Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Nearly thirty years later...

I was beginning to wonder if this would ever show up.

Of the eight issues reprinted here, the last five are appearing in paperback for the first time, as Checker moves beyond the 1970s reprint series from Golden Press. So although it's only six months or so since Volume 4 appeared from Checker, I've been waiting since Western's fourth volume back in 1977 for some of this. (I think I actually have all five issues as regular comics, but book form is so much more convenient.)

It's no secret that the Gold Key Star Trek comics weren't the best Star Trek comics ever published. In the early years, the art was done by someone who'd never seen the show, and the writer didn't show many signs of familiarity with Star Trek, either. But as the years went by new writers and artists came on board, some of whom made an effort to make the comic more faithful to Star Trek. By the mid-1970s there had been some definite progress in this respect. One certain sign that a more knowledgeable writer had become involved: two issues reprinted here feature McCoy's daughter Barbara, created for the original version of "The Way to Eden" as Joanna McCoy. In disappointing Gold Key fashion, though, they aren't entirely consistent in her appearance or backstory.

Another sign of Gold Key's progress, not just in terms of Star Trek but reflecting the greater interstory continuity in comics in general: issue 50 ("The Planet of No Life," not yet reprinted) is a sequel to "The Evictors," one of the stories included here.

There are enough stories left over for two more volumes, but there's no word yet on when those volumes will be available.

The String Theory trilogy gets off to a pretty good start. The first two books introduce and build on the mystery of a region in space where the normal laws of physics don't apply because of interference by Q-like aliens who turn out to be the Caretaker's people. Considering Janeway's determination to find the Caretaker's mate at the end of the episode "Caretaker," it always surprised me that so little was done with the idea -- just that one episode about Suspiria.

This trilogy makes up for that omission. It also brings in a lot of other continuity bits, setting characters up for changes in characterization in the TV series, especially the erratic Janeway of the last two seasons. It retcons the wretched return of Kes in "Fury" and gives Q another guest appearance. In short, it seems like exactly what the Voyager novel line needed: meaty big novels that take the show and its characters seriously, novels that are bound to appeal not only to hardcore Voyager fans but also those who like the characters and premise but think the TV series never lived up to its potential. (I'm in the second group.)

The first two books are solid work, though the use of string theory is ultimately about as important and meaningful as the use of dark matter in the Trek novels several years ago. It's just something neato and magical and unconvincing. But the nuts and bolts of it all don't matter in the first two books. In those, there are character conflicts and mysteries and tragedies.

I was disappointed by the third book, Heather Jarman's Evolution. It tested my willing suspension of disbelief a little too often, a little too much. The Doctor is presented as a photonic lifeform who can exist independent of his hardware and software. If the software isn't running on either sickbay's computers and holoemitters, or the ship's other similar hardware, or his 29th century lightbee (oh, wrong show, sorry), then the Doctor doesn't exist. Period. He's not going to be in some dimension where he can hear the strings of strong theory as an orchestra string section he can conduct, and he's not going to find himself in the body of an Ocampa several centuries back in time.

Granted, this is Star Trek, not Carl Sagan, but there's just too much magical stuff going on. You can get away with a lot of weirdness in the Q Continuum by explaining that the characters are seeing what's going on in a way they can understand -- but when you throw in a lot of stuff about the Caretaker's people, Q, Kes, string theory, and photonic energy, you can get seriously bogged down in layers of technobabble. You can even end up with a Nacene in human form complaining about the weakness and frailty of the body she's in, having just flown through space like Superman at a speed Voyager couldn't outrun and even being able to answer Voyager's communications while zooming along. No ship. Just that darn frail humanoid body.

So I felt let down by the story, but I was also disappointed by the prose. I remember thinking that Jarman's first novel, This Gray Spirit, was a little clunky at times. I don't remember having issues with the prose of Paradigm, her Andorian story. But the prose of this book struck me as being in need of a little more polishing. Sometimes Jarman tries to capture something of the quality of the viewpoint character's speech, most noticeably in the formal and stilted Seven of Nine sections, but then there'll be a phrase or a sentence that jars with the tone. There are ill-considered word choices, with simpler words avoided in favour of fancier ones. Or words that are perhaps too informal. Or both, when Jarman refers to alleviating someone's mopeyness. Jarman also repeatedly uses the kind of tactic I might have used as a kid desperately trying to reach the number of required words for a school essay, stating not only what's implicit but what's obvious. Example (paraphrased): "she had only a few minutes to make an important decision, not an indefinite amount of time." A few minutes is not an indefinite amount of time, and most readers probably understand that. It's like saying, for example, Kes wore a red dress, not a green one. The second clause adds no information. It just fills up space.

