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The Last Starship from Earth (1968)
John Boyd
Highly Rated!

A mathematician named Haldane IV and a poet named Helix fall in love and try to learn the truth about the famous 19th century mathematician Fairweather I. Unfortunately, both of these things are against the law of The State, and so Haldane IV is sent to the penal colony called "Hell" on an icy planetoid.

By far, the most interesting thing to me about this book is that in the five years I've been running this Website, nobody has pointed it out to me! (I just ran across it myself in the library in March 2005.) It seems as if this book has been totally forgotten. Although it is far from perfect, there are a number of clever things about it, and it has quite a bit of mathematics in it. Perhaps it is time that it was "rediscovered".

The book takes place in what we might want to think of as an "alternate timeline". (The first clue that this is so comes in the quotation from Abraham Lincoln on the very first page. It says things such as "Though fondly we hope and fervently pray that this great scourge of war shall speedily pass, still we must not derogate the promise of the laser science so misused by lesser angels of our nature." Yes, it says laser science.) There are three especially notable differences between the world as we know it and the one in this book. In the book, Jesus Christ is not arrested by the Romans and crucified, but rather leads an assault on a Roman fortress and dies in battle. (He fought using a crossbow which becomes the symbol of the church.) One result of this difference is that Christianity focuses more on violence and justice and less on "love", but it apparently leads to other differences as well. Another big difference is that there seems to be only one government on Earth, and it is run by a coalition of sociologists, psychologists and a computer called "The Pope" which represents religion. The society under this government is organized into castes by profession, and no sexual/romantic relations are allowed except those ordered by the governement (and those are always within a caste). Finally, a big difference comes in the form of the brilliant mathematician Fairweather I whose discoveries include his Simultaneity Theory (seems somewhat like Einstein's relativity), laser propulsion systems, and the Pope itself....all in the 19th century!

Now, you can see why Haldane IV and Helix are risking punishment from the State, both by having sexual relations (leading to a pregnancy...a serious crime indeed) and by trying to figure out exactly what it is about Fairweather that has been censored. For instance, they learn that his son Fairweather II was himself punished by being sent to Hell, and that his famous father was somehow involved! Along the way, Handane IV makes his own mathematical discovery: a twist on Fairweather's work that will allow for time travel.

A running theme in this book is mathematics and either poetry, literature or aesthetics. Although this theme essentially disappears by the end of the book, it is important towards the beginning and this may be of interest to some readers. It is at first only because Haldane IV is looking for an excuse to get to know Helix that he starts looking into the mathematics of poetry and literature. However, he does eventually get interested in it himself. The book seems to suggest that there is no aesthetics of mathematics (a statement with which I strongly disagree), but the idea of trying to understand, analyze and/or produce literary aesthetics using mathematics makes at least a little bit of sense. I'm not sure I can see it ever eliminating our desire for human poets, as the book suggests. But, I would guess that there are at least some things of interest one could produce through such an analysis.

Although math and mathematicians get mentioned on nearly every page of the book, there is no real mathematics discussed (and Fairweather's work is only presented in the loosest of terms). Still, clearly, mathematics is very important to this novel. Unfortunately, the book has not aged well. Not only does it seem somewhat sexist and racist (although I suspect the author may have intended quite the opposite), the whole viewpoint on religion, authority and love seem quite dated. In particular, I think that if I could put myself in the mindset of a young adult in the late 1960's, I'd be able to read this book and say "Wow, man. What a trip! Like Boyd says, man. Peace and love. Down with the man, man. Etc." However, seeing as I was only 1 year old when this book was published, all I can say now is "Well...THAT was weird!"

Of course, other readers may feel differently. For instance:

Contributed by JG McEvoy

Hi. Liked your comments, but we'll agree to disagree. Along with Boyd's reversal of romantic protocols in The RakeHells Of Heaven, Starship is the closest SF has ever come to literature. The novel starts out as alernative history and ends as theology, 30 years before the D Code. It is not sexist but celebrant of sensuality. Women are a quick equation because they are inspired. The Math is not hard science but it is interesting to know that even in alternative timeline talent will out (Fairweather/Einstein - Jesus/Judas). One more thing - this is not a young author - Boyd was fifty when he published this, his first novel. How many new authors would re-write the sermon on the mount as a math poem? Glad to have met someone else who like it. JG.

Contributed by Donald Hackler

I first read this book as a senior in high school. Your comments to the effect that this is a very 60s book are, pardon the expression, Right On! By the way, I still own the book and still find it very humorous. I won't say it was influential in my decision to become a mathematician, but it is a book with which I still identify to this day.

What is especially different about the book is its presentation of someone who is most definitely a, uh, math geek as a fairly sophisticated man of the world. His life is not confined just to his fellow math students and faculty, and when he meets the woman who is "the one", he goes after her with single minded intensity. If this means reading entire volumes of poetry just to get her attention, so be it. Mathematicians are real people, too. And, according to the book, quite virile, too.

I ought to mention, I especially enjoy the sections of the book involving the trial and the events leading up to it. A truly wicked parody of our legal system, not to mention sociologists, psychologists and theologians.

Contributed by Ryan

I mainly bought the book because of the great late 60's sci-fi slip cover art. The book was entertaining and thought provoking to some extent. Not too bad.

Contributed by Chuck

LVSquared= -T , I thought I would never meet anyone who knew about this great book . I was very young when I read it, about 15 , and it had a great impact on my attitude towards math. I have not seen this book since then , no libraries I know carry it . I would love to journey back in time , so to speak , and see what my impressions would be now .

