Friday, February 24, 2006

A few quick reviews

Orion's Hounds by Christopher L. Bennett

If there's one thing most current Star Trek fiction has that didn't always seem to be there, it's a kind of thoughtfulness, an eagerness on the part of the writers to really think through what it would mean to live in the Star Trek universe, and an undeclared intent to live up to the series premise in ways the series themselves don't always do. The reader can sense that the writers love and understand Star Trek, its strengths, weaknesses, and potential.

The Titan series takes on two of the core concepts of Star Trek: diversity and exploration. The TV series have an obvious excuse for not really taking advantage of the diversity of aliens in the Trek universe when it's time to create a new cast of regular characters: it's hard to make convincing aliens on a TV budget. The books don't have that constraint, but too often they've relied on the equivalent of aliens with bumpy foreheads. Titan, like Christopher Bennett's post-TMP novel Ex Machina, meets that issue head on, presenting a much more diverse crew than we've seen on TV. The diversity is useful in a number of ways: creating subplots, developing characterization, and serving as metaphor for what the Star Trek universe and the real world could be.

But this novel also kicks Titan's mission -- to explore strange new worlds and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before -- into high gear. This is Star Trek written as science fiction. It's not an adventure story with ray guns, it's a story in which truly alien beings and science fictional premises are essential. Star Trek has used spacegoing lifeforms a number of times over the years, as Titan's crew well know. The original series used the concept a number of times, and the first and most popular of the spinoffs, The Next Generation, began with a story using the concept. And yet in the majority of cases what should be a thing of wonder is usually a threat to be neutralized or escaped, not something to be communicated with and learned from. In a prime example of the kind of thoughtfulness I mentioned above, Bennett here takes the concept of spaceborne life seriously, revisiting the jellyfish-like beings from Encounter at Farpoint and developing for them a culture and an ecosystem. He seriously examines the very concept, looking at the regions of space in which such life is most likely to exist, questioning whether such life could have arisen independently, and done all this in the context of a novel in which there is action, intrigue, and a large cast of characters. He's clearly done some research -- he even mentions astronomer Fred Hoyle's classic SF novel The Black Cloud -- but the story isn't a dry succession of infodumps.

I'm not sure I found it quite as satisfying a read as Ex Machina, because some of the guest characters came across as one-dimensional -- but no one was painted as a black hat villain. The regular crew are portrayed well, as are the new Titan crew. There's sense of wonder galore here, and if it doesn't quite push as many buttons for me as Ex Machina did, that's not a problem. Orion's Hounds boldly takes Titan into exciting new territory, and confirms that Christopher Bennett is another in the succession of top-notch Trek novelists that Pocket has discovered in recent years.

Distant Shores, edited by Marco Palmieri

The Voyager premise had a lot of great potential. A ship cut off from home, from Starfleet, from anything familiar; a divided crew, Starfleet and Maquis; no Starbases for repairs or supplies, a journey home that might take a lifetime... it sounded very much as if it were created to be the flipside of The Next Generation, which, with its oft-cited Holiday Inn in space look, sometimes seemed a bit too cosy. Voyager looked set to be a much grittier proposition, with a crew that would undergo any number of physical, emotional, and psychological hardships. A crew that would have to struggle to pull together, a crew that would have to consider whether it might be better to find a new home, a crew that would begin to form families and raise children for a trip that might take generations.

But all that was discarded before the first season had even kicked into gear. The revolving door of producers meant that there was no consistency in terms of how serialized the show should be. On the one hand, it took Voyager three years to get away from the feeble threat of the Kazon and they spent much of the rest of the journey encountering the Borg; on the other, major developments occurred never to be mentioned again. Meanwhile, the crew acted as if they were on Picard's Enterprise most of the time, generally not bothering to form attachments or families, and having fun in the holodeck.

All of which makes Voyager a great opportunity for Trek fiction writers. There are so many dropped threads and missed opportunities, so many unanswered questions, that there's no shortage of compelling stories that can be told about that ship and its crew. It's a shame the TV writers didn't realize that, but someone did.

Distant Shores is a strong collection of stories, with only a couple of stories that really struck me as duds. First, as important as it was to have stories dealing with the Equinox crew, it hardly seems necessary to do it as a barely-disguised Farscape crossover (Geoffrey Thorne's "Or the Tiger"). It doesn't just have the too-frequent inside-jokiness of using Farscape cast names for characters, it features a Leviathan, like Farscape's Moya. The aliens are called -- wait for it -- the Moyani. I like Farscape, too, but two great tastes don't always go together. (Also, if I recall correctly, this story is the one that suggested different galaxies might have different laws of physics. Universes? Maybe. Galaxies? Unlikely.)

The other story that left me cold was Robert Jeschonek's "The Secret Heart of Zolaluz." I didn't like the way it was told. I didn't care for the overuse of italics, I didn't care for the fairy tale feel, I didn't care for the high school poetry "secret heart" business.

The highlights? "Letting Go" by Keith RA DeCandido, "Closure" by James Swallow, "Isabo's Shirt" by Kirsten Beyer, and "Eighteen Minutes" by Terri Osborne. Maybe I'm just a big ol' shipper, but each of these stories dealt with some of the show's relationships (albeit, in one case, from a single episode) and told a compelling and emotional tale. The stories I haven't mentioned were generally good solid stories, some of them dealing with important elements of the show that needed more exploration (the Equinox crew, for one). But these four were the wow stories, the ones that I'll remember a few months or years from now when the details of the others havefaded from my sievelike memory.

I've griped about the hyperemotionalism of Christie Golden's approach to the Voyager relaunch, so it may seem odd that emotional stories like these were the highlight of the anthology for me -- but the emotions in these stories were real and raw, not melodramatic gush. They came from treating the show's characters like real people. If these writers participated again, I'd love a second volume of Distant Shores.

Rosetta by Dave Stern

A solid read, Rosetta is a good fix for Enterprise fans. Though set after the Xindi experience, it shares some of the feel of the first two seasons, as we encounter a number of new alien species and major players in the quadrant -- not to mention significant backstory on the ancient history of the region of space yet to become the Federation -- but it leaves me wondering why such significant players are unheard of a century or two later.

That aside, it's an entertaining read with some good mysteries, some intriguing alien cultures, and decent use of the characters.


At 2:24 PM, Blogger Redjack said...

Steve, Steve, Steve.

Star Trek has a well established pattern of showing different galaxies can have different rules of physics. Differnt parts of the SAME galaxy have been shown to have unique properties.

Also, my story wasn't so much a crossover as a wink. The aliens are dead, after all and, while the ship is described as being sort of "alive" one can hardly mistake the interior contours or the tech for the lovely Moya. And some of the "crossover" names are actually in the crew manifest. Ensign Black for isntance works for both.

If you do ever manage to read the whole thing, you'll see that the story doesn't hinge on any of the winks and is really about B'Elanna and Noah. Mostly B'Elanna.

I recommend that you put aside your hidebound antipathy for cross-pollenization and really read the thing. For me. Please. I can't stand the idea that you're missing something fun over something so trivial.

It really is a good follow up to EQUINOX.

Of course, I'm biased.


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