OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
Season One: Iris and the Crew Tear Through Space – by Cait Gordon
Publisher: Presses Renaissance Press, Canada, 2023.
Cover and Interior Art by Cait Gordon
Note: All episodes by Cait Gordon
Like me, the history of episodic science fiction television shows with a continuing cast of characters goes back more than seventy years. I’m thinking of “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet” which ran from 1950 to 1955. In my extreme youth I saw some of the episodes of its last year when first broadcast. (My family was stationed in the United States at the time.)
This was followed by “billions and billions” (to quote Carl Sagan) of TV shows like “Star Trek,” “Dr. Who,” “Babylon Five” and more modern ones I’ve never had time to watch. Certainly, this media phenomenon, along with SF films, came to be the very definition of science fiction in the minds of many, especially those who rarely pick up a book.
Nevertheless, the impact on science fiction publishing was enormous, what with numerous spinoff anthologies and collections. Novels, too, the granddaddy of which is probably “Spock Must Die!” by James Blish, first published in 1970.
Yet original SF fiction structured like an episodic TV series has always been rather rare. Spinoffs galore, such as the James Blish “Star Trek” series the first volume of which was published in 1967, but original fiction as opposed to a spinoff?
Here I enter into the Grognard’s realm of nitpicky definition. What about Eric Frank Russell’s “Men, Martians and Machines” of 1958 where a mixed crew aboard the good ship Marathon travel to various planets where no man or Martian had gone before? Well, I’d argue it’s a throwback to pulp fiction tropes, albeit highly amusing. And now I exit from the multiverse of objections to my theory where no critic has gone before. It’s only a theory. Not even that, actually. Just an observation which may or may not be valid.
Point is, rare or not, “Iris and the Crew” could be said to be a parody of “Star Trek,” given that there are echoes and reflections of that show evident in the episodes. Yes, no doubt, in fond homage to the original series. But, keeping in mind “Star Trek” itself is a hodgepodge of themes and ideas from the previous half-century of science fiction literature, it could be argued that “Iris and the Crew” is a parody of the science fiction ideas and concepts that have been endlessly churned over by several generations of science fiction writers, eventually showing up in numerous TV shows and films long after they were first conceived.
This is, perhaps, too broad a picture. If you are searching for a suitable topic for a Master’s thesis, you are welcome to it. I’ll confine myself to the following focus: this is an original and extremely subversive book. It reads like a light and breezy parody of “Star Trek” but in fact upends and subverts much of what was taken for granted back in the day.
To be fair, “Star Trek” was, for television fare in the sixties, remarkably progressive and “modern.” Even so, the series is like an insect preserved in amber, a snapshot of its time. Like much else, it was heavily influenced by the propaganda centred around the Mercury seven astronauts a few years previously, who had been portrayed as supermen twice as normal as the average Joe. Like the astronauts, the crew aboard the Enterprise were selected from the best of the best, physically fit and, above all, superbly well-adjusted mentally, those with imperfections having been winnowed out. Which is why some episodes centred on hidden or suppressed flaws coming to the fore. Crew members were part of an elite corps or supposed to be. Anyone who wasn’t represented a clear danger to the safety of the ship. This was taken for granted by both the script writers and the viewers.
In “Iris and the Crew” every single member of the crew is disabled one way or another, be it physically or mentally. In the 1960s these individuals would have been referred to as “severely handicapped” and almost certainly would have been rejected by US military draft boards on the watch for “imperfections” that would disqualify even volunteers. The underlying implication always being “you’re not good enough to serve” which was a source of shame for some (or delight if you were hoping to avoid the draft).
There is no historical baggage involved, however. Cait Gordon is simply making the point that disabled people, with the aid of modern technology, medicine, and therapy, are as capable as any non-disabled person in doing what needs to be done. This is the true situation today (of course there are individual exceptions but let’s not nitpick) and, as the futuristic setting implies, this will get even better as science progresses. Consequently, there is no need to be elitist, no need to recruit only the abnormally normal, the “perfect” normal. That’s part of the twentieth century junk best left behind. In other words, Heinleinian super-achievers and Slans are obsolete. They are not necessary for the progress of the human race.
