Monday, 3 February 2014

TREK REVIEW: TOS books roundup




The Star Trek franchise pumps out a slew of novels every year, across several series, so it's rather hard to keep up. With this in mind, I tend to opt for the occasional title that tickles my fancy, be it due to an intriguing blurb, or because it's the work of an author whose work I enjoy. Aside from the ongoing 'Birth of the Federation' sequence, I've avoided the ongoing narratives. Without picking up every book, it has become hard to keep track of the many developments in the series, particularly in the 24th century set books. Indeed, it's the original series set books that have become the most tempting, telling mostly self-contained tales, and taking the opportunity to have some fun with the nearly fifty-year-old characters. Unable to push the 23rd Century era forward – bookended as it is by solid, well-established events – the authors have become playful again. I have recently enjoyed three TOS novels – The Shocks of Adversity and From History's Shadow from 2013, and The Rings of Time from 2012.

The Shocks of Adversity is the second novel by William Leisner, who came to prominence in Trek circles after a run of three winning entries in the Strange New Worlds short fiction competition. The Shocks of Adversity is a bit of a generic title for an interesting adventure for Kirk and his crew. While it's primarily a Kirk story, all the main crew have an important role in the story and every character is recognisable and well-characterised. The Enterprise stumbles into a region of space known as the Goeg Domain, and is crippled in a terrorist attack. After some initial misunderstandings, Kirk manages to elicit the assistance of Goeg Starship 814, under the command of Laspas, with whom he strikes up a strong friendship. It's good to see some exploration of the pressures of command on Kirk, especially considering that his more happy-go-lucky side has been at the forefront in the wake of the reboot movies.

The Goeg Domain is an interesting addition to the Trek universe. The galaxy is vast enough that there is always more room to include another major interstellar power, and the Goeg Domain works as a sort of anti-Federation. To begin with, it appears that the Domain is an affiliation of species, much the same as the UFP. Not being held back by a television budget, the Domain doesn't consist of bog standard humanoids, but a variety of interesting creatures. Mostly they follow the old trope of aliens based on terrestrial animals – the Goeg themselves are bipedal lions, the Abusians look like frogs, the Rokeans are huge bull-like bruisers – but some, like the engineer N'Mi of the Liruq race, are more interesting. It turns out that the Goeg Domain is not so similar to the UFP, being nothing more than an empire by another name, and Kirk finds his choices may have landed his crew on the wrong side of an internal war. It's well told, albeit predictably so; it's clear from the outset which characters are going to turn out to be wrong'uns, which are going to come through as good guys and which ones will have a crisis of conscience and choose the right path in the end. Still, it's highly readable, and the Geog Domain is fine addition to the backdrop of the galaxy. It can't hurt to see them again some day, maybe a hundred years down the line when Picard comes a-visiting.

While The Shocks of Adversity is a decent, if unspectacular story, one thing in its favour is its accessibility. While the majority of readers of Star Trek novels are died-in-the-wool Trekkies, it's important to have easy jumping in points for new readers. That's certainly not something that either of the other two novels in my roundup could be said to provide. Both are very much for die-hard fans, utilising time travel to bring Kirk and crew into contact with another era of Trek history. From History's Shadow is the more complex of the two. By Dayton Ward, it's only really the framing story that can be described as a TOS story. The bulk of the tale takes place in the twentieth century, ranging from the forties to the sixties. It's really one for the knowledgeable fan – I had to remind myself of a couple of characters by checking out Memory Alpha – although one could come into it blind, they'd find themselves a little lost in places. Pretty much every event and character from the Trek universe who existed between 1947 and the end of the century is referenced.

Much of the story follows James Wainwright, an American officer who appeared in the DS9 episode 'Little Green Men.' That episode's unexpected contact with the Ferengi has led to the establishment of a US investigative group dedicated to looking into alien contact, threats and technology. Into the mix come Captain John Christopher from 'Tomorrow is Yesterday,' Roberta Lincoln from 'Assignment: Earth,' and Mestral the Earth-loving Vulcan from Enterprise: 'Carbon Creek.' The time-twisting plot also involves the Tandarans from Enterprise, a bunch of obscure aliens from the Taurus Reach (of the Vanguard novels), the Temporal Cold War, and links to Christopher Bennet's DTI novels. Despite all these elements and more, Ward weaves a fun and coherent story, although it does drag a little during the middle few chapters. Overall, though, this is intelligent, well-thought out intrigue with some refreshingly realistic human characters, something we don't always get in Star Trek. There's definitely mileage in a series dealing with contemporary Earth in the Star Trek universe – something for Paramount to look at, perhaps?

Greg Cox, author of the Khan novels, returns to the past of the Trek universe with The Rings of Time. As with From History's Shadow, this is split between the Kirk's era and his past, only this time it's a more equal split. Setting half of the story in 2020 is a nice touch, seeing that this is still our future, for a few years anyway, and so can be more openly speculative than the 'secret history' approach of both From History's Shadow and the Khan novels. The 2020 sequences involve Colonel Shaun Christopher, son of the aforementioned John Christopher, on his historical voyage to Saturn. Christopher's crew on the USS Lewis and Clark is nicely fleshed out, and I could really put myself in their shoes as they explore the solar system. Both Kirk and Christopher find themselves face-to-face with a mysterious alien probe, possibly the construction of the mysterious Preservers (no spoiler there, that's given away on the opening page extract). This leads to them, bizarrely enough, switching consciousnesses across time and space. Kirk finds himself in the body of Colonel Christopher in orbit of Saturn, trying hard not to undermine history. Meanwhile, 250 years later, Christopher finds himself completely out of his depth aboard the Enterprise in the Klondike system.

There's a great contrast between the two characters: similar men, but with completely different experiences, moulded by life in different centuries. Kirk, is more able to cope with his predicament, having experienced similar things before, and amusingly, is unable to stop himself flirting with the two women on the Clark. Christopher is, as you would expect, horrified by his bodyswap. There are fewer tie-ins to previous episodes and books than in From History's Shadow, but that doesn't stop Cox peppering the story with endless references, and this does get a little wearing. On the other hand, there's something about a Star Trek story which references Lady Gaga that is impossible to resist. If you can accept the outrageous coincidence of Kirk and Christopher being linked, this is a fine, pacy story, with some fun speculation concerning real-life astronomical mysteries, and plenty of twists and turns to keep things moving. It certainly seems that The Rings of Time has kicked off a slew of time-travel related Trek novels. There's not only the aforementioned From History's Shadow and the DTI novels (a third having just been announced), but also the upcoming No Time Like the Past, in which Greg Cox unites Captain Kirk and Seven of Nine. There are some peculiar adventures to come.

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