Sunday, October 30, 2011

On a couple of recent novels

Can it be that I still haven't reviewed A Choice of Catastrophes by Michael Schuster and Steve Mollmann and What Judgments Come by Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore? Apparently so. Well, then.

Sometimes there's no hook that really pushes me to blather about a book. Sometimes it just does exactly what it's supposed to do and I don't find an obvious angle. There's no odd new element, there's no fatal flaw, it's just a good, solid read. Both of these books fit that category. And that's not meant to be damning with faint praise. Readers shouldn't be disappointed by either of these books.

For fans who complain that there aren't enough standalone novels any more, that there aren't enough novels set during a TV series instead of expanding on what comes afterward -- shut up already. Read A Choice of Catastrophes. It tells a good, classic Star Trek-style SF story: some of the regulars are investigating a mysterious alien planet; others, including McCoy, are facing challenges of their own back on the Enterprise. It's familiar in the broad outlines but still fresh by virtue of being the first full length novel by the Schuster/Mollmann team. The focus on McCoy helps keep the book a bit different from most of the five year mission stories, as does the direction his storyline takes.

And, conversely, for fans who want serial storytelling with a cast of original characters, Ward and Dilmore are back with the penultimate Vanguard novel. And they tease us a bit with the structure of the novel -- the opening and closing are set after the end of the story, with two characters reuniting. So we can assume everyone doesn't get killed off, at least. Anyway, the book has a lot of storylines to deal with, and resolves at least a couple of them while setting things up for the grand finale. There's a lot of tension built up in certain storylines -- is Reyes going to make it out of this situation in one piece? is trying to communicate with powerful but apparently imprisoned aliens really a bright idea? -- and the tension is paid off in the book.

I think in some ways the book suffers a little by comparison to the last one, Declassified, because each of the four stories in that book could exercise a tighter focus -- a few characters, a single story. With What Judgments Come we're back to watching a lot of balls in the air, so early in the book the focus seems more diffuse, but things accelerate and come together. Only one book left. Damn.

IDW's new Star Trek comics

After a long stretch with little in the way of new Star Trek comics, aside from two issues of the Infestation crossover, IDW has decided to restart things in a big way, with a new ongoing series and an event miniseries.

IDW's tie-ins to the new movie continuity have reportedly been among their best-selling Star Trek comics, which explains why their first ongoing monthly Star Trek comic is set in the Abramsverse. What's less obvious is why they've apparently decided that the way to avoid stepping on the movie producers' toes is to retell original series episodes in the new continuity, looking at how those stories might have happened differently.

The first two issues revisit "Where No Man Has Gone Before." I've got two main concerns about this story. First, two issues isn't long enough to retell an hour-long episode. The story is really rushed. More important, though, are the changes to the story. The basic premise is that these experiences will play out differently for this crew in this universe because of the changes Nero's time travel made to the timeline. But the changes made to "Where No Man Has Gone Before" feel arbitrary; they don't feel like they arose from the timeline changes, they feel like the writer just decided, okay, let's just say this character isn't involved, and let's say that character decides to do that, and so on. There are some moments when you can see that the writer is trying to think some things through -- the Kirk/Spock relationship is clearly a bit different -- but in two issues that can't be explored adequately.

As for the Legion of Super-Heroes crossover... well, one issue just isn't enough to go on, given how little happens. There's two parallel storylines setting up the crossover, one for the (original timeline) Enterprise crew, one for the Legion, both ending at the point where they realize they're in an alternate universe, with the two sets of characters not meeting yet. I'm not as excited as some people about this one because all I know about the Legion is that they're a bunch of outer space superheroes with names like Anti-Matter Lad. This story focuses on half a dozen of them, so I should be able to get enough sense of who they are as characters as the story progresses over several issues.

The art in both series is pretty good; no complaints on that score. What remains to be seen is how well the writers can get past the high concept elements of each series (retelling old stories with the new cast! crossover!) . I suspect the miniseries may do a better job at that, because it has several issues to tell one story. I hope IDW doesn't intend to use the first two issues of the ongoing series as a rigid formula -- every two issues, another episode arbitrarily changed.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Star Trek Vault: initial reactions

Probably not fair to comment on this without actually reading the text yet, but from a cursory look, I can't help but think what might have been. Problem is, I'm not comparing it to other Vault books from Abrams, I'm thinking of something very different that few people reading this will have seen: Coronation Street Treasures.

