Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Notes for a Star Trek Bibliography: The End of an Era!



All things work toward their own perfection, and unless you're a horseshoe crab, that perfection tends to presage your doom. As true as this is for cheetahs and concert violinists, it's also true for Star Trek fiction - specifically, the first, wild-and-woolly type of Star Trek fiction we've been chronicling in this series so far.

That type, as some of you will recall, was born in boozy convention rooms and lonely basements across the country even before the original series left the airwaves, written by fans so desperate to read more adventures of these characters they loved that they were willing to write those adventures themselves. And they did, in unprecedented numbers, and fanzines were born of that samizdat fervor. Random chance has almost always smiled on Star Trek (a free book to the first of you who can tell me the Star Trek quote that acknowledges this phenomenon), and here was no exception: some of those fans turned out to be talented writers, and some talented writers turned out to be fans. Actual, honest-to-gosh novels were born.

As we've discovered, they were of unequal quality (we haven't done a full-length breakdown of every single one, but we will - once this series has finished drawing the big picture of Star Trek fiction up to the present, we'll go back and gradually fill in all the books we skipped along the way, as insane and painful as that process will be). They were syrupy and sentimental. They were inconsistent (different books would hand out different fates to the same supporting characters, until it became almost a game to find out what crazy thing would happen to T'Pring or Doctor M'Benga this time). And once professional hacks learned there was a little money to be made, a great many of those earliest novels were the unthinkable: bland.

The one thing all of it had in common was simple: it was all still largely unnoticed by its nominal parent company, Paramount Pictures. Spin-off novels about a canceled series? Somebody somewhere in the vast motion picture conglomerate might have cared a bit, but the corporation sure as hell didn't.

And the way to tell that somebody somewhere cared at least a little? Those early Star Trek novels steered further and further away from the sado-erotic excesses of the earliest fan fiction. Even with the earliest professional novels, somebody somewhere must have said 'Kirk and Spock can't die, or be tortured, or kill out of anger' - even though those three things were staples of fan fiction.

So it's only fitting that this whole era of Star Trek fiction would end not only a pair of novels that actually dare to revive almost the whole of fan fiction's bag of naughty tricks - but a pair of novels that also beat out all the rest for sheer entertainment. This era of Star Trek fiction goes out with one hell of a bang.

Of course I'm referring to The Price of the Phoenix and The Fate of the Phoenix, by the writing team of Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath.

I've praised these two before, but here they come into their own for the first time: here they write the Star Trek fan fiction novels to end all Star Trek fan fiction novels.

The Price of the Phoenix came out in 1977 and is, I make no secret of it, my favorite Star Trek novel of them all (not all the novels featuring the original cast, but all the novels - this is my favorite out of 700, not 70) - a designation rendered all the more melancholy for me by the realization that this book could never be published today. Even though its every page is glowing not only with knowledge of the show (this writing team was even briefly in love with the idea of footnotes in Star Trek novels - imagine if that had caught on! They'd be running at Gibbon-esque length in the most recent books!) but with fidelity to its spirit, these books are too violent, too sexually charged, too adult to get green-lighted in today's franchise sci-fi market. Not to mention the fact that all of those fan fiction staples feature prominently here: our logical, unemotional Mr. Spock threatens murder with savage ferocity; characters are tortured with sheer brute force; and best of all, somebody dies - Captain Kirk, no less, and he's dead before the book opens with these crackerjack lines:
The transporter shimmered.

The two Enterprise security men materialized, took a firmer grip on the anti-grav lifts, and stepped carefully off the platform with the stretcher that bore the body of Captain James T. Kirk.

The scene is quickly filled in: Omne, an enigmatic rebel inventor, has created a 'black hole planet' covered in impregnable shielding, and he's invited hundreds of 'delegates' to gather there in opposition to the United Federation of Planets. Omne believes the Federation honors its non-interference Prime Directive mostly in the breach, and he claims to be worried about a future of 'wall-to-wall super empires.' Naturally, the Federation is concerned - it sends Kirk and the Enterprise to Omne's planet to assess the situation - and to assess Omne.

