This week the Library Computer begins an ongoing series of retro novel reviews, spotlighting the best books for a specific character. We start with three classic tales with the first lady of linguistics, Nyota Uhura..
So like many fans, I am of the opinion that Nichelle Nichols’ Uhura was magnificently underused throughout the run of the original series. While the new Star Trek feature film has taken great strides to place Zoe Saldana’s version of the character right in the mix of things, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman aren’t the first writers to seek a more prominent role for the Enterprise’s communications officer. This week we are taking a look at three classic novels that do just that. Who knows, perhaps one of them proved to be a bit of an inspiration to the duo when they were crafting the script for Star Trek.
“The Tears of the Singers” by Melinda Snodgrass
(Published September 1984)
The inhabitants of the planet Taygeta are small, seal-like, singing animals. Their sentience is debatable, but the effect of their death is not. When they die, they produce a jewel-like tear, prompting hunters from throughout the galaxy to head for the planet in search of their share of the prize. As if that wasn’t enough, a large space/time anomaly is growing nearby, and Spock suspects a connection between the anomaly and the ‘singers’. The anomaly isn’t static, however – it’s already consumed one starship, and with trouble on Kor’s ship and musician Guy Maslin seeking to discover a means of communicating with the creatures, Uhura finds herself in the midst of both a struggle to save a world, and a personal journey of the heart, as time is ticking away on the fate of the ‘singers’ and the universe.
“The Tears of the Singers” is the sole novel penned by Melinda Snodgrass, who would go on to serve as a story editor for The Next Generation, and to write several episodes of that series. Snodgrass’ story isn’t solely focused on Uhura, but it does portray her in a far more complex manner than any of the television episodes or movies did, while, at the same time, giving her an in-depth communications challenge that would genuinely require a lofty measure of skill on her part.
While “Tears of the Singers” doesn’t depend visually on the Original Series all that much, it would be difficult to envision this tale in the new continuity due to Uhura’s budding romantic feelings for Guy Maslin.
“Uhura’s Song” by Janet Kagan
(Published January 1985)
The planet Eeiauo is plague-ridden, and the contagion threatens not only the cat-like natives, but humanoids as well. With the planet dying a slow, painful death, the only hope lay in forbidden lullabies exchanged between Lt. Uhura and a native of the planet many years before. Now the crew of the Enterprise must track down the mysterious origins of the Eeiauo people and find a cure for the disease before an entire population goes extinct.
Possibly best known as being one of the ultimate ‘Mary Sue’ stories in the Star Trek book line, there are some moments when it feels like this book was supposed to be titled “Evan’s Story” because of the prominence of one-time-guest Evan Wilson, a doctor who takes McCoy’s place on the Enterprise enabling him to stay and work on the disease on Eeiauo. While Wilson threatens to upstage everyone on several occasions (and, depending on your perspective, does), it is Uhura’s past experience and linguistic prowess that constantly drives the story further, leading to an interesting, unexpected, and curious discovery on the part of the crew of the Enterprise.
Possibly the most notable feature of “Uhura’s Song” is the great depth with which Kagan forms the civilization that gave rise to the people of Eeiauo, and, in turn, the Eeiauo civilization itself. Much of the book is spent peeling back the layers of a civilization in a way that makes both species interesting, vital, and alive in the mind of the reader.
For those so inclined, there would be no problem whatsoever with placing this story in the new Trek continuity, and Uhura’s adroitness with both the cultures and languages she encounters fits nicely with what we saw in the recent film.
“Firestorm” by L.A. Graf
(Published January 1994)
Many Star Trek fans decry the third season of the original series for such episodes as "Spock’s Brain" and "Plato’s Stepchildren", and some include "Elaan of Troyus" in the mix of episodes to avoid. Regardless of your view of that episode, this follow-up by L. A. Graf is a most satisfying Star Trek adventure.
In the story, a Federation geology team is observing the largest known super-volcano in the Federation (think Olympus Mons on Mars with a steroid injection) when their observations fall under the harassment of a mining operation run by the Elasians, whose encampment is serving as the temporary home of Israi, the Dohlman of the Elasians. As arrogant as any previous Dohlman, Israi agrees to speak only with the Dohlman of the Enterprise, a ‘duty’ that Captain Kirk places squarely in the lap of Lieutenant Commander Uhura.
However, not all is as it seems. Geologists question the claims of the Elasian miners, Kirk questions the date of their planetary claim, and traitors lurk in the midst of the Dohlman’s camp as a fleet closes in on the planet, the Enterprise, and the Elasians.
This story flows so wonderfully well that it is a joy to read. The arrogance and self-righteousness of the Elasians from the original episode are perfectly conveyed, while at the same time Graf builds out the Elasian culture into a distinctively evolved one based on fierce devotion to the Dohlman and the bond created by the famous biochemical tears that Elaan used many years before to hold sway over Captain Kirk.
While Kirk and Spock get their fair share of story-time, the main focus is on Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov as they struggle to overcome a situation that could kill them all. The settings of the tale are vividly described, and the narrative, while brisk, leaves out nothing that is needed to follow the story and vividly envision the dire settings one is taken to by Graf.
“Firestorm” requires a certain set of assumptions concerning Uhura to be completely effective, and, being set as it is in the original movie era, it definitely does not fit with the new continuity established in the 2009 feature film; however, it remains a fast paced, snappy read that is probably the best of the three that we have looked at this week.
This week’s column has featured three novels that I passed over when they werefirst released as being too ‘boring’ for my tastes… but which I can now highly recommend on their own merits. “Firestorm” feels like a good candidate for an episode of the never-filmed “Phase II” series, while “Uhura’s Song” feels like a movie in and of itself. Of course, with the latter you will have to embrace a ‘Mary Sue’ (well written, to be sure, but still a distraction) in the midst of the story, but the unique nature of the civilizations that Kagan develops makes it worth a read. Snodgrass’ “The Tears of the Singers”, also an enjoyable read, is probably the weakest of the three, but if you are really looking for some original Trek tales featuring our favorite communicator, then these three Uhura stories may well fit the bill.