Season of Sequels
As the new year dawns, Star Trek seems to be engaged in an effort not so much to reinvent itself as to keep pulling life from the void. No, I'm not talking only about 'The Genesis Wave'; the four books reviewed here are all efforts of a sort to recycle things we've seen before.
The latest New Frontier novel, 'Being Human,' focuses on the Excalibur and Exeter characters who least fit that description, though as Captain Calhoun points out, most of the command crew of his ship isn't human -- and how refreshing, to see a starship crew that actually represents the cultural range of the Federation! Yet for all its inclusiveness, this novel also gives the impression of being a giant in-joke for New Frontier fans only, an indulgence for writer Peter David -- the first time I've felt that way about his quirky sense of humor in this superb series.
The novel starts with several domestic dramas. After a witty horror-movie-style prologue during which a precocious child's 'imaginary friend' wrecks his parents' unhappy marriage, 'Being Human' progresses to a hilarious bedroom scene where most of the crew interrupt Calhoun and Shelby's lovemaking. This antic comedy continues through an over-the-top encounter that reveals the origins of navigator Mark McHenry's strange talents, setting up a battle scene that reads like something out of a terrible third-season Original Trek episode. It's pretty whacked, but it's certainly not boring.
Then, without warning, what begins as the closest thing to a stand-alone novel New Frontier has given us to date ends in tragedy, leaving two of the more paranormal characters dead. Since every absurd device ever used on Star Trek eventually shows up in this series, I figure they'll probably be revived by a Genesis Wave, a Jake Sisko-style sacrifice, a parallel-universe crossover, a captain traveling through time to change history or the like. But the circumstances of the kill-offs seem contrived, as if specifically setting us up for another Calhoun-style resurrection. And the borrowed indulgences from the original series -- in this case, the return of some unlamented superbeings -- make one wish that for once David had left well enough alone.
The substance of 'Being Human' seems as unfocused as the style, centering on McHenry's attempts to hide his heritage from Zak Kebron, who undergoes a mysterious metamorphosis that this novel never explains. Though he also vows to investigate Soleta, Kebron never gets around to it, though she seems to be identifying overmuch with McHenry's secrets. Meanwhile, Si Cwan receives an offer from Calhoun's old adversaries the Danteri to revive the Thallonian Empire; this makes Cwan nostalgic for the good old days of aristocracy, and gives Robin Lefler a reason to rethink her attachment to him. One expects the Thallonian to suffer for his hubris, yet the extent of his privileged self-interest makes it hard for a reader to sympathize. Burgoyne and Selar can't help their crewmates with their dilemmas because so much of their energies are focused on keeping track of baby Xyon, whose antics make one understand Picard's resentment of children on starships. When Moke tries to assist, another unexplained threat surfaces; the cliffhanger ending doesn't clarify how it is related to the broader crises.
'Being Human' doesn't even touch the many leftover questions from 'Cold Wars,' like where the dimension-jumping male-female alien who sparked conflict between the Aerons and Markanians came from and what its mysterious final message meant. Nor does this new novel address the spiritual experiences Calhoun and Shelby shared in 'What Lay Beyond.' As in all New Frontier books, there's lots of cross-series fun (Shelby forcing Gleau to take an oath of chastity following his harassment of M'Ress; the resurrection of one of Kirk's adversary's siblings; Kebron demanding, 'What the frell is that?') Though it's certainly worth reading -- this is a $6.99 paperback, not a $23.95 hardcover -- 'Being Human' makes me worry, just a little, that serious, emotionally engaging storylines like Soleta's dark heritage and Kat Mueller's violent sexuality may be buried under cheesy genre silliness. It's canonical, for nothing happens in this book that couldn't have been seen on Kirk's Enterprise, but that doesn't mean it's not too silly.
