Far Beyond the Stars:
A Deep Space Nine Novel by Steve Barnes
"Far Beyond the Stars" is one of the most ambitious episodes Trek has ever done, and only Deep Space Nine could have done it: a story about a captain in the middle of a galactic war, whose visions of life as an oppressed African-American writer from mid-20th century America put his position into perspective for him. In many ways the novelization is vastly superior to the episode, offering more historical background and substantive characterization of the 1950s Harlem residents. It also creates an interesting tie-in with the Prophets and Sisko's role as the Emissary. It's the best Sisko story anyone has ever written, even though Sisko appears in the novel for far fewer pages than does Benny Russell, the writer whom Sisko believes himself to be.
The novel permitted some humor lacking in the series by being able to point out in which places actors familiar in regular Deep Space Nine roles appeared in Benny's reality: thus Benny imagined the graphic artist as General Martok, and the newspaper boy as the Ferengi Nog, parallels which viewing audiences might have missed if they didn't recognize actors J.G. Hertzler and Aron Eisenberg. The use of Dukat and Weyoun as the racist cops was particularly powerful in the scene where Benny, seeing the dead body of the boy Jimmy, has a fantasy that he's Ben Sisko and it's his son Jake who's been murdered by his enemies. There was a distracting split at times between series tie-in jokes - Darlene/Dax complaining about a character with a worm in her belly, Julius/Bashir and Kay/Kira being married - and the very serious material of the story.
The novelization went a long way towards making up for some weak points in the script, particularly in its suggestion that Benny as well as Benjamin had contact with a Bajoran Orb (in Benny's case, in an exhibit at the World's Fair in 1940, magnificently described by Barnes from both a spectator's point of view and a minority outsider's). The speeches were about as heavy-handed in the book as on television, but given the wide range of additional material depicting prejudice in hundreds of horrific manifestations, they didn't seem as overblown. One of the best sequences in the novel featured the protagonist experiencing the lives of dozens of other Bens - a drug addict, a salesman, a slave, a discoverer of an ancient artifact. The flashbacks to the ongoing historical brutality against black men were effective and deeply disturbing.
The gender politics, however, were just as bad if not worse in the novel, which certainly had the space which the television episode did not to remedy the dismissal of women. Instead, the novel engages in comparison games, pointing out that while white women writers experienced the same restrictions as black writers, they could still live in nice houses in the suburbs. True, women weren't imprisoned and assaulted on the street the way black men sometimes were, but their humanity was denied nearly as effectively over centuries of enforced marriages and lack of legal rights, and in the 1950s, stories about female captains weren't any more common than stories about Negro captains (I feel compelled to point out that Trek had a black captain who was a series regular before it had a female captain in a similar position, and that even in the 1960s, Roddenberry was forbidden to put a female first officer on his show - just as he was forbidden to permit his black communications officer and his white captain kiss on the lips). It's incredibly frustrating to read claptrap like the sequence in this novel where Benny declares that a man has to do, while a woman can simply be - those sort of attitudes are what prevented women from doing things throughout the decade in which most of this novel is set.
I really dislike it when writers turn racism and sexism into a comparison game, trying to demonstrate that one group had it worse than another. The point is that BOTH minorities and women were oppressed, and it's specious to argue about which is worse, getting beaten legally by the cops or getting beaten legally by your own husband. I was really disappointed to find Cassie, a plucky dreamer as a child, turned into the same maternal, simpering woman in the novel as she was in the television episode, and Benny's abandoned mother and lottery-addicted aunt didn't offer much hope of an alternate model. If the position of black men seems hopeless in the decades of the novel, the position of black women seems intolerable.
This book was clearly thrown together quickly as a tie-in with the episode, and contains some frightful editing errors - in addition to a higher quotient of comma splices and split infinitives, there's a misspelling on Mickey Mouse's name, and even a scene where Kira sees Sisko in his quarters yet when he exits moments later, they've become his office in Ops. There are also a few idiomatic phrases which surprised me - Sisko thinking "just how lame" something he said had sounded, and rather explicit profanity in Benny's interpretation of a racist cop's threats.
Unfortunately, this novel lacks the most important thing I expected from a novelization of this episode: a significant excerpt from one of Benny Russell's Sisko stories. The plot hinges on Benny's editor's rejection of his manuscript about a colored captain, which the editor certainly might have chosen to do merely for the phrase "Benjamin Sisko, Negro captain." But I want to know exactly what Benny wrote about Benjamin Sisko. Did he reiterate the fact that Benjamin Sisko has "ebony skin," deliberately drawing attention to his difference from the usual science fiction heroes? Did he give him Creole roots, or African ancestry? It's evident watching Deep Space Nine that Sisko is a black man, but I can't think of a single instance in one of the novels where his ethnicity is mentioned, let alone made an issue of. Most weeks he's a generic Starfleet officer, a generic human. Perhaps that's the goal aspired to - complete color-blindness on the part of readers and viewers - but if racial and ethnic individuality have to be sacrificed in order to do away with prejudice, is that really an accomplishment?
By the standards of today's film and television, I guess it is - Deep Space Nine kills token redshirts, not token black characters. Still, it's something that has always bothered me about Star Trek (a series set in a future in which Jews, Palestinians, Armenians, Inuits apparently don't exist). A writer doesn't have the luxury of casting a black man whom the audience will inevitably notice as such; he has to describe that character's appearance and background, something the Trek writers have been all too content not to bother with particularly in the case of Uhura, Laforge, and Sisko. If these were characters in novels who never appeared on a screen, what signifiers would be used to tell us their race? Skin color can be deceptive, and we all know it's impossible to generalize about behavior or diction without falling into prejudicial traps. I'm really curious about Benjamin Sisko, the character in a 1950s pulp magazine, and I wish we'd gotten to see more of him as such.
As the character Jimmy suggests in Barnes' novel, "white" is assumed to be the default: unless someone specifically says that a hero is not, it's assumed that the characters are supposed to be white. Thing is, that goes for the bad guys too - in this case, the nasty cops and bookies. Once again, it's odd to find a commercial product like Trek which is quite conservative in terms of social matters - some shows set during THIS century are more progressive - criticizing the practices of the pulp publishing industry. Deep Space Nine has a black captain and Voyager has a female captain, but in many ways their characters are held back because of their race and gender; they don't get to do all the things Kirk and Picard did, particularly not in their personal lives.
There is something poignant about the idea that Benny Russell invented Kirk and the Borg. But there was also something that bugged me about that - the purposeful revisionism is disturbing. It suggests that history really can't escape the texts in which it's recorded - that if the wrong words are written, those words nonetheless will shape reality. If so, I hope the Trek writers are paying careful attention to the future they're scripting for us all.
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