Other Stuff Exists

Don't get too comfortable with the familiar–other stuff exists, so go explore!

Star Trek 6 by James Blish

Posted by Tracy Poff on July 4, 2015

Close on the heels of his previous book, James Blish published another entry in his series of Trek novelizations, Star Trek 6. This one includes adaptations of “The Savage Curtain”, “The Lights of Zetar”, “The Apple”, “By Any Other Name”, “The Cloud Minders”, and “The Mark of Gideon”.

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Blish’s introduction to this volume is amusing; he reprints a substantial selection from a letter he received from a real Captain Kirk:

By an interesting coincidence I happen to be Captain [Pierre D.] Kirk. This being the case, the men of my last command built a rather elaborate “organization with an organization” based on the series. My jeep was slightly altered so that its registration numbers appeared as NCC-1701. Our weapons were referred to as phasers…

He goes on, recounting an interesting anecdote from his time in Vietnam.

As for the stories: they’re the usual fare, I’m afraid. “The Savage Curtain”, if you’ll recall, involves simulacra of Abraham Lincoln and Surak fighting alongside Kirk and Spock for the entertainment and edification of some inscrutable alien species. Here was a great chance for Blish to elaborate on Kirk’s identification with and admiration of Lincoln, or to give us more insight into Vulcan culture. Alas, he only wrote a straight adaptation of the script, and reading about Abraham Lincoln engaging in a wrestling match isn’t as entertaining as seeing it happen.

“The Lights of Zetar” is simply not an interesting story. The most interesting thing about it is that it was co-written by Shari Lewis, famous puppeteer–and thus we learn that television writing is not her strong suit. It’s all right; I still like Lamb Chop.

“The Apple”, too, is as uninspiring as its counterpart on television. Here Blish might have considered in more detail whether Kirk really did right by essentially destroying a utopian society, but no. Best to rush back to the ship in time for the ‘Spock looks like Satan’ joke. A terrible pity.

“By Any Other Name” was fairly amusing on television. The short story suffers without James Doohan’s very entertaining performance as Scotty trying to get an alien drunk–and succeeding, but being too drunk himself to do anything about it. This story has another example of Kirk’s predisposition to solving every problem with alien women by kissing them. “Oh. You are trying to seduce me,” says the woman in question. “Go on then,” she does not say, but that’s how it happens anyway. Kirk really only has one diplomatic skill. It’s fortunate he rarely has to negotiate with men.

Both “The Cloud Minders” and “The Mark of Gideon” were stories with, I feel, a great deal of potential, but neither was explored in any real depth, so each ends up being fairly forgettable. The former addresses class issues, and the latter some tangle of overpopulation, birth control, and suicide. Plenty of room to tell interesting stories, but instead they just rush from scene to scene without wasting any time contemplating the issues at hand. It’s a shame.

Star Trek 6 is another set of average adaptations of an average mix of episodes. If you particularly enjoyed “The Savage Curtain”, it’d be worth a read, but that’s really the only bright spot here. And to think, there are five more of these books! What horrors will the next volume unleash?

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Star Trek 5 by James Blish

Posted by Tracy Poff on July 3, 2015

With 1972 came another entry in Blish’s series of Star Trek adaptations, Star Trek 5. This volume includes adaptations of seven episodes: “Whom Gods Destroy”, “The Tholian Web”, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, “This Side of Paradise”, “Turnabout Intruder”, “Requiem for Methuselah”, an “The Way to Eden”.

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The stories adapted in this volume are, I think, fairly average Trek fare. The adaptation of “Whom Gods Destroy” is the most interesting, but even it was better for being on screen. Meanwhile, most of the others are dull, and “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is positively tedious.

