Friday, July 31, 2009

The Soul Key

There may be spoilers ahead.

It's a shame when I'm less excited about a book than I should be for reasons that have little to do with the book, but that's the case here. The DS9 relaunch line, for my money one of the best SF media tie-in series ever, hit a few stumbling blocks over the last few years, the most significant being the Fearful Symmetry situation. Leanna Morrow was hired to write it, but for some reason was dropped from the project, and Olivia Woods was brought in to write the book, apparently starting from scratch. Meanwhile, Pocket halved the number of Star Trek mass market paperbacks it published, meaning more competition for each slot on the schedule. All of which means that DS9 relaunch books have been relatively few and far between compared to the early days of the series.

As to why the delays are a significant problem... the books are serialized, with many storylines carrying over from one book to the next. The novel Rising Son set a few pieces in place for a big new storyline that hasn't really started yet, and that book was published in 2003.

So it's a mixed blessing that The Soul Key essentially follows on from Fearful Symmetry in following just one storyline, the Mirror Universe storyline started a few years back. The good: that storyline has now been resolved. The not so good: aside from a couple of pages at the end suggesting the series may finally be ready to deal with the Ascendants storyline started in Rising Son, the Mirror Universe storyline is all this novel is about. Not to mention that a series that used to be character-driven has had a couple of books that focus almost entirely on one new character and on moving the plot forward. Kira and Vaughn get moments, but the villain, Iliana Ghemor, gets the lion's share of character work.

But again, all those complaints come from looking at the series as a whole rather than this one book. And I raced through this one. It may not be the kind of story I wish we were getting, and it's short compared to many other recent Trek novels, but on its own, it's fine. And those last few pages... well. Damn. I just hope that storyline has a chance to play out, because after next month's Cardassia-centric The Never-Ending Sacrifice, we have a long wait for the next DS9 novel, and it's set several years in the series' future and is part of the Typhon Expanse crossover story arc.

Not much of a review, really, is it? But it's like reviewing a chapter instead of a full novel. Most of what I think about to say has more to do with the publishing problems than the book in its own right. Would it matter that the book gets off to a slow start, spending a lot of time on what Iliana was up to in the buildup to her first appearance a couple books back, if the last four novels had appeared in the space of a single year? Same goes for the fact that this book and Fearful Symmetry both spend an awful lot of time filling in Iliana's backstory. In a different publishing schedule, that's not a bug, it's a feature. I'm also nearing my saturation point as far as the Mirror Universe as concerned -- and there again, that's talking about the Trek line in general rather than this novel.

Anyway, everyone who reads the DS9 relaunch is going to need to read this; anyone who doesn't really shouldn't be starting with it. A few years from now, someone will read all the books in this series one after the other in a short period of time, without the publication delays being a factor, and that person will probably be able to come up with a more useful critique of the novel. Until then, well, it was generally well written, if not as balanced as I might like, and I wouldn't mind seeing what Woods can do in other corners of the Star Trek playground.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A Flag Full of Stars

Spoilers for the published and unpublished versions of the book.

Finally. I finally printed out and read Brad Ferguson's original version of his Star Trek novel A Flag Full of Stars, many many years after I first downloaded it. Ferguson made the original available online because he felt the published version, released with his name on the cover, didn't really represent his work, as it was extensively rewritten by J.M. Dillard after Paramount had some issues with his first draft and his repeated rewrites. (It's a similar situation to Margaret Wander Bonanno's Music of the Spheres/Probe debacle; both happened back in the Richard Arnold era.)

If there's a problem with the original, it's that it isn't about James T. Kirk. He's practically a guest star in his own story. Kevin Riley has more of a story arc in the book than Kirk does. So do the Klingon G'dath and the reporter Nan Davis. What happened to Kirk between the end of the five year mission and the beginning of Star Trek - The Motion Picture is supposed to be what this second Lost Years book is about, but there's not enough of that there. Yes, we see Kirk getting dissatisfied, we see his marriage to Lori Ciana crumble, but the whole story takes place over a few days. The scope is pretty limited. It's also a short novel, despite Ferguson's scenes showcasing his Heinlein-influenced vision of 23rd century Earth in general, and the city of "N'York" in particular.

I read it remembering precious little about the published version, and found it a reasonably enjoyable read, but with some discordant tones here and there. The comic relief character who's an excuse for union bashing, for example. The multiple Heinlein references (a student named Rico has to do homework on mechanized armour; N'Yorkers get around on slidewalks out of "The Roads Must Roll;" an unnamed SF writer is the official founder of the first moon colony despite dying before it was founded because he was so goshdarn great and influential) can get to be a bit much. But there's a lot of nice touches, too, with the book's exploration of a Klingon character who isn't a warrior and is having a hard time coping with humans' distrust and suspicion; the 300th anniversary of the first moon landing and the refitting of a certain old space shuttle as part of the celebrations; a flashback sequence to Kirk and Riley's experience with Kodos the Executioner...

