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Star Trek – Dwellers in the Crucible 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.

The state of Star Trek tie-ins in 1985 was radically different than it is today. While the film series was at height of its popularity, generating a great deal of attention for the franchise, authors working on the associated tie-in novels were granted a great deal of freedom. Books from this era tend to be a great deal looser, adapting a sort of “devil may care” attitude towards the type of restrictions one might impose on a Star Trek story. Novels could be dedicated to new characters or to existing aliens, or offer radical twists on the show’s rich mythology. It was almost free-style Star Trek, with authors afforded the freedom to tell the stories that they wanted to tell, no matter how difficult it might be to fit that within the confines of “Star Trek.”

Dwellers in the Crucible captures a lot of the spirit of this era quite well. It’s Margaret Wander Bonanno’s first Star Trek tie-in book, but it’s also her strangest. It’s a rather high-concept piece of trashy “women in prison” fiction that dares to ask a question that nobody in their right mind had ever broached before: what if Kirk and Spock were lesbians?


Dwellers in the Crucible is not a great book. I’m not even sure it’s a good one. Bonanno is one of the best Star Trek writers of her generation, and it’s always fascinating to see her work. Dwellers in the Crucible is arguably far more interesting than it is engaging, far more intriguing than successful. There’s a desire to keep reading, if only to see just how far Bonanno will pursue the story’s logic, just how far she can write a story that is decidedly outside the bounds of what we expect from Star Trek.

It should be noted, by the way, that I am a big fan of testing the limitations of Star Trek as a genre. After all, the original television show was just as playful at experimenting with what Star Trek could be. Ten episodes into the first season, people would have laughed at the idea that Star Trek could do a court room episode. Then Court Martial showed up and demonstrated that the concept of Star Trek was surprisingly elastic. The show’s first season saw the writers and producers experimenting with form and genre with a reckless and catchy enthusiasm.

After all, Star Trek is inherently elastic. It can be anything that it wants to be at a given moment in time. It can do drama, comedy, allegory, espionage, romance… It won’t always do them well, but the show has always thrived from a willingness to broaden its horizons. Indeed, the biggest problem with the Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise era was the notion that Star Trek could really only be one thing – a photocopy of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Even JJ Abrams’ Star Trek films push the franchise in a bold new direction – “Star Trek as blockbuster.”

So I’m fascinated by Dwellers in the Crucible, because it’s essentially an attempt to do a “women in bondage” story using the structure and the plot devices of a Star Trek show. It’s not too difficult to imagine a more lurid version of the fan-fiction-esque “hurt/comfort” overtones, packaged in a more suggestive paperback cover. Bonano’s novel is interesting as an exploration of just how far you can take Star Trek tie-in fiction before it stops being Star Trek tie-in fiction.

The novels from this era have a wonderful sense of freedom. The results weren’t always golden, but you’d occasionally end up with a masterpiece like The Final Reflection or My Enemy, My Ally. While the big-screen Star Trek adventures offered something for the masses, the tie-in materials were generally a bit more adventurous and esoterical. John M. Ford would write a Star Trek musical in the form of How Much for Just the Planet?

This could not last, of course. Gene Roddenberry’s right-hand-man Richard Arnold would go on to impose draconian restrictions on authors working with Star Trek in other media. This push came later in the eighties, perhaps mindful of the broadening of the Star Trek brand with plans underway for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Arnold took to his “defense” of the brand with relish, alienating several authors who would make meaning contributions to the franchise both before and after his time vetting manuscripts.

At the height of his editorial meddling, Arnold would take exception to Diane Duane’s Romulan Way novels, force Peter David to quite the Star Trek tie-in comic and even heavily “revise” Bonanno’s follow-up novel Music of the Spheres. It has been suggested that one of the several reasons for the latter was the fact that Bonanno used the two main characters from Dwellers in the Crucible, which fits with the idea that Arnold restricted Diane Duane’s use of her own supporting cast in Doctor’s Orders.

So Dwellers in the Crucible feels like the last true gasp of the pre-Arnold era, when writers were allowed pretty much absolute freedom to write whatever they wanted, unbehooven to creative restrictions imposed to protect the brand. Indeed, Bonanno’s work here proves an interesting examination of just how loose the “continuity” of the novel-verse was. A far cry from the heavy overlapping continuity of the current post-Star Trek: Nemesis novel-verse, it often seems like each writer is operating in their own little world, free to take and leave the work of other writers (and arguably the continuity of the show) as they see fit.

