Saturday, May 4, 2013

A Review of "The Starless World" [1978 tie-in novel]

So far, what I've posted at this blog has consisted almost entirely of reposting old reviews which I wrote for a different blog four years ago.  I've been in a Trek sort of mood lately, though, and decided to grab one of the old Bantam novels from the '70s off the shelf and give it a read.  And thus, a brand-spankin'-new review:




Yay...?

I'd never read Gordon Eklund's The Starless World, so I had no clue what to expect from it.  My take on this one once I'd finished it, was that it, like many tie-ins, was a mediocrity.  However, it's got some highly compelling elements, and while I cannot in good conscience say that it is a particular good novel in the grand scheme of literature, I can say that I enjoyed reading it.  There are elements that simply do not work, but there are also elements that gave me plenty to think about.  So, all in all, it wasn't a bad use of my time as a reader.


Here's a plot summary.  (There will be spoilers in it and in the review that follows, so if you just feel like you can't live with spoilers about a mediocre 35-year-old tie-in novel, you'd better check out now.)

The Enterprise is exploring the Galactic Core, with an especial eye toward its vast population of black holes, when it makes contact with a shuttlecraft from the U.S.S. Rickover.  That's weird, because the Rickover was lost twenty years previously, and has not been heard from since.  Even weirder: the shuttle's pilot claims to be Jesus Christ.  He's clearly a lunatic, though, and once the shuttle has been brought aboard, Kirk discovers that the man isn't Jesus Christ, but Thomas Clayton, who was Kirk's roommate at Starfleet Academy for Kirk's first two years.  Clayton washed out of the Academy, though, and ended up a private interstellar trader; but he and one of his ships disappeared five years or so ago, which makes it odd that he's shown up again under these circumstances.  The odd is really piling up, isn't it?

Clayton claims to be the prophet from a deity called Ay-nab, and before long, scanners detect a stellar-sized object which measures 300 million kilometers in diameter; for reference, our own sun is 1.4 million km in diameter, and the diameter of the Earth's orbit is roughly 300 million km, so this thing would be absolutely enormous.  In fact, it is roughly the size of the V'Ger cloud from Star Trek: The Motion Picture; V'Ger's cloud is said to be roughly two Astronomical Units in size, and since an AU is a bit less than 150,000,000 km in diameter, we're saying that the two are roughly equal in size.  Ah, but I've neglected to mention what the thing is, haven't I?  It's a Dyson sphere, as it turns out; and the Enterprise is being pulled inside it.

A Dyson sphere is a hypothetical construct which is built around a star for the purpose of harvesting its energy,  The inside of the sphere could consist -- theoretically -- of an artificial planetary surface, upon which people could live for as long as the star's energies lasted.  And that is precisely what Kirk and company encounter once inside the sphere: an almost unimaginably vast planetary surface, with a star at its center.  It is over two thousand times the diameter of Jupiter, and Jupiter is over ten times the diameter of Earth.  (I couldn't immediately locate the exact quote, but someone -- possibly Eklund as the narrator -- mentions that exploring this planet would take several Methuselah-sized lifetimes.)  Life signs are abundant, and the atmosphere is evidently human-friendly; however, there are no signs of actual civilization.  It doesn't take long for somebody to make contact, though: a Klingon ship, which also seems to have pulled into the sphere and into an orbit around the star at its center.

Kirk beams down to the surface with Sulu, Uhura, Chapel, and some redshirts -- none of whom end up dying, amazingly -- and find a lot of highly edible fruit growing on the many trees.  They also encounter a bear-sized predator, and some three-foot-tall creatures called Lyrans, who are a bit like talking chimpanzees.  Kirk saves one, a female, from the predator, and the alien -- whose name is Ola -- declares Kirk to be her husband.  He rebuffs her, gently, but they nevertheless form a bit of a bond.  Kirk discovers that her people are more or less dying out; she is the only young person among them, hence the reason why she wants a husband.

Kirk also learns that the captain of the Klingon ship is on the surface, along with a Klingon princess.  They are hospitable, and the princess offers Kirk an equal share in a cache of weapons they discovered...if Kirk will help them find a way out of the sphere.

