Sunday, January 19, 2014
Myriad Universes: Alan Dean Foster and Ballantine Star Trek
When we talked about James Blish, I mentioned that the choice of having him novelize the Original Series was indicative of Star Trek's at-the-time tentative connection to Golden Age science fiction. While his novelizations seemed marketed to the Hard SF crowd (and certainly looked the part), there was always a lingering uncertainty that this was what Star Trek really was and that these were the sort of people it should be exclusively marketed towards. This was embodied in Blish himself though his paradoxical and counterintuitive connection with the sci-fi writers' group the Futurians, who bizarrely seemed to think they could bring about a Trotskyist revolution by going through Pfizer and Boeing. Blish and the Futurians, like Star Trek itself, were compelled equally by both extremely right-wing and extremely left-wing forces.
Alan Dean Foster however, is a different breed of writer altogether. In fact, it could be argued he stands right at the precipice of the point where New Age science fiction, Forteana and fantasy meld into the blockbuster giant of a genre we're familiar with today. Foster's major sci-fi work, and probably what got him the gig in the first place, is the Humanx Collective, a constructed, self-contained universe of stories about a progressive representative democracy encompassing multiple planetary civilizations of which humanity is a member, so I wonder where we've heard that before. The primary difference between the Humanx Collective and the Federation, however, is that the former body is in many ways defined by its two founding members, humanity and the Thranx, an insectoid people, and this relationship is a symbiotic one. As a result, there's a lot more cultural diffusion in Foster's stories than in Star Trek, and this allows for a depiction of how cultures morph and grow over time as they interact with each other.
Foster's also something of a message writer, and a lot of his stories have a very strong environmentalist bent to them. Unlike someone like Gene Roddenberry though (or André Franquin for that matter), Foster doesn't tend to have his protagonists come sailing in to tell all the Bad Polluters what they're doing wrong, but instead demonstrates how a lack of respect for nature will ultimately lead to the undoing of any people who foolishly make the mistake of selfishly exploiting their environment. Apart from just being a message I can't find any fault with, this also puts Foster very firmly into the tradition and concerns of the environmental age, which is quite fitting for 1974 and 1975. What's also great about Foster's staunch environmentalism is how it demonstrates so effortlessly that science fiction, and in particular science fiction about space travel, can remain relevant without relying on being propaganda for massive state-sponsored displays of Cold War imperialism. It's a closing argument for our “Space Oddity” concern that our stories of space travel are doomed to become relics of the 1950s.
But the bits of Foster's oeuvre that most interest me are the ones that actually haven't happened yet from our current vantage point, but which in my view prove far more revealing. First is his Spellsinger series from the 1980s and 1990s, which concern a pop musician who is also a wizard, and who discovers this when he is transported into a fantasy world where music is actual, literal magic and lyrics are spells and incantations. This is...well...Without bringing up cosmic fugues, codas, spore dreams or symphonic radial madness and going off on a gigantic tangent about stuff that really isn't related to Star Trek (but which really deserves a book all unto itself), let's just say this interests me greatly. For the moment, you can go back and read what I wrote about Space Ritual and “Once Upon A Planet” if you're tempted to try and transcend the Grey Maybe.
Secondly though, and perhaps most shockingly of all, at least for me, is the fact Foster ghost-wrote the novelization of the original Star Wars and is, in fact, largely responsible for the vast majority of what's considered canon about that universe's history, chronology, technology, cultures and planets, a fact which he has rather classily likened to being a contractor for a Frank Lloyd Wright house. We're still a ways off from discussing Star Wars in any significant way, but for our purposes right now it's worth pointing out that it suffers from an even more severe case of Singular Creator Deification than Star Trek. It's well known now, of course, that huge swaths of what's most beloved about that franchise come not from George Lucas himself, but from a widely disparate group of writers, directors, producers, artists and designers, but it's always surprising to learn *just how much* of Star Wars is due to people who barely got any credit and recognition at all.
