Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Star Trek (TOS) Book Review: Enterprise: The First Adventure by Vonda N. McIntyre

Part of the reason I’ve gotten back on a Star Trek kick after about a 10 year hiatus is anticipation of the new movie coming in about one year. The premise of the new movie is an origin story of sorts, showing how the crew from the original television show came together, the story of their first adventure together. The crew has been recast, of course. And on top of that the producers, director, and writers are saying things like, ‘The new movie will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen in Star Trek, but entirely faithful to what has come before.’ Sounds like a lofty goal. I hope it is actually true. No doubt, not all Trekkies will be pleased with the finally result.

Most Trekkies (“The Original Series” Trekkies anyway), however, would be quite pleased I think with the “first adventure” as envisioned by Vonda N. McIntyre in her 1986 novel. From the standpoint of character driven fiction, where the hopes, desires, self-doubts, strengths, and weaknesses of the players are the pivotal ingredients for the story, Enterprise: The First Adventure is without a doubt one of the best Star Trek novels ever written. Case in point, this is the only Trek novel I’ve read that succeeded in making Yeoman Rand an endearing and fully-fleshed out person.

McIntyre actually creates a full-blown back-story for Rand that fits completely with what little we see of her in the original series. Yet the story is completely unexpected and surprising. It involves her having been enslaved and making a daring escape prior to joining Starfleet. Rand is shown to be meek and nervous due to her horrific past experiences. Uhura takes the timid Rand under her wing and helps to build her confidence. In the course of the novel, we get to see her grow not only in her demeanor but also her decision to grow out her hair. It’s these small details that make this novel extraordinary.

The scenes where McIntyre portrays the main characters first impressions of each other are delightful, believable, and (at times) shocking. For instance here’s Kirk’s first impression of Spock:

Jim had little use for science officers. They always wanted to impart far more unsolicited information than he needed at any given moment about any given problem. And every time he had made the mistake of actually asking a science officer a question, he had ended up feeling that he might as well be back in an Academy lecture hall.

Jim probably would not have much interaction with Commander Spock. With any luck, the Vulcan would be one of those withdrawn intellectual types who preferred to remain secluded with experiments somewhere in the depths of the ship’s laboratories.
(p. 40)

On the facing page, we get Spock’s first appraisal of Kirk:

Commander Spock had little use for heroes. Whatever the self-sacrifice required for heroism, however commendable or admirable the actions might be, a person could only become a hero within an environment of chaos and destruction. In Commander Spock’s view, foresight and rationality should prevent the evolution of any such environment. He wondered if James Kirk, facing a crisis, would choose rationality, or succumb to the lure of heroism. (p. 41)

McIntyre is writer who understands that no character, no matter how short their appearance in the story, should be left standing around like window-dressing. The most minor characters in the novel have significant and meaningful roles to play. Sam Kirk, Jim’s brother, is not only present to support and cheer the youngest Captain in Starfleet, but also he serves as the conduit between Jim and Sulu. Sulu is especially uncomfortable coming aboard the Enterprise because his ship assignment was changed at the last minute, against his wishes. Sam, it turns out, is an old friend of Sulu’s family from when Hikaru was a child. Sam immediately helps to break the ice by personally introducing Sulu to his brother Jim.

There are a number of scenes that will cause any veteran Trek fan to chuckle. Kirk keeps thinking how he hopes Gary Mitchell can be his First Officer instead of Spock, once Mitchell recovers from an injury. Knowing the one television episode where Mitchell appears, in which he becomes corrupted by absolute power, this Trek fan just had to laugh, knowing Mitchell’s destiny in advance.

Additional pleasure comes from scenes that illustrate the inner core of these characters we know like old friends. McCoy’s Grand Canyon vacation is just so HIM. It’s completely anti-technology and just down-right earthy. Interestingly McIntyre uses McCoy’s incommunicado status to reveal more of the good Doctor’s back-story. Kirk calls McCoy’s ex in search of him.

The incidental humor is strong. There’s a funny problem with the food synthesizer where veggies are produced in the shape and texture of steak. On the other hand, the item looking like an avocado is actually beef. Some of the crew are shocked to see vegetarian Spock shoving a bloody hunk of meat into his mouth, not knowing that he’s determined it’s the best way to get the amount of chlorophyll he prefers.

The first Spock vs. McCoy argument/debate is a doosey. I won’t ruin it for you. All I’ll say is that it is absolutely perfect. As is Kirk’s initial impression that Scotty has a problem with orders. In the series, how many times is Scotty shown to question, complain, and otherwise gripe about what the Captain wants his engines to do? McIntyre addresses this dynamic beautifully. Kirk even asks for Scotty’s resignation.

You may notice, if you’ve even read this far, that I haven’t mentioned any kind of “adventure”. Well, that’s because the “first adventure” doesn’t actually kick off until well past the halfway point in the novel. This is no detriment though. I was so pleased with the subtle ways in which McIntyre developed and revealed the characters, I didn’t sense any lack of anything. And when the adventure arrives, it’s fairly lightweight. For that matter, the ‘guest star’ characters Ms. Lukarian of the vaudeville company and an emotional Vulcan named Stephen, are lightweight characters as well. Thankfully the aliens encountered are fresh and intriguing, but there’s never any real sense of threat or danger. (Well, maybe ‘never’ is an exaggeration.)

The main point is McIntyre delivers on her portrayal of the main Star Trek character much more so than on plot or on her own original elements. For most Trekkies, character is the main point anyway. If we didn’t love that crew and think of them as dear old friends, we wouldn’t have trekked with them this far and this long. All I can say is that the characters we love are alive in this novel. To me that’s a remarkable achievement.

P.S. For a contrary review that characterizes McIntyre’s novel as “juvenile”, see:
I’m not sure we read the same book. And anyway wouldn’t you expect these characters to seem a bit younger in their attitudes and actions at this point in the chronology?

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