Book Review: Star Trek Seekers 1
by David Mack
Pocket Books, 2014
Way back at the dawn of the Star Trek era, at a gathering still too primitive to be called a “convention,” an over-earnest fan (a bit of a redundancy when it comes to Star Trek fans, then or now) posed a heartfelt question to D. C. Fontana, a revered writer for the original 1960s TV series. “Is it really likely,” he asked, “that Kirk’s Enterprise is the only starship in all of Starfleet that has amazing adventures? That all the other starships just do normal everyday starship stuff all day long?” The questioner was no doubt asking a loaded question (he probably had a doomed penchant for writing what we now call “fan fiction” about those other Starfleet vessels and their crews), and the resulting pause was, as they say, pregnant. Then Fontana shrugged a bit and said, “Yeah, sure. Somebody’s got to do the everyday starship stuff, right?” The fan was not pleased.
To be fair, the idea has never pleased fans all that much. The idea that Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise could be having adventures every week (meeting Leonardo Da Vinci, encountering Greek gods and witches, time traveling at the drop of a hat, etc.) while every other starship in the fleet was boringly mapping gaseous anomalies and filling out personnel forms not only seemed unfair – it also underscored how outlandish those Enterprise adventures were, with one amazing thing happening after another. There seemed to be only two alternatives: either we rule out some of those original-series adventures as mere interstellar tall tales, or we allow that all kinds of adventures were happening all the time to all kinds of other starships that were never lucky enough to have their own televised adventures. And to Star Trek fans, that’s hardly a tough choice.
In the original series, there’s not much in the way of alternative #2. We almost always see other starships as hapless failures who only come to the attention of the mighty Enterprise when they’ve met the enemy and been completely destroyed (the Intrepid and its entire crew dies off-stage, for instance, and the shattered Constellation‘s captain cracks under pressure). The idea of starships existing entirely separate of the Enterprise‘s narrative necessarily went spotlight-begging for most of the franchise’s history, and this was true as much in the world of Star Trek fiction as it was in the world of Star Trek film (the most valiant prolonged gesture in the other direction being the TV series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but even there, you didn’t exactly get the impression that every Federation space station was having adventures every other day).
When it comes to Star Trek fiction, New York Times bestselling author David Mack did more to counteract that emphasis than anybody had done since the old days of dot-matrix fanzines. Starting in 2005, he wrote or oversaw a seven-book series focused not on the Enterprise but on Starbase 47, nicknamed “Vanguard.” Fans of the original series tended to find these novels a splash of refreshing cold water; the Captain Kirk who stalked Vanguard’s halls was a resolutely minor character, and the over-arching plot lines of the series quickly moved the whole shebang away from the Enterprise & co.
Mack is one of those rare but very pleasing science fiction writers who gets better with every book, and this summer he and his longtime collaborators began a new series organized around not a starbase but a starship, the scout-class USS Sagittarius captained by Clark Terrell, who’ll be familiar to Star Trek fans as the poor mind-controlled captain of the USS Reliant in the hugely successful movie Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. Captain Terrell is a perfect opportunity-character for any writer of Star Trek fiction – he’s canonical (even played by a great actor) but entirely undetailed, an open field for the writerly imagination. Mack knows the Star Trek fandom likes Captain Terrell, so his Captain Terrell is likable, and Mack gives him and his crew a fairly benign sheen, right down to shipboard rituals:
Clark Terrell found a lot of things to like about serving on a small ship such as the Sagittarius, but its onboard menu was not one of them. The crew had no end of nicknames for the scout ship’s galley. The engineers’ current favorite was “The Unholy Mess,” while the officers tended to refer to the communal dining area as “Pre-sickbay.” One thing everyone agreed upon was that the Starfleet-approved bill of fare programmed into the food synthesizer left much to be desired.
In this first volume in the “Star Trek Seekers” series, Second Nature, Captain Terrell heads a somewhat predictably multi-racial crew – there’s a Vulcan, a Trill, an Arkenite, a Denobulan, etc. – and unfortunately Mack tends to lean on these race-implications just as so many of his Star Trek fiction writers have done before him (it lends itself to an egregious laziness that would be condemned as simple racism if it were being applied to people from Lithuania instead of Alpha Centauri; countless times, Mack designates these characters by their races – “the Vulcan” this, or “the Trill” that). The actual individual characterizations are consequently somewhat thin, but Mack compensates a bit by keeping his plot bubbling nicely along.
The plot itself, ironically enough, is straight from the original-series playbook: distant, unmapped star system, primitive society living cheek-by-jowl with super-powerful alien artifact, Federation starship worried about both violating the Prime Directive and fending off system-marauding Klingons. The alien artifact in question is a bigger, more powerful version of the one Captain Kirk encounters in the 1968 episode “The Paradise Syndrome,” and that echo gets even more insulting for our heroes when at one point a character, seeking to activate the object, is reduced to repeating over and over the line that worked back in 1968: “Kirk to Enterprise, Kirk to Enterprise.” Likewise when the star system is menaced by the original-series Klingon commander Kang (the novel is dedicated to the actor who played Kang), he initially gets his hopes up that the Federation vessel he’ll be facing is the Enterprise under Captain Kirk – and he’s bitterly disappointed when it turns out to be somebody he’s never heard of. It’s a little sad, in a way.
Mack can be counted on to invest even his most workmanlike narratives with smart and often thought-provoking little details, and Second Nature is no exception. There’s some fine textured Star Trek work being done in these pages, with plenty of insider nods only fans will notice or appreciate, and some of the secondary characters he presents are fascinating, like the Klingon scientist named Tormog who’s a bit aggrieved at the warrior-culture of his people:
What good was a warrior without the farmer who provided the food that fed him? Or the chefs who could turn base ingredients into meals worthy of song? What use was a soldier without an engineer to design his marvelous starships, craft his fearsome energy weapons, or architect the integrated sensor and communication systems that made his majestic victories possible?
If the “Vanguard” series is any indication, there’ll be plenty of such good stuff to come in this “Seekers” series, although by far the best insider nods going on here are the covers of the books in the series, deliciously retro conceptions by the great Rob Caswell that pay homage to the covers of the old James Blish Star Trek anthology volumes from forty years ago. Some of the franchise’s older fans will remember those covers with unalloyed fondness (despite the dreck with which Blish could be relied upon to fill the pages inside), and some of that fondness is legitimately earned by these new adventures. And if those older fans find themselves reading about Terrell and his crew but occasionally wondering what-all Kirk and his crew were up, well, those fans will just have to control themselves.