Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Spock Must Die! Review

I found this book at my local used
bookstore. I got it for $2.45. That's
just one more reason to like this book.

Regular readers of Shared Universe Reviews will know that I’ve read and reviewed a few Star Wars books and I’ve also started an ongoing project to read more fantasy novels. That’s a lot to have on one’s plate but I don’t seem to care since I’ve started to read Star Trek novels. Why am I doing this all of a sudden? There are a few answers and one of them is simply, why not? I haven’t read any before. I like Star Trek. I don’t love it simply because I haven’t watched a whole lot of it but I do really like it. When I was a little kid my dad used to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes in the evenings. I don’t remember any specifics but I do remember a Klingon (and that he was a Klingon, not just some generic mean looking alien), I remember Picard and Le Forge and the overall look of the bridge has been imprinted into my mind. When I think of the Star Trek bridge I think of the one that appears in TNG. There are a very large number of things I don’t remember at all about TNG (Data who?) but every time I’ve sampled Star Trek, be it a movie or an episode of one of the series, I always make a mental note to check out more. I just never get around to it.

Growing up Star Trek in some form or another was almost always present but for reasons unknown even to myself, I never took the plunge to immerse myself completely Star Trek. As I grow older, the urge to seek out Star Trek episodes I’ve never seen before is growing. Unlike other science fiction franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek actually has some science to it. Not only that, but Star Trek at least tries to be intelligent and it’s the particular aspect that I seem to crave more of. Don’t get me wrong, I still love my Star Wars but sometimes I’m just not in the mood for it. In short, it seems that Star Trek is able to provide me with the intelligence I can’t seem to find anywhere else in my entertainment regime.

As far as I can tell, this is the
original cover for Spock Must Die!
I also like the spirit of Star Trek. The crew of the Enterprise encounters of trouble but that’s because they go looking for it. Not in the way a mischievous child goes looking for trouble, but they have a scientific curiosity or in the case of some characters, a sense of adventure that compels them to go sign up for a 5 year or a 7 years exploratory mission through the farthest reaches of space. That’s a pretty powerful theme and unlike the exploration of say, a single planet, space allows for an infinite number of discoveries to be made. There is an endless potential to Star Trek that few series that I know of can match up. Whether that potential use in each episode, movie or book is another thing all together.

That’s essentially, what pushed me to make some discoveries of my own by exploring old Star Trek media tie-in novels. I’m starting with TOS novels because that’s the series I’m most familiar with. I’ve also been rewatching TOS episodes and watching some of them for the first time. Eventually I will shift the focus to Star Trek TNG both the tv series and the novels.

There are other questions that need answering though, which Star Trek novel should I start with and why? Thankfully, that was a simply question to answer: the first one because it’s written by a veteran Star Trek author. Spock Must Die! is the first Star Trek novel intended for adult audiences (there was a previous novel published targeting younger readers). James Blish wrote short story adaptations of every (!) Star Trek: The Original Series episodes. That’s a pretty surprising feat unto itself. According to the internet, Blish decided to write an original Star Trek novel because of popular demand. Who better to write a new Star Trek story than the person who adapted the original episodes? As natural as it was for him to write the book, it’s natural for me to choose Spock Must Die! as my first Star Trek novel. To top it all off, Spock Must Die! appears on a few best Star Trek novels lists.

One final reason why I chose to read this book. There are two Spocks. Aweomse! It’s also somewhat of a sequel to one of the episodes I had rewatched recently “The Enemy Within” where Kirk is split up into two separate beings, one of them good and weak and the other evil and strong. That’s not what happens to Spock in this novel, it’s something altogether more complicated and far more problematic for the crew. It’s also a sequel to “Errand of Mercy”.

The book begins with McCoy and Scotty having a discussion over the effects of teleporters on human physiology, the mind and the soul. McCoy argues that the person is physically killed and a copied is made at the selected destination. He wonders if he’s the real McCoy or just one of the many copies that have been made throughout the years. Does he have the real McCoy’s thoughts and memories in his head? Poor Bones is so worries about what teleporters have been doing to him. He’s worried about his soul and the soul of others. Scotty on the other hand thinks the teleporter is simply a machine that transfers matter from one place to another. A person’s body is converted into a form of matter than can be teleporter and it is then reconstituted at the destination. Captain Kirk was sitting in on the conversation when Spock summons him to the bridge.

Once on the bridge, Kirk learns that the planet Organia (from “Errand of Mercy”) has been destroyed by the Klingons thus putting the Federation at war with the Klingons. The Enterprise is currently on the opposite side of the Klingon Empire and the crew must travel to the other side and reach the neutral zone. They also decide to investigate what happened to Organia. Being in Klingon territory makes travel and communications rather difficult for the crew but Scotty has an idea. He’s developed a way to make modifications to the teleporter that would allow them to send a tachyon copy of a crew member to Organia to investigate. By sending a tachyon copy of someone, Scotty enables the crew member to stay on the Enterprise while his tachyon copy investigates. The result of this experiment, of course, is the creation of two Spocks. Life or death shenanigans ensue.

The other does writes a few shenanigans of his own into his work. Scotty’s accent, for example, is way over the top. It's also probably difficult to write but I guess Blish is used to it. Still, because it’s probably annoying to write, Scotty temporarily gains the ability to speak without his accent for the duration of his longest technical monologue in the book. Blish prepares for this accent-free monologue by writing: “The engineering officer’s accent faded and vanished; "his voice gets calm, his suddenly, his English was as high, white and cold as his terminology. He went on, precisely.” It’s such a strange little moment in a book filled with equally strange moments. Some of the oddities are actually quite enjoyable and endearing in their execution. Other things demonstrate just to what extent Star Trek TOS was a product of its time.

This cover tells us what the others
don't: there be Klingons in this
I really liked it though. The ending is far too abrupt for my tastes but I found many TOS episodes to end equally abruptly. Unlike the first few Star Wars books I've read, this one begs me to go and read more Star Trek. I think the visual element is very important here. While visuals play an obviously important role in the Star Trek franchise, it doesn’t depend on it as much as the Star Wars franchise does. It’s not a crutch. A lot of Star Trek stories have a pretty clear focus on science or the use of the scientific method. Even the action isn’t as visual. If there is action to be found in a Star Trek Original Series episode, it’s going to be a fist fight, a quick phaser shot or a submarine battle with space ships. Even the aliens are less visual, they tend to closely resemble other humanoids. Now this might be unappealing to people who only appreciate science fiction stories in visual mediums (television, film and comics) but that’s what allows Star Trek, particularly TOS, to translate so well to novels. Not a whole lot happens in Spock Must Die! that require strong visuals other than the events of one chapter on Organia. A lot of this book is composed of the Enterprise crew members talking and debating and that’s what I enjoyed the most. I love how they think their way out of situations.

It was a fascinating and relatively quick read. The book is 118 pages long but the writing is pretty small. Still, those 118 pages pack a lot of story and strange little moments.  It's short but it's a novel sized story which is why the quick ending annoyed me.

The beauty of Star Trek novels is that there is a pretty good balance between series of books and standalone books compared to other science fiction and, specifically, Star Wars book. It's probably due to the franchise being primarily a television serial. The format already allowed and encouraged shorter stories with a tighter focus on one or two stories as opposed to long, season-long stories like many shows seem fond of today. While Spock Must Die! is unarguably a strange book, it’s a very enjoyable read. Blish’s dialogue reads like a transcript for a lost episode of TOS and it’s great. I could hear the actors speaking in my head while reading. Sure, I heard more of Scotty than I ever wanted, but any fan of TOS can find something to enjoy in this little book. 

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