Skulls in the Stars

Non-Stop, by Brian Aldiss

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I often come across classic books to read through unexpected, even surprising, avenues. An example of this is Non-Stop (1958), by Brian Aldiss, which I just finished reading the other day and enjoyed immensely.

I only learned about Non-Stop because it ended up being the inspiration for the very first science fiction role-playing game, Metamorphosis Alpha, a classic in its own right.  (I discussed Metamorphosis Alpha in a recent blog post.)  It is a magnificent and unusual science fiction novel, and well-worth reading. Some thoughts follow.

Roy Complain has lived his entire life as a hunter in a small tribe that constantly traverses the corridors of a region called Quarters.  The primitive tribe harvests the rapid-growing plants called ponics and hunts roving pigs for food; other supplies, such as the hand weapons called dazers, are scavenged by breaking into the locked and abandoned rooms the tribe encounters in its wanders.

The tribe is constantly on guard against threats. The most common are other tribes, small packs of outcasts and even violent mutants. More insidious are the legendary Giants that supposedly created the world, and rumored inhuman infiltrators of the tribes known as Outsiders.  Even without the ghostly threats, life in the tribes is nasty, brutish, and short — but it is all that Complain has ever known.

There are legends and religious doctrines that suggest that the world they live in is simply a “ship” on a journey from one true “world” to another. Complain has no interest in such metaphysical reasoning — until, that is,  he makes a mistake that costs the life of one of his fellow tribe members. Faced with harsh punishment, he opts to join the priest Marapper and a small band on a forbidden expedition to explore the Forward section of their world, with the goal of proving the legends true.  As they enter unexplored territory, they are exposed to dangers and mysteries unimaginable — and secrets that will change their view of reality forever.

It is no spoiler to say that the novel takes place on a massive generation ship, designed to ferry tens of thousands of colonists from one world to another.  It is also not a spoiler to say that the ship experienced a catastrophe that killed off most of the original crew and left the survivors to descend into a primitive, almost feral state. The appeal of the story is in its incredible attention to detail and the manner in which the characters discover the secrets of their home.  The secrets themselves are quite satisfying, and it is great fun to learn the origins of the Outsiders, the Giants, the catastrophe — and to learn the answers to questions you didn’t even think to ask.  There is a point near the end of the novel where I went “Aaaaaaaaahhhhhh!” as one of the things that had baffled me early on suddenly made sense!

The book is undeniably a classic, though it does have some weaknesses: all of these revolve around the fact that the reader is left hungry for more! One common criticism of the book is that it ends quite abruptly, and this is true.  Though all the questions of importance are answered, one is left wondering what happens next to the characters. Also, there are some secondary mysteries of the generation ship that, although not crucial to the story, could use some additional exploration. In particular, the strangest faction living on board the ship is hardly explored at all — and their motivations and abilities are the ones I was most curious about!

Nevertheless, I would call Non-Stop a “must read” in science fiction.

Non-Stop isn’t, however, the very first story about a generation ship devolving into savagery. In 1941, Robert A. Heinlein published Orphans of the Sky in Astounding Science Fiction in two parts, and this story was later published in book form in 1963.  It contains many of the same ideas as Aldiss’ later novel, including a religion based on the ship and murderous mutants.  (It has now been added to my “to read” list.)  One imagines that Aldiss was inspired by Heinlein’s original story, though I have yet to read explicit confirmation of this.

As I have noted, Non-Stop did some inspiring of its own.  The first science fiction role-playing game, Metamorphosis Alpha, originally published in 1976, was primarily inspired by Non-Stop, and to a lesser extent by Orphans.

Ironically, James Ward may have been a little too inspired by Non-Stop!  As he later described in the Collector’s Edition of the game, he expected most players to ultimately try and reach the bridge of the generation ship and set it upon its course or escape, as the characters of the novels would do. Most gamers, however, were happily content to get into mischief wandering the massive decks of the ship, fighting any monsters and enemies they found!

One challenge in reading Non-Stop is understanding the geometry of the inner parts of the generation ship.  As I understand it: the ship itself is a massive ellipsoid.  Each of the decks is circular, but with the inhabitant’s feet (and gravity) pointing towards the outside of the ship.  Connections between decks are therefore horizontal side corridors. The ship has such a large diameter that the corridors would appear only slightly curving to anyone walking within them — people would see an artificial horizon in which the ground seems to curve upward in the distance until it hits the ceiling.

Each deck actually consists of three levels, which form concentric rings, except at the extreme ends of the ship where the circumference of the ship is small.  A central corridor — or elevator shaft — runs right through the center of the ellipsoid lengthwise.  The bridge of the ship is a dome that extends outside of the ellipsoid and allows a large section of the exterior to be seen.

I originally thought that gravity would be provided by centrifugal force, with the entire ship spinning, but this is not the case. There are locations in the ship where the artificial gravity systems have been damaged, leading to weightlessness. In fact, this is a significant part of the plot later in the book.

(If I have time later this week, I may try and draw a sketch of what I think the geometry of Aldiss’ generation ship looks like. No promises, though!)

To end this post, I feel like sharing some of the cover art that has been produced for the book over the past 50-plus years. Clearly, the mix of primitive tribes and high-technology leads to a lot of possibilities. (Note: the book was known as Starship when it was first published in the U.S.)

 

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