I have interrupted my tour of Star Trek books to allow a second Voyager book into the itinerary. Initially I debated reading this book or The Nanotech War. To understand how I could be stuck between a book that I was excited to read and one that I dreaded (The Black Shore), you must understand that I am a contrarian and have a streak of entertainment masochism on top of that. I not only look for reasons to like things that I perceive to be disliked in general, but I find genuine pleasure in some things that even I can’t find merit in.
In trying to find that special so-bad-its-good place in print, I’ve found that I have a low tolerance for anything that doesn’t meet my admittedly high expectations. Between dedicating much more time to a book than to a movie and forcing the use of my own imagination for visualization rather than the relaxing of all higher brain functions, I haven’t gotten to the so-bad-its-good place yet. The Black Shore, however, is a step in that direction.
And so I waffled between a good book and a book whose premise includes Chakotay-magic-native-American-powers and Kes-psychic-powers, two of my least favorite Voyager plot-sources. I can’t leave Voyager without having read both.
If you are not a fan of Chakotay but are a fan of werevampires I have nothing but good news for you.
First, while there is Chakotay going on a (technologically induced) vision quest, it is not a focus of the story. In fact, it could have been left completely out and the story would have lost nothing.
Second, werevampires. The Black Shore’s alien-of-the-week is vampires that eat life-energy by opening portals in their eyes. As if that weren’t enough they turn into giant golden wolf-monsters at will. So not quite werewolves and not quite vampires, but also both, which is a medium amount of awesome…
…which is a good way to describe the entirety of The Black Shore. This book is medium good; it is somewhere above me shrugging and saying I liked it but somewhere below good enough for me to recommend that you bother looking for it on the TV-tie-in shelf of your local used book store.
The Black Shore starts with a beacon broadcasting a wordless looping commercial for Ryolonov. Images of a breathtakingly beautiful black sand beach on the edge of a red-gold ocean under a crimson sky beckon to weary travelers in a desolate region of space. Eager to treat the crew to shore-leave Janeway takes the Ryol up on their offer. It looks like everything is going wonderfully until Chakotay goes on a vision quest where he is attacked by a hideous beast and Kess hears overwhelming psychic screams in the water.
Neither Chakotay nor Kes were wrong and the author doesn’t waste time trying to feint that events were going in any other direction, choosing, instead, to just tease out reveals of the exact details and provide suspense with a Voyager hijacking.
Kes’s psychic sensings end up being the psychic impressions of the natives that were demolished when the Ryol crash-landed on the planet. These ghosts are angered that the remaining members of their species are subjugated by the Ryol and used as both servants and snacks. In the end these ghosts come back to possess their descendants and defeat the Ryol, saving the hostages and dealing a critical blow to the evil Ryol (why they just screamed before and only now decided to take up the business of possession is not explained).
I have decided that I like the ending because it brings up interesting issues with the Prime Directive that I have not yet seen elsewhere. The story illustrates that the Prime Directive, while admirable, is an unattainable ideal. For much of the book Janeway worries that she is violating the Prime Directive by even interacting with the Ryol, who at first look don’t have space-travel of any kind (no mention is given to how they might have gotten the beacon out there). Everyone seems concerned about how the Ryol have subjugated the neffler (the natives, though I hesitate to call them neffler because that was the Ryol pejorative for a being who is food even though we never find out what name they had for themselves) but the Prime Directive prevents them from interfering in the internal affairs of the species.
The issue here is: does the fact that the Ryol were artificially introduced to the neffler and subsequently predated them negate the fact that the relationship between the Ryol and the nefflers is the new internal development of both species? Does Voyager have the right to undo the interference (purposeful or accidental) that was committed an unknown amount of time ago (at least several generations) by an unknown group?
