Friday, April 19, 2013

A Review of "Ghost Ship" [1988 tie-in novel]

This review originally appeared on Loaded Couch Potatoes in 2009.


This is the first review in what I hope will be a long-running series looking back at the many original Star Trek novels.  [Bryant's note circa 2013: how'd that work out...?]  Up first: Diane Carey’s Ghost Ship, the 1988 novel that debuted the Pocket Books line of originals based on The Next Generation.
From the back cover:

1995: A mysterious creature destroys a Russian aircraft carrier — and just as mysteriously, disappears…
And three hundred years later, Counselor Deanna Troi awakens in her quarters from a nightmare, a nightmare where she senses (and understands) the voices of the crew lost aboard that ship, a crew whose life-essences were somehow absorbed within the creature that destroyed their ship long ago.
Now, Picard must find a way to communicate with the creature — or he and his crew will be similarly absorbed by the “ghost ship”!

According to Diane Carey (as quoted in Jeff Ayers’ Voyages of Imagination: The Star Trek Fiction Companion), this novel was a tough write: “I was asked to launch the new series by writing the first TNG original fiction book — interesting mostly because it was written without ever having seen the series because TNG hadn’t aired yet.  [M]any of the characters hadn’t been cast yet, so I couldn’t even look at photos of the people.”
For this aspect of TNG’s newness alone, Ghost Ship would be well worth reading for fans of the show; it represents a rare opportunity to see what amounts to an alternative version of the series as it could have evolved.  Obviously, as would have been the case with virtually any novel written under such circumstances, there are many elements here that do not jibe with Trek canon, but that probably shouldn’t be held against Carey.  In fact, it’s surprising how much Carey “gets right” in comparison with the series itself.  It may be that this says less about Carey than it does about the series bible, which was (I assume) written at least in part by creator Gene Roddenberry; if so, then this novel becomes even more interesting, and can be considered a near-direct descendant of Roddenberry’s vision for the series.
The novel’s characterizations of Picard, Riker, Date, Troi, and Geordi are good … provided that you can accept the differences between the characters as written here and the characters you’ve been familiar with since 1987.  And there are definitely differences.  For example, Data’s speech patterns include making contractions between words (and it’s worth noting that even a few of the early episodes also had this “mistake”).  Another example: Deanna’s nickname for Riker is “Bill,” rather than “Will” (David Gerrold’s novelization of “Encounter at Farpoint” also uses this nickname, which suggests to me that it might have come from the bible).
Probably my favorite element of this novel is the way in which Carey examines the tension between Picard and Riker.  Each officer has serious reservations about the other, and about himself in relation to the other, with the implication being that such doubts are completely internalized but always present, and that that is part of what it means to serve in Starfleet in a command capacity.  This fits in quite well with the first couple of seasons of the series, during which the dynamic between Picard and his first officer was filled with confrontations over away team assignments, and so forth.
Carey is, in general, pretty good at character scenes.  Take this passage, which follows Picard’s having chastised Wesley for referring to an alien vessel as being haunted:
“As he caught Wesley’s whipped-puppy expression, Picard felt once again the sting of his decision to make Wesley an ensign, a decision no good parent would make, yet one that he, as a man who had never had children, had made without realizing the consequences.  He should have known better, for as commanding officer he was indeed the father of all his crew and complement.  Wesley’s face was the face of a child; no seasoned officer would take the reprimand so personally.  And having given it, Picard could not take it back.”  (p. 69)
The chapter that passage comes from is probably the best of the novel, and contains multiple such bits of solid characterization.  It isn’t great writing, per se; but it’s a great example of why tie-in novels like these were so popular for so many years.  Seeing that side of Picard spelled out is a rare thing for the series.  It’s there in Patrick Stewart’s performance, but by using prose, a novel has the opportunity to make the interior more plain.  When done well, it’s captivating for a fan of a series.
One of the major elements of Ghost Ship is the antagonism Riker feels for Data, based on his assumption that the android is not, and cannot be, a true life form.  Carey presents this as a rather dark facet of Riker’s personality, and his arc over the course of the novel involves his feelings of guilt over thinking of Data in that way, and his eventual acceptance of the android as a valuable crewmmate and living being.  Data’s arc lies in accepting — with his customary brand of emotional emotionlessness (which could have come right out of an episode of the series) — that Riker’s doubts about him mirror his own doubts about himself; his attempts to prove Riker wrong about him are more or less the same as his attempts to prove to himself that he is a living being.
