In Review: Star Trek – The Unsettling Stars by Alan Dean Foster

A Kelvin Time-Line Tale . . .

Synopsis: The new crew of the Enterprise find themselves about to embark on a journey into unexplored territory. Fresh from their encounter with Nero (and their defeat of him that proved their capability as a crew) our heroes answer a distress call. At first everything seems to be routine, and ensuring to stick to Starfleet directives they offer help to a species who are under attack by a strange and highly capable new adversary. Kirk and co. realise that they’ve stumbled upon a spat between two species, none of which they have  any knowledge of. This is to be their first test of who to trust and when, and why. Things are not what they first appear to be and what ensues is an intriguing story that lessons must be learned from. Before that though,they’ll need to save their own bacon first . . .

 

Cover Art

Looking more like the front of a graphic novel than a novel, the printed pictures of Captain Kirk, Spock and Lt, Uhura, are pleasing to the eye. They are the Kelvin Timeline incarnations, so Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Zoe Saldana, from JJ Abrams’ Kelvin Timeline, established in Star Trek (2009). The usual triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and Bones is absent, and as a result so too is Karl Urban’s face, as Doctor Leonard McCoy. It might have been nice to have a shot of all the crew (particularly the late Anton Yelchin as  Pavel Chekov), but it’s still a nice looking exterior of a book. The fact the pictures are black and white works well, giving them a pencil-drawn feel. Other than the missing crew, and the fact the pictures are quite small, too, it’s eye-pleasing, generally.

The other feature on the cover is the writing on the book. The words Star Trek are written down the side of the cover, all the way along one edge. The two words, so iconic and in their unmistakable TOS font are in a deep maroon shade that take up around 20 per cent of the front cover. Nice to know what you’re getting and the colour used nicely contrasts to the black and white illustrations. You have to work a little to see the title of the book, and it’s a shame that gets a little lost. It’s still a book you’d want to pick up and check out that, just from the cover. It’s done it’s job then, and that’s all most book  covers are for. Marketing and visibility.

 

Story

Set between Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) this sequence of events begins with a routine shakedown trip of The Enterprise, so the new crew can get on there way, and do what they do best, explore. When they get a notification that a nearby ship is is trouble, of course they answer it. They discover the Perenoreans, and at the same time as they make first-contact, they find themselves also launching a rescue effort. When they encounter the species that were attacking the Perenoreans, the Dre’kalak, Kirk demands to know why. All that they get is a warning that helping the Perenoreans is asking for trouble. They should leave them to it, is the advice. feeling protective, Kirk goes against this advice, and that’s the start of things beginning to play out, fully.

In some ways this book is akin to one of the original episodes. certainly, what works well is that nothing is known about these new species. That makes for mystery and intrigue. A writer of Alan Dean Foster’s experience ought to know what he’s doing and how to get readers hooked. He does, and the desire to discover what’s going to come about is there. It’s a slow burning story, and one that relies on the truth coming about slowly. Whilst a little more action and excitement would have been nice, something more akin to the films, in some ways the exchanging of explosions, phaser-fights and fisticuffs for a more cerebral battleground is welcome.

Once you’re at the end, you feel more like you’ve been reading a big episode, than an equivalent than a film. It’s a good episode, though and one you’d remember fondly. The pacing and planning required for a story like this isn’t easy. far from it. At times you are anxious for things to get moving more, and see where the story is going to end up, but that’s probably due to what you’ve come to expect from Star Trek. This is an “in-between adventure”, an “as well as” and not an instead of. That’s important to keep in mind. A fresh and original idea, that works well and shows a somewhat lighter side to the Star Trek universe not really explored in recent years. Look out for a quick blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-nod to Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), also written by Foster.

 

Characters

This is perhaps the strongest part of the book. Foster knows what he’s doing, here. He captures the interpretation that the makers and cast of Star Trek (2009). Of course Foster will have no doubt relied upon the other two films in the “re-boot” series, but crucially, he manages to get them as they’re developing. Kirk’s trademark swagger is even more present than it was in the original series, in the film (Chris Pine’s take)  version of his depiction. This is transferred well to the book by Foster, with the traits written vividly. The charm and the commanding charisma. Not easy things to put into a book. Also, the experiences of the events of the movie are referred to more than once, and readers get to see how the internal workings of this new Kirk have been effected.

