The Prometheus Design

Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath

reviewed by Kiel Stuart

Can a book be both well-written and unsuccessful? In this case, the answer is 'yes'.

The Prometheus Design is well-written in the sense that Marshak and Culbreath can construct decent sentences and give nice descriptions of alien worlds. And it is unsuccessful in the sense that it is only a thinly disguised retelling of The Price of the Phoenix, The Fate of the Phoenix (and, for all we know, Saturday Night Phoenix).

The galaxy appears to be in chaotic trouble. Violence all over is on the rise, and some sort of "Grand Design" is suspected. A Vulcan official of almost mystical reputation, Savaj, boards the Enterprise, and summarily hands Kirk's beloved vessel over to Spock (the device here seems to be more than just a bit too pat). The ship continues its investigation of all the disturbances, with Spock in a supposed "Command Mode." Can intelligent species break their patterns of violence? Can Kirk break his own patterns of absolute command? Ah, but plot is not of the first importance here. The core of this book, and indeed of all Marshak/Culbreath work, is something else again, and tied together by certain devices.

It goes like this: Kirk (and, peripherally, Spock as well) is thrust into conflict against someone to test endurance to its limits; for the sake of scientific accuracy we'll call the antagonist-symbol The Big Pissy Guy. In the Phoenix books, it was Omne. In The Prometheus Design, Savaj the Vulcan and, to a smaller degree, Trath the Designer. In any and all cases, they circle one another endlessly like hostile dogs, using words, tricks, layer on layer of traps and deceptions to gain victory. If all this sounds marvelously deep and complex, it's not, because we've seen it all before in the other books, and nothing really new is presented here. Indeed, we are given the added annoyance of a footnote on what seems like almost every page. Is there such a dearth of originality in revealing facets of character that this has to be done? Old-timers already know the stuff they refer to; do the authors think that newcomers will drop the book and rush off to their television sets for cross-referencing? Such laziness infuriates me. It's almost as bad as the "As you know, Jim," ploy, wherein one character tells another something they both already know.

As in Phoenix books, physical violence abounds. Usually it's Kirk or Spock being beaten to a pulp by The Big Pissy Guy. In the first Phoenix book, the device was an instant-healing foam so that the protagonists could literally be beaten to a pulp--and come back for more. Prometheus has a fight staged by the Designer between Savaj and Spock, their muscular resilience and even size 'mysteriously' enhanced, to the same end. We are also presented with the crew being tortured at the hands of eerie aliens, to no immediately-apparent purpose. Frequently, in all these works, Kirk and Spock hover near death. The Marquis de Sade had a name for this sort of interest, The Big Two also get stripped naked on the flimsiest of pretenses. Everyone has a name for this sort of interest.

It must be said, nevertheless, that in the midst of all this violent and repetitive nonsense, a serious auestion is raised: Can intelligent species overcome what seems to be ultimate, built-in self-destructiveness? Does life itself have a fatal flaw? Whether it is dealt with satisfactorily or even creativley is something else again.

Marshak and Culbreath do have one very interesting thing to say about us, here-and-now. What is the Designers' relationship to, and empathy with, creatures (Humans) who seem to be a similar species? They look, superficially, the same. They both have the gift of abstract language. The advanced Designers do communicate to the Humans, if only to give orders, or remind them how paltry their culture and intelligence is by Designer standards. Then why treat them as merely clever laboratory animals? Is the similarity between them not greater than the difference?

Take a look at the outraged denial of many present-day scientists to 'talking' apes. Heated denial of any intelligence other than our own seems to be a basic Human 'privilege.'

Anyway, the ending degenerates into a cascade of pseudo-profound doubletalk, in which people say things like "That which I do, I can do," and "'What is done to the best is not allowed." It's ironic that Prometheus is about breaking patterns. This same story of violence and treachery, told the first time, was interesting. The second time, it was disappointing. The third time begins to look like cheap exploitation.

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