Star Trek and Humanism: The Novels Part One
At last month’s panel on The Humanism of Star Trek at the Chi-Fi convention, moderated with an iron fist by the bad ass Jennifer Cross, I brought up during the all too brief question and answer period that I had had a lot of my Trek experience through the numerous Pocket Books Star Trek novels that I have collected over the years, and that a lot of the shows Humanist values are explored in more depth and precision in some of the novels than they can be in the somewhat limited creative palette available to a popular TV show. Pocket Books have been the official publisher of Trek Novels since the release of the novelization of “Star Trek:The Motion Picture” in 1979 and continue to put out new material to this day in every flavor of Trekky goodness, whether your fetish is The Original Series (me), Deep Space Nine, Enterprise, even Lens Flare Trek. This Wikipedia page, or the official database for licensed works at Memory Beta will show you the breadth of the world than writers and fans alike have built over the last 40 odd years of Trek fandom.
Oops. Ok… when did we get a scary floating robot attack drone? Well, Star Trek has always been great family entertainment. The Original Series (TOS), in its brief lifetime, created one of the first multi-racial, interspecies ensemble casts and had several TV firsts, the most famous being the first interracial kiss. The Next Generation (TNG) , and Deep Space Nine (DS9) added children to the mix, with mixed results certainly, but both shows managed to incorporate young people into their storylines without making them the butt of jokes or the equivalent of comic sidekicks the way they had been previously portrayed in Sci Fi TV. Plus all of the Star Trek shows are available on the major streaming sites, making it easy to begin sharing them with a new generation. Plus everything is PG. I don’t think there is much in the current Trek TV catalog that should scare or scandalize any kid over 10 these days.
The Trek Novels themselves, whilst they may vary in quality, fit pretty much the same bill, good PG family friendly reading. Reading is good for kids… right?
<PARENTING ADVICE DETECTED…BARELY. CARRY ON!>
Whew… ok then On to the meat of things, a few recommendations from my own shelf that I think show off the Humanism in Star Trek that Gene Roddenberry so obviously intended. Note, my favorite Trek for Novels is TOS, maybe because it’s relatively short run on TV left authors with more space to expand compared the more successful later series. I may also just be an old fart. So here are three TOS novels and a TNG prequel story to whet your appetites.
Prime Directive (1990) by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens.
Starfleet‘s most sacred commandment has been violated. Its most honored captain is in disgrace, its most celebrated starship in pieces, and the crew of that ship scattered among the thousand worlds of the Federation…
The Prime Directive or Starfleet General Order 1 came up as one of the most interesting, troubling and complicated of the concepts introduced by Star Trek. While often introduced simply as a narrative element, an obstacle for Kirk or Picard to finagle around in order to save the day/planet/damsel, the Federation’s doctrine of non-interference had noble anti-colonial origins. As opposed to the Klingons or Romulans who may simply conquer less advanced planets or the Orion pirates or Ferengi who might deceive or exploit them, the Federation crafted an overarching philosophy and a complex series of rules for their dealings with such species. Prime Directive is a sprawling novel that explores the aftershocks of a disastrous survey of a particular planet right on the cusp of joining the wider interstellar community. With the planet Talin left in ruins, the Enterprise in pieces, and its legendary captain and crew disgraced, the Reeves-Stevens use the main characters reactions to this disaster to explore the deeper implications of General Order 1 We meet the Starfleet scientist in charge of the complex set of algorithms that are used to determine a species status in relation to the Directive. We meet a group of idealistic young protesters lobbying the Federation for repeal of GE1 (as well as getting a look at Spock’s babysitting skills.) And we follow Kirk as he deals with his exile from Starfleet and his own potential responsibility for genocide. We also get to see the rest of the Bridge Crew, Doctor McCoy and Chief Engineer Scott as they finagle their way back to the doomed planet, named Kirk’s World now, to find out the stunning truth about what really happened that day. One of the things that the Star Trek novels do well is portray the characters we love from TV as so much more well rounded and capable. Uhura isn’t a glorified phone operator, she’s an expert in linguistics and translator tech. Scotty’s not just a whisky loving mechanic, he’s one of the foremost experts on ship systems in the Federation. Kirk isn’t just an overacting lothario, he’s the Captain of the Federation flagship, a capable and resourceful leader respected and loved by his crew, who will go to almost any length to clear his name. Even if this book wasn’t cogent to the theme of my blog post I would recommend it, it’s great Trek and a great story from beginning to end.
