Star Trek Fiction – More than Mere Tie-Ins

stdestinyI like to consider myself the kind of fan who isn’t slavishly faithful. I don’t think it’s healthy fandom when the object of your ardour can do no wrong. If nothing else, it prevents you from demanding the best, not to mention the fact that you may end up spending far too much time thinking about it.

Tie-in novels have a reputation among more casual geeks as being extreme fodder targeted at such all-encompassing fans, wherein the large backlog of episodes still isn’t enough. When the corporate owners of the show don’t see any creative value in these extensions of the franchise and are keen to just make a quick buck, then it’s sad to see mediocre and inconsequential tie-in novels get gobbled up by the fanbase without discernment (and don’t get me started on novelisations…). To make matters worse, the tie-ins inherently can’t contribute anything substantial to the narrative of their series or franchise as they are tightly constrained by being unable to contradict what may come. While the shows are running, the novels occupy a fairly pointless limbo where they can only ever hope to be a standalone episode free of budgetary constraints.

But to tar all tie-in novels with this brush is to generalise and ignore their potential. I read some Star Trek novels in my teens and a couple were hugely exciting, written so creatively that the stakes were huge without contravening the series they were based on. Peter David’s Q-Squared was a terrific read in this vein, but I soon came to feel that most of the novels I was encountering were entertaining but inconsequential Trek yarns. There were still plenty of TV episodes I’d yet to see that served that purpose, so I moved on. As the years passed I would spot the latest novels in the bookstore and cringe a little that they were still going, even after the TV and movie franchises had gone to dust.

I’ve since learned that this was far too reductive an assessment. Out of curiosity, I read up on the current state of Trek fiction and was surprised to discover that its ambition has skyrocketed. Free from the constraints of conforming to series in production and movies in development, the books can now be as adventurous as the authors can imagine – anything can happen. The shows have essentially continued in prose form, but with the added bonus of becoming increasingly intermingled in mostly plausible ways, taking care to avoid what’s been termed ‘small universe syndrome’. The fallout from the Dominion War now affects Voyager and The Next Generation rather than being contained to the Deep Space Nine books, and the political and cultural complexity of that show is now one of the book line’s calling cards.

It began with a ‘relaunch’ of Deep Space Nine in 2001, taking the status quo at the end of the series and incorporating new characters and plot threads to continue the story, but one’s that carefully built on what had come before. Voyager then did something similar, but with less longevity: the show was far less serialised and the books had an unclear purpose following the crew’s return to the Alpha Quadrant. The Next Generation novels have moved beyond Nemesis with two series, one following Picard and the Enterprise and the other Riker and his new ship, the Titan. Before I learned of the ambition of current Treklit, I assumed the Titan books were just about yet another ship with yet another crew, and groaned a little at the predictability of giving Riker his own series. However, it has been designed with a unique purpose: Starfleet is determined to re-establish its mission of exploration following the destruction of the Dominion War, so Titan is tasked with this as its sole mission. Distinguishing it from similar novels set during the original shows, Titan has a number of bizarre alien crewmembers who could not be achieved on a television budget. The mandate of the Titan series is to be as bold and imaginative as possible, in contrast to the more political and continuity-based TNG stories. Each series has a purpose, rather than just being another vehicle for the same type of tale.

With these four main vehicles for 24th century Trek literature leading the way, there is also room for more distinctive and unusual side projects. In these books the passion of the authors and editors is clear; they are not just whittling off generic Trek yarns. Instead, they seek to alter the Trek mold in a manner that was largely abandoned following the conclusion of Deep Space Nine. Keith R.A. DeCandido’s Articles of the Federation features barely any of the usual characters, instead focusing on a year in the life of the Federation President following Nemesis and some calamitous novel events set before that film. DeCandido painstakingly crafts this barely glimpsed corner of the Trek universe so that it becomes fascinating in its novelty, alternating between council sessions, panel discussion shows, and West Wing-style presidential office intrigue (except with aliens). There’s a vitality to this novel, its characters, and the major political issues it addresses – which also influence several novels across different series – that makes it easy to forget that Trek is no longer on the air. The stories are substantial enough to be worthy of transmission, and in terms of innovation often surpass the likes of Voyager and Enterprise.

