Tag Archives: Star Trek

502. Harlan Ellison

When his book Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled came out in 1968, Harlan Ellison said that the title “reflects an attitude toward reality I would dearly love to see come to pass”. I disagreed — I still do — but it didn’t matter.  Ellison was out there kicking American culture in the shins, and that was good enough for me. He was an angry man in an angry era.

I never met the man and I stopped reading him after about 1970, so this is about early Ellison. He was a major part of my life through his short stories, still some of the best ever written, but I lost track of him about the time he went to Hollywood.

I read him through the time when I dumped God, watched blacks being fire-hosed in the deep South, escaped my parents, met up with the rest of the world, watched Americans on TV burning Viet Nam to the ground, and sat listening to the first draft lottery. My number was 41, by the way. Yikes! Everybody was angry on one side or the other of every issue (sound familiar?).

Through all this, Harlan Ellison was writing stories that kicked ass and took names. He was the perfect writer for the era.

He died yesterday (June 28th). I saw it this morning on a trailer sliding by under pictures of the latest atrocity on my morning news cast. I haven’t checked out the details yet. I don’t need to before writing this, because this is bibliography, not biography.

There were a lot of angry people writing things in the sixties. Most of them have been forgotten. Harlan is remembered because he made the things he wrote come real and resonate at a level beyond the moment. His short stories were the best I ever encountered, occasional clunker notwithstanding.

I went to my bookshelf and pulled out Paingod, I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream, The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, From the Land of Fear, Earthman, Go Home, and Love Ain’t Nothing but Sex Misspelled. The first five are paperback. You can write them down when you finish reading and go to your neighborhood used book store, where the best in literature resides.

I say that because I just took a moment to check my local library’s online catalog. There are twelve entries on Ellison, all from late in his career, or things for which he wrote introductions. When he was hot, he was a newsstand sensation.

Newsstand: a place to buy newspapers, magazines, and paperback genre fiction. In other words, ephemera. You would never find War and Peace at a newsstand. You also wouldn’t find any of these books five months after they were published.

You will also find Ellison in a lot of anthologies beginning with the word Best . . .. He won a lot of Hugos and Nebulas, not always for his best work.

That’s it. The rest is a laundry list and the admonition to seek these out and read them. You’ll never find better.

Get Love Ain’t Nothing but Sex Misspelled and read it all, but pay particular attention to the Preface, and Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes. If you want to read the most honest writer’s autobiography ever submitted under the name of fiction, try Final Shtick.

Get as many of the others as you can still find. There will be some overlap since Love Ain’t . . . was mostly a self-chosen best-of. The gems awaiting you are not only the rest of the stories, but all of the highly personal introductions that never made it into Love Ain’t . . ..

I particularly recommend that you look at Earthman, Go Home to see what bad editing can do to a good writer. Not only was the original title Ellison Wonderland changed from something charming to something thumb-fingered dumb, but the cover contains every robot cliché that Ellison would never have used.

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485. Uhura With a Dagger

Imagine Lieutenant Uhura in a different outfit, with a dagger at her belt, looking even sexier than usual. Actually, you don’t have to imagine, just check out Mirror, Mirror, which is simultaneously a pretty good piece of original Star Trek and one of the worst Star Treks ever.

How’s that? From the viewpoint of drama Mirror, Mirror is good television. From the viewpoint of logic, it stinks. Even though the alternate universe version of the Federation is completely changed and utterly barbaric, every member of the Enterprise crew is still at the same post, and the Enterprise is still in orbit of the same planet, going about the same business on the same day. Really?

Usually I don’t worry too much about accuracy in Star Trek. It is best viewed as  allegory, or as an attempt to make a decent SF program with minimal cost. I forgive a lot, but this one keeps me groaning more loudly than most.

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As Mirror, Mirror shows us, building an alternative universe is no occupation for the lazy. But it sure can be fun. And if that universe has a steampunk attitude, all the better.

I spent the last half of last year writing a steampunk novel called The Cost of Empire, set in an alternate world in “the Year of Our Lord 18—, and of the Reign of Queen Victoria, year forty-seven”. It could be called an alternate history, but I made sure that most of the alternatives taste like steampunk, even though it doesn’t have werewolves or zombies or Jack the Ripper. Or automatons, although the sequels will. In fact, the whole intent was to provide a steampunk world that doesn’t depend on magic or unsupportable science.

