Notes for a Star Trek Bibliography: The First Ladies of Fandom!

forgive me - I couldn't resist

As we’ve noticed occasionally in our bibliographical notes, there are two kinds of Star Trek fiction. There’s the kind where the outward garments of Star Trek – a captain named Kirk, a ship called Enterprise, etc. – are simply and crudely draped over a pre-existing science fiction hobbyhorse. And there’s the kind where the essence of Star Trek comes first and finds the stories it wants to tell. In a very real sense, this division is established during the original three seasons of the TV show itself – some of those episodes (a great many of them, to be honest) are pure sci-fi potboilers into which elements of Gene Roddenberry’s creation are inserted with greater or lesser degrees of success, and some of them (the best of them, with one or two exceptions) are pure Trek, operating on its own principles.

As with the show, so too with the fiction. On the one hand, we have James Blish’s dutiful script adaptations – sometimes heartfelt, yes, but most often mechanical yarns churned out on deadline, featuring wandering terminology and interchangeable characters. And on the other hand, there were all those fanzines, evangelical, written by fans, for fans.

The script adaptations were financially successful beyond anybody’s wildest dreams, and they weren’t the only sign that something unprecedented was going on in the wake of Star Trek‘s cancellation. Conventions were springing up all over the country, informally organized, fueled by enthusiasm and beer, swarmed by fans who came out of the woodwork to meet other people infected with a love of this particular show. That might sound routine these days, but it was Star Trek that created that mindframe and set it in motion.

So then: a confluence of passion and profit, generated by a TV show that was no longer on the air. Inevitably, books. And with books, the haploid nature of Star Trek fiction, blossoming to manuscript length. 1976 was the scene.

In that year, the first official exponents of each strain of Star Trek fiction appeared almost simultaneously: a novel called Spock, Messiah! (by Theodore Cogswell and Charles Spano), and a story anthology called Star Trek: The New Voyages (edited by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath).

Spock, Messiah gives away its nature in its very attribution. Spano was a new writer, a diehard fan of the show who knew his kevas from his trillium – and Bantam Books, acting at the behest of Paramount, partnered him with Cogswell, an old, practiced hand at sci-fi potboilers. And the result is … a sci-fi potboiler in which the newcomer has been allowed to interject some weird, show-specific details. Our crew is monitoring the explosive situation on the planet Kryos when a subverted Vulcan mind-meld traps Mr. Spock in the sway of a religious zealot intent on inflaming the entire planet to war. Kirk and company must somehow save Spock and restore order without violating the Prime Directive that forbids Starfleet officers from interfering in the normal development of pre-spaceflight civilizations. Thanks to Cogswell, gigantic swaths of pages are devoted to scene-setting and Amazing Fantasy-style descriptions of the people and society of Kryos. When our characters do traipse onstage, they hardly ever sound or act like themselves, as in the quick dressing-down Captain Kirk gives poor Ensign Chekhov for breaking character around the natives:

“I wasn’t talking about that,” Kirk snapped. “You’re Beshwa, you idiot! You’re never supposed to have handled a sword in your entire life. If you don’t act as if you don’t know one end of a sword from the other when you get out there, you’re going to blow our cover. On the other hand, if you kill Greth, we won’t be in any better shape. Either way, we’ll be dead by morning. Well, we’ve got a couple of hours yet. Maybe we can think of something. Bones, you’d better get to work on the wounded.”

For those of us who bought a copy of Spock, Messiah the instant we saw it (for the pause-inducing price of $1.75), the book represented a classic win-lose scenario. It was original Star Trek fiction, at least technically – the first since Spock Must Die, a new adventure in which there was no pre-memorized dialogue. But it was all so, well, dull. By the numbers. Impersonal. Without knowing it or meaning to, this novel set the template for an endless torrent of Star Trek novels to come – and if it was the only such novel you read in 1976, you might have had cause for a bit of depression.

But there was another Star Trek book published that year, and to put it mildly, it wasn’t impersonal.

Star Trek: The New Voyages was born of those earliest conventions, and it owes its genesis to the first ladies of fandom, the girls who were geeks before the word existed, who banded together initially to save the show from cancellation and then stayed banded together to keep its memory alive. It’s easy to see the appeal for these particular fans: not only did Star Trek feature dozens of incredibly memorable female guest-characters – a forlornly brave ice age exile (“a very inventive mind, that man”), a fiercely independent blind diplomat (“I could play tennis with you, Captain Kirk – I might even beat you”), an imperious, calculating Vulcan princess (“And as the years went by, I came to know that I did not want to be the consort of a legend”), and perhaps most incredibly of all, a Romulan woman in command of her own starship (“We can appreciate the Vulcans, our distant brothers”) – but its central cast had three refreshingly realized female characters: Yeoman Janice Rand, who could be feisty and sardonic when the occasion demanded, Nurse Christine Chapel, in whom tenderness and professionalism never clashed, and most of all Lieutenant Uhura, mainstay of the bridge crew itself, voice of the Enterprise and voice of common sense to her male comrades. For the first time, young women could look at a science fiction world and feel invited instead of excluded.

They took to it with a passion. Most of those primitive fanzines we’ve already discussed were the brain-children of women, who did all the typing, all the proofreading, all the story-solicitation, all the tedious mailing – and most of the best writing. Most of those earliest conventions were organized by women. The two mega-selling nonfiction (hence, outside our purview) books about Star TrekThe World of Star Trek and especially Star Trek Lives – were mostly written by women, about women.