Several adaptations throughout this series suffer from a common flaw: certain episodes are really only interesting on account of being acted out. “Turnabout Intruder” has a rather weak plot (to say nothing of its unfortunately anti-feminist dimensions), but to the extent that it was entertaining, it was all down to Shatner’s overacting as Dr. Lester. Blish’s condensed prose captures none of that, while retaining the cringe-worthy story (“And most of all she wanted to murder the man who might have loved her–had her intense hatred of her own womanhood not made life with her impossible.”–lovely.)

The above goes equally for “The Way to Eden”, another very weak episode propped up (poorly) by songs, on which small support the book cannot rely.

Star Trek 5 was saddled with several very unfortunate episodes, and it didn’t make any more of them than the TV series did. If you’ve got this one, read “Whom Gods Destroy” and ignore the rest. If not, I wouldn’t go out of my way to get it. Your time will be better spent elsewhere.

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The Making of Star Trek by Stephen E. Whitfield

Posted by Tracy Poff on July 3, 2015

In August, 1966, Stephen E. Whitfield, then in the employ of an advertising agency, was tasked with working to generate publicity for Star Trek toys. In consequence of his close contact with the Trek cast and crew, he became intimately familiar with the workings of the production, and pitched to Gene Roddenberry a book detailing the making of the show. With Roddenberry’s approval, Whitfield began work on what was to be a thorough history of Star Trek, from its conception through the production of its first season: The Making of Star Trek.

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Whitfield’s book was the first of its kind: a real behind-the-scenes look at the creation of a television show, including not only Whitfield’s observations, but also interviews with Roddenberry and the actors, and original artifacts from the show’s production, such as the ‘series format’ Roddenberry wrote to sell the show to the studio, and a variety of memos.

The aforementioned series format is perhaps the single feature of greatest historical interest, as it describes Roddenberry’s initial vision for the show. In part:

THE FORMAT is “Wagon Train to the Stars”–built around characters who travel to other worlds and meet the jeopardy and adventure which become our stories.

THE TIME could be 1995 or even 2995–close enough to our times for our continuing cast to be people like us, but far enough into the future for galaxy travel to be fully established.

THE FAMILIAR LOCALE is their vessel–the U.S.S. Enterprise, a naval cruiser-size spaceship. (In the initial draft of the format, the ship was the U.S.S. Yorktown.) The vessel (a permanent set) includes bridge, control rooms, crew quarters and facilities, science labs and technical departments, plus passenger and cargo accommodations. These compartments contain the wide range of personalities, some becoming Guest Star roles for stories aboard ship or on the worlds we visit.

THE LEAD ROLE is Captain Robert T. April, mid-thirties, an unusually strong and colorful personality, the commander of the cruiser.

OTHER CAST REGULARS are a variety of excitingly different types: “Number One”, a glacierlike, efficient female who serves as ship’s Executive Officer; José “Joe” Tyler, the brilliant but sometimes immature Navigator; Mr. Spock, with a red-hued satanic look and surprisingly gentle manners; Philip “Bones” Boyce, M. D., ship’s doctor and worldly cynic; and uncomfortably lovely J. M. Colt, the Captain’s Yeoman.

The book features a great many more original documents from the show’s production that will be similarly interesting to the devoted fan. It’s well worth reading for those.

Of rather less interest (to me, at the least) are the minutiae of the show’s production. In 1968, I suppose the work of making a television show was relatively unfamiliar to the average person. Today, I think this information has permeated the collective public consciousness, and at any rate the internet will offer (up-to-date!) details to anyone interested. Happily, these duller bits are in the minority.

The Making of Star Trek is an absolute treasure for the fan interested in Trek‘s history. I understand that many of these details have been republished, since, but Whitfield’s book is the only source written even as the show was produced, and published contemporarily. It’s well worth the time invested to read it.

For those keeping track (just me, I’m sure), this book’s proper place is between Blish’s Star Trek 2 and Star Trek 3.

Note on this review: I had believed that I’d reviewed this book months ago, when I finished reading it, but I cannot turn up that review, and I have since lost my notes on the book, so this is less thorough a review than I would wish. My apologies.

