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Star Trek – The Romulan Way by Diane Duane and Peter Morwood (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.

The Romulan Way is the second book in Diane Duane’s “Rihannsu” cycle – although the first book in the series, My Enemy, My Ally was only retroactively distinguished from standard Star Trek tie-ins. Much like My Enemy, My Ally had been roughly contemporaneous with John M. Ford’s The Final Reflection, Duane’s follow-up was published around the same time as Ford’s own sequel to his earlier work, How Much for Just the Planet? Expanding on My Enemy, My Ally, The Romulan Way sees Duane delving more thoroughly into Romulan history and culture.

The Romulan Way was published amid a sea of change at Paramount and Pocket Books in the late eighties, with shifting mandates and objectives for these tie-in books that represented a conscious effort to hem in some of the more creative tendencies of mid-eighties Star Trek novelist. To demonstrate how rapidly things were changing, both The Romulan Way and How Much for Just the Planet? were both published within three years of their predecessors. After this point, it would take Duane another thirteen years to write the third volume in her saga, and John M. Ford would never write another Star Trek tie-in again.

It’s very hard to condone any publishing philosophy that leads to results like that.

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To be fair, there was a context for all of this. During the early-to-mid-eighties, Star Trek existed primarily as a series of feature films that were released once every couple of years. There really was no consistent delivery method of Star Trek on television. As a result, the writers working on various tie-in materials had a lot more freedom to do what they wanted, never really forced to tow the line with the once-every-few-years feature film version of the franchise.

This was particularly evident with the Star Trek comic books published at DC comics, where the writers would be forced to tell an on-going story in the middle of the closely-linked cinematic trilogy of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan through to Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. With the movies essentially structured as one tightly-constructed story with minimal room between each, the comics had to improvise.

So the contemporaneous DC Comics series wound up featuring Kirk commanding the Excelsior after the destruction of the Enterprise, or putting Spock out-of-the-way in charge of a Vulcan science ship and otherwise contorting and bending in absurd ways to try to fit in with the established “canon” while doing whatever they wanted. These comics feel particularly absurd when read today, but make a lot of sense as a bunch of comic books written by the seat of the publisher’s pants.

However, things began to change in the late eighties. The impetus for this change was obvious, on one level. Star Trek: The Next Generation saw the franchise moving back to mainstream prime time television. It also saw Gene Roddenberry cementing his authority within the franchise. Nicholas Meyer and the studio had really managed to dislodge Roddenberry from the feature film franchise following Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but he relished the opportunity to anchor himself in this new televised production.

Indeed, it’s telling how many of the classic Star Trek talents went to work on The Next Generation instead of the feature film franchise. Although they didn’t stay too long, Roddenberry brought over talent like D.C. Fontana, David Gerrold, Fred Steiner and Robert Justman to work on this new television sequel series. However, for the purposes of exploring the shift in Star Trek tie-ins in the late-eighties, it’s important to note that Roddenberry also secured positions for Richard Arnold and Susan Sackett on staff.

With the high profile of The Next Generation securing his position, Roddenberry was able to leverage more control over the tie-ins set inside his universe. Richard Arnold immediately began cleaning house. The on-going DC Comics Star Trek series was immediately cancelled and wiped away, replaced with a follow-up that would be much more tightly regulated by Arnold and others. (One that didn’t deal in as many original or “non-canon” characters.)

Arnold also went to work on the novels, bringing his own unique editorial sensibilities to bear. Arnold took exception to a number of novels and a number of writers, and Diane Duane and Peter Morwood’s The Romulan Way was a major point of contention to Arnold, who saw the novel as an attack on Gene Roddenberry’s vision:

Gene created “Star Trek” (despite the outrageous untruths currently being spread by certain revisionist authors), and it was insulting to him when Diane and Peter stated in the forward[sic] to The Romulan Way that “… they were never Romulans.”  Gene told Paramount’s Merchandising and Licensing people that he didn’t want the book published, and was told that it was too late.  He asked that they remove the name “Star Trek” from the cover, and was told that it was also too late.  He asked to have Rihannsu changed to Romulan throughout the book, and again was told that it was too late. These memos are in Gene’s home files, and presumably are in Paramount’s files as well.

