It is a truth universally acknowledged that Star Trek tells us more about American foreign policy than it does about the future. I have recently had occasion to read a couple of Trek novels for the first time in years and I find that the future society the stories has set in has become a nasty, cynical place in which the only thing you can depend upon is that female Vulcans are duplicitous and yet sexy evil-doers.
Novels of the TOS
The two books in question are set in the Original Series milieu of Captain Kirk and company. In the past these have been more interesting than, say, Next Generation novels, because so much less is known about the TOS era and so the writers could take more liberties. Actually, in order that proper fans may avoid wasting time reading this rant, I should come clean and admit that the only writer I particularly liked was Vonda McIntyre, she who is she who wrote The Entropy Effect, the increasingly embellished novelizations of the 1980s Trek movies, and an account of Kirk’s first voyage in the Enterprise: all of which are despised for her attempts to work around the worst inanities of the films she was adapting.
There has always been a conflict between Kirk’s (and Picard’s) assertions of the niceness of future Earth on the one hand and the lack of any signs of a democratic process or human culture (apart from performances of centuries-old plays) on the other; to an extent we can rationalize this by saying we are seeing the world from the point of view of the military, who necessarily lead stripped-down, austere lives because running a spaceship is complicated and dangerous. Some novelists have attempted to hint at the world that cannot be shown within the series itself. Some shy away from describing Starfleet as a military organization; McIntyre takes the opposite tack: Saavik has a speech that uses the m-word, but goes on to establish that the military has a different ethos in Roddenberry’s idealized future from that in the average action movie.
Spoilers for Star Trek: Vanguard: Harbinger
I picked up a copy of Harbinger, the first book in a series called Star Trek: Vanguard. Why did I pick it up? I thought it was interesting that someone was attempting a new strand of Original-Series-era stories forty years on. I’d seen its successor, replete with Daedelus-class cruiser on the front, but I thought I should get the first one first.
To summarize the plot: After a prologue in which a slime mold with lots of chromosomes has been discovered, it opens with Enterprise stopping at Starbase 47 Vanguard for repairs. While they are there, Starfleet engineers power up an alien subspace transceiver they have discovered, which causes the Tholian Assembly to suffer a collective mental seizure. The Tholians send ships to nuke the artefact from space, and also destroy the USS Bombay because it gets in their way. Starfleet’s activities in this sector are covert, so when a journalist tries to work out what’s happened to the Bombay, he is stonewalled then finally fed falsified sensor logs to destroy his credibility with his employers.
You may be thinking ‘That’s an interesting opening gambit; how does it end?’ It is my sad duty to inform you that that was the end: this isn’t really a novel, just the first in a series of pot-boilers. It’s the same sort of incremental story-telling we have become familiar with in TV series like Lost and Carnivàle. I find it intensely annoying. I had hoped to see Kirk doing something to thwart the unprincipled going-on amongst the Vanguard’s officers; after all, in Entropy Effect, Spock is aghast at the suggestion that public records be suppressed or deleted. Instead, in Harbinger, they discover falsified data used to slander a licensed journalist and just shrug fatalistically before flying off, leaving nothing resolved.
Character-Driven to a Fault
Despite the back-cover blurb, the Enterprise officers aren’t really the main characters: the Starbase CO Commodore Diego Reyes and his immediate subordinates are the protagonists, if anyone is. I think we are supposed to sympathise with Reyes in his efforts to keep his secrets secret—even from the captains of ships he sends in to the danger zone to sort out his mess. I’m not sure whether this is intended as an extended parable about how the ‘need to know’ culture corrodes trust, fosters corruption, and leads to greater evils and abuses than what it is supposedly protecting against, or if these high-handed actions have become a commonplace in today’s post-24 world. Actions including T’Prynn, a Vulcan, casually employing extortion, blackmail, slander, deceit and torture on civilians. Weren’t Original Series Vulcans supposed to be very big on truth-telling and logic? (And since when is Original Series Starfleet peppered with Vulcan officers? I understood Spock to be something of a maverick for his decision to join Starfleet.)
And is it just me, or does Trek feature a few too many woman strutting about in body stockings or mini-dresses while brooding on their tragic back-stories? T’Prynn has a hideous back-story of such hideousness as to make even Buffy the Vampire Slayer blanch. In fact, in this novel it’s back-stories for everybody, presumably to try to engage our sympathy for the characters in case the enormity of their actions put us off. The problem is, I don’t care about back-stories of characters if don’t care about the characters already. I realize that a past life spent enduring exquisite mental or physical torture is practically mandatory for Starfleet officers, but couldn’t some of this baggage be saved for later episodes in the series when we might actually care? Not that that’s likely when they are all duplicitous shits.
