Wednesday, May 8, 2013

A Review of "Star Trek: New Frontier" Books 1-3 [1997 tie-in novels]

This review originally appeared on Loaded Couch Potatoes in 2009. It has been substantially revised for its appearance here.

Today, I’ve got a look back at the first three books in Peter David’s Star Trek: New Frontier series, which began in 1997 and launched a new Trek series that, thus far, has appeared in only novels and comics.  In my opinion, that's a good thing, at least based on the three novels I've read.

The concept was apparently originated by John J. Ordover, who was at that point in time the overseer of Pocket Books' Star Trek line.  He took the concept to novelist Peter David, and the two of them fleshed the ideas out further.  The conceit was that the series of novels would focus on a completely new ship that would be captained by a new character and crewed by a mix of characters new and familiar ("familiar" in this instance meaning mostly that they appeared in one or two episodes of The Next Generation, or that they had previously been used by David in his Starfleet Academy books). It's a cool idea, and it's surprising it took until 1997 for something like that to happen at Pocket Books.
If you are curious about New Frontier and its crew and ship, then you should check out this Wikipedia page, because I’m not going to be providing much in the way of plot summary.  Instead, I’m going to just get my knives out and go to work.


Book One: House of Cards

House of Cards is sporadically engaging, but was apparently proofread and/or edited by meth addicts … and we’re not even talking meth addicts on Jesse Pinkman’s level; no, we’re talking more like Skinny Pete.  As such, this “pilot” novel gets the job of piquing the Trekkie’s interest done, but not by much.

The problem is that — like the vast majority of tie-ins — House of Cards is nothing more than pulp fiction.  It’s the prose equivalent of a b-movie, or of one of those movies you’d see on the Sci-Fi Channel on a Saturday night.  It’s been dropped into the world simply to milk a few bucks out of the type of people who are undiscriminating enough in their tastes to feel like this sort of thing is worth dropping a few bucks on.  Since I’m one of those people, I feel like I can make that assessment without feeling I’ve been overly derogatory about it.  And speaking from my own experience, I’d say that the reason people seek out this type of fiction is because they are fans either of the specific brand (Star Trek) or genre (science fiction) in question; same goes for b-level film projects, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that, as long as you don’t get fooled into thinking zirconium is better than diamonds.  On that level, I will generally find myself enjoying tie-in novels, and heck, every now and then one of them manages to be legitimately good.
Here's my problem with this particular bit of zirconium, House of Cards (along with the remainder of the first four New Frontier novels, which form a single long story) is serving as a pilot for a new Star Trek series, and I think Trekkies expect more from a series pilot.  The filmed Trek pilots all have their problems, but compared to House of Cards, even the lowliest of them -- which I suppose I'd say is "Broken Bow" (provided we're discounting the first episode of the animated series) -- shines like a diamond.
Judged against "Encounter at Farpoint," "Emissary," or "Caretaker," House of Cards is lacking on every possible level.  If Pocket Books had truly wanted to turn this into a major new brand of Trek, then they’d have been wise to hand the reins over to real sci-fi writers, and tell them that so long as they didn’t break any of the major rules of the Trekverse, it was all theirs.
That didn’t happen.
As a result…?  Captain M’k'n’zy.  Which, yes, you guessed it, is pronounced “Mackenzie.”
I cannot say enough about how annoyed I get with that kind of cutesy alien naming system.  Enough with the apostrophes, people.  It’s asking a lot of me to accept even “G’Kar” or “T’Pol,” but I’ll do it, mainly because when I watch a episode I don’t hear those apostrophes; I hear Zhakar and Tipol, which are fine, lovely names, and alien enough that I get the idea.  