To be fair, the conflict between Arnold and Duane has the benefit of being one of the more public disagreements over Star Trek tie-ins at the time.As such, there is information available from both sides of the debate, allowing a bit more insight into the issue than might normally be possible.

Arnold was viciously clamping down on the Star Trek novels at the same time, and has had a number of choice comments about how he views the writers of tie-in materials, going to far as to suggest that many of the tie-in writers “had never written Star Trek”:

Novelists are not used to being rewritten. Another  comment that I think is very essential that gets out is that Peter David, and  Margaret Wander Bonanno, and Diane Duane, and everybody else that’s involved  in all of this, have never written for Star Trek. I’ll take that back–Diane  Duane had a story that came from one of her previous novels, that she and  another writer, who was a writer in Hollywood and therefore they were able to  get it in, bought by the show, then rewritten, changed dramatically, which she  bitches about at conventions, and then that became Where No One Has Gone  Before. She’s the only one with a legitimate connection. None of the rest  have ever written for Star Trek. And they, they should not call themselves  Star Trek writers because they’re not. They are writers of fiction based on  Star Trek for licensees, not for Paramount. And, I think I described it best  in a recent letter when I said that Margaret Wander Bonanno–this is because  somebody was writing in because of everything she’s been sending out–I said  that Margaret Wander Bonanno has never written for Star Trek. At best, she  has been a writer for hire for a publishing division, Pocket Books, of a  publishing company, Simon & Schuster, that is owned by a parent corporation,  Paramount Communications, that owns the studio, Paramount Pictures  Incorporated, that makes the series Star Trek. That is as close as she has  ever been. And for her to make such a fuss out of Gene wanting her work to  reflect what he created…is, is scary to me, because it says that her ego has  definitely gotten in the way of her talent. She can write–she just has not  been able to write good Star Trek lately, and this certainly began with  Metamorphosis… not Margaret, but Jean Lorrah. Metamorphosis was the last  straw for Gene. This was when this flurry of disclaimers started, because  these books were all in the works, never approved by Gene–from proposal on it  was no, no, no, no, no–and it was, the war was between Gene and the studio  and the editors at this point. And suddenly, they started to cooperate, both  Pocket Books and Paramount. And finally, we were getting the cooperation that  Gene should have always had. There should never have been anything from the  studio but, because of contractual agreements, “Yes, Gene.” What they got was  “but…but…but,” which doesn’t work, especially when it’s your baby. You  don’t want people mistreating your children. And he sees both of them as his  children. So, they then had to turn it back on the writers and say “well,  you’ve got to cooperate, because these are now the rules.” But the studio  and the editors at Pocket, and at DC, then started doing the same thing that  the authors were doing, and that is, they were blaming Gene. Rather than  saying, “these are simply the rules now, and you’re gonna have to comply with  them if you wish to write in the Star Trek universe,” they were saying, “well,  this is what Gene wants, so don’t yell at us,” you know, “he’s the one who’s  rewriting your story.” And you can ask me about any book, you can ask me  about any specific storyline in anything and I can tell you why the changes  were being made… what it is about Gene’s… vision, if you will, that it was  distorting or it was changing. You have to remember that writing for Star  Trek is like the famous comment about spelunking, caving–“leave nothing but  footprints, take nothing but pictures.” Do not change anything. When authors  in books decide to change the universe to suit themselves, they’ve just  screwed it up for everybody else who wants to write in that universe. And it  would never be allowed on the series. And you can’t have twelve different  universes coming out a year in book form.

Even leaving aside some of the rather unfortunate undertones of Arnold’s diatribe (about how that author he works with “bitches” about how he treats her), there’s something decidedly uncomfortable about what Arnold is suggesting here.

The notion of a “Star Trek canon” as a concrete object, completely immutable and absolute, is a little absurd. Attempting to manage a fictional universe as if documenting history is a risky proposition from a storytelling perspective, but it’s also something that requires a lot more forethought than Star Trek typically allows. Consider how quickly the Enterprise is able to reach the edge of the universe in the classic series, or the difficulty determining who the Enterprise is working for in early episodes. Indeed, the first season of the show can’t even seem to decide whether space is one gigantic graveyard or a hub of activity.