Of course, future spacefarers must be competent, educated, well trained, and able to get along with their fellow crew. No reason why a disabled person can’t fit in. Easily done. Should be taken for granted. As it is in this book. Let us explore this episode by episode.
Episode 01: The Intergalactic Janitor
A NASA janitor from the ancient past and/or another galaxy materializes aboard the S.S. SoonZ research vessel of the Keengal (a sort of united worlds federation).
The episode focuses on Lieutenant Eileen Iris. Her eyeballs are artificial machine implants, less than perfect, and occasionally her vision goes wonky, throwing too much visual information at her brain, or not enough. Either way, it can affect her equilibrium to the point of being unable to walk or even remain standing. For this reason she always carries a cane. At no time does her disablement prevent her from teaming up with fellow officers to solve unexpected problems. She is very effective and competent at thinking through an implausible conundrum toward a solution. A good officer both reliable and innovative.
The Janitor speaks English, which is a known dead language, so no problem. Well, one problem. Neither he nor the crew can figure out what the other is saying. Part of it is cultural evolution. The word disabled no longer applies to living beings, so why is the Janitor accusing everyone of being disabled? Doesn’t make sense. And the idiom of language is radically different. So much so that the crew, with varying levels of autism, takes the Janitor literally, which results in nothing but confusion since the meaning of what he says is different from the archaic dictionary definition. Since he assumes they know what he’s talking about, the crew’s responses and questions are bizarre in the extreme from his point of view, so the Janitor becomes equally confused. The resulting fruitless conversation is hilarious, and a wonderful introduction to some of the more important characters figuring in the episodes.
Episode 02: These Boots were Made for Stompin’
Who do you call when giant ground bats attack?
The Chief of Security onboard is Leanna Lartha. She’s legless. Which is why a temporary hookup on the last shore leave was amusing, in that a self-professed “leg man” had been admiring her prosthetic limbs. On board, in line with her duties, she wears sentient combat prosthetics. I don’t think I’ve ever come across that concept before.
At any rate, the two legs are a source of much hilarity since, each being an independent AI entity, they are even more duty conscious than she is and liable to attack anyone on mere suspicion of malignant intent. She is forced to keep them under firm control at all times. Very much her attitude toward the crew at large.
Sadly, she mopes over the crew’s inability to recognise the little girl buried within, they being perpetually frightened of her and all, but Iris is her best friend and helps her remain a well-adjusted, if terrifying, team player.
Episode 03: Herbie Tries to Flirt
An attack by enemy warships tends to hinder one’s love life.
Lieutenant Commander Horatio Herbert is modest and diffident to an extraordinary degree. He can barely bring himself to look anyone in the eye, let alone blurt out precisely what he means to say. Consequently, he usually says the wrong thing which only makes matters worse. “Inhibited” isn’t a strong enough word to describe him. Every waking moment and even in his sleep he is a constant embarrassment to himself. No wonder he always carries the equivalent of a portable holodeck with him. This way he can be alone in the presence of others, communicating as if attending a zoom conference. It obtains the degree of separation he needs to feel comfortable.
He happens to be a scientific genius, one capable of coming up with the solution at the last possible moment (always at the last possible moment), but he considers this nothing to boast about. After all, it’s just a knack he was born with. He, himself, has accomplished nothing, or so he fervently believes. The crew keep telling him how fond they are of him, but he doesn’t believe them either. Pity. Of course they’re fond of him. He’s saved their lives countless times. But he’s so drenched in his pity puddle he considers that irrelevant. Poor chap. Nerd or not, he really is a genuine hero.
