I’ll probably write up my own thoughts about this in a while, but I was happy to appear in Mike Duquette’s Hollywood and Spine newsletter to answer some questions about Vonda N. McIntyre’s excellent adaptation of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
If you’re not reading this fun look at a now-obscure art form, you should sign up. It’s free! The internet loves
A dark plan has been unleashed in the galaxy, a design so vast, only a collective – and ruthless – mind like the Totality could have conceived it. Now Captain Kirk must battle the seductive force of the Totality’s will…
It was reasonable that Captain Kirk and Federation Free Agent Sola Thane would fall in love. But no reasoning in the universe could have foreseen the tragedy of Spock’s own passion for the same woman.
Now this unimaginable conflict could cost Captain Kirk his very soul, and bring death to the proud Vulcan. But in the unimaginable, lies their only chance, and the freedom of the galaxy depends on the outcome of the…
Marshak and Culbreath hate the Star Trek that was written, produced, and broadcast in the 1960s and there’s no point in trying to read their books if you enjoyed it.
You had my curiosity…now you have my attention.
As I mentioned in my overview of their previous Pocket novel, Marshak and Culbreath were titans in the early Star Trek fan scene, running zines, organizing events, writing reams of fan fiction, etc. The thing is, you never see any of this adoration for the property in their licensed writing.1The one-and-a-half novels I’ve read of it, anyway.
With The Prometheus Design and Triangle, the authors seem to have gotten paid for some sort of AU version of the property, one in which all of the charm and humanity of our favorite characters was replaced with aggressive, unpleasant sexual tension.
I’ll put it simply: these women are horny. In fact, they may have been hornier than Gene Roddenberry, who, as you know, was horny to the detriment of his work, his relationships, and his health. It’s not a fun horniness that permeates their work, though. It’s a cruel take on sexuality that just doesn’t fit in with Star Trek. 2And yes, I know about the Mirror Universe Kira.
Maybe you’re just a prude?
That’s a fair point.
One of the things I’ve always liked about Trek is that (until the All-Access series started, at least) is that it was all-ages friendly. I’m pretty sure that my parents let me buy whatever Trek novel I wanted as a kid in the ’80s because they knew that I wasn’t going to be dealing with the sort of things that Stephen King or V.C. Andrews were peddling.
Now, one could argue that they were working with the framework presented in The Motion Picture3The book is explicitly set in that period. where Kirk and Spock are both a bit more remote, but at the end of that movie, it’s plain that things are going to be pretty normal for our space pals after this.
If they’d done any of the work to get to the point we see the characters at in the beginning of Triangle, I might well have given them more leeway. With their earlier Pocket novel, they at least established that things in the galaxy were getting weird and that our characters were undergoing a mental assault that led to some odd behavior. Here, it seems like Culbreath and Marshak simply chose to ignore what’s canonically presented on-screen so they could explore their kinks and proclivities. Ignoring the characters and tone of the franchise you are writing for defeats the point of writing for that franchise.
Anyway, you didn’t finish the book and are instead going to complain here.
Short version: bad novel, bad writers, glad to have written this so I can close the book on them forever.
Oh, hey there. Can you believe it’s been over a month since I wrote one of these? I know, I know. I’m just not delivering the value you expect from a blog about Star Trek novels that are old enough to be on their second mortgage, but what can I say? It’s been a rough few weeks for me, everyone I know, the nation at large, and the entirety of planet Earth.
Astute readers are going to wonder why I’m not covering the novelization of Star Trek II, since it was next in the publication order. That’s because if things align correctly, I’m going to get a nice collaboration in with Mike Duquette over at Hollywood and Spine.1 I can’t say enough good things about this newsletter. It’s a great look at an art that most people just don’t know about in the modern era.
Okay, fanboy. Get to it.
Here’s my favorite part of these posts, because I don’t have to do any thinking, the back cover copy:
SPOCK A TRAITOR?
There is sabotage aboard the Enterprise, and Spock’s investigation leads him into defiance of the Federation and a bizarre alliance with the Romulan and Klingon Empires against the bloodthirsty Tomarii—a savage race for whom war and battle are life itself.
Now Spock has been declared a traitor and condemned to the shame of the Federation’s highest security prison. And now Captain James Kirk must face the toughest decision of his command, while a lifelong friendship and the destiny of the free universe hang in the balance!
If you can’t tell already, this book is a lot.
As the introduction by Theodore Sturgeon2 Sonni Cooper actually handed him an early version of this novel at a Star Trek convention years before. notes, it starts with a literal bang, with a devastated bridge and the ship spiraling out of control. Kirk’s near death, Spock has a sliver of metal embedded near his spine and Scotty and the rest of the crew have to scramble to save everyone they can before ordering the separation of the saucer section. Over just ten pages, Sonni Cooper gives us a setup, offers up some plot complications, and introduces a mystery, and I can’t help but admire that.
Hot damn, I’m into this so far!
In fact, the first third of this book is really engaging, even if there are the sections where clumsy, too-thick exposition is used instead of actually writing out a scene or two. It rockets through the plot3 I refuse to use any warp speed puns here. with an indefatigable eagerness, and you can tell that Cooper is really excited about what comes next. It seems like every five pages or so, a new plot twist is introduced, and for a while there’s some real tension about what might happen, but it hits the wall that a lot of thrillers hit: so many big moments and revelations coming one after the other becomes dull without some masterful storytelling backing it up.
Okay, give me the big bits of the plot, preferably delivered in easily-digestible bullet points.
What about a numbered list here and some bullet points later?
After mind-melding with Sulu, Spock traces the cause of the explosion that nearly killed the entire bridge crew: a cadet who had joined the crew for her first tour in space. She had handed Kirk a booby-trapped tablet before fucking off in the turbolift.
With Scotty’s help, Spock returns to the saucer section for a brief reconnoiter and discovers more about the mysterious Isabel Tomarii, who left two pieces of key evidence in her quarters: a piece of paper with some mysterious doodles on it and a bottle that contained some very strong depilatory.
During the formal inquisition about the explosion and what’s happened, Spock presents this evidence to Starfleet, who inform everyone present that what happened was definitely an accident.
Spock says “No, fuck that, I’ve found a disappearing cadet, a very powerful bottle of Nair, and what seems to be a star chart,” and convinces Scotty to help him track down Tomarii.
(Reminder: he’s doing all this while in incredible pain thanks to a finger-length piece of metal that’s likely to leave him paralyzed if he takes one bad step.)
Scotty and Spock end up on a planet they’ve decided to call Quest.
So have contingents of Romulans and Klingons.
They all get got by a bunch of short, hairy humanoids who have a chemical rocket. Note: We’re on page 40 at this point.
From here, the captives are brought back to the Tomarii homeworld and are promptly enslaved and groomed for battle because that’s just the kind of assholes these people are.
The former Isabel Tomarii 4Who took her pseudonym from the name of her people, much like my porn name is Hugedong Earther, Ilsa, is something of a leader in their culture and she gets herself a big old crush on Spock because, I mean, who wouldn’t, right? Spock takes that wrong step, gets paralyzed, almost makes kisses on one of the captured Romulans, but that doesn’t work out well.
