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This review is from: Non-Stop (S.F. Masterworks) (Kindle Edition)
[WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW...]
The idea of a `generation ship' had been kicking around in both scientific non-fiction and SF for quite a few years by 1958, when Brian Aldiss wrote the first novel-length treatment of the concept. Non-Stop concerns itself with several scavenging, semi-primitive tribes who inhabit a primordial jungle; the obvious mid-novel revelation being that these tribesmen are, in fact, the distant descendants of the crew of a vast generation ship that has lost its own history and which, owing to some horrific accident, has become over-grown with mutated plant life (dubbed `ponics' - presumably a corruption of the term `hydroponics'). I say the twist is "obvious", but this is only because it has, in recent years, become an over-used cliché of both visual and literary SF, from Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun and Christine Love's Analogue: a Hate Story, to cinema's abortive 2009 horror bore-fest Pandorum.
The reason for this over-use is obvious: the scenario is an incredibly fruitful one, a twist that generates impressive narrative momentum and sense-of-wonder while simultaneously knocking at the door of deeper philosophical investigations and a Platonist questioning of the material evidence for the world around us. Non-Stop is one of the better examples of this scenario, and is, of course, awarded extra SF points for being its progenitor. The prose is a little dry, occasionally veering on clunky, but the sheer pace of the book mitigates any sense of stylistic aridity, and the deftly handled dénouement is, for modern readers at least, a much more impressive shock than the early disclosure that `they were on a ship all along'.
Generous readers might want to argue that Non-Stop (both its plot and, fittingly, its title) functions as a metaphor for human history and our awakening from an ignorant dark age into a self-aware scientific knowledge. This transition, it's religious and psychological implications, are brilliantly worked-through in the character of Marapper, a priest who leads an expedition to find the ship's legendary "bridge". Unfortunately, however, the rest of book's characterisation is inconsistent at best, with the majority of protagonists seemingly unfazed by the surely mind-blowing discovery that the recognizable world of their arid jungle is actually an enclosed hermetic space aboard an interstellar, man-made ship; I was hoping for at least a little existential panic. (Although there is a strikingly beautiful sequence in which several characters stumble upon and activate a viewing window, exposing themselves for the first time to the stars and the vastness of the cosmos, a moment that functions as an unsubtle but nonetheless arresting metaphor for the death of religion and the revelation of human smallness).
It's not without its flaws, then, but Non-Stop is a swift, highly readable novel that has stood the test of time. It is also, perhaps, one of the best, clearest examples of what Adam Roberts calls the defining dialectic of Science Fiction: the tension between scientific, materialist logic, and the mystical spiritualism encoded in religious myth that pervades so much of our history, literature and attempts to explain the universe