Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Star Trek: The Original Series: Allegiance in Exile

When I popped a tweet out saying that this would be the next book to review, author David R George III replied, noting that it was "a little character piece".

I'd hate to disagree with the author but Allegiance in Exile is certainly not a little character piece. It's a flippin' big one with a great story to match. Oh - and as per usual beware that there MAY BE SPOILERS ahead.

As you would expect it's a threesome that dominates the narrative however while Kirk is there, the usual prominence you would expect from Spock and McCoy is this time taken by Hikaru Sulu and character-of-the-book Ensign Mai Duyen Trinh although not in the conventional sense. You see, it's all a matter of perspective to steal an episode title from The Next Generation. The main bulk of the narrative is explored through these three, focusing on their differing feelings, experiences and personal journeys during one specific mission in the fourth year of the original five year mission. While you might initially think this could get confusing it's managed exceptionally well throughout, dedicating sections of the story to each of the characters while maintaining the mystery surrounding the reason for the Enterprise's investigation. Each piece of the linear narrative is explained from a different perspective before effectively handing over to one of the other two centralised characters. There is no cross-over of action and mangling of plotlines which is great and easy to follow. Even if you do have to put it down (to eat or drink to survive for example), you can quickly locate where you are on return.

The story goes that Kirk and crew find a deserted M-class planet which shows signs of habitation but all signs of life have been eradicated from the surface. Everything that follows unfolds from this simple premise and soon the Enterprise is deep in the action to . One of the important things I find I look for within Trek novels is how accurately the crew are portrayed in relation to their on-screen counterparts. Here I was mesmerised by George's likenesses especially when it came to the relationship between Kirk and McCoy. The counselor role which the good doctor played on many occasions exists within this story and plays a key role later into the book. Their relationship oozes with banter, friendship as well as professionalism between the medic and his commanding officer. McCoy's grumbles are not overplayed but fit within character and the situations we see him in. Impressively David R George III manages to walk the line marking the boundary between professional and personal that was a hallmark of the friendship between captain and medic. I looked forward to reading their interactions whether from Kirk's perspective or from one of the others. Seeing it from Trinh for example allows the reader to understand how the crew see them but also to emphasis the nature of the relationship. In direct comparison this additional viewpoint means that Kirk's standing with Spock is also explored as he even has an aside with Trinh to seek advice rather than the stone cold facts that the first officer would expect - again here McCoy plays a part in helping manage the situation.. While it seems more embedded in the professional, hints are still placed within the narrative to show the friendship between captain and first officer exists, even if it's a simple use of the captain's first name as he steps into the void of danger towards the end of the book.

But let's look at this novel from the three perspectives. In the first instance we have Enterprise captain James T. Kirk. Aside from command of his ship and the mission, we are seeing a man with an uncertain future. He revels in the control of everything aboard the ship however his next career move may be outside of his management. A major section of his life is drawing to a close and Kirk is having to deal with the notion that his days in the captain's chair are numbered. Intermingled with the mission to explore and understand the M-class planet we are treated to reminiscences from past missions and encounters we would be familiar with from the original series. I tend to find myself cringing whenever this comes to pass in a Star Trek novel as it is can be a crow-barred, bell-ringing opportunity for the author to demonstrate his or her knowledge of the base material. With George I found it was smoothly integrated into the narrative, addressing how Kirk believed himself to be viewed by his superiors and also more self - analytical in respect of what he might have done differently since he was began the five year mission, even down to his original choice of first officer and the tragic ending it resulted in shortly after. We're reminded of his "failure" to capture the M-113 salt vampire as well as several incidents with the Klingons which have placed him in or out of favour with the higher echelons of Starfleet Command - the people who are already debating what direction Kirk's career will go. This is a matured Kirk but in keeping with the one we would find in the movies, uncomfortable at the thought of driving a desk rather than "gallivanting across the universe". I like this Kirk and he seems exceptionally realistic throughout this novel. There are several hard conversations he has, most notably with Commodore Wesley and Sulu as well as a few typically Kirk-eccentric moments that you can just hear that 60's incidental music blaring in the background.

