Monday, 19 July 2010

Generation Starship Stories: Brian Aldiss's Non-Stop

Brian Aldiss's Non-Stop (1958), published under the title Starship in the US, brings some imaginative new material to Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky and serves as an important milestone in the development of the generation starship trope in science fiction.

Non-Stop was Aldiss's first novel and from it we can see some of the ways in which he will challenge genre definitions in his fiction. In his essay "Generic Discontinuities in SF: Brian Aldiss' Starship," Fredric Jameson studies the ways Non-Stop plays with the reader's expectations of genre: the novel shifts from adventure, to romance, to political fable, subverting our expectations of each. Narrative techniques such as this has led to Aldiss being considered a "New Wave" sf author; David Wingrove, co-author of Apertures: A Study of the Writings of Brian Aldiss, has attributed Aldiss with bridging "old" and "new" sf.

Non-Stop follows the adventures of Roy Complain, a member of the semi-nomadic Greene tribe. Complain's tribe moves between the corridors of the rear section of a generation starship, surviving off animals hunted in the (artificial) forests and the "ponics" (plants) which grow out of control down the corridors of the ship. As in many generation starship stories, Complain's society has developed a religion, the "Teaching," that mythologises aspects of the ship's past. The priests tell stories of their world being a ship, travelling through space, but they are not always believed; the image of the stars have become a story parents tell their children. It also turns out that much of the shipboard religion was adapted from psychology textbooks aboard the ship, with "Froyd, Yung and Bassit" becoming "the holy trinity," "Conscious" becoming God, and "Subconscious" standing in for the devil. The priests frequently perform psychoanalysis, as well as more "normal" religious rituals, such as a twisted version of the last rites, although they don't hold quite the same level of power and respect as they do in Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky.

When Complain's adventures take him into "Forwards" territory, the front part of the ship, he finds a more civilised society, which has cast off the religious Teachings followed by the tribes at the rear of the ship. Over the course of the novel, Complain discovers the truth about the ship, with lots of twists and turns along the way, many of which are just as surprising to the reader as they are to the novel's protagonist. He realises the falseness of the Teachings and he has "outgrown" such superstition and ritual.

The characterisation of religion as the indicator of a backward or primitive society is something common in sf, and was often used in the pulps to demonstrate the uncivilised state of an alien society. As in Heinlein's story, religion in Non-Stop comes off as a thoroughly unscientific and superstitious force that society must be liberated from. However, Aldiss does extend a slight courtesy at the end of the novel [spoiler alert!] when it is revealed that religion still exists on Earth, and continued to exist on the ship until the virus devastated its population. Furthermore, we are told that "holy men"were sent from Earth to the ship to "counter the vile irreligion of the Teaching" (although there is no evidence of this in the novel, and no competing religious beliefs) and that the Teaching, false though it was, probably assisted the survival of the ship's inhabitants to some degree.

Overall I found Non-Stop to be quite enjoyable, and I really liked that it managed to pull out surprises that I didn't guess beforehand. Nevertheless, some things still annoyed me. At the start of the novel, for instance, Complain is married, but when his wife is kidnapped during a hunting expedition, he only cares that he will probably be punished for it. We never do find out what happened to his wife, nor are we meant to care, because he soon falls madly in love with Laur Vyann. Vyann, however, is quite a good character – she is strong and smart, which is much more than can be said about any of the female characters of Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky. Maybe this was all done to establish Complain as an antihero, but it still ground me the wrong way – I much prefer reading about good protagonists, such as Patera Silk from Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun. I also thought the novel's talking rats and telepathic rabbits were a little absurd, but they didn't ruin the story. Non-Stop has certainly encouraged me to read more by Aldiss, so I will have to get my hands on some more of his work – Hothouse perhaps? Any suggestions?

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