Before the dawn of video tapes and digital recordings, back in the days when Star Trek had no subtitle or surname, there were very few ways of experiencing new adventures of the original crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. There was a short-lived animated series, a handful of 45 and 331/3 records with a limited amount of radio-style adventures, a few View-Master reels, the comic adventures from Gold Key, several coloring books, but the only reliable outlet was the series of novels from Pocket Books. For a very long time, I think I bought almost every one of them. I’m sure I missed a few, and I know there were several that I started and never finished, but a lot of elementary and middle school free time was taken up by the continuing voyages of Captain James T. Kirk and his crew. As the years went on and the many different variations of Trek debuted, I really tried to read them all, but it just became too much to keep up with. I promised myself I would dip in and out of the different series occasionally, but I eventually just lost interest in them.
Last year brought a renewed focus on Star Trek: The Next Generation with the 25th anniversary of the series, and the cast having reunited on stage several times since. The entire series has been remastered with cleaned-up special effects for Blu-Ray release, and on top of that it seems like you can’t be a nerd and swing a dead cat without hitting Wil Wheaton these days. I found myself in Barnes and Noble with a serious jonesing for some NextGen, and saw that the first two books in a new trilogy by David Mack had been released with nifty covers that formed a bigger image when placed side by side. Can we say hook, line, and sinker?
We’ll consider this review spoiler-light. I don’t want to give away too many of the surprises that these three books have in store for you, but the only way to talk about a Star Trek story with no spoilers would be to say, “A spaceship in the future has adventures.”
Star Trek: The Next Generation: Cold Equations: The Persistence of Memory: Book One (as Chandler Bing would say, “Could we HAVE more colons?”) begins in a way that normally really pisses me off when used in modern media. You know the one…the first chapter opens with a really big action sequence involving plot threads that you desperately want to find out more about, but then the narrative shifts to a minor character, many years ago, and slowly leads you back up to that crucial moment towards the end of the book. In this instance, it actually worked for me. The book begins four years after the events of the last TNG film, Nemesis, which ended with Data sacrificing himself so that Captain Jean-Luc Picard could live. In the years since, the Enterprise crew has changed quite a bit.
Captain Picard and Doctor Beverly Crusher have gotten married and have a child together named Rene, Worf has been promoted to First Officer (and has a new romantic interest), and Geordi LaForge is the only other main crew member to still have a space job in space jammies. The rest of the crew is populated by mildly interesting “expanded universe” characters, who tend to blend together and exist only to fill a position on the bridge. I’m sure that they are much beloved to hardcore Trekkies, with many “book only” adventures under their collective lack of belts, but only a few are memorable. One of them is the new Chief of Security, Lt. Jasminder Choudhury, a female of South Asian decent, who is practiced in the meditation arts of the Hindu, the Buddhists and Islam. I’m sure the inner peace gained by multiple approaches to meditation comes in handy quite often, seeing as she is Worf’s new romantic interest, mentioned above.
The Enterprise-E is sent to The Daystrom Institute Annex on Galor IV to investigate the theft of a collection of Soong-type androids, including Lore (Data’s “evil” twin), Lal (Data’s defunct “daughter”) and B4 (a simpleton early model of Data introduced in Nemesis). While the Enterprise crew attempt to get to the bottom of the android heist, the narrative shifts fifteen years in the past to a first-person narrative by Data’s creator and “father”, Doctor Noonian Soong.
We find out that the reports of Soong’s death were greatly exaggerated, and follow him throughout the years as he attempts to cheat death by downloading his consciousness to a streamlined android body that is to Data as an iPod is to a cassette player.
I groaned when I realized that the entire middle portion of the book was going to follow Soong instead of the main plot, but I quickly got enthralled in his story. He plots and schemes behind the scenes to keep abreast of his “family” across the universe, making deals with sordid contacts that will allow him to build a fortune to support his evolution into an immortal android body. We get to see a little of the underbelly of Orion home world (basically, an entire planet populated by the seediest locales of Vegas) but the most interesting part of the book were the bits that focused on what a person becomes when they surpass humanity (where Trek usually excels). If you download your memories to an artificial body, are you still YOU? Are you simply a copy of the highlights of a human being encoded in plastic and metal? I always found Brent Spiner’s portrayal of Noonien a little grating, but the character comes across much more sympathetic in this novel. When he learns of Data’s “death” due to the events of Nemesis, he essentially sits immobile for days, not sleeping, not moving, simply processing the information in a single-minded fashion that we of the flesh are not afforded. With any other Star Trek author (other than Peter David or the team of Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens) I feel that Noonien Soong’s exodus to the artificial would have been swallowed by the technobabble and continuity references that most TrekLit authors feel are the meat and potatoes of franchise fiction. However David Mack takes the Pinocchio metaphor that was used as dramatic shorthand to explain Data’s emotional and developmental journey within his very first scene in TNG‘s pilot episode, Encounter At Farpoint, and turned it completely on its ear by asking the questions, “What if Geppetto decided that his puppet son had the superior life and endeavored to turn himself into a puppet as well? What if being a “real boy” is not the real happily ever after?”
Soong’s story eventually falls back in line with the main plot of the book, leading to a breath-taking conclusion that seems to undo a lot of the mistakes made in the last film to feature this cast. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I was very happy with the outcome. The revelations toward the end will drive you directly into book 2 to see how the regular cast deal with the ripples from these events.
