Earthworks (Panther science fiction) Paperback – 17 Jul 1980
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About the Author
Brian W. Aldiss was born in Norfolk, England, in 1925. Over a long and distinguished writing career, he published award-winning science fiction (two Hugo Awards, a Nebula Award, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award); bestselling popular fiction, including the three-volume Horatio Stubbs saga and the four-volume the Squire Quartet; experimental fiction such as Report on Probability A and Barefoot in the Head; and many other iconic and pioneering works, including the Helliconia Trilogy. He edited many successful anthologies and published groundbreaking nonfiction, including a magisterial history of science fiction (Billion Year Spree, later revised and expanded as Trillion Year Spree). Among his many short stories, perhaps the most famous was "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long," which was adapted for film by Stanley Kubrick and produced and directed after Kubrick's death by Steven Spielberg as A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Brian W. Aldiss passed away in 2017 at the age of 92.
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Top customer reviews
This novel is a little dated and a few small "historic" details now seem very unlikely. Despite this it is a great yarn and it is much more interesting than much of the rest of the SF in the market place. This is a very welcome reprint.
But, the question which is posed to the book's protagonist, Knowle Noland, is whether peace is such a great thing after all? Wouldn't a war, which would cull the world's population in nuclear fires, free millions of their misery and allow humanity to start again, leaving the survivors better off? Knowle gets caught up in an assassination plot put together by a group of cultists. Aldiss is in good form with this one, his writing is top notch, with some truly memorable and haunting sequences. The story is presented in the form of a narrative written years after the events chronicled by Knowle. Not only do we have an unreliable narrator, but one who is conscious of, and often discusses the limits and purposes of what he is writing in a world where few people know how to read. On top of this, Knowle is schizophrenic, and his accounts of some of his hallucinatory episodes are fascinating and tantalizing in that either they provide special insights into the world around him, or maybe that wisdom too is an illusion. Its fun trying to unpack the layers Aldiss throws in here.
Some of the ideas and extrapolations now may seem a little outdated, or not as startling as they were at the time this was written, but this is still a work well worth reading.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
The Farmer rules from his barrack-like cities the Landsmen who till his toxin stricken fields as punishment for minor infractions. The land itself is poisonous -- so is the air, the water, and most food... Virtually all land is intensively farmed (sand is brought from Africa and infused with nutrients to construct new plots), most animal species are exterminated, and food itself must undergo chemical treatment to remove toxins and carcinogens...
Aldiss' dark vision of collapsing society and withering earth is poignant and brutal. Scenes often verge on visceral -- a disease which causes its victims to lurch about and shed skin like dying leaves, farmers wandering the land in protection suits, the Gas Room...
Sadly, Earthworks suffers from a virulent strain of inane plot and ultimately, a very unsavory message -- the endorsement of world war.
Plot Summary (Some spoilers -- although the back cover spoils as well!)
The "plot" unfolds (lurches?) in a rather muddled fashion -- obviously Aldiss is attempting to be literary. Or perhaps, it's an attempt to distract us from the banality of the plot. One gets the frustrating feeling that Aldiss fell in love with a world but couldn't figure out how to populate his world with viable characters, events, people!
Our protagonist, Knowle Nolan, is the captain of a largely automated transport ship carting African sands to Englad. Africa is technologically more advanced than Europe which is plagued with abject poverty and the absence of intellectual thought (most people can't read or write). Nolan narrates his tale (resurrecting the art of writing) in a series of flashbacks. Nolan himself is plagued with hallucinations due to a childhood disease -- and these lengthy visions take of a substantial chunk of the work.
Nolan, an orphan from England, was sent to the farms as punishment for a minor infraction. There he encounters the Travelers (a group of people who wander around with little purpose but to exercise freedom in the face of repression/automation/organization). In the heat of the moment (when they're captured by government forced), he betrays the leader of the group. As a reward he received his captain commission from the Farmer himself.
A dead man floats to Nolan's transport vessel with an assortment of love letters... Soon the vessel runs aground Africa's skeleton coast and they become embroiled in the politics of the region (with world ramifications).
I really wanted to like this work. However the world war for the sake of humanity advocating conclusion was genuinely bothersome, the lurching delivery distracting and poorly executed, and the frustratingly banal plot barely propped up the well-realized world .
That said Aldiss' social extrapolations from the effects of overpopulation are intriguing. For example, when the majority of the world is preoccupied by the constant pangs of hunger the finer points of human existence are snuffed out -- art, culture, writing, religion, etc -- the age of animism in the cities... Likewise, the work is early attempt at the genre of ecological disaster -- the effects of fertilizer runoff, chemical attempts to combat plant disease, polluted water sources, etc.
I tentatively suggest Earthworks for its ideas and richly detailed world (and the stunning covers!). An intriguing but highly flawed work with a dubious final message...
At this time, science fiction gave us some of the grimmest writing yet. John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, and Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange are all outstanding examples of the fear and hopelessness authors of the time understood coursed close under the skin of the optimistic face of society. Brian Aldiss's Earthworks is equally representative of this tone. Although nowhere nearly as well known as my other examples, Aldiss's vision may actually be bleaker. It is set in a future which follows all too recognizably from our own--pollution has taken its toll and disease and hunger are so rampant that they have become the identifying characteristic of the time. Although Earthworks is quite short, at only 126 pages, it is a richly detailed and fully convincing portrait; disease and illness make the storytelling hallucinatory at times, leaving the narrator and reader questioning the very nature of reality. Fans of Philip K. Dick will be enthralled by this quality. Aldiss is a superb writer at his very best here. It is a real pity that Earthworks is out of print, but I would definitely recommend it for any science fiction fan search out a used copy.