Trek Culture Book Review: Uhura's Song
How I picked this book
It started with the title. I don’t think anyone who has watched The Original Series can forget the moment in “Charlie X" when Uhura is singing in the rec room while accompanied by Spock on the Vulcan lyrette. Her voice and songs are a reminder of beauty in an environment built for functionality and protocol. Combined with the promise of cat-people1 I knew that this was the novel for me.
The Enterprise is orbiting Eeiauo (I pronounce this in my head like meow minus the m) as it lends its medical staff to help the cat-like Eeiauoans battle ADF, a miserable disease that causes protracted weakness leading to a coma and eventually death in all cases. Doctor Evan Wilson assigned herself to Enterprise to act as Doctor McCoy’s replacement while he is occupied on Eeiauo and everyone resents Starfleet assigning them a new medical officer, so even Kirk gives her the cold shoulder. The situation becomes urgent when it is discovered that ADF can infect many species and, due to its long incubation period, has already jumped from Eeiauo to other worlds.
Lieutenant Nyota Uhura holds the key to everything in the songs that she learned early in her career from befriending Sunfall of-Ennien, an Eeiauoan diplomat. They exchanged songs as a way to exchange cultures. The Eeiaoan songs hint that the Eeiaoans came from somewhere else (a planet named Sivao) and that there may be a cure for ADF there. Eventually, the songs also provide the key insight that breaks the case and leads to a cure for ADF. In between, Captain Kirk, Chekov2, Spock, Uhura, and Doctor Evan Wilson (at Spock’s suggestion that she be included on the away mission) spend time on Sivao, making friends, learning about the culture, and having adventures in their efforts to find a cure for ADF.
In particular I loved that Uhura (called StarFreedom on Sivao) made friends with Rushlight, the Sivaoan bard and their discussions of the place that song holds in each culture. They also discuss the difference in the treatment of intellectual property; To the Sivaoans works of creativity are used as currency; a song is repayed by helping with a camp chore and the gift of permission to replicate, perform, or improve upon someone else’s work is a strong symbol of trust and friendship. If someone chooses not to pass on their works before they die, those works die with them.
In addition, there were many moments where characters shined, either by being particularly in-tune with their TV-counterparts or by adding depth. Here are a couple of my favorites:
As Uhura advanced toward [the Sivaoan], the two youngest children started to back away. Uhura stopped. Very slowly, she knelt…and the two little ones stopped backing and instantly regained their curiosity.
Scholarly language wouldn’t mean much to someone that young, but she knew something they might understand, She rather hoped the captain would understand as well; she couldn’t leave children frightened by their first sight of humans and Vulcans. She began to sing an old, old lullaby she’d learned from Sunfall.
By the time Kirk worked his way through the crowd, Wilson was standing behind Chekov, devoting her full attention to his project. Deftly, and with great determination, Chekov chipped away at the stone in his palm with a second stone. Finally he stopped and made meticulous scratches; and, grinning boyishly, he held up the finished object for Wilson’s inspection.
"Mr. Chekov," she said, “you can be in my lifeboat anytime! Why did you add your initials? I’ll grant them out of justified pride, but it doesn’t seem likely your work would be mistaken for anyone else’s on this world. They’ve obviously never seen the like!"
"Hebit," said Chekov, flushing. “Et home, if I didn’t scretch my initials on them, they turned up in collections—once in a museum!"
Evan Wilson is a trickster3. She is a person who goes around Starfleet impersonating other people, doing badass good deeds, and getting away with it. All of the lovely and subtle thematic elements of the parallel trickster myths between cultures is going to come down to the Enterprise crew smiling and shrugging at the egregious breaches of security that a mysterious unknown entity committed.4
It makes a certain amount of sense that Mary Sue pixie dream girl ::cough:: Doctor Evan Wilson would enchant Kirk, after all, she is a hot piece of tail that is perfect in every way: she swordplays with Sulu, she is feisty enough to take on a giant cat person to earn their respect, she is the BEST at first contact, she plays intellectual games with Spock of such complexity and cleverness that even he is fascinated, she has mad skillz with a computer (if she was in The Core DJ Qualls would have logged in to his computer to find out that she had already hacked the planet and hooked him up with a lifetime supply of his second favorite flavor of Hot Pockets), she calls Scotty laddie and has a shuttle fabricated of pure awesomeness that happens to have just the teensiest problem (in a warp drive system that in a previous outing she invented under the name of someone else) that Scotty can look at instead of worrying about the away team on the planet, and speaking of the shuttle she’s such a good pilot that she doesn’t need the tractor beam to get it into the bay…
We see from the beginning of the novel that Nyota has a particular capacity for understanding and cherishing music and other people. She feels deeply and her sincerity forms strong friendships. In contrast Dr Wilson forms energetic, fast moving friendships but tires easily of hobbies and people. Both personality types are valid and valuable. The book would have been well-served to position Dr Wilson as a foil to Uhura allowing them to feed off of the other’s energy, instead Dr Wilson steals any scene that she is in, with Uhura fading into the background. Ultimately though, Dr Wilson leaves in a puff of cheek kisses, winks, and glitter while Uhura has made countless lifelong friends, mended a 2000 year old rift between the Sivaoans and the Eeaoians, and inspired a Sivaoan to take the name Another StarFreedom in her honor.
Should you read it?
Absolutely! Despite its problems, this type of deep-dive into a mission is one of the things that makes Star Trek a good fit for novels.
1. Don’t get me started on the Kzinti which make a guest appearance in the ST:TAS episode written by Larry Niven. I acknowledge that it is possible that a species could have sub-sentient females and the exploration of that might be interesting, but the way it is presented in Ringworld (and I will never read more of the series because I hated Ringworld so much, if you want something with an equally grand setting please read Eon by Greg Bear, Titan by John Varley, Pandora’s Star by Peter Hamilton, Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds, or anything really in the Big Dumb Object’s literature section) is unacceptable. There NEEDS to be cat-people in the Star Trek universe other than the Kzinti.↵
2. [I always imagine Chekov (and only Chekov) as his new-timeline-self (played by Anton Yelchin). Maybe it’s my crush on Anton Yelchin. ]↵
3. [There is a brilliant scene where, after “Doctor Wilson" leaves they try to call her and end up talking to Doctor Wilson, a black guy. The characters act as nonchalant as they can, but inside my head I was excited. Was she a shapeshifter? Was she a incorporeal being? Was she a hallucination? Could something even more bizarre have been happening? Alas, the black man was not the same person as the Doctor Wilson that they had been hanging out with for weeks, but for a moment I had hope.]↵
4. [Maybe it’s that I just finished watching “Mortal Coil", the episode of Voyager where Neelix dies and has a crisis of faith when he doesn’t experience an afterlife. I nearly rage-quit watching when Neelix is about to beam himself into space and Harry Kim locks him out of the transporter and Neelix over-rides the transporter lockout. Why can Neelix over-ride that?! Can Naomi Wildman with her Playschool My-First-PADD over-ride the transporter lockout? I know that Neelix has done some time in several departments including security, but is that in the orientation packet?]↵