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Star Trek – Music of the Spheres by Margaret Wander Bonanno (Review)

This August, to celebrate the upcoming release of Star Trek: Into Darkness on DVD and blu ray, we’re taking a look at the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast. Movie reviews are every Tuesday and Thursday.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the movies with tie-ins around (and related to) the films. We’ll be doing one of these every week day. This is one such article.

Music of the Spheres is something of a legend in Star Trek circles. It’s not quite a ghost story, spoken of in hushed whispers. Indeed, author Margaret Wander Bonanno has made the manuscript available to interested fans via her website, and has used it to raise money for a variety of worth causes. She’s documented the difficult story of how her original novel warped in Probe in a wonderfully wry and insightful essay, offering a glimpse at the inner workings of Pocket Book and Paramount towards the end of the eighties.

It’s a rare peek behind the curtain, with Music of the Spheres serving as a compelling vehicle to explore just what was going on inside Star Trek licensing in the late eighties and early nineties.

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One of the wonderful facets of a big sprawling multimedia franchise is that it is very rarely the work of one person. Indeed, often an idea or brand will become so large that even the act of directing or overseeing particular divisions can be the work of many different people with many different outlooks. For example, the films following Star Trek: The Motion Picture were no longer heavily driven by Gene Roddenberry. The third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation onwards was overseen by Michael Piller. Ira Steven Behr was in charge of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine while Michael Piller and Rick Berman worked on Star Trek: Voyager and the Next Generation movies.

The beauty (or the potential beauty) of this approach is that it allows for different an unique perspectives on the franchise. It gives the property a chance to reimagine and to reinvent itself. There’s a radical difference, for example, between how Gene Roddenberry and Nicholas Meyer saw Star Trek. That doesn’t mean one was right and one was wrong, it just means that the Star Trek produced by one was markedly different from the Star Trek produced by the other.

That’s also the way with the media tie-ins. There’s a long and complicated relationship between Paramount and CBS and the various license-holders at any given moment, and that’s prone to change with little real notice. What was popular and encouraged at one point may suddenly fall out of favour. There are particular moods and styles to the various tie-ins, and the type of output generated. For example, the recent trend in the novels seems to be outward expansion – developing a continuity outward from the canon of the series, encouraging continuity between books by various authors featuring various characters and elements of the mythos.

In the mid-eighties, the Star Trek tie-in novels seemed like a fun place to be. The writers often seemed incredibly unfettered by the demands of a massive multimedia franchise, revelling in the freedom to build and develop as they saw fit. They had to conform to what was on-screen, but there seemed to be precious few constraints beyond that. Authors could elaborate on other novels, or ignore them completely. Several authors seemed to develop their own corners of the vast and expansive Star Trek universe, populated with their own toys.

While not all these experiments worked out, there was something exhilarating about the attempt. John M. Ford, for example, defined Klingon culture in The Final Reflection before writing what might be termed “a Star Trek musical” in How Much for Just the Planet? Diane Duane wrote a string of well-received novels featuring her own characters, and added a lot of flesh to the Romulans presented on the series with My Enemy, My Ally. There was a sense that these tie-ins were willing to be bold and exciting and playful.

And then the winds changed.

And Music of the Spheres is one of the novels that got caught in that cross-breeze. As Bonanno herself notes, the difficulties in the production of Music of the Spheres did not happen in a vacuum. There were other goings-on indicating that the world of Star Trek tie-ins was undergoing something of a cultural shift:

Between the premier of STTNG in 1987 and early 1990, when I was working on the manuscript for PROBE, strange things started happening to other Trek writers’ work:

  1. A novel by Michael Jan Friedman was almost canceled because a stardate was wrong
  2. Another novel, which was to have been the middle of the Lost Years trilogy was killed in manuscript, leaving an odd gap in the trilogy, and ending the author’s Trek career before it began
  3. A Flag Full of Stars by Brad Ferguson, turned out to be, well, mostly not by Brad Ferguson
  4. Allan Asherman’s The Star Trek That Never Was was produced, shipped to the warehouses and, the night before it was due to arrive in bookstores, sent to the shredders instead.