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Star Trek 4 by James Blish

Posted by Tracy Poff on December 9, 2014

Seventeen months after Blish’s previous Trek book, Spock Must Die!, was published, he finally put out a new volume of adaptations: Star Trek 4. It was the only one published in 1971, but he then picked up the pace substantially, publishing four more in 1972 alone.

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This volume includes adaptations of six episodes: “All Our Yesterdays”, “The Devil in the Dark”, “Journey to Babel”, “The Menagerie”, “The Enterprise Incident”, and “A Piece of the Action”.

All of the short stories are substantially similar to the episodes as aired, with the exception of “The Menagerie”. That episode, if you recall, was a retooling of the pilot: Spock is court martialed for bringing Captain Pike back to Talos IV and presents the video from the pilot episode “The Cage” as evidence. Blish elected to omit the frame story and simply adapt the pilot episode itself.

There are several good stories, here, though not all of equal merit. I enjoyed the episode “A Piece of the Action”, but I think that the short story falls flat–it was never much of a story, and most of its appeal was in the seeing. Ditto “All Our Yesterdays”. The other four stories are quite entertaining.

Really, the quality of the adaptations is good, but I find myself disappointed that they are so similar to the episodes. I suspect this is due to the book being written after Star Trek had finished airing, meaning that it was no longer necessary for Blish to rely on early draft scripts. This is good, if what you want are faithful adaptations of TV episodes, but it was the differences that made me interested in the books in the first place, so I think it’s a shame.

Even so, Star Trek 4 is a worthwhile book, containing several entertaining stories. If any of those are your favorite episodes, I’d encourage you to give it a try, if only for the sake of nostalgia.

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Spock Must Die! by James Blish

Posted by Tracy Poff on December 3, 2014

In 1968, James Blish wrote in the introduction to Star Trek 3 that he would be writing an original Star Trek novel, the popularity of the television series warranting such an effort. By the time that book was published, in April 1969, Star Trek had already been cancelled, with only its final episode, “Turnabout Intruder”, yet to air. Finally, in February 1970, Bantam published Blish’s (sole) original Trek novel: Spock Must Die!

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The Enterprise is mapping out a region of space near the border of the Klingon Empire, a highly routine operation. Kirk comes upon McCoy and Scotty in the rec room, having a philosophical debate: is what comes out of the other end of the transporter the same person that went into it–does the soul make the jump? If not, McCoy says, then “every time we put a man through the transporter for the first time, we commit murder.”

There’s no time to pursue this discussion further, for Spock interrupts to announce that the captain is needed on the bridge: the Klingons are at war with the Federation, and the Enterprise is now behind enemy lines.

It should be impossible for the Klingons to break the peace treaty, but Organia (the home of the beings that instituted the treaty in “Errand of Mercy”) seems to have been destroyed, so they are unhindered–and having great success. Unable to get into contact with Starfleet Command without giving themselves away, Kirk decides to head for Organia, a journey of several months, in hopes that the Organians have not been destroyed, and might be able to stop the war.

Inspired by his conversation with McCoy, Scotty invents a new kind of transporter which will make a temporary duplicate of a person and sent them away at great speeds and over enormous distances, with which he proposes to transport someone directly to Organia to investigate. Spock volunteers, and so the experiment begins.

Unfortunately, things do not go as planned. After the attempted transport, they find two Spocks on the transporter pad, each claiming to be the original, and each apparently identical. The balance of the book concerns the efforts to distinguish which Spock is the duplicate (and must therefore be destroyed) and to reach Organia undetected.

Spock Must Die! is similar in style to Blish’s adaptations, writ large. Blish liked to slip literary references into those short stories, and the novel takes it further, with references to works as varied as Othello, Narnia, and Finnegans Wake (the last of which forms a substantial plot point).

