Rock, Bushes, Legos, Epidemiologist, Pirates: Diane Duane’s Doctor’s Orders

There’s no reason why all the people humanity encounters in the universe should have the same relationship with space and time. Some Star Trek novel writers ignore this possibility, as the television series largely did, to comment on the problems facing humanity. Diane Duane doesn’t hesitate to comment on the human condition, but she does it while embracing the scope for imaginative effects that novels offer. Her human characters are fully human, and her alien characters are almost unimaginably alien. Duane’s examination of the mind-boggling diversity of the universe is set both beside and within her examination of the logistical difficulties inherent in schlepping 400 people into the unknown and getting most of them back again. Duane doesn’t just set her stories aboard the Starship Enterprise, she inventories the ship’s stores, consults with the Recreation Officer about morale, and holds inter-departmental planning meetings. She is endlessly fascinated with details and possibilities. When Diane Duane writes a Star Trek novel, she plays with all the colors in the Star Trek crayon box.

Duane’s 1990 novel, Doctor’s Orders starts in Switzerland, with the National Day celebrations of Switzerland’s political unity, linguistic diversity, and neutrality. I have fond childhood memories of Switzerland in the summer. Duane’s description of it hits every significant thing about Switzerland that you would notice in the dark. McCoy is there with a friend whose accent is impenetrable and whose affection for milk-based drinks appears slightly befuddling to Bones, who is the protagonist here because this book is Not About Kirk. As the McGuffin in this book, Kirk is actually removed from time by a talking rock. Yes, Diane Duane is not satisfied with a Star Trek Universe that is home to only ONE species of talking rock, and has taken it upon herself to introduce some new and different talking rocks, now with amazing time-control powers!

The talking rock is just one of the three species on this newly surveyed planet where the Enterprise is carrying out a more detailed, secondary survey. All of these species have interesting relationships with space, time, and, as Duane explains to us, verb tenses, because it turns out that, although the talking rock itself manages Federation Standard syntax just fine, living around a time-manipulating talking rock creates grammatical complexity that causes extreme difficulties for the Universal Translator and its programmers. The talking rock shares the planet with some talking bushes and some talking ectomorphs who like to play Legos with their bodies. This book is not about any of them.

This book is about Leonard McCoy, his life, his concerns, and his ability to turn his hand to anything that’s needed using his wit and ingenuity. McCoy is a very experienced doctor, and he is deeply personally invested in the discovery of new infectious organisms and the preventative health care needs of the Enterprise crew. As with Switzerland, I have fond childhood memories of infectious disease specialists. Duane’s description of Bones hits every significant thing you would notice about them without actually having a conversation about prison-based botulism outbreaks over breakfast cereal. Early in the book, McCoy laments that five crewmembers have caught colds while on shore leave, and I can tell he really wants to run a course on hand-washing and hang some posters about sneezing into your elbow. He’s versatile and, technically, an officer of the line, and since Kirk is having a long chat with a talking rock in what amounts to a fairy ring, Bones gets to command the ship, too! Yes, typically that would be Spock’s job, but Kirk wanted to trap McCoy away from sickbay so he could finish his reports, and Kirk really thought he would only be away for a few hours, and that was before the Klingons showed up.

What do Klingons want with our newly surveyed planet? I would have thought they would be pretty excited about the talking rock or the Lego people (so useful for construction projects), but it turns out they’re after ingredients for their favorite arsenic-based condiment. Their plant-gathering mission is effectively neutralized when they also encounter the time-manipulating rock. Unfortunately, the rock’s tendency to pluck people out of time creates significant problems for McCoy, who has to deal with Kirk’s disappearance, planetary natives whose issues with verbs prevent them from effectively communicating where Kirk is and when he might be back, and some very testy Klingons who think the Enterprise has kidnapped their ketchup harvesters. And then the Orion pirates drop in.

If there is one problem that talking rocks struggle with, as a group of otherwise unrelated species, it is surely their failure to respond proactively to the threat of planetary invasion. The Orions come storming out of space like the French army at the Second Battle of Zurich, loaded for bear. McCoy and the Klingons put aside their differences to coordinate a master strategy that involves some high speed maneuvers around the sun. The talking rock returns Kirk to the bridge in time to see their plan implemented. The Orions are vanquished and Kirk has hammered out the beginnings of a treaty with the talking rock. Kirk didn’t go to Switzerland, so he doesn’t realize that this trio of linguistically diverse species are absolutely inhuman and somehow also completely Swiss. I’m not sure whether Kirk or the talking rock is standing in for William Tell. The rock contemplates interstellar travel and reflects on McCoy’s experiences of the last week. Because this book is still Not About Kirk, and that’s fabulous because the rest of the universe is also pretty amazing.

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.


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