Book Review: Brian Aldiss, “Greybeard”

Brian Aldiss is of course an eminent name in Science Fiction and this is one of his most admired books – but it left me vaguely dissatisfied.

The premise is an original and interesting one. Many SF stories start with the premise that humanity has been nearly wiped out (bit difficult to make a book of them being completely wiped out, though I do remember a brilliant short story in which the only evidence of the nature of our species and civilisation available to alien space travellers much later was a bit of Donald Duck cartoon film).  These stories focus on the recreation of some kind of society and the struggle to survive. But the premise of “Greybeard” is that a military nuclear accident has apparently rendered all humans infertile. The race will die, but it will take a long time dying as no new children are born – but the casualty rate from the accident was quite low, so the population declines gradually.

Initially government, law and the rest hold up, but bit by bit they collapse, not only from the physical pressures, but from the loss of hope. Society and government depend on people being willing to make sacrifices and plans for their children and future generations. Now, of course, we have a crude geneticist explanation for this, but actually people often do not act in the interests of “the selfish gene” and this is not a “mistake” but a choice. They do, though, look to the future. If the only future is one without humans, they live merely for the present and that is not enough.

In fact it turns out that some few relatively healthy children have been born, but are living separate from the ageing adults and building their own basic society. We gain no insight, though, into the nature of this society.

That all sounds fascinating to me, but despite the excellence of the description, I feel Aldiss (or someone) could have written a deeper book on the same theme.

The central characters are Greybeard, an ageing English scientist, and his wife. Everything is seen through Greybeard’s eyes, though the narration is in the third person. the danger in this method is that the use of the third person lulls us into forgetting that we’re receiving only one person’s perception. The characters apart from these two are seen fairly superficially depicted and the two religious characters – one quack prophet and one decent if gloomy friend of Greybeard – are seen entirely from the outside. I felt Aldiss saw religion purely as a set of rules and explanations and did not understand spirituality. One could say that’s Greybeard’s perception only, but exploring how someone with a deep faith would have reacted to these circumstances is an interesting challenge not met here.

Greybeard is driven by an illogical wish to reach the mouth of the river (Thames) from his shabby and declining community near Oxford, but the book ends before he reaches it with the discovery of healthy children. Maybe the journey to the mouth of the river is a metaphor for life and death, but if so, more could be made of it. A bit more is made of the fact that Greybeard had been recruited for a project to record the decline of society, giving him a raison d’etre (if a strange one) beyond survival and love, but again I feel the idea is so fascinating, more could be made of it.

The action set in the present is brilliantly thought out, but some of the flashback seems a bit perfunctory. In particular I don’t understand the point of an episode where the young Greybeard and his girlfriend travel to the U.S.A. when most governments are still functioning, for the recording project and she is kidnapped by someone who wants to enjoy dominating her, but does not rape her. Nothing flows from this and it seems like an episode out of another book.

It’s a thought-provoking and well-written book, though…