I can well imagine many TNG fans hating these parts of the novel, but I find them to be pretty fascinating.  Riker and Data are two of my favorite of all Star Trek characters, and I don’t find anything in Carey’s writing here to be contradictory to how the story unfolds during the actual series.  Granted, we’re not used to seeing Starfleet personnel as bigots (The Undiscovered Country notwithstanding), and you can certainly make the case that Carey goes a bit too far; Riker seems just plain callous at a few points.  It is interesting that even this early on, Diane Carey seems to have intuited that some interpersonal conflict was going to be necessary to the series lest it seem too pleasant for people to take it seriously.
I was a bit annoyed by how annoying Carey makes Wesley in this novel, but once again, it seems as if she correctly intuited how people would respond to the character.  Me, I kinda like Wesley on the show, but a lot of people didn’t.  The standard anti-Wesley rant involves him either saving the ship too often or getting the ship into trouble too often.  Personally, I think this is a bit of an urban legend, a bit like Kirk’s cocksmanship on the original series: Kirk kisses a bunch of dames, but if you take a look at things closely, he actually only screws a small handful of women.  Likewise, Wesley’s ship-saving and ship-wrecking are implied more than actually shown, and I think people have built it up a bit artificially over the years.
Not in Ghost Ship, though.  Here, Wesley is running an experiment that is so dangerous and irresponsible that he really ought to be tossed off the ship for it.  And then, of course, it ends up helping to save the ship.  I hate all of this, but I do love Geordi’s reaction to finding the experiment: “Goddamn, Wes!”  Can’t help it; I’m a sucker for curse words in Star Trek.
Other points of interest:
Ghost Ship contains what might well be THE first attempt to deal with the fact that Klingons circa 1987 look very different from the Klingons of the original series.  Check out this sentence from p. 27-8: “Worf’s big brown face didn’t look in the least apologetic, given a particularly animalistic texture by the riblike cranium of his Klinzhai racial background, the strain which had emerged dominant during the last Klingon purge.”  Interesting…especially if this, like so many other elements of the novel, came directly from the show’s bible.  There were later elements in both Deep Space Nine and Enterprise which would seem to invalidate this idea of a “purge” as having been responsible, but I’d definitely be curious to know if Roddenberry had attempted to account for the discrepancy in developing The Next Generation.  More likely, this was simply an aside by Diane Carey.  Although that would have been an awfully big aside to take it upon herself to toss off; so maybe not.
Carey also attempts to deal with the fact that the position of Counselor is new to the Star Trek universe by making it clear that it is also a new position in Starfleet, and adding that Starfleet has not yet really figured out what to do with the position.  This mirrors what ends up happening on the show itself; the writers never seemed to figure out what to do with the position, either, and if J.J. Abrams ever decides to remake The Next Generation, he’d be well-advised to consider making the confusion over the position a part of the story, as Carey does here.  It’s another good example of prose doing something screenplays failed to ever get around to doing.
One thing the series definitely did not fail to do was deal with matters of ethical and philosophical complexity.  Ghost Ship does so, as well, and it’s one of the best elements of the novel.  Here, Carey tackles the hot topic of euthanasia, which Trek had never dealt with up to this point in its history (with the slight exception of Spock wrestling with whether or not to have his pet Sehlat put to sleep in “Yesteryear”).  It would become a major element of the Next Generation episode “Ethics,” but Carey probably deserves credit for recognizing this as an issue rife with Trekkian potential, and she deals with the subject quite well.
Final thoughts: well worth reading for fans of The Next Generation, but probably skippable for anyone else.


  1. Very good review. I'm currently reading this novel, and the first thing that jumped out at me was the poor characterization -- or what I thought was poor characterization.(I almost threw the book down in disgust when Riker chastised Data for his comment about Troi behaving abnormally after hearing the voices.) Now that I know Carey had to write it before the first episode aired and the characters were cast, my opinion of the novel has changed for the better. Her character interpretations make much more sense now: Riker's prejudice against Data, Picard's impatience with the bridge crew, Data's behaving more like a human than an android. Like you said, it's amazing she got as much right as she did. From here on out, I will treat the novel as an alternate version of the series as you suggest. I wish more people would read your review, as it's the most balanced I've seen. I've read other reviews of this book online, and it usually gets lambasted for getting the characters and other series elements “wrong.”

    1. Thanks, Myron! I had a lot of fun writing this one, so it thrills me that you stumbled across it.