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Star Trek – Spock’s World by Diane Duane (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

One of the more interesting aspect of Star Trek tie-in media during the eighties was the sense of freedom enjoyed by those working on the line.

One of the more infamous examples concerned DC’s attempts to publish a monthly comic during the release cycle of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. The three films tended to build off one another, forming a tight continuity, but that did not stop the comic book company from trying to build off the ending of each of the films, leading to a variety of weird continuity hijinks. Spock left to work on a Vulcan ship; Kirk took command of the Excelsior; a Klingon joined the crew.

Writers working on the tie-in novels enjoyed a similar amount of freedom. By the time that Spock’s World was published in 1989, Diane Duane had been able to firmly establish her own supporting cast of characters in her various tie-in novels. Spock’s World includes appearances from Duane regulars like K’s’t’lk and Harb Tanzer, introduced in The Wounded Sky; even Lia Burke from My Enemy, My Ally puts in an appearance. It really feels like Duane has carved out her own space within the larger Star Trek universe.

However, perhaps that freedom finds its strongest expression in the fact that Duane was able to map an entire cultural and social history unto the planet Vulcan. Spock’s World reads almost like a biography of a fictional planet – charting the history of Vulcan from the planet’s earliest days through to the twenty-third century. It is a delightfully bold and intriguing Star Trek book, one utterly unlike any other tie-in ever published.

To be fair, Spock’s World is clearly building off the success of The Romulan Way. In the second book of Duane’s “Rihannsu” saga, the author had decided to develop the Romulan Star Empire by providing brief excerpts from their cultural and social history. Every second chapter in the book was dedicated to a particular period of Romulan history, each helping to explain how and why Romulan culture had developed in a particular direction. It was (and remains) a classic of Star Trek tie-in fiction.

This was an extension of the approach that had been pioneered by John Ford’s The Final Reflection and Duane’s own My Enemy, My Ally a few years earlier. Both novels attempted to add nuance and complexity to the vast fictional world of Star Trek by devoting some attention to the alien species. As one might expect from a sixties prime-time television series, Star Trek had always been primarily concerned with its human characters and their human perspective. Ford and Duane had dared to broaden that perspective, wondering how the Klingons and the Romulans might look from their own sides of the neutral zones.

Duane’s follow-up, The Romulan Way, offered a more in-depth examination of the Romulans. The book interspaced chapters in a fairly light primary plot with stories from Romulan history. Every second chapter offered a glimpse into a period of Romulan history. Given the success of The Romulan Way, it made sense to try that approach with perhaps the most iconic Star Trek alien; Spock. Spock’s World is an exploration of the history of Vulcan, interspaced between chapters concerning a debate over Vulcan’s role in the Federation.

As with My Enemy, My Ally, Duane emphasises the idea that the Vulcans have their own internal lives, outside of the Federation. There are lots of fascinating little touches that suggest a Vulcan perspective on the universe. As with Romulus and Remus in The Romulan Way, Duane even suggests that the name Vulcan is a human construct – being a Roman deity and all that. The Vulcans are just too obliging to object. “They were polite enough about accepting it as standard Federation nomenclature. But they have other names for their world, and at least one name that they tell to no one.”

The main plot of the book follows the Vulcan secession movement; a campaign for Vulcan to disengage from the Federation. Kirk and the Enterprise are dispatched to Vulcan to appeal on behalf of the union between Earth and Vulcan. The primary plot is fascinating; it is one of the rare points in the history of Star Trek that the notion of leaving the Federation has been broached. After all, the Federation is apparently an institution held together by mutual consent – so it is interesting to wonder what happens when one of the members decides that they no longer consent to membership.

The subject has been touched upon a number of times over the decades. Before Paramount decided that they wanted the third season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to end with a stand-alone episode – necessitating a last-minute scramble on The Adversary – Ira Steven Behr had considered closing out the show’s third year with Vulcan deciding to depart the Federation. In the spin-off novels set in the later twenty-fourth century, Andoria would decide to secede from the Federation; Paths of Disharmony saw Andoria establishing itself as an independent political entity.

The premise of Spock’s World is interesting, and Duane approaches the idea of Vulcan secession in a rather interesting and low-key way. Although the inevitable political schemes play out in the background, Spock’s World is much more interested in big sweeping debate. Vulcan hosts a telecast debate to help the population make up their mind in the public vote; Kirk eavesdrops on the Enterprise’s internal message board system to get a feel for how people are responding to the situation.

As ever, Duane’s own personal fascinations shine through into Spock’s World. There is a distinctive voice here, just as there is a distinctive voice in Margaret Wander Bonanno’s contemporary Star Trek prose. As with The Romulan Way, it is clear that Duane was fascinated by the emerging on-line fan culture, imagining Kirk and the Enterprise operating their own on-line newsgroups. Indeed, Duane even borrows a sentiment from the opening chapter of The Wounded Sky, “The joke in Starfleet is that the only thing that can travel faster than warp 10 is news.”

In 1988, Duane had moved to Ireland, and there is a section early in the book that features Kirk visiting the twenty-third century iteration of the country – which apparently has developed its own space service, “Spas Lingus.” There are a lot of nice affectionate details in the sequence, even if the reference to “Molly Malone and her nine blind orphans” feels like a slightly bowlderised version of a distinctly Irish colloquialism. It is a rather odd sequence, in a book full of odd sequences; but these tend to give Spock’s World its own distinct flavour.