By the time Voyager gets to this point they are no longer explicitly debating the Prime Directive; Janeway has decided that she is going to undo what was done to the neffler, though it is clear that she is emotionally rather than logically motivated (big surprise there!). But I think it is worth our time to wonder at what point it is Voyager’s responsibility to cowboy up and help right triumph over wrong and to examine why Janeway, even with the handwriging she does over her crew, doesn’t step back and debate these issues more (and with a book to fill instead of a limited forty minutes of TV, there is no reason that she can’t be shown taking this time if any writer had any suspicion that it was in her character to do so). The Prime Directive, as a guiding principle, does not anticipate situations like this and, given such circumstances, is not nuanced enough to be of any use.
Should you read this book?
Probably not. Unlike an episode of The Animated Series (like the episode where Spock mind-melds with a giant space-cloud) where silliness runs amok and you’re only wasting 23 minutes, for most people The Black Shore isn’t worth the five hours that you would spend reading it. There is zero expansion of Voyager’s crew’s characters and the mystery at the core of events wasn’t compelling enough to turn this book into a page-turner. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong, but the fun to page ratio isn’t high enough for me to recommend that it be placed in the must-read pile.
Choosing a DS9 book was difficult because there were so many interesting options to choose from. Getting to know the characters as deeply as we do on television it seemed natural that Lives of Dax would satisfy my emotional investment in Jadzia and Ezri Dax.
The Lives of Dax is a collection of short stories in which each one focuses on a different one of Dax’s hosts, including Ezri and Jadzia, and for the first time I am blown away by a Star Trek book. Ranging from incredibly intimate stories to life-altering brushes with a Dax host by others, these short-stories are the perfect vehicle for deepening your understanding of the character.
An appetizer for three stories:
Ezri in "Second star to the right…" and "…and straight on till morning."
by Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens
This is the framing story for the entire collection and it features Ezri talking to Vic Fontaine about her experience becoming joined so hastily. We finally get the full story of her joining along with a sense, in the end, that Ezri is going to be ok even though the eyes of the screenwriters are no longer on her.
No longer lost, Ezri Dax set off on her own journey, sure at last of her own destination, but, like every Dax before her, curious to see what she might find along the way. -page 367
I liked this story (split into two parts) as a way to introduce and end the collection. Certain liberties must be granted it in that not all of the stories that follow are structured as memories, but I appreciate the opportunity that those stories present for me to imagine them from the host’s perspective after being told the story from another.
Lela in "First Steps"
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Set on Trill after their first contact with the Vulcans, this examines the traditional society of Trill as well as its policies of isolationism and secrecy.
Usually the space center was quiet, a place for reflection. She often sat in the observatory and looked at the star charts, or the projections from the telescopes that showed up on the screens. Sometimes she spoke with center personnel, and sometimes she just watched. It gave her perspective, perspective she sometimes needed when dealing with the other council members. -page 46
Lela Dax is the perfect starting point for this journey into the lives of Dax. She is the closest to our perspective. She hasn’t had lifetimes of experience to pull upon, all she has is a dream of seeing the stars and a desire to make a better Trill.
Joran in "Allegro Ouroboros in D Minor"
by S. D. Perry and Robert Simpson
"I…still am…Dax," he whispered, and knew that it was true, that the circle was the truth. Never ending. Dax was alive, and he was part of Dax now, in harmony with the symbiont, forever. -page 260
Told from the perspective of both Joran and the detective who eventually catches Joran, this story gives us a good perspective on what can occasionally go wrong with a joining. It also introduces us to the Trill cultural teaching that life and particularly joined lives are a circle, never-ending and each one complete.
The beauty of a collection like this one is that by reading the stories of Dax’s previous hosts, we, the audience, can better color Jadzia and Ezri’s actions and thoughts with the shades of their multi-life experience. Ezri was a councilor before she became Ezri Dax, but, despite how overwhelmed she is immediately after, she now groks exactly what it like to be obsessed and fixated because she has experienced it through Joran; she truly understands losing perspective and empathy in search of an idea. I imagine that those insights will allow her to bring a new era of emotional and mental healing to Deep Space Nine as it recovers from not only the Dominion War but still recovers from the Cardassian occupation of Bajor.
