Posts from July 2012

July 14th, 2012

Notes for a Star Trek Bibliography: Last Word from the Team!

We last left Star Trek fiction in a state of what the show’s techno-babble experts might call ‘temporal flux.’ After a long period wandering in the wilderness (sustained only by the manna of sometimes spotty and often manic fan fiction, fanzines, and fan conventions), the old cancelled TV show had at last reached the promised land of a big-screen Hollywood movie, and although reviews of that movie were decidedly mixed (as were reviews of the Gene Roddenberry novelization), it unleashed a shock wave into Trek continuity that changed everything. Before that movie, the fanzines could speculate all they liked about the future of our beloved U.S.S. Enterprise and its valiant crew, but all we knew was what the three seasons of the original TV series had shown us. That series showed us neither the beginning of Captain James T. Kirk’s five-year mission in deep space nor, more importantly, its ending. There was all the room in the galaxy to wonder what those familiar characters were doing – most fans imagined an endless sequence of planet-hopping adventures, and most fans imagined nothing more.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (movie and book) shattered the static peace of such a situation, and it did this by bringing one previously minor element to the fore: time. In the original series, characters had pasts (Spock served for a long time with the Enterprise‘s former captain, for instance, and Kirk and Scotty, we knew, had had many service postings before they joined the ship), so time was always a background note. But in the new movie, we’re dunked in it: years have passed since the time of the original show’s setting. When the movie opens, Kirk has taken a desk job at Starfleet, and both Spock and McCoy have left the service – and perhaps more importantly, the whole world of those original TV adventures is over: the captain is an admiral, the bridge crew is visibly older, the celebrated five-year mission is completed … time has passed, and unlike in so many sci-fi series, it’s passed inside the story, not just outside it.

Fans were slow to adopt this new reality – not just because they weren’t in any way finished with the old reality but also because they weren’t alone in this new one: they had corporate suits as company. Paramount had invested a lot of money in STTMP and its various movie tie-in products – and investments need to be watched by trained, responsible adults. Suddenly Star Trek was too important to be left in the hands of the people who’d safeguarded it all those hopeless years: the fans.

This very much extended to the series of Star Trek novels that was given renewed energy (and funding) with the launch of the movie. The movie could clearly stand as the beginning of a franchise, which meant, among other things, that corporate creatures who knew nothing about Star Trek would now have the authority to dictate the very parameters of the concept. You can tell by the book-covers: the drawings of our familiar characters are patterned (traced?) on the appearances in the movie – older, weather-beaten, clearly no longer the same people who went on all those original adventures.

A new fictional reality obtained. From a corporate standpoint, the first movie in a new franchise establishes the shape of that reality, the tenor, everything. In STTMP, our heroes re-unite to save the Earth from an alien space probe of awesome power. They succeed, and they all decide to stay on the newly-refitted Enterprise and head out for more space-adventures. In Paramount’s consideration, those future adventures will be movie-adventures, so writers of Star Trek books now faced two huge obstacles: they had to set their novels in the new ‘present’ of the movies, and they couldn’t radically change things without having corporate suits shutting the whole thing down.

Two of the earliest of these new Trek novels didn’t quite manage to clear either of these obstacles. mainly because they were written by the writing team least likely to adapt to this radical new reality. Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath had been among the original organizing forces behind written Star Trek adventures – they were gathering fan fiction, polishing fan fiction, and essentially writing fan fiction long before there seemed to be any hope of such fiction ever having a market, and so their roots were deep in the fanzine world – which, as we’ve seen, could get a little rough. In the early 1980s, Marshak and Culbreath wrote two books – The Prometheus Design and Triangle – that could fairly be called the last Star Trek fanzine stories ever published. The characters might have been wearing those periwinkle new uniforms on the covers, but these stories belonged to an earlier era.

That earlier era had some defining writing-tics. It was fond of racy sadomasochism, for instance – characters are frequently either naked or tortured or tortured while naked. It was also fond of Spock-worship, making the Enterprise‘s half-Vulcan science officer into a kind of super-powered demi-god who routinely through the rest of the crew into the shade. These things are true in both these novels – Spock (and, in The Prometheus Design, the Vulcan admiral Savaj) is repeatedly shown to be much stronger and faster than Kirk and his fellow humans, but unlike in all future variations of Trek (where the fact that Vulcans are much stronger than humans is still true), in the world of these novels, Spock’s Vulcan strength always seems to matter more than it should. Fan fiction was also enamored of the idea that Spock’s suppressed emotions were always on the verge of breaking free; Marshak and Culbreath did more than anybody to create that idea, and they’re doggedly faithful to it in these pages, where Spock is always coldly furious (a faint echo of this tic lasted for decades and turned up in Tim Russ’ portrayal of Commander Tuvok onStar Trek: Voyager, as we’ll see).

