Thursday, August 07, 2008

Recent reading

There have been times when keeping up with the latest Star Trek novels felt more like an onerous responsibility than something to be excited about. This is not one of those times.

The bad news about Greater Than the Sum is that it's not my favourite Christopher L. Bennett novel. It's much less of a standalone than his other novels; he's carrying on the TNG relaunch story developments (the Borg resurgence, the Picard/Crusher relationship, rebuilding the crew following the departure of Riker and Troi) and, to a lesser extent, setting up the Destiny trilogy. As a result, there's a lot of sorting out the "previously on TNG" before the novel kicks into gear. But that turns out to be a good thing. Unlike the writers of the last few novels in the series, who apparently didn't get enough time and information to make things consistent, Bennett has had the time to look at the characterization flaws in Before Dishonor and been able to make sense of them. The problems are dealt with rather than ignored.

Once we get into the story itself, we're in classic Bennett territory: exploring a strange, new area of the galaxy with a strange, new form of life. Yes, it's a Borg story, but it's one that's character-driven, one that brings back some surprising but welcome guest characters, and one that still manages to work in some of the good ol' exploration and sense of wonder that Star Trek was originally supposed to be about. And there's action, too.

Bennett does a pretty good job with the core TNG regulars, and as I mentioned makes sense of some of the recently introduce characters. He also introduces several characters, who get varying degrees of growth and development. T'Ryssa Chen is reminiscent of past Trek characters -- she's a Spock in reverse, being half-human, half-Vulcan, but identifying as human; she's also a bit like Ro Laren, the nonconformist Starfleet officer who seems like she'll be an odd fit for the ship but grows into a reliable officer. But she's also, to borrow a phrase, greater than the sum of those parts; she has her own personality. Some of the other new characters get less screen time and consequently aren't quite as well developed, but I'm looking forward to learning more about Jasminder Choudhury and Dina Elfiki in future books. And I like the fact that women are now so well represented in the bridge crew.

There's a lot of good use made of Star Trek continuity. Picard's "Inner Light" experiences play a key role in the Picard/Crusher storyline, and the Borg storyline builds on "I, Who," "Descent," "Unimatrix Zero," and more. It's good to see the implications of past events taken fully into account; that's not fanwank, it's taking the events of the show seriously.

So, the good news: not my favourite Christopher L. Bennett novel, but still a very good one, and one of the bright spots in the inconsistent TNG relaunch.

Infinity's Prism is the first collection of what if? stories. We've been waiting for this for several years now, and if it disappoints it's only because there are only three stories in the book.

William Leisner's A Less Perfect Union may be my favourite in the book. Its starting point is the Terra Prime movement from Enterprise, which is successful in keeping Earth isolated. But the story itself is set in the TOS era, one very different from the one we know, with appropriately different versions of familiar characters. Enterprise's T'Pol is a well-drawn lead character; the story also includes Christopher Pike and James T. Kirk in key roles, and a lot of other familiar faces, some playing intriguingly different roles. It's not a Mirror Universe type of story; these characters, even through their different life experiences, are recognizably the characters we know and love, and the story shows the classic Trek values being rediscovered in a Trek universe that took a turn for the worse. Leisner gives us thoughtful character work, some solid use of continuity tweaks, and a story that takes advantage of the wider Trek canvas to bring Star Trek to life in a different but ultimately faithful new way.

Christopher L. Bennett returns with a look at Voyager. What if Janeway and Voyager didn't help the Borg fight Species 8472? What if they stayed in one area of space while that conflict played out, in order to repair a badly damaged Voyager? Bennett takes seriously the implications of Voyager's premise and goes where the TV writers would never go. Several series regulars are killed; others go through some drastic changes. And yet the story feels true to Voyager. The characters allow themselves to talk through issues that the series glossed over. It's Voyager for a post-Ron Moore's Galactica world, one where decisions have consequences and there's no reset button. But there's still hope and optimism. It's a story that should appeal to Voyager's fans and critics.

James Swallow's story is closer to a Mirror Universe sort of story. Several of his core characters aren't versions of familiar faces who've lived through different times; they're profoundly different, emotionally, psychologically, physically, morally. They're the descendants of Khan Noonien Singh's followers, though they have names like Bashir, O'Brien, and Sisko. The story is the flipside of "Space Seed": Khan won, and a handful of people managed to escape his world in the Botany Bay, only to be awakened in a universe that reflects their worst nightmare. It also parallels Deep Space Nine to an extent, not just as a source of some of its cast of characters but because Kira Nerys is leading what seems like a futile fight against a much more powerful enemy. As with the other stories, it's obvious that the writer knows the Star Trek universe and has thought through the implications of the changes he's made to that universe, and like the others he finds light in the darkness. This is a darker and more violent story than the others but there's hope nonetheless.

Not that more (or any) proof was needed, but this book is yet more proof that people who claim they can only enjoy tie-in books if they're canon are idiots. These stories are created to exist outside the main continuity, which would damn them in the eyes of such idiots, but what's important is that this is the kind of story the books can do much better than the TV series. Drastic changes can be made and not reset. Consequences can be incurred and explored in detail. No reset necessary.


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