Brian Aldiss’ Earthworks (1965) takes place in a future Earth wrecked by the effects of overpopulation and the resulting environmental repercussions of intensive, expansive, and destructive over-farming. In this disturbed world of increasing automation and devaluation of human life, robots are worth more than people and the hungry diseased hordes of mankind have reverted to animism.
The Farmer rules from his barrack-like cities the Landsmen who till his toxin stricken fields as punishment for minor infractions. The land itself is poisonous — so is the air, the water, and most food… Virtually all land is intensively farmed (sand is brought from Africa and infused with nutrients to construct new plots), most animal species are exterminated, and food itself must undergo chemical treatment to remove toxins and carcinogens…
Aldiss’ dark vision of collapsing society and withering earth is poignant and brutal. Scenes often verge on visceral — a disease which causes its victims to lurch about and shed skin like dying leaves, farmers wandering the land in protection suits, the Gas Room…
Sadly, Earthworks suffers from a virulent strain of inane plot and ultimately, a very unsavory message — the endorsement of world war.
The “plot” unfolds (lurches?) in a rather muddled fashion — obviously Aldiss is attempting to be literary. Or perhaps, it’s an attempt to distract us from the banality of the plot. One gets the frustrating feeling that Aldiss fell in love with a world but couldn’t figure out how to populate his world with viable secondary characters, events, people!
Our protagonist, Knowle Nolan, is the captain of a largely automated transport ship carting African sands to England. Africa is technologically more advanced than Europe which is plagued with abject poverty and the absence of intellectual thought (most people can’t read or write). Nolan narrates his tale (resurrecting the art of writing) in a series of flashbacks. Nolan himself is plagued with hallucinations due to a childhood disease — and these lengthy visions take of a substantial chunk of the work.
Nolan, an orphan from England, was sent to the farms as punishment for a minor infraction. There he encounters the Travelers (a group of people who wander around with little purpose but to exercise freedom in the face of repression/automation/organization). In the heat of the moment (when they’re captured by government forces), he betrays the leader of the group. As a reward he received his captain commission from the Farmer himself.
A dead man floats to Nolan’s transport vessel with an assortment of love letters… Soon the vessel runs aground on Africa’s skeleton coast and the crew becomes embroiled in the politics of the region (with world wide ramifications — of course).
I really wanted to like this work. However the world war for the sake of humanity advocating conclusion was genuinely bothersome, the lurching delivery distracting and poorly executed, and the frustratingly banal plot barely propped up the well-realized world .
That said Aldiss’ social extrapolations from the effects of overpopulation are intriguing. For example, when the majority of the world is preoccupied by the constant pangs of hunger the finer points of human existence are snuffed out — art, culture, writing, religion, etc — the age of animism in the cities… Likewise, the work is early attempt at the genre of ecological disaster — the effects of fertilizer runoff, chemical attempts to combat plant disease, polluted water sources, etc.
I tentatively suggest Earthworks for its ideas and richly detailed world (and the stunning covers!). An intriguing but highly flawed work with a dubious final message…