Mar 12 2012 10:00am
Spock Must Die!: The First Star Trek Novel

Spock Must Die by James Blish, Star TrekIn 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.

Spoiler Alert!

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.

Fade Manley
1. fadeaccompli
...that...that novel excerpt can't possibly be an actual excerpt from the actual novel. Can it? Surely it's some sort of wacky parody that's been written for this review?

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer
2. EllenMCM
I felt the same way when I read the words in print in the novel.

A number of the novels are kind of wrapped around Spock as a mysteriously sexy, exotic chracter - there's one where he has a son who's less stoic and more psychic than he is, and who also rides a unicorn.
Morbus Iff
3. Morbus Iff
I actually have two different copies of SPOCK MUST DIE! - the 11th and 14th printing.Remember, it was the *first* original novel (not necessarily counting Mission to Horatious which came out around the same time and was the first Star Trek young adult novel). While Blish had indeed done tons of episode novelizations, this was all entirely new. If you want an equally "silly" first novel, try ST:TNG's GHOST SHIP. The amount of hate that Riker has in that book for Data is hilariously "whaaa?" and most of the other characters don't read like themselves at all.
Morbus Iff
4. Morbus Iff
Ellen: you know what would be fun? A Star Trek "re-read" of new stories (not novelizations) in order. I had actually started to attempt this myself a few years ago ( for how far I actually got), but doing it up as a series of articles would be... ... entertaining? ;)
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer
5. EllenMCM
It would be entertaining. It would also dramatically exceed the limitations of my current collection of Star Trek novels. There are a dozen or so that I think would be really fun to take on.
Morbus Iff
6. StrongDreams
that novel excerpt can't possibly be an actual excerpt from the actual novel. Can it?

It's interesting, and perhaps universal (?), that no matter how progressive they intend to be, writers are still a product of their times, and are at least in some ways trapped by and shaped by those times. Note how Blish is trying to be progressive -- the women are overcoming vestigial racism, not real racism, and Yoeman Rand is very much a product of the sexually liberated '60s and '70s, or at least Blish's portrayal is influenced by that time period.

Remember Turbabout Intruder? We all now say," they couldn't possibly have meant that no woman would be allowed to captain a starship", and we point to all the examples of female Starfleet captains from the '90s and aughties. But at the time, yes they did mean a woman couldn't be captain. She could be almost as good as any man, but not quite.

The same thing has shown up in the L'Engle re-read where, no matter how hard she tries to be progressive toward her gay characters, it reads slightly disturbing and just "off" to current readers.
Kristen Templet
7. SF_Fangirl
I read and collected the PocketBook novels in my teens. I managed to get a hold of this back then and remember it and the others novels in the series (ie not the PocketBook) as being off and not quite Star Trek. I didn't hang onto these as they were odd. Of course eventually, the PocketBook novels grew too boring as the success of the movies locked the novels into a formula that left all the characters and universe in the same state as it was at the start of the novel.

"Spock Must Die!" (with an explanation mark) was just wierd and also the title was simply ridiculious and an obvious misdirect to attract attention.
Morbus Iff
8. Zenspinner
This was the book that almost put me off of Star Trek novelizations for good and all. If I hadn't discovered a book of ST short stories and Alan Dean Foster's novelizations of the animated series, that would have been it for me and written Trek. I hated this book with an unreasonable passion - and when I got hold of Blish's novelizations of the original series, I hated them too. But there were good ones out there. I'm way behind on any Trek written matter, but with all the recommendations I'm finding scattered throughout the rewatches and stuff, I may pick it up again. And on the off chance someone is new to Star Trek altogether and is considering reading this, don't read it first! Read some others so the taste of this one will be well and truly diluted by the time you get to it.
Morbus Iff
9. HelenS
Y'know, I remember really, really liking this book a few years after it came out. Mind you, I was probably only ten or twelve. I liked the chemistry and James Joyce geekery (hey, I'm the kid who took Finnegans Wake to school for free reading time in fifth or sixth grade, not that I got very far with it -- hm, now I can't remember whether Spock Must Die! was the stimulus to try reading Joyce).
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer
10. EllenMCM
I read a lot of ST novels between 1988 and 1992, though not this particular one. I grew up without TV, so these were my only access to Star Trek for years. I didn't actually watch any of the television episodes until 2007. As an adult, I can't always see why I loved the things I loved when I was 14, but I did love Star Trek. There are some very lovable novels out there. Which is why I do recommend this one. It's easy to get caught up in the WTF, but it has the core of what Star Trek is - it's an adventure into the unknown where some very odd things happen and we therefore understand something more about ourselves. In this case, the perspective of 2012 means we understand even more about "ourselves" as viewers not only of Star Trek but of Star Trek's original audience. It's very meta.
Morbus Iff
11. James Davis Nicoll
Note how Blish is trying to be progressive

Hmmm. Not a development I'd expect from an author notable for having written one of the few overtly facist utopias in SF, A Torrent of Faces.

