Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Terilynn's Trek: A Review Of Pocketbooks' 'Star Trek: Titan - Synthesis'

This review contains very minor spoilers, but they are spoilers nonetheless.

I haven’t enjoyed doing a Star Trek book review in a very, very long time.

Most people who may have read my previous blog would doubtless recall the solid-but-not-raving review I gave the Star Trek Destiny trilogy. It was a good read and an interesting tale, but it just seemed weighed down, becoming the victim of having too big a story to tell and ending up coming off as just a pathetic means to dispose of the Borg and wipe the Trek slate clean so the writers wouldn’t have to deal with them anymore.

But anyone who read my most recent rant about “Star Trek: Titan – Over a Torrent Sea” will definitely recall that I could barely contain my fury, rage and disgust over what is in my opinion the single worst Trek book ever written. (OK, maybe not the single worst. It might actually tie for worst with that one that had Picard actually lifting and carrying Riker’s unconscious body after a battle – and we’re not talking about a dead man’s lift here or even constructing a cart to haul him. No I’m talking about full-on carrying Riker in his arms! I still haven’t stopped laughing about that one! I forgot the name of the stupid book, so it’s just as well.)

Because of the fiasco that was OaTS, one of my last blogs intimated how utterly nervous I was about the new Star Trek: Titan novel recently released by CBS/Simon and Schuster/Pocketbooks entitled “Synthesis.”

I pre-ordered the book thoroughly expecting to say after reading it that I would never want to read another Titan or any other Star Trek book for as long as I lived. A lot of that presupposition was based solely on my impression of the cover art – a "Harlequin Romance"-styled depiction of Captain William T. Riker embracing Next Gen Season 1 holodiva Minuet.

What I got however was more than I could have hoped for …

Synthesis author, James Swallow, has managed to totally rejuvenate the Titan characters with something that’s been missing from Trek books since before the Destiny Trilogy was published – namely themselves.

By the time I got to Page 171 I was running around my house and telling The Husband that I felt like Titan had been saved.

Riker acted like Riker!

Troi wasn’t the babbling, selfish, hormonal twit portrayed in OaTS. (As a matter of fact Troi’s previous insipid behavior is rectified in one simple and very powerful paragraph on Page 89 as well as a stint of pure Troi command presence toward the end of the book. Damn straight that’s how she’d act Mr. Swallow! Baby or no – duty is duty!)

First Officer Christine Vale was the acerbic ex-cop/security officer I had always related to and adored even down to her “thickheadedness” and her aggressive-yet-not-necessarily-misplaced sense of protectiveness of her captain. In this book she doesn’t display the weakness or fear that was imparted upon her in the previous tale and she’s back to being exactly the person (person – not woman, not man, not alien or machine – but person) that I have no trouble believing Riker would have chosen to be his XO.

But best of all, one of my favorite Titan characters from the very first book – the Choblik Ensign Torvig Bu-Kar-Nguv – was back in the spotlight and worming himself and his cybernetic implants right back into my heart.

The same goes with every other Titan character – Tuvok, Keru, Lavena, Pazlar, Ree, Ra-Havreii, K’Chak’!’op, Dakal, Sethe – everyone was acting like I would have expected them to act from the time we were first introduced to them as a crew in “Star Trek: Titan - Taking Wing.”

Simply put…Swallow gets it.

He actually understood these characters and let the characters react to the story at hand instead of imparting his own ideals through them. He wove a tale so engrossing, fun and thought-provoking I found myself wishing that it had been a real episode or film just so I could see with my real eyes what my mind’s eye was creating from his imagery.

This book attempts to tackle a very big subject and it’s nothing short of: What defines sentience? Swallow allows the characters to ponder that question; argue about it, chew on it and then, within the context of the Federation’s ideals, they attempt to move forward not knowing if a huge mistake will be made or not.

Talk about Star Trek subject matter! It’s right up the ole’ Roddenberry alley if you ask me! And it’s these types of stories that I had felt were missing from the world and were exactly what drew me back to Star Trek two and a half years ago.

Swallow handles the story well; it’s tightly written and the action flows vividly without being weighed down. His descriptive words are well chosen to allow the reader to create his or her own idea of the sweeping vistas and/or potentially incomprehensible visuals that might otherwise get bogged down in minutiae, but also allows for the flow of dialogue and action that are so needed in a plot like this.

It's not a Pulitzer Prize-winning book but it's not trying to be, nor do I want/expect that in a Star Trek story. What I want from Star Trek books is a continuation of the television shows that are now missing from the set. Each book should be akin to an episode that hasn't aired. Synthesis delivers on this. It is, for lack of a better term, a "quick read" but it's also very, very fun.

I have no idea whether or not it is the case, but I got the impression that Swallow has not only watched every single Trek episode, but that he actually paid attention to and enjoyed them. Only once before have I ever felt that a true Trek fan had written an authorized Trek book – and that was Keith R.A. DeCandido’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation - Q&A.”

Swallow did precisely what needed to be done to save Titan from the Soap Opera Hell it was heading for – he went back to the basics and instead of telling a “Titan” tale, he told a Star Trek tale that just happens to occur on the U.S.S. Titan: discussions of great importance are had; there is danger and fear and real risk in a first contact mission and there is a tangible challenge to the crew’s perceptions of the ideals held out by the United Federation of Planets.

Synthesis not only touches on the masterpiece Next Gen television episode “A Measure of a Man” but also on “Elementary, Dear Data” and “Ship in a Bottle.” It also brings to mind the self-aware holocharacters of Vic Fontaine of "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and The Doctor on "Star Trek: Voyager."

It also deftly touches on the characters' fears incubated by the Borg and how those who suffered from their attacks would proceed with extreme caution when faced with a new and eerily similar civilization. Once bitten they say…

Yet Swallow allows the characters to reflect our own fears and prejudices through their words and actions without letting it alter the true roots of those characters - and that is something I've felt has been missing from all Trek books since in recent months.

Spoiler Alert! No one cheats on their spouse! No one gets internal redemption or a promotion by changing their boss’ soiled diapers and no one willingly & knowingly breaks the Prime Directive! Starfleet officers act just like Starfleet officers are supposed to act. They may not be perfect, but damn, they still try their best!

And yes – another shuttle is lost. I’m actually beginning to find the depletion of the shuttle fleet rather humorous. Shuttles to Riker and the Titan are like secretaries to Murphy Brown. However, we are introduced to the Captain’s Skiff the LaRocca, which was a trade-off I guess. I'm glad there's a lot of jazz greats to name shuttles after!

So – if you haven’t guessed it, I loved this book. I loved it so much I can safely say it’s my new favorite Trek book.

Thank you Mr. Swallow for putting Starfleet back into Star Trek, and putting the Titan characters back into their own skin. Well done. Well done indeed.

Now – can you do us all a favor? Please sit down and have a talk with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman – cuz I think they could use a few tips on writing Trek that stays true to character!

… D’oh! Did I just type that out loud? ;)