Blish does take advantage of the freedom afforded by the increased length. The philosophical debate outlined above is not the only one in the novel, and if they are perhaps a bit overwrought, they are welcome reminders that science fiction can be about ideas, and not merely action set in space. The general increase in detail is beneficial, as well; the adaptations often seem too brief.

Sadly, I found the book’s ending unsatisfying; the resolution of the plot is too straightforward. The Enterprise set out to find a deus ex machina to end the war, and they succeed in their search. There’s no twist, no meaningful new complication. A technobabble explanation aside, there’s little that couldn’t have been predicted a dozen pages in.

Spock Must Die! isn’t a bad book, and it’s particularly interesting as a contrast to later Trek books. Blish’s treatment of the characters is somewhat unique, and he certainly has no concern for maintaining the status quo. You could do worse than to spend a couple of hours reading this one.

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Star Trek 3 by James Blish

Posted by Tracy Poff on November 24, 2014

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Another day, another collection of Trek novelizations. Today I’m looking at James Blish’s Star Trek 3, published in April 1969. It collects seven adaptations: “The Trouble with Tribbles”, “The Last Gunfight” (an adaptation of “Spectre of the Gun”), “The Doomsday Machine”, “Assignment: Earth”, “Mirror, Mirror”, “Friday’s Child”, and “Amok Time”.

I didn’t notice any substantial departures from the episodes in any of the stories except “Friday’s Child”, which treats the character of Eleen rather differently. “The Doomsday Machine” and “The Last Gunfight” have some small changes, as well.

This book is, like its predecessor, fairly enjoyable. Although I’ve not found the series to be exceptional, it seems that contemporary readers were more impressed: in the introduction, James Blish describes some of his previous work (twenty-seven novels and short story collections, including a Hugo winner). Then:

I note these figures not to brag–well, not entirely, anyhow–but as background for one astonishing fact: I have received more mail about my two previous Star Trek books than I have about all my other work put together.

He had been receiving letters “at an average rate of two a day ever since January 1967.” Of note is that “most of [the letter writers] say that they have never read, or seen, any science fiction before Star Trek, or if they have, that they hadn’t liked it.” To fans looking for more information, he recommends The Making of Star Trek by Stephen E. Whitfield. I’m reading that book, now, and it’s fairly interesting (with some caveats–review forthcoming).

Finally, at the end of the introduction, he very casually reveals his next project:

Thanks, too, to those who asked that I write an original Star Trek novel. Both the studio and Bantam agreed, somewhat to my surprise, that this was a good idea, so it’s in the works.

The book in question, Spock Must Die!, would be published in February 1970, nearly a year later, and Blish’s next volume of adaptations would not be published until July 1971.

I admit that I’m really looking forward to Spock Must Die! giving me a break from these adaptations. All the same, with adaptations of popular episodes like “Mirror, Mirror” and “Amok Time” (and even “The Trouble with Tribbles”, if you’re in a less serious mood), Star Trek 3 is a nice afternoon’s diversion.

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Star Trek 2 by James Blish

Posted by Tracy Poff on November 21, 2014

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James Blish’s novelizations of Star Trek episodes continue in Star Trek 2, published in February 1968. This volume includes novelizations of “Arena”, “A Taste of Armageddon”, “Tomorrow is Yesterday”, “Errand of Mercy”, “Court Martial”, “Operation–Annihilate!”, “The City on the Edge of Forever”, and “Space Seed”.

Each short story is typically quite similar to the episode being adapted, though there are some differences. Notably, the ending of “Operation–Annihilate!” is very different. In the episode, they expose Spock to a massive blast of electromagnetic radiation, including visible light, and believe that they have blinded him. Upon discovering that the visible light was unnecessary, they regret that they have needlessly blinded him. In the end, though, he recovers, and they save the planet using the same procedure, on a larger scale.

In the short story, the Enterprise instead seeks out the central concentration of the mind-controlling creatures and destroys it with missiles, which leaves the creatures directionless and easily dealt with.

