Greybeard by Aldiss, Brian, 1964
The first time I ever read anything by Brian Aldiss I was in London. I was there for an extended "escape the States" vacation that actually turned into a working vacation coupled with as much hoboing as I could fit in. It was back in 1990 which doesn't feel like too long ago to me, at least until I do the math and realize it's been almost two decades since then. My, how the time does fly. I was there alone, chasing the most beautiful woman I had ever met back to her home in Finland, when I found myself in the city craving some SF. It was after the point that I had decided that SF was not only a great pass-time, but - I thought, and obviously still do think - it also was a pretty important thing in the world and was worth knowing much more about. So I decided to pick up something "foreign," which was an insipidly stupid thought, because in the whole London-Greg-SF equation, the only "foreign" element was me. In a used bookstore somewhere near my flat I found a copy of a paperback book by Brian Aldiss called Greybeard. I had never heard of the author before, but the the blurb on the cover proclaimed him to be "The Most Important Writer Of British SF EVER!" I thought to myself, "how can a paperback blurb be wrong?" So I bought it, read it, and absolutely hated it. Greybeard bored me witless. Aldiss just could not hold my attention at all. By the time I had finished the book I found that I could remember very little of it, probably because I had just scanned many pages instead of reading them carefully, as was (and again, still is) my habit. At this point the only thing that I remember for sure of that whole experience was thinking that the book was just about some fogey who wandered through the swamp for a while, listening to others whine and moan about not having kids, then, magically and unexpectedly he finds a kid and the book just ends. Upon reread - done carefully this time, I promise - I see that it in fact is about more. However, even though my first impression was not exactly spot-on, I still do not think that it is far from the truth. Aldiss still failed to hold my attention. I typically read a novel of two-hundred-some-odd pages in two evenings. This one took me about two weeks to slog through. On one or two evenings I actually dreaded picking it up and returning again to this world. But I persisted, finished the book, and managed to eek a few rewards from the experience.
Set about twenty years in the future from now, Greybeard is the story of a party of aged refugees in the Thames Valley, mostly octogenarian, as they made their way from a tiny village to the city of Oxford, and then on towards the mouth of the river. Aldiss wrote this in the mid 1960s and set it at the end of the 2020s, with long flashbacks to the 1980s and 1990s. Algernon "Algy" Timberlane, a.k.a. "Greybeard," and his wife, Martha, have been stuck in the village of Sparcot for years. Sparcot is a remote and tiny village where a number of refugees from a world-wide catastrophe have been hiding for decades. Fifty years before, in 1981, the British and the Americans conducted a series of ill-advised, high altitude nuclear tests. The blasts wrecked havoc with the Van Allen belts that protect the Earth from solar radiation. Enormous holes opened up in the protective layers which allowed solar radiation to scour the Earth, which in turn sterilized most mammals on the surface. The consequences of the accident escalated during the 1980s. The calamity that ensued after the accident was slow and gradual, and did not become dire until some time later as people came to realize that they were all sterile. Following these realizations the world entered a long, slow and brutal period of decline. Fifty some years after the fact there is no trace of the world's governments and institutions; anarchy has replaced it all. By the time of the contemporary action of the novel many mammalian species had regained the ability to procreate, but one of the species that had not was the human species. Babies were occasionally born, but most of them were mutants, and those that did survive were locked away out of fear that they would be taken, or because they were monstrous in appearance.
The world that Aldis describes is lush and green, unpolluted, unpopulated, wild, quiet and practically primordial. What little human population there is is ancient and childless, and for the most part paranoid, insane or senile, often all three at once. Aggression has not died out yet, though the remaining people are so old that it's on its last legs. Most of the people are depressed, bored and angry that they have no kids around, but for some reason - which unfortunately is examined slightly but never explained - Algy is the happiest man in the world. He is strangely unaffected by the catastrophe - in fact, he revels in it - and his mood only improves once he and the others escape involuntary servitude and go out into the real world.
This story begins with Algy and Martha in the remote village of Sparcot along a forgotten tributary to the Thames river. The militant, semi-dictatorial and isolationist mayor of the village, named Mole, has kept Algy and his wife Martha in Sparcot with subtle threats of violence, but lately Mole has been getting more and more psychotic. Algy has a bad relationship with Mole, and fears for his and Martha's safety. Algy also has a bad case of wanderlust, and longs to escape Sparcot and explore the rest of the world. In advance of an attack of giant weasels, Algy, Martha and a party of several others escape from Sparcot in a boat that Algy has outfitted and hidden from plain sight. The Mole and Sparcot really are not important to the story, and in fact once Algy and his party depart Aldiss splits the bulk of the story into two separate tracks. In the main contemporaneous track Algy, et al move forward, down the Thames river to Oxford and beyond, and then through a few encounters with other denizens of his world, including a mad scientist/insane messiah named Bunny Jingadangelow.
