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Fortune’s Light (TNG)

Fortune’s Light is the 15th numbered TNG novel, written by the now well established Star Trek author Michael Friedman.

Riker gets a message regarding an old friend who it seems has stolen a politically-significant artefact from the planet Imprima. The minor plot thread sees Data running a holodeck program of an underdog Alaskan baseball team.Detail from "Fortune's Light" cover

We get to learn more of Riker’s past in this novel; at one point Riker was part of the Federation’s delegation to Imprima, opening it up to trade. Imprima’s culture is based on political units which in turn are based on economic interests, rather than nations. These political entities are run by Madragi – kind of like guild godfather’s, and who together make all the decisions for Imprima. Riker, of course eventually, moved on and at some stage joined the Enterprise; his friend, and other Federation delegate to Imprima, Teller Conlon, decided to stay behind to act as an economic ambassador. The evidence suggests that Conlon has stolen one of the Madragi’s crests. Riker beams down to the planet, alone, to try and sort out (initially) Conlon’s innocence. Before long the competing possibilities are that Conlon is guilty, that he’s being framed, that this relates to some personal vendetta, or that it’s all a an element an economic/political coup. Or all of the above.

Comments: Friedman’s one of Star Trek novels’ star authors, and his books of recent years have hit relatively high in the best seller lists.

But while I’m a fan of Friedman, this novel illustrates only some of his strengths and lags in other areas. Friedman is certainly appreciated for his characters – hence the popularity of the original characters in the Stargazer books, but also the limitation of his first TNG book A Call to Darkness. By this novel Friedman has honed his ability to do canon characters, but some problems remain. One problem is dialogue between core characters being stilted. This occurs most often in dialogue between Picard and Riker, which are generously interrupted by rhetorical pleasantries and apologies.

Less pertinent, but more amusing, is Friedman again making a mistake in the history of some idea. In A Call to Darkness he fudged some of his imaginings about genetic sharing in bacteria; here he seems to be under the impression that nobody’s ever understood the physics of baseball curveballs.

The greatest strength of this novel, commented in reviews elsewhere, is the originality of the Imprima culture. It says a lot about the limitations of the Star Trek universe that these sorts of speculative cultures are considered so unique. A similar example is the popularity of the culture of the TNG novel Masks.

But, most importantly, do the stories work? Yes, but not precisely by their own strengths; they’re carried by the writing. The mystery in the mystery story was weak, falling short of being truly engaging. The setting (Imprima) and the context (Riker’s history) are both interesting, but the plot progress feels like discreet events stringed together. As for the Data plot, at face value this seems terrible, not least because holodeck plots are so often poorly thought out. Nonetheless, I felt it worked; it didn’t receive too much time, it contained a subtle mystery (how will Data win or how will he react to a contrived loss); provided a focus point whenever we got a look at what was happening back on the Enterprise; and most importantly, didn’t depend on some ridiculous computer error to drive the plot.

Some minor notes:

  • This comes up all the time, both in the novels and IIRC in the television shows, but I only just realised: isn’t it ridiculous for the captain to be calling a subordinate to tell them that they’ve got an intergalactic email? Sure, it might be important or whatever, but can’t he quickly delegate that task?
  • Everyone has an idea as to how Data works, and Friedman’s no exception. I’m always wary of novels that portray Data from the first person perspective, which is how it’s done here. Nonetheless, and for the record, Friedman focuses on Data’s capacity on interpretative skills, with their corresponding motivations (i.e. why he needs to know something) and manifestations (i.e. how a particular interpretation results in a particular action or strategy). I suspect that the author sees Data’s relation to the world as that of a scientist or detective, who must interact with the world through tentative submissions and feedback to be analysed.
  • Although the novel as a whole is engaging, I found the last chapter(ish) to be trying: Friedman makes sure to smooth down any hint of roughness, as all the bad guys get their due, all the good guys get a prize, and as the hero walks the girl to the bedroom while the camera fades to black.