Anyway, I very quickly skimmed through the published version, and it follows the original pretty closely in terms of the basic plot (Klingon scientist living on Earth and teaching schoolchildren invents amazingly powerful energy source while Kirk prepares for the 300th anniversary and oversees the Enterprise refit and Kevin Riley tries to figure out whether to become less of a screwup than he is already). There are some significant differences, though. For one, Kirk and his wife Lori Ciana (as established in Roddenberry's novelization of STTMP) are both presented more sympathetically in the published version, and there's a sign of hope for their relationship at the end of the book. A few scenes told from one character's point of view in one version are told from another's in the other. There's a subplot involving G'dath's students that plays into the drastically revised hostage situation that ends the book. Ferguson's extrapolations about future Earth are largely dropped, as far as I could tell. A tense scene involving Kirk and Starfleet Admiral Timothea Rogers, who's been essentially demoted by Nogura to give Kirk a job, seems to be absent (and along with it the revelation that she was Pike's Number One). The hostage crisis plays out very differently, in part because of the student perspective on the events, but also in terms of who's present, who's killed, who's taken captive, who survives the violent resolution of the situation, and Riley's part in events. G'dath is as important in the revised version as he is in the original, but Nan Davis has a significantly reduced part to play.

A lot of the changes in the book seem to be about making characters like Kirk and Riley more active, more sympathetic, and less passive, and making the ending of the book much more positive.

My very hasty skim through the published version wasn't enough to let me judge whether it's a better-written book. Looking strictly at the original, it's not hard to see why some rewrites were requested. It gives too much of the spotlight to characters who should really just be supporting characters in a trilogy that's supposed to tell us what happened to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy at this time, and its science fictional extrapolations don't always, imho, really fit with the Star Trek universe. The union bashing served no purpose other than to demonstrate fidelity to Heinleinian libertarianism; it certainly wasn't funny, and one suspects that Ferguson thought readers would be happy when that character gets killed. That seems a bit excessive.

The book needed some changes and improvements. The original manuscript is not a lost classic butchered by the intervention of small-minded middlemen. Instead, it's a flawed book that needed to be improved, but the intervention of small-minded middlemen happened anyway. Whether it got the improvements it needed is an exercise for the reader.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Star Trek Omnibus Volume 2: Early Voyages

IDW gets it right this time. One of the best runs of Star Trek comics is back, and it looks a lot better than the first Omnibus, which had poor reproduction.

Early Voyages was a seventeen issue series featuring Captain Christopher Pike of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Every issue was written by Dan Abnett and Ian Edginton. The art team went through a few changes, with Patrick Zircher, Mike Collins, and Javier Pulio on pencils and Greg Adams and Steve Moncuse on inks, but there's not a single issue with bad art. In short, the book looks great, and it's a damn good read, too. Abnett and Edginton mix single issue stories and continued stories with occasional background arc elements. There are elements of Pike's past and Starfleet's future here, and some of the supporting characters, like Colt, get the spotlight.

The only problem with the book is that the comic was cancelled so abruptly that the last issue came before its continuing story had ended. But that's no reason not to read it. This is one of the best and most consistent runs of any Star Trek comic. If you like Star Trek but you've never read a Star Trek comic, this is a great one to start with.

Losing the Peace

Spoilers ahead.

William Leisner's first full length novel, the post-Destiny Next Generation novel Losing the Peace, is out now. And it's a good, satisfying read.

I found Leisner's "A Less Perfect Union" one of the highlights of the very good Myriad Universes books, and Losing the Peace has some thematic similarities to that story. "A Less Perfect Union" showed the classic Star Trek values beginning to assert themselves in a timeline much less utopian than the one we're used to. Something similar happens in Losing the Peace. The Borg invasion has caused a lot of destruction and displacement in the Federation, and the strains are beginning to show. Certain member worlds are unhappy about the numbers of displaced survivors they've had to take in; conditions aren't good, and tensions are rising. But by the end of the book there are promising signs that the Federation will once more pull together, thanks to some unconventional tactics from Jean-Luc Picard and his crew.

Losing the Peace has a lot of good character moments. Newer characters T'Ryssa Chen, Jasminder Choudhury, and Miranda Kadohata share the spotlight with Jean-Luc Picard, Beverly Crusher, and Worf, each of them getting good scenes and development. There are good continuity touches with TV Trek and recent novels, as well, with the appearance of Pacifica and its native sentient species, the Selkies, the latter also explored in Christopher Bennett's Over a Torrent Sea by way of the character Aili Lavena, and the use of Arandis, played on Deep Space Nine by Vanessa Williams, as a viewpoint character among the displaced Risans.

The story moves quickly and is always engaging; Leisner's prose is clean and clear, and his ear for dialogue is good. There are some much needed lighter moments in what could have been an overwhelmingly dark book; that balance is appreciated.

Some minor notes: Leisner, a resident of Minnesota, names an alien after the Minnesota town of Bemidji, a place where, coincidentally, I once got drunk. And two quibbles: first, while I appreciate the thematic importance of the scenes with a beautiful and peaceful Mogadishu at the beginning of the book, the idea that Geordi is from there jarred a little at first, because LeVar Burton doesn't look Somali. But it's a few hundred years from now, so there's no reason to assume Geordi's Mogadishu isn't as cosmopolitan and diverse as some other cities in the world are now. Second, shouldn't Starfleet have done something about the restrictive DRM on its software by now, so holodocs can be copied rather than just transferred?

