Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Star Trek: The Original Series: The Folded World


Receiving a new Star Trek book to review is always a pleasure but when you're faced with the potential of some kind of spacial rift in the back cover blurb you're more tempted to open an airlock without a spacesuit than get turning those pages.

So that was the situation I faced with Jeff Mariotte's new The Original Series novel, The Folded World. The back cover gives every indication (as I've mentioned before) that this is going to be something akin to The Animated Series episode The Time Trap and numerous Voyager episodes.

Moving past the wonderful cover art, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my expectations were not met and The Folded World has much more to offer than an expansion on a 30 minute cartoon from the 1970's or 1993 Voyager. It's got character, atmosphere and mystery which make an interesting soup in this new release. Linking an average diplomatic mission, spaceships trapped in a constantly changing rift with unstable crew and an alien world seemingly under attack certainly provides more than enough entertainment in 288 pages to handle and it doesn't seem that there's any excess along the way. It's streamlined, straight to the point and laced with an air of mystery that makes the cover synopsis a terrible understatement. Ok, here's the general gist of the story; the Enterprise is carrying the Ixtoldan diplomatic party back to their home world to begin admission to the Federation when the Starfleet ship ahead of them, the USS McRaven gets into distress and Kirk chooses to go and help (cue shuttlecraft and spacesuits). They find a weird rift in space where the ship is trapped and then end up embroiled in all sorts of temporal madness which isn't all it appears to be.

There's a lot to like about this novel so don't let that "spacial rift" put you off one bit. While not only do the ensemble The main triumvirate of Kirk, Spock and McCoy are all together for once in the main thread of the story however they are somewhat overshadowed by Petty Officer Miranda Tokolo who has some serious issues in the attic. If that's not enough there's a third element to contend with in the form of a separate narrative which runs in parallel and actually opens the book. More on that in a bit.

Characterisations of the main cast are pretty spot on with some exceptional sparring between Spock and McCoy which is absolutely in character. McCoy here is at his transport-hating, counselling and grumbling best, getting a chance to show off all sides of his personality during their off-ship activities. There's some of Kirk's past on show here, reflections on a fondly remembered childhood after trauma - mention of the incident on Tarsus IV which played a part in the episode The Conscience of the King - which helped him regroup. While not initially evident that this is relevant to the plot, it does become so as we move further into the story and echoes the experiences of Miranda Tokolo which help in making her such an interesting addition to this story. We also get to know a girl named Aleshia pretty early on and her story is the strand which seems initially separate to the main narrative. The way in which Mariotte has played this piece is very different, especially opening the book through unknown eyes. While she is questioning the events occurring around her we are left in the same position knowing nothing of what is happening but learning a bit more with every return to her village. Fairly insignificant within her community this girl has a terrible life ruled by famine and "domestic" violence it is just the tip of the iceberg. The conclusion of which is perhaps one of the pivotal moments of the story.

The Folded World really made me think. It's not a difficult book to read but there are a lot of threads which you have to try and pull together - one of which I hadn't cottoned onto until it appeared in the text and a second, a personal trauma, which was announced with chapter-ending grandeur was  then seemingly neglected until the closing paragraphs. With the events that take place within the story I was puzzled as to why this wasn't played upon a lot more and wondered if taking it away would have had any effect on the story in any way whatsoever apart from reflecting on Kirk's childhood memories.

I could try and point out one piece as the most important element of this novel however it's not one with anything I would call a sub-plot. The elements in each narrative strand all play a significant part here and it all comes together in a matter of time. Oddly that's something that is played with a lot here and not in the usual and perhaps expected manner that we have come to know from Star Trek. The Folded World has a unique perspective on the fourth dimension, using it both as a factor to consider within the spacial rift and as an element of the narrative itself. While this might sound a bit confusing in a review it makes perfect and Spock - logical sense when you read the book. Initially I found The Folded World a bit confusing. The opening section cleverly asks a lot of the reader; acceptance of a race of people and a viewpoint we have not experienced before. Seemingly intended for that precise purpose it works a dream and don't think it'll get answered straight away; as I noted, time is an overriding factor in Jeff Mariotte's work here. Not to give too much of the plot away, the crew's encounter with something inside the rift means experiences become more than a dream and we even get a nod to Star Trek of Kirk's future in one fleeting moment. It's a brief few lines but all the worth being there just for a bit of universal continuity. 