Indeed, Duane is particularly proud of Spock’s World, citing it as one of her favourites of her own novels, despite some technical problems close to deadline:

Spock’s World is probably my favorite, for all kinds of reasons. Yes, it spent eight weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List, which admittedly was a trip. But there are other reasons more private. That book scratched a creative itch I’d wanted to deal with for a long time, for I was always a big Spock fan. But also, sometimes it’s the work that gives you the most trouble that you love the best. I lost what should have been the final draft of that book to a disk crash – my backups turned out to be corrupt – and I had to reconstruct the entire book in about two weeks to hit my deadline. This may have been one of those blessing-in-disguise things, in that I think the rewrite/reconstruction was better than the original. In any case, Spock’s World is sort of the gift that keeps on giving, to its author anyway.

Reading Spock’s World, it does seem like a book that was written at a tremendous pace; there is an appealing looseness to the story, allowing for entertaining diversions and charming tangents that might have been lost if the novel had been written over a longer period allowing for tightening or tweaking.

It is no wonder that Spock’s World has become a fan favourite. It enjoyed eight weeks on the New York Times’ bestseller list. Roberto Orci, writer of the 2009 Star Trek reboot, has identified himself as a huge fan of the novel. The production team would pass out photocopies of excerpts Prime Directive and Spock’s World to the cast and crew to help get a feel for the characters and the world. In fact, some of the novel seems to have bled into the finished film – both stories feature Sarek referring to Spock as “a child of two worlds.”

There is also a sense that Duane understands her source material – that she has a firm read on the Star Trek universe. Her portrayal of the characters and the universe they inhabit is perfectly in tune, and there’s a sense that Duane has managed to fashion an entire world from off-hand references in Amok Time or Yesteryear or Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. In fact, Spock’s World seems to build off what little we saw of Vulcan in Amok Time to foreshadow a lot of how the franchise would come to treat Vulcans.

At one point, Harb Tanzer offers an assessment of the Vulcan character – or the perception of the Vulcan character – that harks forward to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country or Shakaar or Take Me Out to the Holosuite or even most of Star Trek: Enterprise:

Consider the Vulcans from the point of view of someone who is unsure about his or her own position in the Universe, someone who’s looking to see whether a Vulcan is a threat. All kinds of obvious reasons not to like the species come up. They’re peaceful, they’re extremely strong, both physically and in terms of personality; they’re mysterious, they have powers that normal people don’t understand; they have a great deal of political status and influence. But at the same time they keep to themselves; their stand on the requirement for personal privacy sounds suspiciously like ego, like being stuck up, to people looking for a grievance. Why wouldn’t human beings dislike them every now and then?

In fact, Duane’s depiction of Shath – a Vulcan bureaucrat “with an air about him as if he were being forced by his job to be polite to monkeys” – seems to predict the template for most of the show’s Vulcan guest characters.

The snapshots of Vulcan history are wonderfully constructed – ambitious and engaging, in equal measure. In particular, the earlier chapters have a rich experimental feel to them – as Duane charts the geological history of the planet itself and the development of life, stories that do not necessarily lend themselves to traditional narratives. However, as Vulcan history develops, Duane makes these stories personal. Duane seems to suggest that Vulcan history is shaped by individuals living their own lives in the midst of larger forces, rather than as a simple construct of cause and effect.

“There was nothing whatsoever unusual about Surak as a child,” we are told of the iconic Vulcan figure. It is an idea that recurs through all the windows into Vulcan life. It seems that history is made up of intimate details, lives that are quite ordinary and conventional – people who did not necessarily set out to change the world, but whose attempts to find their own way in the world ultimately moved the world around them. Spock’s World charts the history of Vulcan society almost as a short story collection, a series of minor and relatable adventures that each defined the course of history for an entire planet.

As such, it is no surprise when the real villain of Spock’s World is revealed, and the real motivation turns out to be something rather intimate and personal. Once again, it seems like Vulcan history might be set by individual motivations and desires, playing out across an epic backdrop. To be fair, the biggest problem with Spock’s World is probably the reveal about the nature and motivation of the campaign to secede from the Federation – Duane takes one of the more problematic aspects of Amok Time and amps it up to eleven.

To be entirely fair, it fits quite comfortably with the theme of Spock’s World – the idea that history is often determined on a very personal and intimate level. On the other hand, it essentially boils the plot down to – as wryly summarised by Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer – “a story about a woman who seeks revenge on her ex when her lover dies of an overdose of Vulcan Viagra.” It is a little absurd, and it is to Duane’s credit that Spock’s World works as well as it does, even during the denouement.

Still, that minor issue aside, Spock’s World is a classic – the perfect example of the diversity and the potential of Star Trek tie-in materials to tell unique and intriguing stories within the larger universe.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the second season of the classic Star Trek:

2 Responses

  1. The idea of Vulcan potentially seceding from the Federation goes clear back to Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s Kraith series of stories begun in 1970. Dozens of fans contributed tales to the Kraith universe, which was even covered in a New York Times Book Review article, Camilla Bacon-Smith’s “Spock Among the Women”.
    Lichtenberg’s two-part novel “Spock’s Argument” (1972) is all about Spock returning to Vulcan with his second wife to engage in formal argument against secession. As in Duane’s novel, secession was proposed by someone close to Spock with strong personal reasons for pulling Vulcan out of the Federation.
    Kraith was extremely influential within fandom and some of its ideas appear in the films and in TNG, particularly in “Gambit”. See the Kraith entry at Fanlore for more details.

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