August 23, 2004

Light reading (ahead geek factor 5)

If you've been following the reading list on my sidebar (assuming anyone cares what other people do in their spare time), then you've probably noticed that I've gone through an awful lot of Star Trek-related materials in the last couple of weeks.

There's a reason for that: with a move pending, I wanted to minimize the amount of borrowed stuff, library books included, that I carted across town. So I finished off all my hardcover literature and returned it, but to make sure I still had some reading, grabbed one or two Star Trek paperbacks. This way, if I finished them, I could return them; if not, I could stow them pretty much anywhere, even in my pocket if I had to. However, this particular reading habit got a little out of control.

When I was a kid, I was crazy about the original Star Trek. Part of this was a sort of "absence makes the heart grow fonder" sort of thing, because as it happened I didn't have the show on TV when I was growing up. Every summer my family would visit my grandmother in Nova Scotia for a couple of weeks, and the high points of these visits were always 1) her cooking; and 2) getting to watch Star Trek once a year on Saturday afternoon. On the other hand, the local public library had a complete set of the James Blish short stories based on the original series episodes. Right from the start, then, Star Trek for me was more a written than a visual medium. (Considering how poorly the production values of the original series have aged since the 1960s, perhaps it isn't a bad thing.) Anyway, this means that I have always had a fondness for the near-infinite Star Trek publishing franchise. If nothing else, a Star Trek novel is a light read that is about familiar characters and situations, doesn't tax your imagination overmuch, and can be polished off in a couple of hours. So unlike Dickens, it's perfect for the bus.

In particular, I tend to prefer the more "epic" stories, of the kind Simon & Shuster tends to publish in hardcover, to the more formulaic ones. These novels often deal with "origin stories" or backplot, or fill in details from between the various series, and tend to be written by more experienced authors. It is some of the more recent publications of this type that I have been concentrating on, and I thought it might be fun just to post a paragraph or two of my general impressions of each.

  • The Genesis Wave by John Vornholt (2001): Someone has discovered the secret of the Genesis device (as seen in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and is using it to destroy and remake inhabited planets. Picard and crew must find out who is responsible and stop them before the Genesis wave reaches Earth.

    Ack. Vornholt really doesn't seem very good at this, and the plot just seems very repetitive: planet in danger, Enterprise attempts to save or evacuate planet, planet gets destroyed, Enterprise collects data to use for the next planet in danger, and so forth. Ultimately the culprit is revealed and is so corny it could have come from a Voyager episode. Plus, Vornholt seems to be a little too enamoured with unnecessarily introducing cameos of old bit parts: Geordie's old love interest, warp engineer Leah Brahms; Carol Marcus from Star Trek II; Maltz the Klingon from Star Trek III; and so forth. The character development is lousy, particularly the relationship/love triangle thingy involving LaForge, Brahms and a throwaway character. And the plot is driven by a glaring continuity gaffe: Maltz, supposedly the only witness to the original deployment of Genesis in the 23rd century, wasn't there at the time. The story was originally published in two books, and then Vornholt attempted to continue it in a third volume; I didn't bother with more than the first 10 pages of that one.

  • The Valiant by Michael Jan Friedman (2001). This is the story of how Jean-Luc Picard got his first command. On a mission outside the galactic rim to protect an unknown human colony from a powerful alien attacker, the USS Stargazer is ambushed, leaving the captain dead and second officer Picard in charge. Outgunned by the enemy, too far away from the Federation to call for help, and opposed by many of the ship's officers, Picard must rely on his wits to defeat the marauding Nuyyad.

    Friedman is more experienced at this kind of story than Vornholt, and it shows. In the spirit of Star Trek II he draws on a plot point from one of the original series episodes: the destruction of the USS Valiant by powerful telepathic mutant humans created when the ship crossed the Great Barrier, as describe in "Where No Man Has Gone Before." The plot and characterization are good, but the story has one significant weakness: we never get to meet the Nuyyad, or even learn what they want, before Picard just blows them up. Still, it was a fun read, and other authors have taken Friedman's novel seriously enough to borrow some of his non-canonical characters for themselves.

  • Vulcan's Forge by Josepha Sherman and Susan Schwartz (1998): Another origin story, this time of how Spock came to join Starfleet. Following the disappearance of Captain Kirk in the Nexus, Spock comes to the aid of an old friend afcing a crisis at a Federation outpost on a desert planet. Flashback chapters parallel the current situation with the story of how Spock and his friend met as boys, while escaping from a hostage situation and surviving one of the harshest environments on the Vulcan landscape.

    This is probably one of the best of the Star Trek tie-in novels that I have ever read. Substitute non-proprietary characters and situations, and you have a decent SF novel in its own right. Sherman and Schwartz do an excellent job of generating a plausible backstory for the young Spock and how he was impressed enough by the resourcefulness of his human friend to join Starfleet against his father's wishes. Right now I'm about halfway through the sequel, Vulcan's Heart, about the beginning of Spock's secret mission to Romulus (as seen in the TNG two-parter "Reunification"). It's not as good, but nonetheless a worthy sequel.

  • New Frontier by Peter David (1998): Actually, it was an omnibus edition of the first four books in this series. Veteran Star Trek author David departs from the usual practice of centring adventures around the canonical crews, introducing the crew of the starship USS Excalibur, asssembled to maintain a Federation presence in the beleaguered Thallonian Empire.

    These four stories in particular are a tad threadbare, but since they introduce the principals and set the context for Excalibur's mission, I cut them a bit of slack. (TNG's first four episodes weren't anything special either!) The ship's new crew includes Captian MacKenzie Calhoun, a former terrorist who doesn't like to play by the book; a very short-tempered, very sarcastic, nearly indestructible security officer; a helmsman that falls asleep when he's not needed; a lecherous hermaphrodite chief engineer; and minor TNG characters Commander Shelby, engineer Robin Lefler, and Dr. Selar. David has had a long career as a storywriter for the comics, and it shows in his exaggerated characterizations. I think there are a couple dozen books in this series by now, and I'm looking forward to reading more.

  • Starfleet: Year One by Michael Jan Friedman (2001): This is the one-volume edition of a story originally published in serial form in 1999 as a bonus in other Star Trek novels. The war with the Romulans is over, the Neutral Zone is established, and the United Federation of Planets has been founded for mutual protection and aid. Construction has begun on the first Starfleet vessel, the USS Daedalus. This novel is a sort of 22nd-century The Right Stuff, telling the story of the first six Starfleet captains, one of whom will be chosen to command the Daedalus (and therefore become the legendary first starship captain).

    It's not a bad story, and it's not Friedman's fault that it is flatly contradicted by the series Enterprise; after all, he was writing Starfleet: Year One two years before anyone had a clue what the new Star Trek series would be all about. Otherwise, the plot of this novel would have made a decent basis for a prequel movie, had they ever wanted to make one. No doubt the drooling fanboys could find a way to shoehorn this novel into some semblance of harmony with the canonical materials, but I would rather just enjoy it for what it is: an engaging story, which circumstances unfortunately prevented from going anywhere further.