The Prometheus Design

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Title: The Prometheus Design
Creator: Myrna Culbreath & and Sondra Marshak
Date(s): March 1982
Medium: print
Fandom: Star Trek: TOS
Language: English
External Links:

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The Prometheus Design is a Star Trek pro novel written by Myrna Culbreath & and Sondra Marshak.

front cover


From the book jacket: "Captain Kirk and his crew are on a mission to investigate the mysterious wave of violence that has overtaken the Helvans -- revolutions, mass riots, horrible tortures. This chaos is all part of an experiment by an unimaginable power that soon grips even the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Captain Kirk is plagued by violent hallucinations and removed from command. Spock takes charge but his orders seem irrational, even cruel. Unless this terrible power can be stopped, not only the Starship Enterprise, but an entire galaxy will be ensnared in the deadly grip of the Prometheus Design."

Star Trek: TOS Pro Books with Fan Connections

A Zine Sequel

The zine The Reckoning is an unauthorized amateur sequel to "The Prometheus Design." According to S.J. Roby, author Janet Walker "was advised by Pocket and/or Paramount not to try this again."

Reactions and Reviews

Unknown Date

There’s something about the planet Helvan that seems to have affected the entire Enterprise survey team: First, Captain Kirk has separated the landing party under dangerous conditions and totally against the advice of Mister Spock; next the captain disappears and Spock is unable to sense his living presence; finally various members of the survey team experience lapses in memory.

Spock, Doctor McCoy and the other members of the survey team set out on a search for the missing captain only to find him being manhandled by a large contingent of Helvans. Part of his disguise—a set of horns—has been surgically removed, and he is being hailed as a monster by the crowd that carries his unconscious form along. Heedless of danger to themselves, the survey party rescues the captain and beams up to the Enterprise. There Kirk is treated for deep shock and upon his recovery is unable to remember much of what has happened to him, but feels a sense of rage and deep shame.

Soon after a report is filed with Starfleet, Admiral Savaj, a legendary Vulcan commander, arrives on the Enterprise; he promptly relieves Kirk of command, naming Spock his replacement. Although Kirk protests, the orders stand. Kirk is given the choice of appealing the decision, which means traveling alone to the nearest starbase while the Enterprise continues without him, or taking Spock’s place as science officer. Unable to leave the Enterprise as it sets out on a mission to save the galaxy, Kirk soon finds himself as the main suspect in a series of near fatal attacks on Spock.

When the Enterprise returns to Helvan to determine the cause of its rapid advancement, Kirk is put in temporary charge of the ship and ordered to attempt no rescues of the away team if anything goes wrong. However, when the team appears lost to the sensors, Kirk disobeys his orders and sets out to rescue the two Vulcans. Unfortunately, he soon finds himself part of a laboratory experiment and in need of rescue himself. That rescue comes in the form of Spock who puts him under guard for disobeying his commands. However, even with a guard to hinder his actions, it is Kirk who finds the path they must follow if they are to save the galaxy.

While the story line of the novel is compelling, it somewhat follows familiar ground by continuing the theme set forth by the authors in their other works: The Price of the Phoenix, The Fate of the Phoenix, and Triangle. Since the inhabitants of Helvan boast a set of horns, the allegory is not hard to determine: Kirk is once more put in the role of a Christ-like figure and seeks to offer himself to save the galaxy. However, this novels often seems to do more "preaching" than telling a story as it seeks to look at the legend of Prometheus and how all races must at some time cope with the ability to destroy themselves.

Even though the dialogue of the characters —especially Kirk— at times seem stilted, the message does come through. While not as action packed as many Star Trek novels, the reversal of the roles of Kirk and Spock is intriguing and the conclusion presents an interesting twist. Although the story is entertaining, readers would be advised to be familiar with the series as there are many references to the episodes and to the authors’ other works. [1]

Can a book be both well-written and unsuccessful? In this case, the answer is 'yes'.

