Response from the Silent Majority was surprisingly favorable for my new ongoing regular feature (I love regular features! I'm only allowed just so many over at Open Letters, my overlords there being reactionary tween tyrants, but here at Stevereads I can have has many as I like!) on the long, strange literary history of Star Trek. Apparently, most of you have watched the show in one incarnation or other over the decades, and several of you have loved it dearly.
Favorable, yet nit-picky! In my very first chapter of this feature, I looked at James Blish's Spock Must Die! - I used it as a kind of starting point, noting the slim pickings that came before it: a moronic kids book and a vast sea of fanzines. My implication was that those primordial beginnings weren't worth the time to examine in detail, but I reckoned without the x-factor of curiosity! This makes sense: virtually none of you will have been around and involved in the production and reading of those early fanzines, and the only other place to come across them is deep in the bowels of a Star Trek convention, which is not a place sane and healthy people go. Curiosity would naturally prompt you all to wonder what those fanzines were like, back at the very dawn of Star Trek itself.
They were mostly awful. I was there from the very beginning, I read most of them, I may even have participated in some of them (back when I was declasse enough to use pseudonyms), and I'm telling you: they were mostly awful. Labors of love, every one of them – and like all labors of love, ugly and ill-conceived. “Labor of Love” is a recognized euphemism for 'ugly and ill-conceived,' for Pete's sake!
Still, several of you wrote (privately, of course! Don't know what I'd even do if a lively debate erupted in, oh I don't know, the Comments field) expressing curiosity over this sub-layer of forest flooring you've missed all these years, so I'm pausing from my look at Star Trek BOOKS for a brief posting on the Star Trek fanzines that came before everything. This is where the very earliest Star Trek fiction was born – this is where it underwent its first mitosis from Star Trek, the show, itself. And like all infants, it was loud, ungainly, and prone to soil itself.
One thing some of you younger readers must understand: we did all this without technology, using the equivalent of stone knives and bear skins. There were no personal computers then, no scanners, no Internet. There were gigantic mimeograph machines, and there were typewriters (some of them which were electric, so if you paused to think you got a row of mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm's – and you couldn't just 'delete' – you had to start again on a new sheet of paper), and there were heavy metal telephones connected to cords that came out of the wall, and these were the only tools available to the earliest Star Trek fiction pioneers. So the results look primitive by today's standards. Fan homages now take the form of unbelievably sophisticated pastiches done on video. Are there any privately circulated print-fanzines anymore? I don't know.
Fifty years ago, they sprouted like toadstools. From the very first, Star Trek created in its fans an urgent desire not just to watch but to contribute. The show seemed to belong to us, rather than to some studio that only let us watch it. Fanzines were born of that urge, and they started appearing soon after the original series started airing. One of the earliest, something called “Spockanalia” (you were warned), was already several issues old before the original three-season run was done.
And even in the midst of that fabled run, fans were doing what fans do best: complaining. Even back in 1968, one issue of “Spockanalia” could feature the following wail of disappointment from its editors:
There's a new season starting. Please [it was addressed directly to Gene Roddenberry, who did indeed read it]. Bring back your original standards. Write us another “Menagerie” and let the “Omega” [a reference to the episode “The Omega Glory”] be past. If we fans have any voice in the creation of STAR TREK, then we say, “Keep it the way it was. That is what we want.”
It's one of the little ironies of the fanzines that although they were all animated by that same geek-anthem of “keep it the way it was,” they all featured Star Trek scenarios that Roddenberry would never have countenanced in any incarnation of his show. Main characters are usually only caricatures of themselves; dialogue is clumsy and blockish, torture and degradation are frequent and gratuitous, and illicit romantic relationships are everywhere (the main variation being a homosexual pairing of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock – all because Roddenberry and his writers dared to show two grown men whose close friendship with each other actually meant something to each). At the same time the harried and hard-working editors of these fanzines were urging Roddenberry not to abandon his vision, they were publishing stories that threw that vision out the nearest airlock.
'Publishing' here is an extremely equivocal term. These things were hand-mimeographed, hand-stapled, hand-set, and hand-distributed. Some of the funky sci-fi bookshops in San Francisco and New York at the time might actually have one or two of them for sale, but they were novelty items only. You read one largely because you were in some way involved in producing one, otherwise you got one in the mail (late, and bent) if you paid your 75 cents postage.
And this provincial distribution reflected – and in many cases encouraged – a provincial tone in the contents. There were innumerable typos. There were execrable puns and in-jokes. There were inept doodles and insufferably earnest fan drawings. There were limericks. If somebody's sister-in-law's ex-boyfriend's brother so much as breathed on the galley sheets, he was solemnly thanked in the credits. Reading through one of those early fanzines was like having a lump of raw faith in your hands. Potent, but sloppy.
