Several weeks ago in conversation with a friend I was told something shocking about myself: I dislike Star Trek novels. Naturally, I was somewhat taken aback by this revelation; I’ve been a long-time reader of Star Trek novels, having begun reading them around 1984 with Vonda N. McIntyre’s novelization of Star Trek III and having never stopped, and while I’ve criticized novels such as Red Sector, the New Frontier novel Restoration, and the recent duology Dark Passions, I’ve never thought of myself as a Star Trek novel-hater.
In retrospect I can see how this belief about my feelings on Star Trek novels came about; I can be at times overly strident and argumentative in putting forth my opinion, especially on Star Trek, especially on the novels. I don’t believe this attitude is an incorrect one. As a long-time Star Trek novel reader I want to see the best possible Star Trek novels published. As a long-time Star Trek novel buyer I want to come away from the novel feeling that my money was well-spent. As a long-time Star Trek fan I want a well-told and well-crafted Star Trek story, no matter what the medium. I don’t offer criticism on a Star Trek novel because I dislike Star Trek in general or the novels in particular. When I offer criticism, then, it’s because I care about Star Trek and the novels, because I want to see them be as good as they can be.
Criticisms of the television shows and movies can be found anywhere on the Internet with whole websites, usenet groups, e-mail lists, message boards devoted to the purpose of picking apart the most recent episodes and exposing their flaws for all the world to see. By way of contrast there is little criticism of the licensed Star Trek products. I think the form of the Trek in question is in large part the cause of the disparate levels of criticism and discussion. Filmed Trek is, for most viewers, free, while licensed Trek invariably has a cost involved; a Star Trek fan doesn’t have to do much more than lift a finger and fiddle with the television remote to watch the latest episode of Voyager, but to read the latest novel or comic he has to go out and buy the book from bookstore, supermarket, etc. A Star Trek fan that reads the novels, then, isn’t the usual passive fan, and quite possibly expects more from Star Trek.
Keith R.A. DeCandido’s first Star Trek: The Next Generation novel, Diplomatic Implausibility, satisfies all three things I want from a Star Trek novel. While 2001 may be young, I venture that there will be few Star Trek novels this year to match Diplomatic Implausibility (hereafter DI). Quite simply, DeCandido has crafted an excellent novel, one that tells a sound story and captures well the essence of the Star Trek characters and their universe.
After nearly thirty-five years of Star Trek, the idea that a “Trek formula” exists isn’t laughable. Many episodes of the various series have followed a predictable pattern: Enterprise arrives at planet, problems ensue, the Captain wrestles with a decision as the situation escalates, and at the end a reasonable solution is found. While simplistic, this is a pattern repeated across the four television series and New Frontier time and again. To some extent DeCandido’s story follows this pattern. What sets DI apart from the “Trek formula” is how the typical elements come into play.
Immediately, DI sets itself apart from Trek-as-usual; the main character of the novel is Worf, but a Worf no longer in Starfleet and in the service of the Federation’s Diplomatic Corps. At the conclusion of Deep Space Nine‘s final episode, “What You Leave Behind,” Worf left Starfleet to become the Federation’s Ambassador to the Klingon Empire, and DI relates Worf’s first assignment as Federation Ambassador. Thus, we have a Star Trek novel is which one of the usual hallmarks of Star Trek storytelling, namely Starfleet, is barely present and has little bearing upon the events of the novel. While the Enterprise does appear, her role in the story is minimal, amounting to a cameo appearance that conveys some important character moments for Worf. Instead, the Enterprise‘s usual role is filled by the IKS Gorkon, a Klingon Defense Force ship assigned to ferry newly-minted Ambassador Worf to the planet taD.
Here is where DI shines. Not only does DeCandido convey effectively Worf’s efforts to find a solution to the taD crisis while bridging his Klingon heritage and his Federation upbringing, he also introduces us to the crew of the IKS Gorkon, bringing these characters vividly to life. While most of these characters have appeared in The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine before, they were largely unknown, disposable characters. Given life here they come across well on the printed page with histories and personality quirks. Klag, the one-armed hero of Marcan, saddled with a crew not of his liking for his first command. Drex, the son of Martok, unable to conceal his distaste for being second-in-command of the Gorkon and his hatred for Worf. Vall, the engineering genius, ill-suited by disposition to serve on a Klingon ship. B’oraq, the ship’s doctor, wanting to bring Federation medicine to an Empire badly in need of it. These characters and others come to life, each with his or her own motivations, their own role in the unfolding drama. While we’ve seen Klingon ships before, most notably in John M. Ford’s The Final Reflection and Peter Morwood’s Rules of Engagement, I don’t believe that we’ve seen such rich characterization. I was intrigued by these characters. I could understand their motives, whether they assisted Worf in his mission or hindered his progress. I would welcome a return engagement of the Gorkon and her crew.
To some extent the novel stands as a study in characterization. Worf faces hostility from the Klingons and the al’Hamatti while at the same time dealing with the realization that he might be ill-suited for his new role as Ambassador. Klag must confront his prejudice against medicine and his distrust of those who gained their positions through familial connections. In the end these characters learn something about who they are and why their beliefs, while not necessarily wrong, might require reappraisal. However, this does not mean that Diplomatic Implausibility shirks plot in favor of characterization because it does not. DI uses characterization to further the plot; events happen because of who the characters are and what they believe, and in the end to rise above who they are.
Nothing comes across more clearly in DI than the fact that DeCandido is clearly a fan of Star Trek. Continuity references are unobtrusive, but provide an extra level of shading for the long-time fan. Additionally, references are made to two of Peter David’s works, his first Next Generation novel Strike Zone and to the New Frontier series. A mention of The Captain’s Table, setting of the crossover novel series of the same title from 1998, is so unobtrusive that a non-fan would pay it no mind while to the long-time fan would find a welcome smile crossing his face. As a fan who would like to think that the television shows, films, novels, and comics all occur within the same universe, the acknowledgement of other novels contributes to the sense that these other novels “matter.”
Those passing up on Diplomatic Implausibility are passing up on an excellent novel. DeCandido has written a well-crafted novel that carries forward Worf’s life while also introducing us to a group of characters that I hope to see more of in the future. I look forward to more from Keith R.A. DeCandido’s pen, especially his take on Deep Space Nine in this fall’s Demons of Air and Darkness. But for now, I have Diplomatic Implausibility, and this book fulfills what I want in a Star Trek novel: a story well-told and worth every penny. While some might quibble with the designation of this novel as a Next Generation novel when the Enterprise-E and crew appear but barely, they would be missing out on what may well be one of the best Star Trek novels published this year, and what is certainly the best debut Star Trek novel in some time.
Recommended without reservation.