The Prometheus Design is well-written in the sense that Marshak and Culbreath can construct decent sentences and give nice descriptions of alien worlds. And it is unsuccessful in the sense that it is only a thinly disguised retelling of The Price of the Phoenix, The Fate of the Phoenix (and, for all we know, Saturday Night Phoenix).

The galaxy appears to be in chaotic trouble. Violence all over is on the rise, and some sort of "Grand Design" is suspected. A Vulcan official of almost mystical reputation, Savaj, boards the Enterprise, and summarily hands Kirk's beloved vessel over to Spock (the device here seems to be more than just a bit too pat). The ship continues its investigation of all the disturbances, with Spock in a supposed "Command Mode." Can intelligent species break their patterns of violence? Can Kirk break his own patterns of absolute command? Ah, but plot is not of the first importance here. The core of this book, and indeed of all Marshak/Culbreath work, is something else again, and tied together by certain devices.

It goes like this: Kirk (and, peripherally, Spock as well) is thrust into conflict against someone to test endurance to its limits; for the sake of scientific accuracy we'll call the antagonist-symbol The Big Pissy Guy. In the Phoenix books, it was Omne. In The Prometheus Design, Savaj the Vulcan and, to a smaller degree, Trath the Designer. In any and all cases, they circle one another endlessly like hostile dogs, using words, tricks, layer on layer of traps and deceptions to gain victory. If all this sounds marvelously deep and complex, it's not, because we've seen it all before in the other books, and nothing really new is presented here. Indeed, we are given the added annoyance of a footnote on what seems like almost every page. Is there such a dearth of originality in revealing facets of character that this has to be done? Old-timers already know the stuff they refer to; do the authors think that newcomers will drop the book and rush off to their television sets for cross-referencing? Such laziness infuriates me. It's almost as bad as the "As you know, Jim," ploy, wherein one character tells another something they both already know.

As in Phoenix books, physical violence abounds. Usually it's Kirk or Spock being beaten to a pulp by The Big Pissy Guy. In the first Phoenix book, the device was an instant-healing foam so that the protagonists could literally be beaten to a pulp -- and come back for more. Prometheus has a fight staged by the Designer between Savaj and Spock, their muscular resilience and even size 'mysteriously' enhanced, to the same end. We are also presented with the crew being tortured at the hands of eerie aliens, to no immediately-apparent purpose. Frequently, in all these works, Kirk and Spock hover near death. The Marquis de Sade had a name for this sort of interest, The Big Two also get stripped naked on the flimsiest of pretenses. Everyone has a name for this sort of interest.

It must be said, nevertheless, that in the midst of all this violent and repetitive nonsense, a serious auestion is raised: Can intelligent species overcome what seems to be ultimate, built-in self-destructiveness? Does life itself have a fatal flaw? Whether it is dealt with satisfactorily or even creativley is something else again.

Marshak and Culbreath do have one very interesting thing to say about us, here-and-now. What is the Designers' relationship to, and empathy with, creatures (Humans) who seem to be a similar species? They look, superficially, the same. They both have the gift of abstract language. The advanced Designers do communicate to the Humans, if only to give orders, or remind them how paltry their culture and intelligence is by Designer standards. Then why treat them as merely clever laboratory animals? Is the similarity between them not greater than the difference?

Take a look at the outraged denial of many present-day scientists to 'talking' apes. Heated denial of any intelligence other than our own seems to be a basic Human 'privilege.'

Anyway, the ending degenerates into a cascade of pseudo-profound doubletalk, in which people say things like "That which I do, I can do," and "'What is done to the best is not allowed." It's ironic that Prometheus is about breaking patterns. This same story of violence and treachery, told the first time, was interesting. The second time, it was disappointing. The third time begins to look like cheap exploitation. [2]


