Few books can be read by a contemporary audience and still stand as modern masterpieces without account being taken of the context. There are timeless works still relevant today, whose creative depth has not diminished, but they are few; Bram Stoker’s Dracula, H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. Non-Stop is not numbered amongst them.
Brian Aldiss has been a noted author of science fiction and fantasy, publishing short stories since the early 1950’s, and is perhaps best known for his Helliconia sequence and Super-Toys Last All Summer Long, filmed as A.I. One of his earliest novels was1958’s Non-Stop, published as Starship in the US, the tale of Roy Complain, a hunter who lives in Quarters, a rundown district of few resources. His people live in fear of Outsiders and are forced to continually relocate as the ponics encroach upon their settlement.
Unfortunately, the revelations are obvious to an audience versed in the language of science fiction: that the vegetation is the wild overgrowth of the hydroponic gardens that maintain the atmosphere, and that the inhabitants of Quarters and all the other tribes are in fact on a generation starship that has drifted off course and become lost amongst the stars, the inhabitants devolving to a lower technological level as they are mutated through inbreeding and the effects of an alien virus. These ideas still percolate through more recent work, from the Golgafrinchan B-Ark of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, to Joe Haldeman’s novel Old Twentieth and the recent film Pandorum.
It is always difficult to judge a book of a different era, particularly one that was perhaps first to describe a concept that has since become a staple of the science fiction genre, but it is the plot that disappoints, relying on too many coincidences or serendipitous events, with Complain stumbling into just the right place to overhear an enemy agent using a concealed radio transmitter, realising that a member of his travelling party just happens to be carrying a piece of jewellery that allows them to unseal access panels, or intuiting that the enemy raiding parties are led by his long lost brother, eroding any sense of drama or involvement.
The cumulative effect is not so much of an adventure progressing amidst revelations of the ship and its history, but of a fool being guided through a series of signposted events complicated only by numerous diversions that add nothing to the story. There are scenes that are moving, even haunting; in darkness, Complain finds a mysterious inner sea, more water than he has ever seen, rippling and reflecting the scant illumination of his flashlight, but his wonder is overcome as he is seized by the Giants, overcome, bound and drugged. And then he is interrogated by a telepathic bunny rabbit.
Some writers use absurdity successfully throughout their work, but in a novel otherwise so serious, despite Complain’s protestations of the horror of the mental assault, the scene is too ridiculous to be convincing. While the idea of the evolving rodents developing tools and intelligence could be a fascinating one, it is never developed. The rats may wear armour and coordinate their attacks, but neither they nor their floppy eared prisoner seem to have a plan, nor much bearing on the plot.
None of the characters are pleasant company, and all are very much stereotypes, from Complain the outsider of the tribe who seeks meaning beyond the confines of Quarters, to the belligerent authority of Lieutenant Greene, the mumbling self-important priest Marapper, Fermour, the wise man regarded as a fool by the tribe, but whose words hold the truth of their situation, and Laur Vyann, representing the more advanced Forwards section, cold and efficient, yet apparently waiting for the right inbred knuckle-dragger from the rear section of the ship to shamble along and unleash the woman within.
It can be forgiven when technological limits tie a science fiction novel to an era long superseded, but the style of this book reads as though it were at least fifteen years older than it actually is. Complain is allegedly aggressive and independent, yet when he meets Vyann, within pages they are swooning into each other’s arms, punctuating every sentence with “darling” as they embark on a decidedly chaste relationship that portrays a conservative era rather than a desperate future dystopia. Even Wyndham, that most British of gentleman, had a less uptight manner with his principals, and also better conceived their worldview.
While not unintelligent, the tribes are most certainly uneducated, and the told from Complain’s point of view, the novel should reflect this, yet the reader’s vicarious rendering is described using vocabulary that would be beyond his comprehension. “The tight spiralling traced by the rifling in the barrel” would be meaningless to him, as the only projectile weapon the tribes have is bow and arrow, and he is likely similarly ignorant of ancient Greek musical notation, yet apparently the atmospheric systems sound “like a proslambanomenos implementing a sustained chord.”
It was recently suggested that Non-Stop is one of the golden age science fiction novels that could easily be adapted for film, and there I have no argument; enclosed, modular sets that could double as the different areas of the ship, a cast of few leads, and no large special effects demands until the grand finale. As it stands, the novel is akin to the ship, a good idea that is going nowhere, but given a reworking to overcome the flaws, the good idea could not only fly again, but be greatly enhanced.