It is fifty years since this book was published. Fifty years! Makes me feel old. Unlike the book itself. Some science fiction dates very badly. This has not. True, I read a revised edition, but apart from Aldiss tinkering with one or two sentences to make his main character less chauvinist in his attitude to women I doubt very much has changed.
So why is this, rightly in my opinion, considered a classic? To begin with, it is original. It has taken a number of familiar sci-fi ideas and taken them off in new directions. This is not an easy feat, not even in the late 1950s. It develops its ideas well. The attention to the background detail that makes Aldiss’s society believable is exemplary, and it is done without pages of exposition. And the whole thing is well written.
Aldiss is a great story-teller. The narrative begins slowly with plenty of rich and intriguing detail. It is not particularly difficult to guess what is going on in the background, although there are enough twists on this theme to keep you guessing, even though the clues are there. But in a sense this is irrelevant to begin with. You are drawn into a fascinating and unusual society. Once there, the characters draw you into new discoveries, and the story picks up pace, taking you to a breathtaking finale, in more sense than one.
If you like a well-written story with strong ideas that also manages to illuminate something of the human condition along the way, this book is for you.