Here’s the setup. After the Austro-Prussian War (real, 1866), a ruthless English businessman named McFarland (imaginary) stole an obscure type of engine (real, but forgotten today) which allowed him to produce useful dirigibles long before the Germans. He also started an organization of spying, disinformation, and assassination (imaginary, we hope) which allowed him to provoke and win a war with newly unified Germany, bringing England to universal power. In the process of suppressing German inventors, McFarland has skewed the course of science, prolonging the age of steam and clockwork.

To make this work, I had to shift a few dates, but not many and not by much. That is the reason, besides mimicking Victorian style, for the vague 18— date in the quotation. The challenge I gave to myself was to make big changes through the introduction of a single character.

So our story begins with England as the world’s most powerful nation (even more and sooner than in our reality) but hated by everyone, and with a fatal hidden flaw at its heart. England’s fleet covers the oceans, with dirigibles as eyes-in-the-sky above.

Our hero is about to fall afoul of the secret organization of assassins, escape, and spend the rest of this and hopefully several other novels fighting to free his nation from their grip.

The next two weeks will be devoted to the opening pages of that novel here in A Writing Life. As has happened a few times before, Serial will be tied up with other things.

393. The IDIC Epidemic

I am always amazed when I find yet another novel which should have won awards and a place on every bookshelf, but has instead been forgotten. I don’t know why I should be amazed though, as it happens all too often. The IDIC Epidemic is such a book.

An additional oddity, which is actually a pattern, is that though the book is massively infused with future science, and contains more Star Trek lore and alien species that a Star Trek convention, the story succeeds because it mimics the same underlying moral stance as any human story about very different people thrown together in a crisis, and rising to the occasion.

The IDIC Epidemic is a novel that stands alone, but can equally be seen as the third in a trilogy that began with the original series Star Trek episode Journey to Babel, continued in The Vulcan Academy Murders, and concludes with The IDIC Epidemic. The TV episode was by D. C. Fontana and the two books are by Jean Lorrah. To quote:

the reunion (between Spock and  Sarek) that had begun on the perilous journey to Babel and continued when they had melded on Vulcan to save Amanda’s life only a few weeks ago, was finally complete.

That is a leitmotif floating through the three stories, but needs no spoiler alert since it isn’t the main story. Here is a spoiler free summary of The IDIC Epidemic.

Nisus is a Vulcan science colony dedicated to the idea of IDIC, Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination. Members of most of the races known to the Federation work there in something like harmony. A plague breaks out which crosses species and brings the Enterprise on scene to help. Infinite Complications ensue. 

I suppose the next statement is a spoiler. Kirk does not single-handedly save the day. To be fair, he only does that about half the time, but this is one of those books where every character –and there are a horde of them — has his time on stage.

There are no space battles, either. Although there is a bit of skullduggery among some relatively minor villains, this is primarily a story of varied intelligent species striving against nature.

A little aside here: I bought Legacies: Captain to Captain a few months ago, but gave up reading it about a third of the way in. I have no criticism of book or author; it was simply that I had been on this roller coaster too many times before, and it couldn’t hold my interest. If you’ve read enough Star Trek novels (I must be well above fifty), the word rehash starts to crop up in your appraisal, and it really isn’t fair. Take any thirty Star Trek novels and read them one after another — the first will be wonderful and the last will be a rehash, no matter in which order you read them.

The IDIC Epidemic isn’t like that. Yes, there is a threat to be overcome, through great courage and high competence, but we also meet a dozen new characters and a couple of dozen who are back from The Vulcan Academy Murders. Their interactions matter as much as the action. We also learn a great deal more about about sex and love among Vulcans and between species. (Tastefully handled. This is Star Trek, not soft porn.) And we see courage exhibited by everybody.

Everyone is a hero, because it is that kind of situation. I was reminded, by contrast, of books by Philip Wylie from my youth, set in times of nuclear war. There were no real heroes in those books. The difference wasn’t in the  competing visions of mankind. It was structural to the kind of novels involved. IDIC is a hopeful book even through massive disasters.  A nuclear strike leaves no hope.

The IDIC Epidemic is one of the best Star Trek novels I have read. I recommend it highly. Both these Jean Lorrah books are available on Kindle. If you get them both, read The Vulcan Academy Murders first, although The IDIC Epidemic is the better book.

182. Vulcan Academy Murders

The Vulcan Academy Murders by Jean Lorrah got some bad reviews when it came out. I like it very much, but I can see their point. It all depends on what you you are looking for when you come to a Star Trek novel.

