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Star Trek – The Wounded Sky by Diane Duane (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry. This is actually supplementary to the first season of the Next Generation, specifically the episode Where No One Has Gone Before.

Diane Duane remains one of the most influential Star Trek tie-in writers ever to work on the franchise. She has been involved in publishing tie-in books pretty consistently since the early days of the publishing line. The Wounded Sky, her first tie-in novel, was lucky number thirteen in the “Pocket TOS” range, published in 1983. Her most recent tie-in novel, The Empty Chair, was published in 2006. As well as a distinguished career outside of Star Trek, she has written novels and comics for the franchise. She even has a television credit, for her work on the teleplay for Where No One Has Gone Before.

There’s a reason that Duane’s contributions to Star Trek fiction are held in such a high regard, and those reasons are quite clear on reading The Wounded Sky. It’s a beautiful and thoughtful piece of prose set within the Star Trek universe, one more concerned with continuing and advancing the spirit of exploration established in the television show than meddling in continuity minutiae or offering generic adventures starring James Tiberius Kirk.

It’s a whole-hearted recommendation for any fan of the original series.


Notably, The Wounded Sky has the distinction of being one of the very few tie-in stories ever adapted for the franchise. Well, “adapted” is a bit of a strong word, but it was definitely an influence, reading the book and watching the episode. It was so much of an influence that writer Michael Reeves invited Duane to help develop his idea with him. He confessed that he could not be entirely certain that the idea he was developing was entirely his own.

So The Wounded Sky has the distinction of being one of the relatively few tie-in novels to have a major impact on the on-screen tie-in universe, a demonstration that some of the writers working in the gap between the original television show and Star Trek: The Next Generation could have an influence on the shape of the franchise. I’d argue that you can see some influence of Duane’s My Enemy, My Ally on The Defector, and Ronald D. Moore has conceded that The Final Reflection was a major influence on Sins of the Father.

Of course, the idea didn’t make the smoothest transition to the screen. Duane has been quite generous in sharing her work, so you can see how the details changed between even the second draft premise and the subsequent outline. The changes were even more pronounced in the version that finally made it to screen, early in the first season of The Next Generation. Apparently -as with so much in Star Trek at the time – office politics played a major role:

At any rate, we turned in the first-draft script and waited a couple of weeks for the notes — heard nothing, called the TNG office, and discovered that we had been “cut off” at first draft, and the script given to someone else for rewrite. This happens sometimes in TV, but rarely when everybody in the office is so enthusiastic about the story in its earlier stages.

We were unclear about the reasons for this particular cutoff for a long, long time — nearly ten years. The excuse originally given us was “time considerations” — meaning that the production office was under enough time pressure that it was felt easier and quicker to fix the script in-house rather than giving it back to us. But ten years later we found out that this hadn’t really been the issue: instead, we’d unwittingly become caught up in interoffice politics. One member of production staff got up another one’s nose, and as a result was chucked out — and (though they weren’t told what was going on) so were all the writers associated with that production staffer. Our script was then handed to another person for rewrite (and it became a source of considerable amusement to us when it turned out that a script which took us two weeks to write, took the replacement “writer” six weeks to rewrite…and the job he did was considered to be so slow and poor that it was later cited as a reason that he should be fired.)

That seems a little harsh. While Where No One Has Gone Before has some very serious flaws, it’s still significantly stronger than most of the rest of the first half of the first season of The Next Generation. Of course, it doesn’t compare too well to The Wounded Sky. And I would be quite miffed if this was the best a writer could do with six weeks. (Especially when scripts like Yesterday’s Enterprise were apparently produced on a much tighter schedule.)

However, Where No One Has Gone Before remains a part of the legacy of The Wounded Sky, a somewhat tepid adaptation of the novel which still soars ahead of many of the contemporary episodes due to the strength of its core ideas. Watching the episode, it feels diluted and over-simplified, maybe even condescending and patronising. The Wounded Sky is one of the most ambitious Star Trek stories told in any medium, and something that every fan should read before they consider their education in Star Trek complete.