He's a fascinating villain, Omne, and he's the cornerstone of why this novel and its sequel work so well - only a great villain, somebody who challenges our heroes on many levels, can bring out the best in those heroes. The Star Trek novels that try to do this by the introduction of a point-of-view good guy (the infamous "Mary Sue saves the universe" gambit that we'll have reason to discuss in a later chapter) almost always fail, because they distract our attention from the heroes who should be at the center of things.

Omne centers the attention like nobody's business. He appears human, though he's very tall, broad, and heavy with muscle (he's called a "giant" many times) - but he isn't human: his blood is blue-green, and he's at least as strong as a Vulcan or a Romulan. And the reason we know that is because Vulcans and Romulans play a vital part in these books. The Vulcan of course is Mr. Spock. The Romulan, as Kirk and Spock discover when they arrive at Omne's black hole planet, is the same female Romulan Commander they once encountered in the original series episode "The Enterprise Incident" and tricked out of the fledgling Romulan cloaking device.

The Romulan Commander (we never learn her public name, although she whispers her private one to Spock at one point) in that episode was played with magisterial, entirely believable authority by Joanne Linville, and her performance is so memorable that the Commander immediately became a favorite character in fan fiction and in many Star Trek novels. In The Price of the Phoenix she's come to Omne's world (with the three starships under her command) on a mission analogous to that of Captain Kirk: to assess Omne's potential to disrupt the current balance of power (the book's major logistical flaw is that the Klingon Empire would certainly also have sent a representative, yet there be no Klingons here).

Kirk and Spock don't like the look of Omne (and they naturally dislike those impregnable planetary shields), but they figure they've walked into worse places and managed to walk out again. And that's how things seem to be progressing - until in one of the alien dioramas Omne's set up, Kirk sees a woman run into a burning house with a baby in her arms. He instinctively rushes in after her - and Spock watches as the whole building comes down on his captain. Hence the opening - Spock and Omne's Romulan guards gather Kirk's remains from the wreckage, and Omne allows Spock to beam back up to the Enterprise.

But it turns out Omne is playing a deadly double - even triple - game, using both a normal transporter to whisk Kirk from death a moment before the whole roof caved in (but after he was blocked from Spock's sight) and a new kind of transporter technology to make a perfect duplicate of the captain ("we always knew we were close with the transporter process," Omne hints, of the revelatory new process his calls the Phoenix), down to the last microbe and thought and feeling. The game Omne is playing is multi-layered - one part of it is a rather improbable attempt to split the Federation along the rift of the Prime Directive by which Starfleet is bound not to interfere with the native cultures of the planets it visits ... Omne points out that it was part of that woman's culture to seek suicide in such a manner, to which Kirk responds that the baby couldn't have made such a choice. Omne challenges this kind of morality:
Omne spread his hands. "It's not possible to have it both ways, Captain. Custom is custom, or it is not. Noninterference is noninterference, or it is not. Anything else is moral judgment on the basis of feeling - and the self-indulgence of imposing your gut reaction on the universe."

Kirk straightened gravely and stood quiet. "No," he said solemnly. "It can be - which is the reason for having a Prime Directive. But there is a logic to moral judgments, and there are judgments which have to be made. That is the reason for having men who will make them on the tough ones. Right or wrong, but make them and stand responsible. There is no sanctity to custom. The many can be as wrong as the one, and antiquity as wrong as tomorrow. The sanctity is in life - and in the freedom needed to preserve and enjoy it. Custom is the frozen form of men's choices, not to be shattered lightly, but it does not abolish the need to choose."

Omne was looking at him thoughtfully, one eyebrow rising. "So - you are the true antithesis," he said. "No mere thoughtless bundle of reactions, and no apologist, but the true son of moral certainty." He nodded as if pleased. "It was what I had wanted to learn."

But Omne also has a darker motive, something entirely more reminiscent of the bad old days of fan fiction: he wants to use his Vulcanoid physical strength to humiliate Kirk - physically. To make him beg - not for principle or for the lives of his friends, but personally, for himself. And Kirk knows it's possible:
Kirk had no illusions. The giant would regain sight and speed and precision in a moment. Kirk could not beat him. And the uncanny strength, the vicious imagination, could cause the Human body pain beyond its capacity to endure.

