Dec 2 2013 11:00am

10 Reasons to Read a Star Trek Novel

10 Reasons to Read a Star Trek Novel

Some people turn to tie-in fiction because they are missing their favorite shows and films—but Star Trek novels are so much more than something to tide you over until the next movie or (fingers crossed) show emerges. Here are some reasons you should consider picking up a Star Trek novel.

1. So, how’d that work out?

If you’ve ever wondered about the aftermath of an Original Series episode, there’s probably a novel for that. And if you don’t like that novel, there’s probably another one that answers the question a different way.

2. They hold the secret history of the 1980s

And 70s. And 90s. And those other decades when they were published. If you want to see how people’s fears and hopes for the world have changed over time, pick up a range of Star Trek novels. Gene Roddenberry’s original plan for the series was to give people an optimistic vision of the future where the people of Earth could join hands with each other and with the universe and boldly go where no man has gone before. That has meant different things to different people, a number of whom recorded their visions (and thus, their feelings about events that were current to them) in Star Trek novels.

3. They hold the secret history of Star Trek fandom

Where does the crew of the Enterprise go when they need information about the mysterious and obscure? In the television series, they turn to the ship’s computer, but it’s portable. It can’t possibly hold ALL the information about the mysteries of the universe and the unique and varied histories of trillions of people on billions of planets! For that, you need the archives of Memory Alpha, the actual database created by fans, referred to lovingly in more novels than I can count. In addition to celebrating this community effort, Star Trek novel writers routinely inserted themselves, their editors, their fellow writers and their fans into their work.

4. The Bechdel Test

Female characters in the Original Series ranged from the neglected to the limited in scope. The female protagonist in any given Star Trek novel may be a Mary Sue, but unlike in the television series, she inhabits a universe with lots of other women, and they have conversations about music, medicine, dreams, careers, strategy, ambitions, engineering, and their assorted friends all the time. If this were just an exercise in political correctness, it wouldn’t matter, but there’s a reason why the Bechdel Test works—strong characters who have a lot to say are a vital part of compelling stories.

5. Aliens

The people that you meet who are wearing a lot of makeup. Maybe they’re a funny color. Maybe they all have wigs. If the episode had a big budget, you might get both! The novels are completely unconstrained by these limitations. Cat-people, re-incarnating glass spiders, Hortas, sand-whales, flying monkeys, and a species that looks kind of like Irish setters all make appearances. Lots of appearances. Often as fully realized three-dimensional characters.

6. Detailed exploration of alien cultures

Not only do they show up, these new aliens are interesting and pivotal characters with clearly explained motivations and cultural backgrounds. A 350-page novel gives a writer an opportunity to really dig into a culture. In the early ’80s, John M. Ford gave the Klingons an amazingly detailed non-canonical backstory. Diane Duane did incredible work on Vulcans and Romulans. Most other writers were limited to species that did not appear in the Original Series. This didn’t stop them from creating new worlds and new civilizations of their own.

7. Suddenly, Chekov is interesting

In the television series, Chekov was dropped on to the bridge in the second season to attract a certain demographic. His entire character in season two consists of a bizarre belief that Moscow is the center of both the universe and paradise, and an adrenaline surge that saved his life at significant cost to his dignity. In a good Chekov episode, he gets to canoodle with a girl we never see again. In the novels, he has useful expertise in a variety of contexts—not unlike in the 2009 Star Trek movie where he runs through the ship screaming “I can do this!”

8. All the decks

It’s not just Chekov who is suddenly interesting. The Original Series used the bridge to tell viewers about who characters were and what they did. Novelists used the whole ship to shed light on the whole crew. The Enterprise has a range of facilities including gyms (with varying levels of gravity), pools, gardens, libraries, dining facilities, observation decks, performance spaces, and a crew that really loves Gilbert and Sullivan.

9. The crossovers

Most Star Trek novels aren’t explicit crossovers with other science-fictional works. But who doesn’t wonder what would happen if all stories were set in the same universe? And if you wonder, why not throw some characters and ideas into the background and see if you can get away with it? Those novelists were a sly bunch and if you pay close attention to settings and characters they’re full of easter eggs that connect Star Trek to other works.

