Una McCormack’s The Last Best Hope, the first novel directly related to, and in explicit continuity with, the first season of Star Trek: Picard, fills in some of the gaps between Star Trek: Nemesis and the current series. It also acts as both prequel and sequel to the Picard: Countdown comic book miniseries, itself a prequel to Picard. The novel was published in between episodes 3 and 4 (“The End is the Beginning” and “Absolute Candor” respectively) of the new show, and as such, assuming you read it in the relevant two-day window, as I did, it contained some mild spoilers for the fourth episode’s setup.
More interestingly, the book furnishes us with significant detail around Picard’s spearheading of the Romulan evacuation, from its inception and early successes to its final tragic dismantlement, and it also dramatizes a few key scenes that have been alluded to, but not explicitly shown, in the series.
One of three epigraphs—this one referencing Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 State of the Union address—contextualizes the novel’s title with this line: “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.” In a nice bit of poetic resonance, towards the novel’s end Picard reflects on the conversation with the Starfleet brass that directly led to his retirement, and thinks of that missed opportunity as “his last, best chance to save lives.”
McCormack is a veteran hand at Star Trek tie-in fiction, and from the perspective of pure craft, this novel is an admirable achievement.
Does that mean you’ll enjoy it?
Let’s take a little questionnaire together to find out:
How do you feel about the Federation’s abandonment of Romulan refugees? How do you feel about a Federation that has apparently both succumbed to its worst tendencies and also been compromised by various internal conspiracies?
Keith R. A. DeCandido, in his most recent Picard review, said: “We’ve already seen the Federation’s side of the decision to abandon the Romulan refugees to their fate, and this episode shows us the Romulan side of it, and I continue to intensely dislike this particular plot choice. […] So the entire foundation of Picard is one I’m having incredible difficulty wrapping my brain around. This is not what Starfleet has ever been, and I’m just not buying it right now.” If you relate to DeCandido’s stance, assign yourself zero points. If you’re fine with this Federation—and perhaps, as Trek scribe Christopher L. Bennett pointed out in the comments to Keith’s review, you have faith that by the end of the series the Federation will be course-corrected—assign yourself five points.
Throughout the course of TNG’s seven seasons and four feature films, Picard was established as someone who recognized humanity’s failings (“We are what we are, and we’re doing the best we can”) while believing deeply in the potential for growth. He was a tireless champion of the idea that we had improved and would continue to do so. In “Hide and Q”, Picard famously said: “I know Hamlet. And what he said with irony I prefer to say with conviction. ‘What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty. In form, in moving, how express and admirable. In action, how like an angel. In apprehension, how like a god…’” When Q challenged him on this—“You don’t really see your species like that?”—Picard replied, “I see us one day becoming that, Q.”
In Star Trek: First Contact, Picard said of Zefram Cochrane:
He’s a man with vision. He can see beyond the problems that surround us. He knows there’s a better future out there for everyone, a future where crime, poverty and war are things of the past, a future where we reach out and seek our destiny in the stars. I believe in that future, too, Ruby. I believe in it in every fiber of my being.
In the same film, he also declared: “We work to better ourselves, and the rest of humanity.”
Finally, in Star Trek: Nemesis, when Shinzon proclaimed, “It’s too late,” Picard’s impassioned response was: “Never! Never! You still have a choice! Make the right one now!”
Picard in this novel is in a very different place. His spirit has been crushed, or at the very least massively ablated, by his defeat. “Picard had not, for many years now,” writes McCormack, “experienced so profoundly, so devastatingly, what it was to fail, and to fail so completely.” As a result, his view of life has grown dim indeed: “More and more, he was coming to think that people such as Zani were a vanishingly small proportion of sentient life. That selflessness was so rare as to be almost nonexistent; that only a thin façade lay between civilization and savagery.” For a long time after his defeat, without anyone to remind him that it’s never too late to make the right choice, Picard does nothing about it.
If you’re interested in exploring the circumstances that transformed the earlier Picard into the current Picard, and want to spend time with this changed man, give yourself zero points. If you have a strong preference for optimist-Picard, give yourself five points.
