Monday, February 16, 2009

Star Trek books websites dying out?

A few years ago, there were several large websites devoted to Star Trek books, and at least a few active and interesting forums devoted to the subject. But things don't look quite so healthy now.

The book section of John Patuto's Cygnus X-1 Star Trek LCARS Book and Episode Database hasn't been updated since 2006. David Henderson's Psi Phi Star Trek books site has had a couple of sporadic updates in 2008, but the database itself is still long gone.

Meanwhile, my own Trek books website still gets updated, but after a decade or so still doesn't get a lot of hits.

Maybe those sites are fading because people prefer web 2.0 sites... but Memory Beta is a long way from being ready to meet everyone's needs. Even the site's name (Memory Beta Non-Canon Star Trek Wiki) marginalizes itself with the use of the phrase "non-canon." Someone who wants info on books but hasn't bothered hanging out on BBSes or forums through a dozen canon thrashes is just going to wonder what the hell that's supposed to mean.

As for the content, some of it is plagiarized from other sources (the summary of Mack Reynolds's Mission to Horatius looks a lot like a shortened and rewritten version of my site's summary of the book). There are gaps in coverage, too, and some entries are badly written. There may be a lot of enthusiasm but it still has a long way to go.

Web 2.0 sites like wikis do have a certain advantage in that the wiki model allows them to keep going long after whoever gets them started loses interest or moves on to something else. Cygnus X-1, Psi Phi, and the Complete Starfleet Library each depend on a single person staying with it, year after year after year. Let it slide just a few months, and you've got a lot of hours' work to bring it back up to date (speaking from experience, and thinking it's time to do some more updating now).

Meanwhile, the official Pocket Books discussion area has been replaced by a new, harder to use forum -- but given how moribund the old one had been for the last few years, with a very small core group of regulars, it almost doesn't matter. The Psi Phi board, which was the most vibrant and vital Trek discussion area a decade or so ago, is a ghost of its former self.

The healthiest discussion area right now still seems to be TrekBBS. It has a lot of participation from the writers and from passionate fans. Jackie Bundy's Star Trek Books Yahoo group seems to be fairly healthy, if not as busy as the TrekBBS, but personally I'm not a fan of Yahoo Groups in general. Book discussion at the official Star Trek website seems to be an afterthought; there's a "Books & Products" discussion area that has a number of regulars, but the writers seem to participate less often there, and the general tone is more newbie-friendly, but not terribly informative.

Here's hoping the new movie reignites people's interest in all the Trek stuff out there, and not just in the new movie alone.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

A Singular Destiny

There are a lot of stories in the Star Trek universe that we never see, because our viewpoint is usually restricted to Starfleet officers. But Starfleet officers can't do everything, especially during a crisis that's more political than military. In the wake of the events of Destiny, political connections are being broken and new ones made. If you're going to see what's happening at the highest levels, you need someone other than a Starfleet officer.

So that's who we get here: Sonek Pran, history professor and diplomatic troubleshooter. He's been shut out of political/diplomatic work during the Bush administration, but now that Obama -- I mean, he's been shut out during the Min Zife administration, but with Nan Bacco as president, his skills are once more recognized by a less ideological leadership and he's called on to serve the Federation. (Sorry... dunno if KRAD meant to make any parallels there, but it works for me.)

Sonek Pran is the lead character of the story, but given the way it draws on sinister events happening in various places, we get to see a number of familiar faces, including characters from SCE/COE and IKS Gorkon/Klingon Empire, and, more prominently, President Nan Bacco from Articles of the Federation and Ezri Dax, captain of the U.S.S. Aventine, as seen in the Destiny trilogy. Some major developments have happened in the lives of some SCE/COE and IKGS/KE characters since their last appearances, and they're handled well; the developments are plausible, as is their being part of this particular story. Just as important, if you haven't encountered the characters before, I doubt you'll find yourself lost or wondering what you missed. Bacco and her staff are handled well, as you'd expect from the author who created them, but they don't get enough screen time to make this a full sequel to Articles of the Federation. Nonetheless, fans of that book will enjoy this. Ezri Dax gets some important character moments that almost seem as though they were written with the knowledge that some fans would have issues with her in the Destiny trilogy. I didn't; several years have passed between her latest appearance in the DS9 books and the beginning of Destiny, and in that time she obviously progressed on the command track and came completely to terms with her joining, which gives her centuries of experience to draw on. And she received command because of a crisis situation. In A Singular Destiny, though the details are already fading from my memory (why didn't I write this a week ago?), there were scenes in which Dax seemed to tackle the issue of her suitability for command head-on. I'm curious what her detractors think of her characterization here. I think their concerns have been addressed.

Speaking of various people and places, KRAD uses a classic literary technique to give us much more of a sense of how the Federation's been affected by the Borg invasion, using short news articles, correspondence, log entries, and reports between chapters to show how much more has happened than this one story can focus on. I think the first book I read that did this sort of thing was Joe Haldeman's Mindbridge, which included in its dedication "Johns Brunner and Dos Passos pro forma". Not long after that I read John Brunner's classic SF disaster novels Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up, which use that technique, and years later I finally read the USA trilogy by Dos Passos, one of the best literary examples of the technique. It's really effective for giving snapshots of the wider context while focusing on a more intimate story. Heck, I wouldn't have minded if there'd been more of that kind of thing in this book. Given its position as sort of a linking volume between Destiny and what comes next, and its not being about one of our regular sets of characters, it's the most suitable choice for this kind of storytelling.

So, back to Sonek Pran. I think in a couple of respects he wasn't quite 100% successful as a character. He seems a bit too perfect, and some things come a bit too easy to him. The business with him being a great communicator who can't talk to his own son also seemed a bit cliched. On the other hand, he's a new-to-us character in a novel with a hell of a lot to do; there's no time to really build him up. From an in-story perspective, there's no time for him to learn his skills because the Federation needs him to do his thing, do it right, and do it right now. From an out-of-story perspective, he's not going to be a lead character in a series of books, so we don't have the luxury of a few stories to see him become the perfect communicator he is. (Not that I'd mind if he reappears occasionally in future books.)

After all, the importance of communication is what this book is about. Part of the mysterious plan going on in the book proves to revolve around false information, others on diplomacy, others on withheld information. Sonek Pran is needed to get people talking again after the disruptive catastrophe of the Borg invasion. Sonek talking to his son near the end of the book reinforces the message. In a more sinister development, we learn that the catastrophe has led to other people communicating, too -- and forming a new alliance, one that's set to play a key role in many future novels.

Writing a book like this is a bit of a thankless task, I suspect. It isn't all about action. It's about what happens afterwards: trying to make sense of the new world you find yourself in, and only starting to realize that the end of one problem is just the beginning of a new set of a problems. KRAD takes on the challenge of telling that story -- and of using some new characters to do it -- and meets it, crafting a story that kept me reading, eager to learn what would happen next; a story that puts pieces in motion for what comes next, and raises whole sets of new questions for readers paying attention (hope you didn't just skim through that casualty report). It's a big satisfying read that takes care of your first set of "what happens next?" questions and gives you some new ones.