The only way I can reconcile the writings of Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath with the STAR TREK I see on the air is to assume that Marshak and Culbreath are writing in an alternate universe in which Khan Singh and his cohorts won the Eugenics Wars. Drawing heavily on the literature of sociobiology and the "killer ape" school of anthropology (Lorenz, Ardrey, Tiger, Morris et al.), they paint a picture of the STAR TREK universe which at times seems almost as authoritarian and sexist as Khan's. They extol the "male bonding" thesis of Lionel Tiger, for example, that glorifies Man the Hunter and downgrades women (who do not hunt). Marshak and Culbreath's convictions have given their writings much energy and interest. The Fate Of The Phoenix, for example, was a complex, subtle and often well-written novel of ideas. Unfortunately, the literary quality of PROMETHEUS DESIGN is potboiler at best. The authors begin to recycle their own phrases and cliches until they sound like a parody of themselves. There are some superb descriptive passages in the book, but for the most part they are eclipsed by a style that has all the humorless drive of an Ayn Rand with none of its power.

The book has two themes which work at cross-purposes. The primary motivation behind the book seems to be a favorite K/S fantasy — role reversal. Here, Spock takes command of the Enterprise, and Kirk is forced to serve as his subordinate.

The second theme is a rather good science fiction idea which involves aliens who are performing a "double-blind" series of experiments on humanoids on a galactic scale. Unfortunately, the authors do not seem to take their own idea very seriously. The experiment ends after Kirk goes off to the bushes with one of the aliens — after all, as one reader pointed out,"how often do you see a rat [unclear word] the scientist?" The book ends with the characters delivering lectures to one another on sociobiology cind the conclusions to be drawn from various animal behavior studies. Pretty heady stuff. So we're left with the theme of Kirk, as primal Alpha Male, trying to defend his "territory" against the incursions of other Alphas. A very large proportion of the action takes place in the gym, where Kirk takes on Spock and a Vulcan Admiral (who seems thoroughly convinced of Vulcans' genetic superiority to Humans) in a series of workouts apparently designed to show the "killer ape" instincts at work. Whatever homoerotic appeal this sort of thing might have is dissipated by the fact that it serves no dramatic purpose whatever. Kirk has already lost command of his ship and is not going to get it back in the gym. This distinguishes this book from the Phoenix books with their analogous bouts of hand to hand combat with Omne which did serve to advance plot and illuminate character.

The genetic determinist ideas and the methodology of sociobiology and the "killer ape" studies suffer from the same fundamental error. They assume that the behavior of human beings in contemporary society is "natural" rather than learned or culturally conditioned, and then search for comparisons in the behavior of animals in the wild. For example, contemporary humans wage territorial wars and fight over private property; the sooiobiologists find analogies in the activities of animals in defense of their habitats, although this behavior is very different from human warfare in motivation, organization, and outcome. Then the sooiobiologists project their anthropomorphized interpretations of animal behavior back onto "mankind" (or "womankind" — most sooiobiologists have a "two-animal" view of the human species) in general, and claim that a particular form of human behavior is dictated by our pre-humnan genetic inheritance, not by choice or culture. The circularity of this reasoning, which assumes what it seeks to prove, should be obvious.

Sociobiology and STAR TREK are in fact polar opposites — STAR TREK is radically voluntarist and evolutionist. It looks to the future, toward what humanity can choose to become, not to the genetic shackles of a proto-hominoid past. The differences between Marshak and Culbreath on the one hand and aired Trek on the other can be seen mostly clearly in their approach to Vulcan and Spock. There was never amy suggestion on aired Trek that Spock or any other Vulcan considered Vulcans a "superior race," It was Henoch who gloated over the physical advantages Vulcans have over Humans. What ever Spock may have thought about those advantages, he clearly did not think they entitled him to rule or command "weaker" beings. Spock's pride in his Vulcan heritage was a pride in his culture, not in his genes. Vulcans may have made a superior cultural choice — the choice of peace and logic over war and aggression. This choice would be impossible in the world of sociobiology since it apparently flies in the face of our genetically predetermined drives. . . and that is why I felt the spirit of Khan Nunein Singh hovering over me as I read this book. [3]

This book is fairly typical Marshak/Culbreath - convuluted, complicated and my-god-isn't-Vulcan-marvellous. It even includes a glossary of good old Vulcan words they just made up. And why am I reminded of Kraith as I read it?

