As with LEVEL 7 by Mordecai Roshwald, Mark S. Geston’s LORD OF THE STARSHIP is a SF novel written by someone who isn’t very productive but who manages to write something substantial each time he takes on the SF genre. When a non-genre writer goes slumming he or she is met with skepticism, yet such visitors tend to shape the way the genre is viewed by the critical press. (Margaret Atwood seems to have defined the dystopia genre for everyone, damn her Canadian literary snob soul.)
LORD OF THE STARSHIP concerns a dying Earth where humanity is in a state of long-term depletion. Everything just kind of sucks here, so the powers-that-be of one battling nation decide to refurbish the ancient yards and build a giant starship. It’s a nightmarish stimulus project that will take centuries and more resources than the nation can afford. But hey, the people need a dream, so onward.
The novel is episodic, jumping ahead many years, often after the characters in the previous section have died. The unity of place/situation is what carries the story forward. Geston isn’t writing about Heinleinian heroes–he isn’t writing about heroes at all. He’s writing about how a government manipulates the people’s need for dreams. I suspect modern readers will staple their own politics to the idea, but coming out in 1967 makes me suspect the writer had Vietnam and especially the Space Race in mind. A nation’s people like a communal dream.
This is an Idea Novel supported by Geston’s fine descriptions of the beaten-down, washed-out world ruined by endless war. He visits the players over time as the starship construction goes on and on and on. The climax, in which it is being peopled with colonists to head for the stars and is put to use in a very different way, is a scene that is very much of its era. It’s a very anti-military, anti-government plot turn and sums up the book’s theme of the people needing a big event to distract them from the misery of their daily lives.