This review originally appeared on Loaded Couch Potatoes in 2009.
Check out that cover blurb: “THE ULTRA-POWERED NOVEL OF A TELEPATHIC SPACE TERROR,” eh?
I’ll be the judge of that, Mr. Bantam blurb dude from the mid-’70s.
I’d delete the words “the,” “ultra,” “powered,” “a,” “telepathic,” and “terror.” Except that would leave “NOVEL OF SPACE,” and since this novel takes place almost entirely on a planet, that wouldn’t be very accurate, either.
The story has to do with the Enterprise crew exploring the planet Kyros. In order to help not violate the Prime Directive, the landing party members have been imprinted with “doppelgangers” (or “dops” for short) consisting of the memories and personalities of Kyrosians. By drawing on these “dops,” the crew can successfully integrate into the society for up-close sociological study. Then, of course, something goes wrong; Spock, presumably under the influence of his dop, goes nuts and forms a religion. Chaos ensues.
I probably shouldn’t, but I like this novel.
For one thing, there’s sex...which the Trek shows never had much of, really, not without huge layers of metaphor being slathered on top of everything. Television was too restrictive in the '60s, and the ‘80s weren’t much better; by the time America got around to finally having a bit of coitus on teevee in the ‘90s and ‘00s, Trek was late to the party, and its meager efforts seemed perfunctory. However, in Spock, Messiah!, sex is a definite motivator for at least some of the characters. As such, this novel presents yet another alternative look at what Star Trek is and can be, and is therefore of interest.
The downside is that this novel might fairly be called not only sexual, but sexist. There are far-too-frequent mentions of the “pert little bottom” of Ensign Sara George (a new character), and other such phrases. I think Cogswell and Spano only meant to present to us a strong woman, who was charting a course toward discovering and enabling her own sexuality, and chose to do so by sexualizing her character through fairly explicit descriptions … but the approach would have probably been seen, at best, as a failure even in 1976. In 2009, it’s downright offensive.
Uhura’s treatment, unfortunately, is even worse. Barely present in the novel, she is described as “black” several times. Once would have sufficed; even that many, though, seems excessive. That sort of language was accepted then and still is now, and there’s nothing more wrong with referring to a person as “black” than there is with referring to a person as “white.” The problem here is that it doesn’t fit with established Star Trek conventions.
Allow me to explain.
The problem here is that the process of turning a visual story (Star Trek) into a non-visual story (the novel) is tricky business even in the hands of expert prose stylists, and these two fellows were apparently no experts. On the television series circa 1968, it was obviously a big deal that Uhura is black, Scotty Scottish, Sulu Asian, Chekov Russian, etc. But it's a big deal to the people watching the show circa 1968; it's not a big deal to the characters on the show, which is why it was a big deal to the people watching it. That element cannot, and must not, be discounted; the characters never mention it. Uhura is referred to as a Nubian at one point, but everyone seems embarrassed for the alien who does so; not offended, just mildly embarrassed. Not by him; for him.
Well, in order for that to translate to the page, it’s impossible to do things like refer to Uhura as “black,” or to write Scotty’s dialogue phonetically (another of this book’s sins, though it was neither the first nor the last to commit it). It’s out of continuity with the series, and you feel it. And yet, there is also the need to try and somehow convey that information, lest readers not be privy to all the pertinent facts about the characters. Such matters must be dealt with delicately, and referring to the “black” Uhura on multiple occasions is about as delicate as a cement truck driving over a kitten.
I’m of a divided mind about the novel’s plot. The dops are an interesting conceit, but I’m not sure they’re plausible; I’m okay with them science-fictionally speaking, but don’t they seem like a severe invasion of privacy? Would Starfleet sanction that type of tech? Would it be put into the field without exhaustive testing? Would Kirk really let Ensign George off the hook for what she does; if so, would he do it as easily as he does? I think the answer to all of those questions is “no,” and that presents a severe setback to how well this novel integrates itself into the Trek universe.
Additionally, since it turns out that Spock was never really the villain (spoilers, lol!), the whole novel feels like something of a cheat. And yet...I like it. I like how Kirk and McCoy accept George’s new (and substantial) sexuality with only a hint of salaciousness; I like the tension of the race to recapture the trilithium, even though it is sort of obvious and manipulative; I like the camaraderie between Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, Chekov, and George; I like the espionage-esque elements.
I don’t like the religious elements. The aliens aren’t quite well-drawn enough for us to get a true sense of their culture, and therefore the religion doesn’t feel natural. It’s not terrible writing; the authors sort of get away with it. And ultimately, the religious themes fit in well with the Trek S.O.P. of demystifying religion at nearly every turn.
Not great, but not bad either...and definitely interesting.