Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Looking Back on the Lords of the Starship

Back in 1967, while the rest of the world was lighting up, kicking back and enjoying the Summer of Love, I came across an Ace paperback titled Lords of the Starship (G-673) by Mark S. Geston. It had one of the most evocative covers I have ever seen on a book. After reading on the back: "The ship was to be seven miles long, a third of a mile in diameter and have a wingspan of three and a half miles. It would take two and a half centuries to construct" there was nothing else to do but plunk down two quarters and go off into a wonderful world of super-science, or so I thought.

At the time, I was a futurist. I did not really think I would see flying cars by the Year 2000 (though I hoped so), I did believe that the ills of the world would be solved through technology and science, that starving millions would be fed by scientific farming, that the world would embrace peace once everyone's standard of living had been raised by ubiquitous technology and that the the frontier of human experience would be expanded by colonization of the solar system and journeys to the stars beyond. Unfortunately, the future turned out not to be quite what I had envisioned. I'm no longer a futurist, not even much of an optimist anymore, and quite often I find myself thinking, Where are we going so fast, and what are we all doing in this hand basket? But back in '67, I still thought the future was going to be a great place. I dove into Lords of the Starship, thinking it might be something like what John W. Campbell and Doc Smith wrote back in the Thirties. However, instead of the bright future I expected I found a dark and dismal place, and a humanity sapped of hope and vitality, a race on a collision course with its own entropic demise. It not only depressed me, it confused me. Now, not so much.

Thousands of years from now, a despairing humanity is set to the task of building a massive starship for the purpose of abandoning Earth for a planet called Home. The project, however, is a sham. The ship will never be built. Its only purpose is to revitalize humanity. There are revolutions and wars, and when the People vanquish the duplicitous "Technos," the ship really is built and humanity prepares to escape to the stars. Except, the power of the starship is turned against both makers and foes before it and the millions aboard are destroyed. Surveying the devestation is the man who, in various guises, began the project and protected it over the centuries so he could ultimately destroy it, a man who real purpose was to vanquish the military might and social will of the nations involved so his own forces could take over.

Despite the dark tone of the book, I still enjoyed it, and when two sequels were written I enjoyed them as well. I read and re-read the original book and still have the book I traded two quarters for. In the Eighties, I edited a literary journal called Cerberus. For my second issue, I contacted Mark Geston, then a lawyer, and asked him about the book (his first!), written when he was still a student at Kenyon College. He said he had wanted to explore the theme of magic vs technology and did so by juxtaposing the tools of a technological culture upon a world descended into a sort of fantasy realm inhabited by mutants and menaced by "dark powers."

It's been fifty years now, and I've had a chance to reevaluate both the book and my own attitudes. When I watch the the news or read reports on the internet, I understand that Geston was right about the future and I was wrong. It did not, however, take thousands of years to reach the brink.