I like the writing in this volume better than that in its predecessor, though I couldn’t point at a definite reason why. It still suffers from the problem that the episodes on which the stories are based relied heavily on the visual element, and so are somewhat lacking as short stories. They don’t generally have any big ideas behind them, and if they do they don’t explore them very thoroughly.

I do think that some of the stories here have merit. Not much can be done for “Arena” or “Court Martial”, but I can certainly see “A Taste of Armageddon” being worked into something more substantial and interesting, and of course that has already been done for “Space Seed” in Greg Cox’s Eugenics Wars series, not to mention Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Not to be too negative, I did have a pleasant surprise when reading “Tomorrow is Yesterday”. After their time-traveling adventure, Spock comments, “And so we have revised Omar.” Upon Kirk’s request for clarification, he specifies that he means “the verse about the moving finger.” This refers to The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, as translated by Edward FitzGerald:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all they Tears wash out a Word of it.

I’ve only just read the Rubáiyát about a year ago (highly recommended, incidentally), so seeing this reference by Spock is a treat. Sadly, I don’t recall him being quite so literary in the episode.

Given its general improvement over its predecessor, I can recommend Star Trek 2 to fans looking for a quick read, or another perspective on the episodes, and the new ending to “Operation–Annihilate!” and the incorporation of content from Heinlein’s original script in “The City on the Edge of Forever” provide a little added value.

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Mission to Horatius by Mack Reynolds

Posted by Tracy Poff on November 20, 2014

I’ve just written about James Blish’s Star Trek, the first Trek book ever published, but that book contained only adaptations of television episodes. The first original Trek story published–and, indeed, the only such book published during the initial airing of Star Trek–is Mack Reynolds’s Mission to Horatius, published in 1968.

Mission to Horatius - cover

The Enterprise has been out on patrol for a long time, and just when they were heading for a much needed break, they are ordered to a distant star system–Horatius–from which a distress call has originated.

Horatius has three colonized planets: Neolithia, Mythra, and Bavarya. Neolithia was colonized by people who wanted a less technologically dependent way of life, and its inhabitants have only very primitive technology–not even iron. Mythra was colonized by people fleeing religious persecution, and is ruled by a small class of religious elites. Bavarya, the most recently settled, was colonized by political dissidents, and its leader is a militaristic man called Nummer Ein. The Enterprise is not welcomed by the inhabitants of any of the three planets, but they have a duty to determine who called for help, and render aid if they can.

Meanwhile, the Enterprise has troubles of its own. It has been far too long since the crew has been planetside, and Dr. McCoy fears an outbreak of space cafard, a deadly psychological condition caused by the extreme ennui of protracted space travel. If the crew of the Enterprise don’t get leave soon, they may tear themselves apart from the strain.

Mission to Horatius is a quick, easy read. With its A plot of the Enterprise investigating a distress call, its B plot of McCoy’s concerns about space cafard, and a good dose of comedy, it reads very like an episode of the show. Which is not to say that it’s the most well-written possible book, of course. Kirk is rather cavalier in his response to the situation in which he finds himself, and his actions are not what one would expect of an ambassador of the Federation (as Kirk calls himself). He repeatedly ignores the wishes of the governments of the planets they’re visiting, despite himself noting that he must not do that. He even says, “We shall see what our Bavaryan bullyboys have to offer,” when it is Kirk himself who is acting the bully.

While not flawless, Mission to Horatius is a suitably enjoyable read for young audiences, for which it was intended.

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Star Trek by James Blish

Posted by Tracy Poff on November 19, 2014

I’ve read a good number of Star Trek books, over the years. Since I came rather late to the Star Trek universe, I’m quite used to thinking of the expanded universe as a sprawling thing, composed of many books by a similarly vast number of authors. Of course, it wasn’t always this way. Once, there were no Star Trek books at all.

And then, there was one: Star Trek by James Blish.

