A community that cannot or will not realize how insignificant a part of the universe it occupies is not truly civilized. The opening sentence of Non-Stop, first science fiction novel by Brian Aldiss, published in 1958. The book goes by two names, Non-Stop is the British (original) title, while Starship is the US publication title.
Roy Complain is a hunter. He lives with a nomadic tribe called the Greene Tribe, lead by Lieutenant Greene, in an area called Quarters. The tribe feeds itself by harvesting the ubiquitous plant called "ponics". Complain's trade is one that is quickly becoming obsolete, as the price of meat is plummeting thanks to domesticated animals. His profession does make him the perfect man to explore the Deadways, the lands that stretch beyond the barricades surrounding the tribe's habitat.
Because of this a priest, Henry Marapper, brings him along on an expedition with three other men. Marapper's ideas are dangerous ones, for he is not just any priest, he is a man of the Teaching, the Teaching of the Holy Trinity of Froyd, Yung, and Bassit, and the Teaching does not promote thought: it promotes instinct, survival.
His ideas come from the scores of artifacts lying around in the world, left by an ancient, now extinct species called the Giants.
We — everything: ponics, Deadways, the Forwards people, the whole shoot — are in a sort of container called a ship, moving from one bit of the world to another. I've told you this time and time again, but you won't grasp it, says Marapper. The man of religion is the one most knowledgeable of the world.
Equipped with a map, the expedition sets out to find the elusive Control Room, the route to dominating the world as they know it.
With the help of a review, the back of the actual book, or the title, from the beginning it's obvious what is going on. Non-Stop is a story about a generation ship gone horribly wrong. The fact that we know what is going on right from the start makes the reading experience far more interesting.
In 1958 the trick of using the ship as a huge plot twist might have worked - although Robert Heinlein had already used up that one back in 1941. What makes Aldiss one of the best is that the fascination comes from the reader looking for all the hints of what has happened. Yes, it's a ship, but why did the people degenerate so? What happened to civilization? A person well versed in the genre will be quickly figuring out things, the not so rabid aficionados will proceed by their own pace and can concentrate on some great story-telling.
What makes the hint-picking fall flat near the end is that most of the story of the unfortunate ship is revealed in the few pages of a diary. A slower, more creeping revelation might have been in order, and the solution Aldiss uses suggests that he was in a hurry to tie up the story. The journal is thrown to our faces, and of course we understand what all those words mean, but having the characters interpret it in their own way would have added up to the intrigue. Near the end of the book it's as if Complain has suddenly magically gained a grasp of things he hadn't even heard of before.
The characters are also something one would expect from a person just starting up his writing career with science fiction in the 1950's: they are quite one-dimensional. Complain as the protagonist gets a good deal of development, but the rest remain in the shadows. Complain's emotional world is distorted by the Teaching: he is a man with a lot of anger, and the culture he is in has made him all but incapable of love.
The Teaching is a curiosity in itself. Based on a very limited view of psychoanalytic theory, it has seeped to the minds of all inhabitants of the starship. "Expansion to your ego" is a common greeting, and the people pray to the aforementioned gods of Froyd, Yung and Bassit. Not only is it a jab at religion as an institute, it's also a jab at the use of psychological theories as a gimmick. Of course, for instance Alfred Bester's, a contemporary of Aldiss, use of psychoanalytic concepts in a story about telepaths is justified, but in some cases it's just a blatant tool to wring out oohs and aahs.
Non-Stop was probably the source of inspiration for an episode of the BBC radio show Earthsearch, written by James Follett, where the two male protagonists were nearly imprisoned on a generation ship that had gone awry and was crewed by only women, while the few men aboard were stored in cold sleep, revived only to mate. The predicament of the people onboard Non-Stop's vessel is similar: the harsh conditions have made the number of women plummet, causing much disruption in society, with most violence emerging from arguments over women.
This and many other details show that Aldiss from the start has been able to create societies that have developed under unforeseen circumstances. This ability is at its peak in the Helliconia trilogy written almost 30 years later, where the properties of an entire solar system influence the habits and ways of a planetful of people.
Non-Stop is a novel full of social commentary, intriguing ideas even for a story nearly half a century old, and it's required reading if only to compare the way Aldiss has developed as a story teller over the years. By no means was he perfect, no one will ever be, but Non-Stop was a good indication of things to come.
Spoilers! Spoilers! Mind the Spoilers!
Aldiss does manage to throw a curve ball or two while keeping his hands off the obvious twist. The discovery that the ship is a whopping 16 generations out of its target, Earth, is thrown upside down when the bright blue planet is seen from an airlock window. An alien protein altering the metabolism of the humans is feasible enough, and it contributes to the altogether alien feel we get from the people. Ironic: the Giants appear to the reader at first as the weird aliens, but in the end of the day we are closer to the Giants than the "dizzies", as the ship people are called.
Do the dizzies have inalienable, basic human rights, is a valid question. They could be considered a different species, but on the other hand, many of them were just as human in the abstract sense of the word as the Giants were. However, the world on Earth would have been far too different for them to live in, and the humane choice would have probably been to try to make their lives on board the ship as comfortable as possible. The Giants were mostly doing just that, as it was, trying to sustain the ship.
I can't help but to sympathize, nay, agree with Complain's point in the end of the novel, though: When these others come, Laur, they'll understand we've earned freedom, a right to try life on Earth. Obviously they're not cruel or they'd never have taken so much trouble over us. They'll see we'd rather die there than live here. Death while trying outweighs life in the gutter.