Sunday, April 29, 2007

Strange New Worlds 9 - Other Highlights

Reviews of stories from Strange New Worlds 9 may contain minor spoilers.

"Staying the Course"
is an excellent story about Worf and Alexander by Paul C. Tseng. The episode "Firstborn" (TNG) gave us a glimpse into a possible future where Alexander became a Klingon diplomat (a seeming contradiction of terms), but came back in time to make himself more of a warrior, believing this could prevent his father's death. In that episode Worf said he now realized that Alexander had his own destiny, and that it would be a great one. We get to see that great destiny in this story.

It's a touching portrayal of Klingon honor and the loyalty between father and son. Tseng succesfully draws on what we already know of Worf and Alexanders past and portrays a plausible, and very moving future.

"Solace in Bloom" by Jeff D. Jaques reintroduces Picard's friend Louis and the Atlantis project from the episode "Family" (TNG). It takes place during the war with the Dominion. When I first read the story I thought it was a great idea to take that character and that project and use them as the basis for a story. When I had a chance to watch "Family" again, I appreciated "Solace in Bloom" even more.

The story features flashbacks of Louis and Picard growing up. In "Family" there is an exchange between Louis and Picard refering to the very events portrayed in the flashbacks. Jaques succesfully takes a couple of obscure lines of dialogue and turns them into a great character story.

In terms of sheer entertainment value, one of the real highlights of this book is the Enterprise story "Rounding a Corner Already Turned" by Allison Cain. If you don't know what happens in this story, don't let anyone tell you untill you read it for yourself. By the third page you will know what I mean.

Reviews of other stories to follow . . .

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Strange New Worlds 9 - The Long Road Getting From There to Here

Reviews of stories from Strange New Worlds 9 may contain minor spoilers.

At least three stories deal with Earth's formative years that paved the way for Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets.

The Enterprise episode "Carbon Creek" introduced the character Mestral, a Vulcan science officer who elected to stay on Earth in 1957. "Mestral" by Ben Guilfoy takes place a century later. The long-lived Vulcan has a significant impact on the events that paved the way for Star Trek:First Contact. It's a great use of the character and won third place in the collection.

"The Rules of War" by Kevin Lauderdale opens with the line "A spray of bullets sent chips of cement flying from the building's wall across Archer's face." That very gritty opening leads into a story about the start of the Eugenics War and Jonathan Archer's grandfather. Archer described this incident briefly in the episode "Hatchery." Now we get to see it fleshed out.

What did it take to get from the world as we see it today to the virtual utopia of the twenty-third and twenty-fourth centuries? This is a story that helps answer that question, showing a time when national flags and the United Nations still exist, and one of the battles that got us from here to there.

"The Immortality Blues" by Marc Carlson is another take on the pre-First Contact time period. In this instance it's told from the point of view of the immortal Flint from "Requiem for Methusela" (TOS). We even get to see an earlier incarnation of Rayna (as a computer, not an android). The story nicely weaves together many pieces of Star Trek pre-history that are scattered throughout the dialogue and events of the various series. Reading this story I finnally understood what Lily yelled in First Contact when the Borg attacked the missle complex: "It's the E-Con!" (Which stands for the Easter Coalition of Nations - countries that orginally banded together under the leadership of Kahn Noonian Singh.) Mestral is also mentioned in passing as one of the many people Flint met during his life.

Reviews of other stories to follow . . .

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The "Origin" of the Mystery Enterprise in ST:TMP

"All these ships were called Enterprise," Decker said to Ilia. The mysterious ship with the hoop-shaped warp drive has hovered around in non-canon Trek lore ever since. It even made a brief appearance on Enterprise in the episode "Home." (Look for it toward the end of the episode Archer has his last conversation with Soval. On the wall of Forrest's office, behind Archer's head, there is a picture of a ship with the distinctive ring structure.)

When we finally saw ships from the Vulcan fleet on Enterprise, they also had hoop-shaped warp drive. The suggestion seemed to be that this was a Vulcan design that human tried to emulate, then gave up on, returning to Zefram Chocrane's twin nacelle design.

