Monday, May 16, 2011

Shatner Gets It Right With Star Trek . . . Almost: Avenger

The Good: Interesting character development, Good pace, Fairly good Trek knowledge, Good general idea
The Bad: Disturbingly stupid premise
The Basics: When an interstellar botanical plague overcomes the Federation, Kirk, Picard and Spock come together to uncover a conspiracy designed to destroy the Federation.

Rereading William Shatner's Star Trek novels for the first time in years, I have been able to do something I wasn't able to do as a younger person: evaluate the writing for what is actually there, as opposed to what I want to be there. When I first read Shatner's Star Trek novels, I read them as a fan of his pulpy Tek series. I knew the Tek books were not (great) literature and I was able to enjoy their fast-paced, often-obvious plot convolutions as pure sugary entertainment. I think the first time I read Shatner's Star Trek novels, I read them with the same lens and excused him much. Rereading them now, I find so many flaws outside the simple Tek-like pacings and reversals. There are moments in Ashes Of Eden (reviewed here!) and The Return (reviewed here!) where William Shatner is writing characters (usually from Star Trek The Next Generation) without any sense of voice for how those characters were established. His Star Trek novels resulted in weaker books and were less enjoyable than most.

Until Avenger. Avenger is the third book in William Shatner's first trilogy of Star Trek novels. Having established in Ashes Of Eden and The Return that James T. Kirk has, in fact, died and now been resurrected, Avenger is generally regarded by fans of the Star Trek books as the weakest of the trilogy. Those fans, however, have it wrong. Having survived the preposterous calamity that was The Return, Shatner is now tasked with potentially his simplest literary task: write an entirely original Star Trek novel with Captain Kirk in the 24th Century (Star Trek The Next Generation's time period).

After his apparent death on the Borg Homeworld, James T. Kirk returns to Chal during an interstellar famine. Finding Chal, the Eden-like world of Teilani, devastated, Kirk enlists a small medical team on Chal to find the source of the plague that is sweeping through the Federation. Elsewhere, the U.S.S. Enterprise (NCC-1701-E) is engaged in the mindless chore of maintaining a blockade on a small Federation planet to help stop the spread of the famine, which destroys all plant life. When a ship attempts to run the blockade, Picard and Riker uncover a conspiracy that suggests that the deadly virus is manufactured from within the Federation. Add to the mix Spock, Ambassador, who had just been given a recording from an aide to his father that suggests that Sarek (Spock's father) was a member of a fringe Vulcan group that believed in the interdependence of all things in the galaxy.

To his credit, Shatner could easily have made a Star Trek novel that was almost entirely centered on Captain Kirk and was entirely set in the 24th Century. Instead, Shatner makes a leap with his readers and tries to tie together Kirk's known backstory with new elements. And, to be fair, he's clever about it. Without revealing anything vital (or beyond the first chapter), Shatner's concept is that young James Kirk was rescued on Tarsus IV (see the Star Trek episode "The Conscience Of The King") by Vulcans, specifically Sarek. This is actually a clever concept and the idea that Sarek had erased the incident from Kirk's memory is plausible in the Star Trek universe. That Kirk's death dream always involves Sarek, then, becomes not only clever, but actually insightful into the way the human mind actually works and attempts to process events and traumas.

The problem here, though, is the plot. The essential concept is absolutely ridiculous. I write not about Shatner's environmentalist smack-in-the-face ramblings about how all nature in a biosphere (extended in Avenger to the galaxy) is interconnected. No, that environmental message is well-conceived, well-executed and true. In fact, it's refreshing to read the work of a celebrity who is attempting to use his celebrity to educate others to actual serious problems in the world.

No, the ridiculous concept in Avenger is that a botanical plague would cause mass starvation throughout the galaxy. This is pretty much Star Trek basics and it's amazing that a book co-authored by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens (two writers who have a brilliant idea of how the Star Trek universe is held together) would neglect that. In the Star Trek universe, all food (and clothing) is replicated. Any matter can be broken down and resynthysized into food, clothing, objects. Anything. Given the references to industrial replicators and the self-sustaining nature of starships in the Star Trek universe, it is ridiculous to believe that replicators would be so fragile as to break down even after months of continuous use.

But this is where Avenger finds us, in the middle of a botanical plague with people getting ill and some starving to death on the other side of a blockade. The concept that such a plague would wipe out all plant life and then as a result other organisms would starve to death and die or get infected from infected plant life works. But that higher organisms (humans, Vulcans, and Chal) would starve to death or such is somewhat beyond the reasonable reader's ability to suspend disbelief.

And given how Shatner finally gets the voice of so many of the other characters, like Riker, in Avenger, it is astonishing how he completely misses the voice or concept of the Vulcans. The idea that the Vulcans would have an extremist group of environmentalists is not a bad idea. That such a group would be a secret group that was shunned is illogical. That such a group, one that believes all life in the galaxy is interdependent and must be protected, would degenerate into terrorist activities is just plain stupid.

That said, the idea that humans in such a group would engineer a plague as a warning to the rest of the Federation, as Shatner asks us to believe is what occurred on Tarsus IV, makes perfect sense. The problem is in the tie-in and the connection. If environmental extremists used a planet as an experiment to illustrate how food shortages would likely lead to genocide and mass starvation and that experiment resulted in thousands of deaths which exactly proved the point the extremists were trying to make, secrecy becomes insensible. And that the lesson was not learned, even after a hundred years, becomes mind-boggling. This is the equivalent of a terrorist organization saying "Give us one billion dollars or we'll blow up Rhode Island," the government saying "No," the terrorists destroying all of Rhode Island and then not demanding the billion dollars again and selecting a new target. And the government not actually trying to find the terrorists. Who is going to believe that?!

If the group had not been a Vulcan group, this book would have made a lot more sense. And Shatner tries to get around that via a recording from Amanda (Spock's human mother), which explains that the group they were a part of was not involved in terrorist activities and they got out before those activities began, but it falls flat. Especially when it is revealed who is behind the current biological plague.

Outside that, Avenger is a pretty solid book and well worth the read. Unlike his previous two Star Trek outings, Avenger uses the Star Trek universe fairly well and ties the different parts of the franchise (and history) together well. As previously mentioned, Shatner manages to get the voices of various characters right this time, where before he had not. And the pace is good and it fits together well.

And have patience, things make sense. So Spock's behaviors come to be explained and the novel is put together surprisingly well. Though, it is a William Shatner novel, so there are twists and turns and they are pretty obvious to anyone who has either read one other Shatner novel or who is reading the book expecting a reversal.

But this is an enjoyable read and it's a nice afternoon spent if you have the time and read quickly. And outside the one major flaw, Shatner got it right and presents a Star Trek novel that is difficult to read as an ego stroke. That's refreshing and worthwhile.

For other Star Trek books, please visit my reviews of:
Star Trek: The Motion Picture - Gene Roddenberry
Federation - Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens
Imzadi - Peter David


For other book reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2006 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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