One of my more recent personal reading goals is essentially to do a survey across the landscape of science-fiction to glean a baseline understanding of its historical auspices within the literary community. I’m intending to accomplish this by reading standalone novels by many of the major science fiction writers. It’s easier to read a standalone than, say, reading the first installment of a twelve book series—forming a dozen untied ends—and knowing I wont return for a few years. Plus, if I end up liking the series, it will derail my mission since those novels will get bumped to the top of the reading list.
Having said that, my family and I took our vacation last week and I brought along Brian Aldiss’s Non-Stop (a standalone volume). I finished the first chapter and said “Oh man, this is going to be good.” The way Aldiss set out world building immediately had me hooked. He described it much better than I will, but here’s the gist: protagonist Roy Complain, along with a few of his rowdy, rag-tag companions set out to discover what lies behind the confines of their primitive (hunter/gatherer) society. They live in an alien jungle where the vegetation grows like asparagus on steroids and these “ponics,” as they’re called, are harvested to create defenses and sustenance for his civilization’s constantly nomadic encampment. Meanwhile, there exists lore and tall tales of other species lurking within the depths of the jungle and the left behind evidence of their existence indicates (spoiler) the trappings of modern, yet extinct race. As Roy Complain and his cohorts explore deeper into the jungle, they unveil more enthralling secrets. Slowly the details are unfurling—and I’m so into this! And then, quite unexpectedly about halfway though, rats appear.
Okay, I mean, so? Not exactly a revolutionary cameo. Except that these rats are wearing armor, have a language, and are also in possession of a kind of mind hypnosis power. “Well, that’s—er—different?” I frowned. “Did Brian Aldiss just turn into Brian Jacques and I’m at Redwall now?” But swiftly my level of reading pleasure up to this point rebuked me. “No,” it said. “Trust the author. He will answer this and many other questions at the end.” So I read on. And read on. More unusual questions arose—more concern about when certain subplots would be wrapped up. Flashbacks of revelation were revealed, minor elucidation ensued but sufficient explanation had yet to be given for the truly pressing questions. And then!—It’s coming soon it has to because the pages are running out—but it’s going to be a “Wow-I-never-saw-that-coming-awesomeness” moment”—And then!—the book ended.
“But what about the rats!” I cried. Truthfully, they could have been nixed from the narrative and not have changed a whole lot. But it wasn’t just the rats. Several smaller tangents were never revisited in addition to a massive plot contradiction explicitly expressed by a character only a few pages earlier. Without going into exhaustive detail, it amounted to something akin to:
“You can’t go outside because if you do you’ll die.”
“Well I don’t want to stay in here.”
“Okay, then go outside because you won’t die.”
Sigh. I don’t think I’m being too harsh a critic because until I reached the halfway point, I was raving about it to my wife (who doesn’t read sci-fi) and even made a recommendation to someone else. But I guess you’d have to read it to know what I’m talking about. I won’t even say you shouldn’t because the first half really is that good. On a similar note, anyone want to offer me suggestions of a standalone volume that you’re confident I’ll enjoy all the way through? Leave comments! Post to Facebook! Correct my typos! Nevertheless, major props to Aldiss for his world building and intriguing story line, I’m just disappointed it didn’t carry through. 2.5/5 stars.