1967’s Lords of the Starship is the first volume in Mark S. Geston’s darkly cynical The Wars trilogy.
Having blighted the Earth with apocalyptic wars against darkest evil, the remnants of civilization are trapped in a long, slow decline. The pitiful nations of this future squander their resources on pointless petty wars. Recovery seems impossible. The only open question appears to be how long it will take for humans to vanish from wounded Earth.
General Toriman approaches Sir Henry Limpkin with a bold plan to redeem humanity’s collective soul.
General Toriman suggests that human nature lost some vital element centuries earlier. Result: centuries of depression and malaise. The general asserts that a sufficiently grand project might restore this mysterious missing element by providing the Caroline Republic’s people with a unifying goal on which to hang their hopes and dreams.
That project? Constructing the Victory, a vast starship that will carry the faithful to a new world untainted by human error. Seven miles long, the ship will be the work of centuries. Whole generations will live and die serving the dream. The fact that such a project is utterly impossible is besides the point. The important thing is the dream, not the reality.
Scarcely has the project begun than the general is reported dead. Limpkin and his allies carry on without the plan’s architect. Society is re-ordered to conceal the truth: that even the vast resources of a pre-apocalyptic shipyard would have been insufficient to construct a working starship. Now it’s impossible. But just as the general intended, a nation is inspired by a grand lie.
Indeed, the centuries-long effort to hide the truth is too successful. Sensing that their ruler’s dedication to the project is questionable, the true believers overthrow their cynical masters. Nobody in charge remembers that the Victory will never fly.
Not that this amnesia matters. The Victory was always intended for a purpose concealed even from Limpkin and his fellow hopeful cynics. The Victory is perfectly suited for that dark purpose.
Mark S. Geston was born in 1946, which means he was only about twenty-one when his debut novel was published. Logic compels us to accept that he was even younger when he wrote Lords of the Starship. In fact, he was reportedly nineteen. Just as well for his fans that he began so young, as once Geston was old enough to graduate from university, he focused on a successful legal career. There are but five Geston speculative fiction novels.
Modern readers, used to having a novella’s worth of plot spread over a dozen weighty tomes, may find Lords of the Starship’s pace bordering on the breakneck. Lords covers roughly three centuries in just 156 pages, not far from two years per page. Characters come and go with the years and the plot is followed from a bird’s eye view.
I cannot say when I first read this novel. My copy of the Ace mass market paperback has a Book Barn stamp, indicating that I bought it used at some point in the early 1970s. I do remember that teenaged me, having read many SF stories in which noble lies accomplished their intended ends, haaaaaaated this book. While it’s true that the liar’s goals are eventually realized, those goals are not all the hopeful ones with which Limpkin was presented.
Half a century on, I might mutter that the plan seemed needlessly convoluted. Nevertheless, I cannot fault the author for having failed to meet my naïve and misguided expectation. This is precisely the bitter, bleak novel that Geston presumably set out to write, a tight little tale of fools and monsters fighting over the bones of the world.
Would I recommend it? I suppose it depends on your mood. If you are bored with joie de vivre, and there is no Peter Watts novel to hand, this will infuse a little invigorating bleakness into your life.