Strange New Worlds IV demonstrates that it's time the series got a new editor and relaxed its rules. This volume's about as good as SNWIII, but there are far too many similarities -- too many repeat authors (some of whom surely should be ineligible now under the "amateur" rules of the contest), too many tales with clever structure yet little substance, too many of the same themes over and over. SNW contest judge Dean Wesley Smith might argue that the pieces he included were the best submissions he got, but I know from reading fan fiction on the internet (some by the very same authors) that better Star Trek stories have been written.
The appeal of Strange New Worlds for readers is twofold. Its contents come from fans, who tend to focus on the characters and themes of Star Trek rather than on adventure stories or science fiction gimmicks. Plus the anthologies contain stories spanning all four series plus the films. Given the number of selections in the SNW anthologies that bend or break the contest rules, one wishes Pocket Books would simply open the anthology to submissions including character deaths or flagrant violations of canon, to avoid the sort of stagnancy evident in SNWIV. The rules are supposed to be in place to avoid story cliches like Spock dying in a hurt-comfort scenario, but at this point they're stifling a lot of creativity.
The contest receives thousands of submissions each year, which is one reason it's annoying to find the same writers featured over and over -- not to mention people who pitched unsuccessfully to the Trek shows, which puts their "amateur" status on a whole different level from people writing at home after ten hours working as a nurse. Many fan authors publish rejected submissions on their own web sites or in fanzines; some of the stories that don't make it in are extraordinarily well-written. One starts to wonder whether all the SNWers are writing for love of Trek, or whether most of them are looking for the money, fame and access to agents mentioned in many writer biographies. Any number of professional writers could churn out decent Trek stories; given that they're charging $14.95 a volume for SNW, Pocket Books might as well offer some Hugo- and Nebula-winning writers a chance to take a crack at it.
The good news is that very few of the SNW entries resemble anything one might expect to find in a typical Pocket Books Star Trek novel. E. Catherine Tobler's Ro Laren character study "Flash Point," for instance, has a unique narrative style and manages to create a powerful impression using very few words -- Tobler's is one of the shortest contributions to the anthology yet it's one of the most memorable. By contrast, Ilsa J. Bick's highly stylized Seven of Nine story "Shadows, in the Dark," the second prize winner in this anthology (she won the grand prize in a previous collection for another Seven of Nine-centered story) starts out superbly but starts to drag; metaphors like a planet howling and descriptions of Janeway waving as if dispelling a cloud of gnats don't fit in very well with a sharp storyline about deadly aliens and parallels with a crisis from "Is There In Truth No Beauty."
Many of the entries incorporate elements from more than one Trek series, which makes them fun for long-time fans. In "The Name of the Cat," this year's grand prize winner, Steven Scott Ripley tells a superb McCoy story, but it's set mostly in the Next Generation era and has implications for Picard's life. Lynda Martinez Foley's "Tears For Eternity" brings one of the young Horta from "Devil in the Dark" back into contact with Spock after an encounter with Picard. Foley's offering, Victoria Grant's Kirk story "First Star I See Tonight," Penny A. Proctor's Voyager tale "Uninvited Admirals" and Tonya D. Price's Troi-centered "Prodigal Son" pay welcome attention to the theme of motherhood in the Trek universe; on the series we've gotten lots of stories about characters trying to live up to their fathers while the mothers are largely absent, irrelevant or neglectful (or in the recent case of Q2, all three).
Unfortunately, it's hard for any writer to transcend the limitations of the source material. Pocket Books has been publishing excellent original series spinoff novels for years, but churns out relatively little decent Voyager material. Similarly, Strange New Worlds features a number of terrific early-series stories, but the Voyager offerings are as uneven as the series. Chuck Anderson's "Return," in which Kathryn Janeway drops in on Trevis and Flotter on the holodeck, should be a charming fairy tale, but the childlike quality is ruined for me by Voyager itself -- when I see Janeway alone on a holodeck with fictional characters, I assume she's probably there for sex, and I wouldn't put it past the captain of "Fair Haven" to get it on with Naomi Wildman's imaginary friends. William Leisner's Captain Proton fable "Black Hats" suffers from the limitations of the black-and-white world view (so to speak) of "Bride of Chaotica," and to some extent from comparisons with the Next Gen Moriarty episodes.
