Saturday, 28 February 2009

Earthworks - Brian Aldiss

This short dystopian novel, first published in 1965, has lost none of its impact. Whilst it is true that, in common with all visions of the future, it suffers from being too specific about technology; its emphasis on social developments and the impact of humanity on the natural world make this, for me, a far more important novel than Frank Herbert’s much-lauded Dune.

We learn of this through the first person tale of Knowle Noland, a displaced orphan who grows up in the slums of an overcrowded city and eventually finds himself in a forced labour camp. There he works with others to grow enough food to feed a population that has outstripped the planet’s ability to support it. Escaping from this ‘farm’ he encounters the Travellers, free spirits who live on the fringes. Eventually, he winds up in Africa, a war torn land that has become the dominant continent in terms of politics and technology. And there he is confronted with a truly deadly choice.

In many ways, this book breaks the rules by which we are supposed to write. It is largely exposition – although by being written as a first person confessional, Aldiss has provided a vehicle in which exposition seems natural. He has also kept it short. The temptation would be, in lesser hands, to give us a bloated vision of this future hell. Instead, the narrator rightly assumes we know what he is talking about.

Perhaps the best thing about the book is that it is so coherently prescient. In broad terms it has seen a world into which we have started to drift. Agriculture, population, the rise of Africa, the inability of politicians to control events, the development of a surveillance society and police state. These are all closer now than they were forty years ago. But Aldiss also saw detail in his vision. Travellers (who are not just our own home-grown drop-outs, but any dispossessed group) treated with contempt and the target of police violence. A society in which elites have become increasingly divorced from the reality of everyday life. A society of this nature breeding fanatics who are prepared to unleash terror and destruction because they see that as the only way left to them, the only solution to the world’s problems.

From its eerie opening sentence, to its frightening conclusion, this is a book well worth reading.