(John Shoenherr’s cover for the 1967 edition)
Mark S. Geston’s first novel Lords of the Starship (1967), written at the age of 21 while he was an undergraduate history student, revolves around a fascinating premise: The construction of a massive (fake) spaceship intended to lift a society out of a crippling malaise. The narrative covers hundreds of years and seemingly innumerable characters. The lack of distinct characters is the most frustrating aspect of the work. However, the extremely dark tone and satirical underpinnings lift the novel above the endless morass of earlier pulp sci-fi.
For fans of 50s/60s space opera and more traditionalist 60s science fiction (i.e. lacking New Wave tendencies) with some sociological content…
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)
Sometime in the distant future society has reverted to an almost perpetual Dark Age after millennia of constant war (at one point with forces nebulously known as The Dark Powers). The landscape is filled with unusual mutants and the relics of past technologically superior empires and peoples: “For every legend there are ten actual wonders. The hulks of great ships, aircraft, and machines litter the edges of the World, and not even the legends attempt to understand them” (18).
Large portions of the beginning of the novel attempt to make manifest the extreme state of malaise – a state of mind where people have completely given up – afflicting the surviving inhabitants of the world. Here I did not find Geston altogether successful. Often he resorts to telling us how society is afflicted rather than showing. After millennia of a lack of new technology, absence of new easily maintained centralized empires, and lesser cultural production than what was produced in previous Golden Ages, one would think that people would eventually just make due with what they have. I’m not sure that they would not endlessly reminisce about some distant past of which they have little to no recollection of. The past would by mythic era rather than a history one could compare to current society. I would argue that Geston is thinking like a historian retrospectively looking at an era and ascribing a historian’s conception of so-called dark age to the mental state of the people living in the past. But this is not in itself a major problem but does make a few early portions feel forced.
There are slightly indications that what we’re reading is a historical text — suggested by the historical fragment that forms the preface and the vast time and sheer quantity of characters the narrative covers. If this aspect had been played up more — i.e. the book we’re reading is a piece of history — the ascribed malaise would have to be interpreted through the lens of time and authorial bias. But, such experimental works would come later in the 60s and early 70s.
The main narrative is as follows. Sir Henry Limpkin is called before General Toriman, an aged veteran of the Caroline Republic, one of the few marginally successful extant states. Toriman proposes a spectacular stratagem to rile the populace out of their malaise, the construction of a massive seven mile long spaceship. The catch is simple. Those behind the project know that the spaceship is not meant to function — rather, electrical power, talent, new technology going into its construction will be diverted back into society. For the people the Starship Victory will be a manifest sign of better times to come — future settlement on a new paradisal planet.
The Sir Henry Limplin and future generations of Caroline people working on the new spaceship wage war nearby mutants inorder to utilize a massive river, journey to ancient space yards near the coast where all the necessary parts for the spaceship are mysteriously well preserved, and divide society into those that know of the “real” purpose of the project (Technos) and the ignorant populace who believe they will be transported off planet when it’s completed.
Soon rival kingdoms and peoples threaten the vessel. And an array of mysterious signs indicate another power at work….
I found that the pacing and lack of distinct characters weakens Geston’s intended dark tone and blunts his satirical jabs at human nature. The world in which novel takes place is intended to be vast and detailed in scope. But as a result, Geston resorts to lengthy expository passages which often describe hundreds of years in a few paragraphs. I would tentatively suggest that a novel constructed from a series of linked novellas placed at certain important points in the history of the construction of the starship would have been more effective.
That said, this is a remarkable first novel and I intend to seek out more of Geston’s works: Out of the Mouth of the Dragon (1969), The Day Star (1972), and The Siege of Wonder (1976).
Thankfully, Lords of the Starship was recently re-published in one volume with Out of the Mouth of the Dragon (1969) and The Siege of Wonder (1976) (amazon link).
(Uncredited cover for the 1972 edition)
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