I don’t really know what to think about this book, because I’m not sure how much of it is serious, and how much is tongue-in-cheek. It takes place in a future where the state is run by Soc(iologists), Psyc(hologists), and the Church (led by a mechanical pope, a huge computer in a monstrous church building). People have their life and careers regulated by their family status, with the state assigning partners and keeping tabs. Also, there are starships that are only used to bring prisoners to the planet Hell. Apparently their history diverged from ours when Jesus didn’t die young, but instead marched on Rome, successfully. (The divergance is tiny for that sort of change, but hey.)
The protagonist, a somewhat obnoxious brilliant young mathematician, Haldane IV, falls in love with a young woman from the artistic class, Helix. But falling in love is super verboten, so while she awakens his mind to poetry and emotions, they’re in constant danger of getting caught. Then, of course, they get caught. It turns out that the protagonist has the “Fairweather syndrome”, which means he is brilliant and dangerous to society, so they get shipped off to Hell. There it turns out everybody is flourishing, it’s dissenter hell, intentionally designed into the system. And they have time machines, and have to send Haldane back in time to prevent Jesus from doing his thing. In a breakneck speed on the last couple of pages, he succeeds, and apparently spirits Jesus away onto the titular last starship, sending him to the colony on Hell, and choosing to stay behind as the itinerant Eternal Jew. Yes.
So here is a thing: For the first quarter of the book, I low-key expected a reveal that everybody was a robot, left behind on Earth, because everybody was terribly wooden and formal and unmoved and really very robotic. I guess that’s meant to be due to their rigid social order, but I can’t suspend my disbelief that much. Just like Jo Walton can’t believe Plato’s Republic, I can’t suspend my disbelief to assume a society where everybody behaves like this, where a total reglementation of marriages is accepted as common and good, and people following their, ugh, “primal urges” is basically unheard-of.
In the same way, you could attribute all opinions about Helix to the protagonist being pompous and raised in a terrible society, but they come across as too neat, too women-am-I-right-mate. Even with the final reveal that Helix was sent to get Haldane to Hell, and is really quite brilliant, it didn’t feel like it made up for the bulk of the book. If you’re charitable, you have to assume that we get an entire book presented through the lens of a pompous self-important mathematician, so you can just laugh it all off – but it didn’t click for me. Maybe it’s just that humour markers were lost in time, the 60s were another country after all. Anyways, I didn’t enjoy it very much, even though parts of it – the mechanical Pope! – were creative and neat.