Brian W Aldiss - Earthworks and Greybeard

Earthworks by Brian Aldiss (1965)
It is the 21st century and an ecological nightmare has overtaken the Earth. The soil is impoverished. Sand is imported from Africa for Britains's soil manufacturing plants - Britain's own beaches have been eaten away long ago. Trees are torn down so that birds which might feed on the crops have nowhere to nest; steel mesh windbreaks are erected in their stead to prevent the wind eroding the soil. Villages and towns are deserted, their populations moved to the vast cities which stand on legs above the toxic fumes of the insecticides. Criminals, whatever their crime, are summarily despatched to the 'farms', which are in fact no more nor less than labour camps. And haunting the crumbling, deserted villages are the Travellers, the last free men.

Knowle Noland is a criminal whose betrayal of his companions has led to his being rewarded by being released from a farm and placed upon one of the sand-carrying nuclear freighters. Noland is visited by halucinations, plagued by guilt, and starved of emotions.

When the dead man comes drifting across the sea, strapped to an anti-grav pack, bearing letters from a woman, Noland fixes emotionally on the author of the letters. The wreck of the Trieste Star leads to Noland stumbling upon a fantastic new city, a meeting place of nations; and upon a plot to assassinate the one man who might be able to return peace to the nations.

This is early Aldiss and takes a few chapters to gain pace. The vision of the future presented here is unremitting in its nightmare quality; English science fiction has always loved its visions of dystopia. And England has probably never been depicted as so ugly, so totally lacking in any redeeming feature. Noland is far from the traditional heroic stereotype. The farms are reminders of Belsen and Auschwitz, and if Noland is not a hero we still must keep reading to see if he can raise himself to manhood and one final act of defiance.

Rog Pile

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Earthworks by Brian Aldiss. Four Square edition, 1967. Uncredited cover.

Earthworks by Brian Aldiss. NEL edition, 1972. Bruce Pennington.

Greybeard by Brian Aldiss (1964)
The time is the early twentyfirst century, and humankind is dying, the entire race rendered sterile by an atomic 'accident' in 1981. Greybeard, barely yet sixty, is one of the youngest men alive. The story opens in the village of Sparcot on the Thames, where Big Jim Mole governs a ramshackle community of oldsters, eking out a living by farming, poaching and occasionally exacting a toll from travellers who attempt to take a boat under the sparcot bridge.

Although Man is dying out, other lifeforms are prospering: rabbits and foxes are plentiful. Stoats have increased to the point where they have become a menace, hunting in massive packs. One or two of the larger mammals have also survived, including the reindeer, introduced to Britain in the latter years of the twentieth century. Far from being a gloomy scenario, this provides a rich canvas for Aldiss's narrative, with villages, forest, river, lakes and cities, swarming with life, human and animal.

Greybeard decides that the time has come to leave Sparcot and Jim Mole's tyrranical regime, and takes advantage of a threatened stoat attack to slip away down the river with his wife Martha and a few companions. Away from the enforced isolation of Sparcot they find that the human race is returning to a semblance of normality. At Swifford Fair they encounter the bizarre Bunny Jingedangelow, seller of rejuvenating potions and eternal life. Here and there are reminders of the old world they have left behind. Crossing a lake dotted with islands, a railway station and signal box juts out of the flood, home to a mad hermit. (This is a particularly eerie scene).

In alternating chapters, the narrative moves between present and past, showing how the world has come to this pass. The flashback sequences show the breakdown of civilisation, martial law, famine and disease, hagridden army officers philosophising over gin and tonics in flyridden bars. While not actually dull, these are inevitably gloomy scenes. We've been there too many times before.

It's a brave book which has no dashing, youthful hero or young female beauty to hold the lead roles. There is love. The love of Greybeard for his Martha. The book evokes a pastoral vision of England, an England reverting to a wild pleistocene state. The ending...the ending is marvelous.

Rog Pile

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Greybeard by Brian Aldiss, 1964. Cover by 'KR'
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