Spock, Bones and the rest of the crew are also penned splendidly here, A book seems to have a different way to get you to come to terms with who a character is, and what makes them behave in the ways they do. Foster definitely knows these characters and somehow gets across the more recent incarnations, especially well. It’s no surprise as he has decades of writing them. Those little spats between Spock and Bones really come through. Their importance is realised with aplomb, too. Foster of course gets how important the three of them are to the other, with Spock and Bones Kirk’s right and left hands. Others aboard also come through nicely. Uhura’s relationship with Spock is expanded upon, with the difficult job of writing romance between human and Vulcan negotiated well. Scotty’s direct and no nonsense approach is captured, as well as the characterisation of Sulu and Chekov. It was emotional reading Chekov’s moments, and lovely that Anton Yelchin’s take got further life

Writing new aliens is no easy task, given the number of species already inhabiting the universe of Starfleet and The Federation. This new lot earn their place well and show how sometimes species are given too many human traits. What Foster expresses is the idea that a truly alien species gives no consideration to customs that it doesn’t know, and feels that the ways it’s discovering are just as strange and odd as those that humans are. The new aliens work because they operate on their own internal logic and behave how they feel they should, which is how they always have. Additionally, Foster makes their actions match their minds brilliantly. Not easy to write in between plain “good” or “bad”, but Foster nails it.

 

Writing

Marrying up the various aspects in story like this is a troublesome task. The plotting has to match the pace and the actions tie-in with the characters. A writer of Foster’s experience has expectations, and it’s fair to say he meets and even exceeds them, at times. The exposition is feasible and takes you deep into space, exactly where you want to be. With his vivid imagery and tight descriptions, the crew that so many fans have come to love really shine through, as the words carve them onto the page. All the emotions you want to experience are there. Tension, shock and of course, relief. It’s that last one that you really have to wait for, right up until the last few pages of the book. Foster leaves it late, but the story is tied-up neatly, in a classic “just in the nick of time” scenario.

Structuring a story is something that the majority of readers give little thought to. On screen things simply go from one scene to the next (although you know when you’ve seen bad editing), bit in a book, the action leaps around a bit more. Knowing where to end one chapter and what part of the story requires the requisite amount of attention and word count is a skill. It’s why you feel things, as a reader. Everything has to be  worked at, by the writer. Foster gets this bang on the money and the result is a seamless narrative that has a very film-like quality to it as a result. Things flow, with just the right amount of tell and show, right at the times when the balance between the two is so important.

Attention to detail is something all writers need. Foster has the benefit of experience, but that doesn’t always mean that this crucial element is gotten right. Foster works hard, with a good mixture of sentence lengths, the occasional sharp metaphor, and the ability to show you exactly what’s going on. The emotions of the characters are what he brings out, and subsequently the emotions of the reader. Making that bond happen means knowing who the characters are, as well as managing expectations of the fans likely to read this book. It’s never in any serious doubt. You do start to think it might be, for a few seconds, but you soon realise that Foster is offering something new, and for that he deserves credit.

 

Overall

If you’re a fan of the Kelvin Timeline then you’ll probably enjoy this book very much. The crew’s inexperience and as a result unintentional naivety are dealt with. Their being introduced to a difficult scenario is handled well and establishes itself with a plausibility. It’s a good test of their ability, and how they come through it might even go some way in helping to show how they were able to deal with Kahn, in Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), having been through the ringer once and managed (just about) to come through the other side. It’s what they learn about their mission and about themselves that matter most in this book. The story can be seen as a sort of dress-rehearsal for even more sinister dangers, that they’ll surely go on to face. Foster never forgets that they’re on their way to much more, and so they have to become much more. This is just the start of the journey. They’ll all have to up their game and be more alert; the events of this story help to make that known, and that only comes from careful observation on behalf of the writer.

Whether or not this book will be deemed to be canonical is an interesting question. It deserves to be, and the creations that Foster has made are interesting, fun and should be up there with Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans, Ferengi, Andorians and others. The experiences of the crew should also be referenced, if we ever so get another Kelvin Timeline movie. This story itself probably would have made for a good one, though their might have to be a few more action-packed sequences to keep those newcomers to the world of Star Trek happy. For those who know that it’s not always about that, and shouldn’t be, they’ll be happy enough with this latest offering by Foster. It’s fresh and fun; after all, isn’t that what Star Trek always is, or at least should be when it’s done well?

 

8.7
Star Trek: The Unsettling Stars Review
  • Story
    8.4
  • Characters
    9.3
  • Writing
    8.5
  • Overall
    8.6
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