Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Price Of The Phoenix

The Price of the Phoenix, by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath
July, 1977  Bantam Books

Toward the end of the ‘80s I became less interested in men's adventure novels and more into sci-fi, in particular Star Trek. Luckily I never became a full-on Trekkie, but there was brief a time when I was heavily into the show, watching reruns, buying the movies on VHS, and even catching The Next Generation in its debut season. (I only managed to last for that one season, though.) Soon enough my bookshelf wasn’t just crowded with men’s adventure novels, it was also filled with Star Trek novels.

I haven’t read one of those novels since then, but the other day I was in a used bookstore and happened to be in the science fiction section. In the “series” area I was floored to see how many Star Trek novels they had – I mean, one whole shelf was devoted to them, and it was a big shelf. I ended up buying a handful, this being one of them – I liked the ‘70s look of the paperback and the plot sounded nice and cerebral, a little off the beaten Star Trek path.

Later I learned there was a bit of controversy around this book, with fans split down a sharp divide – they either love The Price of the Phoenix or they despise it. Marshak and Culbreath were members of the first wave of Trek fans, appearing at conventions and editing fanzines. They also edited a few Star Trek anthologies Bantam published around this time. Which would imply that they would at least know the characters from the show, wouldn’t it? Reading this book, you’d never think so.

Happily, I was unaware of something known as “slash fiction,” where Trek fans write fiction that plays up on a supposed homosexual relationship between Kirk and Spock. Sometimes the authors leave it subtle, unspoken, but others blow it up to laughable extremes. This book was my entry into this weird little fiction niche, as Marshank and Culbreath are very heavily in the “slash” category, and they’re also ones who take it to those extremes. But after reading the book I kind of wished I could go back to the time when I didn’t know what slash fiction was.

Okay, the novel opens with Kirk dead. Killed on some “hole in the wall planet” as he attempted to save a woman from a burning house (?). And yet this is all apparently a ruse of evil Omne, a muscle-bound humanoid with black hair and black eyes, who likes to go around in a black jumpsuit with gloves. Omne’s power and muscles are often described and he brings to mind Arnold Schwarzenegger. But beyond this he’s not human, and has more power than even a Vulan -- even a Vulcan, I stress, because the authors for some reason keep playing up the superawesome physical powers of Vulcans throughout the novel.

Kirk’s dead on the first page, and the book starts from Spock’s point of view, as he rages outside of Sickbay, waiting on an official word from Bones. As I said, other writers “subtly” play up the supposed Kirk/Spock relationship, but Marshak and Culbreath make it glaringly obvious; Spock rages and storms and weeps as if he has lost a spouse. And what makes it all the odder is that others are conscious of protecting Spock, of ensuring he doesn’t have to see Kirk’s dead body, of putting him through the horror of losing a loved one…I mean it’s just weird. And as the novel goes on, it gets weirder.

And I don’t say it’s weird due to any homophobic reasons; rather, it’s very unsettling how the authors treat Kirk and Spock throughout this novel, just downright creepy. Spock is constantly portrayed as the heartsick beyond-human who must overcome his desire to lash out in rage, trying to protect his meek and cuddly little Kirk. Speaking of which, there is a concerted effort throughout the novel to make Kirk seem weak and defenseless, and part of Omne’s master plan is to not only make Kirk cry (!), but also to get Kirk to kneel to him (!!) so that “alpha male” Kirk will know he is well and fully mastered. And yes, “alpha male” really is a term thrown around in the text, a lot.

It seems pretty obvious that The Price of the Phoenix is nothing more than a post-feminist revisionism of the Star Trek mythos, with a good heaping of homoeroticism overlayed. If that’s your thing, you’ll love the book. Otherwise, like me you’ll be pretty goddamn puzzled throughout. Seriously, it was like watching a car wreck, reading this book.

I guess I should get around to the plot. Omne has invented this sort of transporter which can pick up and store the complete psychic being of a person as he or she dies, basically the soul, and just as a transporter can reform physical molecules, Omne’s transporter can recreate the entire being, a perfect and exact duplicate with all of the same thoughts and etc as the original product. This is how the novel opens; Omne has arranged the death of Kirk and now unveils his replica (pretentiously referred to as “the Human” quite often in the narrative; just one of the authors’s many pretensions, in fact).

Omne tries to barter off this replica Kirk, offering him to Spock, who simmers and holds back his rage – again, the creepy connotation here being that Kirk is a dead spouse and Spock is going mad to get him back. But not content with this, Omne also barters the replicant Kirk to The Commander, a female Romulan starship captain who apparently appeared in an episode of Star Trek and so was quite popular with early fan fictioners due to her strong will and all that jazz.

The authors definitely have a knack for the kinky, even though they don’t elaborate on it. For one there’s the whole Kirk/Spock dynamic, but also they state quite obviously (and often) that The Commander wouldn’t mind having Kirk and Spock in her bed, at the same time. Anyway the authors insinuate that Kirk and the Commander had something going on after that episode (plus she also has the Romulan hots for Spock), and now Omne is offering the Commander her very own Kirk, in exchange for all sorts of pretentious and over-analyzed trade-offs.

But it develops that Kirk did not die – Omne transported him out of the burning house and now has him somewhere in the labrynths of his defense-shielded planet (which is decorated like the Old West complete with Romulan guards in “black levi’s” with six-shooters strapped to their belts!). Once Spock and the Commander are aware that the real Kirk lives, it sets up what proves to be the main portion of the narrative: the four characters plot against Omne while often stopping all action to stand around and discuss philosophical issues.

