Classic Sci Fi: Ishmael, by Barbara Hambly

51VD4QQGZRL._SX281_BO1,204,203,200_Before there was fan fic on the Internet, there were official spin-off novels – still are, in fact. Star Trek attracted an amazing array of women who were writing science fiction in the 1980s. Writers included A.C. Crispin, Diane Carey, Diana Duane, and Vonda N. McIntyre. Tim Hanley has a great article about the high number of Star Trek novel writers who were women, and the high quality of their work, over at Straitened Circumstances.

From 1968 – 1970, there was a show called Here Come the Brides, about a group of women who come to Seattle to get married in 1860. Many performers on the show appeared later in Star Trek: The Original Series, including Mark Leonard, who ended up playing Sock’s father, and Jane Wyatt, who played Spock’s mother.

I never saw Here Come the Brides, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have watched the show and thought, “Hey, that looks like great material for a Star Trek story.” Luckily, Barbara Hambly did, and she wrote a novel that is bittersweet, balancing humor, horror, pathos, action, sorrow, and joy, sometimes within a single sentence. Spock is kidnapped by Klingons, tortured, and finds himself with no memory in the woods in 1860. Aaron Stemple (the main character in Here Come the Brides) discovers him, takes him in, and helps him recover. Aaron calls him ‘Ishmael’, and as Ishmael Spock becomes involved in the lives of the Seattle characters. Meanwhile, Kirk believes that Spock is dead, but he also believes that Klingons have travelled to Seattle to change the course of history, The story moves back and forth between Ishmael’s attempts to find his place in the world and Kirk’s attempts to solve a mystery.

Barbara Hambly excels at conveying a sense of place, and both the spaceport where the Enterprise is docked and the muddy woods of Washington State feel sharply real. I can’t speak to how well the book handles Here Come the Brides, but it does a lovely job of giving the Star Trek characters additional depth while staying true to the series. Additionally, the book features a number of women in central roles – scientists, a woman who is a doctor in Seattle, the women who come to Seattle to marry, all of whom have their own personalities and dreams, and of course Uhura, who kicks butt in an alley. It’s delightful to see so many “strong female characters” who are all strong in different ways – and who Ishmael respects and has great empathy towards.

The written format means that Hambly can have some fun with aliens, who on TV were usually humanoid. The book features one of my favorite aliens, Aurelia, a Drelb. Drelbs are basically a mass of protoplasm, and they change color and odor with their emotions. They also like to make people comfortable, so when Aurelia speaks to Kirk she changes a tentacle to a hand, and produces eyes, purely out of courtesy:

The Drelb’s glutinous bulk faded from rose to yellow, and developed bright kelly green stripes. The long eyelashes blinks, and somewhere in the protoplasm there was a shifting and a round knobbly tongued mouth formed. A soft voice inquired, “Is the problem theoretical?”

“In a sense,” Kellogg pulled up a stool to perch on.

The blue eyes turned toward Kirk again, studying him. Then suddenly a deep blue suffered the entire tall cone, and that soft voice said, “Deep sorrow with you in your grief, Jim Kirk.”

Even with no prior knowledge of either series, a reader could instantly feel at home in both worlds described in this book, and would relate to and care about the characters. The book is a masterpiece of concise world-building and characterization. It has scenes that are quiet gems of fun, and it has scenes of great sorrow and compassion. Above all, it’s a very kind book – for all that the Klingons are involved in an evil plan, the other characters are capable of great kindness and sympathy. It’s a great book about found family, and like most books that involve time travel, there’s some fate as well.

Incidentally, science fiction fans will notice references to Doctor Who, Battlestar Gallactica, Star Wars, and several Western shows. This book will bring a lot of tears but even through the tears it never stops having fun.

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One thought on “Classic Sci Fi: Ishmael, by Barbara Hambly

  1. […] to my beloved Star Trek novels shelf. In an earlier review, I mentioned the high caliber of novels written in the 1980’s and 1990s. Many of these novels […]

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