Sulu's role here is much more than you would have experienced in those very episodes. His is probably the most complete journey of the three narrators here. Leading the away team to this newly discovered and apparently recently attacked planet marks just the start of his story. A brush with death changes his perspective on life slightly and we see Hikaru in a very different manner as he - and not Kirk - is the one who gets the girl. If only it was that simple. Ensign Trinh is the apple of Hikaru's eye and we learn about her not only as the newly assigned archaeology and anthropology officer (A&A) but through their personal time which evolves following an "eventful" mission on the planet which is dubbed as "Agdam". The way in which Trinh affects Sulu drives a good percentage of Allegiance in Exile and gives it an incredible amount of emotional impact. There is an element to this aspect of the story where you are waiting for a certain resolution to play out but that's not the point with this book. We are even treated to individual conflict within the pages of exile but while this might have some diehard Trekkers reaching for the Simon and Schuster complaints email address because "...it's not true to Roddenberry's vision..." I would urge restraint and step back from the keyboard because it genuinely works here. Placing Kirk and Sulu at loggerheads is essential to allow events to unfold in their natural wayand  helps shape Sulu. Certainly there are sparks here that suggest George was thinking how he could hint at Hikaru's destiny as captain of the Excelsior. If this is the case, it works.

While we know that certain things will have to be in place by its conclusion and there are events which must prevail as we have already seen them in the motion pictures it really doesn't matter here. George has managed to produce a novel where the story is, in all intents, second, possibly even third in importance because we are there to experience the mental conflicts and questions that are being chewed over by the three crew here. Now in comparison to other novels I've read recently I would have grumbled a bit that Spock, Uhura, Chekov and Scotty are somewhat sidelined but that shows the strength of Allegiance in Exile; you don't notice that they're little more than passing characters until you've reached page 369 and finished. George has built up his narrative around two excellent realisations and that's only backed up further by the more than believable and definitely three-dimensional Trinh. For once it was refreshing to read a character who gets some background and is understandable in the way that she acts on what is her first mission aboard the Enterprise and in a senior position of responsibility. She's trying to make impressions and fit in but soon finds herself in the thick of the action in every sense. Nod to George here for providing an unusually strong female lead within the framework of The Original Series.  

One thing I seem to have neglected is the story which wraps around the mass of superbly engrossing character development; it's ok. George has developed a decent plot to place his cast within and there is certainly an element of mystery which is played out. It could almost be set out as a two part episode, nicely split with the Enterprise's departure from Agdam and then with the concluding part commencing at Starbase 25 and Kirk's meeting with Wesley. The second half provides just as many questions as the first but the pacing is absolutely spot on. Everything plays out at a realistic tempo and none of the events feel too rushed nor is there an over-reliance on captain's logs to fill in details and skip time. Sulu is probably the more explored individual in the second half and his evolution is in some ways not foreseen although as a reader you can understand how his relationship with Trinh has become something more than he can imagine. While it's not the most complex adventure, there are still some great twists and turns to follow as the investigation proceeds and at the end I have to say I felt very satisfied; there's a good rounded conclusion which answers all your questions while leaving the characters in the perfect setting to end their five year mission. 

While I'm talking about setting, that's something more than worth some page space within this review. David R George III has created a set of vividly imagined environments here. Whether it's comparing desolation to Cestus III, enveloping the crew in a silent, eerie and hot planetary setting, describing the action of how egress from the shuttlecraft is achieved or even just in how the helm scanner rises from the main control console, the author has it covered. The bridge feels alive when you read the acts set there; the planets visited are real because we get a sense of the life that existed there and is being examined by the Enterprise crew. Accompanying the story with intricate sights and sounds lifts it from a biographical narrative and helps drive us further into the fictional Star Trek world and indicates that while many will use previous events from the TV series to relay their knowledge, George has an acute awareness of the whole rather than individual sections. 

So let's wrap this up in a few lines. You've now gathered that this is a fairly decent read by now I would hope. It's a people book and one which gives us some wonderful character moments that a limited TV budget in 1969 wouldn't have afforded. It's an excellent read and a great "little character piece" to coin a phrase I heard recently (see top) and I look forward to the next novel by this author. Many readers might be tired of an action adventure story which sees the crew encounter X, defeat Y and home in time for The Motion Picture. Here there's a different slant and I feel that focusing specifically on a limited range of MAIN characters to explore rather than attempt to appease every reader and cram in a paragraph for all the crew which doesn't do them justice and effectively dumbs their role to opening hailing frequencies or firing phasers can only be a good thing. It's refreshing to find the aura of the original series - and the original incarnation of the crew - in such good literary hands.

Star Trek: The Original Series: Allegiance in Exile by David R George III is available now from Simon and Schuster priced £6.99 ISBN 9781476700229

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