Clayton violently forces Spock and McCoy to accompany him to the surface, and Ola warns Kirk about beings called Strangers.  These are evidently beings (like Kirk and the Klingons) alien to the planet Lyra, who have been brought here by Ay-nab and corrupted.  Ay-nab uses them as a source of energry, and more or less turns them into zombies.  Clayton is one of them.  So, apparently, is Uhura's father, who shows up and abducts her during the night (on Lyra, "night" is created when one of several artificial moons passes in front of the star).

Back on the ship, Scotty finds out some bad news: Chekov has computed the sphere's course, and it is headed straight for a black hole; they've got four days left.  This is evidently the will of Ay-nab, apparently the fulfillment of some sort of ancient prophecy.  Eventually, Kirk finds out that Ay-nab is the star itself, which is a living being of some sort.  He talks to Ay-nab telepathically, and Ay-nab teleports the Enterprise and its crew (along with Ola) to safety before entering the black hole.  Ay-nab also decided to spare the Klingons, so yay...?

And that, basically, is the plot summary.  Did you notice that the closer we got to the end of it, the less I had to say?  Well, that's partially because I am sloppy and lazy, but it's also partially because the novel just kinda collapses about two-thirds of the way in.  One of my major problems with The Starless World is this: the idea of the Dyson sphere is so compelling that I immediately gained an expectation that the plot would necessarily be somewhat epic in tone in order for Kirk to find a way out for the Enterprise.  This expectation is not met; what happens is somewhat in keeping with episodes like "Return of the Archons" and "The Apple" in that Kirk essentially talks his way out of the situation, but since the focus here is different than in those episodes, the resolution does not work well.  This is a situation that cries out for exploration, and for understanding; it takes place on an artificially-constructed planet 20,000 times the size of Earth, and yet all that really happens is that Kirk refuses to marry a sentient alien chimpanzee.  Calling what happens here anticlimactic would be an insult to anticlimaxes.

Another problem: the Klingons serve absolutely no purpose to the story.  Nor, really, do the Strangers, Clayton included.  They have no involvement in the ultimate "resolution" to the story, and as a result, their presence is more of a distraction than anything else.  And the idea that not one, or even two, but three groups of interstellar explorers associated with the Enterprise in some way have ended up inside Lyra is...not believable.  It strains credulity.  It is, in fact, bullshit.  A famously lost starship (the Rickover) would have been sufficient; adding a roommate of Kirk's to the mix, and then Uhura's father on top of that, is bad storytelling.  
  
Also problematic: I spent the entirety of the first chapter in which Uhura's father appears convinced that he was not actually her father, but some sort of alien being creating an illusion of her father in order to snare her into its web.  That's faulty reading on my part...but it also speaks to how improbable my brain thought this particular development to be.  Now, that said...the chapter in which Eklund provides a bit of an origin story for Uhura is strong, interesting stuff.  It delves a bit into the idea that Earth still has a modicum of religious conflict (of the philosophical variety, if not the political/military variety).  Uhura's father seeks to escape that utterly, and becomes a "starman" (i.e., an interstellar explorer who goes into the great starry void all alone).  Uhura herself, as writ by Eklund, is an interesting character.  His ideas about her, and his ideas about the culture from which she derives, do not mesh with anything in Trek canon; but I am always fascinated when one of these novels attempts to answer questions that the canon shows and movies avoid like the plague.



  
A final note about the Uhura plotline: Eklund fails utterly to follow up on the idea that she has found her missing father, only to lose him again.  It feels like this, perhaps, ought to have been the primary focus of the novel.  In general, Eklund has some good ideas, but his plotting is weak, his prose is weaker, and his grasp on how to write dialogue for the core characters (Kirk, Spock, and McCoy) is nonexistent.  None of them sound anything like the characters we know and love; they behave more or less consistently compared to their televised counterparts, but the dialogue is simply not right.  It creates a discontinuity with the show, and when a tie-in novel has that problem, it has a serious problem indeed.  Imagine an episode of the show with James Garner looping all of Leonard Nimoy's dialogue, and you might have something approximating the effect here.  It's just off, in a way you can't quite put your finger on.
  