External links:
I couldn’t find any blogs reviewing this novel; here’s Memory-alpha and -beta.

 
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Posted by on March 20, 2011 in TNG novel

 

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Exiles (TNG)

Another Howard Weinstein novel, and number fourteen The Next Generation novel.Detail from Exiles cover

As with Weinstein’s previous TNG novel, the story concerns a planet undergoing political turmoil resulting from environmental problems.

In brief: Polluting-aliens need help from eco-aliens whom they exiled a couple of centuries back. Political mish-mash and hand waving is needed from the Enterprise to negotiate this cooperative process. Internal complications ensue and the whole mess is finally cleaned up by a wearisome dues ex machina.

Comments:

Note: If you look at the dates, you’ll see that there’s a huge time gap between this post and the one previous to it. Unsurprisingly my initial motivation writing these reviews lost steam and finally stalled. Additionally, since this book was read all those months ago (c. 08/2010) I’ve had to write this based on my own notes made at the time (plus online references).

Based on my notes I can remember not liking many things about this novel. Insofar as trivial complaints: I suspect that I’m not alone in having an idea of what the various cannon character’s sound/talk like, and as a consequence judge novels on how close they align with that ideal. For me, at least, Weinstein doesn’t do Picard’s voice right. Also, given the number of gnomic phrases that pepper the story I’d guess the author wrote this novel with The Penguin Book of Quotes at hand.

More significant I think is the problem found often in mass paperback books, which is the simplicity of all the individual elements. This is a plot with an ethical message, but neither the plot nor the ethics are at all nuanced. The latter especially is unfortunate – for a book that ostensibly expressed the author’s concerns, it does very little to either convince the reader of anything nor assign any arguments. The range of ethical argumentation is limited to Exiles serving as a cautionary tale: if we (i.e. here and now) don’t clean up our act then Earth’s future will be unbearable, just like it is in this story. Oh, and animals are pretty. The message is legitimate, it’s just not enough to carry the whole book.

External links: There’s nothing worth clicking on yet at the memory wikis at the moment.

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2011 in TNG novel

 

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The Eyes of the Beholders (TNG)

The Eyes of the Beholders is the number thirteen of the TNG books, and is written by A.C. Crispin.

Detail from "The Eyes of the Beholders" cover

The plot begins quite traditionally with the Enterprise ordered to investigate an area of space from which a number of ships have gone missing. Some sort of field soon captures the Enterprise, and draws it towards its source, which is revealed to be an artificial object of unknown purpose. Once in sight of this object, the Enterprise discovers the missing ships whose crews have died as a result of intense mental degradation, the cause of which is believed to be the object. The holding field is having a similarly negative effect on the crew of the Enterprise. These effects manifest themselves in depression and vivid nightmares. Attempts to take control of the object from inside it results in the boarding party collapsing after experiencing a Lovecraftian landscape of sorts. (Ending is spoiled further down).

There are two B-plots that parallel the main story: One story involves an Andorian orphan, Thala, whose father died during the original Borg encounter, and who will need to be transported to an Andorian orphanage. The other story involves Data’s attempt at writing fiction, including his failures to elicit honest criticism from his crew mates.

Comments: Compared to what we’ve had already in the TNG series, the plot’s quite different here; there’s no political turmoil to be dealt with (cf. novels #2, 45, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12), or even more simply hostile aliens (cf. #1, 3, 8). To be fair, the initial springboard in the form of “anomalous area of space”  is similarly used to set up the story for #9 and #11).

I found this to be an extremely enjoyable novel. This is undoubtedly a character-story, and Crispin uses the crews’ dreams (which are caused by the artificial object) to explore elements of pathos, and where those dreams intersect with the past, develop a sense of nostalgia. And apropos those dreams: am not normally a fan of such things, but thought that the memory of Riker’s first love was well done.

