The Tears of the Singers featured Uhura in a major role.
It’s only been slightly more than a month since Nichelle Nichols died, and tributes are still coming. Just this week, I noted the lovely tribute slide honoring Nichols that Fathom Events included before its 40th-anniversary screenings of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I can’t hope to rival any public tributes, but as a personal way of marking Nichelle Nichols’ passing and her portrayal of Uhura, I decided to reread some old Star Trek novels prominently featuring the Enterprise’s chief communications officer.
The first of the Pocket Books titles to showcase Uhura not only in its plot but also on its cover was The Tears of the Singers (1984) by Melinda Snodgrass. A one-time corporate lawyer who, according to her website, “tried writing and never looked back,” Snodgrass would eventually become a story editor and executive script consultant in the second and third seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Her highly acclaimed script for “The Measure of a Man” in TNG’s second season is still widely regarded as one of the entire series’ highwater marks.
Snodgrass has several science fiction and fantasy novels to her credit, but The Tears of the Singers was her first. “I’m also a singer and musician,” Snodgrass told Jeff Ayers for Star Trek: Voyages of Imagination (Pocket Books, 2006), “so I loved Uhura, and I knew I wanted to use her and her music. I also knew she was a character who hadn’t had a lot of serious play up to that point” (page 54).
The Tears of the Singers put music at the center of a Star Trek adventure.
In The Tears of the Singers, Snodgrass gives Uhura serious play as both a capable and confident Starfleet officer—including aspirations to a captaincy of her own someday—as well as a talented musician. Uhura even reprises “Beyond Antares” at one point!
The Tears of the Singers is, as its lyrical title suggests, an adventure in which music plays a central role. The planet Taygeta V is inhabited by singing seal-like creatures who are hunted for the crystalline “tears” they shed at the moment of their death. When a dangerous space-time anomaly emerges in the Taygeta system, the Enterprise is assigned to investigate. Because Spock hypothesizes the anomaly is linked to the Taygetians’ songs, Captain Kirk presses the acerbic composer and concert pianist Guy Maslin—the “bad boy” of 23rd-century classical music—into service as a mission specialist.
Snodgrass treats Uhura with all the professionalism and dignity with which Nichelle Nichols played the part, but also devotes much of her text to Uhura’s romance with Maslin. The composer is a kind of anti-Gary Stu character (the male equivalent of a Mary Sue). Much is made of Maslin’s musical prowess, but he is by no means “too good to be true.” Still, Uhura falls for him—and, it must be said, he for her—to the point that, in one late chapter, she’s prepared to resign her Starfleet commission for him. (Spoiler alert: She doesn’t.) This romantic plotline borders on being cringeworthy, but Snodgrass, a skilled novelist even in this first outing, imbues Uhura and Maslin’s relationship with enough friction, humor, and genuine feeling to save it from feeling maudlin or superficial.
Arguably, the far more fascinating female in The Tears of the Singers is Kali, the wife of Klingon Commander Kor. Kali was established onscreen in the animated series episode “The Time Trap,” but her marriage to Kor was not. Snodgrass presents Kor and Kali in a loving and egalitarian relationship, which we gather is a rarity among Klingons. Kali is also an independent spirit who finds herself questioning Imperial propaganda about humans as Kor and the Enterprise crew work together to solve the mystery of the space-time anomaly and save the Taygetians. (Speaking of Kor, Snodgrass managed to perfectly capture John Colicos’ inimitable voice in her prose.)
In addition to Snodgrass’s storytelling, one charm of The Tears of the Singers is Boris Vallejo’s cover art. The celebrated sword-and-sorcery artist painted 18 Star Trek covers for Pocket Books, per the Memory Alpha wiki. The Tears of the Singers has one of the best. It depicts Uhura (wearing sensible trousers for landing party duty), lit by firelight, kneeling in front a Taygetian cub, as Spock (for whatever reason, wearing what appears to be an original Battlestar Galactica-like cape) looks on, with snowy mountains in the background. It’s a beautiful piece, true to the novel’s action and, though not as good a likeness of Nichols as his work for Janet Kagan’s Uhura’s Song, still evocative of her beauty and warmth as Uhura.
I was disappointed Uhura’s musical talents didn’t play an even larger role in the resolution of the novel’s conflict, although Snodgrass’s choices give Guy Maslin a satisfactorily redemptive character arc. (For a more recent novel that gives Uhura’s musical gifts pride of place, read Christopher L. Bennett’s Living Memory).
But I enjoyed The Tears of the Singers a great deal. It’s a solidly constructed Star Trek adventure that’s faithful to the characters and that anticipates the ecological message of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Any fan who hasn’t read it and who wants more Star Trek stories starring Uhura will enjoy it.