After some weird caveman cosplay, both Scotty and Spock are rescued and promptly court-martialed for stealing a ship5Spock gets some spine surgery, btw, and a dramatic plot complication is resolved inside a paragraph. . Because Scotty was just following Spock’s orders, he gets a year off starship duty and a teaching position. As the instigator, Spock gets Space Alcatraz. Kirk tries to intervene on his behalf, but Spock refuses his help.
While in Space Alcatraz, Spock meets a very handsome Romulan space pirate named Desus. Spock decides his friendship with JTK is over and Desus is his best friend now.
They escape, become space pirates, blah blah blah, turns out Desus is actually with the Romulan military, blah blah blah, everything comes back to the Romulans and the Enterprise teaming up to lay siege upon Tomarii and demand their surrender.
Now hang on there, Spock stole a spaceship, escaped Space Alcatraz, became a space pirate, and joined the Romulan military. Surely there are consequences!
Nope. The last two pages are like the last minute of almost every episode of Star Trek: everyone is gathered on the bridge, some jokes are made, and they all have a laugh as the ship goes off to its next adventure.
I last read this book in 1987, so I had no idea if this was all going to be somebody (probably Kirk’s) wild-ass coma dream or if Spock was going to turn out to be running some kind of deep-cover spy game.
I’ll let you guess what happens.
We’re at the part of this where I list some random notes about this book.
This is the greatest number of times you’ll encounter the world “depilatory” in any kind of non-fetish fiction.
At one point, it’s mentioned that one-eighth of the galaxy is under Tomarii control; this is never brought up again.
I liked how committed Spock was to his vegetarianism, even under life-threatening circumstances. This stood out to me because his ethics through the rest of the story are dubious, to say the least.6Cut to me saying “The Spock I know wouldn’t…”
During his time on the Tomarii homeworld, Scotty manages to distill some whiskey from mold and scrub grass because he is the hero we deserve.
There’s a really decent subplot with Kirk learning to work with his new first officer and engineer. One goes pretty well, the other doesn’t.
Cooper has a keen ear for dialogue; you can easily imagine this being adapted as an audio drama featuring the original crew.
The Romulan commander from “The Enterprise Incident” has one of those cameos that must have seemed achingly clever at the time. I adore it for trying so hard.
There’s some neat in-universe filigree that helps place this firmly after the TV series and before Star Trek: The Motion Picture. As part of the repair efforts on the Enterprise, the bridge is refitted a bit; the uniforms are changed; and for some reason, Cooper decided Chekov should be a lieutenant.7No, I won’t stop making fun of Chekov, ever.
So, did you enjoy this or what? Should I read it?
I’m not going to say this is a masterwork. It is, after all, Sonni Cooper’s first (and only Trek) novel and Hartwell and company’s dubious editorial standards have been noted here before, but her long association with the franchise8She was William Shatner’s personal manager for years and helped organize a number of conventions and zines and passion for the world is obvious.
If you see a cheap copy of Black Fire and want a deeply silly, fun Trek adventure that you can devour over the course of a lazy Sunday afternoon, then go for it. It’s definitely bigger and weirder than most of the licensed material being put out right now.
Hey, we’re back again. Strange times happening, my friends, and how better to deal with a pandemic that’s killing thousands, a President who refuses to do the most basic functions of his job, and weeks of at-home isolation than to read and then write about the next in the Pocket Books’ Star Trek novels of the 1980s, Lee Corey’s The Abode Of Life?
Have you tried alcohol as a coping mechanism instead?
More than you know.
So, here’s the back cover copy:
The citizens of Mercan cannot conceive of worlds beyond their own. Their sun, Mercaniad, is prone to deadly, radioactive flare-ups, and the Mercans have organized their life around the need to survive the Ordeal — until a strange visitor appears from out of nowhere…
The Enterprise, badly crippled and in desperate need of repairs, must seek help from a people who cannot believe in its existence. Mercaniad is about to blow, and James Kirk faces an impossible choice: to attack the sun itself and save his ship and crew — or let a people live in peace, in the only world they know…
The Abode of Life.
It just now strikes me that I should have read this summary before writing up one of my own, because it’s succinct and to-the-point.
Admit it, you did no such thing.
I will not admit it, because it’s not true! I actually sit with a real damn notepad and take notes with a pen like a damn animal as I write these, just in case I need to go into detail with these blog posts.
Sigh. I don’t need this. Not right now.
Anyway, while doing some science out in the unknown regions of the Orion Arm of the Milky Way, the Enterprise encounters a monstrous gravitic flux and is hurled across the depths of space and finds itself in a situation strikingly similar to that of the USS Voyager almost a century later1Of course, “the voyage and return” is one of the seven basic plots, sitting neatly between “a six hour phone call where you try to help your mom set up her new computer” and Barry Bostwick’s storyline in Topless Island 4.
They discover the planet Mercan not by its radio or subspace transmissions; it has none. Instead, they follow a radiation source — the planet’s transporters. They soon discover that Mercan’s isolated position (it’s the sole planet in a system from which the Milky Way is a thin band of light an unimaginable distance away) has caused the culture to evolve in such a way that there are no transportation or communication technologies in use, just teleportation.
That’s a pretty heavy sci-fi setup, and to talk about that, we’re going to have to go back to Lee Corey for a minute.
I just Googled him and…he’s not real?
Well, he was as real as “Richard Bachman” or “Wiz Khalifa.” It’s the pen name for G. Harry Stine, a scientist, author, and leading light in the world of model rocketry. Like The Klingon Gambit‘s Robert E. Vardman, he was part of the nascent aerospace scene in New Mexico2Which it appears he left abruptly after being fired by Martin for quoting from his own book when a reporter asked him about the Sputnik launch. before starting a career as a full-time nonfiction writer and public expert in spaceflight. He become a consultant to Rich Sternbach and Michael Okuda on Star Trek: The Next Generation in his later years, earning a “thank you” in the hugely popular Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual.
It’s easy to see the parallels between Stine and Arthur C. Clarke, a similarly intelligent individual who wrote non-fiction alongside “harder” science fiction with ease.
The problem with this, of course, is that Star Trek isn’t hard science fiction, and that friction shows.
First of all, I want to say there are some big ideas that I really liked :
An entire society goes into “keeps” built deep under their oceans to flee outbursts of Berthold rays.
There’s a cohesive creation myth on Mercan that is completely believable. My notes (see, I do write them) actually state how in-depth they are.
The commonplace use of the transporters meant things like communicators were completely foreign to the Mercans. Why call someone when you can just beam over?3I’ve often thought that the transporter would be the best thing ever to happen to the extramarital affairs industry.
But all of these ideas (which would fit very well in something like Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama series or Greg Bear’s Eon and its sequels) are kind of awkwardly folded and glued onto a very traditional four-act Star Trek episode structure in which:
The disabled and storm-tossed Enterprise finds themselves orbiting a strange new world.
A landing party beams down and discovers that there are three parties in control, each representing either keeping the status quo on Mercan (the Proctors and Guardians) or discovering the truth about the universe (the Technic).
Kirk and the landing party try to find a way to get the Enterprise the resources the ship needs without badly violating the prime directive, even as an upcoming solar flare threatens the crew.
Everything works out in the end thanks to the Enterprise Crew Being Very Clever.
I dunno, sounds just fine to me.
