- Written under a series of pseudonyms
- A Pulp Magazine Mock-Up
- Published by Pocket Books in 1999
- Space Opera Adventures
- 110 pages
Captain Proton! Humanity’s greatest hero and crusader in the name of justice. In this thrilling issue, Captain Proton faces Amazonian warriors, giant spiders, and perils beyond imagination . . .
My first read for Vintage Science Fiction Month, isn’t actually of all that great a vintage. It was released in 1999, after all, making it a mere twenty-four years old, give or take some months. But what it is, is a love letter to the pulp magazines of the vintage period. Just as the original Captain Proton holodeck epsiodes of Star Trek: Voyager were a tribute to the pulp serials of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, so to is Defender of the Earth a tribute to the science fiction magazines.
This is hands down one of the most unusual little books I’ve come across, not just in Star Trek, but in my general reading. It’s laid out just like one of those old magazines, with text written in columns and accompanying photos in the place of illustrations. Those photos clearly being stills from the episode ‘Bride of Chaotica!’ does somewhat dim the illusion of this being an in-universe artefact, but it also serves as the only real link between this book the show. In addition to a novellas length story from D.W. “‘Prof” Smith there are a number of shorter stories by other authors (all pseudonyms of Dean Wesley Smith), a pair of ‘real science’ articles (in reality, highly speculative) and a letters page.
By far the strangest element of this book is the prose, which is luridly over-written and hilariously repetitive. Seriously, ‘Constance screamed again,’ must appear every other page or so. Usually this would be a sure sign of terrible writing, but that’s not quite the case here. Dean Wesley Smith has never been among my favourite Trek authors, but it’s quite clear that his stylistic choices here are in the name of pastiche rather than poor craftmanship. The stories contained herein are send-ups of the tropes of times past. The square-jawed hero, the reliable sidekick, the fainting maiden. They’re all archetypes you find in the worst sort of pulp fiction. And, true enough, some of the best. Likewise the constant cliffhangers and swiftly resolved encounters with hostile alien life absolutely embody that period of science fiction history. It doesn’t make it any easier to read, but it does make sense of all the madness.
Captain Proton is also laced with references to science fiction writers of the era in question. A personal favourite of mine is the author ‘Theodore Salmon’ being used a s a stand in for Theodore Sturgeon. Likewise, a letter is purportedly written by ‘Norma Rinspad’ – A clear nod to Norman Spinrad. More Trek specific is a letter from a young Benny Russell, who has become an unlikely recurring character through Trek fiction.
Captain Proton: Defender of the Earth is a fun little piece of retro-futurism, but knows better than to outstay its welcome.
Deeper Dive: Science Fiction In Science Fiction
The idea of Captain Proton (first appearing in the Voyager episode ‘Night’) expsoes a common hole in science fiction. That hole? Science fiction itself. A lot of science fiction set in the present day freely references other SF. For example, Stargate continually dropped references to Star Wars and Star Trek. This usually works becuse the characters exist in a world that has a similar frame of reference to that of the audience. But shows set in the far future? Decidely less so.
The problem is that so much of modern science fiction is, naturally enough, built on the science fiction of the past. If you live in a world that has humanoid robots as a matter of course, you are unlikely to refer to the works of Isaac Asimov every time you see them. Likewise, when Tom Paris sets foot on a desert world, he is unlikely to comment on its resemblence to Dune‘s Arrakis. Science fiction means little to these characters, because they live science fiction every day.
Furthermore, acknowledging other works of science fiction runs the risk of exposing one’s own fictitous nature. If the audience starts comapring a show to the others they ahve seen, they are immediately pulled out of the one they ought to be investing in. Science fiction may be a rich vein of humanity’s cultural history, but it is a vein that must be tapped into gently, lest the floddgates drown original creations in endless self-referentialism.