NON-STOP – Brian W. Aldiss (1958)

Non-StopNon-Stop is a short book by today’s standards: only 160 pages in a pocket edition. Yet it manages to cram quite a lot of content in its small space: a nice analogy for a book about a generational starship.

Some claim giving that away is spoiling it, but the knowledge is out in the open on page 21, and the book was published in the US as Starship.

Non-Stop/Starship is the debut novel of Brian Wilson Aldiss, and one that left me wanting to read more of his work.

The book is not entirely without problems. It’s partly 50ies pulp, especially in the character department. Today’s readers might complain about a lack of depth or character development. Yet to do so would be the result of superficial reading. Indeed, there’s only 160 pages, and Non-Stop generally focuses on plot, so drawing complex characters wasn’t Aldiss’s main intention. There’s simply not enough room for it. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing there. Consider the very first two sentences – great, great lines by the way.

Like a radar echo bounding from a distant object and returning to its source, the sound of Roy Complain’s beating heart seemed to him to fill the clearing. He stood with one hand on the threshold of his compartment, listening to the rage hammering through his arteries.

It’s in passages like this, often almost hidden, Aldiss manages to say profound things about being human – namely, about humans being bodies. Spread throughout the novel there are similar observations – about love and feelings too. What more character depth do you want? Is “being a body” flawed enough for today’s crowd?

There are some other small problems too, but lets not dwell on those. Non-Stop is a very rich book – I made 4 pages of notes, a ton for such a short book – and this review wouldn’t do it justice if I start nitpicking. I won’t elaborate on all the book’s goodies either, but focus on two big -isms: postcolonialism & existentialism.

starshipI’ve read summaries and reviews that portray this book as an adventure by some primitive tribesmen in the wilderness. There’s also covers that take this approach. This does the book severe injustice. Non-Stop is inventive science fiction – not a pastoral fantasy about a noble sauvage or a native tribe.

This does not mean the book has nothing to say about minorities or colonialism – in a weird way this is first and foremost postcolonial literature, but detached from a concrete, historical case – unlike so many other contemporary speculative books just being thinly veiled and often superficial romans à clef about racism and slavery.

Non-Stop, on the other hand, manages to ask real questions, instead of pseudo-critical, rhetorical ones. It puts forward an ethical case study, and doesn’t try to preach or give answers. The ethical conundrum all characters are confronted with at the end simply is there, and the reader is left to make up his or her own mind. Was there any other solution for the problem? I have no idea. To say more about the nature of this case would be the real spoiler here, so I’ll refrain from doing that.

At first it baffled me I found hardly any discussion framing the book in this way. But actually, it’s not that surprising at all. The blurb of this book doesn’t appeal to 21st century readers primarily looking for social issues in their fiction. Marketing was different in 1958. And finally, the book doesn’t tackle the issues too explicitly – so while it’s glaringly obvious, it’s also easily missed when approached as just 50ies pulp.

What’s not as easy to miss is the big central metaphor of the book. Jesse on Speculiction writes the ship is like our planet. While that’s true, I’d add another layer, and say the ship is like life: we are all trapped inside it.

Published a decade after Sartre’s major works, Non-Stop is existential literature: “the individual’s starting point is characterized by what has been called ‘the existential attitude’, or a sense of disorientation, confusion, or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.” Wikipedia’s take on said philosophy seems written for Non-Stop‘s back cover, and the Green Tribe’s starting point.

Aldiss writes about humans “trying to come to terms with the world.”

Then again, free will or conscious, autonomous agency is not what Aldiss tries to advocate. It might seem so, self discovery and all, but both the ending and countless lines throughout the book point at humans being ultimately helpless.

Hardly realizing the change from aimlessness to intent, Complain also headed in the direction of the barricade, following Wantage.

Non-Stop‘s ultimate redeeming factor is – cheesy as it may sound – love, or better, the instinct of being attracted to somebody else. Aldiss puts it explicitly central a few times, but never slips into melodrama. The emotional is described as detached as the colonial themes are.

Joachim Boaz at Other Suspect Ruminations is the authority on generational starship books, and if he says Non-Stop is a pioneering work in that respect, it only adds to this book’s significance. Its lineage to Aurora, the most recent important generation ship novel is loud & clear: there’s dangerous, microscopic stuff on other planets.