Bonanno all but acknowledges this. She thanks both Diane Duane and John M. Ford for their contributions to developing Romulan and Klingon culture respectively. She borrows quite a few concepts from both authors, but it’s very clear that she’s not tying herself to a reconcilable continuity. These might be the same Romulans and Klingons, but this isn’t the same story. It is, for example, very difficult to reconcile the fate of the Romulan Commander from The Enterprise Incident as presented in My Enemy, My Ally with the version suggested here.

Similarly, Bonanno doesn’t seem too anchored to the established continuity of on-screen Star Trek either. It’s hard to believe, for example, that any version of the Federation presented on screen – even the cynical deconstruction often offered on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – would feel the need to use “Warrantors of Peace” to hold the alliance together. A cynical might well question if the policy of the Warrantors doesn’t undermine the whole purpose of the Federation.

“At least the abductors might reason that our diversity of cultures would lead us to destroy each other from within,” we’re told of the sinister Romulan and Klingon plot to collapse the Federation by abducting a small group of people. To be fair to Bonanno, there’s very little indication that the plot has any real chance of succeeding – so maybe it’s not as cynical as it might seem. (That said, it does make the kidnap and torture seem especially mean-spirited – given it’s basically the result of a half-assed poorly-thought-out villainous plan.)

This is very clearly Bonanno’s own slightly askew version of Star Trek, which makes it all the more interesting. After all, it seemed like the show couldn’t settle on its own continuity for much of its first year, with Kirk’s employer often changing from episode to episode, the history of Spock’s planet subject to the whims of writers and even the era of the show open to interpretation and modification if the situation calls for it. Attempts to impose a single over-arching continuity over Star Trek often feel a little pointless, as with any pop culture franchise that has been around that long.

And Dwellers in the Crucible is the kind of book that we’ll never see published again. It’s delightfully off-the-wall. It reads almost like a fan fiction idea printed with a suitably lurid cover from  Boris Vallejo, just in case the reader missed the none-too-subtle “Cleante and T’Shael are Kirk and Spock” subtext. It should be noted that’s not inherently a bad thing. We use the phrase fan fiction in a pejorative sense, and there’s good reason. There’s a lot of it out there, and a lot of it is just terrible. (Indeed, a significant portion of it is infamously so.)

However, it’s worth noting that Star Trek invented fan fiction, as a way of keeping the show alive in the wilderness years. Quite a few writers who were published during the eighties started out in fan fiction circles. Arguably the most noteworthy is Della Van Hise, whose Killing Time – published the same year as Dwellers in the Crucible was the source of a minor controversy when an early draft was printed by mistake. The “Kirk/Spock” overtones are arguably even heavier there than they are here.

More recently, author Una McCormack writes both published Star Trek novels and on-line fan fiction. She argues there’s only one practical distinction between the two, stating, “I make no distinction between my offline and my online writing other than that one results in an improvement in my bank balance, and the other in absolutely no way does.” Fan fiction itself has become more and more of a focus for the study of “cult” media, and it’s a lot less taboo than it once was. So I mean no inherent insult when I suggest that Bonanno’s Dwellers in the Crucible feels a lot like fan fiction.

It is, after all, a love story about two female stand-ins for Kirk and Spock. The comparisons are hammered home repeatedly. Cleante, like Kirk, appreciates the company of the opposite gender. She’s reckless and headstrong and emotional. T’Shael is a Vulcan dealing with difficulty controlling her emotions. Although she’s not half-human, one of her parents is an artist (like Spock’s mother Amanda) who apparently spent too much time with “off-worlders.”

T’Shael even carries a genetic marker that is the subject of much shame, inherited from her overly emotional parent. She’s more explicitly a stand-in for Spock, with Bonanno making her a literal stand-in. She is serving as a Warrantor in the place of Spock, representing Ambassador Sarek. It’s hard to avoid the obvious comparison. In case the reader is still oblivious, Bonanno has McCoy explicitly state so towards the end of the novel:

“Oh, come on, Jim! You’ve seen it as well as I have, and so has Spock. These two are forged together for life. They’re almost a mirror image of you and Spock, both of them falling all over themselves with self-sacrifice. There’s an old phrase in Latin —amicus usque ad aras. ‘A friend in spite of all differences; a friend to the last extremity.’ There’s even a Vulcan word for it, isn’t there, Spock?”

Quite pointedly, the Vulcan word that Spock uses is “t’hy’la”, which was introduced by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry in his novelisation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. As close to an explicit acknowledgement of the “slash” subgenre as the creator was ever likely to bestow, was a word used to define the bond between Kirk and Spock.

Interviewed for Shatner: Where No Man…, Roddenberry was quite open about the connotations of the term:

Yes, there’s certainly some of that – certainly with love overtones. Deep love. The only difference being, the Greek ideal – we never suggested in the series – physical love between the two. But it’s the – we certainly had the feeling that the affection was sufficient for that, if that were the particular style of the 23rd century.

