Greybeard by Brian Aldiss. Gollancz '7.99
Reviewed by John Howard
During the winter of 2029 Algy Timberlane, his wife and some neighbours decide to leave the Oxfordshire village of Sparcot and sail down the River Thames to the sea. This is no holiday trip. There are rumours that Banbury is being invaded by Scotsmen, and that feral stoats are about to overrun the village.
Although Algy is the Greybeard of the title, he is one of the youngest humans alive. In the early 1980s the 'Accident' occurred, resulting in humanity and most mammals becoming sterile. And ever since, the human population of the world has been aging and dying, unable to be fruitful and multiply. Civilisation is fading away fast. In the countryside nature has come back into its own, leaving the remaining humans in isolated groups eking out a hand to mouth existence. The remaining towns are slowly falling apart. In a world reminiscent of After London and Earth Abides the future seems limited to the few decades left until the last human dies of old age: 'Man's the thing that's stopped, not death. Everything else but us ' the whole bag of tricks ' goes on unabated.'
In Greybeard (first published in 1964) Aldiss makes his disintegrating twilight human world into a place of wild beauty and burgeoning life even as most of humanity live lives of quiet desperation in a Thomas Hardy setting. In many ways the Thames Valley is as much a part of the story as any of the characters; it's certainly more than a mere background. The trip down the Thames also evokes Three Men in a Boat, but with the comic aspects bleaker, and moments of human warmth and values set against time inexorably running out. What lingers in the memory is the ongoing voyage along the overflowing river, the rhythm of the seasons showing that life goes on, with humanity still having reasons for hope.[...]