Readers should note that the British version of Greybeard restores material cut from the U.S. version. Greybeard is unusual among the many novels about the aftermath of a global holocaust because its tone is melancholy rather than horrific. People discover the scope and scale of the disaster very slowly. Most continue to strive to create comfortable day-to-day lives, more disturbed by the death of their own dreams than by the end of their species.
Civilization devolves stage by stage toward a pastoral existence as humanity begins to die out. The natural world flourishes. When people see half-and near-human beasts in the fields and forests, they are more than willing to believe. As rationality dies, the myths of a golden age are reborn; humanity hopes, however foolishly, for another chance.
Even Greybeard, always striving to be in command of himself and those around him, is joyful when he discovers that his rejection of hope as unreasonable is wrong and that humanity does have a future. The story ends on a note of optimism, although it is not clear whether a new age is beginning or an old one is being renewed.
In what is possibly his finest science-fiction novel, Brian Aldiss tells the story in a nonlinear way. The four sections in Greybeards present are linked by their setting on the river and move forward in time. The three flashbacks journey further and further into the novels past, establishing the history of a once-familiar world fatally disrupted. Each shift from present to past alters the readers perception of previous events. When humanitys last children discover the first members of the new generation, the resolution is logical and yet surprising.
Aldiss uses small scale, tight focus, and a long time span to personalize a common science-fiction theme. The book shows his characteristic interests in fertility, order versus chaos, and dislocations of perception. Fond of experimenting with literary techniques, Aldiss sometimes favors effects over a clear narrative; however, in Greybeard he is restrained. Although the telling becomes complicated by the changes in time from present to flashback, this is a simple tale, told in a satisfying manner.