Duane has a wonderful gift for prose, but also a fascinating ability to extrapolate and develop upon ideas established in the television show. One of the hallmarks of a great tie-in writer, it’s often quite difficult to tell where the show’s concepts end and Duane’s ideas begin. She extends and extrapolates in a manner which seems both logical and ingenious. Most obviously, her Rihannsu novels build off the Romulan Empire as established in Balance of Terror and The Enterprise Incident. The Wounded Sky is more tightly focused on the crew of the Enterprise, but that doesn’t mean Duane’s imagination is confined.

I tend to like it when tie-in novels offer explorations of concepts too geeky for the television show. We’re talking about Star Trek, so “too geeky” is a relative term, but consider Duane’s beautiful prose discussion of what warp drive might actually be, beyond simply “that plot device what gets them where they need to be for the plot to continue”::

The problem with waiting around in space to see a starship go by is that, when a ship is in warp drive, she’s hardly there at all. The otherspace in which the warp field embeds her is just that-other; a neighboring alternate universe in which natural laws are different, and light moves many thousands of times faster than in the universe to which the six hundred eighty-three species of humanity are native. A starship in warp carries a shell of that otherspace with her, so that within it she moves at many multiples of lightspeed through the analogue universe, without really being in our universe at all, or running up against its intractably low speed of light. Within the ship, of course, sensors are calibrated to edit out the slight strangeness of the other-universal starlight, that all the humanities find so unsettling. Outside the ship, all there is to be seen of her passing is a tremor of starlight as space itself is shaken, wrinkles, and slowly smooths out again. At the heart of the shimmer, there might be the faintest, palest ghost of light, not even an image. An impression, a hint, maybe an illusion.

Duane seems to grasp the implications of “faster than the speed of light” in a way that the show never really probed. We are, after all, dealing with a pulpy science-fiction series where it’s possible to fire phasers (effectively lasers) while travelling at several magnitudes the speed of light. Sure, the tech guides might go out of their way to explain it, but there’s really little justification needed beyond “it looks cool.”

That’s not snark, by the way. I’m a major proponent of the idea that Star Trek needs less technobabble and I acknowledge that “firing really cool laser beams at fast speeds” makes for pretty compelling drama. It’s something that just looks cool, and I don’t need to think too hard about in order to accept. After all, these are ships travelling several times the speed of light meeting all manner of suspiciously human aliens, so it’s hard to get too strung up on the idea of scientific accuracy.

However, I’ve always liked the idea that tie-in books were the ideal place for this sort of high-concept geekery. After all, buying a book with Kirk and Spock on the cover automatically suggests that you’re thinking way too hard about this whole Star Trek thing, so I don’t mind books devoted to fleshing out the elements of the shared universe. I’ve a soft spot for authors trying to explore elements of the show that were probably added for convenience or cost. So it’s fun to watch James Blish debate the metaphysics of transporters in Spock Must Die! and to see John Ford flesh out the Klingon culture in The Final Reflection.

And I like the thought that Duane puts into space travel here, in particular the relationship between space and time:

Three hundred and a few years from now, two sentient peoples formed up for battle will be watching the skies for the comet which has since time immemorial been the gods’ signal to them to begin killing one another. Instead of the comet-banner blazing across their sky, however, what they will get is a dazzling rain of stars. Tremendously relieved, they will rejoice at the long-prayed-for sign of an armistice in Heaven, go back to their homes, and beat their swords into plowshares.

Duane wisely avoids getting too hung up on the pseudo-science of these Star Trek physics, and it’s a shrewd move. Instead, she focuses on the implications of the core ideas. The Wounded Sky hinges around what one supporting character describes as “creative physics”, which feels like it could have easily come from behind the show’s scenes.

Duane concedes that Star Trek isn’t really hard science fiction. The technology is – at best – so highly improbably that it might as well be jargon. While the cast can rhyme off technobabble, is it really any more convincing than the pseudo-latin that Harry Potter uses? Duane has the book’s primary guest character argue that the show (and the technology within it) is driven by a science that might as well be magic:

“So it may. But I canna rest till I understand at least the equations.” Scotty shook his head again, looking utterly perplexed. “I don’t see how you derived this beastie from them. Or even what they do! They don’t seem to do anything-”

“They don’t,” K’t’lk said, warming to her subject. “They merely name the circumstances you wish to invoke. And the circumstances happen. That’s ‘creative physics.’”