Much of the humour in this episode derives from the fact love counsellors are stationed onboard to help the crew keep their inhibitions from preventing them from carrying out their duties in a happy frame of mind. But does Herbie go to them for advice? No, his overbearing imposter syndrome dominates even his most repressed desires. I repeat. Poor chap.
Episode 04: Shore, Let’s Go!
The crew of the S.S. SpoonZ go on shore leave.
Iris, Lartha, Herbie and another crew member named Davan hang out together in a sort of mutually-enforced therapy session as they explore the not-so-hidden delights of a planet-bound town catering to a space port. Much to their surprise they wind up casting their collective neuroses aside to entertain the locals. From this moment on Iris, Lartha, Herbie and Davan are known as “Iris and the Crew.” This is something they are all secretly proud of but inclined to avoid repeating. Let’s just say it was a good boost to their morale.
Episode 05: Beachfront Learns a Thing
Can you teach an old prick new tricks?
The prick in question being Security Officer Marq Bronwick, nickname “Beachfront,” who is second-in-command under Security Chief Lartha. Born into an intensely privileged family, he is arrogant and narcissistic to the point of resenting his current “inferior” position, feels himself above petty rules and regulations, tends to interpret orders his own way, can be fiercely argumentative over insignificant details, and generally is a pain in the neck. But he does enjoy enforcing the regulations on others. This makes him useful. The more he is hated, the happier he becomes.
In this episode he get’s his comeuppance. Through every fault of his own, he acquires the equivalent of a mental disorder. This renders him slightly more empathetic to the concerns of others.
Episode 06: That’s Admiral-able of You
Admiral Jaq Miran comes aboard to be transported from here to there on some mission or another.
The Admiral is a legend in the service, bold and decisive, and one tough cookie. On the other hand, he has to be handled with kid gloves. Under therapy and on medicines, he is subject to wild swings in mood. The fact that he used to be intimate with a prominent crew member when they were young complicates things. Neither likes to be reminded, yet both are nostalgic for the past.
Oh, and Admiral Miran was expelled from the Piranha Brigade (an evil foe of the Keangal) while still a teenager. He was viewed by them as “too soft.” They even tattooed the word “Soft” on his forehead. He has since proven he is anything but. Still, no one is 100% sure he can be trusted. Might he not be the mother of all sleeper agents? (To borrow a dictator’s expression.) Everyone admires him. And everyone watches him.
Episode 07: Magically Suspicious
A drama queen of a Priestess teleports into the ship.
I’ll just say she’s good at wrapping the crew, especially the males, around her little finger. Many times in the “Star Trek” series a hostile entity boarded the Enterprise under false pretences. This episode reads like a spoof of such intrusions with the crew constantly on the verge of suspecting she’s up to no good but succumbing to her charms before they can reveal her for what she is. Fortunately, one member of the crew, being habitually clueless, is immune.
Episode 08: It wasn’t Us, We Swear
Unusual passengers come aboard.
This episode involves a group of children swarming over the ship causing no end of trouble in their search for mindless fun to combat boredom. Loosely inspired by a particular “Star Trek” episode, perhaps. At least it gives the crew someone different to cope with other than each other. Lots of humour, especially a shocking prank pulled in the transporter room.
Episode 09: Davan Gets Really Blue
Commander Davan is in a state of funk.
Davan is an alien from the planet Quargayle. The fact that he has a small trunk rather than a nose is not a problem. Nor his brilliant blue skin. Nor the fact he is surrounded by humans onboard ship. He rather enjoys them. What is getting him down more and more is the fact that his mother disapproved of him enlisting in the Keengal fleet eight years earlier. The proper place for a Quargnan is Quargayle. Going offworld is tantamount to treason. Davan can never go home.
Trouble is Davan wants to go home to introduce his fiancée to his family. This episode details how, with Herbie’s help, he goes about it. Shades of Spock’s relationship with his parents!
Episode 10: Clarence Has a POV
Clarence the robot is most unhappy.