Actually, not everyone is a duplicitous shit in this book. There is a great sequence as the USS Bombay heads off ill-prepared for a mission and we follow the chief engineer as he struggles to keep it afloat and the bridge crew as they try to find their way through an unequal battle. (We’ll ignore the fact that by 2265, Mumbai will have been called Mumbai for 270 years.) Kevin Judge, the engineer with the ‘clipped Liverpool accent’ I quite liked, despite not really knowing what a clipped Liverpool accent sounds like, and a slight annoyance that Americans write British characters by having them say ‘git’, which makes as much sense as having McCoy call someone a ’tard. To bad it was this lot that had to be vaporized.
Is There an Alien Race More Annoying Than the Klingons?
Yes—the Tholians, as it turns out. Well, actually, Tholians are fine when they don’t say anything, instead just zipping around in ships that look like they’re straight out of Élite, blowing things up and then vanishing in to the aether. It’s when authors attempt to get into their heads and follow their telepathic, untranslatable conversations that I get annoyed.
Humble bride sky rope young passions truth alive alive projected Bo’f’lo’f’o-’-po’p the Greyish Greeny Blue syncopatedly, disdaining to surround his thought-projections with marks of quotation.
Cling top hammer fast net slowly patroness clinky fop! responded Knurpf the Cerise with urgent mauve movements of his/her psychic brain-horns and a similar contempt for punctuation.
Blah, blah etc. Even those people who insist on pages and pages of dreams in italic text in the present tense aren’t quite as annoying as this.
It gets worse: Starbase 47 manages to have as its neighbours not just the Tholians but also the Klingon Empire. This would be OK if they were TOS Klingons, basically crafty, brutal, and evil, but at least sane and capable of subtlety, but no! these are the shouty War Yars from Next Gen, complete with snippets of tlhIngan Hol and shouting. How do Klingon War Yars manage to stop shouting and duelling long enough to actually build and fly spaceships? I miss McIntyre’s polyglot, multicultural, sophisticated Klingons, no matter how non-canonical true fans find them. I liked they way Spock and random Klingons would sometimes have conversations that went completely over Kirk’s ignorant head.
So what do I want from a Star Trek Novel?
First, a story that is complete in one volume; I don’t mind there being an overall arc in to which the story fits, but I would like there to be some point to the book. This is a complaint I have about a lot of monthly comics as well: it used to be that an episode of Fantastic Four would have some supervillain try to do something darstadly and be stopped by the time you reached page 22. There would also be references to the previous issue, and there would be foreshadowing of the next one, but in the end there was a story that you could read on its own. John Byrne wrote and drew my favourite FF stories back in the 1980s. Now he has hit on the modern formula of having each issue consist of one-third of two different stories with the extra third being recaps and other filler: the idea is that it becomes impossible to stop buying the comic, because there is always a dangling plotline. This may be commercially cunning but artistically it destroys any sense of narrative.
Second, aliens that are a little more interesting to talk to. And by ‘interesting’, I do not mean that they have an unusually shaped martial arts weapon and a legal system based on trial by combat. The series Star Trek: DS9 probably made the best efforts in this direction—the Frengi were created as a feeble parody of capitalist excess, but when this got elaborated on it became a quirky society that was both alien enough and understandable enough to keep viewers amused. They also had an enemy in the Dominion whose monstrousness was extreme but also horribly plausible in a way the shouty Klingons are not.
Third, at the risk of sounding naïve, the protagonists need to unambiguously the good guys struggling against something bad (not necessarily evil). In Harbinger, the Tholians and Klingons are acting reasonably (within their understanding of morality) and it is the Federation people who are the ones violating every law they have. If you want Starfleet to be a sinister conglomeration of unaccountable spies and unprincipled saboteurs in pursuit of a Earth-centric agenda, then fine: write a Blake’s 7 story with the Federation as the enemy and tell it from the point of view of a rag-tag group of Andorians and Vulcans trying to rekindle the spirit of democracy. But really I want to see Starfleet prevail because they have training, intelligence, and integrity on their side, not in spite of it!