“Magic, that’s what it sounds like,” Scotty said, a touch sourly.

“So it does. Why are you so surprised? One of your own people independently codified the Third Law of Ordinance some time back; Clerk, I think his name was. Or Clark. ‘Any science sufficiently advanced will be indistinguishable from magic.’ Which leads directly to TLaea’s Corollary-”

It feels like the inverse of Clark’s Law is true here. Any sufficiently ridiculous science is indistinguishable from magic.

Duane takes advantage of her medium to craft her story. She has more space to delve into her ideas than she would if the show were faithfully adapted for television. Imagining the first season cast of The Next Generation trying to deal with the “creative physics” here is to invite madness. However, with room to develop and expand her observations, the theory becomes a lot more compelling and convincing.

Throughout her time writing Star Trek tie-ins, Duane took advantage of the nature of the medium. Prose is not confined by budget, so Duane was free to imagine species which did not look like people in make-up. With the time to develop them, there’s also room to add supporting crew members with entirely different ways of living on the Enterprise. Many of these characters would recur throughout Duane’s time writing Star Trek, lending her tie-ins a charming sense of internal consistency.

(It is absurd, then, that people like Richard Arnold and Gene Roddenberry should take such offence to Duane’s attempts to expand or flesh out the Star Trek universe. Writing a novel is inherently different from writing a television show, and it feels counter-productive to constrain the tie-in writers so rigidly that they can’t take advantage of the expansive format they are writing. We will never see a Horta bridge officer on the show, so it seems perfect to incorporate one into Duane’s novels. We can only probe so deeply into alien cultures on the show, so it makes sense to expand and develop them in the tie-ins.)

However, this somewhat expansive approach to the Star Trek mythos isn’t what sets The Wounded Sky apart. The ambitious creative physics or contemplations on the implications of warp are just appealing window dressing. The clever use of these high concepts to flesh out the back stories and histories of supporting characters like Chekov and Uhura is just icing on the metaphorical cake. The real appeal of The Wounded Sky is the way that it elevates Kirk and the Enterprise to myth in the grandest possible sense.

Indeed, at one point, Spock even cites ancient myth as empirical evidence of how difficult their task will be. “In neither the Vulcan mythologies nor the Terran ones do mortals walk the realms of the gods without reason. There is always a task to be performed – one to which gods are unequal, and for which mortals must therefore be enlisted. So we must be ready.” The Enterprise may as well be warping towards Olympus.

Although The Wounded Sky is cited as a major influence on Where No Man Has Gone Before, you can also feel the story echoing through another contemporaneous Star Trek production. In a nutshell, The Wounded Sky reads almost like a better and more ambitious version of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. The similarities in the basic plot are striking. Kirk journeys to confront an omnipotent being. Along the way, the crew experience visceral flashbacks and recall. There’s even a bitter Klingon confrontation quite secondary to the main plot.

Indeed, the book is quite clear about the foe facing the Enterprise:

“You identified part of the situation yourself on the way to this place,” Spock said. “‘To the side of the angels,’ you said. The Doctor identified it more specifically, when the Others named their name. And now all the requisites are here, Captain. Timelessness, being without physicality, potential plurality in oneness, existence without creation and from all time – we have in fact found God. Not one that any of our humanities would recognize as its own God, however. Nor is this some extremely powerful being formerly mistaken for deity, like others the Enterprise has met. This – or these, I should say – are a protoGod.”

However, Duane notably doesn’t have Kirk kill this new god or anything as melodramatic. Instead, she treats this as – appropriately enough – the very final frontier. Kirk isn’t just establishing contact with “new lifeforms and civilisations”, he’s making contact with the divine. First contact with god. That’s a breathtaking idea, a bold concept which feels much more creative than the climax to The Final Frontier.

That’s the beauty of The Wounded Sky, in a nutshell. It realises that the Enterprise’s mission of exploration is more than mapping star clusters and threatening Klingons. It’s the pursuit of knowledge, and something which just keeps pushing outwards – not merely through space, but beyond. Duane seems to optimistically suggest that Enterprise seeks to continue its mission beyond even space and time, to the point where even “the universe” cannot be an absolute measure of our capacity for exploration.

