"Star Trek S.C.E."

by Michelle Erica Green

Star Trek S.C.E.: The Belly of the Beast
Star Trek S.C.E.: Fatal Error
Star Trek S.C.E.: Hard Crash

Star Trek S.C.E. #1: The Belly of the Beast

Simon and Schuster announced last week the immediate release of an all-new Star Trek novel, published in eBook format only. The electronic-only series Star Trek S.C.E., which stands for Starfleet Corps of Engineers, will include at least two more titles to be published in September and October. Developed by Pocket Books editor John Ordover and writer Keith R.A. DeCandido, Star Trek S.C.E. introduces the division of Starfleet responsible for investigating alien machinery, assisting in the repair of unique equipment, aiding in the building or dissection of any form of technology imaginable -- plus some that really aren't imaginable, but the team tries anyway. The corps is headed by beloved Captain Montgomery Scott, who oversees them from an office at Starfleet HQ.

Ordover noted that the new Microsoft Reader seemed like the perfect delivery system for a series about how Starfleet deals with new technology. The first novel, Dean Wesley Smith's The Belly of the Beast, was supposed to be available on August 8 through Microsoft Reader and Barnes and Noble's web sites...but as happens so often with new technology, the release was delayed a few days because the links weren't working, giving the idea of a corps of engineers for similar 24th-century crises a certain relevance. Despite the glitches, it's exciting to have an original Trek series being offered for download, and at $1, the first offering is a bargain, though it's also rather short for a Trek novel.

Smith doesn't spend much time introducing the new characters, plunging instead straight into an engrossing action narrative in which the Enterprise barely defeats a massive starship in battle, leaving LaForge to hook up with the crew of the U.S.S. Da Vinci to explore the strange vessel. LaForge meets up with Sonia Gomez from the Next Generation episode "Q Who," though we don't get much background from the episode for those who haven't seen it. He also works with Captain David Gold, whose highly-educated complement includes Bashir's Academy nemesis Dr. Elizabeth Lense, a bonded pair of Bynars (from "11001001"), plus a tough security officer, Corsi.

Over the course of 114 widely-spaced pages, the group explores a magnificent alien cruise ship, solves the horrifying mystery of what happened to its original crew, and discovers a new threat to the Federation. Despite the engineering focus, Smith tells the story with a delightful lack of technobabble. It's nice to see a Jewish captain -- married to a rabbi, no less -- as well as the many clever, resourceful female characters, including Gomez (who has a romantic interest on her ship though not much in this story), Enterprise security chief Christine Vale (who has a mysterious history with Corsi), Lense (who appeared on Deep Space Nine in "Explorers"), and the insectoid alien Pattie.

Unfortunately in this volume we don't learn much about these folk other than through their actions, and due to the story's events, one of the more interesting aliens will be profoundly changed in the next volume. The crew of the Da Vinci should be rather traumatized by the horror they witness; one wonders whether future S.C.E. missions will focus more on the glory of exploration rather than the risks taken by these adventurers, and how they cope with the stress.

Still, it's a well-done story that leaves one hungering for more, which I'm sure was the intention. It will be interesting to see what DeCandido and popular Voyager novelist Christie Golden produce in the second and third novels in the series. Look for The Belly of the Beast in Microsoft Reader format at http://www.barnesandnoble.com/ebooks, where you can find 100 free classics, or go directly to B&N to order. The books will be available in other eBook formats later on.

Star Trek S.C.E. #2: Fatal Error

The second of the Trek eBooks picks up where Belly of the Beast left off, but it's remarkably different in tone -- in fact, I can't think of a Trek novel with which to compare it. The writing is very spare, with punchy dialogue where readers are often expected to figure out who's speaking by the tone and topic of the statements. The sentences have few dependent clauses and even fewer descriptive adjectives. Writer Keith R.A. DeCandido, who came up with the Star Trek S.C.E. along with editor John Ordover, sticks with comic book simplicity, which actually serves this action story quite well.

Fatal Error offers an interesting juxtaposition between the secular Judaism of Captain David Gold and his rabbi wife, as opposed to the religious fanatics who try to destroy the central computer of the planet Eerlik. Curiously, considering the prominent role religion plays in the lives of many central characters, God doesn't get mentioned once, except in an oath by an engineer. The book starts with the slaughter of priests by a character who believes he's righteous, yet who comes across as utterly loathsome. Gold -- whose religious background is conveyed mainly by his affection for matzoh ball soup and Yiddish expressions -- responds to a call for help from the planet's computer, which realizes that it has been sabotaged but can't track down the source of the damage.

