Saturday, January 26, 2013

Blogathon 12: Favourite Peter David Star Trek Novels (Graeme McMillan Guest Post)

To all intents and purposes, the Star Trek: New Frontier series are the most "Peter David-y" of all of Peter David's Star Trek novels. That only makes sense, when you think about it; he created the majority of the characters, he's the dominant writer of the series - He's written the entire series, outside of some short stories for an anthology… that he edited - and the stories take place off in their own corner of the Trek universe (Specifically, the Next Generation-era Trek universe). The format of the series - controlled by one writer, with characters and situations that have the ability to evolve through the series, but taking place in a shared universe - is pretty close to a comic book set-up, and that's part of what attracted me to the books in the first place, when I was dipping my toes back into the murky and socially-shameful world of Trek novels. Well, that and Peter David.

I have this ridiculous belief, you see, that Peter David's Trek novels are somehow "better" than anyone else's. I know that it's irrational, because it's not based on a comprehensive reading of every single Trek novel ever, nor are David's Trek novels even necessarily outstanding works in and of themselves. And yet, it's still there in my head, an opinion that I hold even though I don't even agree with it half the time. But Peter David was what brought me to Star Trek prose, when I was a teenager and a massive fan of his Incredible Hulk run, and Peter David wrote all of the Trek books that I liked best back then; that kind of thing sticks with you, no matter how much logic and facts stand in opposition.

There was something about his Next Generation novels in particular that worked for me even more than the show did, at the time; I'm tempted to put it down to the sense of humor that was on display in David's books, which humanized the characters in a way that the series itself - which never passed up a chance to be self-important and po-faced whenever possible, as if to reinforce the idea that this show was serious science fiction - could never quite manage. The me I was then thought that David "got" Trek on some level that others didn't, although, looking back, I recognize my own prejudices in that; David's Trek, in whatever incarnation he wrote it, in whatever medium, always felt to be primarily influenced by the dynamic of the original series: a belief that the science fiction and social commentary being offered should always be balanced with lighter moments and some kind of reminder that these people were friends as well as colleagues, and I found myself appreciating that a lot at the time. Hence my excitement for the New Frontier books when they were announced. Finally, I thought, Peter David Trek unbound!*

And for, what, maybe just over two thirds of the series, it completely lived up to my expectations. The books were as funny as I wanted them to be, and as… "thrilling" feels curiously old-fashioned a term, but one that still feels appropriate. From House of Cards through Stone and Anvil, there's a really enjoyable, very throwaway pulpy feel to the series; each novel was a self-aware (but not overly-so, with the exception of David's tendency to always go one pun or joke too far at one point each novel) smart-enough read that was completely entertaining, but not too troubling, if that makes sense. You could read and enjoy them for what they were, but also put them down and walk away without too many questions weighing on your mind afterwards. Perfect popcorn literature, if you will.

Then, something happened. I'm not sure how to explain it, but it's what happened to David on X-Factor, too, as well as his Hulk run way back when. It's as if he gets bored of his own formula, or decides that it's time that he took the whole thing more seriously, and suddenly there's a tonal shift and - for New Frontier, at least - a time jump, and the series is noticeably not what it was before. For New Frontier, it was the beginning of the end. As the novels became more irregular - and the scale of each one grew, as if David felt the compulsion to make the stories "count" more - everything falls out of balance, somehow, and the books became less fun to read: Characters died, went insane and had to be dealt with. Everything became less fun.

I'm kind of embarrassed to write that, to be honest; I feel as if I'm whining or something similar, complaining that I don't want to read something because it's not "fun." But… that was always the selling point for me on Peter David's Star Trek, and maybe even Star Trek in general. I want it to be enjoyable, I want it to be fun. I'm uncertain about whether there's enough heft to the concept/series in general for it to be "dark" or heavy in any real way, and just as I get bored of people trying to find "meaning" and "depth" in kids' comic characters that was never really supposed to be there because they don't want to deal with them any other way, attempts to turn Star Trek into something dark and troubled and full of grimacing just feel false and unnecessary to me. (Which means, yes, I'm desperately hoping that the new movie isn't going to be the dark thing that everyone keeps talking about. Please have a swerve in there, JJ!)

It sounds like damning with faint praise to say that the strength of Peter David's Trek - And, I'd argue, his writing in general - is the throwaway, pop quality of it, the "fun." It's not meant to be; I think it's far more difficult than it seems to get that kind of thing right, and far more valuable a skill to have than just being able to write sturm-und-drang all the time. Despite how New Frontier has ended up - and the series does appear to have ended, with the last book a couple of years old and nothing new on the horizon - David's Trek, when he's on, when he's firing on all cylinders, still feels like Star Trek at its best to me. But maybe I just like popcorn a little too much.

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