Saturday, July 03, 2010

Notes for a Star Trek Bibliography: Spock Must Die!

From its publication date of 1970, you’d think Spock Must Die! by James Blish must certainly be the first original Star Trek novel. It’s true that Blish himself had been adapting the individual episode scripts into short stories for a year at that time, but the show itself had only just been cancelled by an indifferent parent company, which hardly left the time or inclination for a Star Trek novel.

You’d be wrong on a couple of technicalities. A different licensing arm of that indifferent parent company had commissioned the release of a hardcover kids book called Mission to Horatius – it was called a Star Trek novel, and for that reason it would technically qualify as the first, but the physical description of the ship, the characters, the general fabric of known science … all of it was entirely generic throughout. It’s clearly a prefab space-opera scenario onto which some thankless, faceless Hasbro flunky hastily pasted on the specific brand-names of this obscure TV show. I suppose all beginnings are inauspicious, and perhaps I’m reacting naturally when I want to disavow Mission to Horatius as the first Star Trek novel (although, as we'll see, it was hardly the last cut-and-paste job in the series' publication history).

And if that’s the case, how much more must it apply to all the various Star Trek novels written but not professionally published prior to 1970? I refer to ‘fan fiction,’ of course, which by that point was already operating at a strong pitch. The novels it produced, however, though better versed in Star Trek specifics (indeed, often way, way too versed), were usually documents displaying deeply unbalanced psychological pathologies (and to those of you who say that applies to all science fiction, I say kroyka!). Again: unacceptably inauspicious.

No, in true Star Trek form, we’ll just have to settle for a couple of alternate beginnings to things. We’ll call James Blish’s book the first non-continuity Star Trek novel, and we’ll deal with an entirely different first book when we get to carefully numbered, continuity-safeguarded, corporate-overseen Star Trek novels.

First, we have the precursors, the trailblazers in the Wild West of Star Trek novels – and the first of those is Spock Must Die!

As you might be able to guess form the lurid title, it’s a deeply imperfect book – almost as inauspicious a start as all those Spock-whips-Kirk-unconscious-then-nurses-him-back-to-health weirdo fan fictions of the late ‘60s. The story opens with the Enterprise on standard cruising exercises ‘not far’ from the Klingon Empire but still enjoying the peace treaty imposed by the super energy-beings from the planet Organia (as seen in the episode “Errand of Mercy,” which introduced the Klingon commander Kor, played by veteran character actor John Collicos). It’s a peaceful interlude, during which Captain Kirk joins in a discussion between Commander Scott and Dr. McCoy (who’s called ‘Doc’ rather than ‘Bones’ throughout the entire book, revealing a little-known fact about pioneering fan favorite Blish: he never actually watched the show) about how the ship’s transporters are actually death-chambers, since they have to annihilate a person’s original body in order to reconstitute it elsewhere. But since the reconstitution is instantaneous and molecule-perfect, Scotty can’t see the problem. As he puts it, referencing Mr. Spock, “a difference which makes no difference is no difference.”

McCoy, predictably, believes otherwise, and Kirk remains wisely uncommitted. But soon it’s everybody’s problem, when a transporter malfunction (where would plots be without those?) duplicates Mr. Spock. Suddenly, Kirk and the rest of the crew must deal with the moral and philosophical (as well as ship security) problems of having two identical Spocks, each claiming he’s the real one. The crisis is only heightened by a subplot involving a major disruption in the Organian Peace Treaty and the warlike return of some of the show’s best known Klingon bad guys.

The writing is competent enough (Blish was an old-school hack in the best sense of the word, never late with a deadline, never great, never unprintably awful – the periodic attempts to reappraise his writing at the level of artistry, usually by citing his novel A Case of Conscience as some kind of lost sci-fi masterpiece, are so misguided he himself would have chuckled at them); the book’s imperfections spring mainly from its unintended resemblances to Mission to Horatius. The problem here is that this is only nominally Star Trek: there are no physical descriptions of the characters, barely any character descriptions, and none of the interplay of character personalities that made the show special in the first place. Kirk is just Starship Captain X, Spock is just Victim of Anomaly X (the veneer of ‘logic’ Blish gives him is actually just a liscense to cut him out of cardboard and leave him that way), and poor ‘Doc’ is just a nameless, faceless exposition machine:
As a replicate, and a mirror image, he [one of the duplicated Spocks] was left-handed, just as we had guessed, but he was suppressing it, as we had also guessed. Now, Jim, handedness is the major physical expression of which hemisphere of man’s brain is the dominant one, the one chiefly in charge of his actions. It’s a transverse relationship; if the left hemisphere of your brain is dominant, as is usually the case, you will be right-handed – and vice versa. And so, Jim, the retraining of left-handed children to become right-handed – in complete contradiction to the orders the poor kids’ brains are issuing to their muscles – badly bollixes up their central nervous systems, and among other bad outcomes, is the direct and only cause of habitual stuttering. You thought Spock One was stuttering from emotion or confusion, and that puzzled you. And well it might have. But in fact, he was stuttering because he was countertfeiting not being a mirror image, and hadn’t gotten all his reflexes for the impersonation established yet.

Sounds just like Bones, doesn’t it?

No, Blish’s intentions were undoubtedly good, but he, um, badly bollixed up his core characterizations (at one point Lieutenant Uhura hopes – aloud, on the bridge – that a new duty officer will be “cute”), and the core characterizations were the heart and soul of what differentiated Star Trek – and by extension Star Trek novels – from cookie-cutter pop sci-fi like Mission to Horatius.

Spock Must Die! did some things right – it was competent science fiction, for starters, playing some interesting speculation with some interesting ideas. And it was respectful to the original series, making plentiful references to pertinent episodes (the references came not only in the text itself but also as footnotes, the first time any popular TV series had prompted such textual respect … as we’ll see, Star Trek footnotes form an interesting little footnote in our ongoing history of the Star Trek novel). But it was the equivalent of that first Wright Brothers flight at Kill Devil Hills: sketchy, inexpert, and really, really short. A first trickle only – of a deluge the volume of which James Blish couldn’t have guessed in his darkest nightmares. We’ll continue to delve that deluge in our next thrilling chapter!


JC said...

Really?? This is gonna be an ongoing series!! Oh man, I am psyched. And I'm not being sarcastic, either. You love this stuff & so you write wonderfully about it --

I'm excited to see what's next!

Dave said...

To be fair to Blish, he later claimed (in the intro to one of the novelizations) that he indeed called McCoy "Bones" in the manuscript he turned in. He blamed a copyeditor for changing all occurrences of the nickname to "Doc."