That’s the thing. With a novel, you get to do more, and it’s obvious that Stine wanted to. His style of science fiction just doesn’t work for Star Trek.
He stops the action dead in a few places to exposit quite heavily on his Very Cool Ideas while the rest of the text feels like a novelization of an unshot episode that used a lot of pre-existing sets and one new hallway, lit and photographed in different ways to try to make it look like it’s more than just a t-junction with a camera rig set in the middle.
When you compare The Abode of Life to efforts by later writers like Diane Duane’s excellent The Wounded Sky (which features a hyperintelligent glass spider bending the rules of physics to propel the Enterprise into the great unknown), Stine’s shortcomings as a Trek writer become more apparent. There’s also this overwhelming simplicity when it comes to the alien culture itself, which seems to stem from the writer’s deep belief in the free market of ideas and that laissez-faire capitalism was going to work out just fine.
Hang on, are you getting political again?
It’s not me getting political. Everything is political in some way; Star Trek even more so. Combining Roddenberry’s vision of humanity’s future with a writer who believes that the cream rises to the top leads to passages like this, which stung more than I can say with America in its present situation:
It was obvious to Kirk that Pallar was slowly beginning to open his mind. One thing for certain: Pallar was at least as intelligent as Prime Proctor Lenos. Leaders don’t rise to the top without a considerable amount of intelligence and wisdom, regardless of the culture in which they live.
Nobody is truly wrong in Stine’s work; they just need to be exposed to the truth, which they will quickly accept as being the right thing. It’s lazy and hackneyed and something I’ve always reacted poorly to whenever it showed up on any of the Trek series.
With a novel, you get room to explore these things a bit more and work towards an organic conclusion; this book doesn’t do that.
Okay, so give us the TL;DR conclusion.
The Abode of Life is thoroughly mediocre.
That’s what you said in the title. You could have saved yourself a lot of time here.
So. Before we start, I need to stay something that’s not quite a disclaimer. More like a pre-addendum. Preddendum? Surely that’s the word for introductory remarks about the subject of a text that are designed to provide some sense of scope and context.
I think that’s quite literally impossible to overstate the importance that this book’s authors have in the world of Star Trek fandom. In the 1970s, they went from the world of fanzines to organizing and writing in mass market paperback collections like Star Trek: The New Voyages. Marshak’s work in Star Trek Lives! let fans around the world know that they weren’t alone. They helped make slash fiction a thing1And no, I don’t want any comments complaining about people writing stories where Kirk and Spock kiss. Nobody is making you read them and I promise it’s okay if someone enjoys and celebrates a successful franchise differently than you do.. Their combined chutzpah and support from fandom got them a pair of the Bantam novels in the late 70s2The Price of the Phoenix and The Fate of the Phoenix. I’ve not read either and by the time you get to the end of this review, you’ll understand why. It’s obvious why David Hartwell signed them to another pair of books. As commercially-successful Trek writers, it was a no-brainer.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem anyone actually read the book before publication.
You don’t even know the half of it. Here’s the back cover copy, to give you some framing.
CAN THE GALAXY’S GROWING VIOLENCE BE STOPPED? Captain Kirk and his crew are on a mission to investigate the mysterious wave of violence that has overtaken the Helvans — revolutions, mass riots, horrible tortures. But this chaos is all part of an experiment by an unimaginable power that soon grips even the crew of the Enterprise.
Captain Kirk is plagued by violent hallucinations and removed from command. Spock takes charge but his orders seem irrational — even cruel.
Unless this terrible power can be stopped, not only the Enterprise, but an entire galaxy will be ensnared in the deadly grip of the…
BY THE BEST SELLING AUTHORS OF THE PRICE OF THE PHOENIX AND THE FATE OF THE PHOENIX!
The setup for this book is quintessential Trek. Once the unnecessary prologue (in which the reader is introduced to the antagonists through their discussion about our heroes) is out of the way, we start in media res with an Enterprise landing party investigating Helva. The planet has jumped two levels on the Richter Scale of Planetary Development in just two years, moving from the medieval era into something akin to the steam age, and along the way, the once-peaceful populace have become out-and-out savages. This is just the latest world this cataclysmic shift has happened to and our crew has to figure out who is behind this and perhaps more importantly, why.
It’s never as easy as just beaming down and asking a few questions, though, is it? Kirk goes missing (and is promptly found again, albeit with no idea of what just happened to him) just as the rest of the landing party realizes that they’re missing a significant chunk of the day themselves. Kirk’s amnesia teeters on the brink of a full-on meltdown as violent dreams plague him before a beefy old pointy-eared admiral named Savaj shows up, removes him from command3He still gets to be first officer, though, in a nice bit of dramatic irony that recalls Star Trek: The Motion Picture and his treatment of Will Decker, and announces that they’re going to be doing things in the Vulcan style going forward.
Vulcan Style? Is that like when you get salad instead of fries with your sandwich?
You’re funny. No, that means that the Enterprise is going to operate in the manner of a Vulcan crew, where the captain is always right and everyone follows their orders without question4Personally, this doesn’t sound like a logical way to operate a starship to me, and this is just the tip of the very weird iceberg that this book becomes. Savaj feels that only Vulcans possess the cognitive abilities and psychic strength to resist the inexorable forces that have caused such chaos in the galaxy.
That makes sense, though. They do have super-good brains.
That’s about as much sense as the book ever makes, though. It quickly becomes a series of events lacking in any thematic weight. These include:
Savaj uses Kirk and Spock’s connection to draw out the experimenters by brutally beating their asses at space karate5A Vulcan martial art named K’asumi. He doesn’t warn them of what he’s doing beforehand, of course, because that’d spoil the nature of his own experiments against the mysterious forces.
Spock wears the horns the landing party used to disguise themselves among the Helvans through the entire story. This is remarked upon twice but has no bearing on the story outside of “Ha ha ha Spock looks evil!”
Savaj does space yoga6Another Vulcan thing, this time named t’hyva with Kirk in an effort to, I dunno, make Spock jealous and jiggle the handle on their relationship?
There’s an abortive attempt by Spock and Savaj to investigate the goings-ons on Helvan that ends with a second landing party beaming down to rescue them and one of the experimenters being captured.
On the ship, Kirk gets brain-whammied and hacks the environmental computer in an attempt to kill Spock.
There’s a third landing party sent down with Spock, Savaj, Kirk, and McCoy looking for the location of the lab where the masterminds of this whole thing are.
While down on Helva, guess what? Kirk gets brain-whammied again, this time trying to kill Spock and Savaj with a stalagmite.
Blah blah blah, they confront the aliens behind the cataclysmic events and turns out they basically follow an anti-Prime Directive7I’m going to go into into how poorly this is handled later. Stick with me..
The climax features the two Vulcans in loincloths beating the crap out of each other with space karate while Kirk begs for a chance to give up his life so the rest of the galaxy can know peace.
On top of the weird and repetitive plotting, the writing itself is just plain bad.
(Quick aside: as I noted in my look at The Klingon Gambit, I want to enjoy the things I’m reading for this site. What I’m about to say and discuss doesn’t give me any real pleasure.)
Here we go! Hot fire about a Trek novel that’s old enough that you could legally marry without anyone saying “Hey, isn’t that book a bit young for Kevin?”