Unlike the twelfth New Frontier novel, the third 'Genesis Wave' installment is an expensive hardcover. Perhaps this should not affect reviewing standards -- a good read is a good read -- but when one is asked to pay more than three times as much for a novel because of its format, one does expect more from the story itself. There's nothing really wrong with 'The Genesis Wave Book Three' except that it's a sequel to two very engrossing predecessors. The attempts to raise the stakes have an artificial feel, and the efforts by author Vornholt to tie the crisis in to the events of his 'Gemworld' duology get confusing. At least, they were for me, and I read Gemworld; I'm sure there are 'Genesis Wave' readers who haven't, who won't be able to glean enough data from the brief summary in this novel to make them feel engaged with the events of this latest Genesis crisis.
The story starts with a disgraced Bajoran Vedek receiving a mysterious package from an alien disguised as the late Kai Opaka. Once he discovers that the contents can instantly terraform small surface areas of planets, he comes to believe that he has been entrusted with the Orb of Life. But as recently-demoted Admiral Necheyev deduces, it's really a portable Genesis device, and the Romulans who discovered it want it back so badly that they play a nasty trick on Picard just to win his assistance. Meanwhile, horrible beings from another dimension begin to enter the galaxy via fissures in space that swallow a starship. The Enterprise must discover whether there is a connection between the life-giving technology and deadly rips in the fabric of the universe.
Vornholt's characterization remains strong, though he's writing about a compromised Picard who's hardly recognizable and a Riker whose concern for his beloved compromises his command decisions. The female characters -- Nechayev, Crusher, Troi, Alyssa Ogawa, a mysterious Romulan commander named Kaylena, and Spock's niece Teska -- by contrast perform their tasks with bravery and creativity, which is particularly enjoyable in the case of the traditionally fuddy-duddy admiral. Vornholt also creates several superb original characters in possession of Genesis technology, including a conniving Ferengi who sells his wives as part of a business scheme, a Romulan with Maquis connections and a spirited, self-interested pilot. The conflicting motives and politics among the diverse players converge in an explosive climax, bringing together such themes as Bajoran spirituality and the Vulcan concept of katra.
Yet although the fate of more than one universe depends on stopping this new threat, the danger never seems as immediate as the gut-wrenching horror of Genesis unleashed when Leah Brahms first witnessed it in Book One, nor the planet-wide panic Geordi and Deanna survived in Book Two. This is a smaller Genesis device in more ways than payload. Even the tragedy of Lomar, where Starfleet officers find thousands of brain-dead humanoids, doesn't have the same impact as did the immediate threat posed by the plant-aliens to characters we care about in the previous novels. It's pretty clear that the universe won't be destroyed and Troi won't go permanently insane from trying to link empathically to interdimensional aliens, so most of the drama comes from an old-fashioned race against time to track down Genesis -- and we've seen that already on film. Book Three is an enjoyable, relatively quick read, but it's just not as powerful as Book Two which was a must-have as soon as it hit the shelves.
Here's my standard for whether it's worth buying a hardcover Trek trilogy: I have to think it's better than 'Millennium,' which I spent two solid days reading when it came out in March 2000. Originally a three-book set, the series is now available in a single volume. At $15.99, the omnibus costs less than a single Trek hardcover and offers a complex, emotionally gripping storyline that both follows up on 'What You Leave Behind' and suggests what might have happened in another universe.
'The Fall of Terok Nor' begins as a station-bound mystery involving the murder of a smuggler. But when Jake and Nog reveal the existence of a secret Cardassian holosuite where they played as kids, Quark, Garak and Odo realize that they have no memories of the day when the Cardassians withdrew from the station. With the help of a dangerous Obsidian Order operative, Sisko learns that the smugglers and Cardassians both seek a trio of lost Red Orbs, which reputedly can open a second wormhole with a second group of Prophets. When the Emissary finds the final lost Red Orb and returns it to the station with its mates, all hell breaks loose.
'The War of the Prophets' begins 25 years in the future of those events. The Defiant has been thrown forward in time after a slingshot around the new red wormhole, which in that timeline destroyed Deep Space Nine. While Worf, Dax and Bashir struggle to work within a Starfleet warring against a theologically-controlled Bajor, Sisko, Kira, Odo and Quark become the prisoners of 'Kai Weyoun' -- Emissary to the True Prophets of the red wormhole and sworn enemy of the False Prophets to whom Sisko is committed. If Weyoun succeeds in unifying the two Celestial Temples, the resulting shock wave will destroy space and subspace.
