Books postsTuesday May 05, 2009
My “Star Trek” Novel - A Routine Science Expedition
Read the intro here, or, you know, below.
First Officer Michael Busick of the re-fit Excelsior-class U.S.S. Brock didn't believe in routine science expeditions, because, invariably, there wasn't anything routine about them. He could cite thousands of examples from Star Fleet records about disasters that resulted when starships were sent to study this or that space anomaly or map such and such a star cluster.
“It's a fact,” he informed his newly-appointed captain. “38.9% of starships sent out on routine science expeditions never complete their designated assignments. It's like the red-shirt phenomenon a century back. Remember? When beaming down to an unknown planet, a red-shirted security guard was 99.4% more likely to be killed than his captain or first officer. It got to the point where, in at least one known incident, the security guards demanded the yellow shirts of command or the blue shirts of science before beaming down. Apparently they thought the problem might lie with the color of their attire: red attracting trouble, as it were; inviting blood and death. But even in blue and yellow, these men bought it. Similarly, in this century, starships seem to have a difficult time completing routine science expeditions. Heading out on one seems to invite disaster. Calling it 'routine' seems to anger the space gods, who decide to make the expedition as far from routine as possible.”
Captain Tim Harrison raised an eyebrow as expertly as a Vulcan. “Space gods, Mr. B? Don't tell me that after all these years you still believe in space gods? Besides, don't you think you're being a bit pessimistic?”
“What do you mean?”
“If 38.9% of starships never complete their designated assignments then 61.1% do.”
Mr. B smiled. He was of average height and build, with a tendency towards rotundity, but his most obvious physical attribute was his head, which was almost perfectly round, and bigger by a half than the standard. His thin, reddish hair was clipped long in back with bangs in front, and he was the only officer aboard ship to sport a moustache, also reddish, which hid all aspects of his mouth except for a puffy, wet underlip. Only two weeks aboard the Brock he was already famous for his slow, leisurely pace. This was especially noticeable next to the usual go-getters and career-crashers of Star Fleet, and it occasionally got him into trouble. During Academy days one of his gym instructors was so fed up with Busick's--quote--lackadaisical attitude--unquote--that he blew up at him. “Busick!” he shouted. “You move so slowly you make me feel like a goddamned Scalosian!” Mr. B, rarely at a loss for a quip of his own, replied good-naturedly, “I wondered what all that buzzing was around here” and then gestured as if shooing away flies. He failed the class, of course, but managed to graduate from the Academy anyway; his wit had seen him through. It was this wit that he now turned on his captain.
“By such optimistic accounting even my record with women would look good.” He bounced on his toes, hands behind his back.
Captain Harrison folded his hands across his stomach and said matter-of-factly, “Your record with women does look good, Mr. B. How's that woman of yours. Miss her?”
“Oh, nothing that a few trips to the holodeck couldn't cure,” Mr. B replied in the same jocular tone.
Captain Harrison smiled and stared out his window at the familiar stars of Sector 001. He liked his first officer, but at times it was difficult getting past the jokester. Yet it was this very jocularity that Harrison desired in his Number One. In ranking first officers, other captains tended to prize Vulcans for their unimpeachable logic, Klingons for their strength, Betazoids for their empathic abilities, and Trills for their wisdom; but nothing was ever said about the tactical advantage a sense of humor might bring. Captain Harrison felt it just might throw off and confuse combatants in the middle of negotiations, and he was willing to test his theories with Mr. B.
He slapped his hands on the desk of his ready room and stood up. “Anyway. I'll be sure to include your objections in my report, but I don't think it will mean much to the biguns at Star Fleet. The fact that we might run into something more interesting than a star cluster is why we're out here, after all.” He smiled again and patted his first officer on the shoulder. “If you're not careful, my friend, pretty soon they'll be calling you Mr. C.”
“Could be worse. Coward. Cardassian.”
Captain Harrison smiled and moved from his ready room and, acquiring a stiffer gate, onto the bridge of the U.S.S. Brock.
“Ensign Ciam, we have our first assignment. Are all hands on deck?”
“Then take this ship to coordinates 3701 at Warp 5 on my mark.”
