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Star Trek – The Entropy Effect by Vonda N. McIntyre (Review)

This June, we’re taking a look at some classic Star Trek movie tie-ins and other interesting objects. Check back daily for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

The Pocket Books Star Trek line has to be one of the most stable and successful tie-in book ranges in the world. While the comic book license has bounced from publisher to publisher, Star Trek prose has remained firmly rooted at Pocket Books through the highs and the lows of the Star Trek franchise. This is undoubtedly because Pocket Books is a subsidiary of Simon and Schuster, which has been owned by the company that has owned Star Trek since 1975.

As such, from 1979 until the present day, Pocket Books has produced an incredible amount of tie-in material to support the Star Trek franchise. From reference material through to novels set within the fictional universe, the line has published a wealth of material across all the shows and all the time frames. Indeed, Pocket even launched their own separate spin-off brands run by authors like Peter David or Keith R.A. DeCandido.

While Gene Roddenberry’s novelisation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was the first official Star Trek novel published by Pocket Books, and the line had published a number of reference books in the interim, Vonda N. McIntyre’s The Entropy Effect is the first original novel published by Pocket Books. In many ways, the influence of McIntyre’s work is still being felt, as she demonstrated how best to approach a Star Trek tie-in novel.

theentropyeffect

Interestingly, despite the fact that Roddenberry’s novelisation of The Motion Picture was published in 1979 to coincide with the release, The Entropy Effect wasn’t published until 1981. Despite the costumes depicted on the paperback cover, The Entropy Effect hit stands closer to the release of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan than it was to the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In the meantime, Pocket Books had bee releasing reference material like Star Trek Speaks and The Star Trek Spaceflight Chronology, albeit under the “Wallaby Books” imprint.

The delay to the launch of Pocket Books’ original Star Trek fiction was down to a number of factors. Most obviously, Bantam were still publishing their own tie-in fiction under their own license. Bantam produced a considerable volume of Star Trek books around the release of The Motion Picture, and the success of novels like Kathleen Sky’s Vulcan! had convinced them to keep releasing novels until the last possible minute. The last Bantam book, Death’s Angel, was released in April 1981, two months before The Entropy Effect.

However, even ignoring the fact that Bantam was still publishing, editor David Hartwell recalls that it was an uphill battle to convince Pocket Books to publish original Star Trek fiction. As he told Voyages of Imagination, there was some resistance:

I had to argue to get The Entropy Effect published… it was hard to convince the publisher there was a market for original novels. Vonda took a pay cut to write The Entropy Effect. One of her dreams in life was to write for Star Trek. At that time, an average advance [for an original novel] was between five and six thousand dollars. For a Trek novel, it was three thousand. This weeded out people who wanted to do it for the money and we got authors who needed to care about what they were doing.

In hindsight, it seems hard to believe that Pocket Books might have been reluctant to jump on board with original Star Trek fiction, given that the publisher has produced hundreds of original Star Trek novels in the years since.

As Hartwell notes, Vonda N. McIntyre was a Star Trek fan. By her own account, The Entropy Effect was an idea that had been gestating since the first time she watched the show:

I started writing a teleplay for the series during the first commercial break of the first televised episode. When I went off to my freshman year in college a couple of weeks later, I dragged along a tiny little black-and-white portable tv set so I could watch the show.

It took me a couple of years to find out how to submit teleplays – for one thing, I had to learn how to write teleplays – and one got as far as a producer’s desk, apparently.

Then the series got cancelled.

In the years between that original pitch and the publication of The Entropy Effect, McIntyre had becomes a successful science-fiction author in her own right, publishing novels like The Exile Waiting and Dreamsnake.

This is pretty much the perfect cocktail to launch an original Star Trek book imprint. Pocket Books had opened the line with a novelisation of a massive motion picture written by the creator of the franchise. That was a pretty significant endorsement; Pocket Books Star Trek #1 would be credited to Gene Roddenberry. Pocket Books’ credibility had been assured. However, following that by having an established science-fiction writer to adapt her own unproduced screenplay as the first original entry in the fiction line? Beautiful.

It is worth noting that McInyre’s experiences are not necessarily unique at this point in the history of Star Trek tie-in fiction. The Bantam line of Star Trek tie-in fiction may have had some radical shifts in quality and tone, but it did have some good ideas. It had launched with Spock Must Die!, an original novel by science-fiction writer James Blish, who had adapted many of the classic episodes into prose as part of the Mission Logs series. The Batnam line featured work by Joe Haldeman, author of The Forever Wars. It also invited writer David Gerrold to adapt his unproduced two-part teleplay into The Galactic Whirlpool.

Nevertheless, The Entropy Effect was still a pretty bold opening salvo. Pocket Books choose an avowed Star Trek fan and credible science-fiction writer like Vonda N. McIntyre to adapt a screenplay that had gotten quite deep into the Star Trek production officer. It’s a fairly dramatic way of launching a series of original Star Trek fiction, and one that sets the tone for a lot of the early years of the Pocket Book range. The fact that McIntyre wrote The Entropy Effect established an atmosphere where John M. Ford could write The Final Reflection or Diane Duane could write The Wounded Sky.

In many respects, The Entropy Effect sets the tone for the first few years of the Pocket Book line, covering the era between the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the broadcast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The novel is able to execute a more convoluted and more ambitious time-travel narrative than would really have been possible on sixties television, incorporating all manner of intriguing pseudo-science and philosophy into the narrative.

