© The Guardian
August 19th saw the death of the great English science-fiction novelist, short-story writer and editor Brian Aldiss. Everybody has to go sometime, and Aldiss undeniably had a longer and better innings than most – he expired a day after celebrating his 93rd birthday, he wrote over 80 novels and over 300 short stories and was still writing until recently, and in his later years he acquired a wheelbarrow-load of awards, honours, fellowships and honorary doctorates including an Order of the British Empire in 2005 for ‘services for literature’. But I was still saddened to hear of his passing because he was responsible for three of my all-time favourite sci-fi novels, Non-Stop (1958), Hothouse (1962) and Greybeard (1964), written when Aldiss was on a creative roll in his thirties.
Non-Stop has as its premise a common science-fiction device that solves the challenge of how humans can ever hope to colonise earth-type planets in orbit around other stars – because the distances separating our star system from other star systems are vast and would take a very long time to cross. The device in question is a multi-generational starship, i.e. a spacecraft big and well-stocked enough to sustain several generations of humans living (and dying) inside it while it makes a voyage as long as several human lifespans. Hence, it’s the descendants of the people originally on board who reach the destination planet. (Other common sci-fi solutions to this challenge are putting the crew in long-term suspended animation through some yet-to-be-invented cryonic process; or simply having magic spaceship-engines that can travel many times faster than light. Yes, Star Trek, I’m looking at you.)
The multi-generational starship in Non-Stop, though, is in trouble. Thanks to an epidemic that decimated the crew in the voyage’s early days, society on board has broken down. The ship is overrun with a tenacious species of creeping plant that’s escaped from its agricultural section and turned the rooms and corridors into jungles – ‘the tangles’. Roaming wild in the undergrowth are various animal species that have escaped too. Meanwhile, the descendants of the surviving crewmembers have divided into tribes and factions and live in different parts of the ship as primitive, superstitious scavengers and hunter-gathers, no longer knowing their true whereabouts or their ancestors’ mission.
The novel’s hero is the quaintly-named Roy Complain, a member of a tribe living precariously in the starship’s bowels – they spend their lives hacking their way along the corridors and settling temporarily in the spaces they’ve created while the creepers reclaim the spaces they were in earlier. Complain falls in with Marapper, his tribe’s crafty and mysterious priest and the only tribe-member who suspects that they’re on board a spaceship, and they and a few others set off on an expedition through the seemingly endless corridors and seemingly impenetrable undergrowth to locate the ship’s control room. What follows is an inversion of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899). Instead of the characters journeying from civilisation to savagery, the characters here attempt to journey out of savagery and rediscover civilisation.
© Pan Books
Along the way, Aldiss has great fun conjuring up strange creatures for his heroes to encounter – mutants, rats that have developed a worryingly-high level of intelligence, and mythological ‘giants’ and ‘others’, who are supernatural creatures believed to take on the guise of humans. (The real identities of the giants and others are explained later.) You’d expect the narrative to slow down in its later stages as the characters approach the truth of their existence, but Non-Stop’s narrative gets ever-more hectic – becoming a rollercoaster of incidents and plot-twists as Aldiss hits the reader with more and more revelations about the starship’s situation and about what the ship is capable of. Non-Stop clocks in at a modest 250 pages, but by the time you’ve finished it, such has been the amount going on that you feel you’ve read something twice the length.
If Non-Stop is a rollercoaster, then Hothouse is a helter-skelter. Set in the very distant future, it depicts an earth that has one side permanently facing an enlarged sun. The sun-facing side is covered in a vast mesh of undergrowth that’s actually the branches of one gigantic, mutant banyan tree. In this sweltering, jungle-choked world, only a few species of animals have survived – including human beings, who’ve shrunk to a fifth of the size they once were. All the other life-forms are plants, often mobile, intelligent, carnivorous and deadly. Hothouse follows a band of humans on an odyssey across this psychedelically weird but highly dangerous future-earth. Along the way, some of them end up on the moon, which no longer orbits the earth but is stuck in a fixed point, snagged amid giant cobwebs spun by huge spider-like plants called traversers.