Coronation Street Treasures (the edition we have, anyway; there's been more than one) is a hardcover book in a sturdy slipcase, a bit smaller than the Vault book. Inside the front cover is a pocket with an audio CD. A couple of pages in there's what looks like a handwritten recipe on stained paper tucked in another pocket; the next page there's a pocket in the form of a photo developer envelope full of holiday snaps. A few pages later, you can take out and examine a real estate agent's description of the Rover's Return pub and a restaurant review of the pub cut out of the local paper. Adoption certificate, wedding invitation, personal letters, hand-drawn lost dog flyer, greeting card, business cards, divorce papers, wedding certificate, employee time card, strip of pictures from a photo booth, anonymous threatening letter, confession, suicide note, all in all a few dozen removable artifacts set among the well-illustrated pages of a book that provides an introduction for new fans and a celebration for longtime fans.

One key difference: what's in the Treasures book isn't necessarily a recreation of something that actually existed. It's not about what happened behind the scenes or about merchandise for fans and collectors (though it's an example of the latter, obviously), it's about providing realistic artifacts from a fictional world.

The Vault has a few removable items, some of them quite welcome, but it takes a real world approach. Well, it is easier to provide documents from a current day soap than items from a futuristic world (though you could always try doing an iPad app, which reminds me of something else that needs some commentary). So it's a mix of examples of behind the scenes material, like blueprints and storyboards, and reproduced merchandise, like the small pamphlet that's an incomplete, miniature reproduction of an old colouring book, or the sample cards and stickers. It's sort of a mixed approach and, as cool as many of them are, there just aren't enough of the things (fourteen, according to the back cover). The book is well illustrated in colour but the text (and may Scott Tipton forgive me if I'm wrong, and I will get around to reading it) looks like yet another speedy runthrough of Star Trek's history.

And yet, as I look through it again, it is a very handsomely produced book. There are a few pictures you may not have seen dozens of times already. The animated series is not forgotten, which always earns a book a few points in my estimation. It may not be as loaded with photos of Trekstuff as, say, the auction catalogues I've seen, or some of the old Pocket coffee table books, but the removable stuff does add some fun to it.

Tentative summary, bearing in mind I've only browsed through it a couple times: if you've actually read all this, you should realize by now that you're probably the kind of person who will buy it, though you may want to look for a bargain price somewhere. And if you know someone who's just starting to get interested and doesn't know the show's history already, no doubt this would be a welcome gift.

Hephaestus Books

Remember Alphascript? Betascript? Books LLC? They're all the same German company, and their books, which are flooding Amazon and other retailers, are Print on Demand collections of wikipedia reprints, sometimes collecting material so tenuously linked that no human seems to have been involved in their production at any point.

Amazon is now flooded with thousands more wikipedia books by Hephaestus Books. I don't know if it's the same company again, but the modus operandi is the same. As of today there are 187 Hephaestus books that mention Star Trek in the title. Here's partial titles from a few of their books (the titles are too long for Amazon to give in full):
  • Fictional Ensigns, including: Tom Paris, Hoshi Sato, Wesley Crusher, Amuro Ray, Ezri Dax, Nog, Travis Mayweather, Lalah Sune, Kira Yamato, Demora...

  • Fictional Heads Of State, including: Worf, Martok, Doctor Doom, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Gowron, Rom (star Trek), Judge Hershey, Highfather, Gaius Baltar...

  • Lorentzian Manifolds, including: Faster-than-light, Alcubierre Drive, Warp Drive (star Trek), Exotic Matter, Negative Mass, Breakthrough Propulsion...

  • Star Trek Novels, including: Star Trek: Vanguard, Harbinger (star Trek Novel), Summon The Thunder, Reap The Whirlwind (star Trek Novel)...
Shop carefully. Don't buy this stuff. With half an hour's work, if you really wanted paperback wikistuff, you could whip up a pdf and print it through much less expensively.