When Savaj, a top Vulcan admiral, comes on board and tells Spock he is now in command of the Enterprise, with Kirk demoted to First Officer, the Human is, understandably, not very pleased; however, he tries to accept the situation although he doesn't understand just what is going on. Savaj then baits both Kirk and Spock; the idea is to 'lure in' certain aliens who are believed to be studying aggressiveness... and will destroy the Galaxy.

Spock disappears, and Kirk disobeys orders and goes in search of him.

Having said all that, it still leaves much of the plot unstated. This is a story which it is impossible to resume clearly and accurately in a few sentences, and there, I feel, is much of the flaw in the writing of these two authors. They are too complicated .... though I must admit that this book is easier to follow than the two 'Phoenix' books, and at least in it I didn't keep turning back to discover what I'd missed, only to discover I hadn't missed anything, it had just been left unstated. Everything here is stated -- not necessarily clearly -- but stated. However, it does turn out that the Vulcans pretty well knew all along what was going on, although they didn't both to tell the Humans.

I'm not altogether happy with the character of the Vulcans as presented here. I can't help feeling that a race as aggressive as they are depicted as being would never have quit warrior status and started to believe in peace.

The book is basically an anti-war statement, while at the same time saying that excitement is addictive. Personally, I don't agree. The excitement of Man against the forces of Nature is one thing, but Man against Man? I don't think so. Most folk would rather live at peace with their neighbours.

On looking over this, I am forced to say that as a review, it's lacking. Very lacking. But it's a book that is almost impossible review, it's so complicated. To my mind, that's bad writing. A plot can be complicated yet still be written simply enough that the reader can follow it, step by step, to its denouement, without having to second — guess the writer all the way. I want to be told what the writer means, without having to guess at it, when I read fiction. I didn't dislike this book? On the other hand, I didn't like it either. [4]


I did get through THE PROMETHEUS DESIGN, though it was not because it was a great work of fiction. Demoting an Admiral to Commander and them promoting his second-in-command over him is terrible for morale; there are more convincing and realistic ways to render a ranking officer powerless. Further, the idea of "total, unquestioned, and absolute obedience" is a stupid concept — how foolish it is can be proven by a quick exercise in logic called the reductio ad absurdam (and they want us to believe that Vulcans have this philosophy of obedience?). [5]
THE PROMETHEUS DESIGN was good. The plot and ideas were intelligent, but methinks Sondra and Myrna get too close to their work and we therefore have difficulty following at times. Better editing would have done this work proud. [6]
My personal favorite [pro books] are the works of Marshak & Culbreath, with the exception of The Prometheus Design. (The writing was great, it's just that the story itself was a downer.) [7]
My disappointment was Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath's The Prometheus Design. Not. only were the military procedures it used incorrect, but the characters were grossly misportrayed. Kirk came across like an immature idiot and Spock came across as if he really was totally unemotional. The book reads as if it were written more for money than for fulfillment. [8]


Now I realise there may be people out there who like these two writers and to those people I apologise, but I find that reading Marshak and Culbreath is like wading through treacle. The basis of this story is that the universe is a great laboratory and everything in it is the subject of a series of experiments. Each and every life form is as unimportant to the experimenters as any laboratory animal is to scientists 1n our society and just as expendable. Enter a planet populated by humanoids with horns. Kirk and Spock have artificial horns courtesy of Dr McCoy. Enter also a Vulcan 007 called Savaj. As usual there is a generous scattering of "double Vulcan" stuff (only in the 'Phoenix' novels it was "primordial Vulcan" stuff!) and the usual "Let's emasculate Captain Kirk" exercise! In this "novel" he is forced to hand over command to Spock (those unfortunate enough to have read the 'Phoenix' novels will remember that in those stories he wept when the big guy thumped him!). Kirk, Spock and Savaj get the job of saving their bit of the galaxy and we all live happily ever after! [9]


The book which really turned my stomach was The Prometheus Design. If you haven't read it, don't--unless you want to read

about some really messed up people who bear some passing resemblance to Star Trek characters. There are things about the Phoenix books (especially the first one) that I liked... but jeez, ease up, ladies! [10]


I didn't care for their take on Vulcans in The Prometheus Design but it was still an interesting look into an alien, if not Vulcan, culture. [11]
...I've tried my hand at 'Prometheus Design' twice and have yet to be able to understand just what in God's name is happening. [12]

There are good ways to do footnotes and bad ways, and this falls on the bad side. I can remember or look up canon perfectly well on my own, thank you, and I can trust writers to build their own backstories for characters without needing to know exactly which other stories they are referencing. If it's a question of authorial credit, I think an appendix would have done just fine.