If I may continue my complaining, I'd like to now mention something that I very nearly forgot: the title.  Which is The Starless World.  The title for a novel about a Dyson sphere.  Which is an artificial world CONSTRUCTED AROUND A STAR.  So not only is the title factually incorrect, it is factually incorrect in a way that is utterly baffling.  How does a mistake like that get made?  Once made, how does it not get corrected by an editor?  By a marketing director?  By a publisher?  By somebody, anybody?!?

I'll now conclude the complaint-barrage by complaining about something which isn't a valid complaint for me to make.  So, it's less a complaint than it is me feeling like discussing the topic.  The topic is how incredibly easy it seems to be for the Enterprise to reach the Galactic Core.  Now, to be fair, in the original series, the Enterprise leaves the galaxy three times ("Where No Man Has Gone Before," "By Any Other Name," and "Is There In Truth No Beauty?").  One of these times is because of shenanigans from highly advanced aliens; the other two times, it appears to be just because.  To be further fair, in all three instances, the ship is leaving the Alpha quadrant of the galaxy; and Earth is kinda, like, near the edge of it anyways, so it's not that far of a trip.  But that plays into my point.

See, the galaxy is thought to be around 120,000 light years in diameter.  So for a ship to travel from the Federation to the galactic core is really quite a long trip; probably 50,000 light years or so from Earth, less if you were to start from the farthest edge of Federation space.  Clearly, nobody was putting all that much thought into that sort of thing during the original series era, and as a result, it would be a bit churlish of me to come down too hard on Gordon Eklund for tossing in a trip to the center of the galaxy here.

Especially when, as late as 1989, the movies were happy to indulge such a trip: as I've complained about before, The Final Frontier includes a trip to the center of the galaxy that seemingly takes all of about half an hour.

I shouldn't complain about this sort of thing, and in fact am not smart enough to complain about it at all to any degree of accuracy; and even to be vague, I've got to consult multiple Google searches.  So, let's not call it a complaint; let's call it what it actually is, namely a point of contention between the original series incarnation of Star Trek and its later, more scientifically-researched sequel series.

This brings up the phase of the review wherein I talk about what I liked about the novel.  And ultimately, that's going to end being a bit of a backhanded compliment, because what I really liked about the novel isn't so much in the novel as it is hinted at by the novel.  It made me do a lot of thinking.  The idea of the Dyson sphere, as I've mentioned, is a captivating one.  Eklund gets no credit for that; scientist Freeman Dyson gets that credit (and he was quick to point out that sci-fi author Olaf Stapledon actually came up with the concept, which Dyson built his work upon).

Eklund does, however, get credit for recognizing that the idea would have fundamental appeal when introduced into the milieu of Star Trek.  As typically happens when I watch -- or think about, or listen to the soundtrack of -- Star Trek: The Motion Picture and contemplate V'Ger, I found that The Starless World caused me to do some serious daydreaming related to the concept of scale and size, as it relates to stellar objects.
  
One of the most vivid dreams I ever had involved that concept: in the dream, I was in space, in a spacesuit, just chillin' out.  As you do.  At some point, though, I turned around, and realized that I was approaching Jupiter.


I stole this image from http://www.arcadiastreet.com/cgvistas/jupiter_0230a.htm

Now, Jupiter fascinates me.  Part of this is undoubtedly due to 2001: A Space Odyssey (and due to its somewhat underrated sequel, 2010, the novel of which was one of the first grownup books I ever read, and which as a result holds an important place in my heart); but part of it is also due to the fact that at some point relatively early in my life, the fact was impressed upon me that Jupiter is so large that you could fit something like 1300 planets the size of Earth inside of Jupiter.  As a child, that thought -- that Jupiter was that much larger than the planet I lived on -- both awed and terrified me.  Combined with the knowledge that it is composed entirely of gas (although Arthur C. Clarke's assertion that the core of the planet might conceivably be composed of an Earth-sized diamond, thanks to the colossal pressures of its atmosphere, certainly also stuck in my brain), Jupiter has long held a place of honor in my imagination.

