On the Strength of a Song: A Review of Uhura’s Song
“We’re looking for a planet on the strength of a song.” — Captain James T. Kirk
There are a few early Star Trek numbered novels that have gained a cult following over the years because of their exceptional world-building, memorable original characters, and unique usage of language. Uhura’s Song, written by Janet Kagan and originally published in 1985, is one of them.
I tried to reread Uhura’s Song at the beginning of this pandemic. But as it is a book about a pandemic, descriptions of hospital wards filled with gravely ill “cat people,” the Eeiauoians, broke me down; it was too close to our collective reality. Recently, however, a friend reminded me of how much I love this novel.
What I love most about the book is its focus on Uhura. We catch a glimpse of her friendship with Sunfall of Ennien, an Eeiauoian of unforgettable grace and beauty, who brought beautiful ancient songs and exquisite dancing to her diplomatic duties. Only Uhura, drawing upon her memories of songs sung to her by Sunfall, can sift through those songs to find the location of the homeworld of Sivao, which may hold the cure to a plague known locally as “the Long Death”.
Once the Enterprise discovers that distant homeworld, Uhura once again has her chance to shine, as a first contact specialist, linguist, and musician. Arriving upon Sivao, they find a race of nomadic cat people, the Sivaoans, who are forbidden by custom to speak of their exiled siblings, the Eeiauoians. They have a rich oral history recorded in their songs, and it is by singing to them in their own language that Uhura first teaches them to trust her.
I so appreciated the in-depth discussions of linguistics, how language can change over two thousand years, and how the “Old Tongue” was only spoken formally, to swear an oath. Although the universal translator was helpful in aiding communication, Uhura’s skills were needed for interpretation as well as translation, and her knowledge of the culture proved invaluable.
Yet, body language is as important as spoken language, and I was enchanted by the Sivaoans’ body language. Their prehensile tails are as eloquent as some people’s hands. They lash their tails when they’re angry; they wrap their tails around waists and wrists to express affection; they “stick their tails” into others’ business; they smile by looping their tails; and they pull each other’s tails in playful teasing. Their ears and whiskers are equally eloquent, as anyone who loves cats can imagine.
Usefuls and Tail-Kinkers
Chekov, too, shines in this novel. With his abilities that range from building woven shelters, to making stew and kabobs from fruits and meats, to fashioning arrowheads out of local stone, he quickly becomes a favorite amongst the Sivaoans, most of whom are artists and artisans. Even their tents, woven from local verdure, are woven works of art. They have multipurpose lengths of homespun fabric, called “usefuls”, that are exquisitely patterned. Chekov bonds with the Sivaoans by these cultural exchanges in the same way Uhura bonds with them by singing with them.
I was fascinated by the discussions between the human physician, Dr. Evan Wilson, and the local physician, Catchclaw. There are universal laws of medicine that apply, whether one is humanoid or feline. Although the cat people have advanced technology and medicine, they choose not to use it, in favor of local herbal medicines and remedies.
I found the descriptions of local flora and fauna absolutely delightful. There are spicy seed balls called “tail-kinkers,” that correspond to our jalapeño peppers, and screeching but friendly “welcome-homes,” small animals that live in the trees. I especially liked both of these.
I loved the opportunity to deep-dive into another culture and to learn deeply about them. I loved the anthropological thrust of the book; in order to learn the cure for the pandemic, Captain Kirk and his landing party need to integrate with the Sivaoan society and follow their mores, customs, and taboos.
And the only way to obtain the knowledge they seek to cure the pandemic is to participate in the Walk, the coming-of-age ritual. For native guides, they choose Brightspot (a curious and endearing youngster, far wiser than her years) and Jinx (who lives on the outskirts of her culture, as one who has twice failed to pass her Walk). In facing the dangers of the wilderness together, the landing party not only bonds more closely but also wins the trust and respect of the Sivaoans. When Chekov becomes ill with the aforementioned plague, they discover the cure they have been looking for in a local herb.
The end result of the Walk is that each successful participant gets to choose their own name. Names have profound meaning in Sivaoan culture. Each Sivaoan chooses a name that reflects their personality and life experience. Jinx chooses the name “Another StarFreedom”, in honor of Nyota Uhura.
The appellation “to-Ennien” or “to-Vensre” is equally important to the Sivaoans’ identities. They are a nomadic people, not associated with only one region, and the village where they go to celebrate Festival functions as a home town for them. Each village has its own zeitgeist.
Final Thoughts and Ratings
The only thing I didn’t love about this book is that an original character, Dr. Evan Wilson (apparently modeled on the author’s mother), absolutely took over the book. It would probably have been a much stronger Star Trek novel if Dr. Wilson had been toned down or edited out altogether, and if the book had taken the opportunity to deeply delve into Uhura’s background as a native Swahili speaker and a member of the Bantu nation, and showed her crewmates coming to know and appreciate her more deeply. It should have been Uhura, and not an original character, who inspired such wonder, awe, and delight in our beloved Enterprise crew.
Nonetheless, I do have deep appreciation for this book. I loved the delightful glimpses of McCoy, working with an old friend from medical school, and the shared jokes they had. I loved seeing Scotty later joining the landing party and becoming fast friends with Rushlight, a Sivaoan bard who was enchanted by his accent. I loved the image of Spock telling stories to the Sivaoan children. I loved Uhura’s reunion with Sunfall. Ultimately, I give this book four out of five tail-kinkers.
Ruth Anne Amsden has been a Trekkie since she was a ten-year-old reader voraciously devouring Star Trek novels (her family did not allow television in the home). She is working toward her first BA and aspiring to professionally write Star Trek novels as love letters to the novels she loved growing up.