More than that, McIntyre also enjoys a great deal of freedom to work with characters who exist on the edge of the Star Trek narrative. Indeed, The Entropy Effect devotes considerable focus and time to the character of Sulu, who had been somewhat hazily defined over the course of the original Star Trek show. He isn’t the primary focus of the story, but he is afforded his own character arc and development within the novel. (McIntyre is even able to have him grow his hair out and grow a pretty spiffing ‘tasche, as if to emphasise that she can get away with stuff that you’d never see on televised Star Trek.)

The Entropy Effect introduces the idea that Sulu’s first name is “Hikaru.” Like Uhura, Sulu had never earned a first name on the classic show. McIntyre’s decision to give Sulu a first name was so significant that it became part of continuity with Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. According to McIntyre, this had been controversial:

The editor knew that I had been fond of the series during its original run, and that I’d treat the characters with integrity. I enjoyed writing The Entropy Effect, though the deadline was brutal. The editor asked me to give the manuscript to him at a convention in Seattle just before it was due (unusual), and I did. He read fifty pages of it at the convention (which surprised me, as this is also unusual), and he said, “This is completely different from any other Star Trek book. Paramount will either love it — or they’ll hate it.”

Fortunately they loved it. Mostly.

I did find out some years later that the book nearly got deep-sixed because someone at Paramount took offence at my giving Mr. Sulu a first name. There was no objection to his having a lover, and I still wonder how I might have been expected to write the scenes between them using only their last names.

Eventually my editor had the bright idea of asking Gene Roddenberry and George Takei what they thought of Mr. Sulu’s first name (Hikaru, from the first novel ever written, The Tale of Genji), and they both approved it, so Mr. Sulu got to keep it, the book got to keep it, and later the movies kept it as well.

Uhura had wait longer to get her first name verified on screen, with “Nyoto” only being accepted in JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. Much like “Hikaru”, “Nyoto” originated at Pocket Books. Its first public use was in William Rotsler’s Star Trek II Biographies, although there is some debate about where the name actually originated.

McIntyre’s The Entropy Effect does a lot to demonstrate the freedom that these early writers had working on the Star Trek Pocket Book line. Indeed, one could argue that this wave of Star Trek tie-in fiction did a lot to “fix” some of the more obvious shortcomings and problems with the classic Star Trek. Second-string characters like Sulu and Uhura could get entire novels dedicated to exploring their personalities and rounding them out into complex and multi-faceted characters. Sulu and Uhura had never been given too much to do on the show, but they could be given larger parts and more focus in the tie-in fiction.

More than that, there was room for reflection and self-criticism here. There’s a clear sense that McIntyre is actively interested in pushing the franchise forwards and onwards, not waiting for the movie series to do it on its own time. Most notably, McIntyre opts to directly refute the misogynistic continuity of The Turnabout Intruder by inventing a female captain. It’s a decision that reverses a lot of the patronising gender politics of that final episode and detoxes the franchise considerably. McIntyre doesn’t even feel the need to justify her continuity re-write. Why wouldn’t there be women starship captains?

McIntyre is given the freedom to invent a security chief for the Enterprise, Mandela Flynn. Flynn would go on to make an appearance in McIntyre’s novelisation of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, another example of the relative freedom enjoyed by the early writers. Far more than just an anonymous redshirt fated to die in the line of duty, Flynn is developed and expanded. She is a competent officer, reflecting a type of femininity seldom seen on the show itself.

(McIntyre even seems to wink at the reader here, drawing attention to how shallow and under-developed many of the supporting characters could be on classic Star Trek. Flynn and Sulu grow close to one another, prompting Flynn to point out how weird it is that you could could know somebody for an extended period of time without ever learning their name. “Do you realize,” Flynn asks at one point, “that we’ve known each other two months, and we still call each other ‘Mr. Sulu’ and ‘Ms. Flynn’?”)

In many respects, this bleeds into the plot of the novel itself. The Entropy Effect is essentially the story about how nostalgia threatens to destroy the entire Star Trek universe. Doctor Georges Mordreaux has perfect time travel, and has used it to send various people back to early time periods where they want to live. These people idealise the past, and want to become a part of it – not to change history, but to live in it and to revel in it.

This nostalgia is downright toxic. It creates the eponymous entropy effect that threatens to destroy all life in the universe within a couple of centuries. Despite the fact that McIntyre pitched this during the show’s broadcast run, it plays as a rather insightful argument about the necessity of a proactive Pocket Books line. The Entropy Effect argues that fixating on the past and seeking to recapture it is ultimately damaging.

In many respects, it feels like McIntyre is arguing for a more proactive and aggressive approach to writing Star Trek fiction. It isn’t enough to simply emulate what has come before. Star Trek cannot simply fixate on pre-existing continuity and the show as it was broadcast over a decade ago. There is a need to push forward. Published as the first original Star Trek novel in the Pocket Book line, The Entropy Effect almost reads as a manifesto.

After all, these novels were the only consistently on-going forum for publishing semi-official Star Trek stories. The comic book license was in limbo, with Marvel only owning the rights to publish material based on The Motion Picture. The feature films only came out once every couple of years. As it stood, these novels were a significant part of the future of Star Trek, legitimised by the fact that Pocket Books were owned by the company that owned Star Trek. As such, the line had a considerable responsibility.

And The Entropy Effect is an example of wielding that responsibility very well indeed.

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