I don't read Star Trek novels normally. I bought and read the James Blish adaptations years and years ago, including the "first" Star Trek novel Spock Must Die. But it turns out that what I believed then about that novel was not true. There was another one, the only novel published during the actual run of the show, a Whitman book directed at a younger audience by veteran science fiction writer Mack Reynolds titled Mission to Horatius. I learned of this true first novel only a few years ago and immediately wanted to read it, as I do rather have a passion for items keyed to the first series and which actually were available before the advent of Stark Trek culture. Now I finally have read it. I've written here about the photo-novels and other early items produced for the series for instance and have a real appreciation for the early Gold Key comics.The illustrations for this book were done by Richard "Sparky" Moore, a talented artist with a long list of accomplishments.
The story as it turns out is a pretty rousing one full of different settings and reasonably recognizable characters. It begins when Bones erupts onto the bridge and announces they have to go home and get everyone a break from the deeps of space or something called "cafard" (French for "cockroach" or "depression") will break out, a space madness which is highly contagious and has resulted in the destruction of more than one space ship when its crew goes mad. But the Enterprise has just gotten a secret mission which will take them to the very edge of Federation space to a star system named Horatius. It seems Horatius has three Class M planets and all have been settled at different times by humans with very specific desires about how to conduct society. A distress signal has been detected and the crew of the Enterprise, despite a long tour, are the closest to the system.
The first of the three planets the Enterprise visits is named Neolithia and the people who settled there were luddite back-to-nature folks who eschewed all modern technology. What Kirk and crew find is a very primitive culture which still uses bows and arrows. One representative named Grang attacks the landing team but eventually they take him captive and find their way to a shaman who takes them deep into the caves to find the leadership council.
The shaman looks suspicious but the team have little choice if they are to find out if it was the people of Neolithia who sent the distress signal. They are eventually led to the leadership who have already decided to kill them, thinking they are part of the mysterious forces from the sky who have harassed the people in the past.
The Enterprise crew seems surrounded by a massive force of bowmen, but Spock is able to detect that the force is merely an illusion cast by the hypnotic powers of the shaman. Kirk, Spock, Sulu, Chekov, and the others do manage to escape unwittingly taking Grong with them, since he too has fallen into disfavor with is people for leading the landing team to the cave system.
Next the Enterprise travels to Mythra, a planet settle by folks with distinct religious beliefs. There they find a medieval culture in which the majority of the population are held in the devout sway of the ruling church leadership by the regular use of an "anodyne" which results in extreme passivity in the face of an abusive heirarchy.
The landing team escapes capture by the powerful leadership, who do have minimal communications technology and also indicate invaders in their skies. The Federation representatives later take steps to neutralize the anodyne which keeps the populace in a drugged stupor. The hope is that they will awaken, rise up against the church overlords and seek a more just society.
The third planet is called Bavarya and it proves to be the most recently settled, merely a century previous but the planet is mysteriously overpopulated. This society is a modern dictatorship with hints of ancient barbaric practice such as the gladiator arena. While the Enterprise is under attack from the planet, Kirk, Spock, and Grong (who has demonstrated significant fighting skills) are pitted against three other warriors who seem to refresh themselves endlessly.
They eventually learn their opponents are "dopplegangers" or zombie-like clones bereft of a soul and a noble woman reveals to them she sent the distress signal because the leader of Bavarya is himself one of these soulless creatures and seeks endless conquest. The endless dopplegangers who currently overrun the planet are considered ideal soldiers. Kirk and his comrades are eventually able to escape but not before learning the forces of Bavarya were indeed the ones harassing the other two planets with an eye to conquest.
This is a rousing little saga with lots of changes of setting. The use of three planets visited in such quick succession gives the tale a Gulliver-esque quality as we are clearly meant to compare and contrast these three extreme attempts to organize society, none of which the Enterprise crew finds ideal, hence their eagerness in spite of the Prime Directive to take steps to alter each one of the cultures in turn. Kirk mentions "Special Order Number One" a lot, but he and his crew don't seem at all limited by its mandate, which was much like the show itself to be honest.
The three cultures also suggest something about how the writer might feel about certain drop-out cultures and other aspects of the late 60's. The back-to-nature society in particular reminds me of a hippy commune on the extreme, an utter rejection of modern convenience in an effort to achieve some Thoreau-like ideal balance with the natural world, but here shown to yield a superstitious backward society. The religious planet feels very much like a cult in which the practitioners are blind to the abuse of the leaders who are merely using the devout belief as a means to gain power over a passive culture, the drug in question being LSD makes the comparison even more exact. And finally a totalitarian military society in which the majority of the population are reduced to soulless zombies merely designed to wage war might indeed be an indictment of the way wars are often fought.
Whatever the case, Mission to Horatius is a fun and quick read. Highly recommended to anyone who like me likes these artifacts dedicated to a series which has since become all-consuming.