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Beyond the Final Frontier — Part II

September 5th, 2008
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In addition to the great series of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novels that I discussed yesterday, Pocket Books has really stepped up their game across the board.  They have released a number of marvelous novels in the past few years dealing with ALL the different series in the Star Trek franchise.  With few exceptions, they all have the same great things going for them that the DS9 books do — tight continuity from novel to novel, strong character arcs, and terrific attention to detail in terms of picking up old plotlines from long-ago episodes of the different Trek shows, or in taking minor characters from old episodes and bringing them back in unexpected and fun ways.  I have never seen the Trek UNIVERSE treated so much like a cohesive universe before — where things that happen in one novel, or that happened in older episodes of the series, aren’t just forgotten about.  Rather, the consequences and repercussions of those actions are explored… and characters that might have been one-dimensional in the past are fleshed-out and deepened.

For example, Ensign Ro was a well-loved character introduced in season five of the Next Generation.  And yet, after her initial introduction we never learned a whole heck of a lot about her, other than that she was tough and didn’t much like authority figures.  But she has been magnificently fleshed out in the DS9 books, where she has had to struggle to figure out where she belongs as Bajor begins the process of becoming a member world of the Federation.  Will she return to Starfleet, an organization in which she has failed twice?  Will she remain on Bajor, a planet and cultural heritage she rejected and fled from in her youth?  There’s a lot of interesting drama to be had there.  Here’s another interesting example: In the second season of Deep Space Nine, there was an episode in which it looked like Bajor was going to renounce its partnership with the Federation, and a team of Bajoran officers attempted to capture the station.  The leader of those officers was a Bajoran general named Krim.  He only appeared in that one episode, but I always thought the actor made a great impression — he was a memorable character, one who was tough and extraordinarily loyal to his home planet of Bajor, but also calm, rational, and open-minded.  Well, I guess I wasn’t the only one who thought he was a great character, because the Trek novel writers have brought back Krim in the role of Bajor’s first representative to the Federation Council.  The character has played a major role in the “Bajor” novella from the Worlds of Deep Space Nine series, by J. Noah Kym, as well as in Keith R.A. DeCandido’s novel Articles of the Federation, which I’ll discuss more in a moment.  Its great fun to see this that this character hasn’t been forgotten, but that he’s now been made an important part of the continuing story!

There are LOTS more examples like that — but I’ve gotten off track and I’m back talking about DS9, when what I wanted to do today was to highlight some other great Trek novels that have come out over the past few years.

Let’s start with the afore-mentioned Articles of the Federation, by Keith R.A. DeCandido.  This novel is, in essence Star Trek meets The West Wing, and it is genius.  The novel takes place over the course of one year in the life of the Federation (specifically, the year immediately following the events of the last Trek movie, Star Trek: Nemesis).  Whereas all of the Star Trek TV series have focused on the military — people in Starfleet, working on starships and space-stations, this novel focuses on the civilian arm of government: The United Federation of Planets.  Specifically, the President and her many advisors.  This is an entirely unexplored aspect of the world of Star Trek, and DeCandido does a phenomenal job of imagining for us what life in the President’s circle must be like.  This novel also contains an extraordinary number of little nods and references to all sorts of Star Trek episodes, characters, alien races, etc.  That really enriches the novel, and enhances what I described before: that sense that the different Trek series and novels are really all part of one shared fictional universe, which I think is really fun.

Titan: Taking Wing, by Michael A. Martin and Andy Mangels — One of the only interesting notions put forth by the really-so-bad-its-painful Star Trek Nemesis was the idea that Will Riker had finally, FINALLY, gotten command of a starship of his own.  Well, this book launched what is now a five-book (and sure to be more soon) series of Will’s adventures in command of the Starship Titan.  As the book that launched that series, this one remains my favorite.  A lot of interesting new characters are introduced (and some familiar ones are there as well) as part of Riker’s command crew.  I also really enjoyed the Romulan-centered storyline.  The events of Nemesis left the Romulan society rather a mess, and there were a whole host of questions left unanswered by that movie — such as what the heck happened to the militaristic Romulan society after its senate had been annihilated?? — that this novel addresses.

Star Trek: The Buried Age, by Christopher L. Bennett — Mr. Bennett has written a number of interesting Trek books over the past few years, but this one is my favorite.  It steps back from the “current” Trek storyline (taking place post-Nemesis), and examines the years of Captain Picard’s life after the destruction of the Stargazer, and before he took command of the U.S.S. Enterprise in “Encounter at Farpoint” (the Next Gen premiere episode).  This is a time period that wasn’t much discussed by the Next Generation series, and yet Bennett constructs a truly engrossing story that presents these years as a pivotal time in the life of Jean Luc Picard, in which he went from a man almost-broken after the loss of the Stargazer to the confident Captain who we met in the opening moments of “Encounter at Farpoint.”  Along the way, Bennett also fleshes out a variety of interesting aspects of the back-story of the Trek universe, piecing together a number of disparate hints and references from numerous Trek episodes into a coherent and surprising picture.  I love that sort of thing!  Once again (am I repeating myself unnecessarily??) different stories are made to fit together into a unified fictional Trek universe.

