In the lounge at a friend’s flat I saw two massive floor-to-ceiling bookcases, separated by a chimney. The left hand bookcase contained every single Star Trek novel ever written and the right hand bookcase contained every single Doctor Who novel ever written. This was twenty years ago so I suppose he has had to buy new bookcases since. I whispered to Paul Cornell that this was the worst library I had ever laid eyes on and Paul laughed like anything, though a couple of his books were in the right-hand bookcase.
If you type ‘Star Trek’ into the books section of Amazon US, over 21,000 titles come up, a lot of them fiction. Even allowing that many of these are different printings of the same book, the quantity of Star Trek novels must have crawled well into four figures. Has anyone got through them all? It’s possible. I guess many Star Trek readers read Star Trek novels exclusively. This is not unique to Star Trek readers. There are lots of readers of ‘cozy mysteries’, in which little old ladies solve murders in villages, who only ever read cozy mysteries but read an awful lot of them. There are romance readers who read only Harlequins but get through a hundred and fifty in a year.
I should say at once that I have no opinion about these Star Trek novels, having never read any. I am fully prepared to believe that I would enjoy the Doctor Who ones and as a number of them have been written by friends and acquaintances I hope I would.
As I said last time, if you have ever read a TV novel you cannot afford to be snobbish. Still…
Another friend, recently visiting her father in Maine, decided to clear out her teenage bedroom, and came back to Connecticut with several boxes of books to give away. Most of these were steamy historical romances of a kind for which there is a huge market, ‘civilIzed’ women in past times having passionate affairs with ‘outsider’ men, Apaches, Highlanders, who are rugged and randy and yet startlingly gentle, though like Mr Rochester they must be physically damaged near the end to be tame enough for marriage vows. But there were four Star Trek novels too. I flicked one open, and this was the first sentence I saw:
Uhura blinked her eyes.
Bloody hell! Uhura blinked her eyes?? Well, she didn’t blink her ear lobes, did she? Or her nipples? The sentence should obviously have been:
And even if extra words were needed, though they aren’t, the sentence should have been:
Uhura blinked her eyelids!
Because eyes cannot blink, any more than ear lobes or nipples!
That a professional writer wrote this and a professional editor let it go seemed to me depressing. Uhura blinked her eyes. Dear me. And I should add that this book appeared not as a paperback original but as an expensive hardcover.
I have mentioned this sentence once or twice to people and have been surprised to find they are less horrified then I am. I wouldn’t even have noticed that, said one. I don’t think it’s that bad, said another.
I think my objection is that it is not interestingly bad. There is no leap of imagination. It is not reaching for anything. It is not writing at all, it is typing. I was tweeted about a Dallas novel where oil is described as black semen. That is very very very (ad infinitum) bad indeed but there is at least a thought in it, an image in it. Yes, a very very (ad infinitum) bad and unsuccessful and rather embarrassing one, but a thought.
Uhura blinked her eyes.
Say it aloud. It refuses to lift off. It is hopelessly leaden. It manages to be really bad and utterly nothing at the same time. Ah well.
But the oak tree which is the ginormous Star Trek book industry was once a little acorn, as in the beginning all such industries are. In 1967, it was decided by someone at Bantam Books in New York that a slim volume based on Star Trek might bring in a bit of money, joining that large pile of other telly books I wrote about last time. He or she can’t have had a clue what was being started. However, instead of doing either ‘original’ novels or full-length novelizations, the decision was made to turn a selection of scripts into a volume of short stories. This was a terrific idea: a forty-five minute TV programme is much nearer to a short story than a novel.
The man commissioned for these adaptations was the memorably named James Blish, and as always how and why he came to be chosen remains a mystery. He had been writing science fiction for decades and one of his novels, A Case of Conscience, was what Victoria Wood might call a totally bona fono classic of the genre. He was also well known for having informed Star Trek contributor Harlan Ellison that one of Ellison’s early pulp magazine stories, The Glow Worm, was the single worst story ever written. Ellison, who adored Blish, relished this anecdote, narrating it in several essays.
