This month I took a break to chill out and read some Star Trek novels. I also read at turns gripping and charming short stories at Lit Up, Starward Shadows Quarterly, and Flash Point Science Fiction.
I am switching up my formatting for this post so the short stories come first. I read some great short stories this month, and I don’t want them to get buried beneath me writing entirely too many words about Star Trek.
Hell of a Hound by Sylvia Heike at Lit Up – A father reckons with his daughter’s new “dog.” The descriptions of Poppy are tense and spooky, and you really feel for the Dad, trapped between wanting to maker his daughter happy and dealing with the creature that’s a bit more than a dog. A surprising ending in a story that wonderfully walks the tight-rope between two distinct tones.
Wax Agatha by KT Wagner at Starward Shadows Quarterly – Agatha is in the stage of her life where her body has turned to wax, and her stone children and broader stone society look down on her for it. I love that this story features an older woman as the protagonist, and that Agatha uses her odd hobby and knowledge of the ways her society is stacked against her to get out of a tough scrape. Wagner packs a ton of inventive worldbuilding and speculative biology into this tightly written story – the workings of the transition from stone to wax, and how stone people reproduce are utterly fantastical, yet feel rooted in the solid reality of the story’s world. Agatha is cranky and aloof and so calculating in the final scenes, and you feel for her and root for her to succeed all the way.
Alien Taxidermy and Love Have Four Things In Common by Addison Smith at Flash Point Science Fiction – Aliens have been falling from the sky over a specific town, and one enterprising resident has realized alien taxidermy sells. A really delightful idea filled with wonderful alien descriptions and a wry sense of humor. The mystery of what happened to the narrator’s love slowly unravels in-between alien encounters and poignant musings on love and taxidermy.
Star Trek time. There’s much more spoilers in this review than I normally have, as a warning.
This month I finished reading the String Theory trilogy for Star Trek: Voyager. I initially bought the first book because it was Seven of Nine and B’Elanna Torres focused (two of my absolute faves), and wound up enjoying it so much that I read the following two books. I do love to nit-pick extremely unimportant things in the Star Trek franchise, so before I get to that I do want to get out front of myself and say that these were so much fun to read. Absolutely the best Star Trek novels I’ve read so far.
Released as part of the 10th anniversary of Voyager, the trilogy is a definite celebration of the series, while also trying to amend some of the faults in the tv show. Background crew actually exist and do things and have dialogue, fleshing out the ship so it doesn’t seem like, outside of group shots with nameless extras, the ship is only inhabited by the main characters. An attempt is made to explain away some of the writing inconsistent with Janeway, as well as the frankly insulting episode “Fury.” Large and small dropped plot points from the series make important appearances. Kes is there. Some of the fixes didn’t quite work for me, although I appreciate the intention, while others I found utterly delightful (Kes! She’s there!).
The Voyager winds up stuck in a region of space that does not work the way it is supposed to and seems fundamentally broken. One planet in the region is inhabited by the Monorhans, a psychic race attempting to escape their dying planet. The Monorhans have folktales of a promised city in the stars and are trying to find it. It turns out the promised city is a space station built by the Nacene – the same species as the Caretaker who stranded Voyager in the Delta quadrant. The Nacene are engaged in a sort of civil war, with Monorha and now the Voyager crew caught in the middle
Cohesion by Jeffrey Lang – The first book in the trilogy sees the Voyager encountering the Monorhans for the first time. The Monorhans are trying to escape their planet which is undergoing a climate catastrophe in the form of radiation from a nearby star that is behaving oddly. The radiation is killing Monorha, and also makes everyone on Voyager kind of mean, as radiation poisoning does. The crew banter is generally really funny because of it. Everyone is just an ass.