“That’s just the universe,” she’d said offhandedly, looking back out at the night. “It’s just bigness, a physical symbol for another kind of magnitude, that’s all. It’s worth praising for its magnificence, certainly. But being awed by that without also thinking of what’s-beyond it-would be like… I don’t know. Like praising a wonderful menu and then not eating the meal it was about.”

It’s just absolutely beautiful, and the perfect distillation of the Star Trek concepts.

There are a few very minor hiccups. I’m not entirely sure that Duane writes a convincing Kirk. The opening chapter has Kirk shouting in delight upon receiving good news. It seems a little out of character, even given Shatner’s capacity for sheer unadulterated ham. That said, there a few nice touches which indicate she certainly has the broad strokes.

I love his contempt for bureaucracy. When he considers returning home to consult with Starfleet about the crisis, he muses, “They’ll treat the results of the drive the same way they did the drive itself. They’ll give it to a committee. The Universe’ll have been eaten by anentropia before they even manage to pick who the committee chairman will be.” That’s a nice bit of James T. Kirk self-justification, if ever I read any.

I also like that Duane finds room to mention The City on the Edge of Forever, if only in passing. Due to the constraints of sixties television, the series could never quite deal with the consequences of Kirk’s massive sacrifice, but the tie-ins have generally done a nice job acknowledging just what Kirk gave up in order to save the time line. Duane seems to be channelling Ellison’s original draft as she observes, “Once when he was younger, he had seriously considered sacrificing a whole universe-to-be for the love of another human being. He wasn’t that person any more.”

The Wounded Sky is a beautiful piece of Star Trek, that rare tie-in novel which deserves mention with some of the very best of the fiction produced over the franchise’s nearly fifty-year history.

Read our reviews of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

7 Responses

  1. Great review. Haven’t read this in about 20 years but parts of it are still resonate today.Even though her Romulan books are more well known this is Duane’s magnum opus. Speaking of Clarke,it has a type of Arthur C. Clarke like feel of science/metaphysical wonder to it.

    The only small complaint about your review is that you spent too much time discussing the tv episode which is only loosely related it. Still this is a very good review of a great book.

    • Fair point, Zeno. That said, I am sort of trying to connect some of the books and comics and stuff back to the context of the television show. It does do a bit of a disservice to Duane’s book – which is phenomenal – but I think it’s an interesting way to approach the topic.

  2. I tried to post a link to your review on tor.com but they keep flagging it as spam for some reason. On a related topic,have you read The Romulan Way yet?

    • Thanks Zeno. That tor.com thing is a bit weird. I have read the Romulan Way. I’ll be looking at it for The Enemy, I think. I really liked it, although more for the fictional history bits than the story with McCoy.

      • Yes,I liked the parts on the Romulan history better than the Dr Mccoy story also. There was a interview where Duane said she wrote the history parts and the Mccoy story was written by her husband,Peter. There was a story where Roddenberry accused them of adapting that novel from another book they planned to write. That accusation does not make sense given how Romulan history makes up this story. Unless this history was planned for her own series. But I doubt that very much. The Roman motif may not be used but the history and other story fit really well with the Star Trek world. You should cover that in your post.

      • I was aware of the problems Roddenberry had with Diana Duane’s Rihannsu novels, which were a lot of Roddenberry’s credit-related temper tantrums. The guy did a lot of great stuff, but one of his many faults was the speed at which he was willing to toss collaborators under the bus. Gene L. Coon is just as important to Star Trek as Roddenberry was, much like Bill Finger was to Batman, but he’s often overlooked because he won’t share credit. Roddenberry’s credit exist on all the television shows, I don’t understand why he couldn’t be more gracious about the contributions of others.

        That said, I didn’t know that Roddenberry accused Duane of plagiarism. I’ll have to dig a little deeper into that, but it’s fascinating.

      • Another thing,about this novel is it does not have as much ‘Mccoy being more brilliant than everyone’ that her later books have. Spock’s World also has this. Have you read that? That is maybe the only one of her book I found overrated. Maybe our ideas on Vulcans just do not mesh.

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