This review was originally posted at Loaded Couch Potatoes in 2009.
|1999 reprint hardback|
Mack Reynolds’ Mission to Horatius has the somewhat dubious distinction of being the first original Star Trek novel to be published; it certainly would not be the last. Whitman published the book in 1968, and as one of the earliest examples of Star Trek being told in a medium other than television, it is of great historical interest to hardcore fans.
To everyone else, though, the novel is likely to be a near-complete bore, and even hardcore fans will be hard-pressed to find much entertainment here. It isn’t terrible, but there’s almost nothing to recommend outside the historical-curiosity factor.
The story begins with the crew showing signs of something Reynolds calls “cafard,” which is essentially cabin fever caused by being cooped up in a starship for too long. Reynolds presents this not as a condition, but as a full-blown disease. In the midst of this, the Enterprise receives a distress call from the Horatius system and, in trying to locate the source of the signal, investigates three very different planets.
The problems with this novel are easily identified: (1) the plot is broken into two parts that have too little to do with each other; (2) the characters are only slightly similar to the characters we know and love from the series; and (3) the novel is — duh — not especially well-written. Let me talk a bit more in-depth about each of these problems.
|illustration by Sparky Moore|
The first part of the novel involves McCoy’s (apparently well-founded) fears that the crew is contracting cafard, and while that idea doesn’t exactly fit with what we know as Star Trek, it isn’t entirely ridiculous, either, and might have made for an interesting story if written correctly. The problem is that the rest of the novel is about the distress call from Horatius, and that plot has nothing to do with cafard. The idea, I guess, was that the mission was worsening the crew’s condition, but Reynolds does a poor job of playing this idea out; I don’t believe for one second that Kirk (or any commander) would ignore a serious medical threat that could endanger the very existence of the crew. But even if I did believe Kirk would make such a decision, it isn’t developed.
The mission itself is mildly interesting. I’m not a huge fan of the Star Trek episodes in which the crew discovers a surprisingly Earth-like planet full of gangsters and Nazis and Romans and whatnot, and in this novel we get not one such story, but three of them: Indians in space (I’m in 1968 right now, I don’t have to call them Native Americans!), religious cults in space, and Nazis in space…again. All three societies are composed of dissatisfied Earthlings who emigrated from the Federation in order to seek their own path, and while that is an interesting (if un-Roddenberrian) concept, little is made of it. It is mainly interesting as an indicator of how Star Trek -- as a storytelling format -- had not yet quite become concretized; it’s easy to think of it as a break with format, but heck, the format hadn’t even really been established yet.
My biggest problem with this part of the plot, however, is that the Enterprise’s mission has been classified at such a top-secret level that even Kirk is unaware of it. And yet, there’s not really much of a reason for all the top-secretiveness; it’s just bad writing.
The cafard plot is better; a bit, at least. The concept of space-madness is intriguing, and makes for some mildly entertaining reading. I enjoyed the resolution, which involves Spock working with McCoy to fabricate a threat to the ship; the idea is that this “threat” will keep the crew’s minds occupied just enough to keep them from being lost to the disease. If you take that concept and totally rethink it, you might be able to concoct a decent episode of the original series in your brain.
(Side note: the Reavers in Firefly are said to be suffering from space madness, and in Serenity the planet Miranda has been made so top-secret that it may as well not exist anymore. Coincidence? Or did Joss Whedon rip off Mission to Horatius by Mal Mack Reynolds? You tell me.)
Back to complaining. Another problem with this novel is that the characters simply don’t sound like themselves. There’s no way of knowing how familiar Reynolds was with the series, but based on how he writes Kirk here, I’m going to guess that he wasn’t too familiar with it at all.
Worse — or, possibly, better (depending on your point of view) — Reynolds doesn’t seem to have even been aware that Chekov was Russian. There’s not a “keptin!” to be found anywhere, and while this is kinda okay, it becomes rather annoying when you consider how overboard Reynolds goes in making sure we understand that Scotty is Scottish; if he were doing the accent thing with multiple characters, at least it would have been consistent. (Reynolds would hardly prove to be the last writer to give in to the temptation to prosify Scotty’s brogue.)
The final problem is that the novel is just plain badly-written. That might sound like a strange complaint to have about a tie-in novel, since the tie-in novel as a genre is composed of approximately 93.7839% dogshit; but it doesn’t mean I’m going to hold back from complaining about it. After all, if a novel is bad, then it’s bad; I don’t see the need in cutting these things any slack. That way, when one of them actually manages to be entertaining, it means a little bit more.
So, yes, this is a badly-written novel. Certain elements of the plot work relatively well, and there are interesting bits if you care to indulge yourself in a discussion of how this novel fits into the larger Star Trek framework. Otherwise, you’re advised to skip it.
One final point of interest: on page 158, the phrase “bread-and-circuses” is mentioned within the context of gladiatorial bouts. This novel was published in 1968, and the second season episiode “Bread and Circuses” — also about gladiators — premiered on March 15, 1968. Chicken or egg?
|endpaper illustration by Sparky Moore|