And the soul, also. Humiliation. A sickness of soul which could be felt through the body.

At some point he would beg abjectly, and for himself.

No illusions. Tough universe. It could be done to a man, any man. He had always known it could be done to him. He had been very lucky.

For this humiliation and much more, Spock surrenders to the rage that's welling up against his peaceful Vulcan training, and the novel climaxes in a long and brutal fight between him and Omne, a fight that ends with Omne risking everything - risking that his own pre-set Phoenix machinery will work to duplicate himself - by killing himself. When he returns and confronts his adversaries - Kirk, Spock, the Romulan Commander, the duplicate Kirk, and Dr. McCoy in the Enterprise's Sick Bay, he finally realizes that these heroes will sacrifice almost anything to prevent his miracle from becoming an evil let loose on the galaxy:
Each of them had lived for a long time on the final frontier of death, and still dared to love. It had been necessary. It was the nature of the universe, and what man, what all intelligent life had had to live with, always. And it had always been unendurable, and endured.

But now it was not the nature of the universe.

She undertook to speak for all. "We would give anything for it - except what we are."

"So say you all?" Omne said, and his eyes were darkly impressed as he felt the weight of common assent like a solid unity among them. Even McCoy lifted his head and met the black eyes with a searing look of loathing and icy, bleak pride - he who fought death on his own ground  and too often lost, and would fight again.

Omne nodded. "So you will not, after all, quite sell soul, flag, fortune, and sacred honor?"

"We will not sell what makes love possible," the Commander said.

"But that is the price of the Phoenix," Omne said.

The book is rip-snortingly fast-paced (the whole of the main action hardly takes longer than a day), but it's raw and avid with emotion - it's take-no-prisoners fan fiction in which both Kirk and Spock get roughed up well beyond what later fiction would countenance. This of course is the allure of fan fiction: you can't be certain at any point what will and won't happen. The Price of the Phoenix ends with a cliffhanger, and the following year Marshak and Culbreath brought out the sequel, The Fate of the Phoenix, again starring Kirk, Spock, the Romulan Commander, and the duplicate Kirk (now called James and surgically altered to pass as a Romulan and live with the Commander in the Romulan Empire, rather than have the presence of two Kirks in the Federation reveal the existence of the Phoenix process), all again pitted not only against Omne but also against a Phoenix-generated duplicate of Omne - wearing a copy of Mr. Spock's body.

The Fate of the Phoenix is a longer novel by a third than its predecessor  - and in every way it's also a bigger novel, grander in scope, wilder in action, more sweeping in its moral and philosophical debates. Those debates once again center on the ethics behind the Prime Directive, but such a description shouldn't lead you to imagine this is a book lost in intellectual maneuvering - like the first volume, The Fate of the Phoenix is first and foremost a character-driven action-yarn in the classic Star Trek tradition - space opera with brains. Omne's Spock-double (here called the Other, if only for simplicity's sake) has his own agenda - and a biological dead-man's switch, a time bomb lodged in his Phoenix-generated body that will kill him if he can't coerce the original Omne to counter it. The Commander is facing the threat of blood vengeance from a headstrong planetary princess in her own Empire, and the Federation is facing secession by a gigantic consortium of worlds who might like to ally themselves with the Romulans, or Omne ... and who would certainly rip apart the galaxy to possess the Phoenix device, if they knew it existed. Add some great action sequences, some nifty quotes, a curiously believable mountain-climbing scene, and some prehistoric monsters, and you still have only a fraction of what's going on in this fat, satisfying sequel.

The Price of the Phoenix and The Fate of the Phoenix sold very well, but more importantly, they were very much loved by Star Trek fans eager for the novels they were reading to more faithfully mirror the show they loved. Both books have been reprinted several times with an array of different cover illustrations - including one for The Fate of the Phoenix that features Kirk kneeling before a shadowy figure we only see from the rear and must assume is Omne - reflecting the fact that in the entire course of both books, Culbreath and Marshak never once explicitly tell us what color Omne's skin is - he's called Black Omne, but that's easily interpreted as a reflection of his malevolence only, and sometimes our authors will refer to his 'heathen idol face' - but again, the truly telling specifics simply aren't included.

