The Enterprise encounters--you'll never guess--a hollow asteroid that is really a spaceship with people inside who don't know that there's an outside world. Meanwhile, the ship gets stuck, Klingons show up to threaten them, and in the end Kirk confronts something like a god-computer.
Yeah, it's not really original, in the larger motions of the plot. However, the little details are done very well. The society in the asteroid is interesting, the mysteries are intriguing, and the sense of danger and urgency is convincing. Even though part of the urgency is provided by a literal ticking time bomb, it's well handled. An enjoyable book.
In the author's note at the end, Haldeman writes that this is "probably [his] last Star Trek book":
In fact, Haldeman didn't want to write this Trek book, but he couldn't get out of his contract:
Count me among those who liked the second book better!
Also, good odds on that Sheila Clark being this Sheila Clark, yeah?
The teaser at the beginning is headed "attack of the mutant clones". That's promising.
And here we have a hollowed-out asteroid with people inside. Where have we seen that before?
Weird format. This is a summary of the meeting from the previous chapter, as might be distributed afterward to participants.
Kirk and co. beam in and are soon detained by the authorities. And to the surprise of no one, the people inside don't know they're in a spaceship.
Kirk and co. are taken to a court where they are questioned by behavior enforcers. They learn that these aliens belong to one of 256 'families', which seem connected to vocations ('behavior enforcer' is one, and 'interpreter' is another), and one of several castes.
On the surface of the asteroid they spot a Klingon ship. It was trapped there centuries ago by a net of the unobtanium stuff. Spock orders the Enterprise to move off so that they will not be caught as well, but it is too late.
A 'magician' arrives to interrogate the captives. He thinks them to be Klingons. During the interrogation, in the distance a phaser explodes as it was being examined, prompting the magician to order all but Kirk killed.
Upon hearing this, Spock beams down a security team, and follows shortly after. They all escape with the magician and translator in tow.
Escaping across a river, Kirk and co. come upon a jungle. There, the interpreter and magician assure them they will die. When pressed, it comes to light that the magicians use some kind of cloning to reproduce the species, and they release the 'mistakes' into the jungle, since custom forbids killing them. At night, the monsters will attack and, doubtless, kill them all.
Kirk and co. stand watch during the night, fighting off a constant stream of monsters.
They survive the night and procure a cart to ease their journey.
Klingons intercept the Enterprise's distress signal, and launch a bomb toward the asteroid. Scotty prepares to beam the crew into the asteroid, if necessary, on the chance that it will protect them.
Kirk & co. keep on traveling. Apparently the horse-rat creatures pulling the cart don't need sleep, as long as they think it's daytime.
On the Enterprise, they plan to transport everyone (except Scotty) inside the asteroid and then blow up the bomb early.
Inside, Kirk & co. reach the island of the magicians, and are captured as they approach--flying:
The whole crew of the Enterprise, save Scotty, beam down. Scotty is not able to detonate the nova bomb--it does nothing when he hits it.
Prediction: fake bomb, so they can get everyone off the ship.
The rest of the crew, with Uhura in charge, begin to set up camp.
When the bomb was to explode, the viewscreen went white, and when they tried to contact Scotty afterward, they got only static. An EMP?
Kirk and co. learn more about the way the Chatalia are replaced. They have a machine ("the Father Machine") that produces copies, which they regularly visit to recordtheir memories and physical form. The ela do, anyway--the others, ven and lan, are similarly replaced, but by a different machine, and without memories.
Kirk and co. are taken Below, to where the Father Machine is. There, they find that they cannot communicate outside, and their chronometers, too, do not work. They are attacked just then by a large number of magicians.
Below, Kirk and co. are given a telepathic equivalent of the universal translator, which looks something like blue celery.
In order to gain the Chatalians' trust, Spock offers to mind meld with one of them. It does not work, which leads them to believe he is lying.
Scotty has not been vaporized--but it was not because the bomb was a fake. Instead, as soon as the blast hit the asteroid, it totally vanished, before it reached the Enterprise. The Klingons make plans to teleport a second bomb inside the asteroid, piece by piece, along with a team to reassemble it, and destroy it from within.
Kirk and co. are taken to the Father Machine--a giant plant, as it turns out. The comment that the first-caste magicians are all horticulturists now makes sense, if all the advanced technology of the species has been arranged in the form of plants.
The Klingon captain, Kulain, transports to the Enterprise perhaps to kill Scotty, but it is 40 below zero there due to the total power drain, and his weapon won't work. Scotty is burning whatever wood he could find to keep warm enough to survive for a while. Kulain ends up sharing Scotty's blankets.
The Father Machine determines that the humans are not Klingons. Spock decides he will attempt to communicate with it. This does not seem to go well.
A group of Chatalia attack Uhura's group. They stun them, but one magician is killed, falling from the air. Chapel does an autopsy, and finds that he has no central nervous system, no spinal cord, no brain.
The Father Machine tells spock that the Chatalia are not really alive. They are merely the creations of the Father Machine, 'toys'. At length, the Father Machine agrees to send away the humans in exchange for the Klingons.
The Klingons arrive with the bomb, but it does not explode, the Father Machine using its singular ability to absorb energy to maintain the reaction at a steady state, allowing the bomb to function as a small star.
Spock arranges to deliver the Klingons to the Father Machine by advising them that the Father Machine has challenged them, wishing to devour them, and strongly advising that they not take it up on its challenge, because they will be at a severe disadvantage.
I would have liked a resolution a little less convenient than "these people don't have brains, so they really aren't alive, QED" for the Chatalia. The Father Machine could well just be putting on a play, amusing itself by moving around its pieces in a semblance of a society, but it might have been nice to have a few more words about that, if so. Why would a creature like the Father Machine want to do something like that? Did it base this society on some real society it had encountered? Perhaps from some planet orbiting the star it lived near, that blew up. Perhaps even its own home planet.
It's a mark of a good book if it leaves you with something interesting to think about, but these are largely not questions that are going to lead to much insight--they're just 'factual' issues about the world of the story. They leave room for a sequel, but I can't do much with that, other than write a fanfic.
The big takeaway from the ending, I guess, is that everything that happened was a lie: if the Catalia don't have anything like brains, and they really are just toys that the Father Machine moves around, not even semi-autonomous but really just biological puppets, then everything that happened was just the Father Machine pretending not to understand what was going on, pretending to be captured, pretending to be afraid of dying without replacement, whatever. It was all just the Father Machine improvising a little play to amuse itself, like the author doing a self-insert.
I don't know that Spock's "I technically didn't tell a lie" is really enough to get him off the hook, morally, for tricking the Klingons to their deaths. Leaving them to their fate is one thing, since they probably wouldn't be willing to accept help anyway, but manipulating the drunken captain of the ship into getting his whole crew killed doesn't sound right to me. But, hey, it all ends on a joke, so all's well that ends well, right?