10. Spock really cares about your feelings

Spock is either emotionless or stoic depending on your take. But he’s also chivalrous and thoughtful, and a really good listener. All that thoughtful listening is really validating when you’re worried that you won’t be taken seriously. Sometimes he even pronounces your concerns logical. I know, “you” aren’t in the book. Just let go a little and take on a Mary Sue, OK? Everyone else does it. It’ll feel good, I promise.


This article was originally posted on December 27, 2012

Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

1. OgreMkV
You directly mentioned two great books and indirectly mentioned the absolute best Star Trek novel ever, Janet Kagan's Uhura's Song. Which is the best novel to make a movie of.

How Much for Just the Planet is comedy goal. It is rare to read a book and actually have to put it down to finish laughing. No spoilers, but if you are a Star Trek fan and don't find the end of this book absolutely hilarious, then you must be a Vulcan.
David Gunter
2. spdavid
I've read a number of ST books and enojyed them all.they get a bad rap from some in the sci fi reading world but I disagree.There are so many choices,many many books,set in every version of ST and even versions never on TV or movies,and they all stay with canon,and the ones I've read were written in a way that worked well with the original stories,characterization etc.The authors know what they are doing.
3. tam2
I keep meaning to check out the Joe Haldeman ones. I wish someone would just reprint or e-print them.
A.J. Bobo
4. Daedylus
When I was about 13, someone gave me a box of 20 or so Star Trek novels. I read exactly 2 of them: Ishmael and How Much for Just the Planet. At some point, I gave away all of the others, but I kept those two. I now really regret getting rid of the others. Apparently there was some really good stuff in there.

For what it's worth though, I'm REALLY glad that I read and kept How Much for Just the Planet. That book is fantastic.
5. Tesh
There was a deep space specialist scientist *dolphin* (OK, alien cetacean who merely looked exactly like a dolphin) named Wheeeeeee! (more or less) in the TNG novels. He was a great character. I love the effectively much more massive budget and storytelling opportunities that the novels offer. Some oddball political and sociological messages get shoehorned in sometimes with all the subtlety and grace of a hippo trying to beatbox, but even that's almost consistent with the history of the show. *coughPlato'sStepchildrencough*

If I could recommend one, though, I'd say that Prime Directive is one of my favorites, both as an interesting series of events and as a look at Kirk's character. I also have a soft spot for the Challenger books. I wish there were more stories of that crew.
David Gunter
6. spdavid
@4 and anyone:

you can pick up used ST books on ebay.There's always lots of them for sale,many in large lots,and usually pretty cheap.
Christopher Bennett
7. ChristopherLBennett
Just a reminder, by the way, that Star Trek novels are still being published today, and are not limited to the original series in their focus. There's an extensive interconnected continuity that's been evolving for over a decade now, alongside the occasional standalone or alternate-continuity tale, and there are books covering all five TV series, continuing them beyond their finales and bringing real change and growth to the characters, as well as a number of book-original series.

And many of the points made about the '80s TOS novels above apply as much or more so to the modern novels. There's been extensive fleshing out of loose ends from the various series and movies as well as historical events like the Eugenics Wars, the Earth-Romulan War, the Tomed Incident, the fall of the Terran Empire in the Mirror Universe, etc. There are plenty of strong characters of various genders, ethnicities, species, and sexual orientations. There are numerous nonhumanoid aliens (particularly in the Titan series about the ship commanded by Captain Will Riker after Star Trek: Nemesis) as well as in-depth exploration of established alien cultures such as Andorians, Tholians, Ferengi, Orions, Deltans, Breen, Gorn, Tzenkethi, etc. Minor supporting characters from the show have been fleshed out in depth and even elevated to lead roles in spinoff series, such as Commander Shelby in the New Frontier books, Sonya Gomez in Corps of Engineers, Admiral Nogura and Carol Marcus in Vanguard, and temporal investigators Lucsly and Dulmur in my own Department of Temporal Investigations.
8. Jeremy E.
Great article--I love the Diane Duane novels!

Do note, though, that Memory Alpha is a reference from the original series, and the wiki was named after that, not the other way around:)
Christopher Bennett
9. ChristopherLBennett
@8: That's right. Memory Alpha was established in TOS: "The Lights of Zetar" as the Federation's central data archive. The wiki named Memory Alpha was only founded ten years ago.