I'm not stooping to hyperbole. From the author's foreword to aToF:
"It might surprise some readers, and perhaps horrify a few, that the economic system we settled on for our Utopia is a form of the corporate state, or what was once called fascism. We were interested in the fact that this kind of economic system has never actually been tried (Mussolini's version was a clumsy and indifferent fake and that of Jerry Voorhis, though eminently sensible, suffered the usual fate of any political notion born in California). We thought it might be workable, and perhaps even inevitable, in a high-energy economy ; and while we would agree that the notion of an even quasi-democratic fascism is unlikely, we don't view the possibility of a democratic socialism as likely, either."
j p
12. sps49
I read this at 11 or so, after all of Blish's Star Trek novelizations, and couldn't believe nobody noticed one was a mirror image right off the bat, before it was too late. The actual solution felt odd- if that parameter was different, surely something else detectable would be.

The sex stuff was barely noticed by me; I don't remember it now. Things I do remember- the descriptions of spaceships in warp, the description of subspace communications (total BS just asking for a paradox), and a few odd words from Scotty.
Morbus Iff
13. HelenS
I think Blish was actually speculating on Spock's attractiveness to 20th-century white women (which Isaac Asimov testified to being puzzled by, so probably it was something that a bunch of similarly-minded fellows had trouble grasping), and cloaking his thoughts in Kirk's speculations about women crew members. So, yeah, very meta. Next stop, the curious tendency of male crew members to live in their parents' basements.
Morbus Iff
14. StrongDreams
Next stop, the curious tendency of male crew members to live in their parents' basements.

HelenS for the win!
Morbus Iff
15. HelenS
HelenS for the win!

Thank you!
Keith DeCandido
16. krad
Spock Must Die! was not the first Star Trek novel. That honor goes to Mack Reynolds's Mission to Horatius, which was published in 1968, two years prior to SMD!

---Keith R.A. DeCandido, nerd
Sky Thibedeau
17. SkylarkThibedeau
I had thought 'Spock Messiah' was the first Novelization. I had forgotten this one.
Alan Courchene
18. Majicou
When I saw the article title, I thought "Mission to Horatius..." But I knew KRAD would already have pointed that out.

@7: Of course eventually, the PocketBook novels grew too boring as the success of the movies locked the novels into a formula that left all the characters and universe in the same state as it was at the start of the novel.

That was a rule for quite a while, but recently, the general abandonment of the 24th century by filmed Trek has made the post-Nemesis era a playground for actual dramatic developments. And dramatic they are, believe you me.
Morbus Iff
19. EarlDumarest
Looks like Horatius was already pointed out in #3 by Morbus Iff, but sure, krad did mention it as well... Just saying.
Morbus Iff
20. Red Tash
This is unquestionably the most entertaining blog post and comment thread I've read all day! I about wet myself over the image of Spock's son riding a unicorn!!!
Michael Poteet
21. MikePoteet
This looks like a very fun re-read series - thanks for it! I read Spock Must Die! (that exclamation point makes it look like a Broadway musical extravaganza title, doesn't it?) in middle school as a brand-new Trekkie (claim the name!), so I must've missed all the racial-sexual weirdness, too. Whoa. I do remember finding tachyons interesting, though, and, if what I glean from PBS' NOVA is any indication, Blish (and others since) have gotten it right: if we are ever to really teleport, we'll have to be copisetic with the idea of making copies of ourselves wherever we go, leaving our "originals" to some quantum uncertainty.

Little know fact: Pocket considered but rejected a TNG-era sequel, Wesley Must Die! (I am of course only kidding - I am not a Wesley hater, but the opportunity seemed too good to pass up.)
Jan Vaněk jr.
22. JVjr
I read Spock Must Die! backwhen I still was willing (and had the time) to read ST novels – i. e. long enough ago that I only remember a vague combination of general ST adventure cliches and general WTF at how awkwardly handled they were. I even think I didn't lose the book in bottom layers of my library but managed to sell it when Czech trekdom got some traction so I can't reread it freshly – though of course there are always the ebooks. (BTW, The Star Trek Reader IV on Google Books spells the quote as "freewheeling", without hyphen.)

Anyway, with all due disrespect to the book I would say that " practiced a protective, freewheeling interest in men in general to keep herself and the captain from becoming dangerously involved with each other" can't be justly described as "the idea that a woman would pursue private relationships with men as a courtesy to her commanding officer"; it's just a strategy in a workplace romance (as a late-forties writer imagined it in the late sixties).
Morbus Iff
23. G Costello
This was actually the first "adult" novel I ever read, when I was around 10 years old, having already read a couple of Blish's TV show adaptation books. The cringe-worthy quote is pretty amusing I don't recall that at all, it probably went right over my head. It was fun to see this book discussed 40 years later in a context I couldn't have imagined back then.
Morbus Iff
24. lburns05
I have had this book on my shelf for years, alongside many other early Star Trek novels. When I saw there was a post about this book, I read it this evening. This book is really bizarre, and it could only take place in its own universe. I thought it was pretty cool, but the whole time I was hoping the other Spock was really the good one, expecting a twist that never came. I thought the end was pretty boring. I also hated Scotty's accent.

Morbus Iff
25. Zeno

It has been a long time since I read this novel. It is not bad but there were better ones that would be written. Blish was a critically acclaimed writer of Science Fiction. You can notice many of the themes running through his other stories. The idea about the transporter and having a soul shows his interest in metaphysics and theology,James Joyce is mentioned in the code,The physics of Paul Dirac  is also briefly covered. Personally I liked the solution of who was the real Spock. Blish was a biologist and the idea not makes sense but his scientifically accurate.

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