Science fiction’s imagined pasts and projected futures are inevitably prisms of our present reality. The genre can comment on contemporary political and social issues in all kinds of modulations, from a subtle, quiet voice that seems to be creating a purely entertaining yarn, until you take a step back and see current-day parallels, to a megaphone-projected plea to pay attention to topics X, Y, and Z. What is your appetite, or belief in the positive value, of Picard’s approach being closer to the latter than to the former?
The main “hot” topics raised in this novel are refugee camps, fake news, and distortions by the media, isolationism, environmental and climate collapse, the suppression of scientific research for political purposes, science denialism and living in a post-fact, post-truth world. These are raised head-on. For example, substitute “the Federation” for the “European Union” and “worlds” for “countries” in the following thoughts attributed to Picard, and you have a version of Brexit, with the novel posing the question:
Who would dare leave the Federation? Who would willingly exile themselves from this great diverse community of worlds, each seeking to benefit the other both materially and culturally? These worlds would be forced to rely on only their own resources during a deeply uncertain time.
Or later, after a visual recording is dismissed as “propaganda”: “For a moment, Picard was at a loss as to what to say. How could he counter this? This was beyond denial. This was delusion impervious to evidence or reason.” If this is your preferred pitch of science fictional commentary, add five points to your total. If you prefer more narrative seduction, less overt commentary, and the above quotes sound overly didactic to you, assign yourself zero points.
Okay. Now add up your results from the last three questions—and forget about them. I mean, these questions are worth thinking about, and your answers will give you an indication of how much you might appreciate this new story, but novels and other works of fiction shouldn’t be discussed in such a reductive way.
I mentioned earlier that McCormack’s storytelling execution is strong. Here are some specifics.
Her weaving of continuity with prior episodes, and her foreshadowing of future events, is artful. Here are some of my favorites: Early on, we get an acknowledgement of the Dominion War:
Bordson was not averse to taking action, but considered action; he was decorated, as one would expect of his generation and seniority, multiply so—a veteran of some of the grimmer arenas of the Dominion War.
There’s also a brilliant emotional moment where Picard presses his fingertips against the right side of his face, where his Locutus implants once resided. The events of the DS9 episode “Change of Heart” are alluded to by Clancy (“‘He made a bad call on Soukara,” Clancy said. ‘An agent died.’”). The parallel is established between the current Romulan crisis and events in “The Undiscovered Country” (“A century ago, one of the moons of Qo’noS exploded. The Klingons were unwilling to take our help at first—but they did, and, in time, our interactions led to the Khitomer Accords.”) Peldor joi, also from DS9, is back, and that made my heart sing—one can never have enough Peldor joi. There’s an amusing reference to HAL from 2001 (“Daisy… Daisy… Give me your answer do…”). Picard makes a Dunkirk comment (“If we must resort for a while to small ships—Dunkirk comes to mind. We will still be able to save lives that would otherwise be lost.”), which he’ll do again during the interview in “Remembrance”. And so on.
The sheer amount of backstory for Picard that McCormack covers in this book is pretty impressive. Among other things, we see Picard promoted to Admiral, and Worf made captain of the Enterprise. We get to see Picard tell Beverly Crusher, who has been conspicuously absent from the TV series through the first four episodes, about his new assignment. We learn that Picard is still in touch with Deanna Troi. It’s confirmed that Bajor has joined the Federation (I have written at length about the fourteen books leading up to that event in the DS9 relaunch novel series). We find out that Raffi had a husband named Jae, who produced holosculptures, and a son named Gabe, and that Raffi’s work with Picard on the Verity eventually cost her these relationships. Regarding synths, we discover that they weren’t based purely on positronic brains, but rather on a combination of the aforementioned with bio-neural circuitry. All of this, and much else besides, is handled with smooth pacing and strong narrative pull.
Picard’s voice is spot-on throughout the novel. I think this is best exemplified by the Admiral Logs that open a number of chapters. I relished these.
McCormack does a fine job with setting, and I enjoyed her pared-down descriptive prose. Consider, for example: “Within seconds, they were gone. The river ran on. The leaves drifted. And, in the valley, the wind chimes sang a song that would never be heard again.”