There’s enough room for equivocation and ambiguity there, but Dwellers in the Crucible often reads like a strange “women behind bars” twist on the fan fiction fascination with Kirk and Spock as a romantic couple, complete with an abundance of “hurt/comfort” undertones thanks to the involvement of some suitably sadistic Klingons.

It’s no coincidence that the organ that villains would have to harvest from the Warrantors is the heart. Traditionally, we’re informed, the Warrantors carry the codes for weapons of mass destruction in their heart. However, the consequences of mishandling a Warrantor are grave and thematically-relevant. We’re told, “The Warrantor’s heart is literally destroyed, exploded from within.”

Similarly, it’s telling that the only other Federation members to spend extended time in captivity are the Deltans, the sensuous species introduced in The Motion Picture. Roddenberry was, unsurprisingly, so taken with the idea of sensual aliens that he’d try (even more awkwardly) to use the premise with the Betazoids in The Next Generation. There’s no Tellarite kidnapped here. The Andorian dies in the first few pages. Only the Deltans, a species defined by intimacy, survived into the middle of the book. “Nothing so terrified one of this species as the fear of losing physical proximity to the others,” we’re told, making them suitable companions for Cleante and T’Shael.

Given all this, it’s interesting that Bonanno’s published book is so coy on the topic. Star Trek was very much behind the curve when it came to the portrayal of homosexuality – one of the areas where the franchise never quite embraced the diversity it claimed to champion. Bonanno’s book stops short of confirming the nature of the attraction between its two lead characters. (That said, the fact that they consider raising a child together is pretty compelling.)

Bonanno’s writing here isn’t as confident as it would become in her later work. There’s a fuzzy, blurry style here – particularly when it comes to integrating flashbacks into the narrative. There’s also an overly-contrived feeling to the narrative, and a rather bleak atmosphere hanging over the book. While Dwellers in the Crucible is definitely an interesting read, it’s a disjointed and often depressing piece of prose. There is a point where grimly torturing two characters starts to feel sadistic.

Still, there’s a lot of interest here, particularly for those interested in a bit of pop culture archeology. There are some interesting insights into Vulcan culture here, many of which would arguably play into the development and the portrayal of Vulcans on Star Trek: Enterprise. Bonanno grasps the strange dichotomy of a race which claims to be entirely logical, but is still steeped in ritual, tradition and pride. After all, Cleante points out the system of betrothal is relatively “primitive”, and certainly not logical. Even the practice of Warranting is an unnecessary hold-over from Vulcan’s past.

Dwellers in the Crucible is hardly a great piece of Star Trek literature. However, there’s something almost endearingly free-form and experimental about it. It’s exactly the kind of experiment that would never have been allowed during the height of Richard Arnold’s tenure, and one that would have trouble getting published today. It’s a fascinating piece of Star Trek literature, even if it’s not Bonanno’s best work. It’s an example of the incredible flexibility of the Star Trek framework.

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

2 Responses

  1. Very interesting review. This is one book that I was unsure of trying. It is still actually. It seems it would be interesting for the information on Vulcans. Bonanno’s other two books are decent. Burning Dreams is really good. Is her book on Saavik any good?

    To be fair it seems that the restrictions on Trek fiction are much more lenient than they were in the early 90s. One writer claimed that they are less restrictive than they were in the mid 80s. Having read very few of the recent novels,perhaps you would know better about this.

    • Hi!

      Burning Dreams is the best of Bonanno’s work I have read, although I have yet to read Catalyst of Sorrows. Dwellers in the Crucible is probably the weakest, while still being interesting. The Saavik one is quite good – particularly if you’d like to imagine what Saavik was doing between Star Trek IV and Star Trek VI. (Like Burning Dreams, it reads almost like a criticism of some of the creative decisions made about the character, but it suffers a bit because Saavik is – oddly enough – a much less “open” character than Pike. Bonanno is anchored to a lot of other stuff concerning her.)

      With regards to the modern stuff, I haven’t read too much of the relaunches. I would consider A Stitch in Time and The Never-Ending Sacrifice to be two of the best Star Trek tie-ins I have ever read, even if not anchored to any particular on-going story. Truth be told, I’m wary about creating a “season eight” of the various Trek series, as I’d rather just see the writers goofing around on their own minutiae rather than tying in to on-going arcs. That said, I have yet to read too much beyond the DS9 relaunch, so take that with a grain of salt. I do look forward to reading the Destiny trilogy though, probably as part of a Voyager rewatch at some point in the future.

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