no critical faculties 1: brian aldiss’ non-stop

Sometimes I read things. Rarely, I have thoughts about these things I read. By this I mean I over analyze them poorly and in doing so lose track of the entire point if there ever was one to begin with.

So here, in this space, I will dwell at length on the negatives of a book I actually enjoyed:

One of the books in my pile when I was mistaken for a globetrotting irishman was Brian Aldiss’ Non-stop, which I already have an old paperback copy (under it’s American title Starship) of back home, languishing on my shelf unread. I saw it sitting first-thing on the sci-fi/fantasy shelves and felt that inexplicable impulse, the feeling that it was time to read it at last, and now, and what the hell every bookstore in town guarantees half-back on returns, so.

That slightly revised edition, under a SCI FI MASTERWORKS imprint, told me the the tale of a young man, one Roy Complain, living in a rigid tribal society within what is obviously a ship of some sort whose identity and purpose has been forgotten by its inhabitants. He has a woman, loses his woman to no-good lousy wife-stealers from another tribe, really doesn’t seem to care that much aside from the loss of sex and the corporal punishment he receives for it. Eventually he takes up with a priest who’s found a chart which will lead them to the “bridge”, beyond the mysterious “forwards”, because the damn fool holds with the oft-derided “the world is a ship screaming through space to some mysterious destination” theory.

Oh my.

The pace is never slow, it thrusts you into the space and something happens with a fierce regularity. The point of view is largely tied to Our Lead, allowing the reader to experience the world as an inhabitant, making things feel natural, the exposition organic. He moves, and the story moves with him, not rushed, not slow. He introduces you to the convincing, well thought-out society he lives in, has his little adventure, mysteries rise up which pique the interest of whatever loser is reading the book at 0300 in the mysterious east, and everything’s just a rollicking good time; but when he reaches the ostensible goal of his journey things get muddled.

A love interest happens: the most beautiful woman the lead has ever seen, who inexplicably grows to love him over a short period of time. At some point, the book notes the two’s awareness that she loves him because of changes that have occurred in him that I, as a reader, never noticed. The Work just says “well, he’s like this now” every once in a while, skipping over the development of his character, lurching straight to the character, developed.

There is an estranged brother, who is there to deliver the penultimate exposition delivery device, and then have a semi-important role in our exciting climax.

There is this dude who’s a potential romantic rival for about fifteen pages then oh, never mind, he’s not, but he can still be a different plot device too.

etc.

This is the second “people on generational starship don’t know they’re on a generational starship” story of any length I can recall reading. The other is Gene Wolfe’s four volume Book of the Long Sun, which came decades after Non-stop, but I read it first and couldn’t help but compare the two as I read. Wolfe writes a much different story than Aldiss did, Long Sun dilates Non-stop’s fairly straight-forward adventure story into something more sprawling, less-focused, more complex for good or ill. They’re two tales trying for different things, and I can’t compare them directly, but having the one in mind while I read the other helped to illuminate the problems I developed with Non-stop.

After the gradual build of the first two-thirds of the book Aldiss suddenly slams me with all these extra characters and all this extra complexity. This makes sense; Complain’s world is opening up and with it the scope of the narrative. My problem is that Aldiss can’t bother to take any time with it, which I experienced less as a breathless race to the climax, and more as a Jesus, he really wanted to get this shit out the door didn’t he? This seems to infect the language.

Because the environment Silk et al move through in Long Sun is earth-like aside from certain striking details, Wolfe doesn’t have to reach to create vocabulary which effectively describes it without using terms his character’s would be hard pressed to know. Aldiss struggles to maintain the balancing act when Non-stop opens up in the third act, introducing new plot elements and items with a haste that sees him resorting to describing things as what they are, not what his character perceive them to be.

And then there’s the captain’s log. Delivered into the hands of our number one guy and his main squeeze by Oh Yeah I Have An Estranged Brother, the captain’s diary lays out, in excruciating detail, exactly why the world of Non-stop is in the shape it’s in down to the smallest detail. Nearly every minor mystery that cropped up over the length of the narrative is settled by this document. The evidence of more powerful weapons on the ship in the past? Oh, yeah, we did away with them because X. The widespread growth of “ponics”, a sort of inter-ship jungle that provides a food source to the surviving people? There. The precise origins of the ship’s widespread, obviously psychoanalysis-based religion? That’s there, too. Every question you have, every curious and unique thing about the ship and its culture just happens to have its origins in the rather short time covered by the captain’s log. There’s still a surprise or two in store, but all of the backstory is made remarkably explicit and laid out in what, as I recall, was less than ten straight pages.
Obviously I’m a Wolfe fan, and one thing Wolfe is infamous for his his elisions: anything from minor details of the world to significant plot points might be only hinted at in a Wolfe story, though he usually plays fair and sews the seeds which allow the reader, if they’re so inclined, to puzzle out what has happened. Sometimes, as in his Castleview (where I believe he only does it as an exercise in pacing, and the work ends up seeming like self-parody), this can feel forced, but often, certainly in his better works, it’s quite organic.

Non-stop stops dead for a huge infodump midway through a part of the book that’s paced so quickly as to seem sloppy.

So here I am, all these decades later, bitching about it on the internet. But look: perhaps I’ve dwelled too much on the negatives. It’s an entertaining book. It reads fast, and remains compelling despite all the surface problems I have with it. At the end of the day the world works,it’s well thought-out, unique, and the momentum of the earlier stages and a few judicious surprises carry the story through the lean times of gratuitous love-interests, expository captain’s logs, and forced happenstance that threaten to bog down the final act. I can see why it’s canonized, and I’m glad I read it.

More or less.

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~ by ironcupshrug on 11/25/2009.

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