Saturday, July 15, 2017

Ranking (the "best" of) the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds stories

Faced with some of the tightest creative restrictions in the industry, officially licensed Star Trek novels were rarely any good.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have fan fiction that's beholden to no one and can do what the hell it likes with the characters, as long as that means turning the space adventure franchise into angsty smut. This also isn't my thing.

Somewhere between those two extremes (but still towards the safe end, because Pocket Books was publishing them) were the annual Strange New Worlds anthologies. For ten years, amateur writers from the U.S. and Canada were invited to submit their conservatively creative short stories set in the Star Trek universe for cash prizes and esteem.

I'm not sure why I never bought one of these books at the time, since I remember finding them intriguing. Presumably, spending my saved-up dinner money on two-episode VHS tapes and Smegazines was a higher priority. I got round to it eventually. Though I've mercifully limited myself to the stories ranked first, second and third by the editors of each book, rather than reading all 221 of them like some kind of Dave Warburton.

The cover images indicate which stories were awarded the Grand Prize in their respective collections. So let's see whether those all stack up neatly at the bottom, or if I have my own maverick opinions about The Top 30 Top 3 Strange New Worlds Stories.

Series key (if you recognise the colour scheme, welcome to the hopeless nerd club):


30. Shadows, in the Dark, by Ilsa J. Bick (2001)

Twice gilded by the judges (once taking the top prize), this author was apparently the best at doing Voyager. I guess they didn't receive many Voyager submissions then.

Just like a standard Voyager episode, this is a tediously action-packed story drenched in nonsensical technobabble that makes it practically unreadable.

29. I Am Klingon, by Ken Rand (1999)

The 14 ungilded stories in Strange New Worlds II can't all have been worse than this one. The editors/judges were probably just overly impressed at its weak explanation of the Klingon Forehead Problem, a long-running skullbone of contention that would be dealt with canonically in Enterprise a couple of years later.

But you can't just submit a detailed fan theory, so the author wraps it up in an uninspired story of unsurprising holodeck reveals and Klingon cultural tedium. It's not polite to go around diagnosing people, but with all his unnecessary continuity references, insistence on mentioning Lieutenant Commander Data's rank every time he shows up and liberal quoting of Marc Okrand's Klingon Dictionary, he's got to be somewhere on the spectrum.

28. Bluff, by Steven Scott Ripley (2002)

All I got out of this belated sequel to 'The Most Toys' is being reminded of the episode's chilling ending. Dwelling on its consequences only makes for tedious reading, and even though we're dealing with movie-era, emotion-optional Data, he doesn't feel true to character.

27. A Ribbon for Rosie, by Ilsa J. Bick (1999)

Is this really the cream of their Voyager entries? I suppose it makes sense that a lacklustre spin-off wouldn't be the greatest source of inspiration.

I don't even know what we're supposed to get out of this. Is the little girl's identity supposed to be a tantalising mystery and exciting reveal? Maybe don't base it exactly on existing episodes so we can work it out on page one.

I would have preferred an average away mission or something.

26. Echoes, by Randy Tatano (2007)

You wanted post-Nemesis Star Trek? How's 200 years in the future sound?

Who's the best captain, Kirk or Picard? Can't choose? Wish you could freakishly combine them? Here you go!

And add some Janeway, Locutus and Tolian Soran to the mix, because why the hell not? Let's defeat the Borg once and for all using the Nexus!

An idiot would adore this.

25. Adventures in Jazz and Time, by Kelly Cairo (2004)

With all these characters to choose from, why would you want to write a Wesley Crusher story? It's at least post-human Wesley, or whatever it was that happened towards the end. Now that he's magic or whatever, he gives Riker the sneaky gift of a 'realistic' holodeck jazz session that everyone but him realises is actually taking place in bona fide jazz times, whenever that was.

Riker had his jazz, Data had his string quartet. It's a shame there was apparently no lasting music made after the 20th century.

24. Final Flight, by John Takis (2005)

Nemesis didn't bother to hide that it was a cynical remake of Wrath of Khan, and this story follows logically and predictably with The Search for Data.

It's to its credit that it ultimately decides that would be silly, but that just makes the wasted journey more irritating.

