The OF Blog: Brian Aldiss, Greybeard

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Brian Aldiss, Greybeard

This review originally appeared on the SFF Masterworks blog in July 2011.

When Martha was asleep, he rose.  The mutton-fat light still burned, though he had shielded its glow from the window.  He stood, letting his mind become like a landscape into which strange thoughts could wander.  He felt the frost gathering outside the house, and the silence, and turned away to close his mind again.  The light stood on an old chest of drawers.  He opened one of the drawers at random and looked in.  It contained family trinkets, a broken clock, some pencil stubs, an ink bottle empty of ink.  With a feeling of wrongdoing, he pocketed the two longest bits of pencil and opened the neighborhood drawer.  Two photograph albums of an old-fashioned kind lay there.  On top of them was the framed picture of a child.

The child was a boy of about six, a cheerful boy whose smile showed a gap in his teeth.  He was holding a model railway engine and wore long tartan trousers.  The print had faded somewhat.  Probably it was a boyhood photograph of the man now stacked carelessly out in the sheep shed.

Sudden tears stood in Greybeard's eyes.  Childhood itself lay in the rotting drawers of the world, a memory that could not stand permanently against time.  Since that awful - accident, crime, disaster, in the last century, there had been no more babies born.  There were no more children, no more boys like this.  Nor, by now, were there any more adolescents, or young men, or young women with their proud style; not even the middle-aged were left now.  Of the seven ages of man, little but the last remained. (pp. 37-38)

Death is an integral part of human life.  From embryo to newborn to adolescent to adult to the old-timer sighing out a death rattle, there is a natural progression in human societies as we age.  For many, the fear of the inevitable death is mitigated by the knowledge that their legacy will continue with the children they have engendered and raised to carry on family traditions.  For others, there is no consolation in death, only the forced acceptance that from birth, one is in a constant state of dying.  Old age in particular contains its mixture of memory and grim acceptance:  nostalgia for things now past, with few certainties besides death remaining for them to experience.

But what if the greying age did not bring the hope of future generations to continue the cycle?  What if this were it, that human life would become extinct when your generation passed?  How would you react in such a situation?  Would there be acceptance or denial?  These questions were raised in several novels in the 1950s and 1960s as humans came perhaps the closest to wiping out human civilization - and the majority of all lifeforms - that we have ever seen.  This period saw the release of novels such as Nevil Shute's 1957 novel, On the Beach, that posited the end of all human life as deadly radioactive fallout slowly moves toward the last southern outposts of humanity, as well as Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s 1959 classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, that deals with the wiping out of human civilization due to nuclear war and its rebuilding.

British author Brian Aldiss's 1964 novel, Greybeard, takes a different tack to exploring the worry and paranoia that were present during the first two decades of the Atomic Age.  Rather than showing a sudden decline, instead his novel is devoted to a human civilization, as Eliot might describe, that is going out more with a whimper than a bang.  The story begins in 2029 in Oxford, roughly fifty years after the "Big Accident," in which a nuclear weapon explodes in the upper atmosphere, rendering all humans (or so it seems) sterile.  There are no more children, everyone is in their 50s or older.  The story's narrator, Algy Timberlane, most commonly known as Greybeard for his navel-length beard, reminisces on the changes wrought by the collapse of human society following this incident that occurred when he was little more than a toddler.  He does not remember a "before," only an "after."  From billions, the worldwide human population has shrunk to a bare few million.  Flora and fauna rush in to fill in the gaps.  Instead of the hedonistic last days portrayed in Shute's novel or the religious imagery found in Miller's work, Greybeard's focus centers around a slow, gradual march of wilderness overtaking the last remnants of human society:

Man had gone, and the great interlocking world of living species had already knitted over the space he once occupied.  Moving without any clear sense of direction, they had to spend another two nights on islands in the lake; but since the weather continued mild and the food plentiful, they raised very little complaint, beyond the unspoken one that beneath their rags and wrinkles they regarded themselves still as modern man, and modern man was entitled to something better than wandering through a Pleistocene wilderness.

The wilderness was punctuated now and again by memorials of former years, some of them looking all the grimmer and blacker for lingering on out of context. (p. 156)
As Greybeard and his wife Martha move down the Thames River from the ruins of Oxford in an attempt to reach the sea, they encounter not just the empty reminders of what was lost, but oddly enough, signs that perhaps there are still fertile humans.  Yet this discovery does not enliven them with hope.  No, rather it makes no difference to Greybeard's generation, other than these half-feral upstarts are a disturbance to them and a threat to the quiet dissolution that so many of them seek.

This realization is what makes the novel almost lyrical.  More so than its quiet, understated metaphors for decline, decay, and dissolution, Greybeard contains a poetic power in its grim resolution to remember what is passing and celebrating that rather than any nebulous hope that might be born with a new generation that might succeed where they have failed.  This lends the novel a sense of gravitas that otherwise would be lacking.

Greybeard is not a novel to be read for its plot; there really is little to the story other than Greybeard's reflections on the changing scenery and how those changes were wrought.  There is little overt conflict, unless one counts that inevitable conflict with that unbeaten champion of Death.  Some readers might find this 239 page novel to be dull for these absences, but for those who are willing to consider the themes, especially that of aging and the reluctant acceptance of one's impending doom, Greybeard might prove to be one of the more quiet, yet powerful, masterpieces of post-apocalyptic literature produced during the past half-century.

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