Friday, 21 July 2017

Facing It: Christopher L Bennett Returns to Classic Territory

With his latest work in the Star Trek literary universe, Christopher L Bennett has stepped out of prequel territory into the Kirk era.

Acting as something of a sequel to the first season episode The Corbomite Manoeuvre, The Face of the Unknown returns the USS Enterprise to the First Federation and to David Bailey who is still acting as ambassador to the secretive assembly.

Y'see it appears that the now legendary Balok puppet we all love so much is actually based on a supposedly extinct race called the Dassik who have, you'll be quite unsurprised to hear, returned from the dead to exact some form of revenge on the First Federation which was involved in assisting their neutering many moons ago.

The plot is actually ok here with the reasoning behind the downfall of the Dassik making a fair bit of sense as does why they are utilised as puppets for first contact however...

As regular readers will be aware I've skipped duty reviewing Christopher L Bennett's novels for a good four years now ever since I had a bad experience with one of his Enterprise; Birth of the Federation series. I found that long winded, dull and hard to keep focused on for 340 pages. After so long of personal boycott on Bennett's work I thought I would dig into this one because it's been so long and also because it's The Original Series rather than Enterprise. After all, it might just be that I don't like reading prequel series stories rather than the author as the only novels I've tackled of his are Archer and co.

I can now conclude that it's not that. I think I just don't like Bennett's style. That's not to say he isn't a decent writer nor are his books convoluted or terribly characterised in fact I'd go as far to say that his understanding of the NCC-1701 crew is superior to his precision with the NX-01 staff. The big issue I have is that Bennett will use a couple of thousand words when eight will do and then contrary to that will use a few to skip plot moments or technicalities such as escaping cells for instance. 

There are a number of sequences in the book where there's a lot of talking and nothing really happens. In the build up to the conclusion there's a plot twist involving Balok that seems odd it's not noticed by the crew sooner and then doesn't really get an acceptable pay off. Indeed the story wouldn't have suffered with its omission. There's an action sequence involving Sulu that doesn't really go anywhere either and The Face of the Unknown just comes across as somewhat bloated with great sequences that don't work or are filler. 

To some degree there is a lot going on here with the Enterprise under repairs at the hands of Scotty, Spock off doing his thing, Kirk captured, the Dassik, the mutiple races and personnel of the First Federation... the list goes on. It feels like a struggle at times to read with even Bailey sapped of that boyish charm and naivety that made him an interesting character to follow in 1966. 

While family, work and life in general meant that this was picked up and put down rather frequently it might have meant that some of the story lost its impact and power. I would suggest that to really get to the heart of this book you need to be reading it in significant chunks to keep track of the various threads but for me this one just lacked any conviction and left me pretty cold after reading The Long Mirage and even the uneven Headlong Flight. 

With the recent 50th anniversary I applaud Bennett's choice of source material for The Face of the Unknown and he does a decent job of answering some of the questions fans might have had since that classic episode aired however someone at the publisher needs to help him shave down the word count and cut to the chase. I managed to push on through to the end but found that was more a relief to have reached the final page than a success with some level of readership fulfillment. I think the next time there's a Christopher L Bennett novel dropping through the letterbox I'll be calling on Tiff to review.

Have you read The Face of the Unknown? Fitting sequel or mediocre followup to The Corbomite Manoeuver?

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