Science Fiction Though the Decades

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

1968: The Last Starship from Earth (Boyd, John)

Sociological impetus concedes to plot twists (3/5)

This was Boyd's first novel back in 1968 and part of a trilogy, of sorts, based on classic myths. Myths have never been my forté and nearly all of the novels which heavily rely on myth connotation are lost on me (Delany's Einstein Intersection to name one). With novels like these, I try to adjust the plot's pressure from the pillar of mythology to the load bearing pillar of science fiction. Sometimes the load is just too much (i.e. Einstein Intersection) and the house of a novel's plot comes crashing down with me shoulder-shrugging in a carefree yet disappointed manner. Thankfully, The Last Starship of Earth wasn't overladen with obvious mythology to topple the novel... Boyd's inexperience was enough to do that.

Rear cover synopsis:
"In the futuristic society that serves as the setting for this elegantly chilling novel, the State decides whole one will choose as one's mate. In any case, professional boundaries cannot be crossed, and thus the young mathematician Haldane IV cannot fall in love with or marry the girl of his choice, the poet Helix. But as the young couple studies ever more closely the long-hidden poems of Fairweather I, whose work years before had completely altered the whole nature of society and who is universally acknowledged to greatest mathematician since Einstein, they realize the verses hold important messages for them--and for the world. What, for example, does this couplet mean?
      That he who loses wins the race,...
      That parallel lines must meet in space.
Even as they ponder, they know that the price, if they are caught, is exile to the planet of Hell."

Welcome to the prefecture of California, part of the Union of North America, itself part of the World State. The triune State is governed by the Three Weird Sisters, "an agglomeration of sociology, psychology, and priests." (52) Where the sociologists and psychologists are concerned about the legality of the State, the Church's main concern is its morality; the psychologists take the broad view and monitor the police activity while sociologists are the administrators and tackle the judiciary side of the law. The population of the earth is divided between the proletariats as "insensate brutes" (136) and professionals as "sheep" (136) to the powers of State.

The professionals seem to be classified by their colleges where prefix "A" stands are ART, prefix "M" stands for MATHEMATICS, and prefix "C" stands for CRIMINOLOGY. Other professions are experienced but the classification seems to be a simple dystopian tag to adhere to the two victims of its own society: Haldane IV (M-5, 138270, 2/10/46) falls in love with the idea of and the ideals of Helix, A-7, 148261. 13/15/47) (I believe the latter numbers refer to their birthdays in regards to the rather confusing 13-month Hebrew Calendar). Each professional classification is mated within its own college, the mate chosen for their genetic synergy in order to produce a greater knowledge-based professional class to drive forward the specific needs of the State, where the proletariats act as general means laborers.

On one fateful day, Haldane was meant to go to the science museum but ended up crossing paths with Helix at the art gallery. The mathematician is intrigued by a facet of the legend of the greatest mathematician to even live that he never knew about--the man also wrote poetry. Helix quotes some poetry by the legend and Haldane never looks back twice. The two clandestinely meet to exchange notes of the subject to ascertain what Fairweather was pointing at with his dichotomous poetry. Haldane's roommate's loaning of his parent's apartment is perfectly suited for these trysts and for his weekly visitations to his father's house.

Fairweather was noteworthy for his contributions to light-speed travel, which allowed ships to traverse space and colonize stars. However, the State was against such an expansion and the trips were limited to the planet Hell, a planet shrouded in propaganda as being desolate, frozen, and four million light-years away in the Cygnus system. One more contribution Fairweather made to society was his invention of the electronic pope, a supercomputer which has the last word on any sentencing done by the State's courts.

The non-physical relationship between Haldane and Helix borders on amorous but their social conditioning is so strong that only a special circumstance (i.e. plot twist) can force the two to a more physical situation. The relationship develops and ends with yet another hasty special circumstance (i.e. predictable plot twist). Thereafter, Haldane spends his time in jail with his lawyer being prepped for his trial against the World State, which calls for subversion against professional all three of the "Weird Sister" fields: sociology, psychology, and The Church. The trial ends with Haldane unsuspectingly given the worst sentence possible.

Witnessing the budding relationship of Haldane and Helix amid the social restrictions imposed by the State was a small spectacle in itself. The technocracy of genetic pairing is familiar territory for science fiction readers yet the entrapment is a fairly old hook (i.e. Yevgeny Zamyatin's novel We). Up until the point of the back-to-back plot twists, the book was on a 4.5 mean average, with swathes of sociological implications and heady passages of love yet to be fulfilled. Call me a hopeless romantic, but the combination of the two was an opiate for me.

Then... duhn duhn duhn, the suspenseful soundtrack of an ill attempt at a natural plot twist, which Boyd half-way failed at. I had faith in this unknown author at pulling off the dual plot twists as I had already invested my faith in the first half of the novel. My trust remained strong even through the THIRD plot twists, when I met the scenario with much skepticism and narrowed eyes of disbelief. But when Boyd played his time travel card, I immediately knew that Boyd made the most critical error any author could perpetrate: don't write a story you don't have an ending for. I would usually use "deus ex machina" to describe the sudden event, but this came flying straight out of his rusty bullet hole.

Like the mention of the Hebrew Calendar above and the unmentioned time travel stint with Jesus and the Wandering Jew (oops), there's a more latent judeo-christian underpinning beneath the novel. One lingering questions which a social theologian may want to tackle after reading this novel is, How has the Church affected the course of the sciences of sociology and psychology? It's my final opinion that the years of mention (1850-1966) are of an alternative history. Some historical names of mention (A. Lincoln's "Johannesburg Address" isn't Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address") are altered and point to the alternative history origin.

While most of the historical and mythological portions were lost on me (neither a historian or mythologist, but acquiring the temporary persona of a mathematician), the sociological implications affecting the amorous couple are a highlight... but after the plot twists the wait for the conclusion is all downhill if you subtract the details concerning the government and its history. I already own the second book of the trilogy, The Pollinators of Eden, and glance at it hesitantly. As for book three, The Rakehells of Heaven... I release of ominous sigh of near future acquaintance.


  1. Umm, so you really didn't like it. Did your mind change when you were writing your review?

    1. It was interesting, held my attention for a long while, and had me thinking. But when a reader invests that much time into a novel and doesn't even have a tidy knot at the end... reeks of amateurism. And I didn't have a "change of mind" so much as three glasses of rum.

  2. Like you, I enjoyed the first half or so -- I found that part somewhat tongue and cheek. And then the end ruined it for me -- although the concept was interesting.... I read it a while back so I don't have a more detailed reason why I hated it.

    Sounds yummy -- craving a nice IPA beer at the moment.