Spock to the Future: Barbara Hambly’s Ishmael

Barbara Hambly’s 1985 novel, Ishmael, is a study in contrasts. It’s deeply weird, and deeply serious. It’s densely packed with things that should be ridiculous, and are somehow alarming. The first thing that struck me about Ishmael was Captain Kirk’s emotion. In the opening pages, Kirk is grieving Spock’s death. He’s struggling with a horrible loss made more devastating by an inescapable sense of personal responsibility. Having sent Spock into danger and destruction, Kirk is now facing the powerlessness inherent in not being able to do anything about it. McCoy is the most powerful person in this scene, and all he can do is slip Jim the mickey. It’s touching and sad and heavy. The book is full of these moments, somehow, even though it’s a crossover between Star Trek and another short-lived late-60s television series and features two Doctor Who cameos.

The second television series here is Here Come the Brides, which told the story of 100 women brought to Seattle in the 1860s so the loggers would have someone to marry. There is some historical reality behind this; Seattle did import women, from New York, in 1864. This was three years after the founding of Seattle’s first brothel in 1861. The brothel didn’t make it in to the TV series or the book. This is a cute and sanitized Seattle, where the available vices are limited. Aaron Stemple (played by Mark Lenard, who also appeared on Star Trek as Sarek) finds Spock outside of it, lying face down in the mud. Although taken aback by the green blood and pointy ears, Stemple hauls Spock to his cabin where Spock convalesces – he has extensive injuries with odd patterns of scarring, plus amnesia – and Stemple ponders both Spock’s alien-ness and his own alienation.

The villains of this piece are the Klingons. They captured Spock when he went undercover to investigate an oddly-equipped Klingon vessel, tortured him, and then somehow accidentally delivered him to 1867 while conducting experiments with time travel. They’re out to get Stemple, who they blame for single-handedly preventing the Karsid Empire from annexing Earth in the late 19th-century. After a series of adventures including a lot of combing his hair to cover his ears, a fair amount of cheating at blackjack, and the occasional rescue of a friend in dire circumstances, Spock regains his memory just in time to see Stemple shot by Klingons with anachronistic disruptor weapons.

By this point in the story, we’ve spent a lot of time inside Spock’s head as he, like Kirk struggles for hope. Mostly, this has involved his amnesia. Since he remembers nothing, he has no way of understanding his place in the universe. Once Stemple is shot, Spock remembers everything, but he can’t do anything with the information. He has no way to contact the Enterprise, no way to know if they got his last desperate messages from his spy mission, no way to know that they’re coming for him. But of course, this is a Star Trek story, and the cavalry always comes. While Spock has been rusticating in Seattle and gambling in San Francisco, Kirk et al have been reconstructing the Klingon time travel device and working out where to take it.

Hambly hints at what seems like one of the most heroic stories of historical research ever conducted in the Star Trek universe. Usually, Trek time travel is a point-and-shoot affair with characters working out goals and survival strategies on arrival. In this case, the Klingons’ master strategy is based on archival work of a Klingon historian named Khlaru, conducted on the extensive Karsid records in the Klingon archives. Alas for the historian, what could have been an interesting and highly-publishable monograph on strategic mercantilism and interplanetary expansion in the ancient Karsite Empire leads not to grants and tenure, but to a plan to travel back in time and prevent the formation of the Federation.

Four days after the resulting attack on Stemple, Kirk and McCoy show up to rescue Spock. They heal Stemple and return him to Seattle, where he marries the most socially awkward of the women imported from the east coast (Hambly makes it clear that Stemple’s bride, Biddy, is charming but underappreciated). Spock returns to the Enterprise and all is as it was, in no small part because Aaron and Biddy Stemple turn out to be Spock’s great-great-great-grandparents. Khlaru defects to the Federation. The Klingon Empire gets to deal with the realization that time is a swarm of butterflies flapping its wings in the Amazon so that Kirk can command the Enterprise with Spock at his side.

Fans of Doctor Who will be disappointed. The Doctor shows up in two bars with a companion, but plays no direct role in events. Fans of Here Come the Brides have a lot to chew on here, with characters from that show faithfully reconstructed to play pivotal roles in Hambly’s plot, and, as it turns out, the foundations of the Star Trek universe. Fans of academic historians may find themselves drawn to Hambly’s depiction of the enigmatic and heroic Khlaru. Fans of Captain Kirk will appreciate the insights into his inner life. Ishmael is not the book its premise leads one to expect, but it is a remarkable contribution to the mythology of the Star Trek universe.


Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer seriously considered titling this Spocklahoma! but ultimately decided that the distance between Seattle and Kansas City was too great.

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