That place is intensified to an even greater level by virtue of the Great Red Spot, which, in case you didn't know, is basically a tornado three times the size of Earth.

So, in my dream, I realize that I'm not approaching Jupiter so much as I am falling into its orbit.  And I was heading directly for the Great Red Spot.  I needn't have worried, because the pressure of the atmosphere would have wiped my ass out long before I got to the GRS.  And in any case, I woke up before I actually reached the planet; but not before I got close enough to it that I could no longer see anything except for the planet's gassy surface, colossal and red and everywhere.

Technically, I suppose you'd say it was a nightmare, but my reaction upon waking up wasn't one of fear, so much as it was one of holy fucking shit, that wasn't a dream, that was an EXPERIENCE.  I don't mean that in any sort of trippy gone-todash sense of things, but in the simpler sense of being a bit awed that my brain could conjure so memorable a dream-event.  And it has stuck with me; I can still recall the feel of it, even now.

Jupiter has nothing to do with The Starless World (except as a vague, inadequate comparison point for the world Lyra); I mention that only to drive home the point that as regards my celestial imagination, size and scale play an important role.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture and V'Ger undoubtedly have a lot to do with that, which perhaps explains my love for that movie.  But The Starless World undeniably scratches the same itch.  It doesn't do it particularly well...but it does it.  And the notion of a Dyson sphere is one that I find to be almost unbearably tantalizing.  I mean, holy fucking shit, what a sight it would be to stand on the surface of a "planet" like Lyra.  My mind goes a little weak at the knees just trying to imagine it.  So all of the moments in this novel that involved merely talking about the sphere were moments in which I was entranced.  Like I say, I don't think Eklund did anything particularly notable with the idea; but it's such a a captivating idea, just on its own merits, that he kinda didn't have to do anything other than just slap it down on the table and walk away.

This is the point at which I need to both clarify things and obscure them a bit.  On the subject of the Dyson sphere, I personally do not think such an object is feasible; not merely for our race, but for any race, except for the kind like the Q Continuum that is so advanced as to essentially be godlike in its abilities.  Consider the amount of raw materials that would need to be used in order to construct a Dyson sphere of this size.  This motherfucker is massive on a scale that dwarfs Jupiter; it would dwarf a planet that dwarfed Jupiter, in fact.  Where, exactly, would that much material come from?  Assuming you could find it, process it, store it, and then utilize it, how many laborers would it take to complete such a project?  How long would it take them to complete it?

Obviously, the answers to these questions are just as mind-achingly vast as the size of the sphere's inner surface would be.  Unless you were a being that could literally produce and manipulate physical material using nothing but the power of your mental energy, this is an impossible endeavor.

Except...

...it isn't impossible, on the theoretical level.  Incredibly, vastly unlikely; you might as well try to build a spaceship out of unicorn farts.  But...not, theoretically, impossible.

And that leaves just enough room for the imagination to go to work.  Because it's like this: no matter how unlikely, if it's isn't impossible, then what that really means is it's possible.  The imagination goes to work, yes; and what it immediately begins working on is an explanation for how it could be possible.  What type of beings would have created such a ship/world/building?  What would they be like?  Why would they have done it?  How long did it take them?  Are they still alive?  Did they do it as an act of benevolence?

I wanted answers to those questions.  And yes, I realize that they are, ultimately, unanswerable; because answering them with any degree of truthfulness would require a leap of imagination as vast as the amount of physical labor that would be required to construct the real thing.  It is an unanswerable question.

Probably.

But maybe not, right?  And so, even though I knew I'd be disappointed, I hungered for Gordon Eklund to have at least taken enough of a stab at it to permit me to pretend for a while.  He didn't.  The best he could come up with was that the star Ay-nab created it, on account of how Ay-nab is either a living being of incredibly advanced type or else an actual God.  And Ay-nab did it because Ay-nab was tired of seeing the Lyrans go through cycles of civilization-ending violence.  No how at all; only why (and peremptory, unsatisfactory "why," at that).

