Dec 14 2012 12:00pm

If You Love Uhura, Set Her Free: The Tears of the Singers and Uhura’s Song

A look at overlooked, for various reasons, Uhura-centered Star Trek novelsUhura has long been one of the most interesting characters in the Star Trek canon, in no small part because the series says so little about her. Nichelle Nichols noted that most scripts started with some interesting pages for her, and ended with “Hailing frequencies open, Captain.” While this was a horrible waste of a talented artist, it leaves plenty of imaginative space for novelists to work within.

Melinda Snodgrass views this space as a playground. In The Tears of the Singers, Snodgrass crafts a Star Trek adventure that is propelled by Uhura and the questions that define her life.

In Tears of the Singers, Uhura’s love of music leads her into a romantic entanglement with an obnoxious, chronically ill musical genius. An interstellar anomaly threatens the safety of the universe, so the Enterprise heads to the closest inhabited planet, shanghaiing Uhura’s boyfriend for the trip, since his particular brand of musical genius seems necessary for establishing communications with the possibly-sentient race inhabiting that planet. Because the Federation is big and its administrators are WAY too busy to enforce the Prime Directive, the Federation has licensed hunting of these mysterious mammals with complex social behaviors. The tears they shed when they die form crystalline jewels that are highly sought after by the carriage trade. But mostly they spend their time singing.

Furry, telepathic singing creatures? That’s right up Uhura’s alley. She and her boyfriend, accompanied by Scotty on the bagpipes and Spock, for some reason, carry out an away mission to try to establish communication with the Singers. Predictably, this kills our chronically ill musician and allows Uhura many opportunities to contemplate the big questions: Can she ever achieve work-life balance? Does she want a career or a family? Since starships are female, is being a female starship captain like being a lesbian? (Not making that up—it’s on page 132.) There are also some Klingons, whose romantic relationships can only be described as sick and whose sharpshooting skills are much vaunted, but nowhere in evidence.

I am confident that this book has its detractors. True confessions: I put the book down for a week of rage and derision when I hit page 132. But getting caught up in snark misses the point. This book was written in the 80s. I’m sure the question about the socio-sexual impacts of command seemed more cogent then (and if anyone has demonstrated the ability to handle cogent questions, it’s Melinda Snodgrass, who also wrote the TNG episode “Measure of a Man”).

Snodgrass’s Uhura is Star Trek Barbie, rather than a fully-realized character. But why waste time dissing Barbie? Barbie was pretty cool once you broke her out of her plastic-packaging shell. It’s fun to see Uhura on a journey that fulfills every fantasy about what she so often wasn’t, but so clearly could be. Fans already understand that a bizarre story about Uhura is nothing more than a sign of the depth of the character’s untapped potential. This understanding helps explain the magical mystery tour that followed in Janet Kagan’s novel, Uhura’s Song, which appeared two novels later in the Pocket Book series.

The plot of Uhura’s Song is undisputably weird: In order to overcome some iron-clad cultural beliefs about intellectual property rights, the crew of the Enterprise seeks out a lost planet of cat-people who might know a cure for the enormous-talking-feline equivalent of chicken pox. McCoy is busy on the known planet of cat-people caring for victims of the chicken pox outbreak when Nurse Chapel is struck down by the disease, so the crew relies on the medical assistance of Evan Wilson, a Manic Pixie Dream Physician with an affinity for cats and Spock.

Major features of this work include not one, but TWO planets of cat-people, the revelation that the Federation Diplomatic Corps is no good at holding on to personnel, an epic coming-of-age journey, lots and lots of ballads (Kagan does not transcribe the dirty ones) and a seemingly infinite supply of Mary Sues for women and cat-lovers of all ages. Catchclaw is the no-nonsense community healer. Jinx is the teenager struggling to find her path into adulthood. Brightspot is a perky tween. Uhura uses the power of music to build a bridge between the bards of the long-lost cat planet and their exiled brethren. Evan Wilson and Brightspot fall off a bridge, and Kirk rescues them. In the end, Kagan reveals that Evan Wilson is a fraud, but she was charming and saved a bunch of cat-people from their very deadly plague, so Spock resolves to track her down in a vaguely affectionate way in his ample free time. Yeah, that’s right, I said vaguely affectionate. With all these Mary Sues around, someone has to turn Spock’s life upside down with their incessant joie-de-vivre, and he and Evan have a special bond because she’s a little bit psychic and she accidentally picked up some of his memories when they mind-melded. Got a problem with that? It’s okay. My Barbie is too busy dating Spock to go to the movies with your GI Joe.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot. She is currently looking for a way to persuade her children to let her change their cat’s name to “Another StarFreedom.”

David Thomson
1. ZetaStriker
Wow, these covers are as ridiculous as the plots you described. I especially love how mad Spock looks at Uhura in the Uhura's Song cover.
2. RiceVermicelli
And in addition to the stuff in your cut text - OH MY GOD SHE WEARS PANTS! Right there on the cover! Pants!
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer
3. EllenMCM
Well, it's cold on the Planet of the Exploited Crying Endangered Whales.

