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Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Great Federation Mutiny Trilogy Massacree (as Arlo Guthrie might put it)

CAVEAT: The events described in this recollection occurred nearly 30 years ago. To paraphrase a mirror I recall seeing, “Objects in reality may be more distant than they appear.”

In the mid- to late-1980s, I heard from my agent, Joe Elder, that Pocket Books was looking to sign up some more Star Trek novels written for the classic series. Since I’d previously written one for Bantam (Trek to Madworld), he wondered whether I’d be interested in writing another one. Since I was currently working with my wife, Mary Mason, on what became the Jade Darcy books, I talked it over with her and we came up with an outline we liked. The premise was roughly as follows:

The Federation in the classic series was underlain squarely by Gene Roddenberry’s 1960-style liberalism. Fellowship between all the different alien races, that sort of thing. What would happen if the conservatives, building on a base of hate-filled bigots, took over power in the council? Their conservative agenda could wreak real havoc in those long-established liberal principles. (I know this is purest fantasy and could never happen in real life, but hey, it’s only a novel, right?) The conservatives could play off the hatreds of one group for another, starting small brushfires that would escalate and have different groups at each other’s throats. The Enterprise would be ordered to take part in an ugly skirmish that violated all the good things Kirk and the crew stood for, leading them, and a growing number of other ships, to mutiny. Eventually the mutiny would grow so large it undermined the conservatives and the good old liberals would recapture control of the Federation.

One thing Mary is justifiably proud of: In the history of Trek, there has never, to our knowledge, been an economic basis for how the Federation holds together. Mary devised a system based on the availability of dilithium crystals and the supply thereof. The Federation would control the use and distribution of dilithium crystals, much like deBeers does on Earth with diamonds. This would regulate who was able to participate in space flight. It made a lot of sense.

Anyway, we wrote up our outline and sent it in. In due course, we heard back from Joe Elder that the editor at Pocket (whose name I can’t completely remember, I’m afraid; David something, I seem to recall--he was a nice young kid) liked our outline, but there was a weird sort of problem. One of his other Trek writers, Diane Carey, had also submitted an outline about a mutiny in Star Fleet, and he, the editor, also had an idea along similar lines. He wanted to reconcile this so all the books could be published, so he suggested it as a trilogy; Mary and I would write the first book, Diane Carey would continue it in the second, and his own book would conclude it. Pocket Books would pay for all of us to travel to New York for a weekend and hammer out the plots, then we’d all split up and work on our sections separately.

I have to say I had serious doubts about this scheme. I’ve worked on collaborations before; they’re hard enough to do when the various parties live in the same city and can communicate easily. Having three different groups in three different sections of the country (Mary and I lived in Sacramento, CA, Diane Carey was in Flint, MI, and David was in New York) would be an enormous challenge—especially in an age before easy email, when communications had to be either by expensive phone calls or slow physical letters. Still, this is what the editor wanted to do, and I’ve never turned my nose up at a free trip to New York. . In due course, Mary and I were winging our way eastward and ensconced in a New York hotel, compliments of Pocket Books.

I honestly remember very little about the plotting, other than the fact that very little of it was actually accomplished. Mary and I described our premise, Diane said very little about hers, and David virtually nothing about his. The others sort of agreed that Mary and I should write our section the way we wanted and the others would pick up from there. We could have done all that at home and saved Pocket Books a whole lot of money.

One thing, though—the weekend confirmed my opinion that New York editors know how to pick good restaurants. The first night we ate at a fine Chinese restaurant, the second at a good Italian restaurant. Unfortunately, I think the Careys—who considered themselves some of Flint, Michigan’s, intellectuals--were sort of overwhelmed by the food choices. At the Chinese restaurant, Diane told us her husband didn’t eat rice (though he complained he did, but only if potatoes weren’t available). At the Italian restaurant, we had a appetizer of fried calamari rings with a spicy dipping sauce. Diane’s husband actually dared to try one of the calamari rings, and pronounced it was OK, but rather bland. Mary and I pointed out that was what the dipping sauce was for. I don’t recall him bothering to try it. Given the wealth of Italian possibilities on the menu, the Careys ordered steaks.