I recently came across this article which confirms that idea, albeit not from Star Trek cannon, but from Doug Drexler who designed the Vulcan ship in the first place. That was his basic idea behind the distinctive design.

You can check out the article here: [Link has been updated.]

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Strange New Worlds 9 - Old Testament Trek and Ferengi Fables

Reviews of stories from Strange New Worlds 9 may contain minor spoilers.

Two stories in this collection are worth reading not only because of the stories themselves, but becuase of the unique ways that they are told.

"Book of Fulfillment" by Steven Costa is written in an excellent approximation of King James vintage Old Testament prose. It begins with a nice tip of that hat to The Next Generation with a reference to professor Galen, seen in "The Chase," and mentioned in "Gambit I,II." The story is a translation of a fragment of an ancient manuscript. This race describes their encounter with "the Liberator" who "came from beyond the sky," and his attendants: the Healer at his left hand, the Sage at his right, the Wayfinder, the Armsman, the Proclaimer, and the Machinist. According to the scroll, "the Sage spoke quiet words of counsel in the ear of the Liberator, speaking of the oath. And the Healer spoke fiery words of counsel in the ear of the Liberator, speaking of the suffering of the people."

In terms of style this is probably one of the most innovative stories in the collection. As you read this 'ancient scroll,' your mind reconstructs the events it describes as they would have been portrayed in an episode of Star Trek. It effectively captures the essence of TOS, and provides some nice continuity with some of the other series as well. What's so delightful about this story is that it really could not be enjoyed on the screen the way it is intended - it is captured much more effectively on the printed page. And this is evidence of the author's mastery of the craft.

A second story told in a unique style is "The Last Tree on Ferenginar: A Ferengi Fable From the Future" by Mike McDevitt. As the title suggests it is told as a fable for Ferengi children. The storyteller tells us the tale began "long, long ago, probably more than a thousand fiscal cycles hence . . ." From the opening lines to the end of the story McDevitt expertly captures the essence of Ferengi thinking and culture.

By the second page of the story we are treated to an inspired moment of Douglas Adams-esque commentary on Leeta's name: "As many of your children may have heard, a lita is a unit of currency on the planet Bajor, where Leeta happened to be from. I merely point this out because it is considered as ironically amusing as when Throk the Pusillanimous of the Ninth Era married an Earth banker whose name was Penny. Or Glint the Rotund who took as mate a Klingon accountant named D'Arsik. Actually this sort of thing happens a lot, but it is not really the point of this story."

There's a great moment of satire, worthy of Chauser's Canterbury Tales, when we learn about Ferengi priests who perform the "mystic money-meld." The story explains, "The money-meld in an ancient ritual where the priest grasps key points of one's wallet and intones, 'My money to your money, your cash to my cash. Our money is now one.' Whereupon the worthy evangelist would run away very fast and leave one's wallet empty."

I could list many other great bits from this story, but I'll let you discover the rest of the humor for yourself. The Ferengi are often used as comic relief, but often the comedy itself is not worth laughing at. Here the quality of the comedy is solid from beginning to end, and the storytelling style only makes it stronger. I won't spoil the ending for you, but let me give you something to compare it to. Once Doctor Bashir explained the story of the boy who cried wolf to Garek and explained the lesson: If you lie all the time, people won't believe you even when you do tell the truth. Garek asked, "Are you sure that's the moral, Doctor?" Bashir asked him what else it could be. Garek replied, "Never tell the same lie twice."

Well just as Garek taught us a very Cardassian moral, "The Last Tree on Ferenginar" concludes by teaching us a very Ferengi moral.

Reviews of other stories to follow . . .

Monday, April 16, 2007

Strange New Worlds 9 - Tribble Stories

Each year brings another Strange New Worlds anthology. And for eight years I have looked at them on the shelf, thumbed through them, but never picked one up for myself. This year I finally bought one and was delighted by theses stories written by fans who have little if any work professionally published before. While I am not planning on reviewing every story in the book, I do want to progressively share some of the highlights.

Reviews may contain minor spoilers.

