Saturday, 2 May 2020

TREK REVIEW: "The Higher Frontier" by Christopher L. Bennett

Christopher Bennett continues to plug the gaps in the Original Series timeline, having explored the all the way from Kirk's first command through to the aftermath of The Motion Picture in his previous works. The Higher Frontier takes place in the hinterland between TMP and The Wrath of Khan. Like his previous novel The Face of the Enemy (which returned to the First Federation), this latest work explores previously seen but mysterious alien races.

The novel brings back Miranda Jones and her Medusan symbiote Kollos, who joined together at the close of “Is There in Truth No Beauty?” The story explores the effects of this union on both Jones and Kollos, while taking a welcome look at the Medusans, one of the most fascinating alien species created for the Original Series. At the same time it brings the Aenar into the 23rd century, looking for a reason why they disappear from Federation affairs thereafter, and also taking time to delve into their culture. The two alien races are an obvious pairing, in hindsight: the Aenar are blind and telepathic, while the Medusans communicate entirely through telepathy and can drive anyone who sees them to madness. They compliment each other perfectly

There's a great deal of focus on Dr. Jones, a unique character in the franchise, as she learns about herself and also develops a relationship with Admiral Kirk. It's gratifying to see that Bennett disliked Kirk and the other male officers' treatment of Jones in the original episode, in which they were, by modern standards, appallingly laddish and chauvinistic. He has Kirk apologise to Jones, and the more mature version of the character from the films makes for a good romantic foil, even if we know from our vantage point that it can't last.

There's plenty of exploration of other familiar characters as well. The camaraderie between Sulu, Uhura and Chekov is a highlight, even as the latter begins his posting on the USS Reliant. Seeing him develop under Captain Terrell and the Reliant bridge crew has tragic overtones for the reader, knowing as we all do the fate of the ship in The Wrath of Khan. A very successful character is Thelin, the Andorian officer seen in the alternative timeline of the animated episode “Yesteryear.” Here we get to meet the prime timeline Thelin, who acts as a bridge between the Andorian and Aenar and our window into the difficult relationship between the two cultures. (Thelin's greyish skintone on the cartoon is explained away by his having an Aenar grandparent.)

The Higher Frontier is a sweeping exploration of psychic phenomena during the 23rd century, when human espers were surprisingly well-known in the Federation. This goes right back to the second pilot episode, and the known existence of human beings with psychic abilities is an oddity in the Original Series that doesn't appear in other parts of the franchise. Dr. Jones, who becomes something of a figurehead for telepaths throughout the Federation, is only the most powerful of the human espers. Bennett brings in the New Humans – a movement briefly spoken of in Roddenberry's novelisation of The Motion Picture – and repurposes them as a cultural movement of espers looking to advance their own evolution.

Into this complex universe come the Naazh, a group of brutal, armoured terrorists who lead a campaign of, essentially, ethnic cleansing against “unnatural” psychics, beginning with the Aenar. There's some breathless and surprisingly violent action sequences throughout the book, balancing out the more philosophical side of things. Bennett is a big fan of Kamen Rider, and has peppered the book with references to this series, all of which went over my head, but the idea of the Naazh as tokusatsu-style soldiers is a striking visual. (For most western readers, Power Rangers is probably the most familiar example of this genre.)

Bennett's prose is always a pleasure to read, although on occasions here the exposition does become a little unwieldy, particularly when he's refers back to previous episodes, films and books. I'm not particularly enamoured with his eventual explanation of the espers' abilities. I'm not entirely sure everything in the canon needs to be explained away, and his overarching storyline is a little unwieldy. However, he maintains a thrilling story, bursting with ideas and fascinating visuals, even though the final revelations demand to be taken with a pinch of salt.

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