52 Books by 52 Women: The Wounded Sky

For a year I’m reading 52 books by women authors whose work I’ve never read before. Click here for previous installments.

When I decided to take on the year-long project of reading 52 Books by 52 Women authors I’d never read before, I made the somewhat arbitrary decision that they’d all be fiction, but not tied to any particular genre. So the last book I finished, Diane Duane’s The Wounded Sky, is not only a science fiction novel, but a Star Trek novel, and it’s the first one I’ve ever successfully read.

That’s a Boris Motherfucking Vallejo cover. Aww yeah. But wait, why is Kirk a science officer?

That’s a Boris Motherfucking Vallejo cover. Aww yeah. But wait, why is Kirk a science officer?

I say “successfully” because I have attempted once or twice to read Star Trek novels. At some point I’d watched all the Star Trek TV shows and was jonesing for new stories, and I’d noticed that there was a whole line of paperback novels by various authors telling new stories for each one of the TV shows, and even some series that were set in the world of Star Trek but focused on starships and characters we don’t even hear about on TV. The trouble is, every time I picked up one of these books because the premise looked interesting, or because it focused on a particular alien culture that I’d always liked, when I actually flipped through any of one of these books, it turned out to be bad. Really bad. And I just couldn’t read a book that seemed to be lousy from the start.

Still, I had hopes for some of the older Star Trek novels that came out before the Next Generation revival and the boom in this kind of officially sanctioned fan fiction. There were even some “name” authors associated with some of these early books (and even some of the later ones), and they seemed like my best bet. Still, it wasn’t a priority, so I never got around to it.

But the other day I ran across a cheap paperback of The Wounded Sky, Diane Duane’s first Star Trek novel, from 1983. I’d been faintly aware of Duane as a sci-fi and fantasy author for a long time, even though when I look over her long bibliography there aren’t any particular titles that ring a bell. All this made me think she’d be a great writer to throw into the mix. Plus, I often like to read a couple of different books at once, and it’s helpful for one of them to be a pocket book that’s easy to carry and read when I’m in transit.

And, fortunately, The Wounded Sky turns out to be pretty darned good, a lot better than it needs to be for what it is. One thing I appreciated right off the bat is that the book launches straight into the science of science fiction, describing exactly how warp speed works, in great, somewhat poetic detail. The explanation here is that it travels through “otherspace,” that a ship can travel faster than light by shifting through an alternate universe where light travels even faster. Now, this winds up being hugely important to the plot, but at the outset I liked Duane’s willingness to just throw us into something pretty dense conceptually.

Oh, the story? Well, everybody on the Enterprise is all excited because their ship has been picked to test-drive a game-changing new inversion drive that will allow them to travel much, much faster than warp speed and therefore much farther than was ever possible before—including outside the galaxy. (Duane takes care to respectfully debunk the concept of a “galactic barrier” encountered by the Enterprise in a few episodes as implausible and merely “an encounter with the leading wavefront of a megabubble.”) A very alien but winningly good-humored Hamalki scientist with a body like a large crystal spider, K’t’lk, was the chief inventor of the inversion drive and is riding along with the Enterprise to work the drive and make any necessary adjustments, of which there will be many.

Just as we’re told that warp drive shifts the ship through another universe with different qualities, the inversion drive transports it through an alternate universe that is more alien still: de Sitter space. I don’t pretend to understand all the details, but essentially this is a universe with no entropy and thus no time, and crossing through it somehow allows the ship to transport anywhere they like, no matter how far away, in no time at all.

But the experience is freaky, to say the least. When the inversion drive is engaged, the crew experiences being places they’ve never been, and even start experiencing each other’s memories, or maybe each other’s experiences of things that haven’t even happened—it’s like they’ve walked into each other’s dream. The first time it happens, Kirk experiences the event as if he were the “mind” of the ship itself. And the farther the ship moves, the longer and more intense these experiences are.

But that’s not all. Just as engaging the warp drive can have unforeseen consequences on the space around the ship—even making stars go nova if a ship goes to warp too near them—use of the inversion drive may have deadly consequences for the entire universe unless the Enterprise can undo the damage in time. But how can Kirk and company do this when time itself starts to lose all meaning?

The novel is told from Captain Kirk’s perspective, and I also enjoyed how Duane also plunges us deep into his psychology: the emotional reactions he knows are ridiculous even as he indulges in them, the worries he keeps to himself to avoid worrying the crew. And the inversion effect allows us some tantalizing glimpses into the minds of a lot of other characters, major and minor.

Duane introduces a lot of new characters, such as Lieutenant Harb Tanzer, the officer in charge of recreation aboard the ship, who proves to be pretty important in this novel and shows up in several other Star Trek books, albeit pretty much only the ones Duane wrote. There’s also Uhura’s secondary communications officer, Mahásë, of the gray and craggy-featured Eseriat race. Especially important is Ensign d’Hennish of the felinoid Sadrao people who only have a concept of the present, not past or future.

I also really enjoy that there are nonhominid crew members wandering around the USS Enterprise in this novel that we never saw on the show (or on any of the Star Trek shows) because it would have been too expensive to make them look anything but silly. There’s a Sulamid lieutenant who’s essentially a bundle of tentacles. Duane has a lot of fun with K’t’lk as a character, with how very alien this crystal spider thing is, and yet how friendly and even flirty she is with the human officers of the Enterprise, especially Scotty and Kirk. It’s also interesting to see the gender-neutral pronoun “hir” being used this early, the context being for alien races that don’t have male or female genders rather than for humans who wish not to be pigeonholed by a binary gender system. (It’s a little weird that Duane spells Ms. “Mz.” though—I haven’t encountered that before.)

And of course I like the fact that some of the other high-ranking Starfleet personnel that communicate with Kirk in the novel are women, such as Vice Admiral Rhonda Halloran, and there’s a starship called the USS Henrietta Leavitt. There’s also a female Klingon captain who leads a battle with the Enterprise.

This is refreshing because first female starship captain shown in the onscreen Star Trek universe was a few years later, an unnamed captain in 1986’s Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (you know, the one with the whales), and in fact there was a line in the original Star Trek series that “Your world of starship captains doesn’t admit women” (“Turnabout Intruder,” 1969).

Mostly, it’s just a fun book. Sulu gets to show off his mad piloting skills, there’s a Klingon battle, a touching display of Starfleet solidarity, and just a lot of enjoyable interaction between characters new and old. It’s also cute that the bibliography at the end includes only two articles that actually existed when the novel came out; the rest are all from the future.

I wouldn’t call it a quick read, because some passages get pretty dense with weird science, but it did show me that some Trek novels can be worth reading if you have the patience to figure out which ones. I don’t know that I do have the patience for that, but this was an enjoyable glimpse into the world of officially sanctioned fan fiction.

Books read in the challenge so far:

Book 1: Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

Book 2: Octavia E. Butler, Kindred

Book 3: Elissa Wald, The Secret Lives of Married Women

Book 4: Kurahashi Yumiko, The Woman with the Flying Head

Book 5: NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names

Book 6: Baroness Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel

Book 7: Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings

Book 8: Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black

Book 9: Diane Duane, The Wounded Sky

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