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Star Trek is a collection of seven short story adaptations of television episodes, namely “Charlie’s Law” (aired as “Charlie X”), “Dagger of the Mind”, “The Unreal McCoy” (aired as “The Man Trap”), “Balance of Terror”, “The Naked Time”, “Miri”, and “The Conscience of the King”.

Blish’s adaptations were based on early draft scripts of the episodes, so the stories in this collection are not exactly the same as those that aired, though the differences tend to be minor.

The quality of the stories varies. For the most part, they are clearly uninspired adaptations of television scripts: lots of dialogue, limited description, and very little of anything else. They serve well enough as summaries of the episodes, but they’re not particularly engaging, and I don’t think they give enough detail for readers who haven’t already seen the episodes.

The stories are inferior to the television episodes, too, in those cases where the acting is particularly noteworthy: Morgan Woodward’s performance as Simon van Gelder in “Dagger of the Mind” and Arnold Moss’s performance as Karidian in “The Conscience of the King” brought the characters to life in a way the lifeless dialogue in the short stories cannot match.

The book does have one good point, however: the adaptation of “Balance of Terror” is substantially better than the other stories. Indeed, it’s so different that I’d have guessed it was written by another author entirely. Where the other adaptations are soulless collections of dialogue and stage direction, “Balance of Terror” takes some time to consider the import of events and the relationships between the characters, and gives more detail than is strictly required to understand the events. This added flavor places it head and shoulders above the rest: it’s a satisfying and entertaining short story.

Blish’s book was apparently very popular. Published in January 1967, it was in its fifth printing by June of that year, and in its eighth printing by June 1968. My copy is from a 25th printing in February 1977 and claims “Over 8 million copies in print.”, though that might possibly be including the later books in the series. At any rate, it was popular enough that the series was gathered into two different omnibus sets.

However interesting this book may be as a window into the past, I cannot recommend it. I don’t regret the time spent reading it, but those simply interested in reading a work of science fiction should probably choose a different book.

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The Art of 5TH Cell

Posted by Tracy Poff on November 11, 2014

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There are generally two kinds of artbooks: those that are interesting as ‘souvenirs’ of their subject, and those that are interesting on their own merit. The categories aren’t mutually exclusive, of course.

The Art of 5TH Cell falls in the former category, though that’s not an indictment: for fans of the featured games, the book is filled with promotional images, concept art, and more that’s sure to please.

The book is divided into sections for five of 5TH Cell’s games, Scribblenauts, Lock’s Quest, Drawn to Life, Hybrid, and Run Roo Run, plus an “Edison Yan Sketchbook” section. It ends with a listing of 5TH Cell’s games with descriptions, screenshots, and information, and one page devoted to concept art from games that never made it to release.

The sections for each game contain all kinds of different art: magazine covers from Nintendo Power and Game Developer, plus sketches and line art for the same; promotional artwork; concept artwork; box art and preliminary concepts for box art; character art including early concepts; logo concepts; and lots more.

The “Edison Yan Sketchbook” section includes artwork for some of 5TH Cell’s older games from Edison Yan, who has worked with them both as an artist for their early games and Art Director for their later games, including most of those featured in this book. It’s even got preliminary artwork for the cover of this very book, a pleasingly meta addition.

I have only two real complains about The Art of 5TH Cell. The first is that it’s a book–so I can’t use the artwork in it as desktop wallpaper. I’m pretty sure that some of it originally was intended for just that purpose, so it’s a shame. The second is that I’d like to see a little more commentary from the artists. It’s great to devote so much space to the art, but a page or two of prose for each game would be welcome.

If you’d like to see for yourself what kind of art you’ll find, you can have a look at Edison Yan’s website, which includes a few of the illustrations featured in the book, as well as original artwork.

The Art of 5TH Cell was published on October 28, 2014 by UDON Entertainment.

Disclosure: this review is based on an advance copy received free for review.

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