This is not that.  
Don’t give me a stupid fucking name that just happens to sound close enough to an English-language name that the character can then change it so that it is an English-language name.  That’s just dumb.  It’s like Peter David wanted us to know M’k'n’zy was an alien, but didn’t want to deal with him actually being an alien, so he put in a little escape clause for himself.  A highly convenient escape clause, at that.  Christ, man, just have him be a human who was raised on an alien planet, or have him just be a human, since you’re so determined to call him by a human name!
Something in all of this doesn’t add up, and when you’ve got that big a stumbling block with the captain of your new series, something is majorly out of whack right at the get-go.  It’s even worse when you consider how little use David actually puts the character to; maybe that improved by book four, but by then, I was long gone.
I enjoyed some of the other characters, though: Selar, and the other Vulcan woman, and Si Cwan to a somewhat lesser extent.
There are multiple appearance by Next Generation characters (Selar included), some of which are enjoyable, some of which aren’t.  Spock’s role seems engineered merely to be able to have a picture of Spock on the cover; ah, if only this had been a film project that Leonard Nimoy could have refused to be a part of.  However, the crew members of the Enterprise-E were mostly well-drawn, Riker especially (makes sense, given how many TNG novels David has written).  On the downside, Jellicoe — remember him from “Chain of Command”? — comes off as more of a tool than he deserves; yes, in "Chain of Command," he is a dick of the highest degree and everyone hated him, but let’s face it, he did get the job done.  As David writes him, he seems like the kind of officer who would never in a million years have made Admiral; that’s just bad writing, and so is his hatred of Picard.
The main problem with House of Cards is that it’s all setup and no delivery.  That’s not fair as a critique, given that this is in fact just the first part of a four-part novel.  However, any time I get a quarter of the way through a novel and feel like continuing reading out of obligation moreso than interest, it’s a bad sign.

Book Two: Into the Void
Into the Void is better than House of Cards, but not by much.  The first book suffered greatly from setup-itis, and book two at least avoids contracting that disease: it starts with the cast of characters mostly in place, and has some decent enough scenes involving Calhoun sparring with his new first officer and former fiancĂ©e (!) Elizabeth Shelby, whom you might remember from “The Best of Both Worlds.”  (I was always annoyed that Shelby never returned to the series.  I wanted more of that character, and ostensibly, this should be a good way for me to get it.)
One interesting element is the notion of Hermat pronouns.  David uses various gender-neutral pronouns, such as “hir,” “hish,” and “s/he,” to deal with the issue of the Hermat (they’re a hermaphroditic species — get it?) engineer Burgoyne 172.  At first, these pronouns got on my nerves big time, but I got less annoyed once David worked in an explanation of how to pronounce s/he.  It’s a strange concept, but it’s a genuinely science-fictional concept, and it’s kinda interesting; after all, our language, understandably, is gender-based, so how would we deal with a gender-neutral species in terms of assigning pronouns to them?
Captain Calhoun continues to be a problem in Into the Void.  Apart from being a wiseass and an independent thinker, he simply isn’t a memorable character.  I’m reminded a bit of how Deep Space Nine had trouble for a while with Sisko as a character.  We understood that Sisko was supposed to be very different from Picard, and he understood how he was different…but none of those characteristics actually began paying off until sometime during the show’s second season.  Even during that shaky first season, though, we had the excellence of Avery Brooks to make up somewhat for the deficiency of the writers; in prose, no actor can save a character, and Calhoun is therefore not savable.  He’s an alien, but he frequently says things that seem peculiarly human: at some point in book three, for example, he tells another character to make sure they don’t fall into a commode while not on the bridge.  Really?  A commode?

That's a good example of why these novels ought to have a permanent residence on your Do-Not-Read list.