There's also too much of what seemed like poor grammar as opposed to stylistic choices: subject-verb agreement issues, run-on sentences, and subordinate clauses taking over sentences. (This glass house has a lovely view. Hey, look, stones! Want to throw one with me? Never mind.)

The book's not all bad; the Harry Kim and Tom Paris and Q storyline has some entertaining moments, and I'm glad to see Kes again. I can imagine a lot of fans thoroughly enjoying the book. But for me, it was a little too reminiscent of the bafflegab and confusion that too many Voyager episodes suffered from.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Last Full Measure

Last Full Measure cover

The last Enterprise novel, Dave Stern's Rosetta, felt almost like a generic SF adventure novel, with not a lot connecting it closely to the established Star Trek universe, and a focus on a lot of newly created species and cultures. Michael A. Martin and Andy Mangels's Last Full Measure, on the other hand, dives right into the show's continuity, offering a story set during the third season's Xindi arc.

Martin and Mangels do some things that the show never really accomplished. First, the book deals with the tense relationship between the Starfleet crew and the MACOs; second, it features Travis Mayweather, a character criminally underutilized on the show, as a major viewpoint character. This is one of the things Pocket has often done right: picking up on aspects of a Trek TV series that should have been explored more deeply but never were. It's why I enjoyed so many of their Voyager novels while finding the show a chore to watch; the novel writers just seem to think more deeply about the premise and the characters than the TV writers did. In this case, for example, I liked their depiction of Reed's discomfort with Archer's violence and willingness to use torture.

As for the story, it's full of action and intrigue, as the Enterprise gang are led astray by a plot by Degra to keep them from interfering with Xindi plans by setting a ruse for Archer to fall for. As on the show, we see events from both the crew's perspective and the Xindi Council's. There's also an A story and a B story, as Archer and a few others follow one lead while Mayweather and a group of MACOs follow another, each team facing its share of peril. At times the pace and the action mean the characterization takes a bit of a back seat. Not that Martin and Mangels get anything wrong; it's just that I expected we'd learn a bit more about certain characters than we actually did. Still, at least these MACOs weren't the interchangeable guest stars we saw too often on TV. And the arc involving Mayweather and his MACO bunkmate Chang, though it could be seen as the cliched buddy action movie arc in which two very different men who dislike each other are forced to work together and come to respect each other, makes sense. Neither Mayweather nor Chang has to change completely and tell the other he's right; instead, each of them, with his skills and background, proves important to the team's efforts in ways that are true to the characters.

Then there's the framing bit. Margaret Clark has said the end of the book would offer a clue to the approach the books would follow as they move beyond the series finale, with respect to the controversial death of Trip Tucker. In any other case, I'd think that if a character is killed, he or she should stay killed. But the way that Trip was killed in "These Are the Voyages" made so little sense, and had so little visible emotional impact on the other characters (not to mention being seen only in a holodeck recreation centuries later), that I'm open to the possibility that he didn't die. The end of the book answers one question but leaves many more unanswered, opening a lot of stoytelling opportunities for future Enterprise novelists. That works for me.

The downside: more damn in-jokes. Oh, how I hate in-jokes. Any time I notice that the author is making an allusion to something outside the fictional world of the novel, it takes me out of that immersive reading experience. This time around, it's Star Wars. We get Tatooine, Mos Eisley, Jabba the Hutt, the cantina band, for crying out loud, the Millennium Falcon. I can only wonder how the authors resisted having a couple of lines of dialogue like "That's no moon" and "I'm getting a bad feeling about this." Even though I am a reliable crank on the subject of in-jokes, I really, really think this one should have been cut. There's no thematic resonance between Last Full Measure and Star Wars. They're not playing off an established similarity between something onscreen in Enterprise and Star Wars. It doesn't demonstrate any kind of creativity, and it's not like Star Wars is some obscure but fondly remembered bit of SF that needed a tip o' the hat. And even if it did, how many pages does it need to go on for? If there was no purpose other than to have a little fun, did it really need to be there?

Overall, definitely a must-read for Enterprise fans, and a generally solid military action-adventure story for Trek fans who enjoy the darker side of the Trekverse.

Viva Las Vegas

Laura had a conference in Vegas last week, so away we went. And the Star Trek Experience beckoned. My sister Nadja and her husband went there a couple of years back and we knew we had to go.

It was around 2 in the afternoon when we finally reached the Hilton, which is a short walk off the Strip. And then it was another hike to get from the Hilton entrance to the Star Trek Experience, but we made it eventually. We had a quick look down into Quark's -- disappointingly unlike the TV version -- and then went to the ticket booth. We asked about the different options and, because we had a coupon in a Las Vegas tourist attractions booklet, we went for the Latinum experience: both the Klingon and Borg rides and the Behind the Scenes Tour. Not cheap, but when am I going to be in Vegas again?

We walked through the "museum" area, a winding path with panels on the left offering a timeline of the Star Trek universe and exhibits on the right: props, costumes, models, and other neat things.

