Book Review: Earthworks, Brian W. Aldiss (1965)

3.5/5 (Average)

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.

Plot Summary 

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).

Final Thoughts

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…

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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Earthworks, Brian W. Aldiss (1965)

  1. Interesting – I just read this the other day (and have written most of a review myself). Some similar thoughts to yours, though I *have* gone on a bit of a tangent; a thing that interests me, rather than anything else. But, hey. You can see what you think when I get it posted. I concur with your frustration re: the end, though. It’s a disturbing end to the novel. I do think that Aldiss is a good writer, mostly. Ha… and the shortness of the novel does make me a little better disposed to it. 🙂

  2. I felt kind of bad picking on the rest of the plot because I have no problem with minimal to non-existent plots.


    when Knowle finally lands in Africa and gets mixed up with Justine (a completely hollow silly character) and the hasty expose on African and the, OH we should murder the President bit, that is a drastic attempt to make a meaningful plot. So yes, most of the novel is unconcerned with plot per-se but then gives in to its impulses (or external publisher pressures) — really really poorly.

    So, the book is very very very good until Knowle actually arrives in Africa. And then it devolves into a poorly done political intrigue caper… That whole part felt hasty, rushed, and ramshackle.

    But yes, I look forward to your review!

    But Aldiss’ world is vivid and so disturbed!

  3. I agree with most of your points, regarding this novel, Joachim.

    Aldiss is – in general – a brilliant writer, but this is from one of his lesser mid-60’s periods. In quite a few from this period, he seems to run out of ideas towards the end, and the pace of the plot suddenly shifts into 1st gear to try and tie up all the loose ends, as opposed to the rest of the story which had been in 3rd gear. One of the worst examples of this is Aldiss’ The Interpreter, which tries to cram in about 30 pages of plot exposition/conclusion, in the last 5 pages, and thus feels totally artificial and rushed. And Cryptozoic (aka An Age) does this to a lesser extent, even though it is one of his better, and more original, from this period.

    I didn’t really have a problem with the uber-nihilistic, immoral and cynical ending – desperate measures in desperate (possible future) times, and all that – and just because he purports such a solution in fiction, it doesn’t mean he – the author – necessarily believes it, as you well know. It was a suitably dark ending for such a dystopian story. However, the protagonists sudden flip-over from trying to be a more moral, better person, to accepting to assassinate the ambassador within a few minutes, based – largely – on the fact that he fancied the female character (sorry I have forgotten a lot of their names) comes across as very contrived and hollow.

    But as you say, there is some very memorable imagery and he does a good job of essaying the ecologically devastated future, that we now seem to be rushing towards. I especially liked the demonic robot guards (my mental picture of them coincided wit the ‘humming’ robot guards in the film Barbarella!) and the fantastic, lyrical opening with the corpse floating across the sea on the jet/hover pack.

    When I asked Aldiss about this novel in a recent 3 hour interview I did with him, he obviously saw it as one of his inferior pieces, even though I quite liked it, in some ways (see my wordpress blog for news soon of the radio broadcast of this interview in December, if you are interested)

    By the way, I think your blog, and reviews, are excellent, and I always look forward to each new one – keep up the good work!



  4. Out of the overpopulation ones you mention, I would highly recommend Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven – it is utterly brilliant, though the overpopulation aspect is really an adjunct to a more Dickian ‘what is reality?’ conceit.

    I remember reading Disch’s 334 many years ago as a teenager, and maybe I wasn’t ready for it at the time, as I found it rather uninteresting and terribly over-hyped. I don’t remember much of it, and it seemed more of a social satire, than science fiction, which seemed an unnecessary framing device for something which could have been done just as easily, if not better, in a social-realist novel. As I say, maybe I was just too young at the time (though I also read his Camp Concentration, which was a lot better than 334, but – again – I was underwhelmed in comparison to the hype about him).

    Of that type of Post-Modern, Pynchon-esque, intelligent, socially relevant satirical SF, I think John Sladek, as well as Vonnegut, of course, are much more successful. Although I would like to read Disch’s The Genocides, which sounds like a darker version of Aldiss’ slightly flawed, but nevertheless brilliant Hothouse.

    I will have a think about more overpopulation novels – a great SF theme! I can certainly think of quite a few SF films of that sub-genre, but I am sure you already know most of them. And don’t forget Ballard’s wonderful short story Billennium….

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