Monday, 4 January 2021

Book It: Agents of Influence/Die Standing

Given that we now entering a Silver Age of Star Trek, you could be thinking its time to fully retire The Original Series and leave it well alone to pasture. 

Good thing Dayton Ward didn't since Agents of Influence is likely to be seen as one of the best Original Series novels from the last decade at least. Taking place after the TV series concluded, this story finds the USS Enterprise sent on a super-secret search and rescue mission following the destruction/disappearance of the its sister ship, the USS Farragut.

It's all because the Farragut has been sent to retrieve three deep cover agents from Klingon space who are bringing back some of the latest military secrets after years of living amongst the warrior race but in true style, that return trip is anything less than perfect leading to a crashed saucer and Orions mixed into the pot.

Agents of Influence doesn't take a breath. From the opening page to the very end this story is all go and moving from one page and event to the next is incredibly flowing. There don't seem to be any pauses in the narrative to give out filler detail or make an unnecessary reference to another episode or character; everything feels relevant, more tightly packed than the planet and unburdened by any secondary plot. Everything links in to the one story here and we're not spun out into other events that don't have an impact on the rescue mission. Even the off-ship exploits of Spock and Chekov - an excellent literary pairing here - do take us away from the Enterprise it all still comes back to the main objective even though their mission, for all intents and purposes is a bit of a wash out.

Tracking on the surface of an asteroid and also aboard the Enterprise we have a story that takes place in a very condensed period of time with Kirk, Sulu and Uhura blagging their way through the Klingon border on an old transport to reach the stricken Farragut. That did feel a tad reminiscent of the Kelvin timeline use of the "Mudd incident" transport to likewise traverse dangerous space but I can let it fly as it works perfectly in this narrative. 

When we say there’s no A or B plot, all the elements within the episode fit into the overall Farragut arc be it Scotty and Admiral Nogura outwitting the Klingons or the crew of the Farragut engaging in hand to hand combat with the Orions as they attempt to board the ship. The claustrophobia of the story helps keep the pace with the action all confined to the decks of the mangled saucer section and this is only added to and escalated with each change of direction and/or inclusion of something new.

It's been a while since a Star Trek novel has truly gripped me into continuously page-turning but this one had me from the first chapter. You become enwrapped in the environment, the hostility of the planet on which the Farragut is lost but are equally piqued by the imposter in the midst of the crew. It really does have all the elements of a great espionage story and it's only perhaps once you've finished that you realise how well it all clips together.

Dayton Ward has crafted one of the finest recent Star Trek books here. Honestly I can't heap enough praise on this one so you 100% need to go out and get it; captain's orders.

Then moving over to Discovery we have the equally enticing Die Standing

I wasn't sure where this one was going to go and I've been a lttle hesitant with these books because of the very nature of the series as noted when I've reviewed others in the series. There are only so many avenues you can choose to go down - pre-The Vulcan Hello or alternative universes or characters that have left or disappeared for a while. In the case of this latest edition, two of those are true.

Die Standing, as the cover shouts, deals with the Mirror Universe but it also manages to tie in the period between seasons one and two in regards to former Terran Emperor Phillipa Georgiou.

In the deleted scene that's easily accessible on YouTube we know that she was recruited by Leland into Section 31 and as such that threads the needle for some of the action in the second season itself. What we have here are the details of the events that took place off screen around that time. My initial thought was that this would be kept simple, avoid any continuity headaches and entrench itself in the Mirror Universe. But I was wrong. We have a full-blown adventure set in the Prime Universe drawing in characters from the periphery of Discovery whom we do not have concrete details on their locations at that juncture of the show.

Die Standing surprisingly works on more than just one level, beaming in a character from The Original Series and also an event from said show that I've only recently rewatched. The choice to tie in both Kirk's academy bully Finnegan and the cloud creature from Obsession truly is inspired with the former coming off as a more substantial and rounded character than the stereotypical Irish individual that Shore Leave made him out to be. 

Of course because that was merely a recreation of Finnegan for Kirk's "amusement", it could be said that it was an exaggeration but John Jackson Miller avoids driving him into caricature in both the Prime and Mirror Universes creating two opposing versions of the same person - and successfully.

Georgiou does on occasion seem a little superhuman especially in her attempted prison break and riot, taking down almost anything that moves. Yes, she's something of an action powerhouse but this did feel like it was stepped up another gear considering the environment she was in was full of killers and thugs.

The Discovery novels haven't necessarily been about the ship and its crew directly but have explored the universe that the show has built and, for the time being that seems to be focused around its 23rd Century interactions rather than anything in the 32nd. As a quick aside I would hope that we will see something of this in the next few months from the novels and I would wish that it's the same as these versions in that we get to understand more of the periphery characters from that more distant time.

But there's more that intrinsically links Discovery into the bigger Star Trek universe. with the inclusion of Emony Dax. Right now this fits better than ever with the story since we have just been reintroduced to the Trill as part of that 32nd Century and we get a take on the most athletic of Dax's previous hosts at a time when the nature of the host/symbiont relationship was still a complete secret. 

But back to Die Standing and the way in which the Discovery story is being expanded through novels is creating something more than we've had before. Since the end of televised Star Trek in 2005, the novels provided more depth to the universe and continued the interest but here, with Die Standing as a prime example, we are now seeing that Star Trek Universe expanding sideways from the core material. Miller's characters are real, solid and I couldn't read Georgiou without hearing Michelle Yeoh. Fortunately the same isn't true for Finnegan who thankfully steers a more serious path. 

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