Non-Stop is fast-paced and thrilling. Like I said, it focuses on plot, and it uses the gradual reveal as main device. If it had been written today, an author would have added about 100 pages, to add some more backstory to the characters. That might have resulted in real emotional identification from the reader’s part, and for an even better book.

That final remark is what it is, just a remark, as Non-Stop remains highly readable. Like any book, it’s a product of its time, but it’s way, way better than most SF published today. Aldiss’s debut is recommended for any contemporary SF fan, and a must-read for those interested in the history of SF.


17 responses to “NON-STOP – Brian W. Aldiss (1958)

  1. I’ll be honest, I think people would get a lot more out of this not knowing it’s a g********* s******* book — I didn’t when I read it, and there’s a great reveal towards the end that sort of relies on you not explicitly being aware that’s the case. But, well, you’re also right about the amazing writing, and it’s more than worth reading for the blistering brilliance of Aldiss’ expression. It’s a deeply wonderful book, whatever interpretation one chooses to put on it.

    Though that bit with the psychic bunny rabbit doesn’t really fit into any analogy at all…

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s interesting. It felt like a spaceship very early on, especially since the priest talks about half a page on page 21 about the fact he thinks they are on a ship, and similar discussion happen later too, but maybe I wouldn’t have taken him seriously, if I hadn’t know it to be actually true upfront?

      That psychic rabbit was awesome, as are the moths. I didn’t talk about it in my review, but for once the parapsychological obsession of the 50ies was done in a humorous way – although Aldiss probably didn’t intend it that way.


      • This was a very early SF novel in my reading, so the idea of a GS was very new to me; maybe the more experienced reader knew what to look for and so it was heavily implied, but I remember being blown away come the end and thinking how cool it was to not know that was coming even though it was hinted in retrospect. It’s at this stage that I get sidetracked into a treatise on the interaction between reader and text, so I’ll save you that.

        And yeah, the parapschycology of ther 1950s — mostly a British obsession, wouldn’t you say?, since American SF from this era is mostly concerned with repelling Communism — is difficult to judge in terms of tone: Aldiss seems to be taking it very seriously, but at the same time it feels so much like parody…very hard to call.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes that’ll explain it indeed.

          I’m not sure about parapsychology being mainly British: Bester’s Demolished Man is American, and Sturgeon’s More Than Human is too, Asimov & Foundation trilogy, …

          I’m not well enough read in the era to point to more examples, either way. Non-Stop and Childhood’s End are the only examples of British parapsychological 50ies SF I’ve came across.


  2. Great book – 5 stars for me, although it is not perfect. Good review, as well!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I shan’t now turn away from this should I ever see it on any bookshelf, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Since reading Heinlein’s “Orphans of the Sky” several decades ago, I’ve always been fascinated by the theme of generations ships and the loss of collective memory of self and mission by the crew, but I never read this one: from your review it sounds like a thought-provoking book despite its limited number of pages, and one I will certainly try to read to fill one of the many gaps in my knowledge of the “classics”. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Funny, Aldiss wrote this as a kind of response to Heinlein’s book, as he wasn’t satisfied by its execution.

      Have you read Wolfe’s take, The Long Sun? I’m halfway in that series…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Not yet: Wolfe is one of the author on my long list of writers to read…
    And it’s interesting what you said about the origin of this novel: another reason to read it as soon as I can 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve read Non-Stop/Starship twice over the years, but I don’t remember it well. I always preferred Orphans of the Sky by Heinlein for this theme, but last year I got into Brian Aldiss, so I need to give it another try.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll add that Heinlein to the list, I haven’t read any other Heinlein except for The Moon is a Harsh… – which I liked a lot. I have yet to read other Aldiss too, but I found Greybeard a few weeks ago in a second hand shop, so I guess I’ll get to it sooner than later.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Orphans of the Sky (1963) is very old Heinlein, based on two long stories (“Universe” and “Common Sense”) published in 1941. The style is completely different from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. And I have to believe that Aldiss was inspired by those stories when we wrote Nonstop.

        I haven’t read Greybeard but I have read Hothouse twice which is fantastic. I read Aldiss’s memoir and that really made me like him a whole lot more. I then read a collection of his best stories and was even more impressed. But for the most part, most of his work is unfamiliar to me.

        Liked by 1 person

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