Crucible: McCoy, by David R. George III — Having sung the praises of the way all the modern Trek novels fit together, let me now praise one that really stands on its own.  David R. George III wrote a three-book celebration of the 40th anniversary of the original Star Trek, with one novel focusing on each one of the central trio of Trek, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.  It is the McCoy novel, though, (one of the longest Trek novels I’ve ever read) that is the most extraordinary.  George III takes possibly the most pivotal episode of classic Trek, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” and uses it as a jumping-off point to tell two parallel tales.  One follows McCoy after the traumatic effects of that episode, in which Edith Keeler is allowed to perish back in 1930 in order to restore the proper timeline of history.  In what is a marvelous act of attention to detail and narrative creativity, this story takes place in and around many of the familiar Trek episodes that followed “The City on the Edge of Forever” in the run of the series and beyond, casting those adventures in an entirely new light.  The other, parallel storyline follows McCoy back in the past.  What if Kirk and Spock never travelled back in time after him, and McCoy was able to save Edith and wound up living the rest of his life in the past?  For much of the novel, these two stories proceed side by side, and it is only towards the end that we begin to understand the connections between them.  Each tale is haunting and powerful, and it succeeds in doing the near impossible — taking the well-known character of McCoy and forever changing my perception of that character.  This is a novel I look forward to revisiting many times in the future.

Before Dishonor, by Peter David — Over the last two years, Pocket Books has attempted to do for post-Nemesis TNG what it so successfully did for DS9: launch a highly connected series of novels to take those characters forward from their last filmed adventure.  But the Next Gen relaunch has been a bit shakier than the DS9 series was.  The first three novels were each written by a great Trek writer, and each one tackled what looked to be a great topic.  Death in Winter by Michael Jan Friedman addressed the Picard-Dr. Crusher relationship.  Resistance, by J.M. Dillard, brought about the return of the Borg.  And Q & A, by Keith R. A. DeCandido, featured (of course) a return visit from Q, and a story-line that linked together ALL the previous Q tales.  And yet, while each of those novels was good, none of them proved to be a stand-out.  All three novels were, surprisingly, rather short, and all seemed to me as if they could have been much lengthier, more complex stories.  And while the DS9 novels had phenomenal continuity, particularly in terms of the characterizations of the new characters from novel-to-novel, the Next Gen novels seemed to have have rather disparate depicitions of the new characters from book-to-book.

Which brings us to Peter David’s Before Dishonor.  Visit some on-line Trek sites and you’ll see that this was the most controversial of the Next Gen relaunch books.  Many were very critical of David for his depictions of the new characters, as much of their characterizations as built up in the prior novels seemed to have been ignored.  There were also a lot of objections to a shocking turn of events early in the book.  (If you don’t want to be spoiled, STOP READING NOW!)  As the novel opens, it seems that the new Borg threat introduced in Resistance has only grown stronger.  A massive Borg cube invades the Alpha Quadrant, and the Borg’s first step is to take care of an individual who has consistently defeated them:  Kathryn Janeway.  And in the shocking introduction to the novel, the Borg finally succeed in assimilating Janeway.  And she is NOT rescued by the end of the novel!!  Many Voyager fans were shocked, but I for one found this a wonderfully surprising twist — and a deliciously ironic one at that, as I had always found the Janeway character to be shockingly arrogant in terms of her attitude towards the Borg.

As for the rest of the novel, I loved it!  It contained a number of fascinating connections to earlier novels by Mr. David (most particularly his previous Borg opus, Vendetta).  It was a relentlessly paced tale, full of the mix of high-stakes drama and great humor to be found in most of David’s novels.  And I particularly loved the way the Borg were really made a scary threat to the Federation again.  (I found it somewhat silly how easily they were defeated in all the Voyager episodes that featured them.)  Although this novel is very different in tone and characterizations than the previous Next Gen relaunch novels, I think this is the one I’ll be re-reading the most in the future.

Well, there have been LOTS of other great Trek novels that I’ve read recently, but I think you get the idea.  I’ll close by mentioning several of the novels that have either been recently published, or are coming out soon, that I can’t wait to read!

Greater Than the Sum, by Christopher L. Bennett — Picks up the pieces left by Before Dishonor.

Enterprise: Kobayashi Maru, by Michael A. Martin and Andy Magels — Yes, even though I found the Enterpise TV series to be pretty weak, I am actually excited about a new Enterprise novel.  Why?  because this one promises to tell us the actual story of the Kobayashi Maru, an event preserved in Starfleet lore as the no-win scenario test given to all Starfleet Cadets, as memorably depicted in the opening scenes of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.  (This novel will supposedly be followed next year by another Enterprise novel, this one depicting the Romulan War, a major event first mentioned in early Original Trek episodes!)

Star Trek: Destiny, by David Mack — a three-book crossover that promises to feature characters from almost ALL the different Trek series of TV shows and novels, and to bring the continuing Borg storyline to an explosive climax.  (Pocket Book is keeping the plot of the trilogy very tightly wrapped, but there are hints that this story will also have some connection to the tragic fate of Captain Hernandez, first introduced as the captain of the second NX-class starship in the final season of Enterprise.)

Enough to keep me busy for quite a while!  I can’t wait!  Its enough to almost make me forget that its been a long time now since there have been ANY new filmed Star Trek adventures, on TV or at the movies.  But with novels this good, who needs ’em?

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