Actually what The Price of the Phoenix most reminded me of was those dialog and philosophy-heavy early episodes of The Next Generation; all cerebral masturbation and no action. We’ll get blocks and blocks of paragraphs as Omne will arrive on the scene and trade speeches with our heroes, and this goes on throughout. Every once in a while the authors will deliver a pretty sadistic fight scene, but they’re spare and brief and the violence is neutered by the psuedo-literary style.

The fights the authors provide the most detail for, of course, are the man-on-man brawls between Omne and Spock or Omne and Kirk, with lots of words spent on each thrust and slap and grunt. Pretty soon I got some sick enjoyment out of seeing how far these ladies would go in their quest for homoeroticism; the pinnacle is probably when Kirk takes away a mega-beaten Spock and rubs his entire body with a healing liquid of Omne’s, stripping Spock down and lathering him up good and proper from head to toe. My god, just kiss already!

Only toward the very end do the authors realize they can capitalize on the fact that they have two Kirks, and here the fun and goofy spirit of the original TV series returns as Kirk banters with himself.  In these few scenes the authors whittle back on their revisionist designs and allow the characters to breathe a little, and it lets you see how much fun this novel could have been. 

The novel’s only 182 pages but it seems a lot longer, and not just because of the tiny print. Marshak and Culbreath have a very affected style, with characters who talk solely in obfuscation. I kept reading how these two, given their diehard fan status, knew the characters so well, but to me these characters seemingly had nothing to do with the ones on Star Tek. Also their fan fiction roots shine through in that no one in the galaxy apparently matters other than Kirk and Spock – everyone seems to know of them, and as mentioned Omne’s whole plan is to master either or both of them, never mind that he’s created a device that could change the fate of the entire universe.

Marshak and Culbreath end the novel on a cliffhanger; they followed up the book two years later with The Fate of the Phoenix, which god help me I also bought. And by damn I’m going to read it. One of these days.


Marty McKee said...

Yep. It's bad. I read it as a kid and couldn't make hide nor hair of it. It was overly complicated and had nothing to do with the show. I may or may not have read the sequel; I don't remember. A coupla years ago, I tried to re-read this (I also re-read SPOCK MUST DIE), and put it down maybe halfway through. Could not finish it. Looking forward to your review of FATE, though I doubt I will pull that one off the shelf (yep, I have a shelf full of TREK novels too, but haven't bought one since probably the 1990s). I bought the Pocket Books releases regularly for about two years until I got busy with college and did less reading. I really like Vonda McIntyre's ENTERPRISE though, one of the few TREK novels I bought around then.

Bob Milne said...

Wow, a glutton for punishment, he? Just having read your review, I wish I could not know that book exists - I can't imagine subjecting myself to a sequel!

Jack Badelaire said...

You're like a sin-eater for those of us who love trash fiction, but can't stomach all that much of it.

I've got a few old-school Trek novels lying around, but I've never read one, and this is why - you never know what crackpot interpretation of the series you're going to get.

Peter Brandvold said...

I've read only a couple of Star Trek novels--both by James Blish way back in the early 70's. Can't remember if I liked them or not.

I can't believe the proposal for this one got through Paramount. I thought they were rather protective of the franchise's integrity. This sounds like a real slap in the face of the original show, which I love and continue to watch though it was more fun back in college when my buds and I watched while smoking a few buds...

Marty McKee said...

It wouldn't get past Paramount now, but in the 1970s, why would they give a shit about a paperback novel (I don't think there was originally a hardcover) tie-in to a show that had been cancelled years earlier? Of course, corporations were less litigation-happy then too, but I doubt anyone at Paramount cared or even knew much about this novel. The studio certainly wouldn't have cared about TREK's "integrity."

OlmanFeelyus said...

I have heard about this slash fiction, but I never realized it actually got published. Man, companies were a lot less uptight about their license back in the day weren't they!

I don't see how any true Trekkie could except this book given that the whole point about being Vulcan is that you aren't supposed to have emotions!

Janus said...

Slash fiction may have gotten its start with Star Trek and K/S (which is where the "slash" designation originated), but it has now come to mean any fanfiction that insinuates a homosexual relationship between two characters from a TV series, et al, where none existed in the original material.

Peter Brandvold said...

This is a whole new, interesting, trashy world to me.

Thanks for reviewing the book, Joe.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks everyone for the comments! This was one strange reading experience for sure. I picked up a few Star Trek books, but I might put Fate of the Phoenix next on the list, just so I can chalk it off. I suspect it will be more of the same.

And btw Marty, Vonda McIntyre's "Enterprise" was one of the books I too bought back in the day -- in fact it's one I actually read, and I recall loving it. Might be worth re-reading sometime.

Grant said...

I can't judge this book because I don't know it, but I get so bored (not offended, bored) with the idea of "outing" fictional characters (or celebrities or anyone else). It used to be that you mainly had to put up with homophobes seeing gay people everywhere they looked. Now you also have NON-homophobes doing the same thing!

Marty McKee said...

Come on, Joe, it's been three years! Time to subject yourself to FATE!

Joe Kenney said...

Okay, Marty, I'll give it a shot! I've been watching some classic Trek so it should be the perfect opportunity to read the novel...and see how little it has in common with the actual show.