Well, I was still in the mood for novelisations and/or spin-off novels, so I thought that I’d take a look through my collection of second-hand “Star Trek” novels for books that I didn’t get round to reading when I went through a “Star Trek” phase in 2011-13. Out of the unread books, the novel I chose was Susan Wright’s 1994 novel “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Sins Of Commission”.
Although this novel tells a new self-contained “Star Trek: TNG” story, it is clearly aimed at people who are fairly knowledgeable about the TV series and it contains quite a few references, characters and background events that will only really make sense if you’ve seen episodes like “The Drumhead” and “The Nth Degree” and have a general knowledge of the lore/backstory of the series. In other words, unlike some of the spin-off novels, you pretty much have to be a Trekkie to get the most of out of this one.
So, let’s take a look at “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Sins Of Commission”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins with Picard watching a production of “Cyrano De Bergerac” in the holodeck before he is joined by Troi, who is worried about both Worf and a part-Romulan medical technician called Simon Tarses. Both are experiencing emotional problems related to being torn between two cultures.
The USS Enterprise is on a mission to the planet Lessenar in order to provide disaster relief and to begin efforts to clean up the planet’s heavily-polluted atmosphere. However, before they can land on the planet, an old cruise ship called the Prospector shows up in order to take a look at Lessenar’s beautiful green atmosphere. Although Picard wants to shoo the ship away, the Prospector‘s captain is a charismatic man who also knows Worf’s foster parents. So, reluctantly, Picard allows the ship to stay.
However, sometime later, there is an explosion along the Prospector‘s hull. Although Picard’s crew manage to save almost everyone on board, one of a group of five squid/jellyfish-like emotion-broadcasting creatures called Sli is killed in the explosion. The Sli are on the Prospector as entertainment and are managed by a Ferengi called Mon Hartag, who demands a full and urgent investigation into the explosion….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it took a little while to get going and was a little different to what I’d expected, it is a really atmospheric and compelling story that manages to achieve more detail, depth and drama than an episode of the TV show could ever dream of achieving. In other words, although this book is on the slow-paced side of things and might seem a little “boring” at first, it gets a lot better if you stick with it.
Interestingly, despite the story’s familiar sci-fi trappings, it is actually more of a mixture between a detective story and a psychological drama than a traditional “Star Trek” story. Yes, there is a lot of futuristic technology, lots of Star Trek stuff and a sub-plot about communicating with a mysterious alien species, but the sci-fi stuff here is more to add depth, flavour and intensity to the story’s detective and drama elements – and it does this really well.
In other words, this is a very character-focused novel that also relies heavily on suspense and mystery. In addition to the detective elements, which are handled fairly well (with, for example, several people having possible motives, Troi conducting empathic investigations etc…), the emotions broadcast by the Sli also affect the crew in all sorts of ways, leading to lots of tense moments and a real atmosphere of paranoia during some moments of the story. Needless to say, this really helps to keep the story compelling whilst also making it refreshingly different from a typical “Star Trek: TNG” novel.
And, whilst this novel is still in keeping with the style and tone of the TV series, the increased focus on the personal and psychological lives of several crew members in addition to the fact that they express emotions a bit more freely also makes parts of this novel reminiscent of something like “Babylon 5“, which really adds extra drama, depth, realism and creativty to the story. Even so, if you were expecting a more “traditional” spin-off novel, then this might catch you by surprise. But, if you stick with it, then you’ll be rewarded with something like an enhanced version of the original TV series.
Thematically, this novel is as complex as you’d expect. The novel’s themes include things like being stuck between two cultures, communications, psychology, economic inequality, the environment and repressed emotions. Not only is it cool to see a “Star Trek” novel where the characters aren’t quite as repressed as usual, but the novel also manages to make it’s points about the environment without descending too far into preaching at the reader. In fact, there’s this brilliant moment where Picard actually orders Riker not to deliver a self-righteous lecture to the people on Lessenar. So, it’s good to see a novel that respects the reader’s intelligence.
In terms of the characters, this novel is absolutely stellar. This novel devotes a lot of time to characterisation and, although this does slow the story down quite a bit, it really adds a lot of extra atmosphere, drama and realism to the story. Not only that, because of the novel’s detailed focus on psychology, emotions etc… it can also tell a rich and complex story that probably wouldn’t work on TV (seriously, it’s so good to see a spin-off novel that plays to the unique strengths of the written word).
Although the main characters of this novel are probably Worf and Troi, pretty much every character here gets a level of characterisation that makes them feel like real, complex people. The cumulative effect of this is that you actually feel like you’re there on the Enterprise, seeing the everyday lives of the characters in a way that other sci-fi shows, like “Babylon 5”, do so well. Although the plot is fairly compelling and well-planned, this is one of those novels where the characters are the most important part of the story.
Even so, one slight criticism of the novel’s characters is that Worf comes across as slightly too aggressive during the earlier parts of the story. However, given the various personal stresses he is facing at the time and the novel’s theme of repressed emotions, this change in his character sort of makes sense. Even so, it’s a little surprising if you’re used to the TV series version of Worf.
As for the writing, this novel’s third-person narration uses a very slightly more descriptive and formal (but still reasonably “matter of fact”) writing style. Although this slows down the pace of the story a bit, it also allows for a lot more atmosphere, depth etc.. to the story too. Given that this is a slightly more complex, character-based novel, this writing style works really well here.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At a reasonably efficient 277 pages in length, this novel doesn’t look too long. However, as mentioned earlier, this novel is slightly more on the slower-paced side of things and takes a little while to really get going. Even so, as the story progresses, it becomes more and more compelling. Not only that, the slower-paced storytelling also gives the novel time to build atmosphere, suspense etc… that pays off later in the story.
As for how this twenty-five year old novel has aged, it has aged really well. Although it might be a little slow-paced or formal by modern standards, the character-based focus of the story, the futuristic setting and the emphasis on things like psychology and emotions mean that this story is pretty much timeless.
All in all, although this novel is a bit more slow-paced than I’d expected and is a little different to a typical TNG spin-off novel, it is really brilliant 🙂 Not only does it leverage the strengths of the written word to tell a story that the TV show would probably have difficulty handling well, but it also contains stellar characterisation, a brilliantly immersive atmosphere and a rather compelling plot too. Even so, this is very much a novel for die-hard fans of the show (and it may be a little confusing if you’ve only seen a few episodes).
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.