Uhura 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.”