Earthworks by Brian Aldiss
|Genre||Science fiction novel|
|Publisher||Faber & Faber|
Like most folks, I enjoy the apocalypse. Ruined landscapes, violent gangs, unnatural hazards, mutations and the lack of law appeal these days. It’s a great sign. There’s nothing tastier than the image of our world turned horrifically upside down, revealing starving cannibals, vicious slave masters and landscapes laid barren.
It’s one of speculative fiction’s best tricks. I'm a fan of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) which I’ve always preferred to Frankenstein, due to the plainer narrative. Before that, Jean-Baptiste Cousin wrote a novel of the same name (Le Dernier Homme, 1805) and since then there have been too many end of the world novels to count. What we learn from them is that endings are never final, sometimes that THE END is just a function of STORY, and sometimes because the speculation on such enormous calamity, usually seems to come with a hint of future hope.
In MP Shiel’s The Purple Cloud (1901), an Arctic explorer returns to Europe to find all of humanity wiped out by a poisonous cloud. Stories such as this allow the grim appeal of the sort of spectacular imagery that is always turning up in films like The Road, images of our cities in ruins. In The Purple Cloud, the narrator has to wade through piles of corpses at the entrance to a London tube station, and he sets off round the world, where there is much and more of the same.
Earthworks by Brian Aldiss is set two hundred years in the future, in what is left of England and Africa, in a world which has collapsed due to overpopulation. The survivors of this catastrophic state live in cities which are sealed against the wasteland, much like in Logan’s Run or Judge Dredd, and in those cities, virtually everything is a crime, so that the authorities can at any time convict and punish people to a life of exile on the farms. We don’t see into the cities of future England, which is a pity. I have lost my copy of Richard Jefferies’ After London (1885) which is an exceptional post-urban story of how nature restores its supremacy on a world that has sunk into a horrid bog; but In Earthworks, there is much darting about in the future conurbations of Africa, which is pleasing.
Life on the farms is basically equivalent to what we used to hear about the Soviet gulags; bare, meaningless, and comprising of endless slavery. In the English gulags of the future, the robots are valued far more than the people. And of course there are some revolutionaries, the so-called ‘Travellers’ who have escaped, and live a terrible (but free!) life on the wasted ranges of the land, with only the prospect of a bullet from the state as their ultimate comfort.
Although innocent of his original crime, Knowles Noland, the hero of Earthworks, is not the traditional sci-fi protagonist. He’s cowardly and at a key point, commits an act of betrayal that admittedly saves his life, and we get on with his adventure, wondering if we are to sympathise or not. We don’t learn much about life before the horrors of Earthworks, but we learn plenty about the aftermath, and the hideous Farmers who control production of the world’s precious foodstuffs.
Knowles Noland has one great advantage over everybody in his world, and that is that he can read and write. Therefore, the text of Earthworks poses as his memoir — an artifice which is fairly handy earlier on in the book, when interest and colour are being established — and one that is thankfully dropped in the final third, when all that matters is the speed at which we reach the conclusion.
Speed and tension are worth a mention. Both must be woven into a sci-fi caper such as this. It’s the field where you can feel other writers letting themselves down. In fact, you start to notice that whereas literary writers treat of their concepts and ideas as the most important aspects of their adventure, it’s predictably enough, caring about character and situation that wins out for the readers.
Pictured on the cover, by the way, is one of the robots — a metal-clad night guard, described by the hero as a devil, with its horns and eyes which ‘gleam with a cloudy redness, that suggested hell-fire.’