All these inconsistencies are within the first year of Star Trek. Imagine what happens when you expand that out and have to deal with twenty-five or even fifty years of the stuff. And that’s before you get into the whole “is The Animated Series canon?” debate that is largely rooted in the sort of “canon” micro-management Richard Arnold was so fond of in the late eighties and early nineties. In many ways – many unfortunate ways – that sort of rigid “is it or isn’t it canon?” mindset has done a lot of damage to Star Trek as a franchise, restricting and limiting possibilities rather than expanding it.

There’s also a sense of insecurity here – as if Arnold is seeking to pro-actively and pre-emptively de-legitimise anything that might plausibly challenge the primacy of the live action television show. Instead of focusing the debate on the quality of the material, or its worth as part of a larger tapestry of Star Trek, Arnold instead frames the debate on a technicality, conveniently positioning himself as absolute arbiter on a story’s worth.

As such, the franchise can side-step any debates about how the first season of The Next Generation might not measure up to the work being done in novels or comics by pre-emptively insisting that they “aren’t Star Trek” and therefore “don’t count.” This newfangled Star Trek television show, the one that occasionally faced some reluctance from hardcore fans, is the only legitimate Star Trek that exists right now. So get used to that.

There’s also a discomforting sense that Arnold and Roddenberry might be afraid of being upstaged – that printing an author’s name on the cover of a book that works to expand or explore the shared universe might somehow displace Roddenberry. Sure, writers work on the stories told on the television show, but the “written by” credit appears long after the “created by Gene Roddenberry” credit that is embedded into the fanfare at the start of each and every episode.

Perhaps the most damning thing about Richard Arnold’s approach to Star Trek was the sheer pettiness with which he enforced his rules, which would seem to support the argument that they were anchored in some deep-seated insecurity. Discussing the novel in Voyages of Imagination, Duane shares one particularly childish accusation that was levelled at The Romulan Way:

People who should have known better later claimed that this book was one which had been written earlier, and had Star Trek elements injected into it ‘just to make some fast money.’ To which I can only say: (a.) if the book was written earlier, why did I bother spending sixteen days of the twenty-one which should have been my honeymoon writing it (in front of witness who were in a position to see what was coming out of the computers every day)? and (b) why would I bother doing this when I was making better money working in TV than I was from writing books? Sheesh…

The rumour actually began with Richard Arnold, who was reported as making a similar accusation before rather promptly retracting (or… eh… “clarifying” the statement) when threatened with a defamation lawsuit by Duane and Morwood. The fact that Duane still had to clarify this matter in an official publication released almost two decades later reveals just how insidious and unprofessional that insinuation was.

All of this, however, distracts from the fact that The Romulan Way is really just a great book. It’s a story that takes advantage of the width and breadth of the shared Star Trek universe to tell a story that really wouldn’t be possible on television or film. In short, it’s a tie-in that exists as more than simply a script for an unaired episode, or purely as supporting material for something that appeared on screen. It is world-building of the sort that Star Trek had only begun to flirt with in 1987.

While My Enemy, My Ally was very much a classic Star Trek adventure featuring a very strong female guest character, The Romulan Way is written more in the style of John M. Ford’s The Final Reflection. Leonard McCoy is a major character, but he spends most of the book as more of a plot function than a character driving the action. The story is framed – much like The Final Reflection – as a collection of cultural data provided to the Federation from inside an alien culture; “a mere piece of intelligence-newsgathering for a Federation frightened of a strange enemy and wanting weapons to turn against it from the inside.”

Much like Duane’s celebrated Spock’s World, The Romulan Way is a story split into two halves. One half is a cultural history of the Romulan people from the schism that led them to depart Vulcan through to the present day. The other half is a framing story that features Leonard McCoy attempting to recover a Romulan sleeper agent buried deep undercover at the heart of the Romulan Star Empire.

The plot involving McCoy does feel a bit like window dressing. As Duane confirms in Voyages of Imagination, the idea of The Romulan Way was originally much more focused on Romulan identity and character:

I’d been wondering, both before and after writing My Enemy, My Ally, how a Romulan dictionary might play. However, at that point it didn’t seem to be economically viable (this was long, long before the tremendous success of the Klingon-language materials with which Marc Okrand was involved). My editor at that point, Dave Stern, suggested that while a dictionary might not work, more cultural information might – assuming that there was also a strong story wrapped around it.