A number of the reviewers on Amazon were put off by the sections involving Data’s writing. I’d first of all disagree about their value in themselves – providing character portraiture – and also fitting in perfectly with the ending. With the final revelation that the station is an ancient, and extraordinary alien, collection of arts, Data comes to terms with his authorial inadequacies by also coming to appreciate the role he could play in translation of the works; an optimistic elegy to Data’s artificial nature. (Even if it is a little too romantically written).

External links: Memory-alpha has a list of people, with about the same at -beta.

 
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Posted by on August 1, 2010 in TNG novel

 

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Doomsday World (TNG)

Doomsday World is the twelfth numbered TNG novel, written by a whole host of authors: Carmen Carter, Peter David, Michael Jan Friedman, and Robert Greenberger. Carmen previously wrote The Children of Hamlin, which I quite liked; David has already authored two TNG novels by this time (#5, #10), and his proclivity for (and style of) humour comes through in a notable Monty Python reference early on; Friedman has also got a TNG title under his belt by this time (#9); and finally for Greenberger this appears to be his very first Star Trek novel.Detail from "Doomsday World" cover

And with that out of the way, some words on the plot: the Enterprise arrives at the artificial planet Kirlos, where Geordie, Worf, and Data off-load in order to assist in some excavation. The original inhabitants and creators of the planet are no longer present, and the planet is split between Federation territory and K’Vin territory, the two sides separated by cold tensions. A spate of attacks leaves both sides more cautious than usual.

Comments: For the most part, this felt like a strong set-up: political tension, notably directly involving the Federation (cf. the traditional story involves the Federation assisting the tension faced by other species or organisations) and an ancient mystery relating to the purpose of Kirlos’ being built. Having the Federation be a player in a minor territorial dispute was a fresh angle, as was the idea that some groups (in this case the K’Vin) might have decided to leave the Federation.

Beyond that, however, there were a few weak points. (1)  The Surrlah (a species native to Kirlos) are presented as being suspicious in a heavy-handed manner (so much so, that it remains a possibility for portions of the novel that they are being willfully splashed around as red herrings). (2) Events unfolding on Kirlos after the attacks depend on the actions of the “Mob”, or the “Merchants”. There’s nothing technically wrong with these, but I am not a fan of these Platonic social units which often appear in fiction as homogenous and clearly delineated forces. Similarly simple, is the use of a conspiracy-theory driven crowd. (3) Picard leaves a planet which had been raided to return to Kirlos on account of a hunch he has about the nature of this raid. His beliefs end up being justified, but their reasonings are more than a little vague, (what one might call a tv hunch).

I was curious from the get-go, and wanted to know whether the number of authors was planned from the beginning and whether there was any plans for this to be some sort of major novel.  Members of the TrekBBS (including two of the authors) were kind enough to address this point:

The project came out of a picnic attended by Dave Stern, then editor of the Trek imprint, Bob Greenberger, then editor of the DC Trek books, and a bunch of writers at Christopher Morley Park on Long Island. After the softball game, we talked about a lot of things, one of them being the possibility of a shared novel. Peter David, Bob, Carmen and I were the ones most interested.

We divvied up the work thusly: 1) we had a brainstorming session at Pocket; 2) Bob outlined the thing based on that session; 3) we assigned character points of view to the outline and then divided the writing on that basis (so one writer would handle Geordi, Worf, and Data, another Picard and a significant alien character, another Riker and Troi, and so on); 4) after everyone turned in their work, I gave it a once-over to iron out [inconsistencies] and the biggest variations in style. The result? Doomsday World.

MJ Friedman*

In Doomsday World, Peter handled much of the material with Worf. I got Geordi and Data.

R Greenberger*

These authors (excepting Carmen who was more interested in writing TNG novels), went on to collaborate on another Star Trek novel: The Disinherited. And the motivation?

The upside of group authorship, when it goes well, is that you’re working with real, live people instead of just concepts and characters. Writing is a lonely business. Any time you can make it less so, it’s worth a try.

MJ Friedman*

Putting it in context, it grew out of some envy over the Thieve’s World and Wild Cards shared world anthologies which were pretty hot back then.

