Greybeard is a science fiction novel by the British author Brian Aldiss, published in 1964.
In 1981 humans and most mammals were rendered sterile by the ‘Accident’. By 2029, the youngest generation of humans are in their fifties, with no younger generations to follow. With civilisation collapsed, the remaining people eke out an existence in small, fearful communities, knowing humanity’s ultimate demise is close at hand.
Greybeard (real name Algy Timberland) and his wife Martha abandon their crumbling settlement and set-off on a boat trip down the Thames, travelling through a landscape changed by the collapse of human civilisation and the resurgence of nature. Along the way Greybeard and Martha encounter other, strange communities, where the inhabitants often fall prey to profiteering hucksters and false prophets seeking to exploit the desperate need for hope in a fallen world. Foremost among such charlatans is the gloriously named Bunny Jingadangelow, who claims to possess the secrets of youth and immortality—when Greybeard and Martha encounter Jingadangelow later in the story, he has elevated himself as a religious figure, the Master, and through a mix of charm, deception and cunning, has gathered loyal followers who treat him like a god.
As well as following Greybeard’s and Martha’s journey, flashbacks explore the effects of the self-inflicted ‘Accident’: the war, the descent into anarchy, the disease, the madness. The chapter where Greybeard and Martha encounter local tyrant Peter Croucher I found especially striking and darkly comic, as Croucher tries to enforce a brutal order after the national government in Britain disintegrates—Croucher is power-hungry, humourless and insecure, as witnessed by his fear of intellectuals and his mangled attempts to prove his own intelligence. The rise to power of such a figure in chaotic times is painfully plausible and carries a warning we should all heed.
This is a haunting and sombre book, with a memorable depiction of a slow, quiet but unstoppable human catastrophe. The world of Greybeard is richly described, with a continual and potent contrast between the vigour and fecundity of nature (as it covers over roads and buildings, reoccupying lands previously lost to humans) and the decrepitude of humanity. There is the sense that the rule of humans is but a brief interruption and that nature might in time erase all trace of our species.
Despite the bleakness, there are tiny slivers of hope, with rumours and sightings of humanoid beings—for example, the talk of elves and gnomes hiding in the forests—suggesting there might be a future for humanity, albeit one very different from what came before.
Exploring themes of aging, death, religion and power, Greybeard is a powerful and thought-provoking novel from a master of science fiction.