23. Alpha & Omega, by Derek Tyler Attico (2005)

When they relaxed the rules and allowed writers to speculate about whatever the hell they wanted, Borgageddon was always going to be the inevitable outcome. Resistance is futile.

Freed from the burden of worrying about continuity, this writer unleashes technological hell on the galactic and personal scale, just because they can. The Borg now build ginormous supercubes because that's badass. Picard turns into Locutus again because that's badass. The Q are assimilated because that's badass. V'Ger returns. Okay.

It's the ultimate Star Trek story. If you're about 10.

22. Choices, by Susan S. McCrackin (2006)

Seven of Nine is paralysed from the neck down and at the mercy of aliens. It's not going to be as bad as you think.

It's just a typical Voyager story of bungled first contact and Prime Directive breaking, with some stem-cell-like religious debating thrown in. Forgettable, but still better than the other Voyager stories here. I assume there were some interesting ones in the books that the judges inexplicably didn't favour.

21. Mestral, by Ben Guilfoy (2006)

A charming Enterprise episode about Vulcans getting by in rural '50s America catches up with the atomic horror of World War III a century later. Look forward to that.

But what's a historical story (even a future-historical) without awkwardly shoehorned cameos? We get to see a little of Zefram Cochrane's pre-post-apocalyptic life and his first meeting with Lily, and humanity's greatest achievement turns out to have required alien intervention after all. Thanks, Guilfoy.

20. Our Million-Year Mission, by Robert T. Jeschonek (2003)

With many of the 'regular' stories already taking liberties, how outlandish were these 'Speculations' going to be? Ludicrously so, it turns out.

This absurd mash-up of two Enterprise generations warps everything to eleven and beyond, as the UberEnterprise explores the 500,000th galaxy on its million-year mission. The specifics are explained, but that doesn't make it any less silly.

I just noticed this is by the same guy who wrote one of my favourites. I can see how, but I preferred it when he was twisting his dark tale to fit into Star Trek, rather than being a self-destructing fanboy.

19. Life's Work, by Julie Hyzy (2004)

The Soong family soap opera was fairly well established in the series, so we don't really gain anything from heading back in time to watch alluded-to scenes taking place in the flesh and bioplast sheeting.

Maybe they received a lot of technobabble entries that year, so were inordinately pleased to have a human one? 50% anyway.

18. The Lights in the Sky, by Phaedra M. Weldon (1998)

Gladiator combat. Disembodied brains gambling with Quatloos. That fight music. 'The Gamesters of Triskelion' isn't an episode I remember particularly well or fondly, but we're filled in on the basics as we catch up with Kirk's love-interest-of-that-week at the end of the TOS timeline.

Shahna's desperate to see Kirk one last time before leaving her physical body behind, but because Pocket Books has a specific rule against that sort of thing, we're led to believe they only want to share a nice "dinner." Kirk's death means that never gets to happen, which at least means we can avoid the mental images. Damn, now look what I've gone and done.

17. Triptych, by Melissa Dickinson (1999)

Of all the 'what-if?' scenarios to explore, Edith Keeler's death or survival is a bit of redundant one. That's what that episode was about already.

This just complicates things by sending the rest of the landing party back in time and widening the ripples until the future has no choice but to sort itself out. There's some nice interaction between the triptych, but the author's just playing around with a classic story rather than adding anything of value.

16. Orphans, by R.S. Belcher (2006)

You don't realise how many separate batches of genetically engineered superhumans there are in the universe until someone puts them into a story together. It's surprising that Khan and the Augments don't join the party of Jem'Hadar, Bashir and that guy with the eye tattoo from one of those samey rebel episodes of mid-TNG that all blur together.

There are some reasoned discussions about the merits and ethics of eugenics and what makes you you, but then it descends to Dominion War shoot-em-up and Guardian of Forever flogging. That thing's showed up in at least 10% of these stories. Look, here comes another one:

15. Guardians, by Brett Hudgins (2004)

Epic in time scale, this really boils down to a crossover of various ageless aliens from the canon: godlike, mineral and goopy. If all you want from a Star Trek story is to catalogue various things you recognise ("oh look, it's Armus"), you'll probably like it. It doesn't make any contributions of its own.