Should you read this book?
Besides those stories above, you will also get to peek into Jadzia’s childhood, get the details on Emony’s run-in with McCoy, and find out why Tobin was the first person ever to go through a teleporter.
This is the payoff that you are looking for. When you are finished you will understand the importance of Dax to the Federation, newly appreciate Jadzia’s natural wisdom, and have greater empathy Ezri’s struggles. No book, especially a collection of short stories by different authors, is qualitatively even, but there was not a single story that I felt did not belong or did not contribute to the whole.
I will admit that choosing a Star Trek: Voyager book was hard. Between novelizations of episodes and dull-sounding premises I ended up on #39 of the series before I found a book that felt like it had not been done on television.
In particular The Nanotech War seemed interesting because it explores a more science and less magical part of Star Trek. We have nanotechnology now! The technology may be an impossibility at the point that the Chiar (the aliens in the book) or Borg have it, but this book isn’t asking us to grapple with subspace (I replace the word subspace with “magic” in my head), gravitons/chronotons (dramatically necessary but theoretically sketchy ways to give little-understood concepts verisimilitude), or human shapeshifters (thanks TOS!). The book asks us to consider a concept built upon real science taken beyond our current ability, which makes this science fiction, not science fantasy(!) and my book-nerd heart gives a little flutter in salute.
The Nanotech War starts with an ion storm. Voyager is damaged as well as another craft. Upon contacting the craft they find out that it is the first warp-capable ship of the Chiar, who are described as having four legs, two arms, a long segmented neck, and nanites covering their entire bodies. This brings up an interesting issue with the prime directive: If a species has only achieved warp for a fraction of a second, is it still a warp-capable civilization? And if they are, what are the first contact protocols for such a meeting? Furthermore, even if the letter of the prime directive allows contact, does the spirit of it?
Janeway decides to make contact and they discover that the Chiar are a highly technologically advanced species, just in different ways than the Federation. The Chiar have nanotechnology that rivals Borg nanotechnology though it is put to vastly different use. Everyone wears a layer of nanobots on their skin to protect them, clean them, and act as color, pattern, and texture-changing decoration. Nanobots infuse the buildings and furniture changing their appearance frequently. Plants are grown with tremendous speed using nanotechnology.
On the other hand, Chi is overpopulated and the Chiar are currently in a state of civil war. The prime directive is very clear that Voyager should not involve itself in the internal development of other civilizations. Despite this, and despite the best efforts of Captain Janeway and the crew, terrorists of the minority Chiar faction abduct Tom Paris and Seven of Nine, starting a chain of events that forces Voyager to become a major player in Chiar history.
I could barely put this book down. I wanted to know what happened next and how Voyager’s captain and crew would extricate themselves from the perilous diplomatic situations of the story.
In particular, the Chiar minority leader argues that by negotiating trade and relations exclusively with the other party, that Voyager was implicitly involving itself in the internal affairs of the Chiar by legitimizing that government and their oppression of the minority. This situation reminds me of the way that China expresses disappointment in countries who host the Dali Lama. While it isn’t exactly the same, especially given that the power dynamic between China and Tibet is much different than between the two Chiar factions, both situations demonstrate the power that an important outsider can have.
Regarding the other big theme of the book, nanotechnology, I was excited that Chiar civilization is one where the use of nanotechnology more closely approximated what I imagine that we would do with nanobots. It isn’t just in their uses that the Chiar remind me of the human relationship to technology, but also in the way that the Chiar discard old technology and ways of thinking as they move forward. They panic when their tools are taken away from them, not knowing what to do even when the answer is logical to someone else, instead they take roundabout and dangerous actions to get their tools back.