Puzzled, the helmsman turned in his chair. “That would put us awfully close to the neutral zone, Captain.”
“Thank you for the geography lesson, Ensign.” Then, less harshly: “Even star clusters near the neutral zone need to be mapped. Are you ready?”
Ensign Ciam punched in the proper numbers. “Coordinates 3701 at Warp 5 on your mark, sir.”
It was the moment that every youngster dreams of, every freshman at the Academy hopes for, every low-grade officer plays over and over in his mind: the moment when you take your first starship out on its first mission. The Brock, admittedly, was not every plebe's dream. Seventy-odd years ago it was the fastest ship in the fleet, but since then it had been surpassed by the many Ambassador-class and Galaxy-class starships that Star Fleet had seen fit to turn out. In fact when Mr. B had first seen the ship, two weeks earlier, he half-joked, “I just hope we don't run into any Pakleds.” But Captain Harrison quieted him. The Brock had just been overhauled and re-fitted with a new, state-of-the-art warp drive engine which made it, in theory anyway, the fastest starship in the Federation. It just didn't have the power of Galaxy class starships. Besides, it was his ship. For the first time he was to command a starship with 572 crewmembers. Thus it was with a submerged but electric thrill that Captain Harrison walked with hands behind his back around the bridge, sat in his command chair, crossed his legs, and prepared to give the signal that would send over 12,000 tons of metal and machinery zipping through space at faster than light speed. He watched with raised pointed finger as, on the viewscreen, the Brock inched past Pluto, and then Pluto's moon, Charon. This was the moment. He brought his finger down.
Once again Ensign Ciam turned his puzzled face to the captain. “Sir?”
Harrison shook his head. “Sorry. Too many years leading away missions. I meant 'Engage'.” He brought his finger down authoritatively. “Engage!”
The stars on the viewscreen, pinpoints of light, suddenly elongated into straight lines, and with no more than a mild lurch the Brock had left the earth far, far behind.
Coming up: holodeck baseball, Romulans, the Borg, and Planet Scott!
My “Star Trek” Novel - Intro
Every blogger probably has a novel in his drawer.
Mine is a “Star Trek” novel but it isn’t about Kirk and Spock, or Picard and Data, or any of the other characters from the Gene Roddenbury universe that, as it expanded into other shows, contracted my interest.
No, I wrote about a friend, Tim, a huge “Star Trek” fan (his interest never contracted), and it resulted from hubris. In the mid-1990s, at one of his birthday parties, someone gave him a homemade, five-page “Star Trek” short story as a present. My thought: “I can do better.”
Three years, 100 pages, and a dog-eared “Star Trek” encyclopedia later, the present, expanded to include Mike, or Mr. B, who would play first officer to Tim’s Captain, was finally delivered.
I think I had the main plot in mind from the start. In fact—more hubris—I still think my plot should’ve been the plot of the first “Star Trek—Next Generation” movie: a Borg attack on the Romulus empire and the inevitable Federation response. Not only would it have been epic in scope but would’ve allowed an appearance by Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock, last seen on Romulus, and thus incorporated, in a natural way, both “Next Gen” and “Original Series” characters. I doubt I had a resolution to this plot—a way to defeat the ever-adaptive Borg—but, reading over it now, I like the solution I came up with. It’s both humorous—particularly if you know Mr. B—and, to borrow a loaded word, logical.
The parallel, character-driven plot about the U.S.S. Brock being filled with fuck-ups is strictly autobiographical. At the time we were all working at University Book Store in Seattle, and the book became, in essence, less “'Wagon Train' to the stars” (Roddenbury’s original conception) than “bookstore to the stars.” It was us, fuck-ups all, trying to make do with what we had. It was my complaint at the time. Other employees became characters, some memorably (hello Brett, Jeff and Mark). Others are no longer with us. (See “My Address Book” here.)
This week, as a lead-in to the new J.J. Abrams-led “Star Trek” reboot, I’ll include excerpts from the novel. It’s me at my most “Star Trek”-y. Please be gentle.
The Baseball Essays of Stephen Jay Gould
“Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville,” Stephen Jay Gould’s posthumous book of baseball essays, is a good hot-stove-league diversion, even if, as suits his career, Gould can be pedantic, and even though he is, or was, a lifelong Yankees fan.
