Books postsThursday May 14, 2009
Alec, Charlie & Me
I know the difficulty of the Proust Questionnaire, having done my own now, and I think I appreciate good answers more. In the latest, I like the ying-yang of Alec Baldwin's "traits you most deplore in yourself/others" (Insecurity/Overconfidence), but he completely won me over with this one:
Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
Now why didn't I think of that? Rats.
My “Star Trek” Novel: Fuck-Ups of the Federation
The small, stoic face of Admiral Brush filled the viewscreen in the Captain's ready room. It was an unremarkable face except for its tendency never to crack a smile (it was once said of him that even Benzites had better senses of humor). Now his face looked more impenetrable than normal. Captain Harrison matched it with a deep frown of his own; the vein in the middle of his forehead began to bulge slightly with the effort.
“Admiral, we both known that Admiral Spock is on Romulus attempting to bridge the diplomatic gap between the Vulcans and Romulans. The message must have come from him.”
The Captain leaned back in his chair as if to distance himself from this judgment. “How do you figure?”
“Numbers and letters scattered across a universe,” the Admiral replied blandly. “Anything is possible.”
“It's too great a coincidence. A Romulan scout ship destroyed. A dying Romulan's last words about the Borg.” Captain Harrison ticked his reasons off on his fingertips. “The upheavals we are sensing from Romulan space. Now this. An old-fashioned Earth S.O.S. that contains the Starfleet service number of an Admiral we both know is on Romulus. It's too...”
“Yes! It is too coincidental. That's why it can't be a coincidence!”
“Captain. Calm your famous temper. This isn't Ligon II, after all.”
“I know this isn't Ligon II, damnit!” The Captain slammed his fist down on his desk. “We're talking about the destruction of a species! We're talking about the possible destruction of our own species unless we act now!”
“We are acting now,” Admiral Brush contended. “We are sending all available starships into that sector to monitor the situation. From there they will make a sound judgment based on the available facts.”
Captain Harrison tugged his tunic down. “Good.”
“But we still want you out of there and mapping Halkan space.”
“But shouldn't we be here? To inform the others of the situation?”
Admiral Brush nodded calmly. “We have all that information. They have been informed.”
Captain Harrison shook his head. “I don't--”
“Get your ship out of that sector, Captain! This is a direct order! It is no place for a bunch of...” His mouth curled in disgust, and with a dismissive wave ended the transmission.
Captain Harrison slumped into his desk chair in deep thought. After Mr. B and Ensign Rodgers entered his ready room, he relayed the conversation to them.
“What do you think it might be?” he asked his Number One in low tones. “Some kind of conspiracy?”
“Like what happened on Stardate 41775.5?” Mr. B wondered aloud. “The quill parasites?”
“An alien takeover of Starfleet? Is it possible? Despite the precautions that have been taken?”
“What about a Borg takeover?” Mr. B suggested. “The Admiral's actions would seem to favor the Borg more than anything.”
The Captain nodded his head in thought. “It would explain his stoic demeanor. How he's had it in for me from Day One.”
The conversation between the two was interrupted by a Klingon war cry.
“Glaajin heads!” Ensign Rodgers shouted. “Don't you know? Don't you get it? The Admiral doesn't want us investigating because The Brock is the dung-heap of the Federation! It is where they send their least trustworthy...” He shook his head in frustration. “Think about it! Captain, right before this assignment you had that run-in with Admiral Yamamoto. Commander, you've had a long history of...not seizing command. Me and my drunken battle with Commander Riker. Simon Tarses hiding his Romulan history. A Vulcan more interested in cool than logic. That idiotic Ridlian and his insufferable giggle. An aristocratic doctor who can never concentrate on what matters. Our entire crew is made up of the rejects of other crews! That's why we were sent here! That's why we're on the Brock! Because no one wants us. We don't fit in.”
“The starship of misfit toys,” Mr. B mused.
“The assumption is we'll bungle this. The assumption is we'll add more fuel to the fire. They realize this is such a delicate matter they want seasoned hands in charge.”
“Like Captain Picard,” Captain Harrison said, his eyes vacant.
“Like Captain Picard. He's had experience. He's been with the Borg before. They don't want us near this place. Because they don't' trust us. To them we're the fuck-ups of the Federation.”
Captain Harrison stared off vacantly for several seconds. His insides felt like a star collapsing in on itself. The man who he imagined himself to be was not the man others saw him as; he was used to this, but the disparity between the two visions overwhelmed him now. It all made sense. How come he hadn't realized it before? He was not a rising Starfleet Captain in the mold of a James T. Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard. His position wasn't even as highly-esteemed as that of most Commanders or Lieutenants on other vessels. He had been shunted off. He had been forced onto a dirtier path. He would probably never rise above his current position because those in authority, those who controlled the strings of command, had never liked him, never had faith in him. For one horrific moment he saw himself as they saw him, as a skinny nobody from Nowhere, Arizona, and he shuddered inwardly.
