By Brian Aldiss
Some writers build complex worlds and populate them with countless philosophies and cultures. That is the Tolkien school of storytelling. Other writers take a single, original idea and tell a straightforward story that hints at the big ideas someone like Tolkien would focus on. As a proper sci-fi writer, Aldiss is one of the latter kind. Greybeard is an exemplar of Aldiss’s school of thought: a lean, controlled, character-driven story with an easy idea at its heart.
The idea is that in the future, a military accident renders humanity sterile. No more children means an ageing, dying population and a collapse of infrastructure. But Aldiss is much more concerned with his characters, who include a chap called Greybeard and his wife Martha, than the technicalities of infertility or political strife.
Aldiss unravels Greybeard’s biography amid present-day scenes, which has the effect of building this story from a wide base. The transitions are seamless, when it is usually so easy to rely on such clichés as “this thing in the present day reminded him so much of the thing from his childhood that I’ll now cover in the next chapter”.
But that’s enough about the craft. Aldiss is so competent that you do not notice his handiwork while you’re reading. Instead, you’re focusing on this absorbing tale of an old man living in shacks in villages by the river.
The story is at its most captivating when it describes how Greybeard and Martha cope with the opportunistic politicians, phoney shamans and outright tyrants who are born by the catastrophe. To experience this novel is to make the choices Greybeard makes while asking yourself whether you would do the same. And it is to be drawn in by Aldiss’s colourful and vivid descriptions of life after the accident that sterilised humanity.
What a simple idea, what a brilliant book.