In The Prometheus Design, the Enterprise is threatened by a race of super-beings who are using sentient life throughout the galaxy in an enormous experiment involving aggression and risk. The ship has been commandeered by Admiral Savaj and placed under the command of Mr. Spock, both Vulcans having decided that poor, human Kirk is too weak to withstand the aliens’ influence. Fans of Trek fiction – especially present-day fans who’ve been spoon-fed corporately-vetted Trekkie-baby food for twenty years – have always found the undertones of this stuff unpalatable, and I admit, our authors lay it on a bit thick in this book, contriving their plot in such a way that not only does Spock spend a significant amount of time wearing (and apparently forgetting that he’s wearing) large prosthetic horns on his forehead, but Kirk spends a significant amount of time wearing (and apparently forgetting he’s wearing) a virginal white speedo and nothing else. But the fans who complain about Marshak and Culbreath’s oft-displayed willingness to humiliate Kirk aren’t reading far enough into the novels – these authors are at their best in celebrating the inner qualities of their heroes, the inner conflicts that make them who they are, as even Savaj is forced to admit in one nifty scene in which he confronts the super-aliens:

“Why do the subjects choose to return to the danger-aggression zones?” Savaj asked very clearly.

Trath stopped in midstride and turned to look at Savaj.

“Is it possible,” Savaj asked, “that the greatness cannot exist without the violence?”

“Who has raised with you such questions?” Trath said dangerously.

I have,” Savaj said. “We have.” He indicated Kirk. “They are implied in the oldest fire myth of these Humans’ world.” He nodded then toward Spock. “This one, bred to their world and born to mine, went out to the stars to investigate the duality of his heritage, and his soul, in the zone of danger – and greatness. This one” – he indicated McCoy – “is a born healer who chooses to fight death in the battle zone. The three together may be a lesson neither I nor my world has yet learned fully.”

That same inquest is very much taking place in Marshak & Culbreath’s next novel, the much-mocked Triangle, in which Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise crew are caught in an invisible war between two group-mind entities, each one determined to co-opt these starship crewpeople, the foremost avatars of rugged individuality. Both the Oneness and the Totality try to practice mind-control on various crew members, and Kirk and Spock are distracted by the arrival of Sola Thane, an alluring Federation Free Agent who (here we go again) has the authority to relieve Kirk of his command and take over the Enterprise herself – and our two heroes aren’t just distracted by her power-play: they’re also both attracted to her, setting up the lust-triangle of the book’s title. That part of the plot is more than faintly ridiculous, and yet Triangle is full of the break-neck action and exotic scenes that are these authors’ signature – and again, the inner qualities of heroism and individuality are the things ultimately being celebrated here:

“Why?” Kirk asked suddenly. “Why should plurality and diversity mean enmity? Even we singletons have learned friendship, love – a oneness which does not have to mean Oneness. For us, at least, Oneness means the end of the unique entity – dehumanizing, depersonalizing loss of identity. But our kind of oneness” – he gestured toward Sola and Spock – “is a celebration of individual identity, of difference. There is no love, passion, no friendship, no ultimate personal choice which does not depend on the unique, irreplaceable one. It is what we would miss in Oneness, and why we have fought against you with our lives.”

That kind of stuff may be dorky, but there’s an unapologetic grandeur to it as well – a boldness and a willingness to grapple with big ideas, all the mongrel energy of the old fanzines and decked out in new uniforms (and sporting footnotes – our writing team loved annotating their references). The small canon of Marshak and Culbreath – a short story in The New Voyages 2, The Price of the Phoenix, The Fate of the Phoenix, and these two novels – is fairly small, and much as I love these books (I re-read them all far more often than I re-read any other Star Trek fiction), I realize it couldn’t ever have been much bigger. If the cautious, corporate exponents we saw last time – lifeless things like The Abode of Life – represented one path Star Trek fiction could take as it expanded into the strange new world of successful franchise-support, The Prometheus Design and Triangle represented another path, equally untenable: from this point on, fan fiction must go back underground where it began, and Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath disappear from the Star Trek story.

But they laid the groundwork for a third way before they disappeared. In the wake of the big movie (and borne aloft by the subsequent ones), Star Trek fiction was now a vital, paying concern – it wouldn’t take long for such a venue to attract writers who not only embraced the new fictional reality of the movies but also embraced the need – the freedom – to move well beyond the hell-bent shoot-em-ups of our retiring team, however entertaining those shoot-em-ups were.

Star Trek fiction so far had known passionate amateurs and dispassionate professionals. Up next: the passionate professionals!

October 2nd, 2010

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.