#008: Black Fire (TOS #8)

Some of these early Star Trek books have unctuous introductions that tell tall tales about the authors and lavish heaps of sickly-sweet accolades on them. Black Fire is one of those books. Its introduction was written by Theodore Sturgeon, a man of myriad science-fictional accomplishments, the most relevant of which for the purposes of this review are that he wrote the indisputably top-five TOS episode “Amok Time” and that he coined an axiom known as Sturgeon’s Law, which famously states that 90 percent of everything is crap, a figure some might argue is conservative when it comes to Star Trek novels.

Fluff jobs like these are a risky gambit that, to my way of thinking, don’t really have much of an upside. If the book sucks, the intro writer ends up with pie all over his face, and if he talks up the author and the book ends up being all right or good, the net gain is negligible. It’s not like it somehow reaffirms the strength of the mythos.

What I mean by all of this is: for a guy with credentials like Sturgeon’s, he sure picked a heck of a book to stick his neck out for.

Black Fire
Author: 
Sonni Cooper
Pages: 220
Published: January 1983
Timeline: After TOS
Prerequisites: None

Black Fire literally starts with a bang, as an explosion blows the bridge clean off the Enterprise and forces them to jettison their upper hull. I have to admit, it’s a pretty exciting intro that grips you instantly and forcefully; most episodes just start with Kirk casually recording his captain’s log and taking coffee from a yeoman. Don’t worry about all your top-billed favorites though—they’re mostly fine. As in Wrath of Khan, they’re on a routine training cruise, and there were enough meat shiel—I mean, brave cadets to bear the brunt of the blast for them. Kirk gets knocked out cold and Spock gets a pretty big hunk of metal lodged in his spine, but otherwise it could have been a lot worse, though for Spock, it will be.

Spock concludes that the explosion must have been premeditated and calls for an official inquiry. He has a few leads—a prime suspect, a piece of paper with a mess of dots that could be a star system, and a bottle of Space Nair—but the board says the leads are weak and declares the explosion an accident. Spock says “The leads are weak? The leads are weak? You’re weak” and something about how raktajino is for closers, but it’s too late, they dinged the little bell, inquiry closed.

Well. If you thought Spock wasn’t operating totally above board in The Entropy Effect, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. That ruling doesn’t sit too well with him, so he decides to steal a ship while they’re docked at Starbase 12 for repairs and go investigate whether anyone wants him to or not. Recruiting Scotty to help with his dirty work, they head for the star system indicated by the dots, land on a planet, and promptly get captured by Romulans. Who immediately get captured by Klingons. Who instantly get nabbed by the threat they’ve all converged on this planet to investigate—i.e., the New Alien Menace of the Week, the Tomarii.

“Yabba dabba doo! Ahead, warp factor two!”

From this point, the book becomes less a coherent story and more an attempt at compiling the Complete Compendium of Vaguely Fetishistic Situations to Drop Spock Into. To start, the Tomariians draft the captives they find suitable for sport, dress them in animal skins (artist’s rendering pictured to the right), and have them battle with spears and knives. Normally they kill their captives when they’re through forcing them to fight, but the Tomarrians quickly show many exploitable weaknesses, not least of which is that they are huge idiots.

It turns out the Tomarrians are not great at being captors. Allegedly, they have no concept of the value of the individual life, and part of what makes them so scary is that they’ll just relentlessly throw bodies at an enemy until they win. But that goes out the window when IIsa—the double agent who snuck onboard the Enterprise disguised as a yeoman and triggered the explosion—develops a pretty strong crush on Spock (and of course, Spock, being Spock, isn’t having it) while engineer IIob and Scotty become hanging-out and drinking buddies. IIob opines that in a different reality, he and Scotty could be friends, and Scotty tries to persuade him that that could be this reality, and all he would have to do is change his congenitally ingrained outlook. Also, perhaps in a different reality, maybe this book would have actually been about the Tomarii from start to finish instead of eventually forgetting about them and becoming an episodic repository of all the author’s thinly veiled Spock fic.

