Galaxies Like Grains of Sand is a short novel comprised of even shorter stories, presented in roughly chronological order, covering a billion year spree of humanity (I have to wonder if Brian Aldiss took a page from Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men). The sections are broken into ages, long eras of the future, with names like “The Robot Millennia,” and “The Mutant Millennia.”
Galaxies, originally released in the UK in 1959 as The Canopy of Time, is the kind of science fiction novel that I find immediately compelling; Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, the first science fiction book I ever read (an obvious game-changer) has a similar format. It’s wildly romantic, like reading the pottery shards of the ancient future, but coldly logical, too, in a way: how else do you write about such extreme lengths of time, such broad reaches of space, than to forsake 99% of what “happened”?
There is no time for the full story: only meager shreds from the perspectives of many, giving a rough sense of a structure — something much more massive than the reader. Over the course of the book, humanity evolves and devolves, leaves Earth for so long as to forget it ever existed, travels through time, changes from warring to robotic, sexless, primitive, collective, mutant. We achieve great things — stylized culture, self-perpetuating, harmless war, a transcendent language which enables us to travel in space — and just as quickly forget them. Nothing remains the same, despite the characters’ desire for permanence.
In Galaxies, humanity is implicitly on trial; if we buy into the artistic conceit that it is a compilation of stories from the lifespan of the long-dead Homo Sapiens, then we become members of the next race, the one which has superseded the follies of the past (er, our present). Moreover, we become jurors. We are led to view the first race as plucky, if eventually harmless. And tragic.
Which, of course, is us. Aye, the rub.
As Aldiss wrote in a later work, The Malacia Tapestry, “we all stand condemned in the terrible forests of the Universe.”
NEXT BOOK: JAMES TIPTREE JR: THE DOUBLE LIFE OF ALICE B. SHELDON