Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Vendetta: The Giant Novel review

First off, let's talk about the ridiculousness of the title. Nearly half the cover is made up of words and the rest is made up of what you will typically find on the cover of a Star Trek novel of the 90s: busts of characters from the show and a spaceship in the background. Don’t believe me? Look it up online, you’ll quickly see the pattern, too. Some elements of this cover work though. Keith Birdsong regularly captures the likeness of the actors he’s illustrating and despite giving Picard a thinner face, he nails it. I particularly like the creepy expression of the Borg’s face. The art is standard but very well executed. What’s truly ridiculous on the cover though is the title of the book: Star Trek: The Next Generation: Vendetta: The Giant Novel. Are you serious? Apparently yes because that’s a picture of the final product, right there --->

But what exactly constitutes a “giant novel” by Star Trek standards? It’s clear to anybody who’s look at the details of the book or has seen the physical thing that Vendetta isn’t really giant by anyone’s standards other than those of Pocket Books. Vendetta is exactly 400 pages in length. That’s not much longer than the average Star Trek book published at the time of its release. Let’s consider previous books by Peter David. Strike Zone is 275 pages long, A Rock and a Hard Place is 244 pages and Q-in-Law is 252. So Vendetta has 125 to 150 additional pages. My god, this book is huge! Giant barely does it justice. In truth, I really don’t think this or any of the other giant Star Trek novels are labelled as such specifically because of their length. Having only read one, I think it’s pretty safe to say that they’re considered giant in the sense that they deal with a much larger story and it’s simply consequential that the page count is more than the average Star Trek book.

Vendetta delivers on the big story. Its story is essentially a sequel to “The Best of Both Worlds” from TNG and “The Doomsday Machine” from TOS. Peter combines the planet-killer with multiples Borg cubes to create one big explosion filled novel and, for the most part, it’s quite good. David puts a lot of effort into making this particular story feel big and important which I appreciate because his previous books have felt like additional episodes that were never filled but very well could have and it was nice to get a story so big that one and maybe two episodes wouldn’t have quite been enough to contain the whole novel from start to finish as it’s written here.

The book begins with a flashback during Captain Picard’s day at the Academy where we’re presented the story of his first encounter with the spectre of a woman. This is relevant to the story being told later I the novel but it’s inclusion in the beginning is meant to give the reader a sense of just how big (or giant) this story is supposed to be. I have to say that it feels pretty hollow and it does little to increase the importance of who the woman turns out to be. This chapter is also notable for introducing Morgan Korsmo, a classmate of Picard’s who will also captain a ship in the future. There are some nice moments with Korsmo later on even so; the first chapter seems like and unnecessary. Well, that might not be entirely true. It does sum up “The Doomsday Machine” but if you’re actually reading Vendetta you’re probably already familiar with that episode.

Kirk's Enterprise and their encounter with the first planet-killer.

The story continues with the destruction of the planet Penzatti by the Borg. The Enterprise travels to the planet to aid them and to find out what the Borg are up to. There they encounter a second version of the planet-killer from which is piloted by Guinan’s bond-sister who is consumed by her desire to destroy the Borg for all the suffering they’ve caused her. It might sound like an impossible task but with the planet-killer at her disposal, Delcara’s vendetta is all too real a possibility. The crew of the Enterprise along with those of the Repulse and the Chekov are stuck in the middle of the two dangerous and destructive powers in the galaxy. That’s the foundation of the story and Peter David does a good job with it but the best parts of the novel are the character interactions which isn’t a surprising to anyone who’s ever read a book by David.

There are plenty of things to like in Vendetta including the nice character moments. One of David’s strength as a Star Trek writing is that he regularly makes very interesting observation about the series as a whole or about specific episodes. A fine example of this is the conversation the characters have about nanites. In the second part of “The Best of Both Worlds”, Dr. Crusher suggests using the nanites as a weapon against the Borg. After the crew of the Enterprise defeated the Borg (by other means), this plan was proposed to Federation headquarters but the deliberation has led to a standstill because the intention of breeding a life form for the sole purpose of using them as a weapon against another life form goes against the virtues and beliefs of the United Federation of Planets. Not only does it serve as a good explanation as to why the nanite plan was never put into execution, it reminds us that the event depicted in the TV series don’t appear in a vacuum. There is more to the world of Star Trek than the bridge and the books are one of the places in which that has been explored the most.

