In Review: Picard – The Last Best Hope by Una McCormack

"It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life -- Jean-Luc Picard

Synopsis: The Romulan sun is set to go supernova, within ten years.  Una McCormack’‘s new book, Picard: The Last Best Hope gives the backstory of the groundbreaking new series, Picard. Starfleet knows how huge this event is, and the possible repercussions. Picard must step in and do something. The very essence of his being compels him to. There is no alternative. He relinquishes his command of the Enterprise and finally accepts promotion to Admiral. The politics of such a role soon begin to show why he resisted it for so long. He is soon in charge of a team of specialists, who will give everything to the cause. Geordi La Forge heads up the ship-building programme. Many people who have worked on research for much of their lives must place it on hold, for the greater good, including Bruce Maddox, who’s continued to try and replicate what made the life of the late Lieutenant Commander Data possible. Sacrifices must be made, by all. It will take everything to pull this Herculean effort off; what emerges is that even everything might not be enough . . .

Cover Art

There’s a lot to be read into the image on the front cover. In essence, it’s just a portrait-style shot of Jean-Luc Picard. He’s about the same age as he was following the events of Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), perhaps a couple of years older. No bold colour to the shot, it’s mainly grey in appearance. His face looks somber and there’s a solemness. He looks to be carrying a tiredness. He is holding what appears to be a communicator badge, that like always (in the modern era of the Star Trek Universe) is in the shape of the Starfleet emblem. With the events of the up to date episodes known, we know that he has resigned from Starfleet. His resignation was a political landmine, in the aftermath of a disaster. We only know some of the details. It seems that the legend, but more importantly the man Jean-Luc Picard, is very much holding what’s a metaphor for the future of The United Federation of Planets in his hands; perhaps too what will come to pass in the entire universe and wider world of Star Trek.

Story

Things pick up as the series starts, with Picard at his mansion, brooding. He has not yet decided to head back up into the stars. He is re-imagining what has already happened, in what seems to be a combination of daydreaming and the negotiation of a difficult nostalgia. This is the beginning of the journey and as it involves a return to a hard place, for the central character, both emotionally and psychologically, this is a good place to begin. The beginning of what came to be the end of an era and the final point of one person’s story so far.

Jumping back some years, the narrative shifts to the day that Picard took the Admiral position offered to him so that he could begin to head up a rescue operation for tens of millions of people. What’s revealed is that evidence has come about that the sun of Romulus is unstable, and due to go supernova. What works well is that the facts are revealed, as they are known. We don’t get to find out why this is happening. The assumption is that it is merely the time for it to happen, that it’s an event that is naturally occurring. It would have been easy to try and offer an explanation. None is needed, and Una McCormack shows she knows this, flexing her muscles as a story-teller by relying on what’s known, and the established suspension of disbelief by fans. A clever addition to things is mentioning how Starfleet knows. That they had to find out from their spy network says everything about Starfleet and the Romulan Star Empire relations. This is a good use of known tropes, early on in the story. McCormack knows that Romulans are a highly secretive society — at least most of them are — more on those that aren’t in a while.

A few chapters in and Picard has a crew. He is given the U.S.S. Verity (interestingly enough the name Verity appears in the acknowledgments section at the end of the novel –perhaps naming a ship after the author’s love done is a tribute?) and has one Commander Raffi Musiker as his second in command. He is joined by a Bajoran, Lieutenant Koli Jocan. Koli is a specialist in dealing with displacement, as she herself endured terrible hardships following the Cardassian colonization of Bajor. Her role is to assist those who are being re-homed in adapting, and showing that Starfleet take seriously their role. What Mccormack does well is knowing when to put a character in, and with a plan to how their presence will be felt. With the addition of Tajuth, a member of the Romulan Tal Shiar that is loosely in the guise of a Starfleet Lieutenant, they set off to begin evacuations of worlds within the Romulan Star Empire, in the blast zone of the impending supernova.

Further into the story, Picard and co. meet Zani, on the Sordsol Township, a settlement on the planet Vashti. She is a member of the Qowat Milat, a Romulan order of militant nuns who have a very different attitude to life. They are the polar opposite of secretive. They have a policy of absolute candor. Here, Picard first meets Elnor, an orphan boy, who Zani took in. This allows McCormack to show Picard dealing with a child, something that he has historically struggled with. There are some brilliantly authentic scenes of tenderness, as Picard tries to remember what it was to be a boy. Picard’s natural ability to accept an altogether different sect within the Romulan culture shows how much of a skilled diplomat he is. The story allows him to reminisce to his care-free younger days, which is a million light-years away from the very real problems and conflict facing him now.

Not until the latter stages of the story are there much in the way of action, in the sense of physical conflict. The story very much deals with the political goings-on of Starfleet, and the refusal of many Romulan ruling elites to fully accept help from The Federation. Her handling of the Tal Shiar and the true extent of the power they wield through an ability to impose paranoia as a weapon is inspired.  McCormack also does a fine job of establishing bonds between two organizations that in many ways couldn’t be more different than one another. In infrastructure and in philosophy, too. Keeping with the central action being the socio-political arena, McCormack also introduces Olivia Quest, who is a Federation Council member who expresses her concern at the cost other member worlds might pay, in the mission to re-home large swathes of an entire quadrant. What plays out is a great back-story that deals in the very real cost of what happens when politics and the grim reality of disaster are forced to meet in a head-on collision.

 

Characters

Of course, the story always has to focus on the titular Jean-Luc Picard. McCormack paints him in all his sensitivity, that is his greatest strength. Writing such an icon might be daunting for some, but not this author. her behaves as the Captain (now Admiral) we’ve come to know and love should; what’s spot on is the balance between the officer of an established organisation, with rules and regulations, a hierarchy, and the person beneath the uniform. There’s his toughness, that makes the calls others couldn’t, and the gentle soul who truly wishes that al could live in peace. It’s never easy to get these two parts of any character right, but let alone one who is most well-known for those traits. There’s not one instance that you feel it isn’t the genuine article.

Geordi La Forge. Never a lead character in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but popular addition to the crew. Loved by all, for his amicable and down to earth nature. Also, best friend to Data, an important aspect of him, in relation to current goings-on in this book, he is every bit the same resourceful Chief Engineer he has always been. A good choice to use, by McCormack. It gives fans that all-important link to TNG, but not at the cost of the story. He earns his place and is used well here.

Raffi Musiker, a character created for the show the book accompanies. Whilst writing Picard must be a tough draw, at least there’s plenty of references — canon and otherwise. The show has only given glimpses of Raffi and her disillusionment. We discover that she wasn’t always this way. She was once willing to go all in, at any cost, when “JL” gave the order. Such is the respect she commands from Picard that he allows her to refer to him like this. More is revealed about Raffi, too. She has a husband and a young son. We see what she gave up to help do what she felt so powerfully was the right thing. We also get more of her turning to drink, in difficult times. A well-done character, that means a more rounded sense of who she is visible in the show, once you read the book.

Though he might not be a central character in the show, as he isn’t in this book, Bruce Maddox is critical to things, it seems. With another character that has had minimal canon appearances, McCormack manages, effortlessly, to make him count. He stands apart as a very important part of the story and is portrayed as someone who seems to suffer from an obsession, at times, more than simply be behaving from sheer hubris. A crucial part of his character in the story is his relationship with one Agnes Juratti. She too is given the background that allows more sense to be made of her character in the show. It will be interesting to see how things play out for her, based on what is told about her in the book. She may turn out to be a very important player. A standout scene is her dismay when a prized copy of Frankenstein is accidentally ruined.

There are a good few characters that make up the supporting cast, in the book. One that stands out is Olivia Quest. Her political ambitions show what is a key part of the only view of the Star Trek (Prime Timeline) world we have, currently. It’s a very different set up than the Utopia depicted in previous shows. She makes a threat to lead a revolt, that may well lead to the eventual dissolution of The Federation. Those she must do battle with play their part in the story, too. Admiral Kirsten Clancy (who by the end of the novel is the Commander in Chief of Starfleet) has the unenviable task of managing Quest and the growing political crisis. Her boss, the current Starfleet head honcho, is Admiral Victor Bordson. He’s a veteran of the Dominion War and is the one who ultimately gives the order which leads to Picard standing down from Starfleet.