Anyway, this novel is set after TMP, and deals with, among other things, Kirk and Spock's awkward attempt to reestablish their friendship after Kirk abandoned Spock and Spock tried to cut the capability for friendship out of himself. The problem is that I don't buy Marshak and Culbreath's portrayal of the characters. While I can believe that Spock would cut Kirk slack in hand-to-hand, I do not think he cuts Kirk any slack in chess. I also think Kirk would have noticed Spock cutting him slack in hand-to-hand, and said something years earlier. I do not buy the idea of Vulcan command mode. And perhaps most importantly, I do not think Spock is so obviously superior to Kirk as Marshak and Culbreath would like me to think. There is a reason Kirk is the captain [an in-universe reason, not the Doylist reason that it's a human TV show with, therefore, a human central character] and a reason Spock has never objected to that state of affairs, and it is that Kirk makes the right choices and pulls people along with him, in a way Spock cannot match.

So. The plot. Basically, people have noticed a sudden upsurge in both aggression and scientific/cultural development in the Milky Way, and the graphs seem to be leading to self-annihilation very soon. Savaj, a famous Vulcan admiral and scientist, theorizes that a race of super-beings is using the galaxy as an experiment [this is thinly linked to 20th century UFO abduction stories] and he uses the Enterprise to attract the Designers' attention. This is all well and good, but one of the stated reasons for using the Enterprise is the rapport among its command crew... and yet while Marshak and Culbreath bring McCoy along, he has nothing to do. Kirk, Spock, and Savaj all manage to break their patterns, but I don't recall McCoy getting a similar character moment. That annoys me. Either use him properly as a main character, or explicitly make him a supporting character; don't leave him in limbo.

In conclusion, while the writing is smooth and not too melodramatic, and the philosophical ideas behind this book are interesting -- I especially like the answer Marshak and Culbreath provide, of fighting callousness and choosing anew each day not to give in to the worst of ourselves -- the character interpretations drive me up the wall. Also, you know, I think I have read this fanfic before, only it ended with BDSM sex wherein Spock controlled Kirk and made him admit all his 'mistakes' and beg Spock to let him come. I didn't like the character interpretations then, either, but at least there was more honesty about the id process behind them. *makes face*) [13]


Triangle and Prometheus Design were major league chores to get through, but back then written Trek/Who/whatever was so rare you didn't give up on what was out there however awful. [14]


convoluted mess [15]
So, Marshak and Culbreath. We meet again. Who knows what the hell these two ladies are trying to say? [16]


I voted "below average" on this one based on my memories of reading it at least once when it first came out, and then again about ten years later.

I remember being puzzled by the direction Marshak and Culbreath went with Spock's character after the events of TMP, although it was consistent with their portrayal of Spock in the Phoenix books. They seem to see him as this uber-stoic character who constantly uses logic and mental discipline to suppress a seething mass of powerful emotions struggling to be released. It just doesn't seem consistent with the way Spock was portrayed in either the TV series or, especially, in TMP and the later movies. (Although, to be fair, when this book was published, I think only TMP had been released.) [17]


I wish “The Prometheus Design” was a tenth as good as its cover, because it has a very good cover.

I think that’s quite literally impossible to overstate the importance that this book’s authors have in the world of Star Trek fandom. In the 1970s, they went from the world of fanzines to organizing and writing in mass market paperback collections like Star Trek: The New Voyages. Marshak’s work in Star Trek Lives! let fans around the world know that they weren’t alone. They helped make slash fiction a thing. Their combined chutzpah and support from fandom got them a pair of the Bantam novels in the late 70s. It’s obvious why David Hartwell signed them to another pair of books. As commercially-successful Trek writers, it was a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem anyone actually read the book before publication.


