Saturday, December 08, 2007

Book Review: Star Trek: Best Destiny

This seems to have become a book reviewing site. What of it? I obtain my intellectual and (often) spiritual nourishment from books. Here's the latest...

I read Best Destiny when it first came out in the early '90s, back when I was still gung-ho to be a science fiction/Star Trek writer, and decided to lay my hands on nearly any Trek book I could find. In time, I realized that I was ill-equipped to write SF, much less Trek, and moved on to other pursuits. And as I purged my shelves of books that I knew I'd never read again, most of my Trek paperbacks went off to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. However, I kept some of the better ones, and Best Destiny, which I'd splurged on to buy in hardcover.

To begin, Best Destiny by Diane Carey is a sequel to a book she wrote three years previously, Final Frontier (which should not be confused with the truly awful Star Trek V movie with the same title). Final Frontier introduced the first mission of the starship Enterprise under her very first commanding officer, Captain Robert April. Among the crew members of that mission was a hard-nosed and somewhat brash chief of security, George Samuel Kirk, father of the future Captain James T. Kirk. That book finishes with Kirk deciding to settle his family out on one of the outer colonies, Tarsus IV.

Best Destiny takes place some years after that settlement decision. In the intervening years, Tarsus IV suffered a massive food shortage, and its governor massacred thousands (events that would eventually be resolved in the Original Series episode "Conscience of the King"). After that, Kirk resettled his family (wife Winona, and sons Sam and Jimmy) back on Earth, in Riverside, Iowa. Embittered by the Tarsus IV episode, his parents' estrangement, and George's frequent long absences in space, 16-year-old Jimmy has become a bit of a discipline problem. Sulky, adventurous, bossy, occasionally bookish, and more than a little mean, young Jimmy Kirk's story opens with him and a group of young toughs attempting to run away from home to join a freighter crew. They are soon caught, by George himself, and the Starfleet officer realizes he has a serious problem on his hands.

George's old friend Captain April comes up with the idea of taking Jimmy out on a mission with the Enterprise to build the teenager's character and hopefully mend the relationship between father and son. Carey puts us in the young Kirk's mind as he attempts nonchalance in the presence of a space vehicle lovingly described:
Bathed in beaconage, there she was. The gazingstock of Starfleet.
With the diamondlike poise of a resting Lippizaner stallion, a huge milk-white ship beguiled the darkness. Two pencil-shaped warp nacelles pierced back from her lower hull, implying speed. The lower hull, where mankind's genius of engineering found expression, provided the ship's sense of ballast. Robert knew those impressions had been designed into her in defiance of commonplace understanding that a ship in space could be shaped like almost anything. There was no wind resistance to consider here. Here, such a ship was designed for only two things: purpose...and raw inspiration...

"She's a starship, Jimmy...isn't that a masterful word? Starship...her express purpose is to roam free to untouched stars. And she has the power to do it too. She and her kind will hammer through the frontiers of space, approach and contact faraway civilizations, bridge cultures, learn, share, grow...she's a flintbox for the firewalkers among us. The starship Enterprise."

Carey's sometimes-worshipful descriptions of the Star Trek universe's technology and Starfleet people can be cloying at times, just a little too "gosh-wow," but consider how a 16-year-old today would feel if he or she was brought up into orbit and given the opportunity to travel aboard such a vehicle! Hell, a 38-year-old might even manage a gosh-wow. And that was part of Star Trek's appeal, after all. It was positive, even uplifting occasionally.

But we have to start with Jimmy Kirk the rebel, who was there because his father dragged him there. The point of the adventure for him, at least for the first half of the book or so, is to antagonize and wound George Kirk with any barb he can manage. He even manages to irritate some of the Enterprise crew with his first words upon setting foot on the bridge, which was under repairs: "It stinks in here."

Eventually Enterprise gets underway, dispatching Robert April, George Kirk, Jimmy, and half a dozen other crew members to perform a simple visit to an archaeological dig on a world called Faramond. This trip occurs in a low-warp transport, traveling around the Rosette Nebula, while the Enterprise heads off on a diplomatic mission. Jimmy manages to keep up his sulky and hostile front until the transport is attacked by pirates hiding in the nebula. The bulk of the story is taken up by the various technobabble tricks the Starfleet people use to evade and survive their attacker's assaults and the lessons Jimmy learns as he observes and sometimes inadvertently interferes with them. In short, this is the Star Trek version of a Heinlein juvenile: the smart-mouthed tenderfoot in space who learns the ropes the hard way.

Carey also includes a "frame story": the book actually opens soon after the end of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the last mission of the old Enteprise depicted in the movies. The older James T. Kirk, headed for retirement along with his beloved ship, is starting to feel his age when the ship receives a distress call from the new Excelsior-class starship Bill of Rights, which was in orbit around Faramond. The planet means nothing to Kirk's crew, but it causes Kirk some discomfort. The Bill of Rights appears to have exploded, so the Enterprise races off to investigate. This frame story uses some of the insights learned during the longer and more detailed episode 45 years earlier.

So what makes this novel so much better than the many, many others out there? Part of the charm, I suppose, is getting to see what the eminent Captain Kirk might have been like as a bratty teenager (but then I repeat myself). Part of the resonance for me derives from my own bratty teenaged years, when I said more than my own share of nasty, deliberately hurtful things to my father. Perhaps most guys could relate. Most of us grow out of it, eventually. The frame story has its own moments of uplift, as Kirk finds himself confronting some demons from his youth. Carey very neatly (perhaps too neatly?) ties everything together, past and future, young Kirk and old Kirk, and gives the reader a feeling of inspiration, which is of course the point.

Best Destiny couldn't be made into a movie today--too many of the lead characters have died--but it has more of a "movie" feel to it than one of the old episodes, and would've made quite a good cinematic adventure, for all that. If you haven't gotten into the Star Trek universe in awhile, Best Destiny does its level best to remind the reader of a lot of the things that made us enjoy the show in the first place.

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