Monday, August 10, 2009

Music of the Spheres

Another one I downloaded years ago and only just read. Margaret Wander Bonanno's Music of the Spheres (email her for a copy) has become almost legendary among Star Trek books fans. She wrote the book during the Richard Arnold era, and her "Probed" article about the writing of the book blames Arnold and then-editor Dave Stern (I believe; she refers to him as RockStar and Arnold as Trelane) for what happened. The proposal was approved, she wrote the novel, and then everything went haywire. She was pulled from her own book and replaced by J.M. Dillard, who did the rewriting on the published version of Brad Ferguson's A Flag Full of Stars, and then Dillard herself was replaced by Gene DeWeese. Bonanno calculates 7% of her book is in the finished product.

So, that's the backstory. The story itself is a double sequel, following up on the Probe from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and characters from Bonanno's 1985 Trek novel Dwellers in the Crucible. The Enterprise is invoted to participate in an archeological dig as part of a diplomatic effort by the new Romulan leader; meanwhile, the Probe is returning to its homeworld. Naturally, the storylines intersect.

I can see why some people really like Music of the Spheres. Bonanno has a strong and distinctive voice, and really uses it, writing in a poetic prose style for the scenes from the perspective of the Probe and its creators, writing formal, almost archaic prose for the Romulan characters, and writing casual, slangy prose for the Enterprise regulars and human guest stars. The book has a strong focus on relationships, real, potential, and fading, as well as on music, which turns out to be the language of the Probe. Good thing that diplomatic mission just happened to involve some prominent musicians as well as archeologists, given that it's the musicians and archeologists who do the most to solve the mystery of the Probe.

Which leads me to my point: I didn't really like this book very much. I found it self-indulgent, as though Bonanno mainly wanted to write about the characters she created and about music, while it was apparently the editor's suggestion to write about the Probe. I didn't care for her prose stylings, either, Repeatedly referring to the Probe with the phrase "Messenger, Wanderer, Gatherer -- more prosaically: Probe" was just one of the annoyances. The narration sometimes has odd flights of fancy; sure, it's from characters' POV, but little interjections like "Eerie!" just come off feeling a little odd.

The dialogue didn't work for me, either; when she wrote for familiar characters, the dialogue rarely rang true. Likewise for some less familiar characters -- a (male) Starfleet Admiral calling Kirk "Jim baby"? Also, for a book with a lot of guest characters (Cleante, T'Shael, Jandra, Dajan, Rihan, Lord Harbinger (sounds like a video game villain), Tiam, Kittay, Ryan, Anneke, Harper, etc), few get much development or distinctive voices. It might have worked better if the book focused more on a smaller cast.

Ironically, for a book with a huge guest cast and major supporting roles for certain TV supporting cast (Uhura and Sulu, the latter in an unconvincing role as a part-time secret agent), this is possibly the only Trek novel written by a pro in which characters consciously think about Kirk, Spock, and McCoy the way some people do in real life: as the "legendary triumvirate", Spock as superego and guardian angel, McCoy as id and devil's advocate, Kirk at the centre. That's a bit too meta for me. Kirk should be aware of his friends' roles in his decision-making, certainly, but he shouldn't necessarily think about it in the same terms as people writing about him as a fictional character.

Then there's the attempts to pay tribute to Diane Duane's work with the Romulans by sneaking things in with the subtlety of a flying mallet -- Captain Rihan of the ship Hannsu. If it was already known that Paramount (i.e., Arnold) had issues with Duane's Rihannsu, why expect something so unsubtle to get through? If it wasn't yet known that they were problematic, why not just call the Romulans Rihannsu and give them names in line with Duane's Romulan character names?

At any rate, it's not hard to see why an editor and Paramount Licensing might have issues, even if the latter took the form of the notorious Arnold, who reportedly blocked a Trek comics plot involving time travel on the grounds that time travel was too complicated for Star Trek fans. The book is in love with its multitude of guest stars; the "legendary triumvirate" doesn't actually have much to do; there's not a lot of plot; the musical solution involves a lot of handwaving (possibly even literally once Anneke the dancer gets involved).

This time around I haven't skimmed through the published version, because it appears that the changes are much more significant and extensive than was the case with A Flag Full of Stars. I don't remember much about Probe, having read it back in 1992; that usually means I found it neither terribly good nor terribly bad, because I tend to remember the extremes.

So... I didn't care for this one, but as I said above I can see why others might; it's a singular, idiosyncratic work, anything but generic. I've liked Bonanno's other books considerably more than I liked this, and I'm looking forward to her next one with no little anticipation (there should be a lot more Saavik novels than there are, dammit!).


At 2:29 AM, Blogger zillabeast said...

Honestly, I agree with the review. I liked the published version better.


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