Diane Duane’s The Wounded Sky is Star Trek at Its Most Bizarre and Breathtaking (Review)
This contains potential spoilers for both the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Where No One Has Gone Before” as well as The Wounded Sky.
Some of my favorite Star Trek episodes are those in which our intrepid crew members truly go where “no man has gone before,” far beyond the bounds of known space and into the great unknown. These episodes often given Star Trek writers the perfect opportunity to introduce godlike aliens, describe seemingly impossible phenomena, and/or explore philosophical and metaphysical issues — all classic Trek tropes.
Sample episodes include “Where No Man Has Gone Before” and “The Alternative Factor” from The Original Series; “Where Silence Has Lease” and “Remember Me” from The Next Generation; and “The Void” from Voyager. But arguably the best example of this type of episode — or at least my personal favorite — is “Where No One Has Gone Before,” the sixth episode from The Next Generation’s first season.
When the episode begins, the Enterprise is undergoing some updates intended to improve its warp drive’s efficiency. The upgrades work a little too well, however, and the Enterprise is flung more than a billion light years beyond the Milky Way galaxy, to the edge of the known universe — with no way of returning home within the crew’s lifetime.
And if that weren’t enough, the Enterprise crew soon discovers that in this bizarre new space, their thoughts can easily become reality. This leads to some pretty innocuous moments — Worf sees his childhood pet, Picard has tea with his dead mother, one crew member is found playing Mozart with a baroque string quartet — but it also exposes them to old traumas and puts them all at risk. In the episode’s most harrowing scene, Picard steps out of the turbolift only to catch himself before falling into the void of space. If they’re not careful, the crew’s fears and anxieties could end up destroying them and the ship.
In the end, Picard et al.‘s only chance at returning to known space lies with a mysterious alien who can somehow utilize space, time, and thought together to propel the Enterprise, though it takes a great toll on him mentally and physically. Which means that the Enterprise crew must focus on sending him good vibes so that he has the necessary strength to return them all home. His efforts are successful, but he fades out of existence just as the Enterprise returns to its original location.
“Where No One Has Gone Before” is a pretty trippy episode, and I remember it getting some flak from Christians for containing “New Age” elements thanks to its talk of space, time, and thought being inter-connected. However, the episode was generally well-received, and considered one of the first season’s highlights. (On a more negative note, this was also the episode that solidified young Wesley Crusher’s status as a genius wunderkind so special, he’s actually sought out by aliens — which undoubtedly did nothing to lessen any growing anti-Wesley sentiment.)
What I didn’t realize until fairly recently is that “Where No One Has Gone Before” was actually adapted from an older Star Trek novel featuring Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the Original Series crew: 1983’s The Wounded Sky by Diane Duane. I probably first read The Wounded Sky right around the time “Where No One Has Gone Before” first aired, and looking back on it now, I’m sure that most of it flew over my head. I just remembered it being really, really weird. So weird, in fact, that I never made the connection to the Next Generation episode. But that very weirdness is probably why it’s stuck with me more so than any other Star Trek novel that I’ve read.
The Wounded Sky’s plot is broadly similar to that of “Where No One Has Gone Before.” The Enterprise has been selected to test an experimental “inversion drive” that can theoretically allow spaceships to travel vast distances instantaneously, even to other galaxies. Star Trek is rife with technobabble, and The Wounded Sky is no different. The inversion drive employs De Sitter space, an actual mathematical concept that the novel describes as a multidimensional space capable of generating universes, and through which one can travel to anywhere because “it possesses infinite vector and acceleration qualities, ‘stored’ holographically in every part of it.”
However, the drive’s inventor — an intelligent glass spider named K’t’lk from the Hamalki race — readily admits that even she doesn’t fully understand how her drive actually works:
“There are a lot of paradoxes in the equations, yes,” K’t’lk said, sounding cheerful and unconcerned. “I wrote most of the principal equations myself, and tested all of them — yet I’m still unsure how the results proceed from those equations. And the Vulcans who worked with me seem to think we may never know. All I can tell you for certain is that they work. So at this point, figuring everything out can wait — seeing that the equations do produce a result we can turn to advantage.
Later, when Scotty insists that her equations make no sense, K’t’lk introduces what she calls “creative physics,” insisting that her equations “merely name the circumstances you wish to invoke. And the circumstances happen.” This sort of magic-y hand-waving could easily come across as a copout, but in The Wounded Sky’s case, it helps sell the sense of impossibility and wonder that the Enterprise crew will eventually encounter. (It also helps that Duane leans into the absurdity of it all via Scotty and McCoy’s consternation over the drive’s various implications.)
First comes the horror, however.