One of those dangerous actions is triggered when the Chiar learn of Seven of Nine’s unique situation as a borg individual. Once everything plays out it is no surprise that Seven struggles with compassion; Through the second half of the book she is betrayed by both sides of the Chiar in a multitude of ways. She is physically violated, tortured, and treated as a tool. When the Chiar make a fatal mistake that puts their fate in Seven’s hands she understandably believes that they deserve what they have brought on themselves. I won’t consider it a spoiler that she does the “right” thing, this is Star Trek after all, but I imagine that it takes her as much time to come to terms with her decision to help as it would if she had not helped.
Should you read it?
A qualified yes. This book will not overcome a dislike of Voyager or Seven of Nine. If you don’t have those type of issues, I would recommend this as a solid choice when picking up a Star Trek book.
The thing I love most about Star Trek is the stories it inspires in my mind. Each episode is the doorway into new story possibilities in the Star Trek universe, so I am exploring the stories that Star Trek has inspired in other people’s minds looking for deeper explorations of themes and characters.
I chose Q-In-Law as my 2nd “mission” because it featured two of my favorite comedic characters, Lwaxana Troi and Q. The hilarity that my mind conjured for such an encounter convinced me that this book had to be the TNG book that I read first.
This is my third attempt to write about Q-In-Law. I have come through a serious attempt to talk about the literary merits of Q-In-Law, an angry rant about teenagers, and a serious questioning of my love of Star Trek (don’t worry, I’m ok now) to arrive at this:
Q-In-Law, when read in the right frame of mind, is the (unintentional) Redshirts of 1991.
Where Redshirts cleverly utilizes science-fiction tropes and the fourth wall to point out how absurd the universe would be if Star Trek were played through using its own rules, Q-In-Law uses half-baked literary allusions, anachronistic dialog, cliches, and other literary torture devises to be a commentary on fan fiction’s tendency to take awesome story concepts, squish in terrible story concepts, get certain characters spot-on while completely ignoring previous characterizations of others, and Star Trek’s sometimes strange handling (or failure to handle) certain issues.
Taking them one at a time…
Awesome story concept
What if Q popped in on Enterprise at the same time as Lwaxana Troi was there and “in-phase”?
What if someone gave Wesley a present of a girl who wants desperately to have sex with him and he’s diplomatically manipulated to think that if he refuses he’ll start a war?
Terrible Story Concept (and half-baked literary allusion)
What if we did Romeo & Juliet in space, but subverted the ending by giving Lwaxana Q’s powers, leading to the following framing plot:
There’s a wedding that has to be hosted on Enterprise because the bride and groom are the children of rival merchant families. —> shenanigans —> they break up —> violent(ish) shenanigans —> true love and everyone learns their lesson (except Q).
It was clear that this was written for the comedy of the situation and Lwaxana and Q certainly are funny. Q throws one-liners out easier than he snaps his fingers and transports the Enterprise out of the universe, the best one easily being, “You’ll have to forgive Worf. He just discovered opposable thumbs and he’s feeling overly confident.” (location 884)
On the other hand Picard in particular was nothing more than the name that was slapped on the actions of the captain. There was nothing Picard-like about him. For example, at one point “Picard tried to force an amiable smile that wound up looking more like a desperate grin.” (location 883, I read this in ebook form) I have never seen Picard with a desperate grin nor have I seen him fail to put up a diplomaticly appropriate facial expression when necessary. I doubt even Q could goad Picard into a desperate grin.
There are many more (in equal amounts) examples of Q and Lwaxana being funny and other characters being off their game.
Awkward Handling of Issues
What does one do with a gift that is a person? If you’re Wesley you freak out a bit, resist the overtures of the clearly-indoctrinated girl, and try to figure out what to do with her that won’t start a war. In the end though, the girl goes back to her original owner and it turns out that Wesley mostly wanted to get rid of her because she was clumsy. At the wedding reception Wesley stands around with the father-of-the-bride discussing how women just tell men what they want to hear and the conversation ends with
"Women," agreed Wes.
