Greybeard by Brian W. Aldiss
Originally published 1964; Republished by Gollancz, April 2011, with a new introduction by Adam Roberts
ISBN: 978 0575 071131
The first line of Adam Roberts’s Introduction to this edition states boldly, ‘Greybeard is a novel about growing old, and about being old.’ (page i)
And it is: not just for the main characters, but also for the post-apocalyptic Britain we visit. In this scenario there has been an ‘Accident’, whereby nuclear weapons have been exploded in orbit and disrupted the Van Allen belt, with the consequence that the human race has been made sterile. There are no more children born and those still living age and decay both individually and socially. Civilisation is collapsing.
To the contemporary reader, this may sound familiar. As Roberts points out, there are echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road here, and perhaps most recognisably, ‘P.D. James’ derivative Children of Men, a book that committed nothing short of larceny upon Aldiss’ (much better) novel and then failed to make anything much of its swag.’ (page viii)
Strong words indeed. But it may be that they are valid here. Greybeard is a mature and melancholic work, not necessarily a gentle decay – rape and kidnap are part of this world – but surprisingly effective.
The plot is pretty straightforward. Algy Timberlaine and his wife Martha are forty-something adults living their days away in a mouldering London suburban village named Sparcot. (And how ironic that this when you realise that this book was first published in the so-called ‘Swinging Sixties!’) A plague of stoats provokes them to leave, and so with their friend Charley Samuels and two other villagers, Becky and Towin Thomas, they decide to take a boat along the River Thames to the English Channel to find a new place to live and somewhere where there is hope.
Much of the tale is therefore what we see and what happens to them along the way. Britain’s aging population is now pretty much made up of isolated enclaves, people huddled together to maintain their survival with little or no interest in the outside world.
This might sound depressing and morbid, yet the pages turn quite nicely. There’s a nice combination of things happening in the now and flashbacks to earlier times. I was surprised to recognise a very similar approach and style echoed in what I’ve recently read in David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo series, Son of Heaven. (Though perhaps that should not be too much of a surprise – Wingrove and Aldiss worked together on their non-fiction history of SF, Billion Year Spree in the 1970’s and later Trillion Year Spree in the early 2000’s.)
The context of Greybeard is quite interesting in that Aldiss has been widely quoted as a critic of the popular author of the time, John Wyndham, stating that The Day of the Triffids author was writing ‘cosy catastrophies’.
This perhaps is Aldiss’ reply. And what works best here is that it is so anti-climatical, so matter of fact, that it becomes compelling. Even when a major plot event appears towards the end, by that time the reader realises that it doesn’t matter.
What the reader is left with at the end of this book is a feeling of thoughtful melancholy, a ‘what-if?’ scenario that makes you think about the meaning and value of life and perhaps most tellingly, the importance of actually growing old. Here there is a suggestion that life is best measured by what we do in our time rather than just by the passage of time. The decline of civilisation is not necessarily a consequence of the Big Bang, but more subtly and gently, the inertia of ennui.
That should suggest to you that this is a rich and mature piece of writing, something which I find all the more surprising when I realise that Aldiss was only thirty-nine when this was first published. As I personally approach the age of fifty, and realise that this book was first published in the year I was born, it is an important and sobering point to reflect upon.
In context, that is an amazing achievement. It is brilliant and highly recommended. Definitely a book for grown-ups.
Mark Yon, March 2011