Still, there's something to be said for a novel that sets one's mental wheel a-spinning; I've got to give this novel credit for at least that much.

The novel also prompted me to come up with three different ideas for Star Trek series I'd love to see some day.

Idea the first: a Starfleet vessel encounters a Dyson sphere like this one, but finds no signs of intelligent life whatsoever.  Tons of plant and animal life, but no intelligent life.  The crew gets reassigned to do nothing but explore the "planet," a task which will obviously take quite some time.  They also get tasked with finding a way of preventing the sphere from drifting into enemy territory, and defending the vessel against various factions that want to exploit it for their own gain.  Every episode would cost $25 million and would mostly consist of scientists looking at shit.  About twice a season, they might get to fight somebody in space.  It'd be awesome.  (I kid; it'd probably be boring as hell.  But it sounds cool to me!)

Idea the second: a Starfleet vessel gets assigned the extremely long-term mission of surveying and charting the galactic core.  Starfleet is especially interested in the study of supermassive black holes and their relation to the structure of the galaxy.  Since the journey to the center of the galaxy and back will take so long -- this is the real world, not Star Trek fucking V: The Final Frontier -- the crew is composed of people who mostly will not live to see their homeworlds again.  So the ship would have to contain a large number of families who would agree at the outset to train their children to take over the job for them.  Kind of a mobile Starfleet Academy, of sorts.  Since Starfleet could not resupply the ship in any way, this would have to be THE biggest, most bad-ass starship anyone has ever thought of.  And of course, since there are bound to be all sorts of sticky situations arise, it would get frequent opportunities to prove itself in that capacity.

Idea the third: yet another Starfleet vessel gets assigned to yet another extremely long-term mission.  Except this one is extremely long-term in the extreme: this is an extra-galactic mission.  Yes, that's right, starting with our neighbors in the Andromeda galaxy, the U.S.S. Your Name Here gets sent on a mission to explore as many foreign galaxies as is possible, for as long as possible.  The catch?  The crew is composed entirely of androids, presumably -- because why wouldn't this be the case? -- designed (if not captained) by Data himself.  From here, we could get what is basically a normal Star Trek series; except the kicker is that we would have a tacit understanding that it wasn't weeks or months elapsing between episodes, but (in some cases, at least) decades, or even generations.  I really quite like that idea, personally, although I have no earthly idea how you could create a cast of characters for such a show.

Get on it, Paramount!  Make one or all of these fine ideas happen!  Preferably by hiring me to hash one or more of them into a usable shape.

You know how to reach me, so...yeah, I'll keep checking my email.  You just let me know.

As a parting gift, here's another cool Jupiter image I found, one that shows roughly what Jupiter would look like if it occupied the moon's position in our night sky.  (Or if Earth were one of Jupiter's moons, is how that would really work.)




I found that here, along with some other planets represented similarly.  Pretty awesome stuff.

6 comments:

  1. Jesus, that picture of Jupiter is crazy. That link is awesome, thank you.

    Working backwards through this post:

    I love all of these Trek-series ideas. No word of a lie I had a similar idea for a Data-led crew of exploration. So that made me do an "I, DUDDITS!" Seriously, though, that could be the greatest movie/ series of all time.

    Nice dream! I wish I could call up such things on a nightly basis. Instead, I get dreams where I'm at work or on the train. Thanks, brain/ Oneiros.

    Like many people my age, I imagine, I first came across the Dyson sphere from the TNG episode. I couldn't quite get my mind around it. Years later I read something by Larry Niven that spoke of it in more depth, and that's when I really started thinking about it. Amazing.

    2010 IS an underrated film, most definitely. I never read the book. Did you read the others? (Was there just one more?)

    I did read Childhood's End which at the time (1998-ish) blew my mind to smithereens. I've been meaning to reread it for ages. I wonder if it'd hit me the same way.

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    1. There are indeed two further sequels to 2001 -- "2061: Odyssey Three" and "3001: The Final Odyssey." My memory of them is that both are decent, with some really good ideas, but that both are also extremely underwritten. They read like the kind of books the author's heart wasn't totally in; the cynical side of me suggests that perhaps they were written more for the paycheck than for the art. Still, neither is bad.

