Forgotten Science Fiction: The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd

Every year thousands of SF and fantasy books get published, but few are reviewed, not many more become popular, and damn few get remembered.  Ten years out, most books are out-of-print and forgotten.  How many books can you remember from 2002?  And if we’re talking fifty years down the timeline, well it’s almost a miracle for a book that old to still be read, much less remembered and loved.

I discovered science fiction in the 1960s, in my teens, and like most people reading their first hundred SF titles, they all seemed so damn far out!  Now decades later, I doubt my memories of those first impressions.  So, when I have a little extra reading time, I order a book from ABE Books based on those dying memories and reread it.  I’ve now reread many of my teenage classics and a majority of them don’t hold up.

Most memories are fleeting, and my memory of The Last Starship From Earth was next to nothing.  All I remembered was a favorable impact.  Just a lingering sense of it being a standout read for 1968 or 1969.  To test that memory I recently bought and reread The Last Starship From Earth.  Sad to say, it was a discard from the Columbus Public Library, a common practice for books that don’t get checked out.  Not a good sign.  The last English reprint of this novel was in 1978.  It’s last edition was in French, in 1995.

The-Last-Starship-From-Earth-by-John-Boyd

The Review

The Last Starship From Earth is a dystopian novel set in 1968 and 1969, but not the 1968 and 1969 that I remember, or lived through.  In the world of this story, Jesus did not die on the cross, but was killed leading an assault on Rome.  He was the Messiah that people expected.  The government of John Boyd’s world is a global government run by Christians along “scientific” lines, where psychologists and sociologists in conjunction with the Church and an AI Pope rule the world.  People marry and mate because of their genes, sort of like the film Gattaca, and the hero of our story is Haldane IV, M-5, 138270, 3/10/46, a math student of great promise, being the fourth in line of great mathematicians.  Unfortunately Haldane gets the hots for Helix, a mere poet.  By law and social custom Haldane is expected to have nothing to do with her, but as you’d expect he falls in love with her.

Haldane concocts a ruse to justify more meetings with Helix by studying Fairweather I, a 19th century mathematician who also wrote poetry.  Much of the first half of the book deals with pseudo-academic studies from this alternate history.  Boyd is creative in his steady flow of ideas and concepts, but there’s little emotion in the story.  It’s somewhat Heinlein-esque, in it’s attitude and world building, but lacks the charm of Heinlein’s best prose.

Now, this quick summary is enticing, and I would like to report that The Last Starship From Earth is a forgotten classic, unfortunately, that’s probably not true.  I enjoyed the book, but only as a quick read.

Surfing the web I’ve found few other reviews of this novel, and although I’ve found people who claim it’s their favorite book, I also found people that thought it ho-hum.  Now, I’ve got to admit it has a humdinger of an ending, almost as startling as the film The Sixth Sense, but I’m not sure this last minute thrill pays for the reading the whole book.

I found the love affair of Haldane and Helix no more believable than Romeo and Juliet and far less exciting.  John Boyd does write well, but the plot is mostly intellectual, about the dystopian society, and its complications.  The book is only 182 pages, and the whole tale feels rushed.  Boyd staked out a solid gold claim but never mined it.

Analysis with Spoilers

The trouble with many SF novels, especially those written back in the 1950s and 1960s, was they were written very fast, and they were about ideas and not characters.  John Boyd has actually written a very ambitious novel by creating an alternative history of Jesus, but he never fleshes it out, and most of the story is a setup for the surprised ending.  The scope of the book is epic, the line by line writing reasonably entertaining, but the overall feel of the book is thin.

Haldane and Helix are discovered, and the middle part of the book is a trial that allows Boyd to work out the politics and legal system of this alternative reality, however, like the rest of this book, it’s rushed.  It’s padding.  That’s its downfall.  He has a big ending but it’s way bigger than the story.  To pad the story even more Haldane is sentence to exile on Pluto, which is called Hell.  There he meets Fairweather I and is reunited with Helix, who happens to be Fairweather’s granddaughter.  Fairweather needed a mathematician for his time machine, and Helix was sent to Earth to engineer the exile of a mathematician to pilot an experimental time machine.  In a very short time Fairweather makes Haldane immortal, tells him his new name is Judas Iscariot, and his mission is to go back in time to kill Christ.

Now if Boyd had spent a couple hundred pages recreating the Biblical world and shown how Haldane tracks down Jesus, we would have had a much better story.  But all of this was summed up in a short epilogue.  We are told Haldane captures Jesus and puts him in the time machine and sends him back, and the rest of the epilogue is about how he has relived the two thousand years to return to his own time and meet a girl that’s an awful lot like Helix, living in a future that’s much more like ours.  But did Haldane let Jesus die on the cross, or does he just disappear him from history?  Unless Haldane at least engineers a dying on the cross scene for history, we should not expect this timeline to be ours.

How do you plot a riveting novel with great characters based on the idea that Jesus didn’t die on the cross and the world became very different?  How do you tell the story twice?  Boyd really grabs a tiger by the tail and yells, “Look at me!”  And I think, “Cool!  Far out man!  But what are you going to do with him?”  He’s got to do more than just swing it around.  I’ll give Boyd a solid C for his world building, but they are only tantalizing sketches.

