Sunday, February 1, 2009

Star Trek 1 by James Blish

While going back and watching the original series in order, I discovered that I am in fact a rather big fan of Star Trek. Memories of begging to be allowed to watch TV over dinner came flooding back to me, as did trying to tape the old marathon runs on UHF stations and being very upset that I wasn't able to see Star Trek V (or was it VI?) with my friends.

A newer, more critical viewing shows the subtle ways in which the show evolved over time, like how they found that McCoy was a winning character or that Spock works better as a being with a dry wit rather than a complete machine (something Next Gen also learned with Data, come to think of it).

While we were watching the shows, I mentioned how Star Trek novels actually didn't suck, as opposed to the Star Wars adaptations I read. So, in a fit of either inspiration or madness, your call, I figured I would try to run through as many Trek novels as I could before getting tired of the idea.

And because I am a sequentialist, I simply have to read them in order.

So here we are, with the first Trek novel, an adaptation of seven episodes of the original series, written by an Englishman before the show had crossed the pond. None of them are very long, only about 20 pages or so at the max in a mass market format. As a result, the feeling is more like cliff notes of the episodes, hitting the highlights rather than going into depth.

What's most interesting, however, are the little touches Blish adds, like "McCoy didn't like Spock" during the Romulan encounter, that show he's not working from the complete picture of the series, just (presumably) script drafts. There's also notes about Kirk's distaste for desk-bound Federation departments that will use the ships scientific explorations for war, a clear reference to the Cold War military research and the ever escalating levels of destruction made capable in the 1960s.

Blish also seems more inclined to make the Enterprise's crew feel like a sailing ship rather than a science fiction vessal, something that probably ties to England's longstanding nautical tradition. There's stuff about long voyages, lack of communication, reactions to females not onboard the shop, and so on. That's Blish moving out on his own, as the series itself doesn't seem to concentrate on this nearly as much.

The episodes covered here are a bit out of order from how they aired originally, but that honestly doesn't change much, as Blish does not try to use prior experiences to move the characterization (this, I think, is the biggest flaw of the adaptations, other than their extreme brevity). I'm not entirely sure why, unless this was the planned airing order for Britain.

All in all, unless you are a hardcore Star Trek fan, there's probably no reason to read these. I, of course, will continue to do so, because I'm funny that way. You might want to pick one up along the way, just to see the early days of adaptations.

Letters to Juliet by Lise Friedman and Ceil Friedman

Erica kidded me all through this this one being in the house, as, believe it or not, I've never read--nor do I intend to read--Romeo and Juliet. However, as soon as I heard of this book, I knew I needed to read it.

It turns out that, for at least a century, possibly longer, people have been writing letters to Juliet, asking her for advice. This book does some cultural anthropology into the beginnings of the letters, interspersing some of the letters actually written to Juliet over the years.

I think it's most fascinating that the first "Juliet" to respond was the male groundskeeper and that the second Juliet was also male. Though they worked alone and sometimes in anonymity, today there is a team of eight Juliets that take care of the high volume of mail she receives.

Most of the letters are fairly standard stuff of advice columns, but a few nearly brought me to tears, particularly a letter from a young lesbian in India, who not only had to face cultural bias, but one of class as well in relation to her true love.

This book was not anything like I'd expected it to be. Rather than just copy the letters for over 100 pages, the writers instead choose to focus on the historical Juliet, showing the reader around Verona and trying to locate the site of the original tomb as well as the alleged Romeo's house in addition to telling the story of how the Juliet phenomenon continued in fits and starts over the years. There are a nice selection of pictures to help visualize things, too. We probably didn't need the "history of Juliet" that opens the text, as it's less than what you'd get in an intro to the Shakespeare. However, that's a small quibble.

I think this book would make a great Travel Channel special and those of you interested in Shakespeare definitely should pick this up. It's amazing how Juliet has been turned into something of a modern goddess, in large part due to a man who wanted to do more within the civil service.
It just goes to show that if you write a great character, they truly will live forever.