Book Three: The Two-Front War

The Two-Front War is, frankly, an awful novel.  Once, during (I think) eighth grade, I wrote a Star Trek novel and invented my own ship and crew, and it was a laughable piece of garbage I’d never show to another human soul.  I’d hesitate to let my cats smell it.  
I was in eighth grade, and was paid no money; what’s Peter David’s excuse?
I’m going to be brief in explaining my ire for this novel, because life is short and this book is not worth much of my time; I wasted enough of it reading the god damned thing.  (Read that in a Leonard McCoy voice, please.)
One pages 50 and 60, two different Vulcans experience emotional outbursts for unrelated reasons.  This is unacceptable.  Look, I get it; one of them is mentally stuck in pon farr (which is kinda interesting as a plot device), and the other is half-Romulan.  There is nothing out of character in either of the outbursts.  In and of itself, it is not bad writing in either instance.
Here’s my problem: why, oh why, can nobody write Vulcans as Vulcans?  Why are so many Star Trek writers incapable of simply dealing with the Vulcan society on its own terms?  Why must they feel the need to emphasize the nonemotionality of Vulcans by finding any possible reason to make that nonemotionality go away?  Good God man, just let ‘em be what they are!  In this novel, it’s surely the hallmark of a lazy writer who would rather invent goofy bullshit — under the guise of “cleverness” — than deal in an honest fashion with one of the most interesting and iconic alien species ever created.  What a crock of crap.
Here’s an example of the quality of dialogue David brings to the table.  On page 76, one character asks who another “Zoran” is, having just heard the name mentioned.  “A very unusual man,” replies Si Cwan.  “He’s someone who wants to kill me.”
Why would anybody ever phrase something in that manner?  Why not simply say, as an alternative, “A man who wants to kill me.”  There’s no need to say that he’s an unusual man, since that has no relevance.  Oh, wait; if he’d said it that way, then Kebron couldn’t have replied as he does in the next paragraph: “I hope you don’t think that wanting to kill you makes him unusual.”  Oh, har-dee-har-har, Peter David.  What an excellent bit of wit and edgy humor you’ve brought to the Trekverse.  This is a chump’s idea of wit.
However, that is at least a styled bit of garbage.  Other garbagey bits are lacking even in attempts at style.  Some are just plain inaccurate.  For example, Si Cwan’s sister’s name is spelled “Kalinda” in The Two-Front War; in previous novels, it has been spelled “Kallinda.”  That sort of authorial/editorial fuckup is unforgivable in a professional publication.
Even worse, in my eyes: on page 118, one of the Vulcan women reminds the other that Vulcans tend to live long lives.  This is bad writing on multiple levels, and is dialogue that would never be spoken by one Vulcan to another.  For one thing, Vulcans likely would not think of themselves as having long lifespans, since, for them, they would be normal lifespans; instead, they would think of other species as having short lifespans.  That’s arguable, of course; if shorter-than-Vulcan lifespans were a universal majority, then logical Vulcans might actually think of themselves as having long lifespans.  By that same token of logic, though (or by any other), one Vulcan would have no need of reminding another of such an obvious fact.
So that exchange is just dumb, and it’s obviously only there as a means for David to remind readers that Vulcans have longer life spans.  Now, the idiocy is really beginning to pile up, because if you’re reading this novel and don’t know that Vulcans have longer lifespans, then you shouldn’t be -- and almost certainly aren't -- reading this novel.  For another, even though it serves a hypothetical purpose, it’s an example of lazy writing; why cop out with a line of illogical dialogue rather than find a way to mix the information into the story in an organic fashion?  I’ll tell you why: laziness.
The book ends with a cliffhanger, but it’s so uninteresting that I've elected to simply not read the fourth book in the series.  Maybe I'll come back to it one of these days, but the bottom-line is that what I've read of this series is poorly-conceived, poorly-executed, and poorly-produced rubbish.  It isn't even mediocre; it's flat-out bad.

I'm overweight.  I don't think I'm in danger of having a heart attack any time soon, but hey, you never know.  And frankly, if I were to die with a book this shitty having been the last book I read, that would be a real shame.  So nope, no Book Four for me, not now, and probably not ever.

Here are some pics, though, just so the review doesn't feel unbalanced:




  1. You hit on my number one complaint about Vulcans in Trek. I'm fine with story-justified emotionalism here and there, but is it the exception to actually act Vulcan? Apparently.

    For the most part, I was pretty happy with Gary Graham's portrayal of a Vulcan on Enterprise. T'Pol's, too, while I'm thinking of it.

    I haven't read these, so can't comment on the content, alas.

    I hate that kind of "m'k'n'zy" stuff as well. Must be going for an apostrophe record of some kind, here.

    1. Yeah, from what I've seen, "Enterprise" does it relatively well.

      I do wish, though, that they didn't all have to have Moe Howard haircuts. I'm not immediately sure what I think the logical approach to hair styling would be, but I'm fairly certain that ain't it.

  2. Very funny review. I actually laughed out loud a few times. I have the first novel in this series, but haven't read it yet. Even though it doesn't seem very promising, I'll give it a chance.

    It seems that the author's goal was to fit as many fleeting Next Generation characters as possible into the series. There's Commander Shelby from "The Best of Both Worlds", Selar from "The Schizoid Man", and Lefler from "The Game." I'm surprised they didn't find a spot for Sonya Gomez, who the writers introduced in a couple episodes as a possible love interest for Geordi, but the relationship never materialized.

    1. I wouldn't be surprised if she showed up somewhere. Yeah, the TNG cameos are way too plentiful. It's like the publisher wanted to do a book series with new characters, but didn't actually want there to be too many new characters in it. Weird.

      Ugh. Awful novels. They feel like they were written in about a week.

      You know, I kind of liked Gomez. I remember being a little bummed when she didn't become at least a semi-regular character.