After reading "Non-stop" and a confusing misprinted edition of "Cryptozoic" last year, I thought I would give Brian Aldiss another go. I picked up a tattered copy of "Greybeard" and finished it on a lazy summer afternoon.
This is yet another end-of-the-world scenario, in which atomic testing has rendered all of mankind sterile. Extinction by attrition is terrain well-trod by later works such as "Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang", "Galapagos", and the recent film "Children of Men".
In "Greybeard", we follow members of the last generation as they make their way through the ruins of the world. This is a society of the old, which lacks the infusion of energy and new ideas that each new generation brings. After the "accident", the first changes are small. Businesses dependent on the young (record shops, toy shops) falter before anyone understands why. Eventually, people understand their situation, and the hopelessness of a future without children infects all levels of society. Government and industry break down, and disease, decay, and vermin break down the corpse of human society where it falls. There is no apparent future to work for, and so people selfishly wring what sustenance and comfort they can out of the world, often without regard for the people they must kill or enslave to do so.
In reading this book, I was reminded of "World Out of Time" by Larry Niven. Niven's work depicts one man from our society encountering an alien and distant society of the far future. The turning point of the story hinges on discovering a key piece of technology that holds the secret to eternal youth. There was the suggestion of something similar early on in "Greybeard", and I kept expecting Aldiss to unveil a technological solution (a secret project that leaves an incredible legacy, etc.). The Deus Ex Machina never comes. It is life, rather than science that finds a way.
Instead of an immortality treatment, "Greybeard" offers us something more relevant to our lives. We see characters who are forced into a series of seemingly hopeless situations. They regain some measure of dignity and integrity by realizing that they can and must move beyond the meaningless echoes of the previous society that deaden and degrade most and benefit a privileged few.
This is the not a novel like "To Your Scattered Bodies Go", in which the things that constrain us are set aside to allow us to realize our full potential. Instead, it is a novel about the ways in which humans realize their potential in spite of all constraints, and is well worth a read.
I would loan you my copy, but its binding has decayed beyond repair, even as its ideas are passed on, which seems fitting. Perhaps my copy of "To Your Scattered Bodies Go" (in similar disrepair) will be resurrected with its youth and vigor on some distant planet... :)