14. The Trouble with Borg Tribbles, by William Leisner (2002)

What if Star Trek's most placid species met its most terrifying? You know what you're getting into with this frankly titled story, so criticism is futile. Observing Three of Three's designation rapidly escalate to Three of Three Hundred Eight is quite funny.

Five years in, the rules have evidently relaxed since I read them, which is good to know. This story's only a few pages long and it doesn't feature any characters from the series, unless any of these Tribbles happened to be in the background of that episode.

13. Disappearance on 21st Street, by Mary Scott-Wiecek (2002)

Ruminations on a theme of 'The City on the Edge of Forever' again, this time backgrounding the episode's events almost entirely until they briefly and fatally intrude at the end.

How many of us have spared a thought for the formerly anonymous, ill-fated homeless man, whose function in the episode is simply to be freaked out by the rabid McCoy, before his completely unnecessary and accidental suicide by phaser? Mary Scott-Wiecek has.

12. Universal Chord, by Carolyn Winifred (2007)

Not having seen that much of Enterprise, I don't know if there's some background I'm missing out on here. It seems to be extracurricular and pre-series, but I'm not qualified to report whether T'Pol's response to the rock band is true to character.

The crowd's 22nd century banter feels appropriately half-way towards the starched and tedious 24th.

11. The Name of the Cat, by Steven Scott Ripley (2001)

One of the many restrictive rules of the writing competition was that you can't go around killing off characters. Yeoman Mears may be an insignificant character who only showed up in one episode (wearing a red shirt that surely spelled out her fate sooner or later), but when she meets her pointless death at the beginning of this story, you just know that time travel or alien intervention is going to rear its 360-degree swivelling head sooner or later.

What's so prize-worthy about it? I'm not sure, really. It's a good character sketch of Leonard McCoy, in his 40s and 140s, but I get the feeling they were disproportionately impressed at the author providing an origin for a plot-point-necessitated disease in TNG. I don't think he even got the symptoms right.

10. Concurrence, by Geoffrey Thorne (2005)

Geoffrey "The Soft Room" Thorne has the nerve to write a sequel to his own non-canonical story from a couple of years earlier (this might have happened more often; I'm only reading 13.57% of the books), and they make a pretty good pair.

It also turns out to be a sequel to a tonally different TOS episode, which was unnecessary, but never mind. I preferred it when it was about formerly unheard-of outsiders whose Prime Directive is benevolent interference, but that wasn't enough twists for Geoff.

Both stories feature naked people too. Just an observation.

9. Ninety-three Hours, by Kim Sheard (2000)

Deep Space Nine was my favourite Trek, but it makes sense that the cliquey serial didn't appeal as much to these writers as the more episodic series. This one found an interesting, unexplored nook to poke – the immediate aftermath of Ezri's bonding with the Dax belly-slug.

This had previously been dealt with, briefly, in catch-up dialogue, but it's an unusual scenario that's worth taking the time to explore. Even if it ultimately doesn't dodge the standard pitfall of being basically like every other Trill story, just as most Klingon stories and most Bajoran stories end up being largely the same too.

It would have been nice to start a bit earlier and meet pre-joined Ezri as well. But 7,500 words and all that.

8. Whales Weep Not, by Juanita Nolte (2003)

What happens when a marine biologist skips town for a fresh start in the 23rd century? If Detective Chizum's on the case, it's not too difficult to connect all those messy dots her reluctant abductors left behind, but nobody would ever believe him.

An enjoyable epilogue to the funnest Trek film. The editors request that contributors please keep their stories within the recognisable confines of Star Trek storytelling, but then they keep saluting the tangents.

7. The Soft Room, by Geoffrey Thorne (2003)

Categorising this as a TNG story doesn't make much sense, they were probably balancing the book. With the time period and mention of the Dominion, it would be more appropriate as DS9. Its only familiar character is one who appeared in TOS, although it turns out to be a bit more complicated than that.

It is a pretty odd story, set entirely in a simulated environment that sharpens along with its occupant's mental state and finally goes doolally. Tech Trek fans should enjoy it.

