"Adversity makes thinkers of us all. Only now, when the long journey means no more than a retreat into darkness, do I begin to question the sanity behind the whole conception of inter-stellar travel. How many hapless men and women must have questioned it on the way out to Procyon, imprisoned in this eternal walls! For the sake of that grandiose idea, their lives guttered uselessly, as many more must do before our descendants step on Earth again. Earth! I pray that there men's hearts have changed, grown less like the hard metals they have loved and served for so long. Nothing but the full flowering of a technological age, such as the Twenty-first Century knew, could have launched this miraculous ship; yet the miracle is sterile, cruel. Only a technological age could condemn unborn generations to exist in it, as if man were mere protoplasm, without emotion or aspiration.
"At the beginning of the technological age - a fitting token to my mind - stands the memory of Auschwitz-Berkenau; what can we do but hope that this more protracted agony stands at its end: its end for ever, on Earth, and no the new world of Procyon V."
The spaceship is central to the iconography of SF. Spaceships are fast and powerful, a symbol of freedom and exploration, of humanity's ingenuity, the means by which they will take their rightful place among the stars. Who can deny the immediate sense of wonder generated by those images, or that Pavlovian response generated by the name or shape of the Enterprise or the Millennium Falcon? To many, spaceships are what makes a story SF. Therefore, it takes an author of some audacity to so brutally deconstruct the idea of the spaceship in their first full length SF novel as Brian Aldiss does in 'Non-Stop'.
In its short history, the reality of space travel has always been very different from how it is portrayed in fiction. As much as SF writers love to go on about what a harsh, unforgiving medium space is, space travel is overwhelmingly portrayed as fun. As much as Picard and co. run into danger every week, they get to do so in luxury in their all-mod-cons giant floating conference hotel. While this is instantly appealing, and undoubtedly if humanity continues with this space travel malarkey I'm sure things will eventually improve, the reality of space travel is simply much less glamourous and much more dangerous. The other key issue SF frequently takes for granted is, of course, the massive distances in space and the huge amount of time it takes to traverse them, if we're playing by the rules of Einsteinian physics. Poul Anderson's 'Tau Zero' explores one realistic method of travelling the vast distances of space (albeit not very dramatically satisfyingly, in my humble opinion), but in 'Non-Stop' Aldiss explores another practical solution to this problem - the generation ship. A generation ship solves the problem that journeys between the stars would take several human lifespans by allowing it to do just that - the descendants of the original crew will eventually arrive at the ship's destination.
The characters in 'Non-Stop' don't realise they are on a spaceship. It's one of several theories circulating to explain the world they are living in, but for Roy Complain, average hunter for the Greene tribe, he is too busy struggling to survive day to day, hunting for the tribe and fighting off threats, from the mysterious Giants and Outsiders to frighteningly intelligent rats. However that all changes when the power-hungry priest Marapper finds a plan of the ship, and leads Complain and a bunch of misfits in a desperate attempt to find the control room and seize control of the ship for themselves.
'Non-Stop' is so effective in part because of how wisely Aldiss handles the reveals. It doesn't take us long to figure out we're on a spaceship; indeed, writing this Aldiss must have known this would have been given away fairly immediately by the blurb and the cover art anyway. However it quickly becomes apparent something more complex is going on; this is revealed to our point-of-view characters piece by piece, as nearly everyone they encounter has only parts of the information, so we only get the full story at the end. This results in a darkly humourous game of 'Fortunately, Unfortunately', as each time our characters learn more about their situation, this information is almost immediately subverted. Aldiss' plotting is so tight, and there is sufficient foreshadowing, that each reveal is a surprise yet it never feels like a cheat.
Aldiss also displays an almost Ballardian zest at displaying the collapse of society under pressure. The ship suffered a disaster, and the images of people living in its decaying quarters amongst machines they no longer understand the function of whilst plants from hydroponics have overrun the decks is like something out of 'High Rise' or 'The Drowned World'. This is also echoed in the verve with which he examines the downfall of various petty authority figures as their conceptions of reality are shattered and the situation spirals even further out of control.
I felt I had to include the quote above in full, from the original captain's diary found by the characters at a crucial moment, to illustrate how far Aldiss goes in his trashing of the generation ship. To Aldiss, the major problem with this form of transport is not that so much can go wrong; although everything does and with aplomb. It's that it is essentially a form of institutionalised cruelty to resign the fate of entire unborn generations to something they didn't choose, just so they can be a stepping stone for a generation to come. At the end of the book, Complain finds out that the ship had reached Earth generations ago, but the Earth governments had decided that the ship dwellers were a potential bio-hazard and so had quarantined them in orbit indefinitely, whilst keeping them all in the dark. When one of the Earth men explains that they were doing it for the ship dweller's own good, Complain rightly calls him out on being patronising and self-serving.
'Non-Stop' is, like much SF, a coming of age story at heart. Roy Complain evolves from living purely in the moment to gradually gaining more and more agency over his own situation. The story works beautifully as a metaphor for growing up. Complain starts of the story trusting authority figures such as Marapper, but by the end of the book he has seen so many people crumble because their clear perceptions of the world around them have been proved wrong. He learns that his and everyone else's assumptions of the world around them is just that - their own assumptions, worthy of questioning to uncover the truth.