Monday, July 27, 2020

Book Review: Star Trek Federation by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens

Star Trek Federation by Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens
 Hardcover, 467 pages
Published November 1994

Fancy pants critics and literary types may not like Media Tie-in novels but I grew up reading them and enjoy many of them. There are various degrees of quality in any genre, but The tie-in genre is no different. There is nothing wrong with expanded universes and prose takes on beloved comic book, Movie, or TV characters. I love it when Award-winning genre authors like Brian Evenson does Aliens, or Christa Faust doing Fringe. Hell My favorite author in the world John Shirley gave us his takes on Hellblazer, Batman, Predator, and more. When these well-established writers bring their talents it almost always raises the bar.  Some writers are just born to write in the existing universes. I was thinking of Michael Reeves in Star Wars. I don't know that he has ever published outside of Star Wars but he writes amazing books in that universe. Authors like Greg Cox and Kirsten Beyers for two examples seem born to write Trek novels and the later has become important to Trek TV.

Somewhere in the middle is a married couple Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. They have written a lot of Star Trek, besides working on the final season of Enterprise, they ghostwrote Shatner's insane off-shoot Shatner-verse and mainline Trek novels. At the same time, the couple has written Techno thrillers like Wraith and several original sci-fi horror novels.

Their early original series novel Prime Directive is incredible and with good reason, this novel Federation is considered the Citizen Kane of Star Trek novels.  I read it when it came out, a few years later and one time fifteen years ago I listened to the audiobook. I am certain it is the only Star Trek novel I would read repeatedly.

This novel has a strange place in the ST universe, while almost universally loved and praised it is almost knocked out of canon by the existence of the second TNG movie First Contact, and at the same time, I think it greatly outdoes Generations in combining the crews. Thus it has a strange relationship to both those films as well which podcaster Seth Heasley and I will discuss deeper in an upcoming episode Star Trek Story, Myth, and Arcs.

While it is possible with a little bit of handwavium to say that Federation and First Contact can exist together they really can't.  That is a spoiler and we will come back to that. First, why is Federation and Reeves-Stevens team so goddamn good at Star Trek?

Federation is a story that spans over three hundred years of future history which is an epic task for any storyteller with perhaps Miller's A Canticle for Lebowitz being the best example in science fiction. The authors here had the benefit of being able to call on the known established canon but the connective tissue involved lots of creative stabs at the times that bridged our times to the primarily utopian future. In 1994 when this book came out Enterprise had not happened or the Bell riots on Deep Space Nine so this era was mostly a mystery.

One of the few hints was an often overlooked melodramatic romantic episode of the Original Series Metamorphasis written by producer Gene L. Coon. Featuring Zefram Cochrane of Alpha Centauri who according to the episode invented the warp drive and disappeared into deep space.  Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are transporting by shuttle with a dying Ambassador, who just discovered her life is ending despite her concern for the war she was trying to prevent. They end up on a planet with the long-stranded Cochrane who should have died 100 years earlier but is being kept alive by a (ridiculously gendered as a female) cloud of energy named the Companion.

The story ends with the ambassador dying and allowing the Companion to become human in her body thus finally being with the lifeform she loves Zefram. Considering he is a famous person Kirk agrees to keep the mission secret and leave the Companion and Cochrane in peace. TOS stories like this mostly were stand-alone as TV did at the time. Like Wrath of Khan with Space Speed, this novel seeks to answer questions about the episode and look at the consequences. In the Sixties, the consequences of each episode were dropped but often the novels did pick up these threads.

The episode is essentially the foundation of this novel. Why had Cochrane disappeared into deep space and would Kirk lying about the death of a UFP Ambassador have consequences? The TOS  storyline also takes place just days after the events of the classic DC Fontana written episode Journey to Babel.  The chapters surrounding the TNG crew are directly after the episode when Picard's mind-meld with Sarek. (which lead to actor Mark Lenard reading the abridged Audiobook)

As Deep Space Nine was dipping its toes into the long-form storytelling Federation being tied to events in the timeline is an underrated aspect of what makes this novel great.  One of the skills the authors brought to Star Trek was making it feel real and lived in. Kirk still being in pain from being stabbed in Babel, Picard unable to get Sarek's thoughts out of his head.  It gave weight to episodes that the reader remembers.

This, not the only way the Reeves-Stevens manage to give Trek weight and life. Consider the Enterprise's operation to rescue hostages.  The author thought out details of how the crew had prepared medical and engineering teams for the mission. It is clear they studied the published Star Trek Technical manuals. Halfway through the narrative Kirk and the Enterprise rescue hostages being held by a crew of Klingon and Orion pirates.

This operation in the novel is one of the best ST action scenes in any media period. Like the best of the movies each member of the crew has a job, the operation required level of skill and strategy which required the Enterprise being the best at what they do. This is a little less obvious on Picard's Enterprise and it would be easy at first wonder how this part of the story fits in.  In the third act, the threads come together in genius ways.  (Spoilers in the podcast)

As a writer myself I am a fan of plotting, and structure the three timelines are so well-woven together. Most chapters end with intense cliffhangers and the storylines parallel each other enough that they build off each other in clever ways. It is hard to talk about what makes this ST novel so great without giving up details. Seth and I cover that in the podcast.

Let's just say this. Federation combines the first two crews across the generations in a way that has a deeper meaning than what we saw on screen. It is a story that is built on themes that span the generations with stakes that require the bold canvas in a way that Generations the film didn't. It is a story that couldn't be done on film and takes great advantage of the strengths of a novel. It is subtle the crews don't stand in rooms together but trapped in a singularity across time they see each other, have to trust each other and work together. It might sound goofy and hyperbolic but it has a beauty to it that the Kirk and Picard making breakfast and riding horses didn't.

The villain Arick Thorn is my second favorite Trek villain to Khan, his hatred and drive are so well woven into the story it makes him a powerful force. It is cartoony sure but in all the right ways. He is perfect evil, weird, and driven in a way the best bad guys always are. Cochrane's story is better explained and woven into the canon here compared to First Contact and it makes more sense with the history TOS fans know.

Federation is THE BEST Star Trek novel I have read and I have read probably 100 of them over the years. I admit I burned out on them, and don't have the space to read as many as I would like with my responsibilities as a critic and general science fiction podcaster. That said I don't think you can go wrong with this one.

Podcast is recorded, I will add it here in a few days...

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