Okay, so there are a number of problems with Marshak and Culbreath’s prose and I’m going to go through them one by one.
Number One: Slashbaiting.
In an officially licensed novel, it’s very strange to have scenes where Spock is waiting by Kirk’s bedside for him to wake up or extended sequences where Kirk and Spock are both nude. It’s titillating with no purpose other than to…uh, titillate, I guess.
Weirdly, there’s quite a bit of discussion about the deep emotional/telepathic link between the pair, something that’s pawned off as Roddenberry’s own invention from his novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It’s not; they made it up and ran with it. It seems to be there to allow Marshak and Culbreath to talk about the pair’s intimacy without outright saying “they bangin’.”
Additionally, Spock forces Kirk into a mind-meld fairly early into the book. This is something that I’ve always been a bit squeamish about in Trek, starting from when I saw the Mirror Universe Spock impose himself on McCoy in “Mirror, Mirror.” Even by 1960s broadcast TV standards, it’s plain that it’s a cruel, invasive thing that shouldn’t be taken lightly. I don’t want to equate unwanted fictional touch telepathy with sexual assault, but it’s hard to say that Spock forcing his mind on a physically and mentally exhausted Kirk’s doesn’t evoke it.
Marshak and Culbreath also seem to have a real obsession with Kirk’s shame at being abducted and what may have happened to him while being experimented upon. Shame is a fascinating word for them to hang on, because it carries an almost sexual undertone in connection to the human body.
In short: these ladies are weirdly horny and their editor should have called them out on it.
Number Two: No Idea Of Place.
One of the things that was drilled into me when I was learning to write is to make sure the reader understands the space a story is taking place in. You don’t have to go into Dickensian length about a setting, but you want to give your audience a bit of immersion.
Setting is a key element that these two writers simply ignore a lot of the time. Outside of the Enterprise, this novel seems to take place in city streets that could be anywhere, generic laboratories, and in the end, a space that evokes “The Empath” because of the lack of detail the audience is given. In fact, there were a couple of scenes where I had literally no idea of the setting, and I’m not that stupid a lot of the time.
That strikes me as a real shame because a novel has no visual effects budget. Hell, it’s even cheaper than a comic book because you don’t have to pay an artist to painstakingly render an alien laboratory or mysterious cave.
Number Three: There’s An Alien Experimenter Named ‘Flaem.’
Here’s how she’s described:
“If fire had been transmuted into a woman, this was that woman. There was a sweep of spun-fire, of burnished copper-bronze feather-hair on her head, and she wore body illusion-ornaments or plumage to match. Her eyes were dark shadows opening to bronze-gold flame. But the real fire was inner.”
Again: the character’s name is Flaem.
And their editor was like “That’s fine. Good job.”
This is the alien who’s given the most personality, by the way, and it’s implied that JTK did what he does when meeting the fairer sex, even if they have a terrible name.
Number Four: There’s No Wit, And There’s Probably A Depressingly Political Reason For That
Outside of Spock making one very small joke during the space karate scene8That honestly felt like it was borrowed from an earlier, better draft, this book is serious to the point of parody, the sort of self-important trying-too-hard “intelligent” science fiction that I’ve never had any taste for, and it doesn’t work as Trek.
One of the things that makes Star Trek stand out is how it combines big science fiction ideas with relatable, human characters that the audience can empathize with. (That lack of humanity, it should be noted, is one reason that Star Trek: The Motion Picture is still frowned upon by a lot of fandom.) This book gives you no reason to care about the characters outside of one’s already-existing affection for Trek.
After I finished The Prometheus Design, I went back to the handy Voyages of Imagination and my copy of Star Trek Lives! to get a little background on the writers. I knew there was some reason they were like this.
Oh, man, here we go.
Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath were both libertarians and fans of Ayn Rand and her Objectivist beliefs9If you’re somehow not familiar with Objectivism, the short version is: get yours; fuck everyone else; reason is everything. It’s a ‘philosophy’ that has poisoned the highest echelons of politics around the globe.. I am very much of the opinion that objectivists can not write believable human characters or understand story beyond the mechanics of plot, and The Prometheus Design bears this out.
(If you’re mad that I’m not being more “ideologically diverse” or whatever, that’s fine. You can go read other blogs that won’t make you upset by pointing out that the current conservative agenda is in direct conflict with the ideals and themes of Star Trek.)
This book is definitely the work of right-leaning people who can’t understand the humanist storytelling and empathy that Star Trek embraces for its characters and encourages in others. It also illustrates that people, especially those on the right, can twist just about anything to suit their worldview, even if its creators explicitly state the opposite.
There were in fact two things, one of which I mentioned before!
The core concept is really solid. Investigating a planet that has experienced rapid cultural evolution is a great Trek hook, and the “anti-Prime Directive” philosophy that the aliens have is the sort of thing that good writers could have turned into a thematic beat / teaching moment that helped remind people why they enjoy Star Trek so much. If they were going to have an ending as cliché as what we get here, at least aim for the Kirk giving a big speech and encouraging understanding and empathy instead of just shrugging and saying “Aliens! What can ya do?”
A lot of the Vulcan stuff is really interesting. It’s all non-canon now but it feels very thought-out. I’m sure a lot of it came from their fan fiction days, but that’s where so much of Trek emerged from.
Oh wait, there’s a third! That really is a great cover10There’s no artist listed. I thought it might have been Boris Vallejo but a Redditor pointed out how much it resembles Rowena’s work and now I’m just confused, isn’t it?
Any final thoughts?
I’m going to have to be honest: this was rough. As a reader, I am really not looking forward to their second 1980s Trek novel, Triangle, but as a writer, I can’t help but wonder if it might find brave new ways to be terrible.
I have to read other books some time, you know. That’s how I get perspective. I read more than just licensed nerd fiction! There was a new Gibson, plus a funny mystery/thriller set in Dublin. The first was pretty good1I really like Gibson but this felt like a retread of The Peripheral. but the second was a pleasant surprise.
Plus, I got a new job. That’s pretty keen.
Hooray for you. Don’t you know that consistent content creation is important for maintaining your online presence?
Could we not do this now? Can we just talk about the book?
I’m just saying.
Okay. So, let’s go to the back cover copy!
An Enterprise shuttle is forced to crash-land in a violent storm on the barren planet Sigma 1212. Spock, McCoy and Kailyn, the beautiful heir to the Shaddan throne, survive in the near disaster.
Now, pursued by primitive hunters and a band of Klingon scouts, they must reach the mountain where the fabulous dynastic crown is hidden. With the help of Spock and McCoy, and her own fantastic mental powers, Kailyn must prove that she alone is the true heir to the throne.
If they fail, they will open the door for Klingon takeover of the whole quadrant — and the galaxy’s hope to live long and prosper will fall in the shadow of a cruel tyranny!
Okay, so Klingons again, plus what sounds kind of like a retread of “All Our Yesterdays” mashed up with “The Galileo Seven” and maybe a little “Metamorphosis”?
Yeah, that’s pretty obvious, huh? But despite it being a little derivative, I like this book a lot. (And not just because it’s the first “grown up” book I read2It was part of a slipcased set of four Trek novels I got for Christmas in 1982, setting me down a dark path.)
