Saturday, October 24, 2009

Star Trek Then and Now!

Our books today are The Prometheus Design by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath and The Fearful Summons by Denny Martin Flinn, and together they span 13 years of Star Trek fiction - a fact which even casual movie-fans can detect immediately from their respective covers, which display our Starfleet heroes at the age and in the costume of whatever Star Trek movie happened to be in theaters near the time of publication. The Prometheus Design was written in 1982 and shows Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in the trim-line gray uniforms of Star Trek:The Motion Picture, whereas The Fearful Summons was written in 1995 and shows an older, stouter Captain Kirk - and a Mr. (now Captain) Sulu who's himself approaching middle age.

When The Prometheus Design was written, it was one of only a handful of Star Trek novels in print - it's got the Pocket Books logo on its spine, and Greg Benford's dear, departed "Timescape" design on the top of its cover, signifying that somebody, somewhere considered it science fiction first and fan fiction second. By contrast, The Fearful Summons, still technically a Pocket Books imprint, has the Paramount Movie Studios logo outside and inside, along with the telling cover proclamation: "A stunning sequel to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country by one of the writers of the film!" In 1982, Pocket Books was putting out books about Star Trek. In 1995, they were producing book-sequels to film-movies. All sorts of subterranean changes can be justifiably suspected, but hoo-boy, there are changes right on the surface too!

The Prometheus Design takes place right after the events of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, so to some extent it, too, is a sequel to a movie - a movie in which young Captain Decker is ultimately absorbed into a higher, collective consciousness (in one of film's most unabashedly prolonged orgasm scenes). Captain Kirk is helming the Enterprise again, and he and his stalwart crew of regulars - McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Chekhov, Uhura, and of course Spock - are investigating an escalation in violence among the Helvans. The book starts with a street riot (Marshak and Culbreath are masters of the rip-snorting plot) - and with Kirk & Co. starting to realize that a mysterious alien race (don't act surprised - this IS Star Trek, after all) is experimenting on the Helvans like lab animals. When the suspicion arises that the Enterprise crew might also be experiencing tampering without their knowledge, Starfleet sends the legendary Vulcan Admiral Savaj (I know, I know ... just ignore it ... we were all much younger then ...) to assume command if Spock refuses (Vulcans are immune to the mental coercion of the villains, called the Designers).

The plot is full of great cheesy dialogue and sharp, snappy action - and with a fair-sized helping of good old-fashioned moralizing, especially when McCoy, Spock, and Savaj bat around the subject of animal experimentation in general:

"Spock [says McCoy], I don't mean them. I mean us. Billions of little lives. For research alone. When the antivivisectionists tried to stop research on live animals in the nineteenth century, it was maybe a thousand animals in the world. I remember some figures from twenty years before the year two thousand. One hundred million laboratory animals per year in the then United States alone - driven insane, suffocated, poisoned, battered, scalded, blinded, radiated, crushed - to death. And eighty-five percent of it was done without any anesthetic. Much of it was for research that was crude, repetitive, the answers already known in school. And it didn't stop there. Food. Furs. And the incalculable cruelty of our own kind. Spock, maybe there really is a flaw in the mechanism in us, all of us - a fatal flaw. The inhumanity ... I've done it too, Spock. With my own two hands."

McCoy held up his surgeon's hands and they were shaking. Spock covered them with one of his own. "There is nothing in those hands, Doctor, but the antidote for whatever flaw we fight here. I am not certain what answer we will find, but I know it requires your survival." Spock paused a moment, then added quietly, "As do I."

A great little moment, which is then rudely interrupted:

Savaj also looked sharply at Spock. "Indeed, your recent behavior is virtually a catalog of Human influence on a Vulcan - down to a certain release of aggression and other emotions. Perhaps you had better let me attend the Doctor" Spock made no comment, but permitted himself to be displaced. "In all logic, Doctor," Savaj said, "your predecessors were dealing at that period with a rate of cancer that had gone in decades from negligible to one out of four. It was to to go to one out of two - in places nearly to one out of one - before environmental and medical research - sometimes on animals - reversed the trend. The increase of other diseases was also epidemic. Certain environmental trends, if not detected through animal and other research, would swiftly have rendered the planet uninhabitable for your life form and all others - and all of the little lives would have died with you in their hundreds of trillions. The same is true of most worlds at some point. That is the Designers' position now. And if they go, we go. We must, in logic, offer them some other argument than the pain of mice - when their children are dying."

This is strong, pointed stuff - Marshak and Culbreath wrote four Star Trek novels when the sub-genre was at its very beginning (indeed, two of them take place before the beginning, which is now officially marked with the publication of Gene Roddenberry's novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture), and all of them bristle with this kind of ideological hip-wading - their plots revolve not just around action but issues, and they give their principals lots and lots of juicy scenes and lines.