Before long we were at the line-up for the interactive experiences. What wasn't made clear is that, despite the two marked lines, you line up either for the Klingon Encounter or Borg Invasion 4-D, because when one is running the other isn't. Eventually someone came along and actually explained that, and two lines became one. As you're waiting you can look at exhibits or, if you're close to the front of the line, play along with a filmed trivia game on a TV screen that offers some really easy trivia questions. You can also eavesdrop on people's conversations and figure out who's a fan, who's a visitor to Vegas taking in one of the heavily hyped tourist attractions, and who's the patient -- or not so patient -- nonfannish partner of a fan, wondering what the hell all this stuff is about.

We saw the Borg Invasion first, as it turned out. It takes about fifteen or twenty minutes, but it's the last five minutes or so you'll remember. You find yourself in a room on a spaceship being addressed by a Starfleet officer and, shortly thereafter, by Voyager's Holodoc on a viewscreen, telling you that you or someone in your group may be immune to the Borg nanoprobes, and they'll need to do some research on you. But then the station is attacked by the Borg. You see some of it onscreen, and then you're led by Starfleet personnel out of the briefing room and through some corridors to a shuttle. Along the way you'll see Borg in action and Starfleeters fighting them off, not always successfully. All good fun, and well done, but then you enter the theatre/shuttle and get your 3d glasses, and the best part begins. You're drawn into the interior of the Borg sphere and all kinds of Borgy goodness happens all around you, thanks not only to the 3d visuals but also the sound, the movement of the simulator you're in, and a few neat surprises. It's a lot of fun. However, being led out of the hallways and into the cramped shopping area is a little frustrating, especially if you're in a hurry.

So, on to the Klingon adventure and a lineup again. This time you're one of a group of people pulled through time as part of a Klingon plot to capture and kill an ancestor of Jean-Luc Picard's. Fortunately, you're beamed aboard the Enterprise (1701-D) and get to see a bit of the ship, including the bridge, before the simulator ride. This time you're in a shuttle heading through a rift in time back to 20th century Las Vegas. And the Klingons attack and chase you through some neat spatial phenomena and the skies above Las Vegas. No 3d glasses for this one, but not only is there a large shuttle viewscreen ahead of you, there are also open portholes along the top of the shuttle (in other words, a lot of openings in the set looking out to the very large curved projection screen that the visuals are presented on, making for something that almost feels 3D).

In each case, the ride part is only a third or a quarter of the time taken for the experience (15 to 20 minutes), but it seems like more. And neither would be anywhere near as impressive if simply watched on a DVD, even on a fairly large screen TV. There's a lot of ambient noise and shaking and whatnot that dramatically increases the immersiveness (for lack of a better word) of the experience.

After that, we had time for a beer at Quark's before taking in the Behind the Scenes Tour. I had the Cardassian Ale (Sierra Nevada Pale Ale), Laura had... well, I don't remember the Trekkian name, but it was Newcastle Brown. In other words, they have good beer there. In the restaurant seating section were monitors playing through one of the Star Trek movies (Star Trek VI, IIRC). We were at the bar and the nearest TV was playing "Plato's Stepchildren." Not one of my faves, but what the heck -- find me a bar showing better Trek episodes and I'll happily drink there. (Come to think of it, I was at Zaphod Beeblebrox to see a band a few years ago, and when no one was onstage, the club's big TV screens were showing Voyager's "Dark Frontier". That was kind of interesting.)

And then back to the ticket area for the Behind the Scenes Tour. There were only nine of us in all for the tour, plus Richard, the tour guide, which made for a reasonably sized group. The tour starts off slowly with a guided walk through the museum area, but before long we're in hallways we haven't been allowed in before (decorated with concept art and blueprints for the Experience) and taken behind the scenes of the Experience. Want to see how the transporter trip works? How the turbolift takes you to a completely different location? Want to explore the Enterprise bridge in detail? Want to watch a group of tourists go through one of the simulator rides... standing in the room with the simulators, but outside them, and out of sight of the tourists, watching the simulators rock, dive, and turn? Want to see the costume and makeup areas, and get your photograph taken on the Enterprise bridge and in a Borg regeneration console? All this and more, and it takes a couple of hours before you're completely done.

As blase as I've sometimes been about Star Trek lately, in this post-Enterprise world of the revived Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who series, this was a heck of a fun experience. The one thing mising is a good booklet or magazine about the Experience. There should really be a good souvenir program/booklet about the place, or even a DVD.

And if you've been wondering why this is on a Star Trek books blog...

There are a couple of books in the Museum, but they don't have copies for sale. Too bad the photo didn't turn out better, but what we have here is The Adventures of Dixon Hill, Private Eye and The Royale. Click on the image for a larger graphic.