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. 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 lost to the tangles years before and wife abducted by a neighboring tribe in the first few pages, Complain must find a way to live without connections amongst his ragged tribe. Every person out for themselves, resources are scarce and egos run amuck in their barbarian society 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. Humanity having 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 producing 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 a nice symbol of our Earth plunging through space, the author uses the idea to comment upon the desire humanity has for control of its destiny, and subsequently the subjectivity of that desire. So while 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 devolving 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 thoroughly atypical heroes, Aldiss creates a man you’re more curious what happens to next than empathize with, much like Bester. Details brief but vivid, the storyline moving briskly (to put it lightly), and the world unfolding one imaginative scene on top of another, Aldiss never gives 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 adhering 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 he and the others is just too fascinating to turn away 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, the result a story that details pace, action, and bits of philosophizing effectively enough, just not richly.