Spock’s World (1988) Diane Duane
“I am Spock…I hold the rank of Commander in the Starfleet of the United Federation of Planets; I serve as First Officer of the Starship Enterprise. I am the son of two worlds. Of Earth, whose history is an open book…and of Vulcan, whose secrets have lain hidden beneath its burning sands…Until now…”
I could easily make this entire article about my love of Diane Duane’s Trek novels. From her first foray, The Wounded Sky, Duane envisioned a Federation that was diverse, an enterprise crewed by a panoply of humanoid and non humanoid crew, at one point even introducing a Horta crewmember! More than any other Trek author I think Duane has understood what Roddenberry intended the Federation to represent, a broadly pluralistic and open society. Her Rihannsu series, beginning with My Enemy, My Ally, crafts an unfortunately non-Canon Romulan society that puts the cardboard cutout villains presented in TNG and the later movies to shame. Her treatment of the beloved cast and crew is both respectful and witty, I think she is my favorite writer of the good Doctor McCoy and her own contribution to the crew, Chief of Recreation Harb Tanzer, shows a side of Starfleet life that a lot of other writers neglect.
Spock’s World is a novel in two parts. In the “present” just after the end of the original crew’s five year mission of deep space exploration, Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy are called to the planet Vulcan to testify before a planetary vote on whether the Vulcan government should cut off ties with the Federation. Such a move would have ripple effects across the Federation, especially on the most famous mixed family on Vulcan, Sarek and Amanda, Spock’s Parents. Interwoven with the present time chapters, Duane presents us with chapters detailing the origins of the Vulcan species, from tropical gatherers until something goes horribly awry with their sun, to feuding desert clans and warring technological nations up to the rise of Surak, whose philosophical leap forward would save the Vulcan race for self destruction. It’s not all canon of course, very little of the novelized Trek universe is. But I could go back in time I would hand this book to the show runners and say THIS. This is what Vulcans are about. now don’t fuck it up. She also presents us with a modern Vulcan world not inhabited by clones of Spock, but Vulcan of all shapes, sizes and characters. We get to see McCoy handle an encounter with what can best be described as a Vulcan racist. And the actual plot involves the idea of Vulcans actually engaging in some unsavory, almost un-Vulcan shenanigans.
With the recent passing of Leonard Nimoy there has been renewed interest in the Spock character and Trek in general. Spock was the first alien ever given a serious role on a TV series. His character explores so many humanist values, from what it means to be human, what our emotions are and whether we control them or they control us. If you read this you’ll never again be able to accept people casually using Vulcans as a stand in for cold emotionless, robot like person. The story of almost every Vulcan who has appeared on screen, from Spock to Tovok on DS9, T’Pal on Enterprise or even Zachary Pinto’s excellent portrayal of young Spock in the modern JJ Abrams films all revolve around the Vulcan struggle to attain mastery over their intense emotional experiences using logic as a guide, not a straightjacket. I find this to be such a compelling, humanist saga. I cannot recommend it higher.
Uh Oh! Part Two to follow…
Featured Image Credit Blotz Photo Arts:The Chi Fi Humanism of Trek panel. Sarah Allen, Ben Blanchard, Jennifer Cross, Matt Lowry, Benny, and Rebecca Watson (not pictured).
Book cover images Pocket Books
Nomad Probe from the TOS episode “The Changeling”