>The Last Starship from Earth by John Boyd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Last Starship from Earth (a novel) by John Boyd
Back in the late sixties early seventies I joined the science fiction book club and this was one of many offerings. I still have the 1968 edition they sent me and it's in fair condition. What wasn't so much intact was my recall of the story; so I had to reread it. I was seventeen in 1968 when this was published and I was going to Junior College while just barely becoming eighteen. This book creates for me the feeling of a literary epic. It's written in the time of cold wars and civil uprisings and government conspiracies. All a perfect back drop for a dystopic tale of a parallel universe. A universe where Christ didn't die as a martyr and the church took the world by storm rather than suffering persecution as happened in ours. A 'what if' story that begins in a far different version of 1968.
This book has a lot going for it in that it has a sort of twisted poetic bent that lends itself nicely to the prose of the author. What it lacks is consistent background on what might have wrought all the changes to bring us up to Haldane's world where space travel is already accomplished and we have the perfect society guarded by the "Weird Sisters" Psychology, Sociology and the Church. Sure: there are other disciplines such as Mathematics and Poetry [those are two that drive the story]. What this book also lacks is involvement with what could have been the most important character. Part of this might well be the times it was written and the rest would probably fall to being a part of the continued tropes that trapes through all of histories diverse tomes.
I'm giving this book high marks for entertaining me and making me think and even a bit for nostalgia. I have to be honest and note that I didn't go happily down the trail of reading John Boyd's later works and in part that may be for the strange twist in structure that caused the plot to become un-potted at a certain point and an orphaned epilogue at the end that almost adds insult to injury in light of the fact that the entire book requires the reader to think upon the 'what if' proposed and realize that there is no true logical progression to how John Boyd got from there to where he did; which leaves it to the reader to do some research or at least have some understanding of the impact of Christianity upon western development. Even so it's left to the reader to determine how things took such a left turn because of the difference in how Christianity took foot.
So if Christ was not martyred on the cross and his movement brought down the Roman Empire without the bulk of Christianity being persecuted, that might change some things. One can only guess that perhaps the strength of the church and lack of humble roots may have excluded the reformation and the Protestant movement. But somehow the church and its two sisters Psychology and Sociology have slipped into a near socialistic totalitarian society whose highest judge is a mechanical Pope created by the worlds leading Mathematician Fairweather I, which is perhaps why John Boyd chose to make this a story of adolescent forbidden love between the Mathematician and a Poet. Forbidden love: lust perhaps would be allowed but not love and certainly there are taboos on any thought of an offspring from such forbidden union. Our young man, Haldane, makes a wrong turn on the way to a Mathematics conference and ends up at a museum where he meets Helix [the essence of a spirit that might rival Helen of Troy]; and his inexplicable love at first sight only drives home the importance of this character he has fallen for.
After a comedy of errors where the reader is left wondering, after a ream of logic about where Haldane could accidentally run into Helix on purpose only to find that she's not there, 'is she avoiding him. As it turns out while he's searched where she might be she seems to be searching where he should be and the two are going in opposite directions until she stumbles across his father and sets up a chance to meet Haldane through him. There's a lot of time and detail spent on the logistics necessary to create the illusion that any time they spend together has some logic to it and this becomes the part for reads who like the average dystopic tale where the players move in the shadows trying to avoid detection of the secret police. Suffice it to say there will be a day of reckoning and when that comes there is a twist because Helix is pregnant and that makes things that much worse.
A trial ensues and this is where John Boyd drops the ball with Helix. She becomes a none entity as Haldane is taken to task for the wretched deed and he is worked at by the forces of Church, Psychology, and Sociology until they offer him the out, by placing all the blame and responsibility on Helix shoulders and denying his own love for her. He even refuses to recant when it becomes rather muddily clear that Helix may have been part of an entrapment that was set up to bring him down and expose his nature as a sufferer of the Fairweather Syndrome [named after Fairweather I's son Fairweather II (who was proven to be a most heinous criminal in society)]. With no cure: the only outcome for Haldane is to be deported to the planet Hell. This is all confirmed when the mechanical Pope asks Haldane if he loves Helix; Haldane can't deny it and is relegated to hell for the admission.
This is where our author, John Boyd, fell a bit more, because the next part takes some major twists and the first is with Helix. Without much real background of a character that is treated as backdrop; the story loses out. I could easily attribute this treatment as a part of the era this is written since the world prior to 1968 was still pretty primitive in some notions about women. And since this parallel world is in 1968 that seems to track okay in that the women may be treated as Helix is in this story. Still there is this whole notion that Helix has an effect on Haldane and she is compared to Helen of Troy and she deserves much more than she gets, but this is Haldane's story and this is how John Boyd chose tell it.
To go much further would contain all the spoilers that would make reading this redundant and I think that every lover of dystopia's should read and love this story. There are a few more twists before the epilogue and I would have been just as happy if I'd been left with the final twist in the final chapter. The epilogue can only be described as a corkscrew of twists that could boggle the mind on any thoughtful or thoughtless reader and was probably not necessary though it adds a certain flavor to the Haldane character that almost seems at odds with the one the reader has become intimate with.
I recommend this to all lovers of Science Fiction Fantasy with the caveat that not everyone will be happy with it and you will have to ask yourself if it's a deficiency in the author's writing or perhaps your own attempt to read too much into a story the author has left so much wiggle room for the reader to imagine.
Really good story that reflects some of the time it was written in, while still meeting the test of time.
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