She also delves into her character’s psyches, creating rich portrayals by showing us how they respond to various situations and the shades of emotion they experience along the way. Speaking of characters, the cast here is pretty large, for which I was thankful. Geordi La Forge is a major player. At Starfleet HQ, we have Admiral Victor Bordson and Captain Kirsten Clancy. Later we are introduced to Olivia Quest, who begins as a junior council member for the small world of Estelen. We also meet Raffi Musiker and Doctor Agnes Jurati for the first time.
Secondary characters abound: Lieutenant Vianu Kaul, a Trill officer who acts as Picard’s aide-de-camp on Earth, Commander Crystal Gbowee, the administrator in charge of heading up Picard’s Earth office, T’sath, the Vulcan chief operating officer overseeing the Utopia Planitia shipyards, Commander Estella Mackenzie, the Federation’s foremost authority on bio-neural circuitry, Koli Jocan, a Bajoran specialist on refugee relocation who smooths things out for Picard more than once, Lieutenant Miller, who serves on the Verity, Doctor Bruce Maddox, Doctor Amal Safadi, Captain Nangala on the Patience, who heads the Tavaris VI mission, Subpraetor Suvim, Lieutenant Haig, a specialist from Romulan affairs, the Romulan genius Nokim Vritet, Governor Menima, Commander Tholoth, Lieutenant Tajuth, a Romulan cultural liaison officer assigned to work with Picard, Raffi and Jocan on the Verity, Jex Pechey, captain of the Starship Nightingale, and many others. Each of these is economically established. Also, the consequences of Data’s sacrifice in Nemesis are handled sensitively at the novel’s start. This shadow of loss looms, as expected, not only over Picard (“Data, of course, would have been the perfect fit…”) but also Geordi (“As he sent the message, he thought of Data, and a pang of loss went through him”).
Moreover, it’s clear that McCormack has an excellent grasp both on Trek’s utopian DNA and its penchant for highly quotable lines. A few highlights: “A simple, magnificent equation: ingenuity plus hope equals change.” (Doesn’t this capture Trek’s ethos beautifully?) And then there’s Picard’s speechifying at its best:
I say to you that there is no higher duty than the preservation of life. Let us take up our duties with courage, and with hope. With our talents and resources, we will achieve success, not for plaudits or medals or gratitude, but because it is the right thing to do, and because we are able to do it.
I appreciate the little nod to Picard’s speech from “The First Duty” in kicking this quote off with a similar word choice. There may also be a callback, perhaps, to JKF’s inaugural address, here:
To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required—not because the communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right.
Another gem, cutting in its irony: “It’s almost as if extreme paranoia isn’t a viable survival strategy.” And one more, just for kicks: “Tell a lie often enough, and it stands a good chance of becoming the truth.”
That said, not everything in the novel worked for me. I found the dual subplot involving Doctor Amal Safadi, a scientist at the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge, and the Romulan scientist Nokim Vritet, unsatisfying. Besides highlighting how we all lose when science is distorted or suppressed, it didn’t seem to go anywhere. The relationship between Bruce Maddox and Agnes Jurati could have been more affecting, and felt a bit contrived; I found its ending melodramatic. Raffi Mussiker is a character I want to like, but I’m finding it difficult to understand her contributions, and this novel didn’t help. (I also didn’t buy how quickly Picard seemed to be okay with her nickname of “JL” for him, which I expected would have arisen after years of proximity, but that’s a minor thing.)
Here’s a more substantial issue: I struggle to see how Raffi specifically contributed to the particular missions at hand, but I can easily think of numerous times where she exacerbated an already tense situation. The sequence with Suvim, for instance, comes to mind. At the start of the interaction, Picard warns her non-verbally (“Picard raised an eyebrow to prevent her from saying anything.”) and yet two pages later she uses a sarcastic tone with Suvim (“You do know,” said Raffi, “that we have a lot of people to move?”), which understandably elicits an angry response from him. Three pages later, she hears about a forthcoming symposium—and she says, “What’s that?” How can “Starfleet’s foremost analyst on Romulan affairs” (as she was described in the Countdown comics) not know what a symposium is? About a hundred and twenty pages later, during an extremely fraught situation with Tajuth, we again witness her unique brand of diplomacy at work: “‘I swear,’ said Raffi, ‘I am going to punch you out.’”
