Saturday, November 27, 2010

Notes for a Star Trek Bibliography: The Dinner Bell!

After the reckless abandon of the fanzines, just after the first flush of professionally-published fan fiction, the world of Star Trek fiction reverberated with a sound previously unheard in connection with any other adult science fiction TV show: the sound of the dinner bell. This sound is typically heard when a gap opens up between demand and supply, and it's almost always gonged by executive types who don't care much about how they supply that demand. To those executives, a gap between demand and supply means money - either being made or being lost. There is a large and active class of human beings that is urgently concerned with the making and losing of money, and that class always busies itself with the gap between demand and supply, be it for cars, Coldplay CDs, or 'reality' TV shows. It's through the ceaseless activities of this class of people that crap first entered the world seven thousand years ago and continues to fill it. So it is with parking garages, Will Ferrell movies, and, alas, a vast number of books - including Star Trek books.

The reason for this is of course lack of passion, and the reason it becomes an issue is simple: when executive types concerned with filling the gap between demand and supply ring the dinner bell, the first people to respond are the hacks. Almost by definition, a hack writer is someone for whom a writing assignment is a matter of pages not passion, word count not wonder, deadlines not destiny. Hacks may not live to write but they certainly make their living from writing - the lounge like sharks through the empty seas and come to full, hurrying life the instant their always-searching senses detect the erratic twitchings of a job. The nature of the job is secondary to a whole host of things: is it possible in the time allotted? Can it be done or faked without undue effort? And above all, what does it pay? If these things all check out OK, the hack will take the job - and only then will inquire what it is.

In the late 1970s, after Paramount and Bantam woke up to the fact that if they printed a Star Trek novel at $2.95 a copy it would routinely sell 300,000 copies (often more, and always quickly), they rang the dinner bell. In a financial sense, they had to - all they had on tap to fill that suddenly-perceived gap were a few manuscripts lovingly crafted by fanatics show-followers, and loving craft is time-consuming. Books were needed right away, to fill the creaking metal spinner-racks that constituted the whole sci-fi section of most American bookstores at the time.

It wasn't only Star Trek, naturally. Tie-in novels were booming, and the waters were positively frenzied with hacks. The Hardy Boys, K.N.I.G.H.T. Rider, The Man from Atlantis, (pre-cool) Battlestar Galactica, The Partridge Family, C.H.I.P.S. - all were spawning books in which familiar character-names were moved around in new "adventures" for an audience who wanted more than they'd received through the medium of TV. Every one of those books had to be written, and since it was too much to expect anybody to want to write them (it was only enough for the studios to expect people to want to read them), hacks were needed - and they answered the call, adopted pseudonyms, churned out prose, and so made their rent payments, bought their swimming pools, gave money to friends, and paid their beagles' medical bills. It's true that the field of literature was not elevated by their endeavors - but nobody got hurt, and the publishers' checks didn't bounce.

So it was with Star Trek novels in the late '70s. The dinner bell was sounded, and the books came pouring off the presses. Perhaps it's helpful to clarify here that I'm not always and only using the term 'hack' in a pejorative sense. I'm especially not using it to connote shoddy writing. When it comes to the actual mechanics of fluency, hacks are almost always not only competent but proficient - their sentences are smooth, their constructions hold up, and their dialogue is usually snappy. They are the prose professionals; while other, more heartfelt souls are torturing their sentences into brilliance over months or even Gold help us years, hacks are producing reams of writing that isn't brilliant but isn't bad. But a thing need not be technically bad to be crap - all that's really necessary to produce crap is to lack any passion for what you're doing. Andy Warhol, Sidney Lumet, Jonathan Franzen - the list of people who aren't technically bad yet produce crap is almost endless. The sad fact is, consumption doesn't usually wait on craft, or the world would have far less of practically everything man-made, and all of it would be much better.

In any case, none of this can be blamed on the hacks. They swarm in and take the writing jobs because those jobs pay, not for any other reason. In the late 1970s, there were suddenly paying jobs writing Star Trek novels (a state of affairs that would have seemed a madcap dream only a few years previous), and the work was fairly easy. The studio had a readily available 'book' on the factual scaffolding of the show (Dr. McCoy has an ex-wife, not a wife; Lieutenant Sulu is Japanese, not Chinese, etc.), and besides, by then almost everybody had seen the re-runs. What fans wanted seemed simple: more Star Trek adventures. Hacks set to work.

The resulting novels are the earliest canon of genuinely professional Star Trek novels, but they aren't the heart of that canon. In books such as Stephen Goldin's Trek to Madworld, Gordon Eklund's Devil's World and The Starless World, Jack Haldeman's Perry's Planet, or Joe Haldeman's Planet of Judgment and World Without End - this list is about a dozen books long - the general rout of readers got what it seemed to want: more adventures of the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise ("No bloody A, B, C, or D"). Hack writers took fifteen minutes to come up with a tentpole gimmick - what if stars were sentient? what if the Enterprise encountered magic? what if Spock were trapped on a hostile world with a woman who hates Vulcans? - and plugged in cufflink characterizations (Kirk = heroic, McCoy = dour, Spock = exposition, etc.), shook vigorously, and rapped out the requisite 50,000 words. Trust me when I tell you: if you switch off the part of your brain that believes in its subject, the work isn't difficult. 5 solid pages a day gets it done in a little more than a month, and the publisher's check goes a long way.

The problem was that Star Trek was built on passion. Not just a drive to broadcast a show every week (even the producers of B.J. and the Bear had that), but passion about what the show stood for, what it dreamed. It would be impossible to tell the difference between a good Space:1999 novel and a bad one, for the simple reason that such a higher passion had never touched the show at any point - either in the broadcasting or in the knock-off novels - and without that passion, kitsch is indistinguishable from craft. But for some fans, it most certainly was possible to tell the difference between a good Star Trek novel and a bad one. The key was passion, and the give-away was how that passion animated the characters at the heart of the show. The Voight-Kampff test of Star Trek fiction has always been, ironically enough, whether or not the characters seem real.

This is an intangible test, and so hacks were doomed to fail it. A few minutes cogitation can give you a gimmick you can run through the whole of a quick book - Hey, past a certain point technology looks like sorcery, doesn't it? or Hey, what if gravity just stopped working? - but as The Velveteen Rabbit taught us many years ago, you have to believe in something to make it real. In every one of these dozen or so early novels (all of which we fans eagerly devoured and re-read, all of which sold far, far in excess of all other sci-fi novels published in the same months), there are familiar character names but no characterization, dialogue tics but no real exchanges, lots of stuff happening but no drama. In virtually every one of these books, you could extract the Star Trek elements and substitute Space Cruiser Yamato elements without disturbing things at all - stars would still be sentient, gravity would still be wonky, etc. They were consumed because their recipients were starving, and for that same reason many of them were fondly remembered even once those recipients had all the sustenance they could want (when you've been hiking for two weeks on one bitter apple and a few swallows of water a day, you remember forever the first big meal you had when it was over, no matter how terrible that meal was).

Very often, once hacks swarm in and blanket an area, they blight it or nearly do. The real question at this point in the course of Star Trek fiction was: now that the studio and the word-churners were involved, would there be no more genuine, passionate Star Trek fiction? As befits this particular show, the answer turned out to be surprisingly hopeful - as we'll see next time!

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