These first ladies of fandom are the ones who first realized the potential in all those Star Trek stories written by countless fans who could expect no possibility of publication. That potential was brought to the attention of Fred Pohl at Bantam, and he pounced on it, using his bottomless charm (and the seemingly limitless number of connections he had, everywhere) to get an actual book authorized. Suddenly, these first ladies had a shot at creating some new legends of their own.

The result was Star Trek: The New Voyages, and it was mainly the prodigy of two of that first generation of fans: Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath. Their infectious enthusiasm got the project off the ground and helped it soar – and unlike in a production such as Spock, Messiah, that enthusiasm is palpable on every page of this anthology (in which, in yet another industry first inaugurated by Star Trek, there are no stories by men). Here there is no question of precedent: these are stories that grew entirely out of love for the show and its characters. So the characters are in character, from first to last – the passions, the wisecracks, the ethical dilemmas … everything reads as if these, too, were novelizations of broadcast episodes, as though this were a companion volume to the fourth season original fans never got.

Virtually all the first ladies are represented here. There’s Claire Gabriel (in “Ni Var” Spock is genetically separated into two beings – one human, one Vulcan, both Spock), Juanita Coulson (in “Intersection Point” the Enterprise crashes into something that isn’t there), Ruth Berman (in “Visit to a Weird Planet Revisited,” William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley find themselves accidentally beamed onto the real Enterprise during a crisis – the companion and continuation of the fanzine story “Visit to a Weird Planet”), and in the best story of the collection, Shirley Maiewski (in “Mind-Sifter,” a memory-shattered Kirk is stranded in a 20th century mental hospital) – and many others.

Although they will later be quite prolific, Marshak and Culbreath give us no story of their own in this first anthology – although their prose is all over it in other guises. Paramount requested that each of the stars of the original series pen a short introduction to one of the stories in the collection, and, well, several of these introductions sound quite a bit like our editors, writing in their telltale breathlessly, charmingly hyperbolic diction. And there’s their introduction, a short piece of prose in which the clean breath of vindication moves like a wind through the barley:

Here are not merely bold knights and fair damsels, but flesh-and-blood men and women of courage and achievement, knowing the value of love, and of laughter. They know also tears and terrors, doubts and divisions, frailties and fears, yet they do not bemoan their fate, and they do not merely endure; they prevail.

If Camelot and Man of La Mancha are legends of glorious quests for the unattainable, and Star Trek is our new dream, the possible dream – to reach for the reachable stars.

No, we have not forgotten Camelot.

But if this be our new Camelot, even more shining – make the most of it.

Spock, Messiah racked up decent sales numbers – fans clearly did their duty and bought it – but Star Trek: The New Voyages was a meteor: fans bought two or three copies apiece, passed them around, read them until they were falling apart, underlined, annotated, cross-referenced. This was the first true taste of Star Trek fiction – the first real taste of Star Trek itself since the show went off the air. A calm retrospective now can hardly convey the water-in-the-desert perfect satisfaction it produced – long before there was firm talk of a new movie, these women had been tending the flame and writing the further adventures, and this book stands as a monument to their dedication. A geeky monument, but a monument all the same.

5 Comments to Notes for a Star Trek Bibliography: The First Ladies of Fandom!

  1. JC's Gravatar JC
    October 2, 2010 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    You see that? Thumbing my sweaty adolescent fingers through Strangers from the Sky and The Final Nexus, I was sitting on the shoulders of giants and didn’t even know it. Thanks for another fantastic post in what I hope will be a long, long series …

  2. steve's Gravatar steve
    October 3, 2010 at 2:35 am | Permalink

    Well, I plan on covering every single phase, every single era, and every single book from every single incarnation of the show, so yes … this might take a while!

  3. October 3, 2010 at 3:29 am | Permalink

    Thank you for another trip down memory lane! I had long ago read “Mind-sifter” but did not remember the author or where I had read it, though I knew it was fan fiction, used the Guardian of Forever, and was powerfully impressed by it — as you say, it was outstanding and it snuck up on me in the most delightful way.

    When I got into Doctor Who fandom, one fan wrote a Star Trek/Who crossover novella that, God help me, I paid real money for and really enjoyed reading. I don’t think I’d want to re-read it though. I think The Suck Fairy (http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/09/the-suck-fairy) would have affected it or me by now.

  4. July 15, 2013 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    So who ARE the people in the photo?
    Several of them look familiar.

  5. Bluejay Young's Gravatar Bluejay Young
    April 28, 2014 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    I am guessing that the dark woman at center is Sondra Marshak (born Sondra Hassan, dad Albert Nessim Hassan).

    I think the woman she is leaning on is Shirley Maiewski. At bottom left I think is Myrna Culbreath. I don’t recognize the others unless that might be Connie Faddis at bottom right.

    I’m trying to find out what happened to Marshak — she seems simply to have dropped off the map. Culbreath returned to Colorado and resumed her career in education. Shirley Maiewski died in 2004. The original version of her novella “Mind-Sifter” (you read a much abridged version in The New Voyages) has been adapted for the fan-produced series Star Trek New Voyages/Phase II and will star James Cawley, Brandon Stacy and David Sherin.

  1. By on February 1, 2011 at 9:06 pm

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