I wish “The Prometheus Design” was a tenth as good as its cover, because it has a very good cover.

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.

Oh, boy.

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…


PROMETHEUS DESIGN


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.

You can read more about the duo over at Fanlore, and I really recommend the deep dive. It touches on their slash fiction, dealings with Roddenberry, and much more.

Okay, was there anything you liked?

There were in fact two things, one of which I mentioned before!

  1. 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?”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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2 Comments I wish “The Prometheus Design” was a tenth as good as its cover, because it has a very good cover.

  1. Straker

    A couple of points: 1) I still have my Bantam paperback ($1.95!) of Star Trek Lives! and it’s downright embarrassing to read some of that stuff knowing what we know now about the tensions between various cast members; 2) I read The Price of the Phoenix once, 40 years ago, and I remember it as being pretty good but I never bothered to read the sequel so I couldn’t have been *that* good; 3) It’s outside the purview of your current project but the best Star Trek novel I ever read was the first one, Spock Must Die by James Blish.

    Reply
  2. das411

    Just finished reading this book, found this review, and mannnn does the book make MUCH more sense now! Thanks for articulating why it felt so…strange, it kind of would be interesting to read more about Savaj though!

    Reply

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