R Greenberger*

External links: Here are the Star Trek wiki pages, here & here. The latter at this time has some good lists and a timeline.

 
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Posted by on July 4, 2010 in TNG novel

 

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Gulliver’s Fugitives (TNG)

This is number eleven of the TNG novels, and Keith Sharee’s only Star Trek novel.Detail from "Gulliver's Fugitives" cover

Troi has some dreams, the Enterprise follows a signal from a missing ship, some character’s are taken prisoner on the planet, and then it’s explained what the dreams had to do with everything, the end. In short. In long: the Enterprise crew find themselves at a planet called Rampart, where a Federation ship has gone missing. The people of Rampart are descendents of Earth who left after the “post atomic horror”, establishing their own separate colony. Importantly, they have strict laws regarding the right to think or communicate any forms of fiction (understood broadly). The more elaborate implications of these laws includes drones flying around, reading peoples minds (as it were) to report on transgression, and the wearing of masks that selectively shield undesirous sounds/images.

This forms the backdrop for three plots: One, on the Enterprise some of the Rampart drones are wrecking havoc after having read the minds of key crew members , taking advantage of their technical and security knowledge. Two, on the planet Rampart itself some crew members are prisoners of the planet’s security forces, and three, on the planet Troi separates from the rest to find herself in the presence of an underground movement dedicated to the preservation of stories.

Comments: The above all makes it sound far more promising than the story itself works out to be. The society of Rampart is at face value an interesting set-up: a Ray Bradbury story with augmented reality. Unfortunately this set-up does not pay off.

The author has a few quirks of style, including a tendency to often slip in anecdotes (e.g. character’s reporting or narrating previous experiences) or prefacing a new character by a lengthy preamble. Presumably these are (all too) explicit efforts at justifying those character’s being worthy of our interest.

Early on in the novel, Data scans the planet Rampart, reporting “a high density of video and audio sensors–probably surveillance gear“. Unbeknownst to Data the iPhone has just been released.

External links: For even more discussion of some of the novel’s limitations, the keen reader is referred to Everett Wallace’s review at Amazon. One of the astute points made in that review is that all the impressive abilities of the people of Rampart and their technology “completely undercuts the supposed central message of the book – that creativity and imagination are a necessary part of human intelligence. Instead of being stagnant, the Rampartians are sufficiently adaptable to seriously challenge the Enterprise when, by all rights, they should have been instantly overwhelmed.

At the time of writing, the pages over at the MemoryAlpha/Beta are almost empty.

 
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Posted by on June 6, 2010 in TNG novel

 

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A Rock and a Hard Place (TNG)

This is the tenth numbered TNG novels, and also Peter David’s second.Detail from "A Rock and Hard Place" cover

Riker’s off to inspect some terraforming project, permitting for the plot to quickly bifurcate: on the colony Paradise we follow Riker as he catches up with some old friends from his Alaska days, while on the Enterprise various members of the crew (especially Picard and Troi) come to terms with a Quinton Stone, who is on a temporary assignment on the Enterprise, effectively replacing Riker’s position whilst gone.

The Enterprise plot involves a brief mission to a planet in political turmoil. It is during this mission, as well as during his interactions with the crew members that Stone’s oddity comes to the fore. It is made clear that Stone is an extremely disciplined individual, but the author reveals his potential psychosis, first by showing Stone tell various crew members different stories about his background, and then revealing some of Stone’s behaviour when in private. Interest throughout this part of the novel, and everything that occurs in it, is maintained by providing a stage against which the reader attempts to pass judgment on Stone.

The Riker-plot involves his catching up with old friends, and then attempting to rescue them following an accident. It is very late in the story when the two plots fold back into one again, as the Enterprise, responding to a distress signal sent from Paradise, divert to rescue Riker.