      You should definitely read 2010 at some point. It's really good, especially for someone who enjoys the movie.

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  2. I honestly had no idea how many of these ancillary novels have been published. I thought perhaps the high water mark was in the 80s, but I was far off the mark. The deluge never really stopped. I wonder if that's the reverse example of a rising tide lifting all boats. Someone like Christopher L. Bennett (who wrote that Ex Machina book you mentioned yesterday) is even getting rave reviews and cover blurbs from the franchise's top producers, yet he's asking for PayPal donations to stay afloat. I see a lot of contradiction, there.

    Which is just my preamble to asking: do you think there's been too many? Can't put the genie back in the bottle, now, and fan-fic (especially with Trek) is outside that boundary anyway, but perhaps there's some sense in more tightly controlling Trek-related product.

    Haven't read this one, and the problem you mention with Uhura's plotline is unfortunate. I've yet to read a truly outstanding Uhura-driven book. (She gets her best work in The Animated Series, and perhaps Of Gods and Men.) There's probably one or more than one out there, I'm sure, just haven't found it yet.

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    1. If my list is accurate, there have been well over 600 Trek novels. That's before we even start taking the comics into consideration; I haven't compiled a list of those yet, but the number seems to be well in excess of 500.

      I think the word "oversaturation" might be an understatement of epic proportions when discussing what Paramount did with Trek in the nineties. Let's use 1997 as an example: that year, there were 34 Trek novels published (ranging from original series to Next Gen to Deep Space Nine to Voyager to the book-original "New Frontier" series to crossovers to young-adult books). THIRTY-FOUR. If you factor in the three nonfiction books which came out that year, we can call it an average of three books per month.

      Again, that's not even getting the comics involved in the conversation. A consultation of the internets tells me that in 1997, 36 Trek comics were published. Again, an average of three per month.

      So, for the devoted Trek fan to keep up with all of that would have been a genuine burden, financially-speaking. And simply reading it all would have taken a substantial time commitment. Paramount was more or less enabling Trekkies to drown themselves in Star Trek.

      There is zero doubt in my mind that thousands of them at some point would have thrown their hands up and said they were done. I certainly did, but it didn't take me until 1997 to do it; I was out three or four years before that, because even then, I couldn't keep up with the deluge. I'd forgotten about that until writing this comment, but that was a massive contributing factor toward my decision to stop watching DS9; I was simply sour on Star Trek in terms of what I perceived as Paramount's brazen money-hunger.

      Looking at it today, I can't deny that I would love to own and read all of those books and comics, just for the sake of doing it. I'd also like to be able to create some sort of a guide to the books, complete with reviews, so that I can at least recommend "the good ones" to people.

      It's probably a pipe-dream, but it's on my list of goals.

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    2. That is such an insane amount of material, damn... words fail me. (Even if I wasn't exhausted and more capable of my usual long-windedness.)

      Whew.

      A worthwhile guide to the books would definitely be key, though. I was reading Peter David's afterword-remarks to Harlan Ellison's "City on the Edge" book, and he had some choice words for Richard Arnold, the onetime caretaker of the Trek-book-verse. Worth a look if you have it handy; I loves me some nerd vitriol.

      2010 is on the list, definitely. I think I even have a copy of it around somewhere. I've been slack on reading it for too long.

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    3. There is a book called "Star Trek: Voyages of Imagination" that serves as a guide to the many books. It came out in 2006 and is thus already out of date; and it's also incredibly overpriced. But it's worth owning if you're into this sort of thing. Check it out here: http://www.amazon.com/Star-Trek-Voyages-Imagination-Companion/dp/1416503498

      My biggest complaint about it is that it doesn't really take a stance on the books in any way. No surprise, since it was published by Pocket. Still, I think there is a genuine need for a book that looks at these things seriously.

      Speaking of Peter David, the next review I'm going to put up is one looking at the first few books in his "New Frontiers" series. It will not be a positive review.

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