Tribbles, Tribbles and More Tribbles

Tribbles are perhaps the most beloved non-humanoid aliens in the Star Trek universe. The very word has worked its way into mainstream vocabulary right along side so many other trek-isms. Three stories in this volume deal with the prolific furballs. I will comment on two of them. I will leave the third one for you to discover rather than give away the ending of that story.

The first tale of Tribbles is "A Bad Day for Koloth," by David DeLee. This story picks up where "The Trouble with Tribbles" (TOS) ends. Scotty beamed the tribbles over to the Klingon ship, now we see the results of that prank from the Klingon's point of view. It takes a classic moment from a classic story and adds a new, light-hearted chapter. "A Bad Day for Koloth" benefits greatly from the tapestry of information we now have about Klingon cultureit takes advantage of the insights and vocabulary that we have gained over forty years of Star Trek. This makes the story much more "complete" than it could have been back when the original episode aired.

Ryan M. Williams' story "The Tribble's Pagh" deals with a Tribble infestation on Bajor - tribbles that came back during the Defiant's trip to the past ("Trials and Tribble-ations," DS9). Williams does a very good job of capturing the rich background of Deep Space Nine, it's characters, and the Bajoran culture. He also provides some insights into Tribble biology. There's a brief explanation from Doctor Bashir of how the Tribbles can be 'born pregnant' (as Doctor McCoy observed long before). Another passage gives insight into their anatomy, "...the Tribble was extending fleshy nubs through its fur, which used suction to grip surfaces. It accounted for their amazing ability to climb wall and get into anything. When a tribble was picked up, the nubs retracted back beneath the protective fur."

Reviews of other stories to follow . . .

Monday, April 09, 2007

100 Years Young - The Drayan Civilization

100 Years Young:
Part I: Musings About the Drayan Life-Cycle

Part II: Is Aging an Inevitable Biological Fact?

Part III: Can an Organism 'Grow' Smaller and Younger?
Part IV: The Drayan Civilization

Coming to terms with reverse aging is one thing. Accounting for the Drayan's death customs is another. While the episode reveals very few specifics regarding their aging process or their history, what little information we are given strongly suggests an outline of their history as a civilization.

A Powerful Instinct—An Ancient Belief

The Drayan moon is a holy place for them. They hold it to be the place where the first spark of life came from, and the Drayan leader explains that a powerful instinct draws them back to this place as death approaches. This instinct is evidently woven into the their DNA as strongly as a salmon's instinct to return to its spawning ground or a Vulcan's to return home for the Pon Farr. And as a civilization, the Drayan have ancient beliefs and customs that revolve around this instinct.

The Past is the Future, the Future is the Past

Science fiction writers seem to be preoccupied with portraying advanced civilizations that have retained their ancient origins and beliefs. Quasi-religious or mystical notions are perpetuated into the distant future where they are explained in pseudo-scientific terms. These stories tap into the same part of our imaginations as conspiracy theories about alien involvement in building the Pyramids. Why are we drawn to these stories? Why is it such a popular motif?

To borrow some reasoning from Data and Doctor Soong ("Brothers", TNG), we may be drawn to the sense of continuity such stories create. We have an inherent uneasiness about our own mortality. Also, there are parts of our brain that are hard-wired to resist change. Yet we live in a world that constantly changes, that bombards us with more information then we can keep up with, and that insists that what is old or traditional is embarrassingly out of touch with reality.

And for the most part we can agree that progress is progress—we wouldn't really want to turn the clock back 10, 50 or 100 years, at least not in every respect. But we still have this nagging sense that we wish there were things that were stable, eternal, immortal. Perhaps science fiction stories that tie together the distant past with the distant future provide us with the sense of permanence and continuity that we crave.

Whatever it is that makes these stories appealing to so many people, they must be handled carefully or they don't hold up very well to any kind of scrutiny. The difficulty lies in explaining how ancient beliefs and instincts could possibly anticipate unknown, future realities and technology. For example, how could the Drayan have an instinct to go, not just the moon, but to a specific cave on their moon?