The mix of action and intrigue is managed expertly and accompanies the story well. It seemed that events occurred because they made sense rather than being used as set pieces. Explaining why some of them happen in the first place plays it's own part. In some respects it could be said that this is a novel offering some deep insights into both main and guest characters if only fleetingly on occasion however the Miranda Tokolo character is certainly centre stage. The thought of reading an Enterprise encounters a right and has an unstable crewmember on board might be initially off putting but the back story is both homage and believable to boot. Dealing with being the lone survivor from the Romulan incident featured in Balance of Terror would be enough to manage with on its own for most people but there's a deeper issue as well as the affections of two Enterprise crew to deal with into the bargain. It's going to be a bad day and they're wearing red. Tokolo is essentially built around this troubled mind and so remains as the flash point for much of the circumstances during the bulk of the away mission. It's a good exploration of character however it's very obvious what we're dealing with rather than exploring the nuances of Miranda's personality through the narrative.

Where I find this book slipping into very familiar territory is the portrayal of the Ixtoldan diplomats. Their stereotypical stuffiness and elusive nature is a Star Trek staple. It does play a part but they do come across as particularly average and stereotypical in their nature of the type of guests Kirk would have threatened to stick in an airlock on occasion. While their presence is not as secondary as it might appear, they are somewhat forgettable. Scotty certainly has his hands full and whether Mariotte has made the character a little softer than we might have expected is up for debate. On occasion he does raise himself to face off against the guest party however there seems to be lingering doubt in his own abilities that didn't really surface in the TV series. Aside from the Chief Engineer though the rest of the bridge crew are relegated to a few lines here and there but no serious standout moments when most of the story is set away from the Enterprise on an alien craft.

Indeed, those settings are well imagined and visualised whether an alien planet or a rotting starship, you can feel the atmosphere and sense either very real danger or the dark, gloominess that greets Kirk and the away team. The threat and the twists of the story are well concealed as Mariotte talks about the experiences that the crew encounter and how it affects them each in turn and how they make sense of what occurs during the mission.So let's add psychology to the mix of issues and themes being dealt with here. It certainly suits McCoy who really steps up to the plate.

The inclusion of the Ixtoldans is the initial catalyst for events due to the links to the USS McRaven which in turn leads Kirk and the Enterprise into this encounter but there is payoff which can't be said of all the strands explored with The Folded World. The rift itself which acts as the story's focal point is well realised and visualised by Mariotte and genuinely feels different. The further I read the less I felt that we were about to hit a slight rewrite of The Time Trap. In fact the author has created something that I found really interesting in this swirling mysterious space. Everything within The Folded World has a purpose and paying attention to the clues makes for a good reading experience. On occasion I referred back to previous chapters to make sense of dialogue or events as they unravelled within the text just to see how the seeds had been laid earlier. The later third of the novel is very action orientated and some of the exposition is almost lost within the sequences that occur there and close the story. At this point it's as if the story's pace shifts noticably as everything begins to draw together but yet it's not all over and done in a few pages giving a more natural end to the adventure. Leaving a few bits open-ended might be Mariotte's way of ensuring he can produce a sequel of sorts.

Also worth noting is the conspicuous lack of "drop in" references to other episodes that are not directly related to matters within the plot. I breathed a sigh of relief over this I can tell you. Mariotte has relied on making us identify with the cast through their actions and dialogue which is very accurate rather than playing on knowledge of other stories to show his subject knowledge and this makes the book much stronger. Creating a believable (and twisted) plot has proved a great strength here and it's been a good read and certainly currently in my top three Star Trek novels of the year. I have to say that after a tepid start that was, ironically, all in the mind, this book picked up speed straight away and turned into a very enjoyable read. Yeah, there are similarities and after so many adaptations, novelisations, episodes and movies, the odd repeat or deja vu moment is acceptable. A great effort that would make me want to read another tome from Jeff Mariotte in the future without doubt. I actually like the fact that it's a secondary character who mainly steers the plot here and unusually I actually liked Tokolo and how Mariotte dealt with her and the troubles she contends with. Perhaps Mr JJ Abrams should give him a call and put him on the writing staff for the next movie especially for the female characters. Also, an apology to anyone who wanted detailed plotting of the story - I haven't gone into any detail because I think it would ruin your enjoyment from page one. 

The range seems to be very dedicated to The Original Series at the minute with a few more volumes to come in the next few months although I believe there is an Enterprise volume just around the corner however and David R George III's The Fall will be coming later in the year crossing The Next Generation with Deep Space Nine - but such occasions seem very rare.

Star Trek: The Original Series: The Folded World is available from Simon and Schuster priced £6.99; ISBN 978147670282