Anyway, they also let their captives wander pretty much anywhere they want, even near launch sites with rockets that they can use to escape, because they assume that, like them, they don’t completely understand how any of their crap works either, which is a pretty darn silly assumption. The “representatives” of the three empires form a shaky alliance, and Spock gives his word that if he escapes, he’ll get the word out to the Klingon and Romulan Empires about the Tomariian menace. One day out in the exercise yard, they make a break for it, but Spock passes out. Remember that chunk of metal in his back? This whole time, he’s been working around the pain rather than addressing it directly, and it’s starting to catch up to him. Scotty and the Romulan commander Julina try to hang back and help him recover and get to the rocket, but they all get waylaid while the Klingons and the other Romulans escape.

Meanwhile, Kirk finally comes to, and he’s ready to get back to captaining. Except who are these guys at the science station who are not Spock? And who is this dumpy sad-sack engineer who is not Scotty? It’s no good to leave the captain out of the loop, so might as well break it to him: Spock and Scotty stole a ship and went away, and they’re up for treason and court martial if they ever come back. Kirk doesn’t care. He doesn’t want these guys—he wants his guys! So, impending punishments be damned, Kirk is going to go and get his old friends back.

Cut back to Spock, who, as McCoy feared, is now paralyzed from the waist down because that thing in his back shifted, which brings us to Weird Fetish Situation #2, which is that IIsa is basically keeping him as her pet, bringing him nifty artifacts to study because she knows he digs that kind of thing. In another display of how bone-crushingly dumb these people are, she brings him a vase with some exotic flowers in it, tells him all about how the beans that grow out of the pods are poisonous, sets it down RIGHT NEXT TO HIM, and LEAVES THE ROOM. At this point, he’s already tried suicide once (assisted: he had Julina try to stab him through the heart), but if you’re going to put the cyanide pills right next to him on the dresser, heck, why not try again?

Spock’s attempts to commit suicide while in captivity on Tomarii stem from the logic that as the weak link in any potential escape plan, he should eliminate himself so that Scotty and Julina (who’s also fallen hard for Spock) will stop sabotaging themselves by hanging back on his account. It makes a sort of sense, rather than just making sense, which is a distinction this book trips over every time Spock finagles himself into a new mess. Cooper goes to great pains to explain how Spock susses out the logic in, for instance, breaking out of prison or deciding to live out his days as a pirate, but it often feels like she thinks she’s using Spock’s logic processes but is actually just using her own. Put another way that doesn’t make Spock sound like the real person he isn’t: if the prompt asks “What would Spock do?”, Cooper is hearing and understanding the question, but answering based on “What would I do?”

The other major problem with this book is that any plot development that doesn’t involve Spock gets either shunted to the side, improperly explored, or both. Once Kirk and company beam in to save Spock and Scotty just as Spock is about to die, the Tomarii exit the story entirely, only to briefly return to get scolded once Kirk and Spock put the kibosh on their invasion plans by effectively blocking the only route to their home planet. Scotty gets off light for only following orders, getting busted down to lieutenant and being reassigned to a teaching post on a starbase for a year, but he later returns to replace Douglas, back in his old rank and everything, with little more in the way of explanation than “I guess they changed their minds”. (There is an explanation at the end that covers this plus some later emotional developments, but it’s super-anticlimactic and unsatisfying, especially as a way out of the deep corner Cooper writes herself into.) And for a while, it seems like Leonidas’ resentment toward how much Kirk goes on and on about Spock might fester and suggest the future possibility of him turning on the crew, but it never goes anywhere. He feels a bit like a sort of Frank Grimes figure: an only-sane-man character held in contempt for enforcing reality (e.g., reminding Kirk that Spock is to be kept under arrest), but while a story about a new crew member baffled to insanity by the way the Enterprise keeps worming its way out of insurmountable danger and legal trouble has potential, it would have been too much on an already high-piled plate, not to mention probably not handled with the best of care.