There's also Memory Beta, a wiki covering licensed tie-in material -- books, comics, games, etc. I think there's a Memory Gamma for fanfiction as well.
Andrew Thomas
10. ThomOfAndr
@7: I had not read a single Star Trek novel until the summer of 2012 when I finished my DS9 rewatch. I wanted more TNG era stories so I started working my through the novels. That "extensive interconnected continuity" you mention has been a joy to dig into. In many ways those novels are almost more satisfying than the tv series themselves because of the broad universe they flesh out in detail.
11. ProfMel
I'm actually more of a Star Trek book's fan than a TV fan. You do have to watch out - some of them are not that good. But if you pay attention to the authors, they can be great! A.C. Crispin did some great ones in addition to the really good ones mentioned here. I reread Uhura's Song on a regular basis.
So, if you tried a Star Trek book and didn't like it, try another one!
James Goetsch
12. Jedikalos
I bought the very first novelizations--the ones by James Blish based on the original episodes when the original series was still on TV (yes I am that old--though I was rather young then:) ). There was no way to see the episodes again without them being rebroadcast and I read those adaptions from the scripts over and over again (and especially after it was --aaarrrghhhh stil hurts after all these years--cancelled. (Though there was the strange euphoria of getting it back for one season--I had sent in a letter to the network, getting my grandmother to buy me the stamps!). The book "Star Trek: The New Voyages" and "Spock Must Die" also stick out in my memory and made a big impression on my younger self. "Spock's World" was also a favorite of mine in the 80's as well as the "The Wounded Sky". As for later books I loved "Ex Machina" for the way it filled in info on TMP (which I love no matter what anyone says:) ), not to mention the book just being darn good.
14. Tehanu
There was a deep space specialist scientist *dolphin* (OK, aliencetacean who merely looked exactly like a dolphin) named Wheeeeeee!(more or less) in the TNG novels.
It was "Hwiiii" (more or less) and he is a major character in what I think is the best TNG novel, Diane Duane's Dark Mirror. But then, Diane Duane is my favorite living author so I would tend to say that all her Trek books are the best ones, especially the Rihannsu series, The Wounded Sky, and Doctor's Orders, along with Barbara Hambly's Ishmael and Ghost-Walker, the above-mentioned Uhura's Song by Janet Kagan, the two John M. Ford books, How Much for Just the Planet? and The Final Reflection. These aren't the only good ones, just all I can think of off the top of my head. I think any good writer who loves Trek enough to want to write a Trek story is in a similar position to a poet trying to write a sonnet, or a composer trying to create a piano concerto: working within a space with given rules to make something original. Sometimes they fail, but sometimes they -- and we, the readers -- get lucky.
15. tykester88
Hearing all these titles again after all these years brings back some fond memories from the 80's when i was alone, down or just reading on a rainy day. Thanks for the article!!!

Christopher Bennett
16. ChristopherLBennett
@14: What you say about working within rules is true, but it's less true for the modern novels than it was for the TOS novels back in the '80s, and much less true than it was in the '90s when the restrictions became so tight that it was hard to do anything worthwhile. These days, since we're usually working in time frames set after the conclusions of the TV shows, we're freer to make actual changes in the characters and universe, to tell stories that have real consequences and don't just put all the toys back in the box at the end. That's also the reason there have been so many book-original series like New Frontier, Titan, Corps of Engineers, IKS Gorkon, Vanguard, Department of Temporal Investigations, the upcoming Seekers, and the like. Although in the past 2-3 years there has been a resurgence in old-school standalone TOS novels.
Rob Rater
17. Quasarmodo
@12 When I was a wee lad, my parents had "Spock Must Die" and I would stare at the back of the book for hours and wonder why he had to die. (We didn't have a tv, so my exposure to Star Trek was extremely limited). I never did read that book. I probably should.
Christopher Bennett
18. ChristopherLBennett
@17: Spock Must Die! is worth reading, but it's quite a historical curiosity, with a very idiosyncratic take on the series, its characters, its technology, and its continuity.

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