In case you don’t know where I stand. During Ken Burns’ 1994 “Baseball” documentary, Gould, one of the doc’s many talking heads, pissed me off for all eternity by declaring that no one could ever mention in his presence Bill Mazeroski’s homerun that won the 1960 World Series for the Pirates (their third, and first since 1925), instead of handing the Yankees yet another title (their 19th, and first since 1958), because the memory was still too painful for him. To top it off, Burns didn’t even interview a Pirates fan, or even an anti-Yankees fan, about what was, after all, one of the greatest homeruns ever hit — the dream homerun of any baseball-loving kid across the country: Game 7, bottom of the ninth, one swing, season over. Instead we got glum Yankees fans like Gould and Billy Crystal kicking the dirt. Gould then one-ups himself by talking about a kind of cosmic balance being restored to the universe with the Yankees’ 1962 World Series victory over the Giants. As payback for 1960. As redemption for Ralph Terry. Cosmic balance? Tell it to a Royals or Rangers or Mariners fan. Tell it to a Pirates fan.
Anyway, that’s where I stand.
Gould, here, is at his best when he combines his profession with his avocation. Three essays are must-reads.
In “Why No One Hits .400 Anymore,” Gould argues that while .260 may be the mean batting average throughout most of baseball history, overall improvement in play — as a diversion became a profession — has shrunk highest and lowest batting averages against that mean. I.e., everyone’s better now so it’s that much harder to be exceptional.
In “The Streak of Streaks,” ostensibly a review of Michael Seidel’s book, “Streak: Joe DiMaggio and the Summer of ‘41,” Gould writes that his colleague, Ed Purcell, a Nobel laureate in physics, studied streaks and slumps in sports, particularly baseball, and concluded that, adjusting for talent, all streaks fall within the realm of coin-tossing probability except one: DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Other academics have disputed this, but at the least you have to admire the gap between first place (DiMaggio, 56) and second (Keeler and Rose, 44). Gould finishes the piece beautifully by writing about the odds, and about the gambler whose goal is to stick around as long as possible before going bust. Then he uses this gambler as a metaphor for all of us:
DiMaggio’s hitting streak is the finest of legitimate legends because it embodies the essence of the battle that truly defines our lives. DiMaggio activated the greatest and most unattainable dream of all of humanity, the hope and chimera of all sages and shamans: he cheated death, at least for a while.
Finally, the paleontologist in Gould is excellent in “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown,” which isn’t just about the humbug of Abner Doubleday but the purpose creation myths serve.
A few of the other essays are worthwhile, too, particularly for what they evoke. “Streetball from a New York City Boyhood,” with its talk of recess and stoopball and baseball cards in bicycle spokes, helped me recall a part of my childhood. Thirty years after Gould, and half a country away, I too played a version of stoopball, throwing and catching a usually soggy tennis ball against the front steps of our home on Emerson Avenue in Minneapolis. It was, in my mind, an early version of fantasy baseball, Twins vs. the Orioles probably, with the game rigged for the Twins. That is, I’d soft-toss for the O’s and hard-toss for the Twins. Frank Robinson up...and he lines out to Carew! Here’s Big Boog Powell — ground out! Bases loaded for Killebrew —grand slam! Hwwwaaaahhhwww!
That’s the crowd cheering.
A few of the essays made me long for movies about their subjects. In “The Amazing Dummy,” Gould writes about Dummy Hoy, an above-average ballplayer from the19th century who lived long enough to throw out the first pitch in the 1961 World Series. He was also, as his name indicates, both deaf and dumb, yet still played centerfield, the most vocal of all positions, and played it well. How can that not be a movie? And, sure, Jim Thorpe’s life has already been made into a movie, starring Burt Lancaster, but you know they didn’t do it justice back in 1951. Hell, they might even be able to cast a Native American in the lead now.
But here’s the movie I’d really like to see. Earlier this decade, Billy Crystal made one of the best baseball movies ever, “61*,” about Maris, Mantle and the ’61 season, for HBO, and in that spirit, and without even deviating from numerical titles about the New York Yankees, I would love to see what he could do with: “56.”