I have to admit to philosophical differences on top of other problems. I tried reading Diane Carey’s previously published Star Trek novel. In it, she had a human character describe her very objectivist political philosophy. OK, I could stand that. But when Carey had a Vulcan proclaim that was the only logical way to govern, and the Vulcan race had ruled themselves that way for many centuries, I literally threw the book across the room and never bothered to finish it. Diane Carey has the right to hold any foolish political beliefs she wants, but it was Gene Roddenberry who created the Vulcans, and Mary and I both believe he did not intend the entire Vulcan race to be devotees of Ayn Rand. For Diane to claim otherwise was arrogantly presumptive.

We got home and started work on our book, and were immediately floundering. As the set-up for the trilogy, we had to know what we should put into the novel to establish what should come next—and we got little to no advice from either of the other parties. We did, however, get a strange and disturbing notice from the Paramount licensing department.

The dictum came down to us, via David, that Paramount declared there was, and could be, no bigotry or prejudice in the Star Trek universe—people had evolved beyond all that by then. This, of course, struck at the very heart of our premise. I phoned David and pointed out to him how many times we heard McCoy say something like, “Spock, you pointed-eared Vulcan, your goddamn logic will get us all killed.” (I think it occurred at least every other episode.) Now, I told David, try changing a couple of the words: “Spock, you hook-nosed Jew, your goddamn stinginess will get us all killed.” And McCoy was a highly trained, well-educated professional who would never dream of discriminating against Spock in job placement or social interaction. Oh, you can say it was all good-hearted japery or satire, but satire doesn’t exist unless there’s something in reality to satirize. There damn well was prejudice, or at least the remnants of it, in the Federation. David gulped, but had to give in to Paramount licensing.

[Note: This wasn’t the only stupidity I’ve encountered from Paramount licensing. Years later, when I was working for the computer game company Spectrum Holobyte on a Star Trek cartridge game, some of the company’s artists had depicted non-humanoid aliens. Paramount came down with another dictum: There were no inteligent non-humanoid aliens in the Trek universe. Everyone at our company, all being Trek fans, went ballistic. What about Hortas? we asked. The only reason Gene Roddenberry hadn’t included non-humanoids wasn’t because he was prejudiced against them, but because there was a noticeable dearth of non-humanoid actors capable of speaking lines in Hollywood. I don’t remember the ultimate resolution, but I did come away with the strong impession that the drones at licensing never watched the show.]

So Mary and I labored in a vacuum, and in time we produced a very, very, very rough draft. We knew it was rough. We said as much. We also knew it wasn’t very good, and we were disillusioned with the whole project. But we dutifully turned it in, hoping for the sake of our reputations that it wouldn’t see the light of day. Eventually, we got a call from my agent: “I’ve got good news and bad news.”

“What’s the bad news?” I asked, since I always like to get that out of the way first.

“Pocket turned down your book.”

I blinked a couple of times. This was bad news? It was what I’d hoped for. “What’s the good news, then?”

“They’re paying you the on-acceptance money anyway.” This made the novel theirs, and they could do whatever they wanted with it—like sit on it till the end of time. Which is what they’ve done.

On the whole, it was a disappointing experience. Yeah, I got paid for writing the book and I got a free trip to New York. But I also lost many months of writing time, time I could have spent on a better project. And I still think Mary’s and my original idea would have made a fascinatin story.
I'd like to announce I've started work on a new YA novel called Into the Out, about a group of high school kids on a field trip in the California desert. They stumble across a buried starship, and before they realize what's happening it takes off, carrying the group into interstellar space. It's an homage to one of my all-time favorite books, Andre Norton's Galactic Derelict. I hope to have a lot of fun with it. With any luck, it'll be finished next spring. More news to follow as work progresses.

1 comment:

  1. _"One thing Mary is justifiably proud of: In the history of Trek, there has never, to our knowledge, been an economic basis for how the Federation holds together."_

    TNG made it clear that the Federation is a slave economy based on the enslavement of AIs. The ship computers, holodeck characters, who knows what else... if the ships computer can create a self-aware holodeck character (Moriarty) just by having an authorized crew member ask for it, it's clear that self-awareness is easy and is deliberately blocked (or, worse, allowed but hidden) by the holodeck safety protocols... and if the ship itself isn't self-aware it's a miracle.

    I wrote a cranky slashdot rant about this some years ago: