Friday, 11 May 2012

‘Non-Stop’ – Brian Aldiss (Gollancz)

‘Non-Stop’ is one of those books that I’ve had my eye on for quite a while but never seemed to get round to picking up, until now. I don’t know why I held off for so long to be honest, possibly my natural reticence towards science fiction I think. I do cover a fair bit here but I’ve always preferred fantasy and I do have a tendency (still) to look at ‘classic sci-fi’ as ‘hard sci-fi’ when it really isn’t.

‘Non-Stop’s’ cover (this one) has always intrigued me with its hi-tech background slowly being obscured by alien vegetation; the blurb looks vaguely apocalyptic as well as that’s something that will always pique my interest. If that wasn’t enough, I haven’t read anything by Brian Aldiss and thought it was way past time that I gave him a go. The choice was between ‘Non-Stop’ (another book picked up on my ‘new and used’ spree on Amazon) and the ‘Helliconia’ trilogy, a book that I’d meant to try ever since reading Adam’s reviews. These days, if there’s a choice between reading a slim book (‘Non-Stop’) and a huge thick book (‘Helliconia’) then the slim book will win every time! ‘Non-Stop’ is a rather tiny two hundred and forty one pages long and that sealed the deal for me.
I don’t know when I’ll get round to reading ‘Helliconia’ (I’ve given up making promises about reading books, seriously…) but if ‘Non-Stop’ is anything to go by then I’ll be bumping it up the reading pile at least a little way. I thought that I had a handle on ‘Non-Stop’ and then it just blew my mind, in a whole load of good ways.

The Green tribe have no time for idle speculation about their existence, spending their lives in cramped Quarters and hacking away at the encroaching plant life. Curiosity about their past is an idle luxury they cannot afford. Roy Complain has always secretly thought there was more to life though and he is about to get the chance to find out just what lies beyond his limited world. Complain and the renegade priest Marapper strike out into territory unknown and, on their journey, make a series of discoveries that will blow their world wide open (quite literally)…

Warning (If you haven’t read the book already): There may be slight spoilers ahead. I’ll do my best to avoid them but you have been warned.

Still here? Cool :o)

It’s been a long time since a book has thrown me like ‘Non-Stop’ did, in a good way of course. Without giving too much away, I was sat there at the start thinking, ‘is this all there is to it?’ Aldiss makes an attempt at keeping things fairly vague but it’s signposted fairly clearly exactly where the Greene tribe are and what has led them to their current predicament. I was always going to read the whole book but at this point I was wondering if there would be much point to it all.

It turns out that I’d been easily lulled into thinking things were far more simple than they actually were. As the book progresses, Aldiss adds tantalisingly little hints here and there that suggest that the Greene tribe’s immediate location is only a relatively minor part of the plot. There is a much bigger surprise lurking towards the end of the book and Aldiss hides it really well by focussing the reader’s attention on other things as well as making you think that there’s no way forward, is there? When that revelation finally hits you it’s all the more powerful because of that massive smoke screen that Aldiss hides it behind and you can’t help but see the novel in a whole new light because of this. The concept on it’s own is intriguing enough but the spin Aldiss adds to it elevates things to a whole new level. Its masterful stuff, really it is, and clear evidence of someone writing at the top of their game in that respect.

I say ‘in that respect’ because I sometimes found myself wondering if Aldiss was really up to writing about the ‘day to day’ stuff. He’s obviously very good at handling the plot, and readers expectations along with it, but there were occasions where some of the descriptive pieces felt as pedestrian as the pace that Roy and Marapper were moving at. To be fair, Aldiss maybe wrote himself into a bit of a corner here, there’s only so much you can write about tunnels, lift shafts and encroaching vegetation after all. Although having said that, making a lift shaft sound all vague and mysterious and then calling it a lift shaft does help the reader out a bit but deadens the atmosphere being created, just saying… Sorry, back on topic, I guess what I’m saying is that there isn’t an awful lot to look at in Quarters (along with the rest of it) and this does show more than it should.

This is balanced out though by Aldiss’ examination of his two lead characters. The surly inquisitiveness of Roy Complain pushes the plot before in the right directions with a hint of attitude about it that makes things a little more earthy and dangerous, just as it should be. It was the priest Marapper though who really caught my interest though with his self serving ways adding uncertainty to all his dealings (Marapper changes sides regularly and often) along with some commentary on Freud and how his theories might work out if taken to a sci-fi extreme. If ‘Non-Stop’ is anything to go by, I don’t think Aldiss is a big fan of Freud although his own spin is very carefully thought through and presented.

‘Non-Stop’ isn’t without its flaws (small ones) then but it’s still a story very well told and, in terms of the concept and its treatment, very much a Masterwork as far as I’m concerned. Check it out if you get the chance. ‘Helliconia’ is looking at me reproachfully, from the shelf, now and I might just have to do something about that now…

Nine and a Half out of Ten

1 comment:

Tim Aldiss said...

What a fantastic review Graeme - so glad you so liked such a great piece of work :)