Then with a galactic force of will he threw off these assumptions and reassumed the stance of who he knew himself to be. In the long run, their opinions didn't matter. In the long run all that mattered was what he did. He forced himself to look up at his First Officer.
“Mr. B,” he began calmly.
Just then the Brock was rocked by a blast that threw the Captain backwards out of his chair, and tumbled Mr. B and Ensign Rodgers over the desk. The Captain executed a Vulcan barrel-roll and was on his feet and out onto the bridge in a matter of seconds, followed by the cursing Ensign Rodgers and the confused First Officer, holding onto his overly-large head. The whoops of the red-alert siren resounded around the bridge.
“Status!” the Captain shouted as he took the command chair from Lt. Mann.
“Attack from a Borg scout ship,” Lt. Mann stated. “It decloaked at forty-five degrees portside and then cloaked again. Shields are up and at 72 percent capacity.”
“Tachyon emissions!” the Captain shouted.
“Spraying tachyon emissions,” Lt. Mann stated.
The ship was attacked again.
“Fire phasers at the origin of those blasts!” the Captain shouted.
The phasers fired harmlessly into space.
“Captain,” Lt. Mann warned. “Those shots came from the middle of a heavy concentration of tachyon emissions.”
“The emissions seem to be doing...nothing. They are not...indicating where the cloaked vessel might be.”
“The Borg have adapted,” Mr. B suggested as the Brock was rocked again. “They have figured out a way to hide themselves even from tachyon emissions.”
“Photon torpedoes at point of origin,” Captain Harrison shouted. “Now!”
“Firing,” Lt. Mann stated.
“Nothing,” Ensign Ciam said as he stared into the main viewscreen. A small giggle escaped his throat.
“Shields at fifty-one percent capacity,” Lt. Mann warned.
Another blast; the crewmembers rocked in their seats.
“Forty-two percent,” Lt. Mann stated.
“We can't just sit here,” Ensign Ciam said.
“Ensign,” the Captain commanded. “On my mark, spin the Brock around in a course similar to a gyroscope or a wobbling top. Lieutenant,” the Captain leaned back towards Lt. Mann. “On the same mark shoot all phasers in a spray array. Let's see if we can't nick something.”
“A desperate maneuver, Captain,” Ensign Siler mentioned.
“Desperation is sometimes the mother of invention,” the Captain replied.
The ship was rocked again. “Thirty-eight percent,” Lt. Mann stated.
“The motherfucker of invention,” Ensign Rodgers concurred.
“Ready?” the Captain asked. He brought his arm down. “Engage!”
Ten seconds into the plan a small explosion in space occurred to the aft side of the Brock.
“Focus all photon torpedoes onto those coordinates, Lieutenant!” the Captain shouted. “Fire! Now!”
A large explosion lit up the viewscreen and a cheer was beginning to erupt from the relieved crewmembers of the Brock when three Borg, impassively fierce and heavily armed, materialized at strategic points around the bridge. Lt. Mann kicked the legs out from one and punched it square in the face as it was falling forward. Ensign Rodgers jumped on the back of another and tore out its eyepiece and disconnected its wiring, shouting all the while. The third Borg fired at the Captain; Harrison leapt from his chair just as it was incinerated, seemed to cover the distance to the Borg in nanoseconds, and his punch was so quick and stealthy that it was only observable after the fact: the Captain in a Zaldan qir-lan stance and the Borg's head rolling around on the floor near the turbo-lift. Blood was splattered against the far wall. Seconds later the Borg's headless body collapsed to the ground, leaking.
“Jesus,” Mr. B stated. “Remind me not to be around you when you're mad.”
“Is everyone all right?” the Captain asked.
Lt. Mann shook his hand; his knuckles were scuffed and bleeding. “Never better.”
Rodgers kicked at the disconnected Borg at his feet. ”Baktag!“
The Captain himself kicked at the remains of his incinerated chair and sat in the one reserved for the Betazoid. ”Status?“
”Shields at thirty-four percent,“ Lt. Mann said.
”Minor damage to the forward hulls and Deck 12,“ Will Abelsaan said.
”And,“ Ensign Siler mentioned, ”during the course of the battle we seem to have drifted into the Neutral Zone.“
”Really?“ the Captain said, unconcerned.
”A clear violation of the Treaty of Algeron,“ Mr. B mentioned.
”Just what you'd expect from a bunch of screw-ups like us,“ the Captain said, and glanced over at Ensign Rodgers, who smiled and shook his head. The Captain looked at his communications officer. ”Lieutenant. Any word from any other federation starship?“
”Nothing, sir. The Enterprise is still a day away.“
The Captain scratched the slight scruff on his pointy chin.
”What do you recommend, Captain?“ Ensign Siler asked. ”Returning to Federation space?“
The Captain stood up and sighed. ”I'd like to. But unfortunately we can't. Our navigation system has been knocked out. We've lost impulse power. We're just drifting. So much space junk.“
”That's not--“ Ensign Siler began.
”Radio that message to Starfleet,“ Captain Harrison told Lt. Langley. ”In the meantime,“ he said, staring at the viewscreen, ”let's see what's going on out here."
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.