Still, there are some interesting ideas contained in this framing story – the notion of an agent so deeply undercover that they have become the mask, and the interesting explanation for why the Federation could not count on its Romulan agents to provide this information.

“The Romulan agents are too Romulan,” we’re told. “They were born to and brought up with aspects of their culture that we can’t begin to comprehend, and they can’t explain them to an outsider any more than a bird could explain the sky.” It’s a nice way of underscoring the cultural relativism at play here – the difficulties explaining one’s own culture to outsiders, and how easy it is to take one’s own perspective for granted.

Still, the most interesting parts of The Romulan Way are the large swathes of Romulan history provided. There are any number of fascinating ideas and comparisons hinted at by Duane and Morwood. Perhaps the most interesting is the bold implication that the Romulans might be more like a futuristic version of the United States than the Federation is – a dark and subversive mirror to Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future.

Discussing the initial departure from Vulcan, the book observes, “In a most unusual inversion, it was the old beliefs that went out hunting the new world: not persecuted, but gladly, angrily self-exiled.” This plays on the classic American myth of early Puritan settlers departing a modernising England that had begun to clamp down on their religious freedoms; far from adventurers seeking a brave new world and escape from the old order, the Puritans were themselves “a modern expression of an old civilization with its roots deep in the Christian, feudal, medieval West.”

One of the ironies that tends to get glossed over in the “Puritans fleeing persecution” story is the fact that the Puritans took great pleasure in persecuting others once they reached the New World, imposing their own religious beliefs on others and trying to limit access to outside individuals or ideas. Classic works like The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible have been quite scathing in their critiques of Puritan values. British comedian and factotum Stephen Fry has observed the irony that the Puritans weren’t fleeing persecution as much as seeking a place where they could freely engage in it.

Indeed, Duane and Morwood rather cleverly suggest that the Romulan Empire is torn between two very different mindsets and ideals – perhaps reflecting the split in contemporary American politics. There are the reactionary aspects of Romulan society and their more liberal counterparts. As such, the concept of twin planets at the heart of the Romulan Star Empire becomes a literal expression of one of the core divisions in American politics – where political disagreements are often characterised by reference to region. (North and south, for example, or “red states” and “blue states.”)

This is a rather brilliant twist for a novel like this – making the Romulans both alien and uncomfortably familiar. After all, one of the stock comparisons of the twentieth century has been “America as a modern Rome”, an observation so familiar and widespread that even the classic Star Trek television show got in on the action with Bread and Circuses. Duane and Morwood push that idea a little bit further, suggesting that perhaps a dark reflection of America might be found in space!Rome, acknowledge Paul Schneider’s original conception of the Romulans as space!Romans, even while pushing them beyond that.

Duane and Morwood also include some rather wry nods towards the emerging on-line community, with the development of Romulan culture explicitly tied to the internet existing between their fleet – explicitly mentioning “the net” and “the thread”, while alluding to user names and so on. Duane has been quite active in on-line fan discussions and culture, and Star Trek fandom was among the first distinct internet subcultures to emerge. As such, it’s a nice nod to make.

The Romulan Way is a fascinating follow-up from Duane and Morwood and one that underscores the value of diversity in Star Trek fiction. The fact that readers had to wait over a decade for a follow-up is a stinging condemnation of the policy undertaken by Gene Roddenberry’s right-hand men.

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

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10 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Famecity.

  2. Great review. This is one of the best you have done. I will post a comment about this on Tor.com.

  3. There is a one minor correction needed. You forgot to the Diane Duane tag. All your other reviews of her work have that tag. Just trying to help.

  4. Have you ever thought about writing an e-book or guest authoring on other sites?
    I have a blog based on the same information you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information.
    I know my subscribers would appreciate your work. If you are even
    remotely interested, feel free to shoot me an e-mail.

  5. I love the concept behind the Rihannsu series, but Ael is such a Mary Stu character. I read the books because I was curious but could never really get into them.

    • I don’t mind a little hyper-competence. Ael is just a Romulan James T. Kirk as he existed before The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan suggested his arrogance might be a character flaw.

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