Aliens. Star Trek needs the, for it to be Star Trek. This book has its fair share. One prominent such non-human is Tajuth. He is an interesting one, as he is a member of the Tal Shiar, and therefore in some ways meant to be a bad guy. What McCormack does with him is to make things nowhere near as straightforward as that. He does make choices that suggest he cares about saving lives. He manages to act as a real reminder that Starfleet does have a way of imposing their values onto other cultures, at times, despite their determination not to. He shows the human condition, and all of its hypocrisy and flaws, as well as the finer qualities. There is also Zani, who brings a more nuanced concept to Romulan culture; she is the mother figure to Elnor, too. He does not appear a great deal, but he does manage to make an impression on Picard.

Writing

This is a fine piece of work, as a piece of writing. One element that many readers may not think of, is the difficulty a writer has in structuring a book. The way the book progresses allows for an episodic feel. This is the result of a clear love of Star Trek on McCormack’s part, and a good example of knowing the audience that will be reading. As well as chapters, there are subheadings that make it feel just like watching a show. When the action jumps, you are told where, by a bold header, above. Again, this may seem simple, but with such a lot to cover, and constant scene-changing, it really helps. A tremendous amount of work has gone into making this book as readable as possible, and that alone deserves credit.

Before this book was released, there was a great deal of hype, surrounding it. Understandably so. What emerges is something that was worth waiting for. The exposition is sublime, and the pacing pulled off with the poise you’d expect from an award-winning writer. The descriptive passages are enjoyable and show that when it comes down to it, you can’t beat knowing what people want, in terms of a book like this. Something that some may not think of is that there was likely a huge amount of pressure on the author, who is a massive fan of Star Trek herself. Not easy to remove yourself somewhat from things, and write objectively, when you love the characters just as much (or more, likely) as many others do. It’s an absolute pleasure to read and a very smart book. It deals mostly with the psychology of characters, and their developments. Maintaining a constant thread isn’t an easy thing to try and do. Throw in having to build a world, keep up to date with where characters are up to with themselves and one another, as well as give fans what they’ve desperately waited for, and it’s easy to see how one mistake could make for a loose book, plot-holes or just a dull experience. It doesn’t at all.

Overall

Highly recommended, for any fan of the show. The character study of Picard is absolutely beautiful. That’s the right word for it. A deeply poetic character is shown, and all of his facets dazzle. Crucially, there is the occasional element of humour (Picard does indeed have fun, but not often — he only allows himself to sparingly). It’s needed. The balance between the busy scenes in the book is expertly carried out. It would have been nice to have seen a little more action going on, but that isn’t to say what’s on offer isn’t highly entertaining. This should not be read as a criticism of the book, per say. It simply wasn’t that sort of a story. Why this book succeeds is because it shows such a succinct understanding of the show overall, including Starfleet’s history with The Romulans. By delving into the history of the characters in the new show, it adds weight to the story of the show, and bulks out the characters.

After reading the book, watching the show will prove to be a very different experience, in some ways. McCormack has filled in some much needed gaps, but managed to maintain the big secrets of the show, that are its narrative arch. No doubt, that’s what it will have set out to achieve, and it has done, with some aplomb. There’s even a brief moment with one of the most beloved characters to have ever appeared in the show, who is nothing short of Star Trek royalty. It might not be a thrill a minute ride, but what you get is a deeply intriguing tale of a man who never wants to be a hero, only to do what he knows in his heart to be right. That’s where McCormack shines, she really does convey the heart, soul and mind of Picard.

8.9
Star Trek Picard Novel tie in: The Last Best Hope by Una McCormack
  • Story
    8.5
  • Characters
    9.2
  • Writing
    9.0
  • Overall
    9.0
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