John Boyd made an impressive debut in the late sixties, wrote a succession of witty and sometimes brilliant books in the early seventies, and then seems to have sputtered out. Most of his science fiction is lightly macabre. Boyd would take a premise -- sometimes horrifying, sometimes merely whimsical -- and, without quite sinking to parody or farce, have fun with it. The actual gravity of the situation was rarely allowed to get in the way of his brilliant but offbeat characters' preoccupations. At its best, the result is clever and entertaining. At its less-than-best, there's something about Boyd's writing which reminds one of a little boy peaking into the girls' bathroom. Among Boyd's books:
"The Last Starship from Earth" (***+) is the impressive debut to which I referred -- his first and best book. Even it falls short of being an "sf classic", but it's fun to read. The story is prefaced by an excerpt from Lincoln's Johannesburg Address -- the part where he points out that "Acceleration of light quanta, while sweeping aside old boundaries of physical science, issues grave warnings to the social sciences." So the reader has fair warning that the future described in this book is an 'alternate future'. It's a future in which Haldane IV, being a fourth-generation mathematician, is expected to marry another mathematician, and has no chance of being allowed to marry the poet he loves. Haldane comes up with a fairly interesting, if unsentimental, solution to the problem -- computerize the poetry department, forcing a merger of the poetry department into math. (It's not that unreasonable, in a world where the Pope is already solid-state.) Before he can pull it off he is caught (Helix, his love, turns up pregnant), identified as a potential revolutionary, and sentenced to the planet known as Hell. Hell turns out to be *full* of potential revolutionaries, and some of them have identified a key point in history where a time-travelling mathematician might bring down this Earth's society.
"What says the prosecution?" Malak asked.
Flaxon turned to shield his signal from the bench and held up one finger on one hand and four on the other. Haldane quickly deciphered the code to the prosecuting attorney: if he granted the indulgence, Franz saw the first race; if he didn't, Flaxon would stall the hearing into the fourth race.
"Franz promptly intoned, "Indulgence agreed to."
"The Gorgon Festival" (***) is Boyd's skewed look at the sixties. The book begins with Alexander Ward's discovery of a youth serum. It appears that he has nothing to do but wait for the Nobel committee to call -- until Ruth Gordon, an unintentionally-insulted friend, makes off with a quantity of the serum, frames him for her murder, and disappears to combine three of her own interests: money, gerontology, and population reduction. Ward perforce gives himself the youth treatment and gives chase -- a chase which ends at a "love festival" in which Ward and Gordon both have an opportunity to put their theories to a test.
"Ester were you grieving
When you hear my cycle leaving..."
Glamorgen was studying the script.
"...Why don't we use 'Mary'? That's an honest name....or even Margaret."
"Not Margaret," Ward interjected.
"The Organ Bank Farm" (***) begins a few years after a plague has reduced the world's population from eleven billion, to a more manageable three.Which may or may not have anything to do with the recruitment of James Galloway, by his former Chemical-and-Biological-Warfare superior, to a psychiatric research facility. Psychiatric research really does go on there -- with few controls on the researchers' methods -- but it begins to appear that the less successful patients are doubling as spare parts. Galloway fits right in. This is one of Boyd's more macabre efforts.
Honorable mentions go to "The IQ Merchants" (***), in which a small research laboratory develops a drug that greatly increases the intelligence of those subjects it doesn't kill, and to "Sex and the HighCommand" (***-), in which a cabal of women, having developed a drug which renders men superfluous, goes to work on the problem of rendering them extinct. (Do you begin to sense a pattern?) Dishonorable mentions go to "Andromeda Gun" (*), a bad western with a science fictional element, and to "The Rakehells of Heaven" (*+), in which a scoutship is sent out to look for worlds to conquer -- i.e., any worlds not meeting stringent technological, biological, and sexual criteria.
As I've indicated, I have mixed feelings about Boyd. (He was more fun to read when I was in my teens.) If you haven't read any of his books, you could do worse than to give "The Last Starship From Earth" a try.
Dani Zweig email@example.com