Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Reviews of "Phoenix" Star Trek novels

The Price of the Phoenix (1977)
Sondra Marshak & Myrna Culbreath
Read July 30, 2007 – August 8, 2007

The Fate of the Phoenix (1979)
Sondra Marshak & Myrna Culbreath
Read September 12, 2007 – October 2, 2007

With the upcoming theatrical reboot of Star Trek featuring the original series characters, I’ve been feel nostalgic for the long past days when in Middle School and High School I could while away hours and even days reading Star Trek paperbacks. Yes, once-upon-a-time I would have claimed the label of Trekkie with pride. I guess old Trekkies die hard, since I’ve just finished reading three Trek novels in a row. I’d like to offer some notes on two of those which are among the earliest Trek novels.

The Price of the Phoenix lived up to my memory of it from those long past days of leisure. I had remembered that the novel featured a super-villain who utilized both psychological and physical torture in his attacks against Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the Enterprise crew. I had remember that this villain Omne had duplicated Kirk as part of his master plan to remake the universe in his image. Most importantly, I had remembered this as one of the most exciting and tension filled Trek novels ever. All these memories were verified in re-reading The Price of the Phoenix. Throughout this 182 page novel, my attention was riveted to this intense battle of wills.

What I had forgotten was the philosophical debates that run throughout the novel, revolving mostly around the value and place of exact duplicates. For example, what do you do with a man who is an exact copy of Captain Kirk? Obviously you can’t have two Kirks on the bridge of the Enterprise. If only one can command, is it irrefutably obvious that the original must have preference? When both are exactly the same down to the memories, how can you say the replica has less of a right?

There were moments in reading this novel that my head hurt from the shifts from extreme physical peril to mind games to moral debates. If it had been any greater in length, I might have despaired. However, as it was, I was quite pleased for the most part to lose myself in the trials Omne imposed on our beloved crew. If there ever was a villain who embodied the sensation of “menace” it is Omne; and as such, his threat gave me a thrill.

Lastly, I also enjoyed the development of the Romulan Commander and the Kirk duplicate who came to embrace the name James. It seems to me that these two were used to great effect as a foil to Kirk and Spock. James slowly starts to find an alternate life in the budding relationship with the Romulan Commander, and James comes to accept that he must relinquish Spock, McCoy, and his ship the Enterprise.

As for Fate of the Phoenix, the sequel, I can’t say nearly as much, at least not favorable comments. Where Price of the Phoenix was tight, intense, and claustrophobic even, The Fate of the Phoenix is a flawed attempt at epic. My biggest disappointment in The Fate of the Phoenix was how Omne turns ally. Why would anyone think it’s a good idea to take a great villain of true menace and turn him into a cuddly friend?

The reason for the alliance is moderately interesting as an idea. Omne needs Kirk, Spock, the Commander, and James to help in a war against himself. Omne has made a duplicate of himself and cloaked this copy in a replica of Spock’s body. Thus Omne has a disguise for infiltrating the Enterprise. However, Omne’s other goes awol, seeking dominance over his maker and cure for a built in death-date. Again sounds okay for a concept but in execution it comes off as contrived and flimsy.

There are so many reversals of fortune as the upper hand shifts back and forth between Omne and his Other, as the Commander fights for her James, as Kirk volleys from the realization that at one time or another his Spock had been replaced, and as Kirk and Spock weigh the morality of keeping one’s word to Omne.

At about the halfway point, I was desperate to be done with the book. I nearly skipped the final chapter a few times, but instead simply read only a few pages each night before bed—like a gulp of bad tasting medicine.

Overall I suspect that Marshak & Culbreath were attempting to create a very different book from Price of the Phoenix, perhaps a space epic. However, their ambition exceeded their gifts. Scene to scene this book feels fraught with contrived and melodramatic events. Also the whole family feel of Star Trek doesn’t quite make it into this book, because everyone had doubts about everyone. I hope I remember to never re-read this one again.


GTS said...

Nicely done, Keith; I always like hearing your take on books, whether fandom-related or fine lit'rature. Thanks, too, for the scoop on the uphill slog to re-read Fate of the Phoenix--I'll be sure and give it a pass if I stumble across it.

Keith Badowski said...

Thanks, Todd. I'm always glad to share my "take" on books; so we've clearly got a tenable argument for a workable symbiotic relationship here. (Can you tell from my vocabulary that I like to read dem books?) Peace, Keith

Anonymous said...

Thank you so very much for your reviews! These are my two favorite "trek" books, and I have re-read them several times...even out loud as a bedtime story to others. I'm sorry that I cannot agree with your evaluation of "Fate", but I did find your summations and insights to be very interesting. I would love to get in touch with the authors, and plead with them for a third novel...to make a trilogy....but I understand that they are currently involved in educational publishing, or something of that nature, and have not been writing! Oh well...I can always dream! Thank you again, and it was very nice chatting with you. Best wishes! ValKriston

Anonymous said...

Hi Keith: Wishing you a happy advent! I was hoping that you might have seen my comments on your reviews of the two "Phoenix" novels. I was re-reading your 2nd review, in particular, and it did help to clarify something which I had previously not understood too clearly...why omne would make his "other" in the body of Spock. Your insight into this made good sense. I would love to hear from you, and I will bookmark your blog site, and read some of your other writings as well. best wishes, Valkriston