April 4, 2011 Leave a comment
I went through a period in the mid-90s – during that brief time after Next Generation went off the air and before I discovered that Deep Space Nine was worth my attention – during which I consumed every paperback my local library had with Star Trek in the title. This was when I discovered that the vast amount of Trek literature, like any extensive “expanded universe,” I think, is not actually very good. A few books did make an impression on me, and while Diane Duane’s Spock’s World was not the best one I read (that distinction, pending a current re-read, probably still belongs to Federation), it was the most influential.
Yes, I said “influential.” This is the degree to which my dorky obsession with Star Trek has overlapped my actual life – a book about the imaginary backstory of imaginary aliens and their imaginary philosophy actually opened my eyes in kind of a profound way. Duane colors her interpretation of Vulcans and their whole “casting out of emotions” with a decidedly eastern flavor. The words of Surak, the great Vulcan philosopher, are quite similar to those of the Buddha (with shades of Confucius and Jesus and a few others for good measure). So when you’re in that “hungry to learn about the world” space at age twenty or so, and you find a gleaming kernel of exotic and appealing philosophy in your book about space men… it can change your life a little. And it kind of did.
But enough about my post-adolescent intellectual posturing – how was the book, AAl? Well, you know… the Internet loves using the word “epic” for the most mundane of triumphs. That breakfast was epic, and so on. But this book is epic in the true sense of the word – it covers tens of thousands of years, following the progress of an entire fictional culture. The scope of it is extraordinary, yet we never feel like the author is reaching too far.
Intertwined with a historical narrative following Vulcan from its cosmic formation to the birth of Spock tens of thousands of years later is a story of political intrigue. Vulcan is threatening to secede from the Federation, so the Enterprise is called back so that Kirk, Spock and Bones (who have been involved fairly intimately with the world in the past) can deliver testimony during the public debates.
Oddly, Spock has little direct role in this overall story. It involves him (in ways I won’t reveal for fear of spoilers), but apart from a rousing speech near the end, he doesn’t do much of the heavy lifting, plot-wise. I’m okay with that – especially since the slack is picked up by Bones. The light irony of McCoy solving a mystery on Vulcan is, of course, fantastic.
Duane’s attention not only to character (an entire chapter of backstory for Sarek only serves to enhance a character who was already one of my favorite supporting guys in all of Trek) but to scientific detail makes this a particularly solid read. The aforementioned formation of Vulcan seems technically correct without being boring. The Enterprise is populated with exotic alien crewmembers who are given appropriately alien viewpoints. And one narrative thread – the anonymous debates occurring on the Enterprise’s electronic bulletin board system – date the book slightly in the late 80s, but also feel quite accurate in terms of what the Internet would one day become. So while the liberal usage of the term BBS feels a bit outdated, the actual behavior of its denizens are suprisingly prescient and also add to the story rather than feeling like a “hey, here’s a cool thing” kind of distraction.
Another note on the historical interludes: it’s a true sign of how impressive this book is that I was actually more captivated by some of the Vulcan chapters than the Kirk/Spock/McCoy stuff. That almost never happens for me – I have a general “when are they going to get to the fireworks factory?!” attitude toward most original author creations. But some of this stuff – especially the story of the prehistoric Vulcan who discovered Mount Seleya (a tale that truly lives up to the word “epic”) – had me seriously disappointed when we switched back to the present of the future.
Best of all, Duane walks the line that so many sci-fi writers – particularly Star Trek writers – fail to walk successfully: she makes the Vulcans strange and convincingly alien, yet manages to speak about humanity at the same time. I mean, what’s the point of reading about a culture so alien from ours that there’s nothing recognizable? Alternately, what’s the point of just making them misshapen humans?
This book is one of the primary reasons I didn’t like Enterprise (well, there were many reasons) – the idea of Vulcans as our smug overseers felt weird and wrong. This depiction, where humans and Vulcans are equals who run into occasional problems comprehending each other’s culture, though not official canon, has always worked better for me. The fact that Spock’s World was cited as a favorite by the team that wrote the 2009 film was the first sign I saw that it might actually be in competent hands.
Spock’s World is on the very short list of what I would call “essential Star Trek reading.” It’s also a uniquely novel story – a movie or episode would not have carried the scope of this. If you’re a fan of the original series and you’re looking for a good starting point as far as expanded universe, you could do a lot worse. And trust me, I’ve read a lot of those other books – “a lot worse” means exactly that.
Oh, and a point of unintentional hilarity: the Vulcans refer to their sun as The Homestar.