But those quibbles don't change the fact that this is a thoughtful, solidly entertaining novel and a strong novel-length debut for Bill Leisner.

Star Trek newspaper comic strips

Over at the TrekBBS, user KirkPicard posted a link to a new site by Rich Handley offering scans of all of the Star Trek newspaper comic strips from 1979-83 and British comic strips from various publications. Several years back Pocket considered the possibility of doing a book of the US strips, but cancelled its plans because essential legal paperwork couldn't be located. Rich made available CD ROMs of this material a few years ago. Now it's all online for free.

The UK strips are similar to the early Gold Key comics -- not entirely faithful to the show, to put it mildly. The US strips, on the other hand, definitely have some worthwhile moments. And they're free. Check them out!

(This is an old scan of mine; Rich's are sharper and clearer.)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

2010 Pocket schedule

Okay, let's take a look at the novels in the schedule, as reported by

Sorrows of Empire by David Mack

This is something we haven't really had before -- an expansion of a previously published novella. It's an interesting idea, but with the one-a-month schedule, I'm not sure it's a good one. Still... it's David Mack.

Inception by S.D. Perry

Kirk and Spock and Carole Marcus and Leila Kalomi, early in their careers. It could be argued that this is fanwank/gap-filling, but not by me. I want to keep getting stories about the original gang, but I don't need more generic five year mission stories.

Treason by Peter David (mass market reprint)

Just a new Frontier reprint? Hello? My birthday is in March. Give me something here.

The Children of Kings by Dave Stern

A Pike story. Good. Using Pike is a another good way to explore the TOS era without giving us something we've already seen too many times. We only have a few novels and the Marvel Early Voyages comics, so this is welcome.

Oh, and speaking of Pike... what happened to Mike Barr's The Millennium Bloom?

Unspoken Truth by Margaret Wander Bonanno

Saavik after Star Trek IV? This is long, long overdue. The most memorable and intriguing new character from the six TOS movies has always been the opportunity people keep missing. Even the movies dropped the ball, not least by miscasting Saavik after Alley moved on. We only have a few novel appearances and some DC comics stories. (Will the book be consistent with what's been established in the handful of other books that deal with Saavik?)

June (possibly July)
Untitled New Frontier by Peter David [trade paperback]

Ho hum.

Refugees by Alan Dean Foster

The first novel to be set in the continuity of the new movie. I suspect one of two things will happen with this and the following books: they will be relentlessly generic Star Trek stories that don't really build on much from the movie, or they will be contradicted in several ways by the next movie. I'm mildly curious but keeping my expectations low. As for Foster, as much as I liked the work he did expanding the animated episode stories for the Star Trek Logs, I was never a big fan of his prose style.

Seek a Newer World
by Christopher Bennett

Okay, this intrigues me. Bennett's first novel was the excellent Ex Machina, which examined the ways the first Star Trek motion picture changed the characters. Seeing what he can do with the new movie's changes on the characters is a nice parallel.

More Beautiful than Death by David Mack

David Mack... yeah, this intrigues me too.

Untitled 4th New Star Trek Movie era book

Obviously too early to tell.

Seize the Fire (TITAN) by Michael Martin

And now we're into the Typhon Pact stuff. I am interested in the idea of a continuing storyline across the series; I just hope there's nothing like the TNG relaunch's editorial problems. And though I liked some of the early Mangels and Martin books like The Sundered, I've been a lot less impressed by some of their more recent work. Martin solo... could be better, could be worse.

Zero Sum Game (AVENTINE) by David Mack

This, of course, I am interested in.

The Rough Beasts of Empire (DS9) by David R. George III

This too. DRG3 doing DS9, what's not to like? Well, aside from jumping ahead a few years so this can be a Typhon Pact story. Is this an aberration, and later books will return where The Soul Key and Never Ending Sacrifice leave off, or is it a relaunch of the relaunch, potetnially leaving Marco Palmieri's unfinished storylines behind? I'll be peeved if it's the latter.

January 2011
Path of Disharmony
(TNG) by Dayton Ward

Dayton Ward. That's good news too. More Typhon Pact business. If we're lucky, though, this will either wrap the Typhon storyline up, or at least be the last book before we get a run of something else for a few months.

So, for the year, we get basically three things: TOS, JJ TOS, and Typhon Pact (plus a New Frontier novel). The Typhon storyline at least allows us some variety by giving us Titan, Aventine, DS9, and TNG. But no Voyager, no Enterprise, no Vanguard. No exciting return of Gorkon/Klingon Empire or Starfleet Corps of Engineers. Which reminds me, no reported mention of ebooks. I'm still not crazy about them as a format, but does the fact that Pocket tried too soon with original ebooks mean that it shouldn't bother now that the Kindle and other readers are really catching on?