Non Stop – Brian W Aldiss (1958)
‘THE WORLD BETWEEN WORLDS
The Greene tribe was moribund. Every sleepwake the ponics grew a little thicker around Quarters and not even the watchwords ‘Expansion to your ego’ and ‘Leap before you look’ could rouse the indolent players from their Travel-Up boards.
But Roy Complain was different. When the hunter lost his wife Gwenny in the tangles and was sentenced to six strokes each sleepwake, he decided to throw in his lot with the obese priest Marapper and journey through the Deadways into the fabulous, unmapped Forwards.
What miracles would await them there and in the unopened chambers where the skeletons of Giants had sometimes been discovered? Was the Ship theory mere idle speculation fit only for children and old women – or was the world not a world at all, but a container moving between worlds?’
Blurb from the 1987 Grafton paperback edition
Although not the first Generation Ship story to be written and certainly not the last, ‘Non Stop’ is the book that stands head and shoulders above the rest.
David Pringle in his ‘100 Greatest Novels’ acknowledges that Aldiss owes a debt to Heinlein’s ‘Orphans of The Sky’, a fix-up novel consisting of two novellas from the 1940s. The two books take the same basic premise, that a colony ship is launched from Earth, knowing that generations of humans will live and die within its hull before it reaches its destination. In each book, the knowledge of what the ship actually is has been lost and the descendants of the crew have reverted to a tribal existence while the ship ploughs on through space.
In contrast to Heinlein’s escapist adventure however, Aldiss’s vision is a darker one and succeeds, where Heinlein’s doesn’t, in making clear the vast distances between us and even the nearer suns in our galaxy. It transpires that the inhabitants of this ship had already left their colonists on a planet in the Procyon system and had been heading back to Earth.
Unfortunately, in replacing their water with some of that from the new planet, they also took on board a completely new protein, which infected all life on board ship, killed many of the remaining crew and caused the rest to mutate into a separate human species.
We see the world of the Ship through the eyes of Complain, a young hunter whose tribe lives in Quarters. Since the ship began its return journey, a mutated hydroponics food plant has adapted to its surroundings and now grows everywhere, forming jungles on abandoned decks where pigs and insects thrive.
Between the decks, intelligent rats have learned to use tools and have enslaved other creatures such as telepathic rabbits and moths to leech thoughts from humans.
When Complain’s woman is kidnapped by another tribe he is approached by Marapper, the tribe’s priest, who is planning an expedition through the jungle-choked decks; an expedition to the mythical Forwards, where they may find the secret of what their world actually is.
It’s a very sobering vision, since, like Wyndham, whose main novels were published only a few years before this, Aldiss refuses to provide any answers or a cosy conclusion.
It is discovered that the ship reached Earth generations before and has since been in orbit around it. The residents, because of their biological adaptations, can never leave the ship as, in a wider sense, humans can never leave Earth. (It is suggested earlier in the novel that the Procyon colonists would have died from not being able to break down the alien proteins.)
What also separates this from Heinlein’s work is that the characters have more of the bite of human reality about them. Most of the people we encounter are selfish to some degree and concerned for their own survival. Pringle points out that the characters are small literally and metaphorically, since one result of the mutation has reduced the average height to about five feet. There are legends of Giants, and indeed, Giants are encountered and some killed. It is only later that we realise that the Giants (people from Earth) have been keeping the ship operational and the tribes alive, and have a code of not harming the tribespeople.
Aldiss very clearly shows here humanity’s propensity for ignorance, denial, acceptance of religious dogma without question, violence and self-destruction, since ultimately it is the small people who in the end rampage through the Ship and destroy their own world, which is a very salient message for the people of our planet today.