I really like this ending, but is it good enough to make The Last Starship From Earth a classic SF novel worth reading today?  I’ve linked several references to this book on the net and even though I can find fans of the book, I can find more people who think it sucks.  You’d think  Boyd Bradfield Upchurch, John Boyd’s real name, if he’s still alive, would arrange for his books to be reprinted as ebooks.  That certainly would make it easier for more readers to decide if The Last Starship From Earth is worth reading.

I’m afraid Boyd falls far short of classic standing.  The Last Starship from Earth is a good novel for science fiction historians to read, but it needed to be four or five times longer, more the size of Dune, to get the job done that Boyd outlined.  However, I’m not sure how he could have pulled off this big ambitious idea.

And is Boyd saying our history is the better timeline?  Why is his first timeline all that evil?  Is the freedom to fuck whoever you want the perfect ideal worth rewriting all of history?  Isn’t the more interesting story about a world where the promise of salvation and eternal life never happened?  Isn’t Boyd’s surprise ending really a cheat?

Time travel machines often ruins more stories than they’ve ever help.

Boyd has a three part story.  Life on Earth in an alternate timeline, life on Pluto, life on Earth in another timeline.  The story really isn’t about genetic breeding of humans like we see in Gattaca, or in Heinlein’s Beyond This Horizon or Huxley’s Brave New World.  It’s about an oppressive government.  But does it deserve to be wiped out by time travel?

Here’s the thing, our 1968 was a horrible time for America, but should we send a man back in time to wipe it out?  Boyd wasn’t writing a protest novel like Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Nor did he write a novel that truly explored a timeline with a different Christ, which would have been ambitious enough.

Would The Last Starship From Earth been a better novel is it hadn’t used the time machine gimmick?  Not as it stands, but it potentially could have been.  I believe it’s a grave mistake for any alternate history novel is have a do-over.  Time travel is really a very dangerous concept to use in fiction.  Time travel is very hard to pull off.  The beauty of an alternative history novel is the alternative history.  Don’t add time travel.  This would take away Boyd’s surprise ending, but it would have meant he would have been forced to write a better novel.

I felt cheated when Helix shows up so easily on Pluto, in what at first appears to be a happy romantic ending, but then we’re thrown for another loop.  Haldane loses her again, only to find her again 2,000 years later.  Oh come on man, this horny-at-first-sight love isn’t believable.  Weren’t there no math babes for Haldane?  This really is a case of what you can’t have makes the heart grow fonder.  And neither Haldane nor Helix are all that interesting – if you want a great love story you have to have great lovers.

The powerful driving motive in Gattaca is that Vincent wants to go into space.  He wants to prove that he’s as good any genetically selected human.  The driving force of The Last Starship from Earth is Haldane wants to screw Helix.  Boyd doesn’t make it believable why his world outlaws sex, nor does he make it believable that Haldane and Helix are in big time love.  Hell, even the prosecutors of the story wink at him, and say why didn’t you use a condom and just screw her, implying this world does overlooks recreational sex, just not casual genetic mixing.  But then Boyd never explains why his world requires genetic  fidelity to specialties like mathematics and poetry.   In Gattaca we have the justification that their world doesn’t want naturals to pass on bad traits, but in Boyd’s world there is no reason to breed pure bred mathematicians.  Also, how many math geniuses does one world need?

John Boyd wrote just enough alternate history world-building to set up his surprise ending.  In essence The Last Starship From Earth is a O’Henry type story, and we now use those type stories as examples as how not to write a story.  However, The Last Starship From Earth suggests two possible storylines I’d love to read.  First, I’d love to read an alternate history where Christ was the Messiah that everyone was expecting.  Second, I’d love to read a time travel story about people having to learn what it takes to live in ancient Israel and track down Jesus.  Both would require a tremendous knowledge of real history.

JWH –5/28/12

5 Responses

  1. Thanks for starting this new series. I look forward to learning about some other “classic” science fiction novels that I’ve never really heard of.

  2. [...] James Wallace Harris on Forgotten Science Fiction: The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd. [...]

  3. I haven’t read this one, Jim. But I’m reminded of Tony, who often yearns for the short novels of past science fiction, without all the extraneous padding of modern fiction. Just different tastes.

    I think I’m in between the two of you. I enjoy the shorter, plot-filled stories of the past, but I like many of the longer, more character-based novels of today, too.

    However, as we’ve both seen, you and I have quite different tastes in many respects. (Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with that.) Still, I think I would have enjoyed this book far more when I was young than I would today. We’re probably alike in that.

    PS. I’m really enjoying this series, Jim, though I haven’t been very quick to get to them.

    • I’m thinking about buying a copy of Monument by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. to reread and review for the series because I think it’s a forgotten classic. I’m really surprised that Way Station is so long out of print and hard for the book club members to get. Forgotten SF is just an interesting topic for me.

  4. [...] The Last Starship From Earth (1968) – John Boyd [...]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,186 other followers

%d bloggers like this: