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Beyond the Final Frontier

September 4th, 2008
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The other day I mentioned here that there hasn’t been any truly great Star Trek around since Deep Space Nine went off the air back in 1999.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  Believe it or not, in the past few years, Pocket Book has put together a terrific line of Star Trek fiction.  You heard me right!

I have found most novels based on sci-fi TV shows or movies to be, as a rule, disappointing.  Most are saddled with the restrictions of having to adhere to the continuity of the show or movie being written about.  In other words, nothing of great significance can happen to any of the characters, because they need to be in the exact same place at the end of the book as they were in the beginning.  Well, that takes a lot of the fun out of the story!  I’ve been reading Pocket Books’ Star Trek novels since I was a kid.  Even though I got a lot of enjoyment out of the books back in the day, I quickly recognized that most of the books followed the same basic framework: the Enterprise (either Kirk’s or Picard’s) visits a new planet, has an adventure, and then our heroes head on their merry way.  There were several authors who spun some terrific Star Trek tales within that framework (Peter David being one of my favorites), but after a number of years of reading those novels I eventually drifted away.

But over the past few years, with no new Star Trek TV series or movies on the horizon (and the more recent development of J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek movie looking like its going to be some sort of reboot in its own continuity), Pocket Books’ editors and authors have been free to move the 24th century Star Trek characters forward in exciting and unexpected ways.  Suddenly, characters from the different series can interact… old familiar characters head in dramatically different directions (some are even — gasp! — killed off!)… new characters are introduced and developed… in short, lots of exciting things happen, and the over-all Star Trek story is moved forward.  Even more exciting to me is the CONTINUITY that now exists between the Star Trek novels!  As I have written about before on this site, I LOVE continuity in my entertainment (be it in TV shows, comics, etc.)  This continuity in the Star Trek novels is delightful, as each book now has significance — with one leading into the next — and with plot twists now having weight and repercussions.  If something happens in one novel, that is reflected in the storyline of the next novel!  And all the novels begin with a “historian’s note” that dates the events being depicted, showing how each book relates to the rest, and moving the Star Trek story forward from the last new piece of filmed Trek, the dreadful Next Gen movie Nemesis.  All of that makes each book feel like one piece of a larger, epic story.  And I’ve found myself waiting for the publication dates of upcoming novels the way I count the days until the opening weekend of an anticipated movie!

The series of books that, for me, embodies all of those good things outlined above — and the series that got me started reading Star Trek novels again a few years ago — is Pocket Book’s relaunch of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  DS9 was my favorite Star Trek series, and I was very sad to see it end.  (Particularly when the series that followed it, Voyager, seemed so much simpler and less sophisticated in its storytelling.)  So when I heard that Pocket was coming out with a series of novels, making up something of a “season eight” for the show, I was interested — although it took me a while to finally take the plunge.  When I finally read the first novel, Avatar, I was blown me away and immediately hooked.  Here are a few novels of note from the DS9 re-launch series:

Avatar Books I and II, by S.D. Perry — This duology launched the DS9 “season eight,” and it is a magnificent reintroduction to the series.  The book begins some months after the events of the DS9 series finale, “What You Leave Behind,” and right away I was thrilled to see the story picking up many of the interesting character threads left by the series finale.  Kira is in command of the station… Jake is struggling with the loss of his father…Kassidy Yates is about to give birth to a child… Odo is in the Gamma Quadrant, trying to curb his people’s hatred of all solids… the controversial Lieutenant Ro has taken over as head of station security… Bajor has finally become a member of the Federation… and then DS9 is brutally attacked by a Jem Hadar warship, and Captain Picard (yes, Next Gen characters are in this DS9 book, the first indication of the wonderful increasing interconnectivity of the Pocket Book Star Trek novels) and the crew of the USS Enterprise discover a new Orb of the Prophets…

Its a marvelous novel, filled with all the things that made Deep Space Nine so great — action, a focus on the ever-changing political landscape between all the great powers in the Alpha Quadrant (the corner of the galaxy in which most Star Trek stories are set), and great, great characters.  Attention is paid to all of the major DS9 characters (at least, all those left alive at the end of the TV series), and a whole host of interesting new characters are introduced.  Its a neat trick to make a bunch of new characters as engaging and worth of the reader’s attention as the familiar ones from the show who viewers got to know over seven seasons. But S.D. Perry accomplishes that here, and one of the really surprising things (to me, at least) about the series of DS9 novels that would follow Avatar is the way these characters developed and changed.