- Savaj uses Kirk and Spock’s connection to draw out the experimenters by brutally beating their asses at space karate. He doesn’t warn them of what he’s doing beforehand, of course, because that’d spoil the nature of his own experiments against the mysterious forces.

- Spock wears the horns the landing party used to disguise themselves among the Helvans through the entire story. This is remarked upon twice but has no bearing on the story outside of “Ha ha ha Spock looks evil!”

- Savaj does space yoga with Kirk in an effort to, I dunno, make Spock jealous and jiggle the handle on their relationship?

- There’s an abortive attempt by Spock and Savaj to investigate the goings-ons on Helvan that ends with a second landing party beaming down to rescue them and one of the experimenters being captured.

- On the ship, Kirk gets brain-whammied and hacks the environmental computer in an attempt to kill Spock.

- There’s a third landing party sent down with Spock, Savaj, Kirk, and McCoy looking for the location of the lab where the masterminds of this whole thing are.

- While down on Helva, guess what? Kirk gets brain-whammied again, this time trying to kill Spock and Savaj with a stalagmite.

- Blah blah blah, they confront the aliens behind the cataclysmic events and turns out they basically follow an anti-Prime Directive.

- The climax features the two Vulcans in loincloths beating the crap out of each other with space karate while Kirk begs for a chance to give up his life so the rest of the galaxy can know peace.

On top of the weird and repetitive plotting, the writing itself is just plain bad.


Outside of Spock making one very small joke during the space karate scene, this book is serious to the point of parody, the sort of self-important trying-too-hard “intelligent” science fiction that I’ve never had any taste for, and it doesn’t work as Trek.

One of the things that makes Star Trek stand out is how it combines big science fiction ideas with relatable, human characters that the audience can empathize with. (That lack of humanity, it should be noted, is one reason that Star Trek: The Motion Picture is still frowned upon by a lot of fandom.) This book gives you no reason to care about the characters outside of one’s already-existing affection for Trek.


This book is definitely the work of right-leaning people who can’t understand the humanist storytelling and empathy that Star Trek embraces for its characters and encourages in others. It also illustrates that people, especially those on the right, can twist just about anything to suit their worldview, even if its creators explicitly state the opposite.[18]

See Also


  1. ^ by Carolyn Kaberline at Orion Press
  2. ^ by Kiel Stuart at Orion Press
  3. ^ by Judith Gran in Organia
  4. ^ from Communicator #6 (1982)
  5. ^ from Joan V in Interstat #67
  6. ^ from Mark C. H in Interstat #71
  7. ^ from Leslie W in Interstat #72
  8. ^ from Where No Fan Has Gone Before (January 1983)
  9. ^ from Federation Information Bureau v.4 n.2
  10. ^ comment by Killashandra at alt.startrek.creative, August 1, 1996
  11. ^ comment at The Trek BBS: Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath - Discussion in 'Trek Literature' (June 4, 2009)
  12. ^ comment at The Trek BBS: Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath - Discussion in 'Trek Literature' (June 6, 2009)
  13. ^ edenfalling, "book list, June 2009; lots and lots and LOTS of thoughts on Star Trek tie-in novels" July 1, 2009.
  14. ^ comment at The Trek BBS: Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath - Discussion in 'Trek Literature' (April 26, 2013)
  15. ^ a fan's comment at Star Trek book recs, November 2014
  16. ^ Vangie13 at Cannonball Read: The Prometheus Design WebCite (February 2104)
  17. ^ The Usual Suspect, Spoilers: The Prometheus Design by Sondra Marshak & Myrna Culbreath Review Thread. April 30, 2017.
  18. ^ Kevin Church, I wish “The Prometheus Design” was a tenth as good as its cover, because it has a very good cover., Archived version They Boldly Wrote blog, entry dated March 10, 2020.