Jun 14 2012 2:00pm

The Future is a Foreign Country: Margaret Wander Bonanno’s Strangers From the Sky

One of the cool things about Star Trek novels is the opportunity to learn new and interesting things about the characters. You get to see them from a fresh new perspective, unfettered by Paramount’s priorities and the supposed demands of the late-60s viewing audience. In Margaret Wander-Bonanno’s Strangers From the Sky, you have a rare opportunity to see Kirk for what he really is – a fragile and delicate flower. Strangers From the Sky presents a convoluted and squid-like mass of plots. None of them make Kirk look good.

In the opening tentacle, recently-promoted Admiral Kirk struggles to overcome the psychological scars left by his long-ago exposure to popular history. Still wounded by the experience of reading The Final Reflection, Kirk reluctantly gives in to McCoy’s well-intentioned suggestion that he pick up another immensely popular historical work, this time an account of the “secret history” of Earth’s first contact with Vulcans. When Kirk begins having persistent and unsettling dreams about the book, McCoy demands that he undergo a psychoscan. Kirk goes on leave before the results are available, and McCoy crosses the globe to interrupt Kirk’s vacation and have him involuntarily committed. The Federation’s version of the Baker Act seems to lack reasonable protections for civil rights

In comparison, Wander-Bonanno’s exploration of humanity’s first encounter with the Vulcans is warm and fuzzy. As a result of a catastrophic engine malfunction and the logically-implemented self-destruct procedures that kill most of the crew, the last surviving members of a Vulcan anthropological observation team splash down into a 21st-century Pacific kelp farm manned by a Ukrainian couple. One of the many things I have learned from history is that events rarely work in favor of Ukrainian farmers, so I know better than to let myself get attached. Eventually, Tatya and Yoshi will have their memories wiped, and they wind up divorced because of conflicts whose roots they cannot remember. It’s unpleasant, but they get a miracle cure for kelp diseases out of the deal. The Vulcans they have rescued will be taken to Antarctica to be interrogated by a variety of military officials, and then will be miraculously rescued by the young Captain James T. Kirk, who is time-travelling, under-cover, and in the process of learning a Very Important Lesson about cultural diversity.

The time travel plot starts with young Captain Kirk, newly in command of the Enterprise, being mean to his Vulcan science officer. Kirk blames his cruelty on the negative influence of Gary Mitchell, who fans will remember from the second episode of the television series, in which Kirk killed him. In Strangers From the Sky, Kirk, Spock, Mitchell, Elizabeth Dehner, and Lee Kelso (also second episode casualties) all beam down to a mysterious disappearing/reappearing planetoid to resolve an argument between Kirk and Spock about whether or not the object is real. It is! They split up to explore! And just like plucky adolescents in a horror movie, they start disappearing. Everyone but Spock is re-united in an Egyptian pyramid on 21st century Earth. With the aid of a mysterious being named Parneb, Kirk and the rest of the away team set out to find Spock and a way to return to the future. Parneb reports that, although Earth is a few decades away from first contact with the Vulcans, there are two Vulcans on the planet. Neither seems to be Spock but the crew hatches a plan to find them anyway, because all Vulcans know each other. They spend the next several months infiltrating a range of 21st century institutions with the goal of arriving in Antarctica at the same time as the Vulcan crash victims, with the expectation that Spock will work his way towards the same point.

While Kirk’s team spreads out, Spock employs his habitual approach to time travel – he wears a lot of hats and seeks out his mother’s relatives. Spock’s great-great-grandfather, Jeremy Grayson, is a pacifist living in Boston. He gives Spock a place to stay, helps him place newspaper ads to send a message to Kirk, and doesn’t ask too many questions. The newspaper ads are adorably Holmes-ian, admirably direct, and a total failure. Spock ultimately finds Kirk when Grayson is summoned to Antarctica to help address the growing chaos surrounding the Vulcans. We never find out how Kirk and his crew returned to the 23rd century and why this incident led to a growing bond between Kirk and Spock. Nor do we know why, having been through all of this, everyone forgets it.

The bond is fortunate, if inexplicable, because it allows Spock to rescue Admiral Kirk from his involuntary and seemingly indefinite hospitalization. Spock admits that he and Kirk have been having similar dreams, and exploits McCoy’s assumptions about Vulcan psychological stability to persuade McCoy to let Kirk out for a weekend of supervised mind melds. McCoy is a bossy and intrusive third wheel, but Kirk and Spock recover their memories and realize that their teamwork and respect for each other were essential to ensuring that history would achieve its natural end point, with Kirk in command of the Enterprise and Spock at his side.

It is this essential component of Federation history that makes Strangers from the Sky such a mess. Wander-Bonanno is wrestling not just with the plot squid, but with race and class issues in disparate centuries. Why are Ukrainians farming kelp in the Pacific? How are race and gender defined in the 23rd century, and how do they shape the experience of being a citizen of the Federation? It’s impossible to answer these questions in a universe whose fundamental purpose is the inherently conservative project of handing power to a charismatic man, and finding him an infallible advisor. The life and times of James T. Kirk make for fascinating reading, but examinations of the issues facing the Federation in the 23rd century require access to a substantially broader archive.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

1. tigeraid
It was a really neat idea but the book was such a conveluted mess. I read it when I was like 12 and gave up quickly, and tried it again as an adult and it didn't help.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer
2. EllenMCM
I remember loving it, way back when. It is a convoluted mess. The Vulcan crew included a historiographer. He didn't make it into Earth's atmosphere, but his job title set me off on a history geek internal odyssey to figure out how this episode would have been handled by the various schools of thought that have dominated 20th century historiography. The French would be obsessed with the kelp farmers. So would the Marxists. The feminists would scrutinize Vulcan gender roles. The subaltern studies crown would track the terrorists, for lack of better material in re. nationalism and resistance. My obsession with Wander-Bonanno's historiographer made the whole thing much more convoluted than it needed to be.
Benji Cat
3. benjicat
I remember the fact that I read this shortly after it came out but I recall absolutely nothing about the plot.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer
4. EllenMCM
I think this is a good book to read for things other than the plot. There's some good stuff in there about the Spock/Kirk/McCoy relationship, and some fascinating world-building on the 21st century. It made me want to hear more about the daily lives of Ukrainian kelp farmers and Vulcan anthropologists.
5. John R. Ellis
I remember as a kid never being able to get past the beginning of this. Kirk, traumatized and wounded emotionally and spiritually by a history book daring to say that Klingon's just might have....(whispered tone) feelings?

McCoy, suddenly a counter-culture rebel who's favorite activity in the world is destroying Kirk's delicate emotional health?

I recall I dropped it like a hot potato, then instead read Enterprise, which made Janice Rand into such a deep, realistic character!

*pained, crooked smile*

Oh, man. These articles are great. The memories! The cheese! The fun.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer
6. EllenMCM
I loved Enterprise! I really should be more proactive about trying to track down a copy. That was a great book.
7. goljerp
I love Strangers from the Sky -- which is one reason why I hated the movie First Contact. (Not being into Horror was another reason I hated that.)
8. Zeno
I just finished this a few days ago thought it was pretty good. The theme about humanity giving up it's violent past and learning acceptance was not really resolved at the end. If humanity has changed by the time of first contact with Vulcans what is that  changed them? It also seems to suggest that the experience at a subconscious level affected Kirk's relationship with Spock. This is never stated so I don't know if this was intended.   

The Vulcans characterized here are very different than in Enterprise. Here they are basically understanding of humanity.  Bonanno's characterization is better.  Does anyone else have thoughts either of these points?

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