop (published in the U.S. as Starship) is a relentlessly dark science fiction novel written in response to Robert Heinlein’s revolutionary yet ultimately unsatisfying Orphans of the Sky (my review here). Although I’ll read anything with a generation ship, I was completely blown away by Aldiss’ first novel. Seldom have I come across anything written in the 50s so dark — a ship filled with strangely disfigured men, oppressive hallways choked by layers of hydroponic plants, slowly moving primitive tribes who kill their mutated children, regimented rats with their caged partially telepathic animals, disturbing religions spawned from the tenants of various psychiatrists (Freud and the like), giants scurrying undetected along various hallways and passages stealing children… A nightmare.
A Brief Plot Summary (Limited spoilers)
Owing to the unfolding revelatory nature of this work’s plot, I’ll divulge only what is necessary to tempt prospective readers.
A community that cannot or will not realize how insignificant a part of the universe it occupies is not truly civilized. That is to say, it contains a fatal ingredient which renders it, to whatever extent, unbalanced. This is a story of one such community.
Roy Complain is a member of the Greene tribe that hacks out a semi-nomadic existence in the overgrown hallways of the ship. The tribe knows little of its world. It protects its borders from renegade groups, moves slowly down the hallways, propagating, dying, killing each other in senseless combat, following an unusual religion, exploring the next rooms, burning what could potentially damage the existing power structures… Some members secretly collect shreds of paper, books, odd objects… Roy Complain, after his mate is lost (or killed) out hunting, agrees to head out on a suicidal mission to find the Forward section. This mission, headed by the power hungry priest Marapper, seeks to take over the ship. Complain, doesn’t fully believe Marapper (who has found a plan that proves the ship is a ship), slowly realizes the extent (and contents) of his disturbed world.
I really can’t tell more of the plot without completely ruining the experience. Non-Stop is a breakneck ride filled with some truly disturbing and chaotic imagery. The ending (besides the last line or two) is well crafted and powerful. There’s a strong female character — sadly introduced around half-way through the novel — and Roy Complain is pretty convincing as a singleminded primitive who slowly becomes a central figure. Some might find the concept of semi-intelligent rats hokey — I agree. They only appear briefly in the novel. They are one of the very few minor reasons this is not a perfect 5/5! However, the rats and their caged animals do not detract overly from the Aldiss’ fascinating premise and masterful delivery. The plot is fantastic — however, if you’ve read other novels about generation ships, it might be somewhat predictable. Remember, this was written in the 50s and had only Heinlein’s simplistic Orphans of the Sky to compare to and a few short stories (there might be another novel about a generation ship written between the two works but I haven’t come across it yet).
Aldiss’ world is visceral and powerful. One of the best works produced in the late 50s… Thankfully, it has been recently reprinted! Read it!