Reviews of Non-Stop (1958)
Review by ropie (2007-01-22)
'Non-Stop' is an apt title for Brian Aldiss' first published SF novel. Not only does it refer to the story's great Generation Ship the 'Big Dog' on its long journey through space but also to the fact that I read it in two sittings, finding myself absolutely unable to put it down. It's a difficult story to describe without giving too much away and spoiling the unravelling plot but don't worry - you can read what I've written without pre-empting the story in any major way.
From the very beginning the reader is plunged into the depths of the massive star ship which has become the natural home to hundreds of travellers on their mysterious journey through space. Because of the great distance involved in this voyage the star ship has seen many generations of people come and go and the original goal of the mission has long since been forgotten, parts of it being absorbed into the tribal folklore and religion that abounds in certain areas of the ship. The vast scale of the ship also means that these tribes live deep within the structure, in what seemed to me to be something like a never-ending and very utilitarian hotel corridor. The only light is provided by artificial means and air circulation is poor meaning that the temperature is constantly stifling. Finally, in a typically Aldiss touch of brilliance, the corridors are full of plants called 'ponics' which thrive in the dingy, humid environment. These reed-like plants define the edges of the tribal zones and are themselves home to some unpleasant mythical creatures and beings.
What struck me about 'Non-Stop' is the way Aldiss extrapolates ideas from one very simple foundation - the idea of a completely enclosed society. His descriptions of the internal villages and their inhabitants is masterly and put me in mind of a medieval settlement and the sense of a quest is redolent of a twisted version of 'The Hobbit'. The main characters are very well portrayed, and though women are initially somewhat sidelined in the story I think this is really because of the mentality of the tribes. Besides, there are strong female characters later in the book.
The first half of the book is in my opinion the better half, being full of detail, intrigue, mystery and an overpowering feeling of claustrophobia. The later stages are not quite as rich in detail and feel more dated as 1950s technology comes in to play. The science involved is weak in places, and some of the background story a little naive and there is a bit of sub-plot involving rats that doesn't make a lot of sense but it doesn't really matter as the plot twists and revelations make up for a lot of this and the book remains exciting and compelling right to the end. The eventual outcome of the story may not come as a huge surprise to the thoughtful reader but Aldiss handles the story very well and the final few paragraphs have some very nice imagery and an iconic nature that reminded me of Arthur C Clarke.