Star Wars is also well-known for being the first, or at least the first large-scale and well-known, fusion of science fiction and fantasy tropes and motifs. As such, it's fitting that Alan Dean Foster be the one to novelize it and flesh out its world, because Foster is the first writer we've looked at to explicitly link the two genres. Previous writers we've seen, like Robert Bloch, Joyce Muskat and Stephen Kandel, have hinted at doing something like this, but it's Foster who really breaks the doors down and embraces this shared aesthetic as an overt goal. Likewise, connecting him to Star Trek at this point in time also does well to reassure us that in spite of the pretensions of it and a specific subset of its fanbase, Star Trek is not, and never really was, purely Hard SF. It's yet more evidence that even now, when Star Trek is arguably as cult as it's ever going to be, that this is an idea that has both mutability and staying power and is going to be around for awhile to come.
As for Foster's novelizations themselves, there's one other interesting thing they do that is perhaps the most obviously prescient of anything: While the Animated Series is purely episodic, with the exception of a few sequels to Original Series stories and that mention of the Kzinti in “The Infinite Vulcan”, Foster turns the show into a self-contained serial, linking his first six books together and then turning his back four into a self-contained prequel to his own original Star Trek novel. Furthermore, Foster elaborates and expands on a lot of concepts the show only touched on, such as positing that M'Ress' people, the Caitians, share a common ancestor with the Kzinti and even giving M'Ress her own extensive backstory: According to a lengthy recount in the novelization of “The Ambergris Element”, M'Ress had previously served aboard the USS Hood, where she singlehandedly saved the ship from a Kzinti attack after the entire bridge crew was slaughtered by stalling the pirates long enough to call for help, which basically means Foster's M'Ress is the only remotely positive thing ever to be associated with “The Ambergris Element”.
M'Ress is a good example of the virtues of Foster's approach to novelization. She's a likable and memorable, yet really underdefined and underdeveloped character on the show who's also somewhat let down by Majel Barrett playing a really unconvincing cat woman. But Foster has a lot more time and space, not to mention freedom, to explore these sorts of concepts so someone like M'Ress really shines under him. In fact, I'm going to posit that he's one of the primary reasons she's remained such an iconic and beloved character from this era of Star Trek, going on to appear in numerous spin-off comics and tie-in novels.
This kind of overt serialization and eye towards world-building is blatantly unheard of in genre television in the 1970s, except for maybe a few tentative experiments in that direction, but it makes a lot of sense given Foster's novelist background and what he did with Star Wars. Much of George Lucas' work, not to mention Steven Spielberg's as well, is heavily indebted to pulp action serials which, along with Golden Age Hard SF, is a genre that Star Trek draws on as well. And, for better or for worse, in hindsight Foster's approach did rather turn out to be a strong indication of the way science fiction eventually developed. We're thankfully a ways off from when world building and serialization completely mire Star Trek and television in general, but a little bit of this is certainly OK and, in the case of Foster's Star Trek Logs, quite welcome.
This is another feature that distinguishes Foster from Blish: While Blish was slavishly loyal to the original scripts (or as loyal as he could be given he was often working from early drafts), Foster is not above expanding upon and enhancing the source material in ways the TV show was unable to do, but that he was given the long-form nature of his medium. This eye towards building upon, tweaking and improvement puts him in good company with the fanfic writers we've been looking at recently, and is quite possibly one of the primary dividing lines between two different approaches to genre fandom.
The other thing I like about these books is how they're advertised: The first few books overtly play up the notion that Star Trek is back and that The Animated Series is the proper, official continuation of the story. Even the fact that there's a line of novelizations at all, just like the Original Series had, does a lot to legitimize the current show in my opinion. Even though the idea that The Animated Series shouldn't be treated as canon comes largely from one angry guy ranting and raving in the late 1980s, even now there is, as we saw when we looked at the fanfic writers, a kind of sense that Star Trek is a marginal, half-forgotten thing at this point. The Animated Series still gets overlooked when compared to its more illustrious predecessor. But Alan Dean Foster is making a concerted effort here to argue for the show's merit and value and that it makes equally valid contributions to the evolving franchise and should be given respect and attention. Just as D.C. Fontana is trying her hardest to redeem Star Trek and move it forward (as are people like Paula Smith, if we're honest), Alan Dean Foster is trying to redeem the Animated Series itself and demonstrate how Star Trek can build off it itself to continue to grow.
And that sounds just about right to me.