Why were all these bad things happening? you ask. Because someone at Paramount at that time had the clout to make them happen.

I should clarify that there were good Star Trek books published around this time. Peter David, for example, managed to get both Vendetta and Imzadi published in the early nineties – along with a string of other solidly entertaining books.

At the same time, it’s clear that priorities within Paramount and CBS were shifting There was a tighter rein being held by those in authority. Books like My Enemy, My Ally and The Final Reflection would never have been published by this iteration of Paramount’s licensing department. Relations with writers were strained, to the point where Peter David was able to get one of his rejected comic book scripts approved simply by submitting it under a fake name.

(Of course, for those reading at home, worried about how this plays out, there is a happy ending. After a thirteen-year wait, Diana Duane was finally able to finish her Rihannsu novels. Although John M. Ford never worked in the Star Trek sandbox again, apparently (and understandably) burnt out by the experience, Margaret Wander Bonanno did come back to write Star Trek in the new millennium. As she notes in her essay on the matter, “Probe is part of the Bad Old Days, which I hope are permanently behind us.”)

And Music of the Spheres stands an odd relic of that time, a line in the sand. Reading the manuscript after all this time, it’s amazing how perfectly it fits the mood of those adventurous eighties Star Trek novels. There are some eye-brow raising moments (a superior repeatedly calling Kirk “Jim baby”), but there’s also some genuinely fascinating high-concepts and some bold ideas. It’s fast and it’s loose, but in the best possible way.

At the same time, it seems like Music of the Spheres is a bit more wilfully cheeky than Bonanno lets on in her account of events. There is, of course, a question of how much Bonanno knew about what was going on behind the scenes, but there are several parts of her early manuscript which seem to be almost teasing the incoming powers-that-be. Most obviously, the book features a prominent Romulan character (the voice of reason) named Rihan. He is commander of the Hannsu.

Given that even the use of the term “Rihannsu” in Diane Duane’s 1987 novel The Romulan Way had allegedly upset Gene Roddenberry (and verifiably upset Richard Arnold) to the point where he’d asked the word be removed from the book, making so overt a reference to Duane’s work seemed to be actively courting controversy. (Indeed, the character’s name is changed to “Hiran” in the released version of Probe, one of the smaller changes to Bonanno’s work.)

Music of the Spheres reads as incredibly self-aware, occasionally too much so. Bonanno posits the movie-era crew as intergalactic rock stars. “As well ask where I was when I heard that Spock was dead!” Cleante remarks at one point, making it clear that the history of Earth in the Star Trek pantheon is linked to the adventures of our heroes. “Or when V’ger came.” There are repeated references to “the now-legendary triumvirate”, as if Kirk and Spock and McCoy form some sort of 23rd century version of the Beatles. (Does that make Scotty Ringo?)

The celebrity of the Enterprise crew was never really dealt with on the show, and it’s rich fodder for exploration, but off-handedly weaving it between everything else in Music of the Spheres overburdens the manuscript just a bit. That said, it is definitely a unique way at looking at the crew. Like several writers working on Star Trek tie-ins, most notably Diane Duane, you can see Bonanno sketching out her own strand of Star Trek continuity, her own version of the show’s universe.

In fact, Music of the Spheres reads almost like a direct sequel to her début novel, Dwellers in the Crucible. Not only is Sulu’s flirtation with espionage a major plot point, the story also features the two heroines of that novel. In the draft in circulation, the pair are key players, but very clearly not the focus of the story. It’s hard to imagine how their presence – which doesn’t usurp any story roles from the regular cast – could have been considered provocative. (In fact, it seems to exist solely because there were gaps in the story where Bonanno could put them, and it served to assure any readers returning from Dwellers in the Crucible that the story had a happy ending.)

There are several scattered in-jokes and references throughout the manuscript, including name-dropping editor and writer Kevin J. Ryan as a diplomatic aide at one point. At another, she inserts a rather blunt jab at Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. (“As soon as we get her shipshape and home, Jim Kirk thought, I’m going to go climb a rock!” It seems like a reference to the somewhat gratuitous “William Shatner likes to climb rocks so they’ll be in this movie” subplot.)

These aren’t particularly distracting, but they do make the novel seem a little bit subversive, as if toying with the However, somewhat more astutely, and somewhat more pointedly, one could read the climax of the novel as a condemnation of a particularly close-minded attitude towards tie-in fiction. Discovering that the probe’s home has become a wasteland, the Enterprise crew are shocked. There were any number of worlds nearby that could have offered support and aid to the dying planets.

However, the inhabitants of the planets refused to acknowledge anything that did not conform to their narrow-minded perception of what “life” is:

“A simple distress call to any humanoid world could have saved them,” he said when Spock had finished. “There are spacefaring civilizations all through this sector, some of them millennia old. Even the Tholians have had spaceflight for five centuries, and they’ve been known to provide assistance when it’s in their interest. At the very time the last of Earth’s humpback stopped singing, the last of these people were dying. They didn’t need to send the Probe at all. Intellectual snobbery killed them as much as the change of climate.”

It reads as a valid criticism of Richard Arnold’s attitude towards Star Trek tie-ins, as most obviously demonstrated by his whole “none of these writers except Diane Duane (on a technicality, mind you!) have actually written Star Trek!” spiel.

Arnold’s argument relies on a very close-minded interpretation of what Star Trek is and what it can be. Indeed, in has capacity as Roddenberry’s assistant, his vision for the tie-ins demonstrated his narrow conception of Star Trek. To Richard Arnold, it seemed like the highest for of Star Trek tie-in fiction was the generic run-around, which existed to laud the iconic fictional characters.

It’s a shame, because it often feels like Richard Arnold’s vision of what a Star Trek tie-in should be blinded him to some great Star Trek writing. After all, what is the franchise but the exploration of the human condition? The joy of infinite diversity in infinite combinations? Curiosity about the unknown? Hope for the future? Music of the Spheres contains all of these elements, and is particularly noteworthy because Bonanno seems to have been a little ahead of the curve.

One of the main subplots of Music of the Spheres essentially preempts the glasnost aesthetic of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, only with Romulans instead of Klingons. At one point, the lead characters even overtly mention “perestroika.” At a diplomatic reception, the characters even express some of the same existential insecurity about what a post-Cold War world might hold:

“What if the delicate balance of our two super-powers were suddenly neutralized?” Even Tiam, having gone out and come back in again, could condescend at least to speak to Spock. “Will not a hundred lesser powers, more fanatical and less clear in their motivation, rush to fill the vacuum? What if—?”

Although much less pronounced, there are hints of Kirk having a similar character arc – unclouded by the death of his son. Over the course of the novel, Kirk comes to see the Romulans as more than just enemies. As Riley articulates:

“What motivates a Romulan, Hikaru? Beyond the ideological impasse, I mean, and the obvious grab for territory? And why do I get the feeling that Centurion Tiam is at this very moment asking himself the same questions about us? Because if you look at the situation from their side of the Zone, it’s only a mirror-image of what we seem to be doing on our side. What do they yearn for? What do they dream about? What kind of heaven do they go to when they die? What are the things that wake them in a cold sweat in the middle of the night?”

“Nothing so very different from what affects us the same way, I imagine,” Sulu says, unable to tell Riley that he knows this for a fact; he’s been there.

Indeed, one of the consistent themes of Bonanno’s work has been how uniquely alien the universe is – how life and other cultures don’t always conform to our own expectations of them. Learning to make peace, then, is vitally important – realising that there is always common ground, often in the most simple of places, is an optimistic idea worthy of Star Trek.