After shaking off some Klingon pursuers, the Enterprise crew activates the inversion drive, with unexpected results. During inversion, Kirk and the others begin experiencing bizarre hallucinations and memories that are not their own, including some very traumatic ones. And upon arriving at their destination in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud (which is 200,000 light-years from the Milky Way), they make a horrifying discovery: K’t’lk’s inversion drive has inadvertently opened a breach with another universe where entropy doesn’t exist, and this non-entropy is leaking into their universe at an increasing rate — spelling doom for existence as they know it. The only solution is to enter into the breach and find some way to repair it using the inversion drive.
And that’s when things get really weird.
As the Enterprise crew ventures into the breach, the walls between their individual minds begin to weaken, and they become exposed to each other’s deepest thoughts, memories, and desires. Of course, this being Star Trek and not, say, Battlestar Galactica, nobody on the Enterprise has any deviant or perverse thoughts. Or rather, the deeper they travel into a realm increasingly free from entropy’s effects, the more they begin to change for the better. Which leads to this fascinating exchange between between Spock and McCoy:
McCoy nodded. “So I see. The answer’s straightforward enough, if the way we’re going really is toward an area of decreased entropy. Aging, trauma, physical death, all are functions of heat death, ultimate energy loss. So’s trauma of the mind — and if that’s being halted or reversed, it’s no wonder people look better. The mind affects the body, it can’t be otherwise. What I’m not sure of is how far the effect will go. But I suspect it’ll continue to accelerate as we approach the heart of all of this. I tell you, it worries me a little.”
“No need, Doctor,” Spock said. “Indeed, you will not be worrying about it much longer, if my theory is correct. As we head further into the region of anentropia, entropic aspects of behavior — anger, fear and so forth — will rapidly decrease, even disappear.”
“Are you saying we’re going to become less human than we are – ?!“
Spock sighed and looked at McCoy with nearly unalloyed affection. “Leonard, please stop disagreeing just to have something to say.” McCoy’s mouth fell open. “If you are truly going to sorrow to see your fellow crewpeople lose greed, rage, terror, anguish, and the other ‘darker’ emotions that beset most of the humanities, you are not who I thought you were. And I suspect we must make our peace with who we are as quickly as we can. In this place where nothing else remains stable, that is information we will probably need to succeed in this mission.”
One of the key components of The Wounded Sky is just how romantic Duane gets in her descriptions of the Enterprise crew, their relationships, and their newfound perception of each other. Not romantic in a sexual sense, but rather, in how much love and admiration every one expresses for one another.
As he leads his crew across the bizarre landscape that is this inter-universal breach, Kirk is caught up in nigh-rapturous awe at his colleagues who, now that they’re freed of entropy’s curse, he sees in their best possible forms. McCoy, for instance, blazes with “an intense compassion that could be felt on the skin… like a sun in the desert… Jim felt all the death in him, all the entropy, screaming and cowering away; it knew its enemy.” As for Spock, “Jim was already familiar with the incessant activity of that cool, curious mind as it tirelessly hunted answers. But now he saw where the activity came from — Spock’s utter certainty that there was no higher purpose for his life than to burn it away in search of truth, and to give that truth away when he found it.”
After a number of bizarre sequences, including arriving at what appear to be the pearly gates, the Enterprise crew discovers what lies at the center of the breach: a god. Or rather, a proto-god that’s completely unaware of its own existence, much less its own power and divinity. After eventually establishing contact with these Others — which occurs after Kirk has a philosophical discussion with Uhura about the nature of communication itself — and convincing them of the threat posed to both universes, the Enterprise crew is faced with a quandary.
By communicating with the Others and helping them achieve awareness, Kirk et al. have thoroughly violated the Prime Directive, Starfleet’s highest mandate. If they seal the breach and leave the Others as they found them, they damn the proto-god to an existence of endless, entropy-less monotony. But if the inversion drive is used to introduce entropy into this new universe, then the Others are doomed again. In short, what can a crew of mortals teach a burgeoning deity about the sort of existence it/they should have?
After much debate, the Enterprise’s chief recreation officer, Lt. Harb Tanzer — yes, the Enterprise has a chief recreation officer — proposes an unorthodox solution: teach the Others to pass their existence by playing a game. As he explains to Kirk:
Sir, what grander pastime can we recommend to Them than life itself? You leave Them an out, of course… a point at which the playing ‘piece,’ the body, expires. Entropy would see to that, in any case. So that at the end of each round, the players are freed to remember that this is a game; to count the chips, and sit the next round out — or change roles and play again.
