Book Review: Non-Stop (variant title: Starship), Brian Aldiss (1958)

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.

Final Thoughts

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!

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35 thoughts on “Book Review: Non-Stop (variant title: Starship), Brian Aldiss (1958)

  1. I have yet to find a phrase like “revolutionary yet ultimately unsatisfying.” It’s one of those paradoxes that people understand completely.

  2. This brings to mind Star Lost, a no doubt derivative Canadian TV series I enjoyed tremendously as a child. It was written in part by Harlan Ellison, though I believe he left the show before it even began… Still, I loved the concept and so need to pick up Non Stop.

    • I liked “Star Lost” too. With greater variety, and better special effects, it could have been sensational. Harlan Ellison should create this series for the American viewer now!

  3. I’ve not seen Star Lost — I’ve heard that it’s absolutely terrible — obviously if you have nostalgic value attached it’s completely worth watching and re-watching! 🙂 I suspect I would have loved it as a child if I had seen it — Star Trek took that honor!

    But yes, I might be somewhat over enthusiastic about Non-Stop — BUT, that’s because I love generation ships!!

  4. I really need to read this *casts an eye at his monumental TBR pile*

    Sounds ace. There’s a disappointingly small number of his novels in print (although Greybeard is coming out in the SF Masterworks series; next year I think, with an introduction from Adam Roberts. This merits an “hurrah!” I think). Penguin reissued Hothouse too.

  5. I tried writing a review of Non-Stop when I read it last year and I couldn’t figure out how to do it without totally giving the plot away! It is a superb book though, I recommend it wholeheartedly; I couldn’t believe it was written in the 50s (didn’t realise till I’d finished it) it seems much more modern.

    • Well, I try to alert people that my reviews often have spoilers…

      It does feel modern! Although, besides the somewhat tacky end 😉 hehe…. A very good work. Are any of Aldiss’ other novels any good? I have The Dark Light Years sitting on my soon to be read stack — however, most people seem somewhat put off by the work.

  6. Just finished reading this one — I agree 100%. Probably one of the best SF novels from the ’50s… Aldiss’ writing was great, made me think about reading my copy of the Helliconia Trilogy (or buying more of his books).

  7. Hi Joachim and the rest – just in case you are interested. Cheers :

    New ATOMIC BARK! Radio Show TONIGHT 13/3/13 at 9pm (GMT) Interview with Brian Aldiss

    Wednesday 13th March, 9-10pm (GMT) on Resonance 104.4 FM in London and streamed live, online, at

    James DC interviews the legendary Science Fiction author Brian Aldiss, in the first part of a 3-hour interview, over the next few weeks. Brian talks about his troubled childhood in Norfolk in the 1930’s, his ribald experiences in the Army in World War Two, ghostly apparitions and moments of revelation, religion, creativity, the various concepts and themes of science fiction, plus much more, in this first part of an extensive interview focusing on all aspects of Brian’s life and writing career.

    9-10pm (GMT) Wednesday 13th March on 104.4 FM in London and live, to hear online simultaneously, at:

    Repeated Friday 15th March, 11am-12pm (GMT), with podcasts to follow soon after – look out for news soon on : and

  8. Pingback: Non-Stop, or Adventures in Reviewer Parallax | MarzAat

  9. Thomas M. Disch notes how age 13 is magical – most SF fans first have their imaginations set on fire by SF at that age. Being a late bloomer myself, I first read SF at age 63. So the advantage is most of the SF tropes are fresh. I listened to the audio of Nonstop and was so excited I could hardly stop listening. Like yourself, I wrote my review in a way so as not to give too much away and thus spoil a reader’s experience.

    • I might have read one or two of my dad’s SF books at that age but I really started in my late teens — read the entire Hugo list for example. But, graduate school (my early 20s) provided the reason I started this site a decade ago — a way to keep sane while completing a PhD in History and I’ve continued it since.

  10. And it was No. 2 of “TERRA Utopische Romane” in 1957. I found the booklet in a drawer full of wonders of an old table, that was prepared for me as desk for my homeworks in my first year on school, and that cover hooked me forever.

  11. Quite good for a first novel. Written during the late 1950s, I feel that Brian Aldiss was already aware of the changes that were happening in SF at this time and would be happening in the 60s, and wanted to do something different, while still tied to the traditional SF tropes. The themes aren’t that strong in the subtext of the novel, and I preferred “Greybeard”, but it’s a later novel, which shows how his writing had matured. As you said, they can’t really be compared.

        • I wonder what I would think about the book now having read SO MUCH more about generation ships. I do think that Aldiss is one of the first to think far more seriously about the impact of a generation ship (the other early example is Brunner’s 1957 novella “Lungfish”)

          • Yes, well, as I more or less said above, Brian Aldiss was concerned about more than space travel and generation ships in this novel. It’s also concerned with the truth of existence, a theme which other authors at the time and in the coming decade, not mentioning any names, would do better.

            I think though, that it’s obvious he was skeptical about long distance space travel.He had no romantic delusions about it.

  12. The Dark Beyond the Stars by Frank M. Robinson is also a very good generation ship story I highly recommend. The Astron has been in flight for 2000 years and it has not as yet found alien life. The ship is falling apart and the immortal captain refuses to turn back.

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