the Little Red Reviewer

Lords of the Starship, by Mark Geston

Posted on: January 12, 2015

the books of the warsLords of the Starship by Mark Geston (book 1 in the Books of the Wars omnibus)

first published in 1967

where I got it: purchased omnibus new (published in 2009)

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This trilogy came highly recommended by a friend who described the novels as “grim and bleak”, so I went in expecting some kind of Abercrombie-esque grimdark violence. What the story actually has couldn’t be further from what I expected, but I still can’t think of any better words for it than “grim” and “bleak”. The Books of the Wars trilogy includes the novels The Lords of the Starship, Out of the Mouth of the Dragon, and The Siege of Wonder. So far, I have only read the first book in the series.

Written in 1967, The Lords of the Starship was Geston’s  first published novel, and hit bookstore shelves when he was only 20 years old.   In his introduction, Geston mentions this was written against the background of the Civil Rights struggle, the Vietnam War and the growing Cold War, and many critics have mentioned that these books reflect the feelings of hopelessness and futility they experienced during these times.  It’s a connection I can never have with these books, a separation. Something interesting to think about when I read older fiction – that I am reading it out of, and with no context.  I imagine something similar would happen when someone who was born in 2014 grows up and reads something “older” that was written as a reaction to 9/11.

The Lords of the Starship takes place thousands of years in our future and Earth has become a wasteland. Buildings and cities still exist, along with high tech items sitting around, but no one has any idea how to use or fix them, so they have been left to fall to dust. It’s very much a Dying Earth style atmosphere, where science is seen as a sorcery of sorts. People tell tales of ancient civilizations that came to ruin, and names and places you and I would recognize have been so changed over the eons that nothing on the map even looks familiar. Dangerous knowledge is kept locked up in Black Libraries, only to be used by government agencies.  It is a bleak picture, where most of humanity has lost hope, living nihilistic lives, no longer interested in doing anything that helps their society move forward. People feel imprisoned on a planet that fights them every step of the way. The world can not possibly go on like this, so how can people get their hope back? Is it worth it to even try?

 

One of the first things that happens to get the story going is General Toriman of the Republic of Caroline sharing his plan to save humanity with a government official. The plan is quickly approved and put into action, especially since Toriman has old researches and design plans salvaged from ancient engineers and libraries. The plan involves building a gigantic spaceship, one that can carry humanity to a new home, a planet that isn’t dying. Toriman’s plans give details instructions for everything from engines to wing struts to power output. Industries across the country will work tirelessly towards creating everything needed for the ship, including wiring, huge metal panels, interior workings, and engine parts. Everyone finally has something positive to work for, something to look forward to, something their children will be proud of.

 

Toriman’s plan? It’s all a ruse. The Ship will never leave the ground, ever. Items constructed and electricity generated for the ship will be sent elsewhere in the country.  By “working towards the Ship”, citizens will really be working towards improving their own home planet. It is a beautiful lie.  A beautiful lie that has them working towards something positive, working towards a world they will actually want their children to inherit.

 

More impressive than the growing Ship is the growing mythology around it. In “Wag the Dog” fashion, stories are promoted and songs are written, with the propaganda reaching an art form. Humanity’s new planet is even named, as if we already know exactly where it is, what we can farm there, and how long it will take to get there.  Do the people want a new home, or do they simply want something to believe in?

 

I’m so used to character driven stories that it was at first hard to wrap my brain around the idea that Lords of the Starship does not have a main character, or really in fact, any important characters (ok, there is one important character, but no one really knows who he is). Every few pages the story jumps forward months, years or decades, to show the progress of the Ship being built, and how the government is building the lie around it, and how people involved with the Ship have changed their thinking.   Eventually I realized I shouldn’t be worried about missing a connection to the characters,  because they don’t really matter. The Ship is the main character.  It was very odd to read a book with practically no characterization whatsoever.

 

Of course, some people know the plan is a ruse. When it’s time to test the engines, the technicians are told to make the test look like it worked, to report that it worked, but to not actually expect anything to happen. They report that as built, these engines could, and should work just fine. Scientists, technicians, engineers (known as Technos), and government officials who know the secret are segregated from the rest of society for two reasons: to discourage them from accidentally leaking the secret, and to surround them with the aura of a religious priesthood.

 

As the decades pass, and the face of Caroline changes, on the other side of the continent the rulers of the Dressau Islands have noticed technological rumblings in the countryside of their usually backwards neighbor.   No need for myths of magical Ships that will take you to the stars here, the residents of Dressau live in the first world, and don’t have a hopeless existence. Admiral Radlov has a hunch about who and what is behind the Ship and its growing mythos, and he decides to invade Caroline, and see who comes out of the shadows.  What had been  controllable skirmishes between the Technos and the people over control of the Ship suddenly explodes in a three way battle.

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I’ve mentioned the bleakness of the story, and maybe some of that has come out in this review. Even so, there is a lot of hope in The Lords of the Starship, and I do hope to read the complete trilogy.  While discussing the book with my friend who recommended it, I asked him if he could tell me anything about the other two books without spoiling anything, specifically if a particular person shows up again. He said yes, that person shows up, but in unrecognizable form. I can’t tell you who that person is, but knowing they show up again is enough right there to keep me reading!

2 Responses to "Lords of the Starship, by Mark Geston"

Sounds pretty cool. I like the idea of there being no true main character, it allows the writer to escape all the usual contrived plotlines and do something interesting. I’ll have to pick this up sometime.

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I enjoyed the whole trilogy, though I think it’s an operatic pathos that only a young man can express. It’s certainly unconventional.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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