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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"So, Marshak and Culbreath. We meet again. Who knows what the hell these two ladies are trying to say?" - Vangie13 at Cannonball Read: The Prometheus Design WebCite

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."

Other 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

convoluted mess [1]
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?). [2]
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. [3]
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.) [4]
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. [5]
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. [6]
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! [7]
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! [8]
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*) [9]
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.) [10]

See Also


  1. a fan's comment at Star Trek book recs, November 2014
  2. from Joan V in Interstat #67
  3. from Mark C. H in Interstat #71
  4. from Leslie W in Interstat #72
  5. by Kiel Stuart at Orion Press
  6. by Carolyn Kaberline at Orion Press
  7. from Federation Information Bureau v.4 n.2
  8. comment by Killashandra at alt.startrek.creative, August 1, 1996
  9. Fan critic edenfalling, "book list, June 2009; lots and lots and LOTS of thoughts on Star Trek tie-in novels" July 1, 2009.
  10. The Usual Suspect, Spoilers: The Prometheus Design by Sondra Marshak & Myrna Culbreath Review Thread. April 30, 2017.