Once out of Sparcot the party encountered a crazy old man in a barn who boasted of having an otter for a wife. Obviously insane and lonely, this man told Algy about Jingadangelow, a snake-oil salesman who has convinced many that he has a secret immortality formula. Once Algy heard that he became interested; he had been trapped in Oxford years ago during society's years of decline by a madman who had grabbed power in that city from the swiftly retreating national government. That man mentioned to Algy in passing that he had redirected a scientific research group to invent an immortality serum. Curious to see if the project had worked, Algy set off to find Jingadangelow. After meeting him Algy learned that he had played on the senility of his "patients" and convinced them that thanks only to his formula they were already hundreds of years old. Algy, honest and forthright, and Jingadangelow, sleazy and opportunistic, obviously come into conflict with one another, but Jingadangelow felt a kinship with Algy. Of all the people left in the world Algy and Jingadangelow were the only two who had managed to thrive and find something desirable; something worth pursuing in this decrepit world. Of course Algy rebuffed Jingadangelow at the fair, and again later in the novel when Jingadangelow and his worshipers encounter them further on down the river where Jingadangelow offered to do whatever Algy asked of him if Algy let him tag along on their journey down the Thames.
The second track told the story of the destruction of society in two long and one short flashback sequence, set in reverse order. The first flashback told of the capture of Algy and Martha by a revolutionary in Oxford, Croucher (who is no more than one or two steps removed from a pulp-era evil overlord). Croucher said that he wanted Algy's assistance in quieting insurrection, but really longed for his vehicle, a well appointed truck given Algy by his employers in the United States. Algy and Martha were in Oxford doing their job (see below). They agreed to help out until they learned that Croucher planned on killing them once he had the truck. The couple escaped with the help of Jeff Pitt, Croucher's Number Two, who fled to Sparcot with them.
"A percentage of the local ones are not killed at birth, motherly love being such as it is. . . I'm rounding them up all these creatures, whatever they look like. Some of them are limbless. Sometimes they are without intelligence and unspeakably stupid. Sometimes they are born inside out, and they they die by degrees. Though we have got one boy who survives despite his whole digestive system - stomach, intestines, anus - being on the outside of his body in a soft of bag. It's a supremely gruesome sight. Oh, we've got all sorts of miscellaneous half-human creatures. They will be incarcerated in the Churchill, for supervision. They are the future."
The second flashback told of a time a few years earlier, giving the story of the formation of Algy's employer, a UN organization called DOUCH, the "Documentation of Universal Contemporary History." As Algy would the organization's operative in England, he told others that he worked for DOUCH(E), which has got to be the stupidest acronym that I have ever encountered, and as I worked briefly for a military intelligence contractor, that says a lot. This part of the story was characterized by one inane and pointless idea, and one pointless and inane occurrence. First, Algy was told that his job was to make historical recordings for posterity, never mind that there would not be any. Once Algy pointed this out to the bureaucrats who were organizing the project, they offered that the historical records, which would never be properly archived but instead merely stored in the back of in Algy's DOUCH(E)-mobile, would instead be for either aliens who might happen across the Earth after our demise, or - get this - some subsequent species on Earth that later developed intelligence. I suppose they had applied Jingadangelow's immortality formula Algy's papers and that truck, because they obviously had some high hopes for it that would obviously require extreme longevity. Despite the pointlessness of the project, which Algy - an otherwise rational and with-it kind of guy - quickly accepted, there was more to forget in this section of the book. For some reason I still have yet to divine, Aldiss tossed in a a throw-away sequence where Martha was abducted (but not raped) by a rich man who wanted his own little harem. I think what Aldiss was trying to do here was show how deep Algy's love was for Martha, what with him overturning every stone in his frantic search for her. Because he had already shown that, this scene was entirely unnecessary.
The third flashback jumped back even further in time to the early 1980s as the world was just starting to realize what terrible damage the accident had done. Algy's father was the owner of a toy company. Sales had sharply dropped off in the months after the accident, and nobody could tell why. Algy's mother, who was carrying on with his father's business partner, had put her foot down about a new house for the family. Algy's father could not afford the place, and in fact told his wife that the business was bust and the family's finances were ruined. I found this section of the book to be the best. The mother's conniving and domineering nature and the father's internal battle about how much to tell his wife (and how to make her care) were masterfully done. The family dynamic here was subversively destructive, and almost, almost, shows how Algy could have grown up to be a loner and to revel in chaos. Too bad that other aspects of Alty's personality and his behavior demonstrated that he actually was not that way at all, saved when it suited the narrative. He loved Martha too much, and showed a paternal concern for the other elderly men and women in his group, for example.
