#021: Uhura’s Song (TOS #21)

This week, we’re looking at Uhura’s Song, in which Uhura’s professional football career is derailed by a terminal cancer diagnosis.

Wait, no, sorry, that’s Brian’s Song. My apologies.

 

 


Uhura’s Song
Author: Janet Kagan
Pages: 373
Published: January 1985
Timeline: TOS season 2 (after “Journey to Babel”)
Prerequisites: None

A plague called ADF—an acronym for which a full name is never supplied—is ravaging a planet of catlike people called Eeiauo and threatens to spread throughout the rest of the galaxy like wildfire. It’s compared at one point to rabies, in that both animal and humanoid species can contract it, but its most visible symptoms are hair loss, giant lesions, and eventually slipping into a coma cheerily known as “The Long Death”. The only chance at a cure lies in the lyrics to songs Uhura learned a long time ago from a Eeiauoan friend named Sunfall of Ennien.

Starfleet has quarantined the planet, and McCoy stays behind to help while the Enterprise is reassigned to seek out a cure. That’s just as well, since Kagan doesn’t write him very well, overstuffing his mouth with “damn” and “dammit” to the point of gaudy parody. Unlike a lot of Star Trek authors, however, Kagan seems to have actually possessed the self-awareness necessary to catch this flaw in her writing herself, because she sidelines McCoy for most of the book, and in his place, we get Acting Chief Medical Officer Evan Wilson.

Long ago, Uhura and her friend Sunfall traded songs as a highly intimate act of friendship. The value of the songs lay in their taboo status: Uhura taught Sunfall some bawdy ballads, and Sunfall taught Uhura songs that are pretty much treasonous to sing in Eeiauoan public. Uhura can tell from the lyrics to the songs that the Eeiauoans didn’t originate on Eeiauo, and Spock agrees that that is very likely the case, but the Eeiauoans deny it. Finally, Quickfoot, one of the Eeiauoans assisting McCoy, admits that Eeiauo is basically Space Australia, the Eeiauoans having been exiled as criminals by the nomadic populations for making a number of animal and plant lifeforms extinct with their unsavory city-living practices. Quickfoot is so ashamed of letting the cat out of the bag (pun very much intended) that he attempts to kill himself immediately afterward, but McCoy manages to stop him and they extract a solid hint about the location of Sivao in the process.

Proceeding on assumptions drawn from applied logic, the Enterprise manages to find and reach Sivao, and immediately establishes the most ADORABLE first contact EVER. (Cue heavy breathing.) They meet Brightspot, who talks in a way that somehow reminds me of Dug from Up. Evan Wilson teaches them what a hug is, and then they HUG THE KITTY PEOPLE. It’s even cute when the adults cuff their children. Basically, if you’re going to pick this book up, prepare yourself for maximum overcute.

Despite getting top billing on this one, Uhura isn’t as central to the proceedings as the title would suggest. It’s her history with Sunfall and the songs she knows that allows them to get the ball rolling, but once they reach Sivao, it becomes much more of an ensemble piece. Everyone in the landing party has a lot of really nice moments getting to know the Sivaoans (Chekov especially gets quite a few) and Evan Wilson really starts to take charge.

Evan Wilson is an enigma throughout the book. I hesitate to call her a Mary Sue, because I’ve recently come to believe that the term is more often than not meant in a spirit of misogyny and meanness and not as an honest critique of a female character’s talents and capabilities, but I will say she’s certainly a spitfire. She has a comfort with nature and an easy way with otherworlders that belies her desk jockey background. She’s equipped herself with an arsenal of unusual quirks and coping mechanisms to combat her lack of height. She swears so regularly by a goddess named Elath that it will actually make you miss Vonda McIntyre’s characters saying “oh my gods”. The two biggest arguments in favor of declaring her a Mary Sue are that she can commit full-on insubordination without getting in any real trouble (at one point she literally tells Kirk “Shut up, Captain”) and that she’s able to go toe-to-toe in a battle of logic with Spock and throw him for a loop with her devil-may-care extra-human attitude. But Spock senses there’s something not quite above board about her and he can’t put his finger on it, although unlike The Vulcan Academy Murders where you figure it out with three quarters of the book still remaining, Kagan leaves Wilson’s deal vague enough that you’re stuck waiting the whole book for the other shoe to drop. (Though there is one very subtle hint that pretty plainly lays it all out there, if you’re a smart person who knows things—more in the Nuggets section.)

Anyway, the Sivaoans are as reluctant to talk about their past as the Eeiauoans. They feel a lot of shame about the way the exile went down, but they won’t talk about it to Kirk and his comrades because, as they eventually realize, the adults perceive the landing party as children, and adults don’t speak to children about adult affairs, even when the well-being of the entire galaxy is on the line. So, to get the grown-ups to listen, they agree to endure a Sivaoan rite of passage into adulthood not totally unlike Kahs-wan, taking along the indefatigable Brightspot and a medical apprentice named Jinx, whose name’s origin is so sad that I literally frowned like a tragedy mask.

Sivao is such a relaxing place and the story moves at such a leisurely pace that it’s often easy to forget the urgency of the ADF cure mission. It’s during one such lull that Kagan suddenly springs the revelation that McCoy suddenly remembers out of the blue that Chekov’s blood factors put him at high risk for ADF. This feels like the literary equivalent of the Super Mario Bros. “hurry up” sound, although there’s still almost 150 pages left at that point.