ZetaStriker, I feel pretty strongly about these particular covers. Spock is furious, and Uhura is clearly a man.
Ian Tregillis
4. ITregillis
Melissa Snodgrass views this space as a playground... and if anyone has demonstrated the ability to handle cogent questions, it’s Melissa Snodgrass...

Actually it's Melinda, not Melissa. :-)
Lee VanDyke
5. Cloric
Okay, while I can't claim Tears of the Singers is one I re-read often, I love Uhura's Song enough that when I'm scanning my bookshelves for a quick re-read between trips to the library or B&N it is one of the TOS books I smile as I pick up. Brightspot and Jinx are a joy to read about.

Oh, and as for Spock joining the musicians in Tears, it was established in "Charlie X," I think, that he is also a musician. He plays the Vulcan lute while Uhura sings to Charlie.
6. Gardner Dozois
A lot of fans loved UHURA'S SONG enough that Janet received fan letters on it right up until the day she died.
jeremiah gaster
7. jer
I grew up reading this series. I loved these books, and it's what led me to believe that k/s/m aren't the only ones in the universe.
8. Lesley A
Golly - I remember reading both of these! Loved Uhura's Song, and the cats. Didn't they build a hut in a particularly artistic way as a present for Chekov, or something?
Sarah Holland
9. SarahHolland
I also love re-reading Uhura's Song. I remember re-reading it for the first time after I heard about the concept of the Mary Sue, and realizing that there was indeed a major Mary Sue in there - but really, it's a well written and FUN book. Recommended.
Angela Korra'ti
10. annathepiper
I always loved Uhura's Song! I specifically re-bought it lately, since it's one of the few Trek novels I wanted to have around in my library.
11. John C. Bunnell
I've evidently mislaid or disposed of my copy of Tears of the Singers, but I recall having severely mixed reactions to the novel at the time. OTOH, I still have my copy of Uhura's Song, and it's always been one of the novels I point to when I'm trying to convince people that yes, tie-in fiction can be just as good as anything else in the genre -- as well as one that, like Cloric, I will happily reread periodically when I'm looking for a particularly good pick-me-up story.

My usual line when I've recommended Uhura's Song is that it is an excellent first contact story -- which it is. In light of the present discussion, I'll make a different point. An immense amount of current genre fiction is built around characters who come from dysfunctional emotional environments, either familial or cultural. Uhura's Song is different: it's a story in which the characters -- human and alien alike -- come from essentially functional families and cultures (certain notable plot points notwithstanding). That gives it an upbeat, optimistic quality that's refreshing when set against today's angsty paranormal protagonists and gritty dystopian settings. And in that context, I have to disagree with the assertion that the book is littered with Mary Sue characters. It is populated with competent characters, which is not the same thing. (I might concede Evan Wilson, but if she is a Mary Sue, then Kagan uses her in a way that plays knowingly and inventively with that concept.)

As Gardner notes, Uhura's Song is also one of the handful of Trek novels that's remained consistently popular throughout the life of the franchise and long after its original release. If my own memories serve, there'd been at least some talk of a new sequel within the last couple of years, though I don't know whether there'd been any actual development or writing in progress before Ms. Kagan's passing.
12. Digitalis
When I was younger (and just getting into Star Trek through TNG), a friend of my mother's gave me her son's collection of all the Star Trek novels that had been published at that time (I can only hope he didn't want them). I read them all, but UHURA'S SONG is the one that made me enough of a fan to hunt down and watch the original Star Trek. It's the book I go back to when I'm feeling nostalgic for something trekkie, and the one I give to friends and family who are curious about Star Trek. Janet Kagan was a terrific writer (HELLSPARK was brilliant), and I think dismissing any characters as Mary Sues just because they're likeable does a disservice to them and to your readers (and demonstrates a lack of understanding about the admittedly poorly-defined term).

MeliNDa Snodgrass, on the other hand, has never appealed to me as a writer, in or out of Star Trek. Her work is extremely preachy, her characters are wooden and prone to saying things that make no sense coming from their established points of view, and her dialog is laughably unrealistic. She does explore what could be interesting moral issues at times, but her style is so heavy-handed that it feels like she's slapping you in the face with the giant novelty foam hand of her opinion (and it always comes across as being written against a side, as opposed to an examination of both points of view. In the end, the side she's against is always wrong.). Even reading her newer work, I can't help but feel the ONLY reason her books get written is because she wants to get her (early-90s positive discrimination-style) political correctness across so very badly, to the point where plot, continuity, characters, and logic are left like litter on the wayside. I'm not surprised you put TEARS down, but I'm impressed at your perseverance in picking it back up and finishing it.
13. Mike Poteet
"Because the Federation is big and its administrators are WAY too busy to enforce the Prime Directive, the Federation has licensed hunting of these mysterious mammals with complex social behaviors." - I had forgotten that. I remembered that they were hunted, but not that the UFP sanctioned it. Wow. Pocket Books would never let a plot like that fly today (nor should they). Still, it shows why those early TOS novels are still compelling, because writers had a somewhat freer rein in interpreting the world of Trek.