To put in Earth terms - many ancient cultures worshiped the moon, moths navigate by moon-light. But which ancient culture developed customs revolving around the Sea of Tranquility? What species of moth has instincts revolving around a specific location on the moon? Seeing the moon at a distance is one thing, but details about it would be completely outside of their experience. Short of alien or divine intervention, such customs and especially such instincts could never have existed. It would be like saying a salmon had an instinct to return to a certain field in the middle of Nebraska. It's just not possible.

So what about the Drayan? Well, as we did with their biology, let's give their history a second chance.

A Speculative History of the Drayan

Just as we assume that all species age the way we do, we tend to assume that all civilizations develop essentially the same way our has. We think of the moon as something up there, that someday we may get to travel to. But, of course, that doesn't have to be the way it works, especially when you're talking about an M-Class moon.

The Drayan moon has an eco-system. It's full of life - at least plant life. That means the first spark of Drayan life really could have originated on that moon. If that's where the species began, it goes a long way to explaining why not only their culture but also their genetic instincts are bound up with their moon.

Think of how different history would be if the Moon was habitable and humans originated there. What would we have thought looking up at the Earth?

Steven L. Gillet comments on a variation of this scenario in the book World Building: "Of course a large satellite—much less a full companion world—is likely to have profound social effects on a species that reaches the level where 'culture' is relevant. The plurality of worlds would be demonstrated very early; Earth's Moon, by contrast, is just far enough away that it's not obviously another world to the naked eye. Perhaps it would goad the early development of space flight."

I would argue that this essentially a description of Drayan history. Their species and civilization developed on their moon. Overhead were two other moons and also another blue-green world, even bigger than their own. They would have been fascinated with it. They longed to reach it. They developed space flight. To get off of their moon they had to learn how to overcome the conditions that made piloting Voyager's shuttles so problematic.

Once they were able to leave their moon, they started colonizing the planet. In the meantime, what began as a sacred cave became a sacred area. That area grew larger and larger until the whole civilization moved to the planet. The moon itself was reserved as a holy place where only the innocent elder-children and their attendants could step foot. It was not to be used for anything mundane - they had an entire planet for that. This moon was, in effect, their mother. They were born from her, they held her in the highest regard, and as their lives drew to a close, their spark of life returned to her.

New Life, New Civilizations

The Drayan species is a remarkable contribution to the Star Trek universe. This truly is a 'new civilization' living on a 'strange new world.' What little we are directly told about them challenges some of our most deeply ingrained assumptions about life, so much so that our instinct is to reject them completely, and yet with some consideration they can open our eyes to new possibilities. To me, this alone makes them a valuable contribution to science fiction in general, and a welcome addition to Star Trek lore.

100 Years Young:
Part I: Musings About the Drayan Life-Cycle

Part II: Is Aging an Inevitable Biological Fact?

Part III: Can an Organism 'Grow' Smaller and Younger?
Part IV: The Drayan Civilization

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Passing "Judgment" (ENT)

As I mentioned before, I've been re-watching a lot of Enterprise episodes on the Sci-Fi channel. Recently I saw the episode "Judgment" again. I was pleasantly surprised to realize it was more enjoyable than I remembered, but I was again struck with some of its unrealized potential.

Speaking as the Advocate

For me, seeing the Klingon court again was great. That may have something to do with my memories of Star Trek VI. That was the first Star Trek movie I saw in a theater (the others coming out before I was old enough to have a clue what was going on). The tri-angular pit, the judge's claw and ball "gavel," prosecution-in-the-round, the chilling verdict: those images were etched into my mind, and I loved seeing them again.

I also think using Rura Penthe was a nice way to reverse engineer some continuity. In Star Trek VI Chekov comments that Rura Penthe is "known throughout the galaxy as the alien's graveyard," letting us know what a bad place this is. This rather awkward line of dialog is only inserted for the benefit of the audience to give us an important (?) bit of information.

But beyond the dramatic awkwardness of the line, it also raises the question, if Rura Penthe is really "known throughout the galaxy", then why have we never heard of it before? Well, with this episode of Enterprise we have heard of it "before." As I said, I nice way to reverse engineer some continuity.