The ever-present cuteness is the book’s most enduring quality. If you think about it, this book represents an incredible achievement. Viewed in hindsight, Sivao and its inhabitants evoke the sort of fandom that calls to mind cat memes, ponies, and cutie marks, things which then existed only in nascent forms that have since evolved beyond recognition. It predates the ascendancy of “cute” culture in the West by almost two whole decades. In a way, this makes it a much more contemporary TOS story than others—easy, despite its age, to recommend to casual fans, or perhaps to those who process fandom in a less sci-fi-intensive way. Certainly, it’s aged far better than reading about pagers, fax machines, BBSes, and tapes, albeit by no intentional doing of Kagan’s.

The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” About the time of the adulthood walk, a theme begins to emerge concerning adults and children, and how one’s actions do more to indicate maturity and wisdom than one’s words; from that point forward, this theme carries the book to its conclusion. This book may be cute and adorable, but there’s nothing childish about it. There’s so much here to enjoy and to make you smile and to root for that it’s really hard to imagine not just Star Trek fans but anyone who likes having a good time not liking this book.

Nuggets and Other Stray Bits

  • Kagan consistently uses regime when she means regimen. There are a lot of places in this book where it’s clear the proofreader was sleeping on the job, but that’s the most noticeable, because it pops up over and over.
  • Dr. Wilson’s skiff is called the James Barry. James Barry, it turns out, was a surgeon who was born a woman but lived her entire adult life posing as a man and wasn’t found out until after she died. That sort of puts you on the right track as to what’s up with her, though you have to move some parts of the equation around to get at the full answer.
  • I never had occasion to bring up Scotty and Rushlight, but their scenes together are just as smile-inducing and full of warm fuzzies as anyone else’s.
  • p. 24: Kirk gives the conn to Lieutenant Vuong, an OC, something you don’t realize how rare it is until it actually happens.
  • Snarl is mentioned! Except Dr. Wilson insists that Kirk respect her by not calling her that nasty nickname behind her back, and to instead call her by her proper name, Snnanagfashtalli. Reminds me a lot of this scene, for some reason:

  • p. 77: Brightspot invites Dr. Wilson into her “swagger-lair”. New WiFi name?
  • p. 294: “‘Catchclaw went to Sretalles to find a rememberer, someone who collects old information no one is interested in anymore.'” So basically, me?
  • p. 320: “The Sivaoan formerly known as Jinx” is a turn of phrase that will most likely evoke Prince in the minds of most readers, until you recall that Prince was still a few years away from being called that. Another thing Kagan was way out in front of!

Final Verdict

I give Uhura’s Song 4.5 out of 5 kitty hugs. It’s said that Janet Kagan received fan mail about this story all the way up to the day she died, and it’s easy to see why. Perhaps it could have done with a little pruning to make the pacing a little snappier, and I’d entertain arguments that Evan Wilson can be a bit much at times, but overall it’s a blast. Kagan really hits that sweet spot where you just enjoy basking in the company of the characters and treasuring their interactions. And even in the midst of a potentially galaxy-ending plague, it’s joyful, sunny, and unceasingly optimistic more often than not.

NEXT TIME: Shadow Lord

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#022: Shadow Lord (TOS #22)

3 Comments

  1. Adam Goss

    Just found your site this week and am having a fun and fascinating time reading your reviews. I gave up on a lot of Trek book reading in the 1990s (and I say this as a devout Trekkie) because A. there were more books coming out than I could afford to keep up with in terms of money and time (especially since I was starting to explore literary sf and fantasy in general – when I started reading as a serious hobby in 8th grade I just read Trek, then branched out to Arhtur C Clarke and beyond in college), and B. the books started getting bad – boring, repetitive and cookie-cutter with none of the spark of books like this one here. I recently started a 31 day thing on Facebook recommending books to friends, and Uhura’s Song happened to be the first one I chose… I’m also posting here because I’m hoping you can answer a question, since you seem knowledgeable in Trek lore: I recently heard Uhura’s Song was Kagan’s only Trek novel because she apparently was treated badly by Pocket Books, or something like that. Do you know anything about this and can you elaborate at all?

    • jess

      The only thing I could really find was in Voyages of Imagination, and it doesn’t sound like there was animosity. Just the usual lack of editorial consistency that plagued the series in the 80s. She wanted to write sequels with Evan Wilson, and Pocket Books wanted them, but by that point staff had changed hands and they had locked in the rule that you couldn’t bring OCs back for sequels. It sounds like due to not being that big a Trek fan in the first place, she just sort of lost interest. (Immersing herself in that universe wasn’t natural for her—she went to great lengths to get into the headspace.)

      I agree it would have been easy to get out of the loop if you were reading these as they came out. A curated experience is definitely ideal for most people.

      • Adam Goss

        Hmmm.. that would explain her two original novels, Mirabile and Hellspark. I tried reading both of them and couldn’t. She seems to have had a thing for cultural immersion storytelling, where the reader is plopped down into a narrative full of terms and worldviews that are not readily explained; rather you have to figure them out as you go along, like going to a foreign country and trying to learn the language AND do all the things one needs to do every day to live at the same time. I have known people who love that sort of storytelling, but i personally hate it. I find it hopelessly confusing, and having to constantly figure out what the hell is being talked about with every sentence or word interferes with my ability to follow the plot and enjoy it (Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel Delaney did this too and to much greater extremes!). With Uhura’s Song, we have the familiar Enterprise crew along for the ride and as they learn about the aliens, we learn too.Any questions we might want answered,they ask for us and we both learn what’s going on as a result. Sad she chose not to write any more Trek, even with the increased restrictions (and I agree those restrictions were bad, even if they did serve to prevent more books like Killing Time), because her work on further Trek would have been more enjoyable than her original works 🙁

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