Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Review of "Star Trek: Mission to Horatius" [1968 tie-in novel]

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


  1. Intriguing Reavers/ Miranda connection! I wouldn't put it past Joss to be winking at this novel. (As terrible as it sounds.)

    I'm wary of picking up Trek tie-ins for this very reason. You never know what you're going to get. This seems to be the Climax! Casino Royale of Trek tie-ins, though... if that comparison is not too strained.

    1. Not too strained at all.

      What it really reminds me of is several other tie-in novels: namely, the first original ones published for TNG and DS9. Both of them were written based on the series bibles, well before any episodes had aired (or, possibly, been shot). They are fascinating for that reason, and both of them are better than this one.

      I wrote reviews of both of them back in '09, as well, and will be posting them at some point soon.

  2. I have this book, the original 1st print, NOT the 1990's Pocket Books re-release. I've never read it past page 10. I jumped ahead , read a few more poorly written pages, put it down. Thanks for the review. You just confirmed what I thought just from skimming it over. Have you read the 1st stand alone story written by James Blish ( who adapted the TV Series scripts ) titled "Spock Must Die"? Looks like it might? be just as bad.

    1. I have indeed read "Spock Must Die." It's alright. Not great, not awful. Certainly not as bad as "Mission to Horatius."

      That's cool that you've got an original edition!

  3. I first read this book when I was 11 years old--just the right age for it! (I was also quickly becoming a Star Trek Nut even way back then--having just discovered the show in syndication.)I loved it and still do! Every couple of years I re-read it just to bring back a portion of my long-vanished youth! (I am now 58!)

    1. I am about fifteen years behind you, but I can 100% see how this book would be fun to revisit, especially if you have nostalgic memories of it.

      I love the fact that books and movies and whatnot can serve as repositories of our youth in some ways. And anything "Star Trek" related seems to work especially well in that regard.

      Thanks for reading my review!