Star Trek: The Next Generation: Cold Equations: Silent Weapons: Book Two initially promises to follow-up on all of the dangling plot threads from the first book, but takes a quick side turn as Picard’s crew is diverted to handle a delicate diplomatic problem being engineered secretly by The Breen Confederacy. In an attempt to manipulate the different alien races that make up the newly formed “Typhon Pact”, The Breen infiltrate the negotiations using technology discovered in the previous book, placing members of the barely aligned Gorn race to thwart the crumbling peace. It is difficult to discuss much of what I enjoyed about this book and the next without giving away major character developments, but one sidebar that intrigued me was the way The Breen were “fleshed out” a bit. The Breen Confederacy is made up of a varied group of different species, all made to look identical by the “Princess Leia as Bouush-inspired” armor that they hide within. Among the known alien races that make up the Confederacy are the Amoniri (who require refrigerated suits to live), the Fenrisal (a race with snout-like noses, which led to the shape of their helmets), the Paclu (beings with four-lobed brains that resist telepathy) and Silwaan (the most human-like of the Breen). Two of the Breen agents working behind the scenes have worked alongside of each other for a while, and grown to like each other but have no idea what each other looks like under the mask. This cult-like devotion to a common goal above personal gratification seems to be making a sly political statement regarding the Army’s “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” policy of old. It’s these small personal reflections among the bigger moments of negotiations breaking down, terrorism and Gorn diplomacy (an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one) that kept me turning pages.
Another delightful moment came in a supporting role for Captain Morgan Bateson (as played on television by Kelsey Grammar), who was displaced in time from Kirk’s era to Picard’s with his ship, the U.S.S. Bozeman in the TNG episode Cause and Effect. It seems he has acclimated to the future and is in command of a starship, pitching in to help the galaxy deal with multiple Borg incursions in previous books. He has orders from Starfleet to keep a reign on Picard’s Enterprise, keeping them on the periphery of the fray and is ultimately outsmarted by Picard. Also of note is the subplot that shows Jean-Luc’s inner conflict trying to stay rational as Captain while his wife and newborn child are placed in danger. The needs of the few may outweigh the needs of the many, it seems.
Star Trek: The Next Generation: Cold Equations: The Body Electric: Book Three (I’m surprised there is room on the cover for illustration after the title has been typeset) takes our core Enterprise crew members on a more personal journey, played out against a universe-ending, feature film-style Star Trek threat. An adult Wesley Crusher returns in his role as a transdimensional Traveler (beings with the ability to fold space and time and facilitate point to point space travel using their minds) much like the character of Pariah at the beginning of DC Comic’s Crisis On Infinite Earths. There is interstellar trouble coming in the form of an enormous doomsday machine that is using black holes to pull entire galaxies inside out. The other Travelers have abandoned our plane of existence, certain that there is no hope for life as they know it. It is up to a bearded, haggard Wesley to find someone who can formulate a plan to save the day and in a brief cameo by Q is told to “go and bother Picard”. However, each of our main Enterprise crew members are currently distracted by their own basic human emotional needs and are not performing up to their usual standards. Worf has suffered a debilitating loss, Picard is distracted by trying to protect his new-found family, Geordi is distraught over the four years he has spent mourning his best friend, Data, and Beverly Crusher is trying to figure out if the son she hasn’t seen since Captain Riker and Counselor Troi’s wedding is a man, a god, or something beyond her scope of imagining.
Can a below-average shell of the former Enterprise crew pull their stuff together in time to defeat a machine entity that may well be from the planet that twisted the NASA probe Voyager 6 into V’Ger The Intruder in Star Trek: The Motion Picture? You thought V’Ger was a threat? The machine entity in this book is V’Ger X 1000 and it just doesn’t seem that Picard can stop making mistakes long enough to throw together a plan of attack or a plan of diplomacy. Throw in a sentient starship crewed by a ragtag collection of varying artificial intelligences, android bounty hunters, and an A.I. commander hellbent on immortality and you have the epic conclusion to Cold Equations.
I approached this series wanting a full-on Star Trek: TNG feature film to play out in my mind, but until the third book, it felt much more like those anti-climactic mid-season TNG two-parters (Chain of Command, Parts One and Two I’m looking at you). Once book three kicks into high gear, it felt much more epic, but could have stood to weed out the time spent on “book only” characters to really get inside of the main crew’s heads to see what they were really thinking and feeling in what could be their final moments. The pace speeds up to the point where there is not much time for small quiet introspection and the trademark inspiring speeches by our good Captain.
My only real complaint about the trilogy is that we never get to involve Captain Riker and his ship the U.S.S. Titan, which would have really rounded out the NextGen family and given Picard an equal to bounce ideas off of at the climax of the book. Considering some of the plot developments I have not revealed, it would have been nice to have Riker and Troi along for the ride, as this was billed as Next Generation’s 25th anniversary trilogy.
For everything I’ve told you about these books there are two more things I didn’t mention. If you have found yourself longing for the days aboard the Enterprise D, plunk down the Federation credits for this trilogy and you won’t be disappointed. It’s a whirlwind tour through familiar places with familiar faces and manages to add new life into the NextGen franchise. Like me, you may find yourself boldly going on to the next books in the series to see what happens next.