With the 50th anniversary of Star Trek just around the corner (September 8, to be exact), I figured this is the ideal time to post some new pieces that focus on aspects of the franchise other than the TV series and movies, which I’ve already covered rather extensively. If you haven’t checked out those previous posts, and you’re interested in doing so, I’m including links to them at the end of this entry.
This time around, I’m going to discuss Star Trek novels—and I have to give a shout-out to my friend Steve Bunche, who suggested the topic to me a while back. I’ve been reading Trek novels for about as long as I’ve been a fan of the series as a whole. The very first piece of Star Trek fiction that I ever owned—and I still have it, incidentally—is the anthology Star Trek: The New Voyages, edited by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath and published in 1976.
It’s a collection of short stories written by fans, with a foreword by Gene Roddenberry and the key members of the original cast—with the exception of Walter Koenig—contributing introductions to the stories. The tales themselves vary in quality, but the absolute standout is “Mind-Sifter,” by Shirley S. Maiewski. It made such an impression on me that more than a decade after I first read it—this must have been around 1990 or 1991—I found her address and wrote her a letter—yes, an actual HAND-WRITTEN LETTER in those pre-Internet, pre-email days—thanking her for writing something that had stayed with me for so many years. (I still have the very sweet response that she wrote back to me.)
So for the next few entries, I’m going to list my 15 all-time favorite Star Trek novels. Keep in mind, I’m not necessarily saying that these are the very best. I’m not in a position to make that claim, since I have not read every Star Trek novel ever written—and I must admit, it’s been a long, long time since I’ve been able to read each one as it comes out. I have actually fallen way behind, so my knowledge of what’s been published is woefully out of date, by a number of years. But in terms of the novels that I’ve read, these are my favorites, the ones that I feel stand head-and-shoulders above the others.
What’s my criteria? First and foremost, when I’m reading a Star Trek novel, I want to feel like I’m immersed in the Star Trek universe as I know it from the TV series and the films. I want the book to capture, as best as it can, the experience of watching a new live-action Star Trek adventure—but since it’s a novel, it can and should delve much deeper, and deliver concepts and events that aren’t limited by a TV or movie production budget.
The novel should adhere to the continuity and to the “rules” set forth in the filmed episodes and movies, which make up what has become commonly known as “the official canon.” I expect the characters to be written in a manner consistent with how they’re portrayed on screen. When I read the characters’ dialogue, I want to hear in my head the voices of the actors who play them. I apply the same criteria to the Star Trek comic books, and I’ve always tried to adhere to it myself whenever I’ve had the opportunity to write Star Trek professionally, both prose and comics.
Over the years, I have read Star Trek novels by authors who didn’t really seem to want to write Star Trek as it had been established—they wanted to write their version of Star Trek, to reshape it to suit their sensibilities, rather than the other way around. So we would get things like Captain Kirk carrying on extended conversations with the Enterprise turbo-lift, or Mr. Sulu suddenly addressing Kirk as “Jim.” In one early-1980s novel, an author established Dr. McCoy’s middle name as “Edward.” But even after 1984, when Star Trek III: The Search for Spock—that’s official canon, remember—contradicted that novel and established definitively that McCoy’s middle initial was “H,” this author continued to use Edward, most glaringly in a story written a couple of years later, that spun directly out of the events of Star Trek III.
Another author wrote several novels that focused almost exclusively on characters created solely for those books, and relegated Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the classic crew members to little more than cameo roles. It’s when these particular books came out that I, as a faithful consumer, began to feel ripped off by the publisher. When I buy a Star Trek novel, I expect the classic characters to be front and center, driving the story. They’re the characters I’m paying to read about. It’s really no wonder that Roddenberry’s office started cracking down on this kind of stuff in the late 1980s, and insisted that Star Trek in print more closely resemble Star Trek on the screen. It’s commonly accepted that Roddenberry’s office eventually went overboard and became way too restrictive, but that’s a whole other conversation.
So… my favorite novels. Some of these I have only read once, when they were originally published. Do they still hold up today? I don’t know. And quite honestly, I don’t really care. All I know is that I have fond memories of reading them. They brought me a lot of enjoyment. They worked for me as Star Trek, and even though they weren’t part of the official canon, they felt to me like they could be. Let’s begin the countdown with the books I’ve ranked numbers 15—11:
15. Black Fire by Sonni Cooper (1983)
A sizable number of fans truly despise this book. (For what it’s worth, author Sonni Cooper says she knew Roddenberry back in the day, and that he personally approved her manuscript.) Me, I always liked it. Set somewhat late in the original five-year mission, the Enterprise is sabotaged in a violent explosion that wrecks the bridge, and Spock is framed for the crime. Facing a debilitating injury and a harsh, brutal imprisonment, Spock is forced to become a renegade and falls in with an unsavory bunch, after which he must take on the identity of a space pirate known only as Black Fire. At the time this novel was published, Spock was dead, as per the events of The Wrath of Khan, and there was no indication that he was coming back. So it was exciting to get a new story that focused so much on him and explored his character going though such difficult challenges. It was also nice to see the seeds planted for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, what with the Enterprise starting to undergo extensive changes that would culminate in her top-to-bottom refitting, and the crew’s switchover to the new Starfleet uniforms.
14. The Pandora Principle by Carolyn Clowes (1990)
Lieutenant Saavik was a great addition to the Star Trek universe, and it’s a real shame that Kirstie Alley only played her once. (No offense to Robin Curtis, who did the best she could under some very challenging circumstances.) This novel, which takes place in-between The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan, expands upon Saavik’s backstory, which had initially been developed by Vonda N. McIntyre in her novelization of TWOK. Clowes provides details on how Spock and the half-Vulcan, half-Romulan Saavik first met, and how she became his protégé. Both Clowes’s book and McIntyre’s Khan novelization served as inspiration and guidance for me when I did my own take on Saavik’s origins in Star Trek: Untold Voyages #2.
13. Bloodthirst by J.M. Dillard (1987)
This well-done mix of science fiction and horror is sort of a spin on Richard Matheson’s classic story I Am Legend, in that it provides a scientific, rather than supernatural, basis for vampirism and runs wild with the concept within the parameters of the Star Trek universe. A mash-up of vampires and Star Trek? Yeah, I’m there.
12. Sanctuary by John Vornholt (1992)
This is a crackling-good, well-paced adventure that takes the Enterprise into some new territory and throws our heroes into a perilous situation with characters we didn’t often get to see in Star Trek: the galaxy’s criminal underworld. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy pursue a dangerous fugitive to a world that acts as a sanctuary for the galaxy’s persecuted—but once you land there, you can never leave. I enjoyed this one so much that I wrote to author John Vornholt just to let him know. Got a nice response from him.
This novelization came out a week or two before the movie, which hit theaters on June 9, 1989. I plowed through the book quickly, enjoyed the experience thoroughly, and came away from it convinced that the film was going to be one of the best in the series. Which should give you an idea of what a good job author J.M. Dillard did in adapting—and improving upon—David Loughery’s screenplay. Maybe Dillard should have written the movie, and Loughery could have done the novelization.
Next time: Numbers 10—6!
Links to previous Star Trek entries: