Greybeard by Brian Aldiss (1964) 239 p.

Brian Aldiss is one of those science fiction authors I’ve heard of plenty but am only just getting around to reading, and it was either this or Hothouse. Greybeard takes place in a world in which nuclear radiation from an orbital accident has messed with the van Allen belts and rendered many mammals, including humans, infertile. As the novel begins, the titular character is actually one of the youngest humans alive, in his mid-fifties. Virtually no children have been born for half a century and the world has slowly decayed; England has decayed to a Middle ages level of society, with remote communities cut off from each other and very little law and order. The novel begins when Greybeard and his wife grow tired of living in the tiny village in which they have sheltered for the past twelve years, and decide to sail down the Thames in the hope of seeing London and the ocean again.

One of my favourite films of the last decade is the brilliant Children of Men, which posits more or less the same scenario, only earlier in the course of events, with the youngest people being in their late teens. (I knew it was based on a book, but according to Greybeard’s introduction, it’s a pretty rubbish one and the film is much better.) Of course, Aldiss had the idea first, since Greybeard is from the 1960s. It presents a pretty compelling and intriguing post-apocalyptic scenario; not one of bleakness and violence, but one where the world is most definitely ending with a whimper rather than a bang. Part of the fun is seeing Greybeard and his companions travelling about and discovering how things are in the rest of post-decline England, with people hawking rejuvenation snake oil and claiming the Scottish are coming down to conquer them.

It’s an interesting enough book but it never quite captured me. It’s bogged down a bit too much by flashbacks throughout Greybeard’s life: his childhood, when the radiation first began, his time in his twenties in the military and later working for an American organisation trying to record humanity’s death throes – unfortunately called DOUCH, made worse when Greybeard works for the English arm, DOUCH(E) – and his time in his forties living in Oxford when the nation-state is beginning to break up and the city is under the sway of a violent dictator. This sounds good in theory, fleshing out the world and the slow decline, but I found that in practice it disrupted the pace and the tone too much. I would have preferred for Greybeard and his friends to just be sailing down the river at the very end of humanity’s story, and only reminiscing about the past through dialogue. I suppose that’s what makes Greybeard feel more like high concept science fiction than a sad, miserable post-apocalyptic story like Children of Men. Aldiss also has a bad habit of clunky exposition – not all the time, but enough that I noticed it.

I still found Greybeard reasonable enough. It’s a creative idea executed with skill, just with enough flaws to stop me from really liking it. I’ll certainly read some of Aldiss’ other works.