John Boyd’s The Last Starship from Earth (1968) is a forgettable and predictable alternative history/science fiction novel incorrectly described by some reviewers as a lost classic. The basic divergent point in history (which is only mentioned near the end) is the only redeeming feature of the work because the society he’s created becomes slightly more cohesive and realized. However, Boyd’s reliance on time-travel (a theme I rarely enjoy) in order to make the final third of the work interesting is a complete cop-out. Boyd’s prose is poor at best — I dared not count the times “atavistic” was used.
Avoid unless alternative-histories are your Holy Grail.
Brief Plot Summary (some spoilers)
Haldane IV, a brilliant young mathematician, falls in love with Helix, a vivacious young poet. In this society classes based on profession are stringently adhered to and partners (within the class) are selected by a computer. The mixing of classes is forbidden. Haldane decides to study the “mathematics of poetry” as an excuse to meet up with Helix.
Haldane’s Earth is divergent from our own at at crucial point in history — Jesus. Instead of dying, Jesus leads a victorious revolt against the Romans. Here’s Boyd’s only redeeming concept — Christianity re-conceptualized as a religion of might/destruction instead of a religion based on self-sacrifice. Also sometime in the past a famous mathematician (a godlike figure for the class of mathematicians) constructed a computer program which serves as the Pope.
Helix and Haldane’s love is doomed and they are caught and tried. The events leading up to the trial when Haldane is interviewed by a church official, a mathematician, a lawyer, a sociologist, and a psychologist are the brightest points in the novel.
Haldane is sent to Hell (an dark ice world) in “the last starship from Earth” and discovers an utopian group of convicts who have set up a secret society. Then the novel is quickly inundated with a deluge of hokey plot twists which fail to deliver any surprise because the characters are lifeless and dull.
If you haven’t read Read Philip K. Dick’s vastly superior The Man in the High Castle (1962) — one of the all time best alt-history/sci-fi novels — pick up a copy NOW. Stay away from Boyd’s PKD inspired but laborious and un-involving cavalcade of silly plot twists.
As often happens, the most unusual and fascinating ideas — a reconceptualizing of Christianity, etc — are only slightly touched on. What remains are skeletal piles of ideas held together by wholly insipid prose and cardboard characters.
13 thoughts on “Book Review: The Last Starship From Earth, John Boyd (1968)”
The Man in the High Castle is excellent, I would also highly recommend it. It’s probably the only brilliant alternative history I’ve ever read. I typically find them to be boring, poorly conceptualized, or just bad. So, like you describe this book. 😉
I just read the man in the high castle. I don’t see how it’s any more superior thanks boyds book. Guess you have to be a pkd fan. Seemed disjointed and kind of dumb honestly. The man in the high castle lives in a ranch house in cheyenne? Just not an interesting book
Well, sounds like you missed the entire point… It’s not all surface content — look a tad deeper.
Yup, Man in the High Castle deserves so much praise. This work is inventive in its concept but fails in every other regard… Alas. Albeit, I’ve never been that interest in alt-history…. (perhaps, perhaps that has something to do with me being a historian — tehehe).
I’ve got this Boyd novel in my collection and I have another Boyd novel on its way: Pollinators of Eden. From the single review on Amazon, I’m not exactly sure what’s in store for me! Have any more Boyd on your shelves? (BTW: would love to see your shelves)
I highly disliked this novel — so yeah, haven’t procured any more of his works. I’ve seen Pollinators of Eden on the shelves many many times at used book stores but have never picked up a copy — I’m not into sci-fi that retells myths in the satirical vein (i.e. Pollinators). …
I read this (like most of my SF) in the 1970s as a teenager. Consequently I recall little about it, except that I was disappointed by the dystopian theme (something I wasn’t fond of at the time), and the general lack of starship action (although I would never characterise myself as a trekkie).
Interestingly I also read The Man in the High Castle at around the same time, and didn’t make a mental connection between the two books.
Hehe yeah, there’s no starship action at all. Or fighting for that matter. Or a good plot. Or anything of worth… A rather dismal failure with only a few slightly redeeming moments.
Thanks for stopping by!
The Man in the High Castle is BY far the best of the two. It is an intelligent and thought provoking work (perhaps, deserving of a reread?).
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Why review a book if you didn’t like it?
It’s a romance novel.
Pity it’s not available as an ebook.
Umm, I review all the science fiction books I read…. It’s a review blog! There’s just as much point in reviewing a book I like as a book I dislike…
Was this the book with rhymes in gibberish that were used to store information to build a ship to escape? If so, I remember reading it in school waaaay back in the early 70s.