Hothouse began life as five loosely-connected short stories published in a magazine in 1961 and as a result its novel-version feels disjointed and episodic. But that doesn’t matter – what’s important is Aldiss’s imagination, which seems as fecund as the jungle-buried world of the story’s setting. He has a glorious time describing its flora and fauna. In addition to traversers, there are tigerflies, termights, sharp-furs and sodals, much-evolved future incarnations of wasps, termites, baboons and dolphins respectively; a sentient fungus called the morel, which forms a disturbingly symbiotic relationship with any host it manages to attach itself to; and the tummy-belly men, humanoid creatures linked to a tree by umbilical cords, who prove hilariously harassed and hapless when those cords are cut and they’re let loose.
© Sphere Books
On its publication some reviewers, including the traditional sci-fi writer James Blish, condemned Hothouse for its disregard for scientific accuracy, and especially for having the moon mired in giant space-cobwebs and no longer able to move in orbit. I’m sure Aldiss knew this was nonsense himself, but the image of a cobweb-trapped moon seemed so entropically powerful that he couldn’t resist sticking it in the book.
After the gleeful inventiveness displayed in Non-Stop and Hothouse, Greybeard, set in southern England in the near-future, seems an altogether more sombre work. But its melancholy premise quickly draws in the reader and creates a world that feels both credible and bewitchingly strange. In Greybeard, humanity has been sterilised by a mishap involving nuclear weaponry in the late 20th century – still the future in 1964, the year of the book’s publication – and by the early 21st century the remaining human population has aged to the point where you’re considered young if you’re in your fifties.
Greybeard begins with the titular character – real name Algy, but nicknamed Greybeard due to the colour of his lengthy facial hair – and his wife Martha living in the English countryside in a village community that’s been cut off from the surrounding world for a decade. Ten years earlier, Britain ceased to be governable. Already tottering from the economic, cultural and psychological impact of having no young people, society finally collapsed thanks to a devastating cholera epidemic. Since then, nature has reasserted itself and the cities, towns, roads and farms have vanished beneath the undergrowth – or, as the country’s system of rivers and lakes revert to their natural state, beneath water. What remains of humanity, meanwhile, is old and senile. They’ve regressed to a medieval level of superstition and paranoia, with people terrifying one another with tales of marauding Scots raiders, packs of killer stoats and even malevolent ‘gnomes’ in the encroaching woods.
Greybeard, Martha and a couple of friends decide to leave the village before it entirely deadens their wits and they become as infantized as its other wrinkly inhabitants. They sail along the River Thames and into slightly less isolated regions, where they encounter a market-fair that resembles a geriatric re-enactment of Merrie Olde England, complete with bawdy octogenarian prostitutes; then the university town of Oxford, where a feudal society has evolved under the stewardship of some venerable Oxford dons; and finally a phantasmagorical inland sea of mist, tiny islands and sunken villages. Here, they make some surprising discoveries about what’s really going on this verdant new world that seems determined to leave humanity behind.
The science fiction writer Adam Roberts, who wrote the introduction for my edition of Greybeard, has likened Aldiss’s descriptions of the post-civilisation English landscape to the work of Thomas Hardy. I wouldn’t go as far as that, but the way that Aldiss invokes this mouldering-yet-blossoming future England certainly has an impressive, elegiac power.
© Signet Books
Incidentally, in the right hands, I think all three novels would make great movies – though I doubt if that will happen now because, in the years since their publication, many of their ideas have appeared onscreen in less impressive forms. The notion of a multi-generational starship going wrong was the basis of at least one TV show, 1973’s terrible The Starlost. Modern developments in cinematic special effects could now bring the jungle-world of Hothouse to spectacular and terrifying life, but cinema audiences have already been treated to a lavishly-detailed, alien jungle-world in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). Mind you, comparing the benign, hippy-dippy jungle of Avatar to the one in Hothouse is like comparing the music of Coldplay to that of Rage Against the Machine.
And Greybeard’s concept of a childless world was used by P.D. James in her 1992 novel Children of Men, which was filmed by Alfonso Cuarón in 2006. I haven’t read James’s book, but I’ve seen, and really enjoyed, the movie. Nonetheless, I feel Children of Men (the film at least) wimps out in setting its action soon after the child-extinguishing apocalypse, so that many of its adult characters are still relatively young. Whereas Greybeard, depicting a world populated entirely by old and nearly-old people, takes the idea to its disturbing extreme.
So yes, 2017 saw the sad departure of Brian Aldiss. But at least in Non-Stop, Hothouse and Greybeard, we have three great books with which to cherish the life of Brian.