Potent, sloppy, and, as mentioned, mostly awful. Paragraphs like this one abound:
The U.S.S. Enterprise, an unbelievably massive and graceful island of life, appeared first as a small shape of credible proportions, then as a gigantic array of metal, lights, and plastics gleaming in the glare of a crimson sun. From that moment on, I became a part of the vessel's life. And, along with the regular personnel of the Enterprise, I became fascinated with one phase of Starship life in particular … a Vulcan-Terran humanoid known as Spock Xtmprsquzntwlfb. Mr. Spock (as he is referred to by his ship-mates …) is the logic-minded science-officer. Aboard the Enterprise he is second-in-command. Within Starfleet, he holds the rank of “Commander.”
(In the interests of painful accuracy, not one hyphen, capitalization, or quotation-mark of the above has been altered)
The 'phase' in question here, the character of Mr. Spock, is a perennial object of, well, fascination in the fanzines – as indeed he was on the original show. Fans seized on every conceivable detail of the character, from his green blood to his enhanced physical strength to his race's odd mating habits, even to the fact that in the episode “This Side of Paradise” he tells Leila Kalomi that she “couldn't pronounce” his real name – hence the alphabet-soup stand-in that fans (encouraged, it should be noted, by Roddenberry) concocted to serve as his 'last name' (fans concentrated so much on creating a last name made of English language letters in such a sequence as to be unsayable that they overlooked the far more explosive implication of the original question and answer: that Spock itself is simply a nonsense-word, that when this character's at home he's actually called something else entirely). The emphasis gets tiresome very quickly, but readers looking for a little relief will be sorry when they find it – characterizations of everybody else are ever so much worse. Kirk is the golden jock every nerd and geek (hence, every Star Trek fan) loves to hate in these earliest stories, and Dr. McCoy is most often portrayed as a ranting drunk. The secondary characters are almost always delineated by how similar/dissimilar they are to Mr. Spock, or else how deeply they lust after him (in the fanzines, as in all later Star Trek fiction, Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott is the least explored character of all – later on in this regular feature, when we get to Character Dossiers, we'll examine reasons for that).
The miracle of Star Trek is this: when the show was canceled, the fanzines didn't limp along and die out the way they would have with any other show. They kept going. They flourished. In the barren years between the last aired episode of the original series and the appearance of roughly regularized Star Trek novels, the fanzines were the lifeline through which Star Trek survived in print (meanwhile, an innovative and largely unprecedented deployment of network reruns of the original series was keeping the visuals alive and making new fans all over the Western hemisphere).
Even as the 'technology' of producing that lifeline improved (better mimeograph machines, better binding, even clunky, primitive dot-matrix printers), the lifeline itself was still mostly awful. Relatively successful later fanzines like “It Takes Time on Impulse” were still self-confessedly amateur productions (a poem at the beginning of one issue reads: “red's running out of ribbon/and I'm running out of words./red's going to be repaired/and I'm going to bed./typos there are,/apologies there aren't”)(“red” being a typewriter – we named our machines, back in 1985) full of clumsy, largely deplorable fiction and nonfiction. But these later fanzines had one key difference: they were all animated by hope. By that point, every Star Trek fan was feeling the first flickers of that hope – that somehow, in some way, their beloved show would return.
There were, against all odds, some good stories in those early fanzines (including a couple that became legends, like “Visit to a Strange Planet,” in which a transporter accident – that again! - lands the real Kirk, Spock, and McCoy on the set of Roddenberry's TV show – a story that spawned an entertaining sequel, as we'll see), and some good writers (Juanita Coulson deserves special mention for consistently hitting a level of professionalism – on the page and in the 'back room' – that so often eluded her colleagues) managed to show up amidst the dregs, but by and large there is no reason to return to the fanzines yellowing in attics or preserved in Mylar bags at conventions, any more than even the fondest yearning for the innocence of childhood would make strained beets appealing to an adult. But the fanzines are worth contemplating, mainly because they're remnants of a world that no longer exists, a world that will never exist again (now that the various entertainment conglomerates have learned that there's money in that there franchise): a world without Star Trek.
We have regular novels now, and we just had a very successful movie relaunch of the whole concept (a relaunch that's been curiously shy about kicking off its own line of books – another thing we'll examine in due time), and we have Fanfiction.net to handle the continuously swelling tide of fan writings that were once the sole province of fanzines. The ratio of crap to quality hasn't changed (the great science fiction writer Ted Sturgeon hinted that it was a physical constant, like absolute zero) – you still have to sift through a huge mountain of poorly written garbage to find the one or two gems worth reading. But at least you get to keep your 75 cents.