I liked both of these in the 80s as a teen - haven't reread them, but your reviews make me think I might actually still like them! Thanks!
14. RobinM
I don't really remember Tears of the Singers I haven't read it since high school. I really love Uhura's Song I've re-read it several times. I think its one of the best pocket tie-in books. It's a first contact book thats not all about Kirk chasing girls or something getting blown up. I don't think of Evan Wilson as a Mary Sue but more like that guy from Catch Me If You Can. I enjoy her interaction with the crew and she would've been fun to go on a pub crawl. I wonder if Spock ever caught her again?
15. Zeno
Ellen, Recently I have gotten back into reading older Star Trek Novels. These reviews of yours always helpful. They tell me what books to avoid.

Uhura's Song sounds like it influenced the J. J. Abrahms Star Trek reboot with the angle of Spock being interested in Evan Wilson.  This is way out of character unless for some reason he was under the influence of some outside force or drug.  

Thanks for warning me about Final Frontier also. I was unsure of that one to begin with. Partially because how it tried to the fact that nobody knew what Romulans looked like prior to the original series.It seems however in terms of plot and characters it is not worth the 400+ pages. And isn't odd that everyone who has done anything important in Federation history is related to someone on the Enterprise.

Looking forward to more reviews.  
Risha Jorgensen
16. RishaBree
I, too, love Uhura's Song.

I agree that Evan Wilson is a Mary Sue, though a very well written one that only sometimes annoys. But the rest of the characters you mention aren't anything of the sort - as John noted, this is ultimately a first contact story, and unlike most, Kagan spent the time to create interesting, well rounded, and often flawed characters for them to contact.

But really, the main reason to read this book is for the anthropological bits. I would have been perfectly happy for her to have written 100 more pages of the crew and the Sivaoans learning about each other. (And I really, really want to take a class with Chekov's old anthropology professor from Volgograd.)
17. Vanye111
"Mr. Spock, set eyebrow on stun!"

Makes me giggle every time.
Michael Johnston
18. JohnstonMR
Digitalis' review of Snodgrass' writing is, well, right-on. I've never understood the love of "Measure of a Man," which comes off to me as preachy, the dialogue stilted, and the interactions comical. I've always thought that was mostly the acting, but maybe it's a little of the writing, too.
Karen Bovenmyer
19. maxmelig
When I was 13 a cute boy in Barnes and Noble talked me into buying Uhura's Song and Fiest's Riftwar Trilogy. Before that day, I wasn't much of a reader--after that, I devoured books as though I'd been living in a desert. Set a fire in my flesh, Janet!

I think there's nothing wrong with Mary Sue characters--if a book gets young folks interested in reading, more's the better. Another dear, dear book from my teen years was Star Trek: New Voyages. In "The Enchanted Pool" Spock gets to fall in love with a fairy. It was marvelous and improbable and I was crazy about it.

I think my love for Uhura's Song and Star Trek: New Voyages were the first pieces of evidence that my passion for "manly" sciece fiction and fantasy didn't mean I only read books by men. In fact, when I looked at my shelves, I realized many of my old favorites were by women, several writing in disguise (I'm talking to YOU, Yesterday's Son!)
20. lburns05
I've read both of these books twice. Once in my early teens and once when I was about 19 (I'm 32 now). They are really bizarre. I hadn't really analyzed them, just read them for entertainment. I like Uhura's song much better than Tears Of The Singers

21. lburns05
Spock also jams with the space hippies in "Way To Eden"

22. Sibby
A very late comment to add to the fold, but as I stumbled upon this I had just had to say... Evan Wilson is not a Mary Sue. Kagan always said the character was based on ... drum roll please... her *mother*. Her mother was a playful woman who was very popular in her neighborhood, and open to new experiences.
23. Gardner Dozois
I believe that UHURA'S SONG will soon be available as an ebook from Baen, along with HELLSPARK and a newly-assembled collection.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer
24. EllenMCM
@23 - Oh that's lovely!
@21 - That scene scared me more than I care to admit.
25. Zidders Roofurry
My adoptive aunt introduced me to Star Trek in the early 80's. She'd been a fan of the original series and had been one of the folks who wrote the studio to help it stay on the air. When I discovered there were Star Trek books it made me that much more of a fan. Uhura's Song is one of my favorite books ever and knowing that Janet had planned but never written two sequels makes me very sad.

Still-I'm delighted to know that I'm not the only one who had a fondness for that book and I'm happy to know she had lots of fans telling her how much they loved it. I just wish I'd thought to look her up to thank her myself.

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