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?