Earthworks – Brian Aldiss (1965)
‘The world had degenerated into a disease-ridden, over-populated rubbish dump. Chemicals had poisoned the landscape and reduced most of the people to the edge of starvation.
Ecology had become a meaningless word from the past. The planet earth speeds on its collision course with disaster. there is a solution but it is so frightful that man cannot conceive of it ever being put into operation.
Only one man, Knowle Noland, ex-convict, ex-traveller, and captain of the tramp freighter Trieste Star, is prepared to try. He alone is prepared to fire a shot that will throw the world into hideous war, but may leave a brave new world for the survivors. If there are any survivors.’
Blurb from the 1972 NEL paperback edition.
This brief, poetic and powerful novel is typical of Aldiss’ talent for using the medium of SF to explore complex characters, moral dilemmas and indeed to take a good look at the world in which we live. This, of course, many would argue, is the true purpose of SF, to hold a mirror to ourselves and see, perhaps from a different perspective, at least part of the truth of the human condition.
In an overpopulated Earth of the near future where Man has raped the planet to the point where ecology is breaking down, Knowle Noland begins to tell us his tale.
Noland is the Captain of the Trieste Star, a ship which transports sand from the African coast to England. As the ship approaches Africa, a bizarre series of events is set in motion by the sighting of a dead man floating over the sea toward the ship. the dead man is held above the waves by an anti-gravity harness and, when the body is brought on board, Noland discovers letters on the dead man’s person from ‘Justine’ to a man named Peter.
Shortly afterwards the ship runs aground on the African coast and Noland takes us back to his time working as a landsman for The Farmer, the fate of many people who fall foul of the law.
Noland is a complex character who throughout his life has not been much of a hero. As a child, working for a Fagin-like character, he hid beneath the table with a friend when the authorities raided his home and arrested his master. Later. temporarily absconding from the Farm he visits an abandoned village in search of books and is abducted by the nomadic Travellers (criminals in the eyes of the authorities) rather than running away. When the Travellers are captured he betrays them and is taken to The Farmer who gives him a job aboard the Trieste Star, although Noland never sees this as a reward or an opportunity that the Farmer gave him. He remains resentful.
There is much here that is strange and slightly baroque. Noland is prone to fits in which he experiences vivid hallucinations. In his conscious life, however, there is a phantom who follows him, who he calls The Figure. This appears to be not part of his hallucinatory world since other characters can see it too. Justine, whom he subsequently meets, tells him that this phantom appears when he is close to death. Because of the letters Noland is carrying, he is suspected of being an agent of the enemies of Justine and Peter Mercator (who turns out to be The Farmer).
They have a plan to solve the world’s problems. Their aim is to assassinate the President of Africa and plunge the world into another global war, thus relieving the Earth of the burden of its millions of people and allowing it to heal while the Travellers are destined to become the survivors, and the nucleus of a second chance for Humanity.
It’s a tribute to Aldiss’ writing skills that Justine’s plans make a horrible kind of sense. Noland has to be convinced of the rightness of it and, ultimately, steps up to the plate to become, if not a hero in the classic sense, then at least an antihero and gain his place in history.
There are some sections which seem very Ballardian, particularly the scenes with Justine, a beautiful but deadly sociopath, who in one scene fills a watering can with poison and calmly waters the plants within a room while conducting a conversation with Noland.
Another surprising character is The Farmer, a man that Nolan sees as a capitalist monster, but who turns out to be – at least at the finale- a compassionate man trying to hold a crumbling business empire together whilst attempting to do the best thing for the good of everyone. The Farmer considers that he did Noland a favour by essentially giving him a chance to make something of himself and indeed, Noland started on the bottom rung and in the Trieste Star and worked his way up to the Captain’s role.
One can only speculate as to what wonders would be unleashed if only more genre writers paid such attention to characterisation and detail as Aldiss.