In 1970, James Blish published the first original Star Trek novel. Last week, I found myself unexpectedly in possession of a copy.
Star Trek has always dealt in the mysterious and exotic, and how these things will be seen and understood in the future. In Spock Must Die, Blish wrestles with the exotic mysteries of transporters, women, twins, and Mr. Spock.
The book opens with McCoy and Scotty arguing over what happens when a person is transported. McCoy asserts that they are killed and copied. Scotty claims that such a thing is impossible. Scotty is concerned about conversion of matter, and McCoy is concerned about immortal souls. Kirk leaves this cozy philosophical argument when Spock informs him that Organia, the planet from the Season 1 episode “Errand of Mercy,” has been destroyed and the Federation appears to be at war with the Klingon Empire. The Enterprise is on the far side of the Klingon Empire, which creates communication difficulties and makes for a long hike home.
While the ship is headed over to the neutral zone on the other side of Klingon space, Scotty decides to run some experiments with the transporter. He’s going to make a tachyon copy of someone, which will, in theory, allow that person to stay on the Enterprise while some of their particles go elsewhere, come back, report on what they observed, and then somehow cease to exist. The plan is to send the tachyon copy to Organia to check things out and report back.
As far as anyone in the story knows at this point, Organia has been destroyed. So really, Scotty is creating a tachyon copy of someone to float in the dust cloud where Organia used to be, which sounds like it would be fatally destructive to anything remotely approaching a copy of a complex life form. Naturally, they plan to send Spock. There’s no way this can work. Instead, Scotty makes a non-tachyon copy of Spock, completely indistinguishable from the original.
What can you do with two Spocks? Blish explores the problems and possibilities.
Option 1–-Spock Sandwich! Chapel and Rand both get a gleam in their eye. Kirk reports his confusion on this issue in an internal monologue,
With Yeoman Rand, this was only normal and natural. She practiced a protective, free-wheeling interest in men in general to keep herself and the captain from becoming dangerously involved with each other. Kirk was, however, surprised to see it in Nurse Chapel. . . . What was the source of the oddly overt response that women of all ages and degrees of experience seemed to feel towards Spock? Kirk had no answer, but he had two theories, switching from one to the other according to his mood. One was that it was a simple challenge-and-response situation: he may be cold and unresponsive to other women. but if I had the chance, I could get through to him! The other, more complex theory seemed most plausible to Kirk only in his moments of depression: that most white crewwomen, still the inheritors after two centuries of vestiges of the shameful racial prejudices of their largely Anglo-American forebears, saw in the Vulcan half-breed—who after all had not sprung from any Earthly colored stock—a “safe” way of breaking with those vestigial prejudices—and at the same time, perhaps, satisfying the sexual curiosity which had probably been at the bottom of them from the beginning.
I can’t decide which I find more unsettling—the idea that a woman would pursue private relationships with men as a courtesy to her commanding officer, or the idea that sex with Spock, the magical half-breed, is the cure for racism that 23rd century women cannot find anywhere else. How can Kirk still be struggling to work this out?
Option 2–Mix them up, and then wait for one or both Spocks to have a nervous breakdown. McCoy makes sure that Kirk understands that this is the inevitable result of the identity crisis caused by having an identical twin. Sadly, no one suggests dabbing a little polish on one of the Spocks’ toenails and dressing them in color-coded uniforms to tell them apart, even though the book takes place on a ship full of color-coded uniforms. The twin-related interpersonal tension, combined with the stress of war, drives one of the Spocks to barricade himself in the Medical Lab–in an awe-inspiring display of maturity, he says he won’t come out until the other Spock is dead. For some reason, Kirk does not see this as a reason to throw either Spock in the brig, or even to find them separate bedrooms, not that they need them now that one Spock is refusing to come out of the lab. On a brighter note, since Spock is psychic, and the double is neurologically identical, they can read each others’ minds, allowing the original Spock to prove that the double is a Klingon agent.
While Spock is suffering the worst indignities of newly-discovered twinhood, the rest of the crew is struggling to figure out what happened with the transporter and make sense of the conflict between the Federation and the Klingon Empire. Scotty replicates some bunnies for McCoy to run tests on. Uhura sends messages in a code that can only be broken by fans of James Joyce. The war bulletins get more dire every time the ship drops out of warp.
The ending involves a battle to free the Organians from a Klingon field generator. As they always must, the Federation wins. The Enterprise and its crew continue their five-year mission through a universe in which there is only one Spock. The effort to explore McCoy’s concerns about the nature of existence and the perils of space in this story are about as convincing as the explanations of women’s sexual desire, the Spock-as-his-own-psychic-evil-twin plot, and the abrupt conclusion. Still, Spock Must Die! is worth reading as a celebration of the world Star Trek envisioned, however strange that could sometimes be.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer has been a Star Trek fan since the early 90s, but only started watching episodes in 2009. She teaches history and reads a lot.