Non-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.
I’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.