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A deeper exploration of the dilemmas in a Star Trek trope

The Joy Machine - Theodore Sturgeon, James Gunn

Of all of the Star Trek novels that I read, there are none that I look forward to reading more than the ones by authors who also scripted episodes of the show itself, in no small part because they developed the canon upon which the entire series is based. Though Theodore Sturgeon's novel was developed from a plot outline for the series by another author (the under-appreciated James Gunn), to read a work originating from the writer of "Shore Leave" and the Vulcan-defining classic "Amok Time" was an exciting prospect, especially considering its origins as a proposed episode for the series.


The result proved every bit as good as I thought it would be. In it the Enterprise is dispatched to Timshel, a planet that has quarantined itself off from the rest of the Federation. Beaming down, Captain Kirk finds a population that has turned away from intellectual pursuits to a life structured around laboring daily for a nightly dose of stimulation from the Joy Machine a computer created to provide a life of perfect happiness for the people. As Kirk investigates further, he grapples with the moral questions entailed in ending the Joy Machine's rule, as well as the frightening prospect of falling under the machine's control himself.


Sturgeon and Gunn's plot evokes a lot of the tropes that often recurred in the original series, echoing in particular the first season episode "Return of the Archons" in which a computer's rule established a tranquil population by eliminating individual expression. What sets the novel apart from the episode is the extended exploration of the implications of the Joy Machine's rule. Often this takes the form of dialogues between various characters, as the Enterprise crew argues with both the computer and its subjects, who readily and even eagerly accept the computer's programmed regimen and who raise larger questions about the purpose of  human lives in the process. In this respect it evokes the moral and ethical dilemmas posed in some of the best episodes of the show, which are explored in greater depth than was ever possible due to the constraints posed by the format. As such Gunn's novel possesses a fidelity to the original series often lacking in other products of the franchise, while at the same time showing just what fresh possibilities exist by exploring its themes using other media.