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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Tin Man, Tin Woodman

While at the Wee Book Inn today I stumbled across Tin Woodman, a 1979 novel by David Bischoff and Dennis Bailey. I immediately added it to my pile of purchases, for I'd been curious about the novel ever since learning years ago that it was used as the basis for an excellent third-season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Tin Man."

I read the novel over lunch at Chianti's on Whyte Avenue, and I was struck by how closely the world and characters of the book predicted that of Star Trek: The Next Generation. In the show, of course, the U.S.S. Enterprise serves the needs of the United Federation of Planets; in the novel, the Pegasus is a starship serving the Triunion of worlds. Both starships travel faster than light, carry auxiliary craft as well as families and colonists, and come equipped with food replicators and holodecks. Even the bridge layout and the uniforms bear uncanny resemblance to the show - though of course Bischoff and Bailey drew some inspiration from the original Star Trek.

Mora Elbrun serves as the Pegasus' "shiplady," a kind of therapist in much the same vein as The Next Generation's Deanna Troi. Both characters are empaths, though Troi is an alien while Elbrun a human mutant. In both novel and episode, representatives of the government enlist an even more powerful empath - in the book, Div Halthor, on the show, Tam Elbrun - to make contact with a living but dormant space-borne organism, called Tin Woodman in the novel and Tin Man on the show.The Pegasus/Enterprise ferries Halthor/Elbrun to the alien entity to make first contact, and at this point the plots diverge widely.

And no wonder. The captain of the Pegasus is petty, obsessive and eventually monomaniacal, the first officer waffling and ineffective. This sort of characterization wouldn't work for the Enterprise crew, so the Moby Dick-like aspects of the novel's plot are dropped in favour of a cold war-like race between the Federation and the Romulans to secure - or destroy - Tin Man.

Bischoff and Bailey adapted their own novel into the episode's screenplay, so it's no wonder that the episode uses many of the book's character names and situations, merely shifting them about to fit the series format. Because I was exposed to "Tin Man" long before Tin Woodman, I found myself placing the Star Trek characters in their corresponding roles in the novel. It was rather amusing to imagine Picard acting like such a crazed martinet (eventually blowing his own head off with a laser), and to see Riker waffling over whether or not he should mutiny (though his counterpart in the book is a woman). Worf becomes a sycophantic toady and LaForge Troi's heroic but ultimately doomed lover. Read this way, the book plays out just like an episode of The Next Generation - only one taking place in the mirror universe.

Both the novel and the episode stand as solid, if not transformative, science fiction. There's a good reason that Star Trek has always been at its best when it takes its inspiration from literary SF; that's where all the groundbreaking ideas come from. When Star Trek comes back to television (as I'm sure it will), I hope its producers will seek out today's best speculative fiction for inspiration. I'd love to see Jack McDevitt, John Scalzi, China Mieville, Lois McMaster Bujold, Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, Nalo Hopkinson, Connie Willis or Ken MacLeod, among many others, adapted to the Trek milieu...

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