Gould died in 2002, so didn’t live long enough to see the ignominy of many of the players he celebrated in his shorter newspaper pieces: Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds. Would’ve loved to hear his take on the steroids scandal. Would’ve loved to hear his reaction to his adopted team, the Red Sox, suddenly winning everything, while his favorite team, the Yankees, shot blanks.
There’s also this postcard I have of Bill Mazeroski’s 1960 World Series homerun just burning a hole in my pocket. Would’ve loved to send it to him. Just to say hi. Just to restore some balance, cosmic or not, to the universe.
Authors: Joe the Plumber, Sarah Palin, Barbara Bush's Dog
What impresses me about Timothy Egan's Op-Ed today, "Typing without a Clue," about the likes of Joe the Plumber and Sarah Palin getting multimillion-dollar book contracts while real writers languish in obscurity and poverty, isnt' the logic of his argument, which is unassailable, but the fact that he can still be pissed off about it. I've taken it as a given for so long it doesn't even register as an affront anymore.
This isn't a criticism. Or, if it is a criticism, it's a criticism of me. Because Egan's right. He's so right:
Next up may be Sarah Palin, who is said to be worth nearly $7 million if she can place her thoughts between covers. Publishers: with all the grim news of layoffs and staff cuts at the venerable houses of American letters, can we set some ground rules for these hard times? Anyone who abuses the English language on such a regular basis should not be paid to put words in print.
Most of the writers I know work every day, in obscurity and close to poverty, trying to say one thing well and true. Day in, day out, they labor to find their voice, to learn their trade, to understand nuance and pace. And then, facing a sea of rejections, they hear about something like Barbara Bush’s dog getting a book deal.
Two-Minute Review: E.L. Doctorow's “Creationists”
E. L. Doctorow's Creationists: Selected Essays 1993-2006, is ordered chronologically — from an essay on Genesis to one on the bomb, or from the beginning of the world to its possible end — and these essays tend to get more interesting the closer Doctorow gets to his own time.
I’ve found this to be true for his novels as well. I love The Book of Daniel (1940s to 1960s) and Ragtime (early 1900s), and like well enough, but have read only once, the trio from the 1930s: Loon Lake, World’s Fair and Billy Bathgate. But once E.L. went into the 19th century he lost me. I barely made it through Waterworks (post-Civil War) and couldn’t get into The March (Civil War). It's as if the 19th century stilts his prose.
Most of the essays here weren’t written as essays anyway. Some were written as lectures and some were written as introductions to classic texts (Tom Sawyer) or afterwords to less-than-class texts (Arrowsmith), and I often felt something was missing. What’s missing is their context, or the primary text to which they’re supposed to relate, and to which Doctorow is silently alluding. They’re less essays than addenda; they don’t have legs to stand on.
Still, as I said, the closer Doctorow gets to our own time the more interesting he becomes. The stuff on Poe and Stowe? Drags. Melville, too, though I was amused that he writes about Moby Dick (“The surpise to me, at my age now, is how familiar the voice of that book is...”) in the sane way that I wrote about The Book of Daniel (“What a surprise that some of the forgotten lines of my life are in here...”).
Yet Doctorow did make me want to read Dos Passos and re-read Kafka. He made me want to see more Arthur Miller plays:
...among the protagonists of these plays, there are those incapable of self-reflection who choose rather to destroy themselves...and those who undergo the crisis of self-revelation and find some means of stumbling on. ... But there are no easy answers. ... Lyman Felt says “A man can be faithful to himself or to other people—but not to both.” That is one tough line and it could not be uttered in a facile moralistic tale.
He’s particularly good on Kafka’s Amerika, in which Kafka learned, according to Doctorow, that his characters needn’t travel anywhere to be trapped. But he’s best outside of literature: on Einstein and his genius — which prefigures Malcolm Gladwell’s discussions on the communal context of creativity — and on the bomb: the why and the how and the oops of it, and the difference, in layman’s terms, between the A- and H-bomb. The A-bomb exhausts its own chain reaction, which limits its destructive power. “The H-bomb has no known limits,” he writes.
I don't get Doctorow's fascination with the 19th century but he keeps drifting further and further back into it. Note from the 21st century: Come back, E.L. You're needed.