stvanguardAnother example is Vanguard, a series set during the Original Series on a space station at the edge of a mysterious but politically crucial expanse. I’ve only read the first installment – there are five so far – but this is Star Trek as reinterpreted by HBO, not just in content but sensibility and sophistication. David Mack only uses the Enterprise crew as a way into the Vanguard story and he creates a vivid cast of characters for us to meet on the way, but this is not merely Deep Space Nine crossed with TOS. The agenda is even darker and more ambiguous, the tone more adult and ominous. Mack and the other writers were inspired by the new Battlestar Galactica, and it shows: characters tend to behave in a less flattering light than we’re accustomed to in our Trek heroes. Given that novels set in the Kirk era are still prevented from being too universe-altering, it will be interesting to discover how the momentous events the series is building to will incorporate into established history. Regardless, these are quality novels that give a fascinating new perspective on the original Star Trek.

As enamoured as I am of these novels though, I can’t help but ponder the question of whether, despite the current creative streak, enough was enough back when these series ended, as many on the outside looking in may assume. Why exactly are readers drawn to these novels when the shows are long over? Surely that is the last word, so should we move on? Well, to begin with, readers don’t necessarily spend all their reading time on Trek novels, especially since they’re pleasantly brief reads. For me, the interest does partially come from the pleasure of returning to a universe that holds much appeal, but mostly it derives from the ambition of the team behind these novels. I would not be reading them now if they were as understandably inconsequential as most of the novels I read in the 90s. But the current authors – a stable of around ten – have taken the opportunity for high-stakes original Trek fiction and run with it, in the process achieving things that the shows never could. Armed with a limitless budget, the writers can make Trek as massive as they want and as interconnected as they need since there is no concern for actor availability and other production factors. While it could be argued that such investment might as well be transferred to an original fiction series rather than drawing out the lifespan of one born in another medium, this denies the appeal of seeing a much-loved franchise being reinvigorated, even if it is in novel form, and that the majority of Trek readers will still predominantly read original fiction.

After all, Trek did not end its run on TV and at the movies with the audience still clapping. While Voyager and Enterprise certainly had their fans and I enjoyed them on the level they were aimed at, I’d argue that ambitious, innovative, daring Trek undeniably ended with the conclusion of Deep Space Nine (not necessarily GOOD Trek, I stress). The Next Generation films didn’t fare much better, dwindling rapidly after the high of First Contact with decent yarns that nonetheless felt oddly askew with what had come before. The ensemble cast was far less prominent given the running time, and due to this and other factors the films were less recognisable as TNG installments, instead becoming big SF action movies with Picard and Data.

I’d wager that nearly every Trek author has a similar preference for the Deep Space Nine approach to Trek over the later shows, not because I’m an egomaniac but because the storytelling of the novels is far more reminiscent of DS9 than it is of Voyager. Politics, serialisation, moral ambiguity, and conflict are the order of the day, not space anomalies, holodeck problems, and bumpy-headed aliens in trouble. By taking this approach, Trek has unexpectedly received a shot in the arm via its own tie-in material rather than the tie-ins trailing an on-screen creative renaissance. As much as I enjoyed the Abrams Trek film, it is these novels that capture the spirit of Trek as seen from a 21st century perspective, continuing to critique the Roddenberry utopia without undermining what it stands for, just as Deep Space Nine did.

I’d encourage any lapsed Trek fans to take a look at the novels published so far this decade, as I believe you’ll be pleasantly surprised: they’ve apparently even managed to transform Voyager into an intense, important, relevant series. Although less books are being published now than when the shows were on the air, quite a few have been amassed so far that take part in this post-DS9/Nemesis shared universe. I’m only partway through myself, but I gather it’s not crucial that all of them be read. Below are some links to get you started. Obviously this is a post purely for the fans – I doubt you’d get enough out of the novels without the shows to draw from. But for those fans who never considered bothering with the novels, I’d urge you to reconsider. And hey, they’re cheap!

Memory Beta – the non-canon Star Trek wiki. Entries like “DS9 relaunch” and “TNG relaunch” will get you started.
Trek BBS Literature FAQ – the premier online forum for discussing Trek fiction. This is a FAQ created to answer all the questions a new reader may ask.

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