Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Readings 2K9: Vulcan!

by Kathleen Sky

Well, this is certainly a Star Trek novel from the 70s. It’s not as weird as some; you don’t have the Klingon Empire locked in a slow-time field by irate cosmic entities, for example. In fact, by those standards, the book’s positively sedate. The borders of the Romulan Neutral Zone are shifting, and the Federation’s about to lose a claimed but only partially-explored planet; it’s not clear whether the inhabitants are sentient, and the crew of the Enterprise has to figure it out before the Romulans take over. The xenobiologist who comes on board to do so is ...

... Okay, well. Katalya Tremain is “not beautiful, but well proportioned.” Her uniform “fit perfectly over her small waist and hips and the curves of her full bosom. Her eyes were dark, warm as forest pools struck by sunlight,” and so forth. Although age thirty-five, “she looked as though she might be twenty, at most.” So all this, plus her genius-level intellect, explains why both McCoy and Spock fall instantly in love with her (Kirk? He’s actually the model of professionalism and decorum). Ah, but, she is violently prejudiced against Vulcans. So, inevitably, when the time comes to beam down to the mysterious planet, it’ll be her and Spock in the landing party ... and the rest of the party gets killed ... and the two of them must work together to learn the nature of the planet’s inhabitants before they’re all lost to the Romulans.

There are some cute ideas here — notably, a past-his-prime Romulan commander who freaks out when he learns that the Federation starship he’s dealing with is commanded by the fearsome Captain James Kirk — but then there’s also the occasional terrible bit of writing: “Professionalism was warring with his gonads, and it was going to be a neck-and-neck race as to which side won,” we’re told at one point, which, as mixed metaphors go, is really pretty ugly and only gets uglier the more you think about it. The “he” in that sentence is McCoy, who acts as Tremain’s therapist when she comes on board the Enterprise, giving her drugs to increase her suggestiveness while openly hitting on her. They did things differently in the twenty-third century, once upon a time.

Reading the book, I was reminded of the fact that when I was younger, between the ages of, oh, let’s say ten and fifteen or thereabouts, I read a ton of these Star Trek books. As far as I can make out, looking at the Wikipedia lists of novels, probably a few dozen. Now, at that time, the early to mid 1980s, there were only 79 episodes of one TV series, plus the occasional movie and a few comics. I was young enough that the idea of ‘canon’ meant little or nothing to me. The point being, books like these meant Trek to me at least as much as the actual show did. This sort of writing, in a kind of penumbra between fanzines and “real” sf novels, not only kept the world and what we now call “franchise” alive, but also to some extent built up and shaped the characters and ideas of the original show.

Nowadays, of course, everything's different. I read (or perhaps reread; my memory for thirty-year-old Star Trek novels is not so great) this book at about the same time I saw the new film. It’s interesting to compare the two. Obviously, there are some surface similarities which may come out of long-standing desires to do certain things with the characters — you know how Spock is fundamentally rational and represses his emotions so strongly nobody ever sees them except under life-or-death stress? That notion is not operative in either the book or the movie, exactly — but the thing that strikes me is the difference between them. The new Star Trek film takes the surface structure of Trek and fits it into a Hollywood action-adventure film: lots of special effects, quick editing to create the illusion of intelligence, hand-waved science, a female character who does nothing particularly significant except be a lust-object for male characters, a fast-talking guy with a funny accent for comic relief (pardon me, two fast-talking guys with funny accents), a few vague nods in the direction of a theme which is abandoned once the action gets underway, and above all a bad guy who is thoroughly bad and cannot be negotiated with and is in the movie only to be blown up. Vulcan!, for all its sins, is actually smarter than that. As noted, the Romulans have actual personalities and motivations. There’s some kind of communication between them and the Enterprise. There’s even an attempt, however poorly-executed or heavy-handed, at character growth. A mind-meld scene late in the book actually tries to develop a sense of wonder.

This is not to say that I enjoyed the book more than the movie. It’s just to note that, while it may be bad, it gets something right. I don’t just mean that it gets something right in its approach to Trek; sure, it’s closer in spirit to the original show, but then it’s also closer in time, meaning both that there were fewer derivative works to sweep away, and that (perhaps more important) it was the product of a society much closer to that which had originally produced Star Trek. For example, the tense relationship between the US and USSR made itself felt, however hamfistedly, in the way the show depicted Klingons and Romulans and all sorts of things. There’s an echo of that in the book; at the time, I think it was inescapable. The movie ... well, there’s nothing that interesting in the movie. And that gets to the main point I want to make, which is this: The book follows on from a TV show that had to do, at however diluted a level, with dramatic things. Power, politics, dealing with the other. The movie is a deliberate attempt to reject all of that, leaving not a whole hell of a lot.

The book, like the original show, has a certain interest in aliens. Are these antlike aliens intelligent? What’s going on in the Romulan ship? The movie, well, not even slightly. Vulcans are racist and repress emotions and Spock turns his back on them and then they all get blown up anyway. It’s an inward-looking movie. It’s not at all interested in exploring strange new worlds, or in seeking out new life and new civilizations. This makes it, in the long run, awfully dull.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the movie is inherently conservative, while Trek has usually been concerned with the new. Not always in a sophisticated way, as witness Vulcan!; but the theme I think can be fairly said to be present throughout much of Trek. I suspect it’s that fact that drew me, and probably many others, to the show (in whatever iteration) in the first place. Books like Vulcan!, however flawed, kept me imaginatively involved in the show; kept the characters alive for me, kept their mission of exploration going as an ideal for me as a reader. I don’t know whether the new Star Trek movie would have been as effective, in the long run. I wonder whether it’ll be effective for others.

1 comment:

Stuart Crump, said...

You know, I think you're the only person I've pored over the opinion of who had similar thoughts to myself on the new Trek movie. Thanks. I thought I was going mental.