6. If I Lose Thee..., by Sarah A. Hoyt and Rebecca Lickiss (2000)

This jaunt to Elizabethan England may as well be Doctor Who or any generic time travel story. But making it an Uhura solo mission does give it a distinctive flavour. Especially as it invites you to imagine her in an impractically flattering bodice.

You don't need to be an historian to deduce who the famous figures are before the reveal. The literary connections are tenuous, the time travel method unimaginative, and the setting feels as artificial as a Paramount soundstage, even with its immersive stink. But Star Trek didn't always have to be clever. A lot of the time, it's just good fun.

5. A Private Anecdote, by Landon Cary Dalton (1998)

The first story in the first anthology fittingly takes us right back to the era of Star Trek's unsuccessful first pilot. I had a feeling it would, or maybe just a hope.

'The Cage' was always one of my favourite episodes, and I have an obscure, underdog fondness for the sombre Captain Pike and his underdeveloped entourage. So it was a treat to embark on another mission, even if I would have preferred the exotic monsters to feel a bit more like large actors in suits.

4. The Smell of Dead Roses, by Gerri Leen (2007)

My favourites are always going to be the smart-arse ones, but I'm not incapable of appreciating a touching interspecies love story, race-mixing enthusiast that I am. Sarek's one of those characters who was only in it every so often, but who I can't help but feel extreme fondness for. Gerri Leen captures the inspiring Vulcan's essence, and you might just end up falling in love with him too.

But there's also a sinister side to this story. It's not like Sarek intended to groom his future bride when he first met her as a young teenager, but when he selects her as his intern a few years later, you wonder what was going through his recently-widowed mind and loins. When it's revealed that she had a troubled upbringing with a violent father, it fits all too well.

3. Isolation Ward 4, by Kevin G. Summers (2001)

Neither of the 'best' Deep Space Nine stories across these anthologies is set in a familiar location or properly features the regular characters from the series. That's the spirit!

This one extrapolates on the alternate universe from 'Far Beyond the Stars' (and its later, brief reprise), which plausibly suggested that DS9, and by extension the whole Trek universe, was nothing more than the idealistic fantasies of an African-American pulp magazine writer. It's one of the finest episodes in the whole franchise, even if I only realised that belatedly. At 12, I tended to prefer the ones with unconvincing CGI starship battles.

We learn a little more about Benny Russell and his further DS9 stories through the gradually warping lens of his conventionally prejudiced psychiatrist. Its lessons are appropriately unsubtle. This is Star Trek after all.

2. Whatever You Do, Don't Read This Story, by Robert T. Jeschonek (2000)

This is what I'd hoped for, but didn't expect to actually be given. Tossy smart-arse metafiction in a licensed Star Trek work. The haughty TV series didn't always take themselves seriously, but there was no Darin Morgan or Joss Whedon really stretching their elastic limits. We could have done with more strange shit like this.

It's not the first story I've read that's given me lip and demanded to be taken seriously as a self-aware entity, but the writer does a fine job integrating his lethally contagious fable into the TNG universe. It's too dark and weird to conceive of actually taking place on the show, but that's part of the beauty of expanded universe fiction, isn't it? If you'd rather watch a regular episode, there are already 178 of those.

1. Of Cabbages and Kings, by Franklin Thatcher (1998)

This is what a Star Trek short story should do: tell us a story that just wouldn't be possible on the screen. It's the opposite of what licensed Star Trek fiction usually does, and non-coincidentally, it's the best I've ever read. They only gave it second prize that year.

I remember reading back in the '90s that one of these early tales was from the Enterprise's perspective, which was intriguing. Nineteen years on, I was finally curious enough to read it, and it didn't disappoint.

Even if it didn't build to a conclusion where the ship briefly (by human standards) experiences sentience, I would have enjoyed its detached, methodical approach to crisis-solving. Building it around a dual mystery with a vanishing crew and historic ghost ship is just dessert.

Franklin Thatcher wrote another story for the second collection. I'll assume it was pretty good, but since it wasn't deemed prize-worthy by the inconsistent judges, I'm not allowed to read it.

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