As the title of this very blog post states, I picked up a copy of this on a whim and read it over the course of a couple of enjoyable afternoons. 30-odd years had passed since I’d last given it much thought, but it was an enjoyable enough to get me to start this blog.
So sell it to me, nerd.
God, we have to do something about this attitude of yours.
First of all, this book has two prefaces: one by the author (who wrote the fan-favorite TAS episode “The Pirates of Orion” when he was 193Yeah, I know age is just a number and everyone hits their stride at different times, but that’s an annoying thing to have done, right?) and another by David Gerrold, the previous holder of the “Youngest Person To Write A Star Trek” trophy. The vast majority of Trek novels feature nothing in the way of prefaces, so that’s bang for your buck right there. (It doesn’t hurt that they’re both witty and indicative of the overall tone of the novel.)
The back copy offers a very streamlined version of the book’s plot, which starts with McCoy’s birthday party being interrupted by upheaval on the distant, resource-rich world of Shad. In short order, the readers learns that a young Lt. Commander James T. Kirk helped the royal family of Shad flee a coup and there’s now an opportunity for the aged regent, Stevvin, to return and reclaim his throne4You may eliminate capitalism as the primary economy for your star-spanning collective of worlds, but you still need things like dilithium and tridenite and retsyn to keep things running .
It’s not quite that easy, of course. First they have to fetch the titular crown, which was hidden away years ago in a mountain cave on the miserable Sigma 1212 and deal with a betrayal in the king’s court that has given the Klingons a distinct advantage in their pursuit of Shad’s goodies.
Now, before I go on, I have to talk about the elephant in the room. Or, really, the fish.
Shad is a terrible name for a planet.
This is a shad. It’s painted by Sherman Foote Denton5From the first edition of The Fish And Game of the State of New York. Does that look like a planet to you? No, it should look like a species of anadromous clupeid that’s indigenous to North America’s Atlantic Coast, commonly found from Newfoundland down to Florida, because that’s what it is.
This is literally the one rule about writing I think is sacred: you don’t name planets after fish.
It sounds silly to have Kirk visit the border world of Salmon to negotiate a treaty, and I don’t even want to imagine how ridiculous it’d be if Uhura informed them that the ambassador from Billy Big Mouth Bass was ready to beam aboard.
Not really selling me on this one, Church.
It’s not my job to sell you a book, okay? If it was, my last name would be Waldenbooks or B. Dalton.
Anyway, Shad is one of just two real complaints I have with The Covenant of the Crown. The other is the pacing of the first act, which takes just a bit long to get to where the action is. There’s some really good foundational character work (mostly around Stevvin’s daughter, Kailyn, and her budding affection for Bones) and all, but not enough plot is layered in to make me feel like ten or so pages couldn’t have been cut to move readers along6Of course, if this were an episode, the first 80 pages of the book would have been covered in a log entry..
Things I liked about the book include:
Weinstein’s prose. It has wit and emotion without ever feeling like it’s trying too hard to be funny or leaning into the melodramatic.
Princess Kailyn’s arc. While a lesser writer could have made her crush on McCoy awkward or salacious, Weinstein handles her character very well. She’s never stereotypical, even if she’s an exiled princess going on a quest7More on the quest in the next section.
Weinstein’s grasp on these characters. It’s something beyond being able to imagine one of the cast their character’s lines; every individual’s motivations and actions ring true, especially McCoy.
Bones and Spock being stuck with each other. This is a Trek trope I’m a sucker for and it’s done extremely well here.
Thing I was ambivalent about:
The whole “dangerous quest for the crown” thing. Yes, I get that “going to X to get Y to achieve Z” is one of the most basic plots there is, but there was never any real doubt that it was going to be achieved here.
The first licensed book explicitly set after Star Trek: The Motion Picture doesn’t go anywhere especially new (unlike The Entropy Effect) but The Covenant of the Crown is a great example of how to do a Trek novel that’s just familiar enough. It respects the established canon without becoming enslaved by it, and I’d say it’s a pretty foundational read for McCoy fans interested in the earlier novels.
As usual, let’s do what we’d do at the bookstore and check out the back cover copy that tries to sell you on this one:
When Captain Kirk and his crew are ordered to challenge the deadliest Klingon starship Terror, they think they’re ready for anything — or so they think. But the defenseless Vulcan crew of a Federation science ship has been wiped out. The remaining members of the Alnanth II mission have discovered an ancient city — but their report doesn’t make any sense. The Klingon battle cruiser has the USS Enterprise in its sights, and it’s ready to destroy it.
But Captain Kirk can’t seem to make decisions, Spock has started to throw temper tantrums. And Chekov has disobeyed vital orders. The crew of the Enterprise are losing their minds one by one… all victims of…
THE KLINGON GAMBIT
I think there’s an actual law on the books about using that many ellipses and em-dashes without a license, but it gives you a decent summation of the setup:
The Enterprise has been summoned to a planet to investigate the death of an entire Vulcan science vessel’s crew, who appear to have all passed peacefully with no external cause.
There’s an archeological expedition happening on the surface.
There are Klingons there, and their ship is super-badass.
That’s not a bad starting point right there. In fact, that sounds like a prettydecent Season 3 episode setup.
Hey, that does!
Too bad 1972 Hugo Award1For best fan writer, I should make sure you know. Winner Robert E. Vardeman has no idea how to write a Star Trek.
(Before we go into this, a personal note: I don’t want to write this kind of criticism about these books, for a very basic reason: I actually want to enjoy the things I’m spending time with. I burned out on snark as a motivator for writing in the late 00s and early 10s when I had a comic book blog2That is, perhaps thankfully, lost to the ages thanks to a WordPress hacker. and really, I’m just too damned old now to drink from the shallow, bitter cup that is Being A Dick About Something Online.)
So, anyway, as I was saying.
Oh god, you’re going to go off, aren’t you?
Shut up, okay? Let me do my thing.
Albuquerque-based Vardeman graduated from the University of New Mexico in with a B.S. in physics and a M.S. in materials science and worked in the Solid State Physics Research Department at Sandia National Laboratories before coming a full-time writer. In addition to The Klingon Gambit and, later, Mutiny on the Enterprise, Vardeman co-authored The War Of Powers, a six-volume fantasy series and handled solo writing duties multiple science fiction novels including Weapons of Chaos and Road to the Stars, and even video game novels including God Of War and tie-ins to Magic: The Gathering and Crimson Skies.
Born in 1947, Vardeman was at the perfect age when Star Trek hit the airwaves. In Jeff Ayers’ Voyages of Imagination3A book I bought just to make this blog more informative. You’re welcome., he talks about how inspired he was by the show and its infusion of real-world concerns into a science fiction setting.
In Ayers’ book, he also goes into detail about his disappointment in the Bantam adaptations by James Blish and the publisher’s tie-in novels: “Not one of those books had the feel of Star Trek, no matter what the character’s name. The contract for the books migrated to Simon & Schuster, overseen by the inimitable David Hartwell. I had started writing full-time about five years before. I heard he was looking for original stories. How could I pass up the chance?”
The Klingon Gambit was the first book bought by Hartwell4Who, again, was offering half of what the publisher paid for original fiction., but ended up being the second of the original novels published.
It was a bad move.
