For the second time in as many months, I am reading a series of Star Trek novels from Pocket Books that hold my interest better than any rumor I've heard about the fifth Trek television show.
The Star Trek: New Earth series, conceived by popular writer Diane Carey and editor John Ordover, sends a post-V'Ger Kirk and crew to protect a convoy moving a group of independent-minded colonists far from Federation space. The possibilities seem endless for disaster along the way, problems settling the world, conflicts with neighbors, and exploration of a new area of space. Indeed, the last book in this miniseries, Challenger, will kick off a new, open-ended series of books focusing on another Starfleet crew in that distant region, much like Star Trek: New Frontier.
Volume One, Wagon Train to the Stars, follows the convoy from their launch through several crises that almost convince the colonists to turn back. Though they reach their intended destination with minimal loss of life, their happiness when they arrive at Belle Terre - the name of the planet, and also the name of the second book - quickly dissipates at Spock's discovery that one of the planet's satellites will soon explode, like Ceti Alpha VI in The Wrath of Khan. This isn't a spoiler and doesn't come as much of a surprise, since the compelling aliens from Wagon Train to the Stars make the same discovery before Spock does.
What makes New Earth compelling isn't originality. Gene Roddenberry once described his concept for the initial Star Trek show as "Wagon Train to the stars," so Carey takes the concept literally. The large passenger ships (with names like "Yukon" and "Lewis and Clark") are called Conestogas. They carry people who want to live away from Federation authority - some Christians, some criminals, some hunting proponents seeking Second Amendment-type rights. The wagons circle when they need to protect their own, and they even have to stop and rest for the night - in this case, Gamma Night, a sensor blackout caused by a nearby pulsar that darkens the screens ten hours out of every thirty.
There's considerable chauvinism, which is probably realistic, though an unpleasant reminder of how little some things change over hundreds of years of human history. There's also plucky pioneer spirit, epitomized by the idealistic governor who tries to achieve a balance between independence and clinging to the Starfleet protection that may be his people's only hope of survival. If you've ever seen a Western, you can instantly predict who will be the heroes, the villains, the good-guy loners, the cocky rebels, the narrow-minded isolationists, the protective mothers, etc. The main players barely skirt stereotyping, while the minor characters resemble stock movie figures.
Therefore, it is with some amusement that I note how perfectly in character Kirk and especially McCoy seem on such a mission. I never noticed before just how much Bones has in common with a simple country doctor like he claims to be; anyone who has seen DeForest Kelley in Raintree County will have a lovely mental image of him throughout these books. Kirk, of course, is perfectly suited to be heading where no man has gone before. When he faces a crisis that may cost lives, he imagines the voices of those who died on previous missions encouraging, "That's what we died for. Go out, and make our lives worthwhile."
It's a cliche, but this is the stuff that legends are made of. Contrast the spirit of exploration of these squabbling colonists, deliberately heading away from Earth forever, with Voyager's placid crew dithering their way home. New Earth may not be profound, but it's fun and spirited. We all knew these sorts of folk had to be hiding somewhere in the Federation - the anachronisms, the humans who find Earth a little too sanitized, the spiritualists who want to raise their kids with prayer rather than logic. This convoy seems to be mostly human, and frankly it would be surprising if there weren't xenophobes somewhere longing for an Earth like the old days as well. It makes Roddenberry's future more believable. In most ways, this is classic Classic Trek.
Carey does a fine job writing Kirk at his most heroic...and his most introspective. Those who found him a bit too imperialistic during the original series in the way he dealt with Tyree, the Eminiar-Vendikar conflict, and all that may be impressed at how he's aged. Though he's still following his gut and has many problems figured out ten minutes after learning of them, he's well aware of the importance of the democratic process to the colonists, and accepts having his hands tied even though he knows he could save them a lot of grief if they'd just let him do things his way. He's in a rotten position in some ways - forced to serve as Starfleet escort, yet unable to force Starfleet regulations on any of his charges even when it's in their interests to obey - but he's also having the time of his life on the adventure, although the biggest crises to hit the convoy turn out to have been started by an old enemy with a personal grudge against Kirk.
Spock doesn't quite sound like himself, but that might be because the books are set in the transition between the ice-cold Kolinahr disciple of the first movie and the touchy-feely Vulcan of The Wrath of Khan. With the exception of Uhura, the rest of the crew doesn't get enough to do in the first two novels, though Book 3, Rough Trails, focuses more on Chekov, Uhura, and Sulu. Chekov does get a wonderful turn in Wagon Train commanding a ship attacked by Orions; he wonders, "Was he just good at faking it? How often had Jim Kirk been faking it?"
It's unfortunate that the human menace in the first volume, a smuggler named Billy Maidenshore whom Kirk once had arrested for racketeering, is a typical nasty villain who says things like, "I sold them some snake oil and they swallowed it. Sheeple." Carey's not afraid to kill off new characters, even delightful ones like the little wrestler commanding one of the first survey ships to Belle Terre, which works well for keeping the story on an emotional rollercoaster, but leaves some of the more annoying types around for longer than one wishes. Belle Terre, co-written by Dean Wesley Smith, has fewer B-stories and as a result we see more of the people involved, which makes them more compelling.
The disaster of the radiation-filled moon sets up the drama for a volume to be released in July, Rough Trails, when the colonists have to contend with a radically altered environment while the crew discovers that those menacing pirates from the first book aren't gone yet. Then in book four, The Flaming Arrow, the vicious local aliens return and the Enterprise is the only thing protecting the colony from their weapons. We know from book one that a biogenic agent nearly killed off those same aliens, so it's a pretty good bet that, having saved themselves from it, they have a dangerous weapon on their hands.
One does long for visuals. The first volume contains a ship manifest and several duty rosters. Yet it doesn't contain a map of the space through which the convoy is traveling, so I'm not entirely clear exactly where this convoy is headed vis a vis Klingon space, Romulan space, the Gamma Quadrant, etc. Nor does the second volume contain a map of Belle Terre, the system and its satellites. Other than the gorgeous cover painting of the planet and the Quake Moon, it's hard for a non-visual person like me to get any sense of where continents and installations on the surface lie in comparison to one another. Please, can we have some maps in the next volume?
Though it's taken awhile for the new characters to grow on me - I wish there were more interesting women - New Earth is a lot of fun to read, with several compelling plots unfolding at once and the original Enterprise crew having a lot of fun in between heroics. It's easy to get swept up in the pioneer spirit of these people, and it's hard not to root for them and want to know what happens to their dream of a new life. Currently, the first two volumes of New Earth are available in US bookstores, with two more to follow next month and the final two in August. In Britain, the first volume comes free to subscribers with the current Star Trek Monthly magazine.
Click here to buy this book from amazon.com. For the rest of the series, click to buy Belle Terre, Rough Trails, The Flaming Arrow, Thin Air, or Challenger.
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