However different we might be, Bonanno seems to suggest, we are not so different. Torturing Riley, forcing him to relive memories of an atrocity, Tiam notes that his research suggests common themes:

“Touching, is it not?” Tiam asked a stone-faced guard, watching from the corridor. “Did you know that of seventy-five intelligent species studied in this manner, eight out of ten adult males invariably cry out for their mothers? Curious.” Tiam turned away, bored with the experiment already. “Then again, so will a thrai-cub under similar circumstances. It proves nothing.”

On the contrary. To a being with any developed sense of empathy, it proves everything.

Bonanno goes on to explore this by following Riley’s traumatic flashback with an account of starvation and suffering on the Firstworld and Secondworld. She occasionally labours the point a bit too much (I could do without the revelation that a Romulan mass murder took place at somewhere named “Da’kkow” or the overt homage to the Romulan Commander’s last words in Balance of Terror), but it fits rather beautifully with the themes of the franchise, a powerful expression of the idea that even beings radically different from one another must be able to find some measure of common ground.

Somewhat ironically, the Probe ends up being the way of tying this all together, as Bonanno makes it seem like the Probe was only inserted into her treatment at the behest of her editor, trying to cash in on the success of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home:

However, none of my outlines sparked Rockstar’s interest. He suggested I write about what happened to the Probe after it left Earth in STIV, trace it back to its planet of origin, and describe who had created it. Neither of us said the word “sequel.” We both knew the Gospel According to Trelane, which saith: “Only what you see onscreen is ‘real’ Star Trek. The novels are not ‘real.’ Therefore no novel can be a sequel to a film. And no novel can be a sequel to another novel. Thou shalt not write sequels.”

Okay, I said, I’ll write about the Probe. But can I wrap that story line around a Romulan story, in which Kirk and the Enterprise are assigned to meet with a Romulan ship in the Neutral Zone and begin diplomatic relations (a theme that would be explored vis-à-vis the Klingons in The Undiscovered Country a few years later)?

The use of music as a way to bring all these separate strands and ideas together is quite ingenious. (Not to mention – in a prose novel – ambitious.) Bonanno’s style has always been somewhat lyrical, prone to develop more along thematic lines than in a rigid or structured narrative progression. That’s not a criticism, by the way – in her strongest work, the flow of ideas and segues are part of the fun. Making music a key theme of the book makes her style feel like a shrewd choice, playing to her strengths. There is no writer who could have made this concept work in the same way that Bonanno does here.

At its best, Music of the Spheres is transcendental. It’s bold and it’s clever and it’s “out there”, but those are all virtues. It’s something markedly unlike any other Star Trek, while hitting on a lot of the key themes – and that alone should be worth celebrating. As a eulogy for the adventurous spirit of Star Trek prose in the eighties, it’s downright moving. It’s a novel that never really settles for easy or conventional plot beats, or tried and tested devices. It’s something fresh.

There’s an argument that the musical theme is overwhelming or absurd. A particularly cynical individual might use the word “pretentious.” Bonanno seems to concede that possibility. She even has Kirk remark on the abundance of music in the story. “He hated puns when they came unbidden, and musical metaphors had been flying thick and fast since last night’s sendoff reception.” However, I think that Music of the Spheres has enough big ideas and enough wit to pull it off.

It’s a massive shame that Music of the Spheres was never published as intended. Then again, it’s mythic status seems fitting – it read well as the hurrah of the free-spirited novels of the eighties, and its transformation into Probe serves as an effective demonstration of the force operating behind the scenes.

Music of the Spheres is available by contacting Ms. Bonanno via her website. I wholeheartedly recommend it for Star Trek fans willing to be a little experimental in their tie-in materials. It’s very thoughtful and “fun” Star Trek stuff.

Check out our reviews of the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast:

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4 Responses

  1. Another very nice review. I will give certainly give her novel a try after reading this. The background information is really interesting.

  2. Just read this. Shocked to see I responded. Do not remember this reading this review before at all.

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