In other words, teach the Others to inhabit space and time and experience what it means to be a finite, corporeal being that, when it dies, will return to the greater Whole to reflect on its experience. The rest of the crew balk at this idea, leading to another highfalutin’ speech, this time by Tanzer on the importance of games:
[T]here’s a tendency to regard games as not important, not ‘serious’ — don’t be fooled by it! Politics is a game, relationships are games, business and exploration and adventure are games — with rules, and time limits, and restrictions on the players. And there’s room inside them all to experience glory, and gladness, and defeat and triumph — grandeur and intimacy and power and joy, sorrow and love. And those are just the four-dimensional games mortals play, inside the boundaries of life. What could a God do, given a chance?
In the end, K’t’lk sacrifices herself, using the inversion drive to basically write the laws of an entire universe in order to give the Others their great game. She does this by singing an increasingly complex song, which Duane describes in suitably ornate language. (Example: “A wild, splendid, glittering fall of interlinked melodic lines as syncopated and precise as any Bach sonatina, but (despite the chiming lightness of her voice) somehow trapping a more-than-symphonic weight of complexity and meaning in their net of measures.”)
And just as in “Where No One Has Gone Before” where Picard and his crew must send good vibes to the alien so they can go home, the Enterprise crew here offers up the best parts of themselves in order to give the Others something to study and reflect upon, even strive for. Which leads to yet another series of bizarre sequences — detecting a theme yet? — in which the Enterprise crews’ roles and duties are explored in abstract and deeply poetic language, be it Uhura’s attempts to learn new languages, Chekov’s passionate defense of the ship, Sulu’s impressions of navigating the Enterprise through the dark, or Kirk’s experience of commanding and guiding a crew consisting of Starfleet’s best and brightest.
In some ways, The Wounded Sky doesn’t feel like a typical Star Trek novel, despite featuring Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the Enterprise crew. Rather, it feels like something more, a distillation of Star Trek’s optimism and philosophical bent transmitted through wild, poetic language that feels blessedly un-beholden to canonicity or franchise requirements.
I suspect some Trekkies might take issue with the aforementioned “romantic” depictions of Kirk and his crew as they’re exposed to each other, or the sense of surrealism that verges on fantasy, or the magic-ness of the inversion drive (and Duane’s cavalier approach to it). Duane’s descriptions are flowery and a bit over-the-top in their sincerity, but there’s also something rather fetching about the complete lack of cynicism on display here.
Star Trek, after all, has always been characterized by a deep sense of optimism, of humanity bettering and ennobling itself — which is one of those things that makes it so timeless — and Duane simply indulges in that to the nth degree. (Also, it’s just really nice to read a story that’s so unabashedly kind and complimentary to its characters, and their perceptions of each other, especially after the last few years we’ve had.)
The Wounded Sky is also surprisingly spiritual. In one sense that’s a given, since its climax revolves around the Enterprise crew teaching a god what it is to have a full and meaningful existence. There are frequent Biblical and theological references, which seem quite apropos; given everything that Kirk et al. see and experience, what other language would suffice? Finally, the novel’s use of entropy as a sort of original sin that explains the darkness, anguish, and trauma in people’s lives is intriguing.
At first blush, it seems like a nicely secular explanation for everything bad, but it also raises some fascinating theological questions. Was entropy part of God’s original perfect creation, or was it introduced as a result of humanity’s fall? Is entropy simply another way to describe the effects of sin on mankind and the rest of creation? And if entropy is bad, then presumably it won’t be in Heaven, but what will that be like given that so much of our current existence and experience is defined by entropy? (Consider all this yet more evidence that Star Trek is more religious than people might think.)
I also like The Wounded Sky for how it makes Star Trek feel wild and unpredictable. Putting aside all of the trippy discussions about causality, “creative physics,” and the psychedelic sights and sounds experienced by the Enterprise crew, I love how Duane fully embraces the alien-ness of Star Trek. Let’s be honest: Star Trek’s aliens often look more like humans with bad acne and/or bad toupees then anything truly non-human. Duane, however, takes great delight in imagining the galaxy populated by a true menagerie of creatures that includes singing glass spiders who construct elaborate space stations; felines who don’t experience linear time and have names like Niwa Awath-mánë ri d’Hennish enu-ma’Qe; multi-tentacled aliens with twelve genders (all of them male); and even “thinking planets.”
I doubt any of this would work half as well in a Star Trek episode or movie, such is the freedom granted by a book. That, and a decided lack of concern for ensuring that this novel fits in nicely with the rest of the canon. (Was there even a Star Trek canon back in 1983?) None of this is to suggest that Duane doesn’t know how to write Star Trek. Several of her Trek novels — 1988’s Spock’s World and her Romulan-themed Rihannsu series — frequently appear in “Best Star Trek Novel” lists. But I suspect that she’s able to make The Wounded Sky work so well because she knows what ultimately makes Star Trek work so well: that sense of awe and wonder that comes from peering up at the stars and imagining just how bizarre, beautiful, and breathtaking it might actually be out there, where no man has gone before.