IDW reprints Wildstorm

Having apparently given up on reprinting older Star Trek comics (some of which were already collected in trade paperback more than once), IDW is now starting to reprint collections and graphic novels issuing from the previous company licenced to produce orignial Star Trek comics, Wildstorm. Though these books don't appear to be difficult to find in their original editions, The Gorn Crisis and Enemy Unseen are scheduled to be reprinted as part of a Classics line in 2012.

Time flies... turns out Wildstorm published their editions about a decade ago, so these reprints may be of some use to some fans. For fans not addicted to the print format, these stories are also available on the Star Trek comics DVD-ROM collection, which anyone even casually interested in Star Trek comics should have.

As for the contents of these two books... as I recall, The Gorn Crisis was, well, okay, and elements from it have been adopted into the current books continuity. Enemy Unseen collects three short series, one by popular novelist Keith R.A. DeCandido. The alien species introduced in his story has made occasional appearances in the books since then. I don't remember much at all about the other two, except that one introduced some kind of alien space ninjas that were rumoured to be intended as a recurring element in Wildstorm's Trek comics. That didn't happen. I was okay with that.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Obsessed With Star Trek

There are a lot of Star Trek trivia quiz books, going back to Bart Andrews and Brad Dunning's unauthorized Star Trek Quiz Book, published by Signet back in 1977. But nothing quite like Chip Carter's recent Obsessed With Star Trek. The 2500 questions range through every season of Trek (including TAS) and every movie. But that's not the main selling point. Not only is this one a hardcover, it's got a computer module built in. And the answers aren't printed in the book itself; you have to use the module.

Apparently there's a series of these but it's the first one I've seen. And I like it. There are multiple game modes. You can play solo or with a friend, and can play question select mode, where you enter the number of a question in the book, or random mode, where the module presents a number (like 2371 in the book cover image), you look it up, then press the A, B, C, or D button to answer. The game tells you whether you're right or wrong and keeps score. I played through 100 random questions, solo, and ended up with a score of 77%. Out of those hundred questions, there were three repeats, which isn't too bad. I wouldn't have thought I'd do very well on Voyager or Enterprise questions, considering how few of those I've seen more than once (some I still haven't seen at all), but these aren't really aimed at the most hardcore fans.

The book's pages tend to have eight or so questions; there are a lot of black and white photo illustrations, and occasional big special questions preceded by a few paragraphs of text. As for the module, the batteries can be replaced.

I was initially a bit skeptical about getting yet another trivia book but the game element really does make this different. I'd expect it could be a lot of fun at fan gatherings, but you can be entertained playing solo, too. Worth a look. If the $29.95 US cover price seems a bit steep, try online retailers like Amazon.

Quick post

Having fun again. Right now I'm updating the site with info on books that have actually come out since the last update in August while listening to the Cocteau Twins (try "Heaven or Las Vegas" if you've never heard them before). Stay tuned.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Maybe I should read TrekWeb...

... then it wouldn't take a year and a half to notice that they borrowed a bunch of the content from The God Thing page, credited me for the material quoted from various books, misattributed at least one of the quotes, and didn't add anything of their own. So it's the first thing you find when you google for information about the book.

Oh, well. Maybe Gustavo was having a slow news day. And at least he didn't just plagiarize it and slap his name on it, as at least one fanzine bozo did.

But there are days when the whole idea of maintaining a site like the Complete Starfleet Library seems just so 1990s. You don't need one person to do a lot of work to build a website; you just need a whole lot of people to go through other people's sites for bits and pieces that can be incorporated into a wiki. Still, I'm not ready to give up on it yet.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Star Trek Magazine Ultimate Guide

Part II of the Star Trek Magazine's celebration of Star Trek's 40th is out now. Like Part I (and if you missed it, go to Titan's website and buy a print or electronic copy), it's a look at every season of every Star Trek series, written by a wide variety of people. There are a lot of familiar names from the world of TrekLit. And me, too, writing about the second season of Deep Space Nine. (Big thanks to Paul Simpson for the opportunity not only to get in the pages of the mag, but to expound on some of my favourite filmed Trek.)