Blish was a strange choice in at least one respect: he lived in Britain, and had never seen Star Trek, which would not find its way to the BBC until 1969, by which time it had already been scrapped in America. It was scheduled on a Saturday afternoon, as a replacement for Doctor Who after The War Games, where it was hugely popular. Irritatingly, it was far more popular than Doctor Who, though not half as good. Still, it was science fiction, so I decided to like it.
I assume that the first book was meant as a one-off. Neither Blish nor Bantam could have expected it to do much business. As we now know it sold by the truckload. In reprints its title was changed from simply Star Trek to Star Trek One, and Star Trek Two arrived soon after, then Three and Four. The first volume that came into my hands was Star Trek Five, which had already been reprinted several times.( Even as an eleven year old, I read copyright pages, which was a bit weird of me.)
If James Blish ever became tired of turning out Star Trek adaptations, he never said so. He went on writing them and indeed died quite young in the middle of Star Trek Twelve, which his wife completed. Each book included an introduction. These grew longer as the series went on and were extremely friendly and chatty. I liked the introductions as much as the stories. Blish was very grateful for all the attention. He said that his Star Trek books had brought him more fan mail than all his other books combined. This conjured a picture of his house in England being inundated with sacks of mail, like movie stars. James Blish seemed to be a pal. I remember being shocked when the introduction to Twelve told us he had died.
Early on, I found the stories quite difficult to read. I realize now that Blish was writing for older readers. Doctor Who novels were essentially boys’ books. You found them on the children’s shelves. For Star Trek, when not spotted randomly on one of those spinners, (where I saw Star Trek Five, in a stationers,) you had to go to the science fiction department. In buying these books you felt quite grown up. It was like drinking beer.
Blish used American English, which can create confusion in a young mind.
To any child in Britain, a cot is what in the US is called a crib, a place where babies go to sleep. It has guard rails on all four sides. Sometimes a cot is pink and sometimes it is blue. In Star Trek Five, an elegant woman came aboard the enterprise and said she needed to lie down. She was taken to what Blish called a cot. I found this deeply bizarre and even a bit disturbing. Surely she was too tall for a cot. Her head would have to be propped uncomfortably against the top rail, and her feet would have to hang over the bottom rail. This bothered me so much I was unable to finish the story. I kept thinking about this poor woman squashed into a cot. Why did she not go to bed, like all normal adults? When the episode in question was repeated, I saw that she did indeed lie on a bed, albeit not a very comfortable one. Star Trek beds never looked comfortable.
Blish remarked that sometimes there were discrepancies between his stories and the episodes. He told us that this was because he worked from an early script, and sometimes changes were made before getting to the studio floor. This perhaps gives them, even now, some documentary interest for the right person. Frankly, I never knew the TV series in enough detail to catch the differences. But, as my teens wound on I acquired all these books and read and enjoyed most of them. They were tight and swift.
In the mid-seventies new episodes of Star Trek appeared on BBC 1, in cartoon form. It may surprise Americans who think of these as Saturday morning fare to hear that they were shown in the UK between seasons of Doctor Who, at 5:15 or thereabouts on a Saturday evening, roughly the same slot as the earliest Treks. Essentially, they were given to us as a fourth season, albeit produced in a different manner. God knows what they were like – they were never repeated in Britain, as far as I’m aware – but at the time I found them pretty exciting. On American Saturday morning TV, they must have seemed like Ibsen.
These episodes joined the ranks of Star Trek novelizations, written by someone called Alan. Though the cartoons were half the length of the live action stories, the adaptations were double the length. I bought a few – ‘Star Trek Logs’, as they were called – but read only one or two stories. For the most part, they joined the pile of unread TV books in my bedroom.
But there was a large pile of much more fabulous books based on a much more fabulous programme which did get read, many times. As I gobbled up Target books like they were ice cream, I didn’t imagine that one far-flung day I would be paid a pleasing sum of money to sit in a rather plush studio with a producer the other side of the glass and read two of these marvellous little volumes into a microphone…