Non-Stop: A classic that is vivid, brisk, entertaining

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Non-Stop by Brian W. Aldiss science fiction book reviewsNon-Stop by Brian W. Aldiss

Number 33 of the Science Fiction Masterworks series, Brian Aldiss’ 1958 Non-Stop is indeed a classic of the genre (variant title: Starship). Standing well the test of time, the story is vivid, brisk, and entertaining — facets complemented nicely by intelligent commentary and worthwhile purpose. With Aldiss examining human nature in unusual circumstances to say the least, the underlying assumptions nevertheless exist closer to reality than the majority of sci-fi. Readily enjoyable on the surface, there remain several thought-provoking undercurrents waiting for the reader to explore.

Non-Stop is the story of Roy Complain, a disgruntled hunter of the Greene Tribe in Quarters. His brother was lost to the tangles years before and, in the first few pages, his wife is abducted by a neighboring tribe. Complain must find a way to live without connections amongst his ragged tribe. Every person is out for themselves, resources are scarce, and egos run amuck in their barbarian society which is kept only marginally modern by the random objects and devices they find behind closed doors and down abandoned corridors. Old weapons, jars of colored dyes, technical manuals filled with schematics nobody can comprehend, little makes sense to the people, but somehow they survive. One day, unwillingly caught in a conspiracy, Complain finds himself on a journey through Deadways on a mission that none see the pertinence of save their crazy guide.

I don’t feel too bad writing the following as Aldiss never really tries to disguise the fact, not to mention openly discusses the matter by page 30: Non-Stop is set on a generation starship traveling in space to none knows where. As humanity has devolved to near Stone Age levels, Complain and his fellow tribesmen survive in the most primitive of manners, fighting and scrapping amongst themselves for food, shelter, and mates while the massive ship hurtles through space. The walls and ceiling around them produce a claustrophobia that seeks release in violence and malevolence. Aldiss keeps the mood dark and lingering for life aboard ship.

But what makes Non-Stop better than the average is Aldiss’ ability to take advantage of the opportunities which result from the setting. The starship is a nice symbol of our Earth plunging through space and the author uses the idea to comment upon the desire humanity has for control of its destiny, and subsequently the subjectivity of that desire. Marapper, a priest Complain encounters, has the following interpretation:

The driver or captain of this ship is concealed somewhere, and we’re forging on under his direction, knowing neither the journey nor the destination. He is a madman who keeps himself shut away while we are all punished for this sin our forefather’s committed.

Seemingly everyone else on the ship has their own ideas of what is right and proper — the real purpose to their journey. Everything eventually devolves into chaos, Aldiss, like Gene Wolfe’s BOOK OF THE LONG SUN, posits that individual belief and determination may be the only manner in which to rise above the variety of mass but varied beliefs in society.

Roy Complain is highly reminiscent of Gully Foyle from Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination. Both are thoroughly atypical heroes. Aldiss creates a man who you’re more curious to know what happens to next than empathize with, much like Bester. Details are brief but vivid, the storyline moves briskly (to put it lightly), and the world unfolds with one imaginative scene on top of another, with Aldiss never giving the reader a chance to get bogged down in the bitterness and contempt of his main character. Complain and the other members of the Greene tribe adhere to tenets unthinkable in today’s society. Such choice lines as “leap before you look,” “seek for yourself so you may be freed from inner conflict,” and “never look a man in the eye or you will lose face” permeate the unlikeable man’s tale, but what lies in store for him and the others is just too fascinating to turn away from despite the brow-furrowing nature of their philosophies.

Non-Stop is a fast-paced story that never pauses to take a breath. Living up to its name, Aldiss keeps the plot pedal to the floor the entire length of the short novel (by today’s standards). Exciting, interesting, and often haunting, walking the abandoned corridors of the ship now overgrown with bushes, swarming with midges, pockmarked in aged signs of warfare, and with small rodents scurrying from trapdoors in walls, it is an adrenalin-pumping journey for Complain and the reader. Culminating in nicely organized, satisfying fashion, the story’s climax reveals everything the reader hopes while managing to avoid being trite — not an easy task given the limited number of options to the setting.

If Non-Stop has any faults it would be a lack of details. Aldiss sketches out the scenes in loose, efficient fashion, but often leaves a certain sense of richness wanting. It seemed more than a few opportunities were missed with regard to a “primitive” man’s encounters with sci-fi technology. Though the group meets with anti-gravity, a swimming pool, and a ventilation system, there are many other aspects of life — life in a spaceship! — that seem to go unexplored. What other tools and implements have survived? To what strange purpose are they put? What is the Greene tribe’s philosophy regarding the desks and file cabinets they find decaying? How does the group convert ponics to edible material? Where are the breakaway cults which seem an inevitability in such an environment? But Aldiss keeps things simple for his own purposes and the result is a story that details pace, action, and bits of philosophizing effectively enough, just not richly.

In the end, Non-Stop is a solid science fiction book that stands the test of time well thanks to the universal themes Aldiss expounds upon. It is a fast-paced, engaging story that touches upon some of the simplest but most weighty aspects of being human. From the subjectivity of environment to group movement, religion to the evolution of historical memory, there are numerous tangents of thought which come peeling off what is otherwise a heavily streamlined story. At times it seems to lack the detail which would flesh out the tale into something richer and thus more believable, but the overall story is told and resolved in satisfying fashion.

Published in 1958. Curiosity was discouraged in the Greene tribe. Its members lived out their lives in cramped Quarters, hacking away at the encroaching ponics. As to where they were – that was forgotten. Roy Complain decides to find out. With the renegade priest Marapper, he moves into unmapped territory, where they make a series of discoveries which turn their universe upside-down …Non-Stop is the classic SF novel of discovery and exploration; a brilliant evocation of a familiar setting seen through the eyes of a primitive.

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JESSE HUDSON, one of our guest reviewers, reads in most fields. He lives in Poland where he works for a big corporation by day and escapes into reading by night. He posts a blog which acts as a healthy vent for not only his bibliophilia, but also his love of culture and travel: Speculiction.

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4 comments

  1. This sounds awesome! Thanks, Jesse!

  2. Paul Connelly /
    Marapper was a great character, an amoral priest of a degenerate religion based on psychoanalysis (still fashionable at the time Aldiss wrote this). At one point he warns Roy not to trust another character, Zac Deight, because: "There's something horribly sincere about that man!"
  3. I tried but gave up on this book after about 80 pages, because I found the characters so unappealing. The primitive regression of the inhabitants of the generational starship was cool, but I just couldn’t stand Roy Complain, Marapper the Priest, and Zac Delight, but great names in hindsight.

    • For sure, Stuart, there are more substantial generation starship novels out there (see, for example, Gene Wolfe’s Book of the Long Sun). Non-Stop strikes some kind of middle ground between cartoon and “serious” novel, and by stopping at 80 pages, you missed the “serious” part. :) Again, not the greatest, but a short read, and worth sticking around to see the point to which Aldiss drives the whole story.

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