Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop (2007)
A brief run-down of the 1958 novel Non-Stop from Death Ray 09 for one or the other of our regular features (I forget which). A great book, and part of the “colony effort gone horribly wrong/generation ship” sub-genre I love so much. Spoilers ahead.
Even when Aldiss wrote Non-Stop, his first novel, the idea of the generation ship was not new. A theory concerning them was published in 1928 by Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, though the idea may be even older. Before Aldiss, Heinlein used the conceit in his 1941 shorts “Universe” and “Common Sense”. However, Aldiss’s story is an early exemplar of this sub-genre, and remains one of the better stories of its type. They’re dependent on the magician’s flourish, the whipping off of the scarlet curtain to reveal the “truth” beneath, in Non-Stop‘s case, it’s a more intriguing truth than most.
It’s common in generation-ship SF stories that the inhabitants have forgotten where they are, and this is true of Non-Stop: Roy Complain lives deep in a jungle which his ignorant people have inhabited since time immemorial. And, like many generation ship protagonists, Roy is a curious chap, and leaves his village with a priest in search of the mythical “control room”. What then follows is an epic journey through vegetation-choked corridors before they finally make it into the civilised “forwards”, where the craft’s true nature is revealed by way of the ship’s log.
However, Aldiss banks on the reader figuring this out, and his final twist is harder to spot. The ship has returned to Earth, but Complain’s kind have evolved over millennia to become smaller and, more importantly, live at a faster rate than normal humans. The ship is a reservation, its inhabitants deliberately kept ignorant of their true situation by the Earth humans. A moral note is thus added to the motif.
Complain acts decisively throughout the book. At the end, discovering the truth, he activates the ship’s ancient emergency mechanisms, sending the people and creatures that have developed on the vessel down to the world below, for better or worse.