Tuesday 19 March 2024

The Last Starship from Earth

The skiffy turn means encountering the strange, the weird, and the completely bonkers. There's also a chance of turning up something good that time has buried under layers of obscurity. John Boyd's The Last Starship from Earth is not one of those books. Quite the opposite; it is truly terrible. According to everyone's go-to reference site for snippets of trivia, The Last Starship from Earth was praised by Robert A Heinlein as belonging on "the same shelf with Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. A thumb's up that says more about Heinlein than anything I could write.

Owing something to the hierarchy worked out by Auguste Comte, as Sociology was the last and the greatest of the sciences Boyd imagines a totalitarian society divided up into a series of departments, at the top of which sits the sociologists. Psychology and mathematics are used to determine marriage and parenthood, and order is enforced by the deterrent of sending ne'er-do-wells to the planet Hell - a frozen and desolate wasteland. The main character, Haldane IV of a line of mathematicians, falls for Helix of the creative, artistic class. Their courtship in one of tedious disquisitions about the separation of the sciences and the humanities, tempered by uncovering forbidden information that one of society's patron saints was as much a poet as he was a maths head. They begin an affair and are shopped by a classmate. There commences a lengthy sequence where Haldane has to convince a jury of a mathematician, a psychologist, a priest, and a sociologist that he's ripe for rehabilitation as a starship engine man. They see through him and off to Hell he's packed. Except, jeepers, the world is as lush and verdant as Earth and the convicts there are thriving. To maintain the illusion it's nothing but icy wastes, they've convinced the prison transports to only show up when it's winter.

Last Starship gives up about 30 pages from the end. Having banged on about Haldane's mathematical genius, a plot is hatched where he can use his facility for algebra and mental arithmetic to construct a time machine, travel back to Earth, convince Jesus not to spearhead an assault on Rome and change history so the tyranny of sociology never comes to pass. Of the characters left on Hell, which includes his beloved Helix, they seem to think dabbling with the timeline won't affect them because they're on another planet. Okay. The book closes with Haldane, now immortal and having lived for 2,000 years, hanging around a southern Californian university ogling young women. It worked. The new history, wait for it, is ours.

I don't mind absurd plotting as long as it's done well and allows for the suspension of disbelief. Here, the story is just stupid. Not only is it stupid, but it's written in a smug, self-satisfied way. Boyd tries an at-a-remove critique of mainstream American social science of the 1960s. Or, reflected through an SF lens, Isaac Asimov's psychohistory and its certitude in the omnipotence of statistics. But the info dumps are badly done, the dialogue is stilted, and I've seen more character on the shadow front bench. If that wasn't awful enough, its attempted dabbles in racial politics have severely aged. The sexual politics are likewise abysmal. For two thirds of the book, Haldane cannot decide if Helix is unabashedly in love with him or is tugging on his heart strings to entrap and ruin him. On the very first page we see him gawping at how she swings her hips from side to side, and Boyd tries to be ha ha funny by suggesting Haldane is as interested in the mathematics of a derrière in motion as having a straight up perv. This undercurrent of furtive sexual interest runs all the way through, and adds to Last Starship's unreadability. But what has ensured I'll never touch anything by Boyd again is the awful gee whizz shucks wiseacring afflicting the characters. And to think, according to the august SF Encyclopedia, that Boyd was considered an important new wave SF precursor by some. On the contrary, this is both prurient and pretentious. The only good thing going for it is that Boyd could only keep up the torture for 180 pages, but there are supposed to be two sequels.

Coming away from this book, I can only pity those new to SF who got it on publication and were forever put off. If this is anything to go by, Boyd and his works deserve their obscurity.


serge fjetland said...

Wait, what?

a plot is hatched where he can use his facility for algebra and mental arithmetic to construct a time machine, travel back to Earth, convince Jesus not to spearhead an assault on Rome and change history so the tyranny of sociology never comes to pass

Phil said...


Anonymous said...

It's set in a world where Jesus Christ led a revolutionary movement which seized power in Rome.

And I've disagreed with Phil over such things in the past, but I remember very clearly how disappointed I felt when I read it and wondered what all the fuss had been about. Of course 1960s mores were very confusing and I don't think we can be too critical of Boyd for his social ineptitude -- I think Ellison is even worse, if anything -- but the plot and the ideas are just horrible.

Incidentally, the whole thing is basically a pastiche of Ward Moore's BRING THE JUBILEE, set in a world where the South won the US Civil War and in which the central character helps his extremely intelligent lover develop a time machine which inadvertently loses the South the Battle of Gettysburg. But Moore, who was writing ten years earlier, is much more refreshing and also much sharper in terms of sexual mores.