When I was a wee bairn, I was nosing around the stalls at my primary school’s summer fayre with a few pound my parents had given me to amuse myself and raise whatever funds those fayres were for (they were spelt that way, I don’t know why, I don’t make the rules), and I stopped at the secondhand books stall, because it is the best stall. One of the books waiting for new homes ticked a lot of my boxes – it was thick (good), sci fi (good) with an exciting front cover including weird flying snakes (awesome), so I duly parted with my money and took my new baby home.
That book was not Non-Stop. It was Helliconia Spring, also by Brian Aldiss, and it blew my little mind. I can’t remember how old I was when I read it, either old primary school or new secondary school (I had a string of relatives at that primary school after me so I frequented the summer fayres for years after I’d left) but I’d never read anything even vaguely like Helliconia Spring. For years I kept my eye out for the others in the trilogy, Helliconia Summer and Helliconia Winter, until I eventually gave up believing that our little North Eastern town would ever have something so weird and cool and old in it. When you grew up in Teesside in the 90s and early 00s, you sometimes just had to put these dreams on hold. Finishing old sci fi trilogies was something for other people, not for you. We had one indie bookshop (since closed when the owner retired) and a Waterstones had opened in Middlesbrough, which was dedicated to the new and/or popular (still there), a pair of small libraries (consolidated into one affordable monthly library now, though they did sometimes turn up absolute gold) and a host of charity shops (thriving). And yes, I could have asked our indie bookshop to order in the others, but I was young and didn’t know this was a thing.
Anyway, not long before I moved to Germany, I finally got my hands on the SF Masterworks edition of the Helliconia trilogy (a gift from a fabulous friend). I finally got to finish the story, and my mind was blown once again.
When Brian Aldiss died in 2017, I put Non-Stop on my TBR list. It was an arbitrary choice, because Brian Aldiss has written a hell of a lot of stories, and I didn’t know anything about any of them, so I chose his first novel because why not start at the beginning?
Probably spoilers ahead! If you want to read the book, I’d recommend just diving in not knowing much about it.
Non-Stop is a book of twists on twists, but not like, “AND THEN A THING HAPPENED” twists, but onion-twists. It’s full of reveals that peel back layers and layers of what you thought was reality. Every time the characters think they know what’s going on and start to work to do something about it, the whole game changes. It really is… non-stop. I’ll show myself out.
At first I was sort of medium-happy, like, yep, old-school British male sci fi, angry men in space, give it to me*, but it sucked me right in once it had sketched out the status quo and we were both on the same page, as though it was saying, OK, got it? Now let’s get started.
It’s not coy about its twists either, which I appreciated. Our viewpoint character, Roy, is happy (well) in his hardscrabble life of hunting pigs in the jungle, but the fact that the jungle is on a starship isn’t a secret per se, he just can’t get his head around it and doesn’t like the idea so he doesn’t think about it till he has to. And there are still more things that really are secrets waiting to be discovered.
The “angry man in space” thing was presented really interestingly too, in a context where anger was used almost as a psychological/religious tool against the despair and ennui of living on a generation starship, passed down through those generations. I thought the idea was fascinating.
As for the rats thing, I’m not going to lie, I love these weird left-field spanners thrown in the works, the crazier the better. Give me the observation ship in the Helliconia trilogy, give me Zardoz, give me everything you ever thought was too weird for your story. Here specifically I liked the reminder that humans weren’t the only ones changing/evolving/adapting on the ship.
Not least of all the things I liked is Aldiss’s prose itself. Every word is beautifully chosen, his images surprising and evocative. It’s lean and spare and at the same time somehow dense and full.
I was a little bit nervous, starting this, that I’d chosen the wrong thing to start with, or that Aldiss would turn out to be like one of those bands you think you’ve fallen in love with, but actually you’ve fallen in love with the one song that is the most unlike anything else they’ve ever done and will ever do again. Reading another book by someone you dimly remember loving in childhood is too much like meeting your heroes in real life. I was glad to find that I enjoyed this too, and my TBR, sagging under its own weight as it is, will always have space for another Aldiss.
*The heart wants what it wants, man. I’d been haunting the fantastic Good Show Sir and feeling the urge for a slightly batshit older sci fi in my life.