Monday, 24 June 2013

Star Trek: Planet of Judgement

This Star Trek novel was written by Joe Haldeman, an award winning science fiction author, famous for his novel The Forever War. I've never read any of his work before but I've read some nice things about this book online. Planet of Judgement is the first of two Star Trek books written by Haldeman and it’s supposed to be the best of the two and, in some circles, one of the best Star Trek novels. Apparently the second book he wrote is not nearly as good as this one since Haldeman didn’t really feel like writing it but he still did due to his contractual obligations.

In Planet of Judgement the Enterprise is tasked to bring Dr. James Atheling to the Starfleet Academy. The voyage will take four weeks to complete. Some of Captain Kirk's senior officers have suggested he give his crew some time for recreation but he refuses because he suspects that he and his crew will face an inspection once they reach the Academy. On their way to Earth, they encounter a cosmological anomaly, a rogue planet circulating a black hole. This being the crew of the Enterprise, they decide to investigate.

The book's plot is pretty simple and I quite liked it. It doesn't need to be complicated to be interesting. Several members of the Enterprise are stranded on the abnormal planet they nicknamed Anomaly. The planet's laws of physics are different then what is normally found throughout the rest of the explored universe. In the goal of exploring the source of what appears to be an artificial sun, Kirk prepares a landing party. Shorty, after losing all contact with Kirk on Anomaly's surface, a second boarding party is sent closely followed by Spock and three shuttles attempting a rescue mission.

Haldeman gives us a pretty dangerous planet, filled with large alien versions of Mesozoic animals. Most of these animals are large and ferocious enough to threaten the crew. The flora also threatens the survival of the stranded few. The planet is also inhabited by humanoid creatures that have attained a certain level of civilization and technology as proved by their attacked armed with bows and arrows. The presence of the humanoids gives the crew one more thing to worry about: General Order One. Unfortunately, this is mostly set dressing and the rest story is about the crew’s encounter with the humanoids who really aren’t that technologically advanced. Instead, they’re minds have evolved far beyond that of Man or Vulcan. That’s what makes them dangerous to the crew.

The story of the crew’s survival on Anomaly is actually quite horrific. Haldeman manages to make the reader worry about the safety of the crew in part because there are actual casualties and also because most of their technology doesn’t work or, at best, works sporadically with varying degrees of efficiency. Haldeman doesn’t limit himself to telling a short science fiction story. He adds layers of complexity by introducing moral and philosophical debates into the story, particularly through the humanoids’ integration with the stranded crew. It’s dark for a Star Trek story but it’s smart and creepy and it’s interesting to see Kirk, Spock, McCoy and all the others in this difficult situation.

I found it somewhat unfortunate that the story turned into something we've seen several times in Star Trek. It turns out Anomaly is inhabited by an incredibly advanced species that are looking to use the Enterprise's officers to presumptively stop an attack on the federation that is only set to occur in one thousand years. You have to keep in mind that by the original publication of Planet of Judgement, the stories where the crew was tested by highly advanced beings hadn't been explore as frequently as it later was post-TOS. Even if it has been, it doesn’t really matter because Haldeman writes it so very well. He has an unapologetic approach to his writing and that’s something I find refreshing in the Star Trek universe. It also helps that he writes McCoy extremely well. McCoy is one of my favourite Star Trek characters and it’s really nice to see him so well written.

My main criticism of Planet of Judgement is that Haldeman seems to have decided to write a different book half way through. There is a distinct shift in story and in tone. I really wanted to finish the story that the book begins with. The story of the crew stranded on a prehistoric planet where survival is your only concern. I wanted to read about how the Spock and McCoy were going to react to the harsh conditions of Anomaly, particularly how they will survive with so little technology at their disposition? Haldeman did such a great job setting up the horrific situation the crew ended up in because of their scientific curiosity but the author never follows through with the idea.

This is the second Star Trek novel I read and there is a pattern emerging regarding sexual or emotional attraction to Spock. In Spock Must Die! Kirk was contemplating why female crew members were attracted to Spock. He concluded that it’s because it gives them a “safe” outlet for expressing their racial rebellion. In Planet of Judgement, Spock asks McCoy to explain a comment he made regarding nurse Chapel's attraction to Spock. McCoy comes to a different conclusion than Kirk. It's his opinion that Chapel likes Spock because he’s powerful (second in command on the Enterprise), intelligent and for his "behavioural predictability". Bones also adds that women like that he is different, unusual. That last comment is rather similar to what Kirk thought of in the other book. I find a discussion of this topic to be rather odd. Was Spock the teen heartthrob of The Original Series?

Coming in at 150 pages, Planet of Judgement is a pretty good Star Trek novel (says the guy who’s only read two). I liked it more than Spock Must Die! but for entirely different reasons. It’s a shame that Haldeman seems to have charted a new course for the book about halfway through but once the change is made, he quickly makes the new story just as interesting. The length of the book contributes to it being good. I have a difficult time imagining Planet of Judgement at 300 pages, a pretty average length for a modern novel. I’ll end with a positive note by saying that I absolutely love the cover and the back cover. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a picture of the back cover so I’ll simply describe it. The jungle continues to the left of Spock and Sharon and there is a shuttle flying below the trees surrounded by a very large red snake that is attacking the shuttle. It looks great and really helped to put me in the mood for reading this little book.

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