Six movies and several hundred million (perhaps a billion, world-wide? Studios don't divulge, but how many times have you rented at least one of the various Original Cast Star Trek movies in the last 15 years?) later, how things have changed! What was once an ignored little backwater of the publicity department has by 1995 become a publishing industry with nearly 200 titles in its backlist and a bulging studio-dictated "bible" of characters and settings, from which no author is allowed to deviate (unless that author is the proverbial - almost literal - 800 pound gorilla; William Shatner and his ghostwriters were able to write a series of "non-canonical" Star Trek novels in the mid and late-1990s).

The events in The Fearful Summons take place shortly after the sixth Star Trek movie; Kirk is retired from Starfleet, as are the rest of his crew - all except Captain Sulu, who commands the Excelsior and, at the novel's start, gets himself and his command crew taken hostage on a backwater planet by religious fundamentalists who then try strong-arm the Federation for their release. The retired Kirk learns about this and is outraged at Starfleet's apparent inactivity - why isn't anyone riding to the rescue of his old shipmate?

Naturally, he decides to do it himself. He sets the big personal computer in his apartment to tell him whenever 'Sulu' or 'hostage crisis' pops up in a news story, and he goes to the big computer at Starfleet Headquarters to hunt down the location of his former crew (1995 - the present reach of the Internet still unglimpsed, the staggering sophistication of cellphones undreamt ... you can pretty accurately date when any Star Trek novel was written by looking at what things aren't yet possible in the 23rd century), and they all agree to charter a private luxury space yacht and fly off to attempt a rescue on their own. They encounter no resistance from Starfleet or Earth government; they don't get picked off by pirates en route, and when they reach their destination, they meet with Sencus, the Vulcan officer Sulu left in charge of the Excelsior before he was taken hostage.

Long before this point, readers have been bucketed over the head with the fearful prose in The Fearful Summons. It isn't just that it's wooden and free of any spark of life - it's that it's careful, mincing in a way that smacks of committee approval. None of the characters sound like people - instead, they sound like the very worst writing workshop homonculi, and none worse than Kirk himself, the nominal star of the book. Not that he isn't given a run for his money in some places! Look at this conversation between Spock and Sencus - two Vulcans, mind you - and see if you can count all the different cliches and Earth-idioms:

"A rally?" Spock said. "To what purpose?"

"An anti-Federation gathering jointly sponsored by the Clerics and Klingons. An antigovernment rally, in fact, possibly to put pressure on the Ruling Family."

"Have they always been political bedfellows?"

"Not at all. It is an unholy alliance, to be sure. But they seem to have found common ground this week. They are going to fan the flames of hatred."


There's no excuse for writing that lazy, but there is an explanation for it: the writer doesn't really think he's writing science fiction anymore, and he's long since absolved himself of the responsibility for it being smart, fast-paced, or interesting. In other words, he's writing for fans, not readers. And in turn those fans aren't actually reading the book, they're checking items off a list: continuity? check. Correct designation of hardware? check? proper protocol sequence followed for engine start-up? check.

Even in the midst of this flab, some hint of Star Trek occasionally shines through. Perhaps Flinn was at some point a fan - and it should be said that the movie he helped to write is quite good. When the aging Captain Kirk at one point muses on the vastness of space, we get a little bit that Marshak and Culbreath might have liked:

Billions of stars, uncountable planets, he thought. How many more to explore? Another five-year mission? It would take a lifetime. It took mine. And we barely scratched the surface. I don't mind leaving the task incomplete. No, but I mind leaving it to others. How selfish of me. As if there weren't enough star systems to go around.

That's pretty good, but it certainly isn't good enough to carry a novel, and it's hard not to blame Paramount Studios for the drastic change. Good Star Trek novels that are actually good science fiction novels simply aren't published anymore, and I can't help but think it's due to the success of the movies.

One of the biggest surprises attendant that success is that Alan Dean Foster's trade paperback script adaptation of the latest financially successful Star Trek movie is so far the only novel set in that universe (which, as you fans will know, is not the same universe as all the other Star Trek incarnations - the director's canny way of making it all new for new fans). Surely this too is due to craven corporate thinking? Bad idea to have some writer coming up with a story-book that might conflict with what we'll see on the screen in 2012. Given things like The Fearful Summons, maybe the lack of such books is a mercy.


Sam said...

This post is sure to fan the flames of excitement of Star Trek readers everywhere, who will rally to the common cause of defending their favorite volumes amongst the canon.

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I haven't read treknovels since forever, but what stopped me was how bland + corporate they were getting, and the frequency of release was swamping my budget. I hugely loved Marshak & Culbreath because the melodrama and issue-laden content and sheer Trekishness of the characters swept me away. But they get sneered at a lot by modern fans: sad that. (I'm not shilling anything)