Speaking of women…what does one do with one’s mother who has the hormones of a teenager and is acting like it? If you’re Deanna Troi and your mother is Lwaxana you stomp around and yell at her a lot until she listens (and we all know how well teenagers listen).
Should you read this book?
Perhaps, if you’re find a copy of the audiobook, it may be worth listening to Majel Barrett and John de Lancie read their parts in-character, but I otherwise can’t in good conscience recommend it despite reassurances that Peter David has written good Star Trek books. Go track those down. Jerad Formby (of Hey Star Trek! fame) recommends Vendetta because “[Peter David] actually evolved [the Borg] in a way that made sense instead of just taking their teeth out as the showrunners did.”
How I picked this book
It started with the title. I don’t think anyone who has watched The Original Series can forget the moment in “Charlie X” when Uhura is singing in the rec room while accompanied by Spock on the Vulcan lyrette. Her voice and songs are a reminder of beauty in an environment built for functionality and protocol. Combined with the promise of cat-people1 I knew that this was the novel for me.
The Enterprise is orbiting Eeiauo (I pronounce this in my head like meow minus the m) as it lends its medical staff to help the cat-like Eeiauoans battle ADF, a miserable disease that causes protracted weakness leading to a coma and eventually death in all cases. Doctor Evan Wilson assigned herself to Enterprise to act as Doctor McCoy’s replacement while he is occupied on Eeiauo and everyone resents Starfleet assigning them a new medical officer, so even Kirk gives her the cold shoulder. The situation becomes urgent when it is discovered that ADF can infect many species and, due to its long incubation period, has already jumped from Eeiauo to other worlds.
Lieutenant Nyota Uhura holds the key to everything in the songs that she learned early in her career from befriending Sunfall of-Ennien, an Eeiauoan diplomat. They exchanged songs as a way to exchange cultures. The Eeiaoan songs hint that the Eeiaoans came from somewhere else (a planet named Sivao) and that there may be a cure for ADF there. Eventually, the songs also provide the key insight that breaks the case and leads to a cure for ADF. In between, Captain Kirk, Chekov2, Spock, Uhura, and Doctor Evan Wilson (at Spock’s suggestion that she be included on the away mission) spend time on Sivao, making friends, learning about the culture, and having adventures in their efforts to find a cure for ADF.
In particular I loved that Uhura (called StarFreedom on Sivao) made friends with Rushlight, the Sivaoan bard and their discussions of the place that song holds in each culture. They also discuss the difference in the treatment of intellectual property; To the Sivaoans works of creativity are used as currency; a song is repayed by helping with a camp chore and the gift of permission to replicate, perform, or improve upon someone else’s work is a strong symbol of trust and friendship. If someone chooses not to pass on their works before they die, those works die with them.
In addition, there were many moments where characters shined, either by being particularly in-tune with their TV-counterparts or by adding depth. Here are a couple of my favorites:
As Uhura advanced toward [the Sivaoan], the two youngest children started to back away. Uhura stopped. Very slowly, she knelt…and the two little ones stopped backing and instantly regained their curiosity.
Scholarly language wouldn’t mean much to someone that young, but she knew something they might understand, She rather hoped the captain would understand as well; she couldn’t leave children frightened by their first sight of humans and Vulcans. She began to sing an old, old lullaby she’d learned from Sunfall.
By the time Kirk worked his way through the crowd, Wilson was standing behind Chekov, devoting her full attention to his project. Deftly, and with great determination, Chekov chipped away at the stone in his palm with a second stone. Finally he stopped and made meticulous scratches; and, grinning boyishly, he held up the finished object for Wilson’s inspection.
"Mr. Chekov," she said, "you can be in my lifeboat anytime! Why did you add your initials? I’ll grant them out of justified pride, but it doesn’t seem likely your work would be mistaken for anyone else’s on this world. They’ve obviously never seen the like!"