Five of the six Voyager stories in this anthology and many from previous collections don't take place in series time or even on the ship, but in alternate realities, on a holodeck or back home on the Earth the crew has left behind. Proctor's "Uninvited Admirals," centering on Gretchen Janeway and Owen Paris, does a fine job with the theme of families waiting for news -- it's a bit reminiscent thematically of an entry in a previous SNW collection, Mary Wiecek's "The Ones Left Behind." But every Trek fan really should go to Proctor's web site and read her opus "Revisionist History", the greatest Voyager story ever told and a prime example of why all rules for the SNW contest should be discarded.
Bill Stuart offers a delightful tale about Q and the Borg Queen that's only tangentially Voyager-based, though it has a great line in which Q sardonically thinks of Seven as Janeway's pet drone. After the unexpectedly moving conclusion of "Iridium-7 Tetrahydroxate Crystals Are a Girl's Best Friend," Diana Kornfeld's predictable Q-ex-machina-gets-them-home story doesn't have the same impact, though "Welcome Home," too, gives Q some great lines, particularly when he thinks Janeway is having a ménage a trois with Chakotay and Mark. I loved Kevin Killiany's "Personal Log," in which the backup EMH from the excellent "Living Witness" contacts his original.
Neither of the collection's Deep Space Nine stories is set in that series' canonical era. Jonathan Bridge's "Captain Proton and the Orb of Bajor," imagined as a radio play, makes Tom Paris' heroic cliché the hero of the wormhole instead of Captain Sisko. Bridge's script is clever and witty, but one really hopes Benny Russell would never sell out in such a manner -- it's unnerving to see Deep Space Nine rewritten as the sort of white-bread story Russell's editors wanted from him on the show. Kevin G. Summers' "Isolation Ward 4," my favorite story in the entire collection, consists of the diaries of Dr. James Wykoff -- the Damar-lookalike physician treating Benny Russell in a mental institution during "Shadows and Symbols." In Summers' period piece, a racist doctor and his family read Russell's stories and evolve into better human beings -- one of Trek's most powerful themes, revisited with grace and passion.
Some of the original series entries are delightful. TG Theodore's "A Little More Action," in which an Iotian lackey shows up with Kirk's cut of the take, has pulp novel dialect and rhythm down perfectly. Pat Detmer turns up a few tribbles "Missed" when Scotty cleaned up the ship. The engineer stars as well in Michael J. Jasper's "Scotty's Song," sharing his love of bagpipes with the whales from The Voyage Home. Fans of the films will also appreciate Robert J. Mendenhall's "Prodigal Father," which re-tells The Wrath of Khan from David's perspective and provides insight into the young man's rejection of his father, Kirk. The most unusual original series story must be Mary Sweeney's "Countdown," narrated by a starship programmed to self-destruct.
The gimmick of the Next Gen offering "Flight 19" may remind Voyager fans overmuch of "The 37s," but Alan James Garbers' story about World War II pilots abducted from Earth by an alien searching for water has a nice retro quality and terrific original characters. "The Promise," Shane Zeranski's Picard-as-Kamin offering, recreates one of Next Gen's best episodes -- "The Inner Light" -- focusing on the conflict between family obligations and longing for adventure among the stars. Jeff Suess' "Seeing Forever," a beautiful family piece set in a place of ancient wonders, didn't have to be a Star Trek story -- it could have been about any family with a child heading for the stars -- yet the tale should appeal to fans of all the shows.
This is a strong anthology, but I don't have the compulsive urge to reread the stories over and over as I did the first time I read Bantam Books' The New Voyages. That was a true fan anthology in that it included stories that shattered canon, sappy poetry, even intimations of Kirk/Spock slash. One suspects the Strange New Worlds contest will become stale without changes in editorial policy and staff to vary the contents of each volume. Still, most people reading this review may be able to have an impact on the future of the collections. At the end of SNWIV, readers can find information for entering the contest for the fifth anthology, and get a piece of the action themselves.
Click here to order Book One, Book Two, Book Three and Book Four from amazon.com.
Trek Book Reviews