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.