Clarence, or more properly “CL-rnz-819,” is Eileen Iris’ guidebot. It takes its function very seriously and feels misunderstood and unappreciated. As a result, it undergoes therapy provided by a fellow robot. In a sense, both sentient beings are somewhat autistic, in that by their very nature they are super intelligent but utterly incapable of understanding how emotions drive and motivate the thoughts of humans. To be sure, they’ve been programmed with definitions and explanations, but they don’t “feel” the underlying concepts and consider them arbitrary and illogical.
It’s very funny to hear two Ais attempt to explain human nature to each other. It speaks to the larger picture of how truly sentient self-aware AI intelligences will view humanity in the future. Rather disturbing and possibly prescient is that both characters automatically assume that they and the other Ais onboard are vastly superior in intellect to humans. This does not bode well for us. Or for the non-machine crew. Much depends on Clarence reverting to his must-obey-programming normal self.
Episode 11: Captain! My Captain?
Captain Dustin Warq is also in a bit of a funk.
Warq is the highly respected Captain of the S.S. SoonZ. Hidden deep within him is the PTSD left by a youthful accident which required extensive surgery. However, he’s long used to it and the memories no longer bother him. What does eat at his guts is the tragic disappearance of the S.S. Stargazer which had been captained by his older sister Trisha Warq. Not knowing her fate, whether she is alive or dead, is particularly troublesome as the 10th anniversary of the disaster approaches. It’s put him off his game, and his fellow Officers on the Bridge have noticed and are deeply concerned. Besides, an inexplicable crisis has blown up and now is not a good time to be distracted.
Episode 12: Is It Really Mutiny if It’s for a Friend?
Mutinies aren’t as bad as they used to be, or are they?
A problem has come up and a mutiny, done with the best of intentions, appears to be the only solution. Of course, Court Martial judges are liable to take a dim view of explanations, no matter how commonsensical, because unspeakable crimes deserve unspeakable punishment if they are to be deterred. But what if not starting a mutiny guarantees double-plus-unspeakableness beyond measure? At what point does unspeakableness justify breaking regulations? A question hard to answer because complications and misunderstandings abound. Does make for an amusing spectacle, though.
This episode provides a splendid opportunity for all the main characters to frantically function at cross-purposes yet somehow pull it all together in a display of desperate teamwork.
Episode 13: Let’er Rip!
Naturally this space opera concludes with a space battle.
But this isn’t any ordinary space opera. In the best Shakespearean tradition what should be a fast action scene involves elaborate and convoluted explanations of motive, purpose, regrets, pleas for understanding and everything else self-obsessed people can think of to assuage their doubts and earn the approval of others. In that sense winning the battle is secondary. What counts is the triumph of ultimate self-realization!
Even better, the final episode is a cliffhanger. The fundamental problem of the continuing survival of the S.S. SoonZ and her crew is by no means resolved. Obviously, another season to come is required. How cool is that?
In this review I’ve concentrated on explaining the nature of the disabled characters to get across the basic premise of the book. In the past the entire crew would have been labelled “misfits,” but in fact they are simply variations of what it is to be normal and are just as competent in their roles as non-disabled people. That is the whole point of this book. It’s what everyone should take for granted. In that respect this is a serious book of advocacy on behalf of the disabled.
I tried to avoid anything other than hints as to what the plot is about. It’s really quite complicated yet ties everything neatly together by the end. Part of the joy of reading this book is the kaleidoscope of events tumbling one after the other yet resolving into a coherent whole.
But the true joy of this book is the humour. It’s a blast to read. It’s fast-paced and full of one-liners which are as funny as only a bunch of cynical and sarcastic shipmates determined to avoid ennui are capable of imagining. A strong element of parody prevails. Parody of Star Trek, yes, and of traditional SF tropes and themes, but also of human nature itself. This is a book about people aware of the absurdity of being human. Observant and telling, it’s hilarious from beginning to end and vastly entertaining. Of course you are going to enjoy reading it. Guaranteed.
Find it at: < Iris and the Crew Tear Through Space >