I get that Star Trek in 1981 was in a very different place than it is in 2020, with only three seasons of television and one movie to serve as the canon, but time and again, Vardeman shows that he just doesn’t care much about the world the stories are set in, using phrases like “ray guns” and “turbo elevators” to describe the basic technology, describing Vulcans as emotionless5They’re not and you’re wrong if you think they are. They suppress the outward expression of their feelings, but they very much have them., and, maybe most gallingly, referring to Sulu as “The Asian” on page goddamn one.
But setting aside the finer, nerdier details, Vardeman’s prose is lifeless, with jagged scene transitions and an inability to describe basic human actions or get inside anyone’s head in a meaningful way. The last two are essential when the reader is not able to see the cast perform the dialogue described. Without Shatner’s ability to convey internal conflict or Nimoy’s famous restraint, the book just kind of vaguely waves at the idea that something is hinky with our space friends’ brains.
And this brings me to my big beef with the book: a premise like this gives the writer an opportunity to show the Enterprise and the Klingons working together to solve a big space mystery, and that would be neat, right? They’re orbiting a world that’s the focus of an archeological expedition6Run by an Andorian academic who has potential to be truly hilarious instead of annoying an entire ship’s crew has died mysteriously, and the Klingons aren’t taking credit, even as the crew gets hornier, lazier, and crankier. Again, that’s a good Star Trek setup.
Instead, the crew (outside of Kirk) doesn’t seem to realize they’re having their minds manipulated yet again7Big ups to “The Naked Time” and “This Side of Paradise” and choose to blame the plainly-innocent Klingons in order to create what Vardeman seems to think is dramatic tension.
Stupidity on the part of the protagonists is not dramatic tension.
Clashing cultures working together against an alien force they don’t understand even as they’re become more and more volatile? That’s dramatic tension.
Okay, you’ve almost hit 1,000 words. Let’s wrap this up.
No, I’ll tell you when I’m wrapping this up and how. This is my blog, dammit.
But you’re right.
All of this, compounded by bad character work, repetitive scenes, a chauvinist attitude8Don’t get me started on Scotty’s Hot New Assistant, and an inability to actually explain what’s happening in the last 30 or 40 pages of the book, make this a Trek tie-in you can definitely skip.
There are two things about this book that I liked:
Kirk solved the mystery himself, using the empirical approach versus the theoretical, something that makes sense given Vardeman’s background as a materials scientist.
The Klingon dreadnaught’s name was Terror, a nice counterpoint to the more aspirational Enterprise.
This is a bad book that took me twice as long as usual to read because I kept putting it down after ten pages to find something, anything else to do. It’s so bad, I’m not even going to put Amazon buy links at the end of the post to try to make a penny or two from the morbidly curious.
Now that’s a book cover, right there. A colorful, bold design1It’s interesting that “A Star Trek Novel” and the book’s title are the same size, isn’t it? I’d love to learn about the thinking/marketing that went into that choice. that incorporates some familiar iconography, the ship we all love, and characters like Kirk, Spock, and…Six-Months-Into-His-Vision-Quest Sulu?2There’s an in-text reason for that particular choice, really. I’ll go into it later. Pocket’s design team is making a statement here: it’s 1981 and Star Trek is cool again.
(Okay, maybe not as cool as they want, but still…that’s a good cover.)
Anyway. Here’s the back cover copy:
The Enterprise is summoned to transport a dangerous criminal from a starbase prison to a rehabilitation center: brilliant physicist Dr. Georges Mordreaux, accused of promising to send people back in time – then killing them instead.
But when Mordreaux escapes, bursts onto the bridge and kills Captain Kirk, Spock must journey back in time to avert disaster – before it occurs.
Now there’s more at stake than just Kirk’s life. Mordreaux’s experiments have thrown the entire universe into a deadly time warp. Spock is fighting time…and the universe is closing in on itself with the relentless squeeze of…
The Entropy Effect.
Sounds pretty cool, right? It is, but I’ve also got problems with how much this reveals, as you’ll see.
Stop blabbering about the cover and get to it, already.
Vonda McIntyre was a very logical choice to kick off the new Star Trek fiction published by Pocket Books. The founder of the Clarion West Writers Workshop, the prolific author had over a dozen published short stories, two novels, and a pair of Nebula awards to her name and an outspoken love of Trek.
That passion for the franchise was an opportunity for David Hartwell, the editorial director for the Timescape imprint. He’d argued hard with his bosses for the publisher to move into the original novel space. Sure, the novelization had done very well, but they’d seen how Bantam’s books had made less and less of a dent in the market. That, combined with the cost of the license and combined author’s fee’s, made it a risk.
His solution? Pay the writers less. Cloaking his fiduciary shadiness under a declaration that he needed authors who “cared about what they were doing,” he offered an advance that was half of the $6000 normally paid to authors for original fiction.3This is detailed in Jeff Ayer’s mammoth 2006 book Voyages of Imagination: The Star Trek Fiction Companion.
McIntyre took the deal, maybe because a lot of the work had already been done by her when she was 18.
Wait, did she publish her old fanfic?
Kind of. She actually had a screenplay she’d written while a freshman at the University of Washington while the show was still on the air. She never had a chance to submit it, but it provided a framework that she could use to build out this fast-moving, ambitious adventure.
Okay, cool. Proceed.
As the back cover copy indicates, The Entropy Effectinvolves astrophysics, time travel, and the death of our beloved captain. McIntyre takes her time getting to the big moment, allowing readers to spend time with a well-realized version of the series regulars4 Especially Sulu, who’s definitely McIntyre’s biggest crush. and quite a few new crew members created just for this book.
McIntyre’s use of original characters (especially on the Enterprise) is something I really appreciate an author doing. New characters allow writers to create genuine tension by placing them in real danger, something that couldn’t happen with the main cast.5This is one reason I love the first volume of DC Comics’ Trek series so much – the sprawling supporting cast featured people with their own arcs while the Magnificent Seven stayed fairly static. Despite coverage in The National Enquirer and other outlets that the books had killed Kirk, there was no way a fan with more than three brain cells together believed that any long-term, canonical changes to Trek were going to occur anywhere but on-screen.
These new characters cover a wide range of personalities with security chief Mandala Flynn and an old flame of Kirk’s, the mono-named Hunter, captain of the border patrol ship Aerfen, getting the most room to breathe in the story. Both of these could be considered Mary Sues by less generous readers. After all, they both are beautiful, smart women who are at the top of their respective field, each with a unique origin that makes them stand out, plus they’re involved romantically in some way with series regulars.
However, considering the array of additional new characters — Jenniver Aristeides is a “Changed” human whose DNA has been altered so they can live on high-gravity planets; Snnanagfashtalli is a felinoid alien who’s ride or die for her friends; Beranardi al Auriga and Maximo Alisaunder Arrunja are two security hunks with awesome names6Snnanagfashtalli, al Auriga and Arrunja all appear in A.C. Crispin’s Time For Yesterday as well as Uhura’s Song by Janet Kagan; Ian Braithewaite is a space DA who serves as an antagonist by trying to get to the bottom of everything without trusting anyone — I don’t see these two women being a little more prominent as a problem.
After all, you’d have to be pretty awesome to command your own ship or serve as the head of security on the Federation flagship, right?