"Hebit," said Chekov, flushing. "Et home, if I didn’t scretch my initials on them, they turned up in collections—once in a museum!"
Evan Wilson is a trickster3. She is a person who goes around Starfleet impersonating other people, doing badass good deeds, and getting away with it. All of the lovely and subtle thematic elements of the parallel trickster myths between cultures is going to come down to the Enterprise crew smiling and shrugging at the egregious breaches of security that a mysterious unknown entity committed.4
It makes a certain amount of sense that Mary Sue pixie dream girl ::cough:: Doctor Evan Wilson would enchant Kirk, after all, she is a hot piece of tail that is perfect in every way: she swordplays with Sulu, she is feisty enough to take on a giant cat person to earn their respect, she is the BEST at first contact, she plays intellectual games with Spock of such complexity and cleverness that even he is fascinated, she has mad skillz with a computer (if she was in The Core DJ Qualls would have logged in to his computer to find out that she had already hacked the planet and hooked him up with a lifetime supply of his second favorite flavor of Hot Pockets), she calls Scotty laddie and has a shuttle fabricated of pure awesomeness that happens to have just the teensiest problem (in a warp drive system that in a previous outing she invented under the name of someone else) that Scotty can look at instead of worrying about the away team on the planet, and speaking of the shuttle she’s such a good pilot that she doesn’t need the tractor beam to get it into the bay…
We see from the beginning of the novel that Nyota has a particular capacity for understanding and cherishing music and other people. She feels deeply and her sincerity forms strong friendships. In contrast Dr Wilson forms energetic, fast moving friendships but tires easily of hobbies and people. Both personality types are valid and valuable. The book would have been well-served to position Dr Wilson as a foil to Uhura allowing them to feed off of the other’s energy, instead Dr Wilson steals any scene that she is in, with Uhura fading into the background. Ultimately though, Dr Wilson leaves in a puff of cheek kisses, winks, and glitter while Uhura has made countless lifelong friends, mended a 2000 year old rift between the Sivaoans and the Eeaoians, and inspired a Sivaoan to take the name Another StarFreedom in her honor.
Should you read it?
Absolutely! Despite its problems, this type of deep-dive into a mission is one of the things that makes Star Trek a good fit for novels.
1. Don’t get me started on the Kzinti which make a guest appearance in the ST:TAS episode written by Larry Niven. I acknowledge that it is possible that a species could have sub-sentient females and the exploration of that might be interesting, but the way it is presented in Ringworld (and I will never read more of the series because I hated Ringworld so much, if you want something with an equally grand setting please read Eon by Greg Bear, Titan by John Varley, Pandora’s Star by Peter Hamilton, Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds, or anything really in the Big Dumb Object's literature section) is unacceptable. There NEEDS to be cat-people in the Star Trek universe other than the Kzinti.↩
2. [I always imagine Chekov (and only Chekov) as his new-timeline-self (played by Anton Yelchin). Maybe it’s my crush on Anton Yelchin.]↩
3. [There is a brilliant scene where, after “Doctor Wilson” leaves they try to call her and end up talking to Doctor Wilson, a black guy. The characters act as nonchalant as they can, but inside my head I was excited. Was she a shapeshifter? Was she a incorporeal being? Was she a hallucination? Could something even more bizarre have been happening? Alas, the black man was not the same person as the Doctor Wilson that they had been hanging out with for weeks, but for a moment I had hope.]↩
4. [Maybe it’s that I just finished watching “Mortal Coil”, the episode of Voyager where Neelix dies and has a crisis of faith when he doesn’t experience an afterlife. I nearly rage-quit watching when Neelix is about to beam himself into space and Harry Kim locks him out of the transporter and Neelix over-rides the transporter lockout. Why can Neelix over-ride that?! Can Naomi Wildman with her Playschool My-First-PADD over-ride the transporter lockout? I know that Neelix has done some time in several departments including security, but is that in the orientation packet?]↩