Contributed by Jake

I'm fifteen years old and I just finished reading the book. It is one of the most, if not the most intelligent bit of litriture I've ever read. It beautifully combined remarkably intelligent and interesting mathematical concepts to an inspiring and bold story about romance, crime, society and the entire history of mankind. AMAZING!

Contributed by Helix Fairweather

I just thought I would write to tell you my story. I am 62 years old. I read The Last Starship From Earth years and years ago and LOVED it! I went back to college in mid-life. While working on my BS in Phyiscs (minor in Math), I realized that I had always disliked my given name plus I had the last name of a husband I hadn't been married to for years. Since I would be earning a long-awaited college degree, I wanted a name I liked on that diploma. After a lot (and I mean a LOT) of soul searching, I chose the name Helix Fairweather and had my name legally changed to that. In a small niche of life (dog training), I am fairly well-known but to date, NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON has ever recognized where my name came from! People ask and I tell them but no one has ever read the book. I'm sure you were shocked to see "Helix Fairweather" listed as my name on this form but I assure you, it's not a joke. That is really my name. :)

Contributed by Steve

This was one of the books that was assigned in a science fiction class at San Francisco State University in the 60s. I pretty much read every novel that Boyd published and found every one to be exceptionally entertaining. Last Starship is like a sci-fi version of 1984 with a sense of humor. I could relate to Hal living two thousand years and hanging out on a college campus trying to get laid while awaiting deliverance back to Hell. I have always wondered what happened to the author. He seemed so under appreciated to me. I'm sure that any sf fan who has read Boyd can think of some big name writers who have produced work that is very dull in comparison.

I will never forget the experience of purchasing The Gorgon Festival in a hip bookstore in Palo Alto. The young feminist sales clerk quite loudly chastized me for my taste in literature. (Feminists tended to be loud, angry and aggressively opinionated back then.) Clearly she had never read Boyd, but she had an immediate reaction to the cover which depicted an old woman's head atop a suggestively posed bikini clad Barbi bod.

I missed the part about Last Starship being sexist. Perhaps I should re-read it. Boyd's novels were full of fun sex. Sex with alien plants?...why not. Try it; you'll like it. I used to find many of his paperbacks in used bookstores in Portland, OR as recently as ten years ago. I always grabbed The Last Starship and gave it to friends.

Contributed by Elaine Nwajei

Novels read as a teenager always result in a very different viewpoint 55 years later. At the time The Last Starship from Earth was bewildering, but now more normalised; however, I do not think anyone else has written anything quite like it. At the time I thought the plot was impossible and it was very blasphemous. The fact that the themes still remain in my memory testifies to its originality and its thought provoking impact. I had forgotten the author and title, so thank you for this website which I found after considerable searching. I remembered that Judas Iscariot had toothache at the end (am I right?) but searching on Google using those terms got me nowhere. In the end I used some less specific terms but had to read lots of book summaries to get here. When I found out the title, it made a lot of sense why I had picked it out in the library to borrow and read in those days, thinking it is a regular space adventure. Another totally original and provocative book I read in those days was Catch-22. I do not understand why Catch-22 is famous but The Last Starship is not.

Okay, now I'm going to say something about the ending of the book. If you want to READ the book yourself, you should stop reading this now. Only scroll down if you want to see how the book ends.

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Okay, so in the end it turns out that Helix is Fairweather I's grand-daughter. She was sent to Earth (from Hell) specifically to find a mathematician and TRICK him into committing a crime so that he'd be sent to Hell. Hell is not really a place of punishment, as it turns out. The Pope, as designed by Fairweather, sends COOL lawbreakers there and they have a rather perfect society up there. No death, no crime, lots of love and happiness. Oh, and it isn't REALLY an ice least not all year. They just arranged for the ships from Earth to only come there during the cold season so that they don't realize how nice it is the rest of the year. Fairweather II, who is still alive on Hell, also discovered the time travel version of Fairweather I's theory and he wanted to bring Haldane IV there for an important mission: they send him back in time to fix things on Earth. So, he goes back to Jesus' time and (using the pseudonym "Judas") turns Jesus in to the authorities so that he'll be a martyr for peace and love instead of for violence and justice. After faking Jesus' death with some drugs he uses his time ship (which is disguised to look like a boulder) to send Jesus to Hell (presumably after using it to block the cave where Jesus' "body" is placed). So, there is a sense in which Haldane IV/Judas Iscariot saved mankind. He saved it from the evil "State" that tries to control our lovelives. By the way, Haldane doesn't age because of the treatment he got on Hell from Fairweather II, stays on earth and lives into the 20th century where he goes by the name of "Hal Dane" in a world that looks much more like the one we know. Isn't it groovy?

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Works Similar to The Last Starship from Earth
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Drode's Equations by Richard Grant
  2. The Unteleported Man (aka Lies Inc.) by Philip K. Dick
  3. Statistician's Day by James Blish
  4. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
  5. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  6. The Curve of the Snowflake by William Grey Walter
  7. The Memory of Whiteness by Kim Stanley Robinson
  8. Four Brands of Impossible by Norman Kagan
  9. The Fairy Chessmen by Henry Kuttner
  10. Eifelheim by Michael Flynn
Ratings for The Last Starship from Earth:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
3.2/5 (10 votes)
Literary Quality:
3.9/5 (10 votes)

GenreScience Fiction,
MotifTime Travel, Romance, Religion,
TopicMathematical Physics, Fictional Mathematics,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)