“Web Of The Romulans” is an illuminating failure.

Oh, hello there. Anything happening with you? Anyone else make the mistake of adopting a (very cute, very sweet, but very demanding) puppy during the onset of winter during a pandemic in New York City that’s running concurrent to an unprecedented political crisis that leaves you feeling hapless, tense, and drained all at once, thus finding yourself unable to concentrate on reading anything longer than the label on the bottle of whiskey you keep under your desk?

Oh, just me, then?

Well, let’s go to the thing you’re here for: dumb jokes interrupting some quasi-serious commentary about 30-year-old tie-in fiction.

Ravaged by a killer virus, the Romulans enter Canara, where the only antidote can be found. Desperate, they incite a victorious USS Enterprise attack on one of their vessels, but Kirk discovers their ruse.

Meanwhile the central computer has fallen in love with him, severely crippling the Starship Enterprise. Somehow Kirk must overcome the lovesick computer and bring the antidote to the Romulans, before the galaxy crashes over the brink of war.

First of all: What’s up with flipping Boris Vallejo’s cover painting1Which plainly uses the TMP uniforms despite taking place during the original five year mission., guys? Seriously, what the hell? I’m offended.

Secondly: I have to say that Web of The Romulans (originally titled We Who Are About To Die) has a killer premise. Just look at that back copy. This sounds like it’s going to be great! It’s a real shame that it fails to live up to its potential.

Oh, boy. Another cranky rant.

Hey, hey, hey. There are some serious issues with this book, but I think that discussing them can be illustrative. I actually learned a lot about my own writing faults while reading this and it gave me food for thought.

Okay, tell us how “Web Of The Romulans” stank by using logic and reason.

Some backstory, first, as learning about the book’s origins can help show where the editors and Melinda Murdock went awry from the beginning. According to a fairly long interview that appears in Ayers’ Voyages of Imagination, this was the first piece of professional work that Murdock had published. Prior to this, she had written a story for the Dilithium Crystals zine that centered around the ship’s computer2It falls in love with JTK, following up on the joke from “Tomorrow is Yesterday.” that appears here as a complicating factor in the overall plot. After hearing that that Pocket Books was accepting unsolicited submissions for their licensed books, she sat down and wrote the original novel in six weeks while between jobs.

After it was finished Murdock retyped a clean copy to send to Pocket Books, and sent regular query letters, which got her “polite but evasive” replies from various editors until three years day she was contacted by yet another new editor. This person told her that they liked what they read, but they needed the book to be longer to match their current program. Working with just a typewriter (and without a firm commitment or contract), Murdock spent the next month and change laboriously expanding her work3In the interview with Ayers, she goes into detail about how much work it was to physically do this all in the era before word processing was available for most homes and it sounds agonizing. and was about two-thirds of the way through the rewriting process when she found out (from yet another new editor) that yes, they were going to buy what she was writing.

The slapdash nature of her hiring4Seriously, no contract? No deal, no work. and the rotating door for editors shows how disorganized Pocket Books was at the time. Things are going to slip through. the cracks when undermanned department in a niche publisher with high turnover is responsible for what was at the time the biggest science fiction franchise in publishing5This was before there were hundreds of Star Wars novels choking the shelves at Barnes and Noble.. If an editor had worked with Murdock, nurtured her story, this could have been one of those novels nerds were talking about decades later.

Let’s look at how it squandered its potential.

Are we getting some bullet points? I love bullet points. Readers love bullet points!

Sorry, not this time. I overuse them as-is!

Do we need to have read the book first?

No, no. I’ll give you context.

Okay, proceed.

Thank you.

The two biggest problems with Web of the Romulans are the book’s structure and balance. The novel opens fairly gracefully, taking time to show the Enterprise’s status quo while letting you know the Romulan cast that our intrepid crew will be encountering and giving you glimpses at life on Romulus. It’s apparent that there’s something wrong, but the plague6Really weird reading this in 2020/2021, I tell you what. mentioned on the back cover is just vaguely alluded to (and never named until the last third of the book.)

You’re also given the lay of the land when it comes to the internal politics of the Empire, as the treacherous praetor assigns the noble commander S’Talon and retired Tiercellus their parts to play in his scheme to secure the much-needed treatment.7S’talon was to keep Kirk busy because he’s a pain in the ass while Tiercellus held a small, threatening fleet at the border. While the prose could be more robust and engaging — a little pulp flavoring would help here — Murdock uses the opportunity to expand on a (then) underdeveloped antagonist8In her interview with Ayers, she specifically mentions that she’s disappointed with how TNG handled them. and give them life beyond what we saw on screen at the time.

This is all good stuff, and it’s a shame that the expansiveness shown early on is stripped away so unceremoniously as the book continues. I’m not one for worldbuilding getting in the way of a good story, but I appreciate when an author gives you a reason to care within the bigger picture. I was more sympathetic for S’Talon and Tiercellus because of the effort taken early on.

This attention to detail doesn’t apply to the book’s real antagonist, Admiral Iota, a distrustful war-hawk who seems to exist just as a plot device, or the keystone planet Canara9One letter off from “Canada,” a country that grows a bunch of grain. I should also note that Canara is the source of gran, one letter off from “grain.”, a place and people we see only the slightest glances of before everything starts happening there. (I could also argue that the Romulan Praetor is underwritten, but I’m already pretty familiar with how a short-sighted politician who’s more interested in keeping his power and looking strong than actually solving problems acts and behaves.)

If Murdock had worked with an editor to introduce elements like Iota (who shows up in the middle third and is pretty cranky from the start) and build out their motivations from the beginning, we’d have a book with the right amount of sweep and (dare I say) grandeur that a plot like “a dying Romulan Empire brings the quadrant to the brink of war” demands. However, judging by her comments when talking to Ayers and things that other writers from the period have said, there wasn’t enough bandwidth available to provide the fledgling author with guidance that could have made the book more than just a tick-box in the publishing calendar. That’s a real shame.

The book we end up with feels weirdly truncated and I suspect that the majority of the rewriting took place in the first act. As it is, the entire plot of the book as outlined on the back cover takes place in the last half, if not the last third.

What did you like? Give us those sweet bullet points this time!

Okay, but just two. Deal with it.

  • What I got of the Romulans, I really enjoyed. It’s different than my preferred non-canonical version from Diane Duane, but much like Marshak and Culbreath’s version of Vulcans from the otherwise excruciating The Prometheus Design, it’s apparent that some thought was applied. S’talon and his loyal centurion were particularly interesting and could have had greater impact if better developed.
  • What works reminds me of what I like the most about Star Trek, and while less action-packed, serves as a bit of a precursor to The Undiscovered Country. Despite Iota taking over the Potemkin and going a bit crazy at the Romulan border, cooler heads with a sincere desire to save lives by reaching across astropolitical lines prevail.

Okay, dingus. You’ve got to walk the new puppy soon. Wrap it up.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I actually learned a lot while reading and notating this book for this blog. I’ve been working on a (non SF) genre novel for a while I kept coming back with how I’m working to introduce plot elements and supporting characters organically, giving them their own arc that our lead characters intersect with and change. The first chunk of Web of the Romulans makes it feel like it’s going to do just that, but drops that ball quickly when it’s apparent that they’ve hit the editorially-mandated page count.

Final verdict: A disappointment, to be sure, but an illustrative and educational one.

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