Today I’m continuing my look at Pocket Books’ series of Star Trek: Titan novels, chronicling the post-Nemesis adventures of newly-minted Captain William T. Riker and the starship Titan. (Click here for my review of Book 1: Taking Wing, and here for my review of Book 2: The Red King.) While authors Andy Mangels & Michael A. Martin wrote those first two books, with the third novel in the series, Orion’s Hounds, they hand things off to Christopher L. Bennett.
The basic premise of the Titan series is that, following the cataclysmic events of the Dominion War and the other crises that followed, Starfleet has decided to attempt to return to its basic principles of peaceful exploration. As such, they have commissioned the creation of a new class of starships, the Luna class, designed for deep-space exploration. Will Riker commands the Titan, one of those new Luna class vessels, and he and his crew have been sent on a mission beyond the boundaries of the Federation (specifically towards the Gum Nebula, one of the largest astronomical landmarks in the Orion Arm of the Milky Way galaxy) to attempt to seek out new life and new civilizations.
As they travel into unexplored space, Deanna Troi and the other telepaths on board Titan find their minds touched by powerful consciousnesses that, while alien, nevertheless, feel somehow familiar to Troi. The reason for that familiarity is soon made clear as the Titan discovers that the telepathic contact originated from a school of “star-jellies” — the same type of beautiful (and enormous) space-faring creatures that the U.S.S. Enterprise-D first encountered in the pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Encounter at Farpoint.”
However, along with the star-jellies in their natural habitat, Titan also encounters the Pa’haquel, a species that hunts the star-jellies as well as many of the other space-dwelling life-forms found in that part of the galaxy. The Pa’haquel are actually able to manipulate the dead corpses of the jellies, turning them into their own ships in which they’re able to live and which they use as vehicles for their hunts. Riker, along with many members of his crew, are horrified by the actions of the Pa’haquel, but as per Starfleet regulations they are reluctant to interfere in the culture of an alien race.
Of course, events (which I won’t spoil here) soon force their hand, and a member of the Titan crew commits an act that dramatically upsets the balance between the Pa’haquel and the star-jellies. The repercussions of that event makes plain to the Titan crew that things aren’t quite so simple as Star-jellies=good and Pa’haquel=bad, and they discover that their actions have caused dramatic ripple effects that threaten to catastrophically disrupt the interconnected interplanetary ecosystem of this part of the Orion Arm.
Christopher L. Bennett’s Star Trek novels have all been marked by his efforts to infuse as much real science into the story as possible, and Orion’s Hounds is no exception. In this novel, Mr. Benett asks (and extrapolates answers to) a number of questions that a consideration of the depiction of the star-jellies in “Encounter at Farpoint” suggest. (How do these creatures live? Where do they come from? How do they breed? Why do their interiors resemble the rooms and hallways found in inorganic starships? Did they naturally evolve that way, or were they engineered? Are these creatures sentient?)
But, most fascinatingly, Mr. Bennett goes further than that. Over the course of the novel, Bennett makes reference to almost every space-faring organism ever depicted in the various Star Trek TV shows. (There’s a particularly entertaining chapter early on, in which Mr. Tuvok discusses with Titan‘s science officers all of the star-going creatures encountered by the U.S.S. Voyager over the seven seasons of that show.) These creatures were the creation of many writers and special effects artists, separated by many years, who often had little to no thought about the scientific plausibility of their creations or, even less, how they fit together as a whole with the many other space-dwelling creatures depicted by other Star Trek episodes and shows. But throughout Orion’s Hounds, Mr. Bennett attempts to provide some unifying scientific background for these creatures — how they live, and how they connect with one another in the larger galactic ecosystem. This is fascinating stuff, and the careful thought that Mr. Bennett has given to these different creatures (often referred to in the novel as cosmozoans or astrocoelenterates) is almost as interesting as the main story being told.
As for that main story, I was delighted by its complexity. This isn’t a simple tale with easily-defined heroes and villains. At every turn, Riker and his crew learn that things are more complicated than they seem, and Mr. Bennett avoids allowing Riker any easy answers or simplistic solutions to his dilemmas. On my first reading of the novel, I must admit to having been put off a bit by Riker’s indecision in the face of these complex challenges. There are quite a number of pages of the novel that are devoted to the debates among the Titan crew as to the morality of their situation and the choices before them in terms of whether or not to get involved in the situation before them and, if they do get involved, what sort of action they should take. But on a second reading, I quite enjoyed those philosophical debates. In many ways, those portions of the novel hew most closely to classic Star Trek: The Next Generation types of stories, in which there was quite a lot of talking, amongst the Enterprise‘s command crew, about the issues before them.
The Titan series’ greatest strength, or greatest weakness (depending on your point of view), is that these stories are all designed to be classic Star Trek stories of exploration, and that each novel is stand-alone. Certainly there are character arcs that carry from one book to the next, but each novel presents an entirely new adventure, with new species and new phenomena. This makes the Titan series rather different than the types of Star Trek novels that I have found myself most enjoying over the past few years. I have written quite a lot about how much I have gotten into the increased interconnectivity amongst the last few years’ worth of Star Trek novels, now that there’s no new TV shows or movies that the books need to be careful not to contradict. I’ve enjoyed that the novels have NOT been stand-alone adventures, but rather that each new book has moved forward the over-all story-line, often in dramatic and unexpected ways.
But the Titan series is different from all that. As a result, I must admit that I have always found myself a bit less excited about each new Titan novel than I have been about a new DS9 novel, or a new post-Nemesis Next Gen novel. That probably explains why the first Titan Novel, Taking Wing — which was very much a bout the complex political situation in the Alpha Quadrant following the events of Star Trek: Nemesis — has always been my favorite of the Titan series. (We’ll see if that opinion holds when I have completed my journey back through the Titan novels.) But upon re-reading the series so far, I have found myself pleasantly surprised by how much I have enjoyed the stand-alone exploration tales of novels like Orion’s Hounds. When the character work is this solid (and represents solid continuity from book-to-book, even now that we’re venturing into the point in the Titan series in which each successive novel is written by a different author), and the adventure story is this interesting, consider me on-board. I extend great praise to Mr. Bennett for his excellent work here.
Next up is Titan Book 4: Sword of Damocles. I hope to be back here with my thoughts on that novel soon!
Previous Star Trek novel reviews:
Star Trek: Voyager — Full Circle