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Build This Dream

The Last Starship From Earth

By John Boyd 

3 Mar, 2024

Because My Tears Are Delicious To You


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John Boyd’s 1968 The Last Starship from Earth is a satirical science fiction novel.

Haldane IV is doomed the moment he first sees Helix and her seductive swaying walk.

Mathematician Haldane IV’s life was ordained before Haldane was born. A computer pope rules a rigidly stratified theocratic Earth. Like his father and his grandfather and his great-grandfather, Haldane is doomed to spend his life pondering mathematics. He will eventually be matched to a woman with the right genetics, with whom he would produce Haldane V. Society would continue unchanged, each human in their designated role, until the end of time.

Divine plans are no match for attractive buttocks. Haldane is immediately smitten with Helix and accosts her. Discovering that Helix is a poet, a rare occupation indeed, Haldane sets out to win her heart by producing poetry. He knows nothing about poetry, but certainly he can concoct an algorithm that will write poetry. Surely no woman will be able to resist the automation of her occupation!

Helix is amused by Haldane’s infatuation and presumption. She agrees to extensive consultations with the ardent mathematician. In the course of their extended conversations, Helix draws Haldane’s attention to an alarming fact. Haldane believes himself to be an expert on the life of Fairweather I, the brilliant mathematician who programmed the computer pope. Helix astounds Haldane with the revelation that Fairweather was also a poet. Furthermore, she makes a convincing case that Fairweather’s official biography has been extensively censored.

Doubt is itself terribly dangerous. Romantic dalliance between occupations is utterly forbidden. Passion overcomes caution. Betrayed by a friend, Haldane and Helix are arrested for miscegenation.

Helix is pregnant and there is no doubt that the couple is guilty. Evildoers like Haldane are sent away from Earth, off to the planet Hell.


Readers will be immediately aware that this novel is set in an alternate history. This version of Earth is considerably more technically advanced than ours. It’s also, as noted above, much more regimented. Every religion other than hardline Catholicism has been expunged (adherents of any other religion have been forcibly converted or sent to Hell). The government is doing its very best to produce endless stasis.

I don’t think one can reconcile “millennia of extraordinarily conservative authoritarian government” with “technology centuries ahead of ours.” Of course, other authors have played with this trope, authors such as Pournelle in his CoDominium stories. There the Earth manages to go from the invention of FTL to star colonies in just sixteen years… even though the CoDominium was actively hostile to any form of R&D.

There’s another reason to regard this book as NOT a serious venture into alternate history. Even though this setting diverged from our world 2000 years ago, the same historical figures appear and play essentially the same roles that they played in our history. Not that this is at all odd; many other authors have done this. It saves work when writing.

Nor is the book hard-SF. The super-science that drives the plot strains to match the scientific rigor of an A. E. Van Vogt novel.

The prose is moderately dreadful.

Her stride was long, and her hips swayed slightly with each step as if her pelvis were a cam which created an interesting moment of force around its axis. It was several microseconds before the aesthetics of her motion intruded on his consideration of its mathematics.

The plot is rather slight but then, so is the novel. It’s just 182 pages in the Berkley Medallion MMPB edition. There are simply not enough pages to develop the plot or the characters in much depth, though there is room for vaguely described erotic content.

Last Starship was Boyd’s debut novel. With the notable exception of Joanna Russ1, reviewers appear to have reacted very positively to the novel. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia to this day praises the novel in the SFE’s spoiler-laden entry for John Boyd. Frankly, I am at a loss to understand what other reviewers see in the novel; the big twist isn’t all that interesting. The only thing the novel has going for it is narrative drive and endless conversation.

“OK,” you may ask, “if Last Starship is so dreadful, why do you own more than one Boyd novel?” Well back in the early 1970s, we read what we could get our hands on.

This is the second Boyd I’ve reviewed here. Since Last Starship is both wretched and generally considered Boyd’s best novel, I doubt there I will review a third.

The Last Starship from Earth is available here (Amazon US) and here (Amazon Canada). Otherwise I didn’t find Last Starship at the usual suspects. In fact, I didn’t find the most recent Wildside edition on Wildside’s own site, so Last Starship may be out of print.

1: According to secondary sources Russ didn’t like this book (as one might expect from the synopsis). I have not read Russ’ review.