A Stitch in Time, by Andrew Robinson — Mr. Robinson played the enigmatic Cardassian Garak on the show, and this wonderful novel provides an enormous amount of background on the “plain, simple” tailor.  There have been other Star Trek novels written by actors (William Shatner’s series featuring Kirk is a most notable example), and most of those have been, in my opinion, rather mediocre.  Also problematic to me: I found Garak to be an interesting character on DS9 precisely because of his mysterious background, and I didn’t have much interest in finding out all about his true life story.  And so it was that I was very dubious about this novel — and therefore I was stunned to find this to be my favorite of all the DS9 novels.  The narrative is very sophisticated — Robinson interweaves multiple stories set at multiple different points in Garak’s life: his youth spent in a Cardassian military school like something out of Ender’s Game; various experiences during his years as an operative in the Obsidian Order (Cardassia’s secret intelligence unit), including the much-hinted at but never revealed in the show tale of Garak’s involvement in the fate of Gul Dukat’s father; Garak’s struggles on DS9 during the Dominion War; and the sad circumstances of the ruined Cardassia, left devastated after the DS9 finale, “What You Leave Behind.”  Each one of these stories is powerful and affecting — the book as a whole is rather melancholy (not surprising, since the end of DS9 showed us the terrible fate that befell Cardassia)…and yet also uplifting.  A marvelous piece of writing.

Unity, by S.D. Perry — After the four-book series entitled “Mission Gamma,” S.D. Perry returned to the DS9 re-launch series to pen what in many ways served as the “finale” of the “Season Eight” series of novels.  In this story, a great number of the myriad storylines built up in the preceding eleven DS9 novels come to a head.  A major character has been assassinated.  The Federation and Bajor face a horrifying attack from an enemy long-forgotten — the parasitic aliens last seen all the way back in the FIRST SEASON of Star Trek: The Next Generation.   A Trill secret threatens to come to light.  And Jake Sisko returns from the Gamma Quadrant, bringing with him a familiar DS9 character thought long-lost… but it’s not Bejmanin Sisko!

Worlds of Deep Space Nine, by various authors — If the novels from Avatar to Unity represent “season eight” of DS9, then this three book series launched “season nine.”  Each book contains two novellas, focusing on different worlds important to the DS9 saga: Cardassia, Andor, Trill, Bajor, Ferenginar, and The Dominion.  At first I was concerned that, after the engrossing climax of the storylines in Unity, these books would be something off a “digression.”  But there’s not a loser in the bunch.  Each novella is an engrossing tale with an enormous amount of “world-building” — giving the reader a lot of insight into these different, fascinating alien cultures.  But, as noted above, these stories aren’t just interesting asides, there to add some depth to various alien species.  Rather, each one moves all of the characters’ stories forward in dramatic ways.  The Trill secrets revealed in Unity come to a head, causing tremendous upheaval to Trill society, and putting Ezri Dax to a dramatic test.  The Bajoran village of Sidau (seen in the first-season DS9 episode “The Storyteller”) is massacred; a character not seen since season two of DS9 is named the new Bajoran representative to the Federation; Jake Sisko gets engaged; a mole is discovered on the station; and the Jem Hadar Taran’atar stabs Kira Nerys in the heart (not a dream, a hoax, or an illusion!).  The shape-shifter Laas (from the seventh season DS9 episode “Chimera”) rejoins the Great Link, setting in motion a chain of events that causes the Changelings to make a desperate decision.  And, in my favorite story, Paradigm, written by Heather Jarman, two of the new characters created in the DS9 novels — the Andorian Shar and the Starfleet Ensign Prynn Tenmei — must navigate the complex structure of Andorian society as Shar returns home to bury his beloved.  It is a powerful, romantic, sweet and sad story that I have subsequently re-read several times.  Great stuff.

Warpath, by David Mack — The most action-packed of all the DS9 novels, this book takes place over the course of about two days, as the crew of the Defiant races in pursuit Taran’atar; a mysterious Cardassian woman makes her way to a fateful rendez-vous; and we witness the brutal demise of yet another Kira — the Indendant, from the Mirror Universe.  This book ends with a cliffhanger of the most brutal kind, and unfortunately it took Pocket Books TWO YEARS to release the next DS9 novel!!  Sheesh!!!

Yikes!  I’ve gone on for a while now.  Tomorrow I’ll continue with Part II of this column, writing about several OTHER great works of Star Trek fiction that have been published over the past few years.

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