In the interval between The Price of the Phoenix and its sequel, our two authors came out with yet another sequel: Star Trek the New Voyages 2, the sequel to their first volume of fan-generated short stories.  There's the usual mix of quality in the second volume, but the whole thing is bracketed by two short stories by Culbreath and Marshak themselves - the first story in the collection, "Surprise!" a somewhat fluffy little lark about an alien gremlin playing pranks on the Enterprise, and the final story in the book, the horrendously titled "The Procrustean Petard," in which Kirk and crew are abducted by inscrutable alien technology - and have their genders reversed on a genetic level. In the story's brief interval during which they wonder if they'll have to spend the rest of their lives that way, the characters do some fun and surprisingly knowing introspection about the deeper roles gender has played in their lives without them realizing it. The moment in the story where the now-voluptuous Kirk is nearly raped by a Klingon is not only classic Star Trek thought-provoking but classic fanzine erotic overkill. It and the Phoenix volumes couldn't help but remind long-time fans of some of the truly atrocious fan-generated fiction they'd read in messy dot-matrix printings over the years - and given the popularity of Culbreath and Marshak's books, those fans might have been forgiven for thinking that in addition to the more sanitized 'mainstream' volumes being published regularly, there'd always be a place for this rougher, more suggestive, and entirely more entertaining branch of the genre.

Those fans were wrong, however. Something was about to happen to the world of Star Trek fiction - something so vast and all-pervasive that not the most optimistic fan in the entire world could have seen it coming. After ten long years of cult status and endless syndicated reruns, Star Trek was about to become a billion-dollar world-wide juggernaut. Star Trek: The Motion Picture came to theaters in 1979, and the world of Star Trek fiction would never be the same again.

4 comments:

Heather said...

I just (finally!) added your blog to my Google Reader, and this couldn't be a more perfect first post to christen the feed. I can't wait to go back and read all the posts under this tag and see what you have in store. Looking forward to comparing your notes to my own. Yay for Trek fiction!

Steve Donoghue said...

Welcome on board, Heather! (and all of you reading this, hie thee hence at once to your favorite online bookseller and buy a copy of Heather's novel "A Soldier of Raetia" - it's good stuff!) Keep in mind when reading the backlog of my Star Trek bibliography here that it's not going to be complete on the first run-through - already there are plenty of omissions, plenty of pre-1979 novels I haven't even mentioned, let alone reviewed. I'll be moving ahead in little leaps for a while, until I get the whole of the sub-genre outlined. Then I'll go back and fill in the blanks!

Heather said...

I look forward to coming along for the ride. My goal is to someday own a copy of every Pocket Trek book - it's a high goal, but with folks like you who know way more about the subject than I do, I think I can make it one day. A girl can dream...

And thank you for the rec!

R. W. Tompkins said...

Heather-
Since my children have no interest in my Star Trek books, I will bequeath all of my first printings of the Pocket Books- and the Bantam books including the three reviewed here. Their value is whatever Half Price Books would give me for them and I would much rather see someone who would actually enjoy them receive them.The Bantam books kept me going when there was no other new Trek. Some were horrendous, some quite well- done, the Phoenix series the best books ever, never to be surpassed in the true spirit of Star Trek.
I amend my Will and Testament once yearly and can draft instructions next June if you are interested. If I have the energy, I might pack them off to you early. I have probably the first 110 Star Trek Pocket books [a good start] and the complete Bantam series.
I must use large doses of morphine to keep pain at bay in my life. Along with the beta blockers I must use to keep my heart rate suppressed,my short-term memory is a shambles and my concentration required for reading is just is not up to the task for fiction, much less for re-reading stories I have already in some cases committed to memory.
Your call.
R. W. Tompkins
coach@frontiernet.net
Indiana