Personally, I buy Star Trek novels that have Spock on the cover. When I watched Star Trek in its first run, the only character I really liked was Spock. I’ve mellowed since, but I still feel he was the core of the series.

On this cover we have Spock, phaser in hand, facing a le-matya under the light of T’Kuht. The le-matya is in the story, and important, as is the light of T’kuht. Spock is in the novel too, but not in this scene, and, although he has his moments, he is probably the least important character in the novel.

That was a surprise, but not particularly a disappointment, as there is plenty of McCoy, Kirk, Sarek, T’pau, a bit of backstory on the minor character M’binga, and half a dozen interesting new characters, both human and Vulcan.

If you love a good plot, with interesting twists and turns and a fast pace, TVAM may not be for you. If you want a good murder mystery, TVAM is definitely not for you. The attempts at detection are lame and the culprit stumbles to (his/her) doom. Nobody sees the obvious until it falls into their laps at the end. The arc of the plot actually reads like one of the old series episodes.

None of that matters to me. This is one of those novels that lets us see old friends again and spend time with them. It delves deeper into Vulcan culture, especially mate bonding, and shines a light into the shadows thrown by Vulcan stoicism. We get to tie up a lot of loose ends regarding Spock’s childhood and his relationship with Sarek and Amanda. We also get a chance to see Kirk and T’pau get a chance at a mutual reevaluation.

Besides that, the new characters are fascinating. This is a novel that brings backstory into the foreground, with just enough plot to keep things moving. What more could you want for two dollars, on sale at your favorite used book store?

Now I’m looking for a copy of its sequel, The IDIC Epidemic.

181. Star Trek on Sale

In my favorite used books store, overstocked Star Trek novels went on sale recently, so I bought a sackful – mostly those that appeared to feature Spock.

I hated Star Trek when it aired in the sixties. I was about eighteen, and just coming off of five or six years or reading the best of “real” science fiction. I’ve mellowed since. Reruns today have a nostalgic glow, and besides, the Star Trek movies did a lot to wash the bad taste of the Littlies and the Will of Landru out of my mouth.

I’ve even come to appreciate Shatner. When Star Trek was in its original run, I thought Shatner epitomized everything that was wrong with the series. Now I’m a writer, so now I know better. It wasn’t Shatner, the actor, or Kirk, the character that made me wince. It was the words the writers sometimes put in his mouth.

Some of the stories were excellent, some were acceptable, and almost all had some leavening of humor. But there were clunkers – oh, my, were there clunkers. Looking back, I have to credit Shatner with extreme professionalism for keeping a straight face while saying some of the lines the writers fed him.

Best Star Trek episode — Balance of Terror

Worst Star Trek episode — The Omega Glory

There, how’s that for starting a controversy.

The novels I bought yesterday were as mixed as the original series. I sat down with _______ by _______ and found it so overwritten that I couldn’t get past page ten. Then I picked up The Vulcan Academy Murders by Jean Lorrah, and found it to be a pleasant read despite the title. (There will be a review tomorrow.)

About a year ago, I spent a few hours in another used bookstore, picking out a selection of thirty and forty year old books that I had read as a young man. I was struck by how many authors were there who had written one or two good – sometimes excellent – books and then disappeared. 

It’s hard to get published, and even harder to make a living at writing. Most writers also do something else. Many teach college English; many science fiction writers are actually scientists. I had some early success, followed by a career teaching middle school, so I know the drill.

Actually, this all has a long history. Mark Twain and Charles Dickens did not make their fortunes as writers, despite their success. Mark Twain was a raconteur, a humorist, a sparkling speaker who filled halls across America. He made a bundle as a speaker, which helped sell his books, which in turn helped fill the halls whenever he spoke. Charles Dickens was looking at poverty, half way through his career, when he wrote A Christmas Carol. He spent the rest of his life doing readings of that wonderful tale, and making the money his printed works were not providing.

I think that writing Star Trek novels must be keeping a lot of writers fed. The original TV series certainly did. As I was reading the wiki list of episodes to remind myself of the title of that excrecable tale of the Yangs and Comms, I saw Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, Fredric Brown, Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, David Gerrold, Nathan Butler, and Jerry Sohl, all names I had known from science fiction novels outside Star Trek.

FYI, Nathan Butler is a pen name of Jerry Sohl. I read several of his novels in the local library in my early teens, but he never became a household name in the science fiction universe, despite an admirable list of publications. It appears that he wrote widely, but made his living in television.

Doesn’t that sound familiar?