Monday, March 21, 2011

Book review: The Last Starship from Earth

Do I read too much sci-fi? Possibly. But most of it is old sci-fi. Does that help?

I recently read the 1968 book "The Last Starship from Earth" by John Boyd. Not one of the greats. This is his best known of his books.

This was the first book that I felt I needed to share the "about the author" section. Most science fiction authors who served in WWII served in a scientific or technical or even medical capacity. They'll talk about their service, but it's not generally part of the "about the author" section. Boyd was commissioned in the Navy in 1940, served in Russia, England, Japan, and the Philippines. He's the only junior officer mentioned in Samuel Eliot Morison's naval history of WWII.

I debated how much to tell you about the book. I'm tending toward spoilers since this isn't a book you can find electronically and isn't terribly common in the online book sellers. So it's not like you're gonna read it. I've put in a big spoiler alert marker further down. If you read that far and decide you want to find and read it you can stop there. Beyond that we get into the twists and turns of the story.

The book starts out in what appears to be the distant future. The world is divided into castes based on what your family does. If your father was a Mathematician then you're a Mathematician and you have his name but with a number increase. If I'm Doug IV then Dad was Doug III and grandpa was Doug II. We're also all part of a profession and skill level that makes us "professionals". That is we're important and we matter. Unskilled laborer aren't highly regarded. So much so that they're an underclass. It's possible to move between classes, but you have to be something special.

See, the world is run by this computer called "The Pope". It replaced human popes some many, many years back. It does the bulk of planning and thinking and running things and does a good deal of the spouse selection. It sort of narrows your options down to four or so. And they'll all be within your class and profession unless they're trying to breed for special traits.

There are other groups helping to run things. The Sociologists and Psychologists, along with the Priests, run things and have since long before they had the computerized Pope. They're not the smartest, but they know how to manipulate people in ways that the Mathematicians can't.

With all that we have the setup for a Romeo and Juliet story. Mathematician meets Poet, they fall in love, but their love is forbidden. They sneak around but are ratted out and the government comes for them.

Before I move beyond that I need to tell you how the book reads. Since she's a poet he starts studying poetry. In very short order the book becomes worded poetically. It might be crap if you're actually of sufficient poetical interest to know good from bad. It does make the book a bit more challenging to read.

To cover up their secret liaisons they come up with a cover story. First she's trying to write a poem about the Mathematician that created the Pope. When they find out that too much of his life is considered classified they start trying to build an electronic poet in much the same way an electronic pope was created.

But it wouldn't much of a story if they didn't get caught. He goes on trial. She's pregnant so there's not much doubt about his guilt. He's interviewed by the four members of the jury: one each from the three major specialties and one from his own. He thinks he's done well, so does the reader, but they determine that he has the same mental illness as the son of the guy who created the electronic pope. He's too much of an individual and they're afraid he'll start an uprising. They can wipe his mind, they can sterilize him and put him to work as a grunt, or they can fire him off to the planet Hell. Really, the only option they see is sending him to Hell so he doesn't start more shit on Earth.

If you think you'll want to read this book you should stop now.

Another aside - For the most part it seems like the distant future. They talk about a period of time known as The Starvation. Little is known about before. Abe Lincoln started the UN. There's others, but that's the big one that stands out. This isn't the future. This is the present with an alternate past. It's not clear what caused the big change.

There is space travel in this alternate present. Or, rather, there was. There's only two ships left and they ferry passengers to Hell. The pilots are an odd lot. Due to the relativistic effects of near light speed travel they show up on Earth for 3 days every few years and only months have passed for them. They suffer long bouts of solitude with short bouts on a world that keeps changing and passing them by.

So our hero is sent to Hell in suspended animation. They wake him after several months to check on him and he gets to talk to the pilot who also flew the son of the guy who created the electronic pope to Hell.

Once on Hell our hero finds out that his pregnant poet girlfriend arranged to be sent here as well. They find out that the ice world of Hell isn't really an ice world. The planet's orbit is an ellipse so it's a barely habitable ice world for two months of the year, tropical for four, and very pleasant the rest of the time. The guy who created the electronic Pope knew this and rigged the Pope to schedule visits by the ships only when the planet was icy so those on Earth wouldn't find out. After all, his own son was being banished here. And he's still alive. Yeah, apparently they have longevity treatments on Earth, but can't use them due to the size of the population. Hell's lesser population almost requires it even with the rapid rate of reproduction they're undergoing to try to populate this planet.

And it keeps going. The pope maker's son had worked out the same formula for faster than light travel that our hero had worked out. What the formula means is that one can go back in time. He'd created a ship based on that formula to send his own daughter back to Earth to find someone with our hero's education who has a mindset similar to his own and entrap him in such a way that would get him sent to Hell. So, yeah, the poet girl is the granddaughter of the guy who build the electronic Pope.

Why would they do this? They need someone with his brains and personality to send back in time far enough to change the whole world and prevent this repressive society from forming.

How far back? Far back enough to end the 60+ year life of Jesus Christ. In their world Jesus raised up an army and overthrew the Roman Empire to establish a theocracy that survived until the present. But instead of killing him he put a 33 year old Jesus in his ship and sent it back to Hell. That meant he had to stay on Earth. Thanks to his longevity treatment the book ends with him back in the present day at a campus protest with a history that looks remarkably like our own.

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