We get it – you like characters in your books. Big deal. Keep moving, nerd.
Fine, fine. After the first two chapters of setup, we find that:
Kirk is wondering what might have been with the slightly-contrived-but-still-captivating Hunter, who is part of a multi-partner family unit that has invited Kirk to join multiple times.7She’s also part of a human colony whose traditions echo those of Native Americans and wow, she may be a Mary Sue, huh?
Sulu is crushing so hard on the ship’s new security chief that they’re exchanging martial arts lessons and he’s listened to her about his personal grooming, but he also wants to have a fulfilling Starfleet career and that likely involves leaving the Enterprise.
Spock is puzzling over the fact that the universe is likely collapsing in the next century while the man who taught him more than anyone else about physics is going to space jail for a series of unimaginable murders.8BTW, Mordreaux gets the VIP suite instead of the brig because Spock told Kirk that he learned some science from him so he couldn’t possibly have killed people. Kirk, of course, trusts Spock completely.
Then it gets nuts. Sulu leaves the ship (to join Hunter on her own), Kirk is murdered, and thanks to Mordreaux’s experiments that led to the apparent deaths of a dozen people, temporal chicanery is suspected. An investigation is launched, Spock takes a long shot with McCoy’s help, and Scotty is left wondering what the hell is going on. I honestly wish that the book’s jacket hadn’t revealed so much because Kirk’s death is shocking on its own (even if you know that there’s always a way out) and the reveal of time travel’s involvement is handled so organically.
As you read, it’s obvious that McIntyre has a clear plan and has pinpointed the exact moments where character beats and plot points would have the maximum effect. The Entropy Effect reminded me of the best episodes of Rick And Morty in how much thought was applied to the intricacies of time travel and its effects.
It’s important to note, though, that it never feels like homework. McIntyre’s prose is punchy9Her description of how the time travel device’s effect looks is vivid and makes it sound like something from the Abramsverse. and her pacing is so tuned that you’re fed information just as you need it and reminded of previously-introduced elements without it being blatant.
Additionally, she’s able to casually bring in things that are new to Trek — the ultra-secret Code Ultimate that requires Kirk to use a memorized cryptogram key to manually decode messages; spiderweb guns that attacked the target’s nervous system; the idea that Vulcans don’t lock their doors because theirs is a culture of trust — minus any awkwardness that can happen when someone goes big with their concepts while working inside the world of licensed fiction.
Wrap it up. I’ve got a big sandwich to make and eat, Dagwood Bumstead-style.
This book is probably most famous in fandom for establishing Sulu and Uhura’s first names, but it’s also a damned fine read on its own. McIntyre’s ability to balance the established and the new, combined with big sci-fi ideas, an audacious plot and clockwork pacing, makes this an essential read. It’s easy to see why she got the plum assignments of novelizing the next three Star Trek films10Where we find out what happened to Captain Hunter and writing the Enterprise: The First Adventure.
Did Gene Roddenberry really write the novelization?
Yes, he did. Unlike George Lucas’s Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker or Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind — both of which were ghost-written by prolific science fiction author Alan Dean Foster — The Great Bird of the Galaxy himself sat down with a copy of the script (based on Alan Dean Foster’s story) and hacked this thing out.
That means that this book is a direct connection to Roddenberry’s vision for Star Trek, and boy, is it weird.
Wait, how weird?
James T. Kirk himself wrote the primary introduction to the book (there are two, which I’ll get into later), and on the very first page, he reveals that his first name came is a tribute to his mother’s “love instructor.”1There’s also a bit about how he got the middle name “Tiberius,” but nothing can compare to finding out that there are makeout coaches in the future.
That kind of weird, okay? But let’s stick to the very basics first, okay?
There are structural problems with the original film. It first two acts take forever and the finale is truncated and lacking any real emotional impact. A more experienced prose author could have ameliorated this a bit, perhaps by working through a straight first draft and then going back to nip, tuck, and expand to make the pacing more propulsive.
Gene Roddenberry was not an experienced prose author and it’s obvious that this book didn’t have a second draft. In fact, it feels like any editing on the book was restricted to checking the spelling. There are probably two factors at work here:
I can’t imagine anybody wanted to be the person to tell the man who created Star Trek that he was doing a bad job at writing Star Trek.
There was a hard deadline that had to be met.
Okay, so let’s start with the good.
Well, the five-minute Enterprise flyby only takes a page and a half instead of a whole chapter, so there’s that.
Okay, yes, there are things I liked about this book.
In the movie, Kirk’s arc feels kind of hastily sketched, but Roddenberry does a good job detailing what he goes through. He goes from being the dickhead who takes his ship back to the guy who tells the navigator to go “thataway” in a way that feels organic. The reader discovers that he’s basically a living symbol that’s being held hostage by Admiral Nogura because of his symbolic value (I’ll get into how in a bit because hoooboy) and we get to see him come back to life through his interactions with the rest of the cast.
Spock also gets a bit more time to shine early on, which helps his arc as well. We’re inside his head when he’s about to take the final kolinahr test and learn that he’s bidding farewell to Jim Kirk, his t’hy’la, when V’ger touches his mind.
(T’hy’la is a term that the slashier end of fandom latched onto quickly, thanks to a footnote by Roddenberry2You can read that footnote here.. I disagree with their interpretation, as I feel like healthy depictions of deep homosocial relationships are important in fiction. It should be noted, however, that I also feel like they can think whatever they want because slash helped keep Star Trek alive and I’m not the boss of them.)
Speaking of relationships, Decker and Ilia’s past gets a little more play, which makes them more than the rough draft of The Next Generation‘s Riker and Troi that we get in the actual film. They also get taken to some really unfortunately places, but, again, we’ll get into that.
V’ger (spelled phonetically as “Vejur” through the text, a decision that I simultaneously respect and reject in this post) gets an entire chapter told from their point of view. The reader gets insight into their journey and subsequent confusion at their creator’s silence. This short text helps sell the reveal at the end by making them seem truly alien.
As far as plot elements go, Roddenberry’s book does do one thing right: it adds an additional ticking clock element to the third act. In the film, Kirk orders Scotty to prepare the Enterprise‘s self-destruct sequence and that’s all we hear of it. The book actually has Scotty begin the countdown sequence and then explicitly wait for Kirk’s direct command to abort. This bit of additional danger is more direct than the abstract threat that V’ger poses to the Earth. Sure, wiping out all of humankind would be terrible, but blowing up the Enterprise is serious business.
You’re taking too long to get to the weird.
Okay, you know how I mentioned that there are two introductions? As noted, the first is by Admiral James T. Kirk. The second is by Gene Roddenberry, but not the Gene Roddenberry who actually wrote the book. It’s Gene Roddenberry as 23rd century narrative journalist, who interviewed the crew of the ship for this novel-length look at the V’ger incident.
This is a conceit that could have worked under steadier hands, but it quickly vanishes except for a scattering of footnotes here and there.
Anyway, you remember the striking opening sequence of the film, with the Klingon ships getting de-rezzed by V’ger? How would a better writer acting as a journalist have handled it? Maybe through a declassified Starfleet report of some kind? Perhaps they could provide the reader a garbled view of events using intercepted Klingon communications.