Like Landru's society from "Return of the Archons," Eerlik is run by this single sentient machine, called Ganitriul. The fanatics preach a simple life without dependence on the decadent device, yet they're perfectly willing to use blasters and computer viruses to achieve their aims. Gold's best computer expert, the Bynar 110, has been devastated by the loss of his mate and doesn't believe he can fix Ganitriul on his own. Yet 110 finds the idea of bonding with another mate so loathsome that he is willing to try to live independently, just to stave off the likelihood that he will have to pair off with someone else.

This novella is witty and clever, with lines like, "The face of the human captain of the da Vinci appeared suddenly on the viewscreen. 'We're the S.C.E. Impossible things are our business.'" It doesn't suffer from a lack of description, but one never learns what the planet or its moon look like. . .and though we know the aliens are short and their blood is blue, we don't really get a sense of how they move, how they group themselves, what their homes are like. This is annoying because the book could easily have been longer, allowing it to develop the alien characters and their culture in depth.

Trek eBooks cost $5, which seems like a lot for novellas of this length. Like Belly of the Beast, many readers will be able to finish Fatal Error in an hour -- or if it takes longer, it likely has to do with needing to take breaks from the eyestrain of reading a book on a computer screen. Since we've been spoiled by the TNG and DS9 Companion CD-ROMS, which offer more than a hundred complete television scripts for under $20 each, I'm a little bugged that Barnes and Noble is charging so much for books that are so short and cost so little to produce.

Star Trek S.C.E. #3: Hard Crash

I have said this before, and I will say it again when I review the final volume of the Dark Matters trilogy, but let me say it here just to emphasize the point: Christie Golden's Star Trek novels give me faith in the franchise and make me desperately wish that she, rather than Braga et al, were going to be the head writer of Series V. Her S.C.E. novella, a mere 87 pages long, introduces two new alien cultures, gives us the strongest perspective yet on Gold's command, and features three poignant love stories -- four if you count the passionate symbiotic relationship between a captain and her ship. I'm most familiar with Golden's Voyager novels, so I'm delighted by how well she writes Geordi LaForge, plus all the new characters of the S.C.E. series.

Hard Crash begins when an alien vessel crashes into a peaceful planet and wreaks havoc for no apparent reason. The crew of the Da Vinci beam over to discover a dead pilot whose body appears to have been mutilated by the ship, but on closer investigation, she seems to be related to the Borg -- half-organic, half-cybernetic, engineered specifically to work with the vessel. The ship, which the pilot Jaldark called "Friend," doesn't realize that she has died. When 110 tries to make contact, the Bynar is badly injured.

That's the plot. The drama emerges from the subtext, beginning with the point of view of a linguist who misses his lover, alternating with the panicked cries of Friend who misses Jaldark. As the Da Vinci crew tries to make non-threatening overtures to the damaged vessel, the linguist reflects on his beloved Anthony, 110 mourns the loss of his partner 111, Gomez and Duffy consider reviving their romance, and the crew comes to understand that Jaldark's relationship with Friend went beyond their comprehension. A newly activated EMH begins to explore feelings with Dr. Lense, as well. These layered stories add nuance to an already engrossing tale of first contact.

A momentary gripe: it took me several weeks to get a copy of Hard Crash that I could read. Hard Crash exists in two formats, Glassbook (at BarnesandNoble) and Acrobat (at NewMedia), but I couldn't get the Glassbook reader to install on my computer, and the download site kept refusing to load the Adobe plug-in required for Acrobat e-books. I have the previous two Trek e-books in Microsoft Reader format, but apparently Hard Crash isn't available yet for that software.

Pocket Books is still charging $5 for these short novellas, despite problems with software, downloads, and a slightly higher-than-usual ratio of errors from having rushed the series into production. I gather that people are buying them anyway, but it seems unfair to fans to ask such high prices when there are so many problems associated with this new technology. If I were a new fan, I'd rather pay for the cheap paperback reprint of The Romulan Way.

Click here to buy Belly of the Beast, Fatal Error or Hard Crash from amazon.com.

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