The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd

The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd

(A couple of years ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing more than 75 vintage science-fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 65.)

Early in this project, I covered an overripe piece of science-fiction-as-social-commentary from 1972, John Boyd’s The Gorgon Festival. A vision of the future by way of post-’60s disaffection, it read like an attempt at satire from someone who didn’t really understand what he was sending up. Boyd is mostly forgotten these days, but when he does get mentioned, it’s for his 1968 debut, The Last Starship From Earth. My copy came with glowing quotes from Arthur C. Clarke (“fascinating”) and the Los Angeles Times (“a work of extraordinary impact”), so I went in with reasonably high expectations, kept in check by my past experience with Boyd, the man responsible for this metaphor, if you’ll recall:

He had another contribution to his dialogue with the young that would teach these boys that sex was a hormone-based LSD that hallucinated today’s Waldorf salad from tomorrow’s cold potatoes.

So the question was, would this be an underheralded science-fiction classic, or another collection of awkward, off-target jabs?

Turns out it’s neither. As with Gorgon, Boyd has a misplaced assurance in his own prose style. His characters, again, feel like attitudes more than people, and they live in a world that resembles a scheme more than a society. But Boyd eventually, almost in passing, provides a clever explanation for the latter. 

Boyd brings us to the book’s world through the eyes of Haldane IV, a young mathematician from a long line of mathematicians. In fact, practically everyone in the professional class most likely comes from a long line of members of the same class, except for those who have just ascended to the professional ranks, who stand on far more precarious footing than those who’ve been there for a while. Everyone, however, has to stay frosty. That means working hard, playing politics, following the dictates of the state, and for God’s sake, not mixing romantically with other classes. The crime of miscegenation, here defined as a mixing between professional classes, means bad news for everyone. Fair? Maybe not. That’s the way the world works, though. And if anyone has any doubts, the computer Pope’s dictates should keep them in line.

Yet for all the fear created by the combined force of church, state, and computer programming—and here, there is no distinction between the three—sometimes the heart wants what it wants. Well, maybe not the heart, exactly. As the book opens, Haldane IV has a revelation in the form of a sashay:

Her stride was long, and her hips swayed slightly with each step as if her pelvis were a cam which created an interesting moment of force around its axis. It was several microseconds before the aesthetics of her motion intruded on his consideration of its mathematics. Proletarian girls used such a sway as a lure, but this girl wore the tunic and pleated skirt of a professional. 

Were the object of his desire a fellow mathematician, he might not be in trouble. A poet, on the other hand, means trouble.

Inventing a half-assed excuse about pursuing the mathematics of poetry, Haldane IV eventually begins spending time with Helix, the woman responsible for the cam and the axis around which it swings. Helix specializes in 18th-century poetry and has a fondness for Byron and the Brownings. At first, I thought Boyd had made the mistake of confusing “18th century” with “1800s.” Instead, it’s one clue that the world we’ve been dropped in is a lot like our own, apart from a few crucial differences.

They all stem from one crucial difference. (Here’s where the spoilers kick in.) In Haldane’s world, Jesus, instead of dying on the cross, decides to kick some Roman ass, and dies as he leads a successful revolt against the Roman authorities. Christianity then becomes a religion not of self-sacrifice, but of might and action, and society falls in line behind it. Thus, the world of The Last Starship From Earth resembles a Christian/Roman hybrid controlled by a theocratic aristocracy that spans the globe.

It’s an interesting concept, though not a watertight one. Maybe this is pedantic, but I wondered how such a fundamentally different world could still have produced Brownings and Byrons recognizable from our own world. Or, for that matter, an Abraham Lincoln who delivers a Johannesburg Address that insists “we must not derogate the promise of the laser science so misused by the lesser angels of our nature.” Okay, scratch “maybe.” I know that’s pedantic. We’re in an alternate-universe novel here, after all. It just isn’t a particularly persuasive one.

Still, if you can make the leap of faith and get past phrases like “the knowledge of her was like nothing he had ever known or ever imagined that he could know,” The Last Starship From Earth isn’t a bad read. Haldane IV and Helix get caught and tried, and in the process, Haldane confirms some of the hypocrisies of the world around him, as high-ranking members of various classes attempt to use him as a pawn in their never-ending battle for supremacy against one another. The government has turned monolithic, but internecine warfare rages on. Later, the book turns into a variation on Paradise Lost, as a convicted-but-unrepentant Haldane IV sets sail for a planet called Hades on the eponymous last starship from Earth. Then—and here come a bunch of really big spoilers in a row, most of which take place between chapters—he travels back in time, convinces Jesus to die on the cross, then lives for centuries as the Wandering Jew of legend.

Whew. That’s a lot of plot to bring the world back to where it started, right? In the end, The Last Starship From Earth amounts to a side trip into an alternate universe that doubles as a dark mirror of our own. I guess. I didn’t leave the book feeling I’d learned much more about the nature of religion, poetry, love, or class by viewing it from a slightly askew angle. In fact, it felt more like a reasonably clever thought exercise. Maybe I’m holding it to too high a standard. Philip K. Dick’s The Man In The High Castle—without which I doubt this book would exist—sets a tough-to-clear bar for this sort of work. Boyd seems more interested in the ideas that drive his world than the specifics of its mechanic, and that’s fine—preferable, even—but I never got the sense that he delved particularly far beneath the surface of those ideas. It’s as if he thought putting the ideas of aristocracy, religious oppression, dystopia, and a twist ending together was enough. Instead, it feels just short of enough. He’s written a novel filled out by clever notions, but never animated by them, the sort of thing that gets read and remembered, but only hazily, and not far beyond the generation that created it.

Next:

The Metal Monster
, by A. Merritt
“In this great crucible of life we call the world—in the vaster one we call the universe—the mysteries lie close packed, uncountable as grains of sand on ocean’s shore.”

Then:

Naked To The Stars
, by Gordon R. Dickson
“The voice, speaking out of the ancient blackness of the night on the third planet of Arcturus—under an alien tree, bent and crippled by the remorseless wind—paused, and cleared its throat.”

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