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Controversy as camouflage for a bad book

Killing Time (Star Trek, No 24) - Della Van Hise

Della Van Hise's novel has ranked among the more controversial Star Trek novels that have been published. It's a controversy that others have written about at considerable length (and which offers an interesting case study of the development of franchise fandom), but it's one that has the effect of overshadowing everything else about the novel, which was among the first published in Pocket Books's long-running series.


The premise itself is an interesting mix of familiar elements. The Enterprise is patrolling the Neutral Zone because the Romulans are getting frisky. Sure enough, the Romulans have a plan to destroy the Federation by erasing it from existence through the magic of time travel. Suddenly the ship isn't the USS Enterprise but the "VSS ShiKahr," with Spock now in command and Kirk a lowly (and troubled) ensign.


The premise by far is the most interesting part of the book. What Van Hise does with it that I like a lot is she 1) posits a change that isn't successful (no Romulan ability to romp unopposed through the Alpha Quadrant), and 2) has a Romulan leader who, because she inherits the project, decides to use the alteration to pursue different goals than the ones intended. I can't think of a time-travel novel that I have read that adopts such an intriguing plot shift. I also like the idea of a Vulcan-dominated "Alliance" in place of the Federation which opens up some amazing possibilities for world-building, even within the limits of a single book.


Yet as much as I liked those elements, my ability to enjoy the novel was tempered by its severe flaws. The first is with how Van Hise introduces the awareness of the change in history to her characters, which involves dreams of their previous lives and increasing psychosis throughout the known galaxy. That's also an interesting twist on the normal Star Trek time travel tale, only it's not canon. If this was a natural effect of altering the timeline, then why has there been no evidence of it in previous efforts (which are referenced in the book)? And how is it that, if over a century of history has changed, it's only cropping up now? These aren't insoluble problems — this is science fiction, after all! — but Van Hise makes no effort to even acknowledge these flaws, much less address them.

It's also disappointing to see how undeveloped the changes are. Decades of history have been altered, yet apart from Kirk's radical demotion, nothing else has changed about the transformed Enterprise. Though the Vulcans run the alliance and Spock captains the ship, Scotty remains the chief engineer, Sulu is the helmsman, Uhura occupies her familiar place at the com panel, and even Doctor McCoy is in charge of Sickbay. It's as though the Romulans warped time just to demote Kirk, which then proves largely irrelevant to the "Praetor's" plot.

Yet the biggest problem with this book is with her characterization of both Kirk and Spock. These are not the characters fans have come to know, and this is even ignoring the whole "K/S" controversy. Kirk starts out the novel confessing he has the "willies." Spock is constantly wrestling with his emotions and having (small but noticeable) emotional reactions to people and events. It's almost a deliberate defiance of their portrayal in the series and in other works, in Kirk's case to the point of making him almost unrecognizable. Again this would be excusable if it were woven into the plot, yet Van Hise prefers to present them as though they were the characters we remember from the series, rather than the funhouse versions in her novel.


In the end, the experience of reading Van Hise's novel is one of disappointment. Promising elements that promise something a cut above the traditional Star Trek plot are undermined by a limited exploitation of the premise and poor characterization. In that respect the whole "K/S" controversy was a boon to Van Hise, because it obscured the fact that, even without it, hers simply isn't a good Star Trek novel.