Nichelle Nichols has her own fascinating story as an actress, singer, and voice artist. Her acting career took off with her role on Star Trek, but her experience prior to the show included Broadway musicals, theatre, and singing on tour in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Her work on Star Trek made her one of the first Black women to be featured in a major television series not portraying a servant. In fact, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a mega-fan and convinced her to continue as Uhura when she contemplated leaving the show. She only wrote two books, Saturn’s Child and the non-fiction Beyond Uhura: Star Trek & Other Memories. Nichols is a storyteller in her own right, and while Saturn’s Child is a lesser-known science fiction novel (which reads as if it were supposed to be the first in a series, though no further books in the story were published), it is a fun story, sometimes described by reviewers as “fluffy,” sometimes as “unfocused,” and sometimes as “brain candy” that is catered towards Trekkies with references to Star Trek and an obvious homage to the character Nichols portrayed in the show, with the main character of Saturn’s Child named Dr. Nyota Domonique. But the book has also been described as “enjoyable,” “awesome,” and portraying genders and races as on equal footing. As a recent reader of the book, I have to agree with all these assessments.
Depictions of Women in STEM: Dr. Nyota Domonique of "Saturn's Child" by Nichelle Nichols
Written by: Vanessa Hennessey
This post contains spoilers for Saturn's Child.
February is Black History Month! For this installment of our Depictions of Women in STEM series, we're focusing on a Black woman who paved the way for Black women's portrayal in science fiction: Nichelle Nichols. Published in 1995, Saturn’s Child is Nichelle Nichols’ debut novel, written with Margaret Wander Bonanno. The name Nichelle Nichols may ring a bell, as the actor who portrayed Nyota Uhura in Star Trek: the Original Series. She was also the subject of our first installment of our Media Depictions of Women in STEM series, which you can read here.
The book’s story is as follows: In the latter half of the 21st century, Saturn’s moon Titan has been colonized by a race called Fazisians, who breathe methane and hail from the beautiful, colourful planet Fazis. Fazisians have telepathic abilities, as do many humans from Earth in the story (called “Earthians” in the book). The Earth ship, The Dragon’s Egg, is commanded by Dr. Nyota Domonique, and they discover the Fazisians on Titan. They soon make contact, and relations begin between Nyota, the wise old Fazisian scientist Krecis, and Tetrok, son of the Fazisian ruler. Their relations begin as cordial, and soon become friendly, with Tetrok and Nyota being strongly attracted to each other. The various characters in the book have their own storylines and missions, but Nyota, Tetrok, and Krecis take on the task of creating a child with a human mother and nonhuman father, thanks to DNA manipulation. Krecis agrees to create the child in his laboratory, and their daughter, Saturna, develops swiftly with the strongest mental and telepathic powers of all the characters. In the background, there is tension between the rulers of Fazis who attempt to destroy Tetrok’s career as the next ruler of Fazis, and the book ends with the hope of a continuation of the story, however, as previously stated, no further books were published.
Reviewers who have stated that the sexes, genders, and races of the story are treated equally are correct – while humans on Earth are somewhat guarded and skeptical of the Fazisians at first, the humans in Nyota’s team who make first contact with their new friends become friendly with them fast, and both parties treat each other with respect from the very beginning. Nyota is obviously attracted to Tetrok from the get-go, which is observed by other characters around them. Ultimately, they do have a romantic relationship (outside of creating their hybrid child in the lab), but this is not the major focus of the book, a refreshing change from many similar stories.
The women in the story, both human and Fazisian, are seen as authorities in the story. Nyota is a distinguished scientist and space explorer who heads the mission to Titan, though her official titles are somewhat ambiguous. She also is a language expert and seems to have experience with biology, as she often visits the greenhouses on the Fazisians’ base on Titan to tend to the food that is grown there. In addition, Nyota’s colleague Beth Listrom, a commander, is imperative in assisting Nyota with decisions in the mission; Nyota is also advised by Major D’Borah Copeland on the Dragon’s Egg ship that takes them to Titan in the first place. Nyota is also a strong, capable, smart Black character, described as “petite and dak, with liquid brown eyes, small graceful hands, a mane of thick, silky blue-black hair, a dazzling smile, and a singing voice with a three-octave range.”
On the Fazisian side, there is an obvious leaning towards males from the same family ruling the Fazisian world, but it is mentioned in the book that their world is democratic, with the possibility of women also ruling. Two Fazisian sisters, Zeenyl and Nebulaesa, are also important characters who are close with the ruling family of Fazis and are respected counselors in their own right. Zeenyl is also a scientist who is working on ethane energy experiments on Titan, but tragically passes away in an accident. In her writing of this book, Nichols writes that the Fazisians are essentially people of colour; they are described by Nyota when she first meets them: “Bipedal and erect, they had clear bright eyes beneath upslanting browridges almost like a second set of eyebrows, and their eyes were almost universally a brilliant green. Their bronze-toned skin ran the spectrum of every known shade of brown and russet and gold with each emotional change. Their crowns of silky-to-feathery purplish-blue hair and iridescent orchid nails would someday be envied and emulated by Earthians of both sexes.”
While not a work of literary genius, I very much enjoyed this book. Nichols excels at telling a compelling story that also showcases the strengths of women and allows us to imagine a world in the future where we may have contact with extraterrestrials in a peaceful, collaborative manner.
DOES SATURN'S CHILD MEET THE GOALS SET OUT BY THE WHITE HOUSE FOR BETTER REPRESENTATION OF WOMEN IN STEM FIELDS?
The former Obama Administration's White House fact sheet lists 3 goals for fictional representation of women in STEM. We are noticing a trend in the movies and television shows we have reviewed - they meet some of the following goals better than others.
1. Include diverse STEM role models (past and present): The list of characters in this book is rather small, but there are 3 strong female main characters, two of whom are not human at all. The book does meet this goal in that it shows women can be leaders no matter where they come from, even if they come from a fictional world.
2. Highlight the breadth of STEM careers and social impacts: The book does not go into too much detail about each person's job. Nyota is simply called a "scientist" and "space explorer." The book does show how these careers would be beneficial in an imaginary scenario of meeting extraterrestrials. This goal is half met.
3. Debunk STEM stigmas and misconceptions: The book portrays women who are scientists as leaders, but does not confront stigmas and misconceptions head on. This goal is also half met.