Another more subtle nod to continuity has to do with Klingon culture. In the transition from TOS to TNG the Klingons evolved from brute villains, to a society governed by a highly developed sense of honor. On one hand we can assume we simply were not exposed to enough of what really constitutes Klingon culture in TOS but at the same time there does seem to be some disparity.

Kolos (Archer's advocate played by the always delightful J. G. Hertzler) helps us bridge the gap. He talks about a civilization of many disciplines - including law students and scientists - with an elevated concept of honor that has lost its way. The increasingly aggressive warrior caste has drawn in the younger generation and made preying on the weak a sport, a way of creating a false sense of honor based on posturing and barbarism. Archer in turn helps him to think in terms of righting these wrongs, restoring honor, and making a courageous change for the better.

Here is an excellent look at what Klingon history is really about. Kolos even asks Archer, 'You didn't think all Klingon's are warriors, did you?' So often in Star Trek (and perhaps in sci-fi in general) we deal in absolutes. Alien races are portrayed as monolithic - one language, one culture, one way of approaching things. Vulcans are logical, Ferengi are greedy, and Klingons are warriors. And when we see a stray episode with a Klingon or Ferengi scientist (such as "Suspicions" TNG), we cock our heads and say, that doesn't seem right. But the reality is there has to be that kind of variety and texture to an inter-stellar civilization.

What we see in "Judgment" is that not all Klingons are alike, and that there are different forces at a work within their culture. A dominant warrior caste is promoting a way of life consistent with what we see in TOS, but there's a cultural background based on the stories of Kahless that is also at work and that asserts itself more strongly at different times in Klingon history.

The Unrealized Potential

Where this episode lets me down is that it alludes to a much more expansive story then we ever get to see on screen. When it first aired I remember thinking that there was enough material here for two, if not three episodes. When season four came along, Enterprise tried that kind of arc-based story telling. That's exactly what I thought could have been done here.

The first episode could have shown the initial conflict with Duras as it actually happened, instead of two re-telling of those events. The way Duras tells the story is obviously inaccurate, but this is not of as much entertainment value as it was probably meant to be. For one thing, you can tune into any episode of CSI these days and see a false flashback of how something supposedly happened. We see it way too much for it to be interesting in its own right. And Star Trek has done this kind of thing in much more interesting ways already.

"A Matter of Perspective" (TNG) may have been based on a contrived premise, but at least something was drawn from all the varying stories of what "really" happened, and it was an innovative story for its time. "Living Witness" (VOY) took a different approach, with a clever story-telling framework, and a real message about how recorded history can be intentionally or unintentionally manipulated by those who tell the story. Here, we don't get anything so interesting-just the blustering testimony of a dishonored Klingon.

So rather than rehashing a condensed version of the original events, why not show them objectively. Then the episode could end with another important detail we are never given - how Archer was finally apprehended by the Klingon's. How did they take him into custody? Surely there is a story there.

The second episode would allow time for to see - not just hear about - the efforts to lobby for Archer's release. The reactions of Starfleet and the Vulcan High Command, the crews reaction to T'Pol's leadership as they find themselves deep in Klingon territory. In the meantime we are introduced to Kolos, and the trial unfolds. We see what it takes to get Phlox down to the planet and into the prison block. The episode ends with Archer sentenced to life on Rura Penthe and perhaps we get just a glimpse of this gulag, or maybe that's saved for the third episode.

The third episode then shows in detail the most rushed aspect of the whole episode - the rescue. Again we are told there were some unorthodox channels used to release Archer, but it would have been nice to see T'Pol and Trip negotiating with Klingon's or Reed stowed away aboard a prison transport, and so on.

And if three episodes is stretching it too thin, then at least give it two. Either way, there seemed to be way too much we are just told about, and far to little we are actually shown. Overall, I like this episode very much, but I wish it was fleshed out a little bit more.

And when Archer finally escapes, there is one line I would really have liked to hear Kolos say to Archer: "Qapla!"