To my eye Greybeard is obviously in the group of stories that are tagged as "British disaster novels." It is also obviously SF, never mind that my favorite part had not a bit of SF content in it. Aldiss also did a very good job with his backdrop and NPC's (Non-Player Characters, for those of you without the home edition). I think when it came to world building what he was trying to do was create a world that reflected that unique British folklore of little people and magic. Something that is not revealed until the very last few pages of the book is that human children continue to exist in the world, and they are occasionally seen. The old people that see them, however, dispel their impressions by calling them fairies or gnomes, and coupled with the jungle-like lushness and greenness the landscape has a slight magical, folksy feel to it. The world was also new - having run down to the starting point after the people mostly went away - that the character's journey through it feels like a hike across virgin territory. Those two aspects of the book remind me a great deal of Tolkien, though nothing else really does. The rest of this story is somewhat Wellsian, in that the characters endure a near-fatal set of circumstances, then at the end are given at least the opportunity to build up to something better than what they had before.
I've just realized that I have spent most of the last several paragraphs telling you what is good about this book, even though I've insinuated that I don't like it too much. That is the case; this book is pretty low on my list of novels to recommend. Aldiss did do a somewhat admirable job with many of the elements that he put into this story, and as you may see from looking through the rest of this blog, apocalyptic fiction is kind of my thing. To tell the truth, I got into apocalyptic fiction for pretty much the same reason that Algy has for being a happy man; When I was younger I liked to daydream about a world where everyone and everything in it that bothered me was gone; I used apocalyptic fiction for some sick and twisted wish fulfillment fantasies. But despite my personal predilection, I never appreciated this book.
The British cozy-catastrophe books, of which I have always assumed this book was one, read to me like stories of catastrophic destruction that is limited in some way. In the Wyndham books, for example, the limitations are often two-fold. First, the characters in them are often given opportunities for personal development and spiritual growth at the same time that they learn to destroy whatever it is that threatens them. Second, the culture always survives. The British people, blinded by meteors and hunted by giant garden plants, for example, remain British people throughout. Here none of that happens. Algy has become insular and self-focused after witnessing the complete destruction of British culture in a way that is very uncharacteristic for this subgenre, but because he is happy and content, I don't see how the book can fit anywhere else. So this book is different, to say the least; It's literary, has novel plotting, fleshed out characters, and an anti-hero who is his own man, in his own way. What is it that is substandard here? The story itself, and the plotting at the end. I do not buy that Algy's attitude is a result of the stereotypical British "stiff upper lip and wot," and I have trouble buying that Algy's experience with his family really did leave him this way. He just does not seem to me to really be the kind of person who could have that attitude. He is the main character here, and is the spiritual and moral center of the story, but he's really also just a symbol for something else. Aldiss also used Algy as a symbol of renewal. Algy's attitude about the world is what is going to be impressed on the children that survive in the woods. Algy and Martha, who are in their fifties, are two of the youngest adults on the planet. Barren and sterile themselves, they are the Adam and Eve to a race of feral children who hide from adults. I can plainly see all of that. The big problem here is that other than some lush image of greenery (also symbolic of rebirth and renewal), Aldiss gives the reader but two pages at the end of the novel that really is about entropy. The appearance of the child at the end of the book is so sudden and ends so quickly that the book seriously feels like its been chopped off from something that when whole was probably much better.
Moreover, so much of the tale is pointless, long-winded and unnecessarily drawn out that I had a serious attention problem when trying to get through it. I agree with others who have noted before me that the flashback sequences are an integral part of the story that cannot be removed. The problem is that they were way too long. I've already spent enough time above on this, so I won't repeat it here. But what I will say is that in my opinion the entire character of Jingadangelow could have been easily removed, and the story would have stayed the same. Jingadangelow was really a stand-in for the evils of the past, but once you read this book you might agree with me that so was practically every other person that Algy met outside of his little party journeyers. Greybeard was more about Algy vs. the world than Algy vs. Jingadangelow. and since Bunny was no more magnificent in his opposition than any other element, I see him as superfluous and unnecessary.
Finally, the writing is a bit of a mixed bag that probably, in the balance, tilts in Aldiss' favor. Croucher, for example, came off to me as a pulp-era master-villain.
"So you are just a dictator, like all the others before you!"
"Be careful - I cannot stomach a stubborn mind! You will soon learn otherwise of me - you'd better! I want you as my conscience. Get that point clarified in your brain with all just momentum. You have seen I have surrounded myself with the intelligentsia; unfortunately, they superficially do what I say - at least to my face. Such a creed revolts me to my skin! I don't want that from you; I want you to do what you have been trained for. Damn it, why should I bother with yo at all when there's plenty else to worry about? You must do as I say!"
But there were many other places where the writing was exemplary. Consider this next clause; I found it randomly placed in the book, in a section that did not really call for emphasis. There were several little unexpected oasis of lovely prose scattered about in unexpected locations.
An aged couple sat close by him, both of them wearing ill-fitting false teeth that looked as if they had been hammered into place by the nearest blacksmith; Greybeard drank in the noisy backchat on their party. They were celebrating their wedding. The man's previous wife had died a month before of bronchitis. His playful scurries as his new partner, all fingers under the table, all lopsided teeth above, had about it a smack fo the Dance of Death, but the earthly optimism of it all went not ill with the mead.
Inspired, I think. I wonder if anyone will agree with me in any of this?