Seven of Nine and B’Elanna go down to the planet and get stranded. While exploring a Monorhan facility they get caught in explosion that blinds B’Elanna and breaks Seven’s back. This results in Seven temporarily assimilating B’Elanna so someone can still work to get them back to Voyager. I really loved that this novel developed the relationship between Seven and B’Elanna – that was something I feel the show really lacked, and they have such a great prickly dynamic that the book perfectly captures. The dialog between the two of them is also consistently funny, Lang really has an eye for dialog and interpersonal dynamics. And their relationship grows in a way that seems really natural – neither of them really soften, but B’Elanna understands Seven more and Seven respects B’Elanna more by the end.
The Monorhans are a cool and weird species that we could not have existed on the show due to physical and budgetary restrains. Lang really leans into the opportunity provided by the text format to give us a cool, new alien species, although I do think a little too much time was spent in this book on interpersonal conflicts between the Monorhans, especially for how tertiary to the plot they become in books two and three.
Fusion by Kirsten Beyer – Tuvok feels called to a dormant space station, and upon reaching it falls into a coma while in contact with an alien species who call on him to ascend to a higher plane. Janeway is gifted an artifact by the Monorhans that draws the attention of the Nacene. One Nacene disguises herself as Phoebe Janeway and alters the crew’s memories to sneak aboard and steal the artifact, which is in fact a key to an inter-dimensional doorway. Janeway has to make a decision about what to do with the key.
You remember how in Episode 21 of Season 2, “Deadlock,” the original Harry Kim and Naomi Wildman fucking die and are replaced by duplicates from the duplicate Voyager that then gets brutally destroyed? And how no one ever brings it up again? This book does! Not really in the way I would want in terms of emotional catharsis or characters talking about their feelings, but it is acknowledged that it happens, and that Harry and Naomi are a little out-of-sync with the main universe because of it. This out-of-sync nature allows them to see through Phoebe’s disguise, and reveal her infiltration to the crew, which was a really clever way to bring that forgotten plot point back to the forefront for a moment.
On that note: Naomi Wildman is in this one – yay! Naomi Wildman gets brutally attacked – no! Samantha Wildman, Naomi’s mom, shows up in a scene because of this – yay! Samantha Wildman does not get a single line of dialogue – no!
Samantha Wildman is my favorite background Voyager crew member. She is also tremendously overlooked by the series – one of the final episodes of Voyager has Naomi telling Neelix she’s big now and doesn’t need him to tuck her in. Sad for Neelix, but made more preposterous by the fact that we stopped seeing Naomi’s mother like a whole season ago and Naomi appears to be chilling in a crew quarters all by herself. Who is taking care of this child? I guess she has to tuck herself in since she doesn’t appear to have a parental presence. For how well this trilogy does in acknowledging and including secondary crew members, I was extremely excited when I read Samantha’s name. Finally, she would get to do something! But no, she just weeps while Neelix does all the talking for her. A bit of an odd choice to at times invent crew to fill in key roles, while also having Samantha present to do and say nothing. Big bummer.
To its credit, outside of Samantha, Fusion does start the trend that continues into the last book of developing or introducing background crew. Near the end of the book, Janeway talks with a never-before-seen transporter operator who gets some really solid characterization, and feels fully fleshed out in the span of a page and a half. Characters also remember and reference prior events in an organic way, which unfortunately rarely occurred on the show. The holographic body developed for Dr. Danara Pel in the season 2 episode “Lifesigns” (another favorite minor character of mine, I was so pleased to see her referenced) becomes a critical tool in solving one of the book’s many crises.
Captain Janeway also shines in this book. Beyer really teases out her devotion to her crew and to protecting innocent life, combined with her capability to take huge risks. She winds up using herself as the conduit that allows the key to open the gateway, and winds up in a coma, in a sacrifice that is really monumental and true to character.
Evolution by Heather Jarman – One Nacene enrolls the help of the Doctor to disable the rebel Nacene, and sends him back in time to Ocamapa just before the planet’s complete environmental collapse to do so. Harry and Tom enter the Continuum and get help from Q and q to find the Keeper of the Light, the child of the leader of the rebel Nacene. With Janeway in a coma and the Doctor missing, Chakotay takes command. KES! She’s here!