Roddenberry instead went with “Nah, Kirk’s got a skull implant and Starfleet’s surveillance network livestreamed the whole thing directly into his brain.” There’s a bit of handwaving about how top secret it all is, along with a footnote about the upcoming Mind Control Riots of the 2040s, but the idea of Kirk voluntarily sitting down for any kind of brain implant after the events of the original series just sits wrong with me.
In addition to HD Brain TV, Roddenberry brings up the idea of “New Humans,” telepathically-linked individuals who are devoting themselves to the exploration of inner space. This book never engages with them directly, thankfully, because I can’t imagine Roddenberry not making it deeply unpleasant.3Memory Beta’s entry on New Humans says they show up again in The Prometheus Design, a book I’ve never finished and am not looking forward to.
And speaking of deeply unpleasant, it’s time to talk about Vice Admiral Lori Ciani. We only see her very briefly in the movie. She’s the nameless woman melting on the transporter pad in a sequence that has been informing my nightmares for the last 35 years.
The novelization presents Ciani as Kirk’s partner, a xenopsychologist (spelled zenopsychologist by Roddenberry but c’mon) who helps the admiralty craft policy and maintain the peace in a diverse Starfleet. That sounds neat, right? Kirk seems to think so, too. After all, the two work together, share a home in San Francisco, and are in a marriage contract (one of Roddenberry’s more out-there ideas I think is actually kind of decent.)
However, it’s revealed early on that Ciani’s also the “tool” that Nogura has used to keep Kirk deskbound, and when Kirk finds out, Roddenberry’s misogynist streak comes to bear. It’s an ugly bit of narrative work for multiple reasons and it’s proven pointless when Kirk shrugs off her death and she’s never mentioned again.
I just plain hate the whole Lori Ciani thing because there’s so much that could be done with a character like that, even if she gets killed early on. Instead, her primary purpose seems to be to make sure the reader knows that Jim Kirk can still get a boner when she Facetimes him.
Okay, now we’re talking. Let’s get into the horny stuff.
Kirk’s stiffy is just the beginning. There is so much horny stuff to talk about here. Unfortunately, it also gets pretty squicky.
I’m just going to skirt around the fact that Roddenberry is functionally incapable of introducing a female character without asserting their attractiveness. That’s an ongoing motif in the man’s output. If you saw Star Trek on TV, it was obvious that the man liked leggy young dames wearing diaphanous outfits crafted by William Ware Theiss. 4To be fair, so do I, but there’s a thing called discretion, you know?
These are known quantities, and that’s fine, if not, you know, actually fine. In fact, I’ll be generous and say that there’s probably no better physical description of Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura than saying that she has “classically beautiful features.” I’m going to give him that wide a berth.
But not even grading on a curve can make me ignore what he does with Lt. Ilia, who was played by the former Miss India, Persis Khambatta.
Part of an alien race who are so mind-blowingly good at sex and excreting pheromones that they have to take an oath of celibacy to serve on Starfleet vessels, the Deltan navigator is some kind of 12th dimensional version of problematic. Early on in the novelization, it’s established that a younger Decker left her because he knew that if he was with her just once, he’d only want to be with her for the rest of his greatly-shortened life.
As you know, she gets zapped by V’ger, scanned, cloned, and that body is sent back as a way for the alien to communicate with the “carbon-based infestation” on board the Enterprise.
In short order:
Kirk spends half a page ogling the naked Ilia-probe before grabbing the too-short terrycloth robe she spends the rest of the movie in.
McCoy scans the probe and notes that every aspect of Ilia’s physiology is duplicated, even ridiculously overactive exocrine system.
Kirk realizes that the only person who can possible handle the pheromone soup that she’s sloshing everywhere is the man who was able to walk away from her, Decker. He tells the younger officer to find out what V’ger wants.
In an effort to reach the part of Ilia that he senses is still there, Decker takes the probe to the recreation deck (where we learn there are sex rooms because of course there are) and has a brief breakthrough.
Kirk asks if physical intimacy might be the key to talking to Ilia and learning more, because of course Kirk does. Decker tells him that it’s not Ilia, that the probe won’t have the memories of their relationship that might give him an in. He even compares the act to having sex with a photon torpedo.
Still, something was there so Decker then takes the probe to Ilia’s quarters, where we learn that nice headband that Chapel presents her with is a loveband, a ceremonial gift from a Deltan man to a woman that is so laden with meaning that it basically acts as a Get Into Her Pants card. 5Turns out that back in the day, a culturally-innocent Decker bought it for her because he thought it was pretty and would look nice on her perfect skull.
In the final film, Ilia’s personality comes through again for a brief moment before V’ger re-assets control. It’s actually a pretty affecting scene and a testament to Khambatta’s acting abilities that she sells it so thoroughly.
Now, take a minute and see if you can suss out what happens when he puts it on her head in Rodddenberry’s novelization?
Decker has sex with the biomechanical creation in which his ex-girlfriend’s soul has been trapped. It doesn’t matter, though, because just like the movie, V’ger takes over, but this time it’s mid-coitus.
Gene Roddenberry, you really are the Gene Roddenberriest.
So you’ve got the good, the weird, and the horny. What else?
I mentioned earlier that Roddenberry abandoned his own “narrative journalism” framework and that the pacing was lumpy, but what’s immediately apparent to the reader is how bad the prose itself is. A lot of the time, it reads like a forgettable YA novel. Exclamation points are used with abandon, italics are abused for emphasis, and some sentences are just tortuously constructed.
(Yes, I see the irony of me pointing all this out.)
Here’s an example that stood out to me, the opening paragraph of Chapter 18:
The wispy edges of the cloud had looked like giant aurora borealis effects, the Enterprise whipping past and through towering graceful draperies of transparent colored light.
It’s awkward and overstuffed, filled with adjectives and adverbs, and says nothing on its own. It imparts none of the scale or grace that the sequence it’s describing has on screen. (I also hate its use of the quasi-passive past progressive verb form, which is not a crime but should be.)
However, it’s not all bad; there are some genuinely good passages that appear in the book, but it’s usually an accident of context versus deliberate skill. The gruesome horror of the aforementioned transporter accident sequence is served well by Roddenberry’s proclivities:
Shapes were materializing on the platform again – but frighteningly misshapen, writhing masses of chaotic flesh with skeletal shapes and pumping organs on the outside of the “bodies.” A twisted, claw-like hand tore at the air, a scream came from a bleeding mouth…
But short bits like this are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Oh, hey, speaking of “awkward and overstuffed,” please say there’s a conclusion coming. Please.
Okay, yeah, I’ve kept you here long enough. Here’s the takeaway.
Gene Roddenberry’s novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a bizarre artifact that’s fascinating on its own to a certain sort of fan. I happen to be just that. You can see some groundwork for tropes that would be recycled into the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Really, though, it’s not worth the time for anyone who’s not interested in poking around the weird edges of the Star Trek mythos.
(And before you ask: yes, this will be oriented around Kirk and crew; I think The Next Generation is fine, but I wanted to focus on the part of the franchise I was most knowledgeable and passionate about.)
I’m excited to go through these again, just to answer a few questions. Are there some hidden gems worth consideration beyond the franchise? Can I tell which ones are retooled spec novels? Will I be able to finish The Prometheus Design?