'Inferno,' which picks up just after the end of the universe, follows the characters through bubbles in fractured subspace as they attempt to change a past that's rapidly ceasing to exist, along with the present and future. Fans who didn't like the way the TV series ended probably won't prefer this alternate-timeline DS9 because it revolves around the same themes: the nature of gods and religion, the responsibility of people to pure ideals rather than institutions, the horror of war versus the need to wage it in the face of absolute evil. Yet anyone who liked B'hala, Jadzia Dax, baseball, Sisko's opinion of Kirk's temporal meddling and 'The Reckoning' will love 'Millennium.'
On a dramatic level it's thrilling, with epic space battles and lots of station intrigue. There are guest appearances in the future timeline by an aging, senile Picard, plus two female admirals from the long-returned Voyager who lead an initiative to change history using combined Borg and Federation technology. Dukat and Weyoun have different destinies in Millennium than they did on the show, yet they are still the power-hungry, deluded madmen they became by the end of the TV series. Ironically, the catalyst for all this chaos is Vash, who was apparently chosen as a prominent character by the designers of the Millennium CD-ROM game because they thought she'd make a good Lara Croft figure. Vash is much more interesting in these books than she ever was as Picard's or Q's love interest. But my favorite character is Jake Sisko, who straddles the rowdy pursuits of his youth with his obligations as a man and a writer. Each book begins with quotes from his novel Anslem, which may or may not be written in this timeline, yet they remind me of his father -- and of Benny Russell, the writer his father became in another Prophet-controlled timeline. This epic is Trek at its best.
Let me note that I am not the target audience for Adam "Mojo" Lebowitz and Robert Bonchune's trade paperback 'Starship Spotter.' I have never built a model. I skip over the vessel diagrams in 'Star Trek: The Magazine.' I couldn't tell you how many decks Voyager has. I don't even own the Next Generation technical manual. I can only review this book as an artistic book about the ships of Star Trek, not as a character study of the great birds of the galaxy. Though it was put together by the principal CGI experts who have brought us the 'Ships of the Line' calendars, 'Starship Spotter' is not a comprehensive guide to Starfleet vessels; many of the renderings depict alien ships, from the original series' awkward Birds of Prey that even the Romulans stopped using to the clunky Malon vessels encountered by Voyager. Thus there are wonderful schematics of Starfleet's Nova-class Equinox, but where, one might ask, is the Excelsior?
The graphics offer two views of each ship: one that resembles a small monochromatic wire-frame blueprint, another that's detailed, textured, richly hued and displayed over broad facing pages (though often the ships seem poorly lit, with most of the glow in the vicinity of the warp nacelles). The color images are spectacular, yet to my non-model-building eye, the wire-mesh images seem more revealing of how each ship might be put together, so I was sorry these weren't larger. Fans looking for accurate paint jobs on the exteriors of their models, however, will probably be very happy with the close-up images of the fully-rendered ships.
Accompanying the graphics are brief mission and design histories for each vessel, which help starship ignoramuses like me remember where we saw which kind of Klingon battle cruiser and why Starfleet built the multi-vector Prometheus. The 'Specifications' column accompanying each model gives technical information about the ship's dimensions, crew, speed, firepower, propulsion systems and something called 'Rest-Onset Critical Momentum' which I gather has to do with how fast the ship can accelerate from a cold start, though whether or not these numbers are accurate or even plausible is beyond me. I've already heard from purists complaining that some of the statistics from 'Starship Spotter' contradict those in previous technical manuals, but since this book was put together by CGI modelers while the technical manuals were mostly written with the help of those building studio sets, I'm inclined to say that these are the engineering specs while the technical manuals accounted for variations in construction.
For fans like me, the 'Ships of the Line' calendars offer larger images with fewer shadows to admire the ships. But fans who are obsessed with the minutiae of how these ships are constructed, both on and for the screen, will consider 'Starship Spotter' a must-have, even though it's not the oversized hardcover that some of these designs deserve.
Click here to buy Being Human, The Genesis Wave Book Three, Millennium Omnibus or Starship Spotter from amazon.com.
Trek Book Reviews