Not all of the character moments work though, occasionally some conflict with how they’ve been portrayed before. One scene in particular Data is arguing with La Forge that they can’t recreate memories of an individual even though La Forge is convinced his ability at creating personalities in holodeck simulations. According to Data “What is created in the holodeck is not alive.” Doesn’t he remember the events in “Elementary, Dear Data” in which Moriarty, who was created in the holodeck, became self-aware? Does that not constitute a form of life by the definitions of the 24th century? Not only does his statement appear to be incorrect, it’s callous and hypocritical response from Data considering he is an artificially created life form. Maybe his assimilation among a primarily human crew has been more successful than we think.

Even though Vendetta is about a huge battle on three fronts, the characters are really at the heart of it all. David brings back a few characters form the show that we don’t get to spend a whole lot of time with. Commander Shelby returns and she’s now working as the first office of the USS Chekov under Captain Korsmo. Captain Taggert of the Repulse also returns though this time it’s Ariel Taggert, the daughter of the previous Captain Taggert, who’s taken over the command of the ship. David’s quite adept that writing these characters despite their shot appearances on screen and he also has a good time creating some pretty interesting, albeit tragic, characters with Delcara and Reannon Bonaventure.

Delcara, the woman Picard first met while studying at the Academy, is a thematic stand-in for Dulcinea, the ideal woman as depicted in Don Quixote. With their initial encounter shrouded in mystery, Picard builds her up to be the idea woman and she becomes the representation of the unknown, the undiscovered which fuelled Picard’s life to a career of space exploration and discovery. As he puts it:
“She was . . .” He paused, trying to find words.  “She was a concept. A symbol. The idea of her came to mean more to me than the actuality of her. What she represented was so pure, but the reality was far from that. In the end I tried to make her into what I envisioned her to be, and what she could never be. And yet, in a way, she is. Was. She was everything I could have asked for. Unreachable. Untouchable. Always out there, guiding me onward. I seek to touch the stars, Mr. La Forge. To brush my fingers across them, and search out the mysteries they hide. She was all of that. All of that, and more.”

Ah, as dramatic as ever, eh Picard? And as unreachable as Delcara was and will remain, it’s very unfortunate that she was a character created specifically for this novel. It strains disbelief that such an important character to Picard made her first and, very likely, her last appearance in Vendetta.

There is another Dulcinea in the story. I’m talking about Reannon Bonaventure, a woman who used to be part of the Borg Collective but was rescued by the crew of the Enterprise. During the course of the novel, Geordi La Forge develops a very strong desire to take care of Reannon and help rehabilitate her. I would say that La Forge’s behaviour is borderline obsession because it goes beyond his regularly caring nature. The rest of the crew also notice just how intense he is and question him about what his motivation is for helping Reannon. His explanation that he and Reannon are kindred spirits due to them both having a handicap isn’t very satisfying and I suspect the explanation is simply that La Forge wanted a project. He convinced himself that he could help her and he’s fixated on the idea that he can and will heal her fractured psyche. I have to say I thought Reannon’s story was interesting enough on its own without requiring the addition of whatever it was that La Forge thought was so important about helping her more than what the other characters were also doing.

Not everything in the book works. I kind of beat around the bush on how the big story is nice and David does a good job but it’s just not enough to make this a memorable story beyond the fact that the Borg face off against a newer, bigger and more powerful version of the planet-killer from “The Doomsday Machine”. Without the strong character work from David Vendetta would fall flat as a story. Thankfully, both elements balance each other nicely and it’s made a better book because of it. I was kind of surprised to see that David would even write a story on this scale as it seems to be outside of his comfort zone. Even with his comic works his stories tend to be focused on characters as opposed to huge blockbuster-end-of-the-world-or-universe stories. It also helped that David brought forth some interesting thematic elements to the book via the early scene in the holodeck where La Forge, Data, Guinan and Troi re-enact a famous scene of Don Quixote (the one where he attacks the windmill, mistaking it for a giant). It’s not a co-incidence that both Reannon and Delcara either physically look like Troi who played Dulcinea in the holodeck. Both those characters were clear stand-ins for Picard and La Forge’s personal Dulcinea. The final verdict is that Vendetta works. It’s has some flaws, certainly but David is taking the idea of a giant novel to heart and he add plenty of high-stakes action, character drama and thematic resonance to make it a memorable read. It’s just a shame that 400 pages seem a bit much because the novel does meander a bit in the beginning. I think I would have preferred he same story in less pages in order to increase the awesome-per-page ratio. But what can you do? You rarely get what you want when the Borg are around.

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