Comments: The most striking element of this novel is probably Stone – his mystery and then finally the resolution of this mystery at the story’s end. Consequentially, the reader’s attitude to the novel as a whole will be strongly determined by how they feel about Stone. Stone’s clichéd self-control and bad-assery are made up for by his potential to turn out to be a psychopath. The question is, are we meant to be disturbed by Stone after turning the final page? Readers comments (on Amazon et al.) would suggest that most are charmed by Stone and his lone-wolf persona. On the other hand, David never explicitly excuses Stone’s manipulation of the crew (of the Enterprise and also of his former ship). Which is all to say: Stone is a very interesting character, albeit one that can be too easily confused for a hero.

The Riker-plot is really just that for the most part – whilst setting up stage for the tragedy on Paradise, David puts a lot of effort into delineating what exactly Riker has sacrified to be were he is. It is normally Picard and his solitude which is focused on in TNG, so much so that we (the audience and readers) do normally forget that presumably most of the main cast are in similar situations. The contrast between Riker’s career and the family of his old-friend is put to focus here, but to arguable effect. Melodrama aside, Riker has always been the masculine, sexually empowered character, and so the attempt to mourn his bachelorhood doesn’t quite come off. Where I would argue David does succeed is in the transformation from Riker’s existential crisis in the cave and the delusional desires for Troi that accompany it, to the final act when those desires simmer back to the status quo.

A few minor-notes and comments: The story is set just after Pulaski has left and Beverley returned (per comments made around the poker table at the very beginning of the novel); a few too may “God”/”Lord” epithets for comfort (stylistically speaking); a closed-loop of energy consumption (per the Wild Things on Paradise feeding off themselves) is not possible; for anyone wanting an example of a both functional and humanistic conversation between Crusher Sr and Jr, turn to the conversation they have in the Sickbay just after Wes is reprimanded by Stone on the bridge.

External links: According to MemoryAlpha, the author re-incarnates (from a literary perspective) the character of Stone in his New Frontiers character, Mackenzie Calhoun. (This notion is seconded, apparently independently, by The Tancave).

 
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Posted by on May 2, 2010 in TNG novel

 

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A Call to Darkness (TNG)

The ninth numbered TNG novel, A Call to Darkness is one of Michael J. Friedman’s first works, and his first TNG foray.Detail from "A Call to Darkness" cover

The plot involves the crew in search of a McGuffin (in this case a missing research vessel) when they discover a shielded planet. Attempts to rescue the McGuffin which lies just past the shield results in the disappearance of key personnel. With this in place, the story is able to develop two main, and one tangential, storylines. The main plots involve (1) the activities of the missing persons, who have been captured and their memories erased for the purpose of serving in violent entertainment (called the Conflicts) for the local populace, (2) the activities of one of the local inhabitants who is learning how the Conflicts are being used to pacify the populace’s political urges. The third, and minor plot, is a minor outbreak of a disease on the Enterprise. Friedman attempts(!) to develop tension by having Pulaski, who is one of the missing crew members, hold key information required for treating the disease.

Comments:

This 1984 cum Fahrenheit 451 story, whilst admittedly far from subtle, is a fair layout for a science-fiction novel. Having said that, for large portions the novel doesn’t come across much as a Star Trek story, nor does it do much that is original with its dystopia set-up.

Characterization was well done in the first few pages of the novel (when it’s most relevant; before half the key players have lost their memories).  There are however key scenes that reveal the author’s amateurship (e.g. in the attempts to create flow and in attempts to decorate dialogue with particular descriptions in the meeting of chapter thirteen).

It should be noted, that while the novel sees one of the character ponder: “It was theoretically possible. Viruses communicated genetic material to other viruses. Why not bacteria to other bacteria?“, that this is something that has been known to be more than theoretically possible for a while now.

With regards the ending: was dissapointed by dues ex gruel, and also by the simplicity of the political fallout – while yes, it was  of interest to find out what happened on A’klah post-script, the transpiring events are all too naively convenient, clean, and quick.

External links: As always (to date), Siskoid’s Blog of Geekery has a nice write-up of the novel. Here are the obligatory Star Trek wiki pages – one, two – which hopefully, before too long, will contain more than just a list of names.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2010 in TNG novel

 

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