Sunday, December 09, 2007

Book Review: Star Trek: Prime Directive

This is one of two hardcover Star Trek books I have kept and reread over the years. Unlike Best Destiny, reviewed below, Prime Directive is more of an alien-encounter story than a character study. As can readily be deduced from the title, this book centers on Starfleet General Order One, the "prime directive" of the series' gunboat diplomacy, which is supposed to keep the technologically advanced United Federation of Planets from interfering with or causing harm to less-advanced societies.

It is, in fact, a directive that Captain Kirk and his illustrious crew managed to violate throughout the voyages depicted in the first three years of the original series; and the Next Generation and Voyager (both "exploration" series) didn't handle it much better.

Kirk, however, was a violator par excellence, as he routinely overturned societies that failed to match 1960s-style American notions of self-determination. A case has been made that Kirk was, in fact, the prototypical Neocon.

Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, a husband-and-wife pair of authors, decided to raise the stakes on Kirk's usual habit of mucking about in alien politics. In this book, Kirk and his bridge crew are bounced out of Starfleet for apparently causing a nuclear war on a world that was at a technological level approximating that of late 20th century Earth, Talin IV.

We thus begin sometime during the period of the fifth year of the Enterprise's original "five-year mission," with Kirk himself already living in hiding, in disguise and under an assumed name, taking whatever work he can get. When he's discovered, he has to move on, as he has become a pariah, a "world killer."

Kirk's cohorts Sulu, Chekov, McCoy, and Uhura do not appear to be doing much better. Uhura spends 90 days in detention and is then released from the service after refusing to sign a confession regarding her part in the events at Talin IV. McCoy has tried to find a quiet life in a cabin on Earth and started growing a beard, but he meets Uhura to commiserate after her release. Chekov and Sulu have joined an Orion slave ship as crew members to try to get back to Talin to find out what happened. Science Officer Spock takes the most unlikely path, joining up with a group of college radicals to protest the Federation and get a hearing on rescinding the Prime Directive completely. The only one of the officers untainted by the debacle is Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, who stays with the Enterprise to supervise her reconstruction, as the ship itself was damaged during the nuclear war on Talin IV. Scotty does not believe that Enterprise was damaged accidentally, and diligently looks for evidence while reporting to a young and pompous Lt. Styles (the future captain of the Excelsior in Star Trek III).

Kirk finally finds a steady job and a sympathetic ear with Ann Gavreau, a former Starfleet officer who never got command of a Constitution-class starship, and so quit to captain her own freighter. It is during his cruise aboard Gavreau's ship that the authors flash back to the actual events at Talin IV. What makes this part of the book so interesting, aside from the fact that we get to watch Kirk facing the worst of all possible "no-win scenarios," is that we get an inside look at the "First Contact Office (FCO)," which the Federation uses to monitor primitive worlds and decide when "first contact" will be initiated. The authors also provide plausible ways for explaining how futurisitic vehicles like the Enterprise could hide from our world of today.

Eventually, of course, the Enterprise crew all manage to reach Talin IV to put the pieces together, find out what happened, and restore their varied fortunes. (That isn't a true spoiler--one of the writing guidelines for Pocket Books is that a Star Trek book cannot kill off a major character, or do something truly radical to the known continuity of the TV shows and movies, which are the official "canon" of the franchise.)

What I like about the Reeves-Stevenses' book is that they have a firm and integrated sense of Star Trek's history, and integrate bits and pieces from the series, other authors' books (including one of their own, Memory Prime), and the movies to provide an excellent sense of time and place. In this, they are operating somewhat like Babylon 5 or Firefly writers, who managed to give the episodes more of a soap opera feel by growing the characters over time. They also show a bit more of what life is like for civilians in the Trek universe. Rather than treat the people of Trek in an episodic way, the authors give the characters a true feeling of past and future. This is what makes Prime Directive one of the best Star Trek novels out there. The prose is also a little less gushing than Diane Carey's Best Destiny while still providing that sense of wonder that causes fans to read about further adventures of Captain Kirk and his gallant crew.

I highly recommend this book and, once you're finished with it, pick up the masterful audio version narrated by the late James Doohan (Scotty). Doohan does an excellent job with capturing the tone of the various characters' voices, and the sound effects and old series music help put you right back into the action. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise...enjoy.

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