I am not a fan of Q plots, but Jarman makes the setting of the Continuum really fun by placing most of the action in various gambling halls (which we and the Voyager crew only see that way because we’re lowly mortals, of course), and wrapping up cosmic games of chance in metaphor. The setting of pre-collapse Ocampa is also wonderful, wrapped up in the trappings of medieval science-fantasy and climate catastrophe. This is another one of the plot points that trilogy seeks to amend from the show, finally providing closure to the fate of post-Caretaker Ocampa in a way that made me tear up slightly, as well as providing some dire, desperate, and gripping narratives in the last days of historical dying Ocampa.
A solid half of the main crew is out of commission by this point, with Janeway in a coma, and Tom, Harry, and the Doctor all missing. While the remaining core crew steps up, the background crew also gets to be in the limelight for a bit, with Ayala and some others on the bridge, as well as the replacement medic Nakano getting a little nice arc about wanting to start official Star Fleet medical training after the ship is out of danger. Seven and B’Elanna also get some nice moments of being a little more supportive and charitable to one another, built on their experience in the first book. Seven wishes B’Elanna good luck at one point and it feels like such a huge payoff for both of their characters.
At the end of Evolution, some of Janeway’s “mood swings” in later seasons of the television show are revealed to be caused by lingering neurological damage caused by being in a coma, and the crew for reasons have to keep the events of the trilogy secret from her. Which is fine as an explanation for uneven writing, although the existential horror of her entire crew lying to her in never really reckoned with, just seen as a “duty” they have to do. “Fury” too gets re-written so that the “Kes” who comes back to attack Voyager is actually a fragment of Kes combined with the body of the pre-collapse Ocampan general Lia, angry and disoriented after the events of the trilogy as she tries to find her way back to the main presence of the Kes entity. I think this is largely an adequate and admirable “explanation” for that episode, although Kes and Lia fusing does occur so that the two of them can give birth to the Keeper of the Light. I think alone this development is fine in the context of the trilogy, and the metaphysical plotlines Kes tends to get, but against the larger Star Trek backdrop of weird and kind of unwanted pregnancies/children (Seven, Deanna, Trip, Kes that other time, and potentially that other, other time depending on how you count it…I’m also sure I’m forgetting someone) I remain a little wary of it as a plot point.
Even as the trilogy sought to repair or acknowledge some of the faults in Voyager (namely dropped plot-lines, an empty ship outside of the main crew, and some inconsistent character writing), it does still fall into some of the traps set up by the tv show. Chakotay continues to suffer as a two-dimensional caricature. While his turn as captain near the end of book three is cool and shows his capabilities as a leader and differing leadership style from Janeway, the rest of his time is largely spent relying “Native American folk-wisdom” in the form of culturally non-specific vague fables. Harry Kim also gets yet another plot focused on him falling in love with an “unattainable” women, and playing second fiddle to Tom Paris, and that’s about it. Tuvok, always underutilized by the show, while being on the cover of book 2, does spend most of the book in a coma. To be fair, he does do some important metaphysical legwork while in the coma and gets a bit of deeper characterization, but those scenes are still a much lower percentage of the total book than the Doctor gets in his book, or Seven and B’Elanna in theirs. Lang includes a line where a Monorhan man wonders if Seven feels shame about the way her body looks in the catsuit, instead of just not writing that line, or putting Seven in a uniform or an EV suit since they’re on a radiation planet. Samantha Wildman doesn’t get any dialogue…
Still, I’d highly recommend this trilogy. I had such a fun time reading it, and the books develop the Star Trek universe and Voyager crew in really delightful and inventive ways. The trilogy is oriented towards people who are huge fans of Voyager and it does feel really celebratory of the series and its characters, while also putting forward impressive writing, worldbuilding, and plotting to fill in some of the gaps left in the show.