But alas, no, it’s Spock you’re here for, and Spock is what this book is gonna give you, and by God, you better be ready for it to get hot and heavy. After Spock goes to prison for stealing the ship and committing treason (for keeping his word about disseminating communication to the Klingons and Romulans about the Tomarii), he meets a Romulan named Desus (no relation), escapes with him, and befriends him at a rate of increase of trust and intimacy that shocks even him and makes him question his t’hy’la bond with Kirk. As Desus ingratiates him into Romulan society (much to the chagrin of other Romulans who still remember that one time he kinda made off with something pretty important to them), he gets deeper into space piracy, donning a blazing black robe and a sexy earring to become the Black Fire of the title, whose piratical exploits become known far and wide across the galaxy and are immortalized in the form of erotic poetry written by fawning lady fans. This review has already gone on far too long, but it would an absolute disservice not to share this verbatim (formatting unfortunately not possible to fully retain in WordPress):

His dark shape flamed through the room,
causing a skipped heartbeat, as he bargained
for possession of the women.

Shrouded in a garment of lightning,
he took the ladies as his own,
bringing delight clouded in mystery.

To see his face through the veil of dark
flame.
To touch his hand, strong and warm.
To belong to this man of fire, if only for a
moment.
Time too short for love complete.
He is a shadow of mystery.
My flaming love.

Hachi machi! Is it just me, or do we need to crank the AC in here?

Kirk eventually crosses paths with Spock and immediately proceeds to act like a spurned lover after he sees Spock saluting Desus and conceding to his orders, which absolutely does not help alleviate the book’s already suffocating atmosphere of erotic tension. Spock’s main job at this point is to try to get everyone to cooperate against the Tomarii while slyly working toward restoring the status quo. Here’s about what it looks like by the end:

“There. It’s done. What do you think?”

I will say this for Black Fire: once you start talking about it, you can’t stop. Let me ask you this: have you ever known anyone who watched NASCAR and waited/hoped for cars to crash? If that person read Star Trek novels, Black Fire would be the money shot. Even just by the law of averages, some of these books were bound to be train wrecks, and some we’ve read already were, but none have achieved psychedelic pyrotechnics anywhere close to what Black Fire accomplished. I’d actually rank it a little higher than those others, because it’s at least incredulously hilarious and not a miserable slog. It’s well and truly something else, and even though it’s not good, I wouldn’t exactly not recommend it. It’s complicated.

Nuggets and Other Stray Bits

  • Black Fire is structured differently than other Trek novels: its chapters have titles and subchapters. It’s not bad, and only initially off-putting, but it also wasn’t strictly necessary.
  • p. 87: Leonidas plays with some loud clacking worry beads while at his post—like, who would do that? That’s the kind of lack of consideration for other people you’d see in a really bad sitcom. While you’re at it, Leonidas, would you like to eat noodles over your workstation and chew loudly with your mouth open? I’m sure we can replicate some for you.
  • Commodore Bragg, the prosecutor for the court martial, is a delightfully obnoxious prig, and having him cite “The Menagerie” as precedent for Spock going behind his superiors’ backs to handle things his way is a totally brilliant yet totally jerk move.
  • “Captain Astro” might be the dumbest name yet conceived for a character in one of these books. How on earth could anyone fear a pirate named Captain Astro. I keep alternating between thinking about the Jetsons’ dog and the Chevrolet minivan.

Final Verdict

I give Black Fire 2.5 out of 5 sensual poems about mysterious space pirates. Black Fire is the fun uncle of Star Trek novels: to hear the stories about it, it sounds wacky and hilarious, and it is for a while, until you know too much about it, and then you just wish it would go home, hoping the ensuing absence will enable you to remember it more charitably when you see it again. It often reads like it would fit comfortably among the worst season-three episodes of TOS, but it is completely bonkers and an absolute riot, and until I could see the threads unraveling, that was enough.

There is always something totally insane happening at any given moment in this book. If you think you may be in the opening stages of a Spock-related sexual awakening, or if you’re the kind of person who says things like “maybe you should turn off your brain and just enjoy things”, chances are there’s something for you here.

NEXT TIME: Triangle

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#009: Triangle (TOS #9)

3 Comments

  1. tigeraid

    This review is reminding me why I didn’t go back and re-read a lot of the earlier, “lesser” TOS novels. HOW long until we get to The Lost Years?

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