The idea of a character who is close to Picard and speaks so bluntly is a fascinating one, but so far this concrete realization has left me scratching my head a bit. (Raffi’s internal response to Picard’s Earl Grey, when she tries it, did make me laugh). From a plot perspective, too, I wish we had learned exactly how Picard’s resignation led to the end of Musiker’s Starfleet career, rather than her promotion or at least new opportunities, but perhaps the author’s hands were tied with regard to this point. There’s only a passing reference that I picked up on: “sidelined by her association with the man who walked away.”
A few of McCormack’s linguistic choices struck me as too contemporary: a woman who is “small, not much more than five feet” is described as “a hobbit”; one of Olivia Quest’s aides sends her a message that contains the acronym “TBH”—is this really still going to be a thing in the 2380s? Or how about “it was all one great almighty clusterfuck”? (The issue of profanity in Star Trek, and specifically its usage in Picard, is a complex one that I don’t have space to tackle in this piece).
I have a few plot-related peeves, as well. Clancy assigning a new, integral crew member to Picard fifteen minutes (!) before the fleet under his command is to depart strains credulity, even for her. The starship components used in forward sensors, to monitor and regulate temperatures in warp plasma conduits, and so on, have to be “made by hand”? I just don’t buy it. Which leads me to a major logical objection I wish had been addressed. The proposed solution to ramping up production of these incredibly complex, delicate ship components is to create complex synthetic life-forms that will do the work more quickly. And yet these too must be manufactured, from even more subtle and complicated building blocks. If the components that make up the Daystrom A500 synths can be mass-produced, surely the other components could be too?
Let’s talk about the supernova that is at the heart of this whole mess. This novel makes the fascinating suggestion that its rate of expansion and its impact range apparently can’t be accounted for naturally, and so therefore these effects seem to be the result of external tampering. There’s the obvious question of who would do this, and to what end. If technology was used to either create or accelerate the supernova, could this same technology be deployed in the opposite direction, to prevent or slow down such a disaster? As soon as tampering was suspected, why wasn’t this possibility chased and exhausted?
Even setting this aside, why didn’t Starfleet do more to try and prevent the supernova itself? In TNG, generations of Kaelon scientists worked on a way of trying to stabilize their star, and the Enterprise crew aided with these efforts (which weren’t successful as far as we saw—but surely much knowledge was gained?). In DS9, a dead star was successfully reignited. More apparently fantastic things than a supernova happen with almost comical regularity in the Trek universe. All manner of bizarre spatial anomalies, temporal rifts and pocket universes are encountered and defeated with something approaching nonchalance. Time travel is available in a myriad of forms. Picard has a personal relationship with Q. Bruce Maddox is on the verge of fractal neuronic cloning. Surely, it might be worth investing resources in creating someone with Data’s smarts, who could then at least throw out some suggestions? The accomplishments of the crew of Star Trek: Discovery, in its first and second seasons individually, are far more stupendous—probably several orders of magnitude more advanced—than what would seem to be required to solve this specific problem around a single star. And yet with nine hundred million lives at stake, the future Federation’s best effort is…to slowly build a bunch of ships, and then give up on that when the synths behind the construction malfunction (or, again, are tampered with externally). Later, Spock’s solution seemed to have been derived in isolation. Ugh.
The Last Best Hope depicts a Starfleet reticent to help (Picard encounters resistance right off the bat, as does Geordi), let alone one willing to think outside the quadrant or pull out all the space-time stops. A large part of the novel concerns itself with politics and logistics. These are dealt with in a thoughtful manner, with superb attention to detail. They’re also not the primary elements I seek out in Trek, which, at least in part, I value for its aspirational view of our potential over any realistic depiction of the future. Optimistic, ensemble-driven problem-solving is at the heart of what I’ve most enjoyed during several decades of Trek. The Last Best Hope asks what happens when such efforts fall short of the mark; when good will withers and dies. The answer is a grim, dour one. I’m ready for the next question.
Alvaro is a Hugo- and Locus-award finalist who has published some forty stories in professional magazines and anthologies, as well as over a hundred essays, reviews, and interviews. Nag him @AZinosAmaro.