Well, I was in the mood for sci-fi again and since it’s been a while since I last read a “Star Trek” novel, I thought that I’d take a look at Diane Carey’s 1988 novel “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Ghost Ship”. This was a novel that I found in a second-hand bookshop in Petersfield last year and, after noticing that it was the very first original spin-off novel based on “Star Trek: TNG”, I was intrigued enough to take a closer look.
Interestingly, you can probably enjoy this novel if you haven’t seen the TV show. I’ll talk about this more in the review, but this novel is based on the earlier seasons of the TV show and also does some other stuff that the show doesn’t really do. So, it’ll probably still “work” as a story if you haven’t seen the show.
Anyway, let’s take a look at “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Ghost Ship”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins in the near-future year of 1995, on a Soviet aircraft carrier called the Sergei G. Gorshkov. The ship’s captain and crew are preparing a demonstration of some new technology, including an EMP-based missile defence system, for several visiting officers and/or politicians. Things go reasonably well until something mysterious appears on the radar. Some kind of bizarre energy-based being appears on the sea and heads directly for the ship. Everyone on board disappears seconds before the ship suddenly explodes, leaving the ship’s fighter planes stranded in the air with fuel running low. Luckily, a US ship is nearby to rescue them.
After this, Counselor Troi of the starship USS Enterprise wakes up after a nightmare about the Sergei G. Gorshkov’s destruction. Since Troi is half-human and half-Betazoid (and, as such, has telepathic/empathetic abilities), she senses that this was more than just a dream. Meanwhile, on the bridge, Captain Picard is overseeing scientific tests on a nearby gas giant planet. After one of these tests, the ship picks up a mysterious energy pulse from outside of the galaxy.
Troi tries to investigate her dream, searching the ship’s holographic database for information about old naval ships. Commander Riker visits her quarters to check on her and, when he leaves, he sees a mysterious ghostly man in the lift. Initially, he thinks that it is a leak from Troi’s hologram unit, but soon learns that the unit was turned off at the time….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a fairly compelling sci-fi drama and thriller story that also contains some mild elements from the horror genre too 🙂 Yes, it is a little different from the TV show in some ways (which is actually a good thing) and “Star Trek: TNG” purists might not like this, but – as a novel – it works really well 🙂 Plus, this novel is also a fascinating glimpse into an early stage of the show’s history, where no-one knew exactly how this spin-off from the original “Star Trek” would turn out.
The main themes here are life and death, or more specifically what constitutes life and when it is ethical to end a life. This is explored in a lot of different ways, such as a sub-plot about Lt. Data wondering whether or not he is actually alive or a rather long and plot-relevant ethical debate about euthanasia amongst several characters (which is, in part, resolved with a scientific experiment). This is one of those novels that respects the reader’s intelligence and capacity for nuance and, unlike some other sci-fi TV show spin-off novels, never really feels like it is preaching at the reader. The novel also covers the familiar “Star Trek” theme of how differences and variety can be a strength, which is again handled in a fairly nuanced way.
Earlier, I mentioned that the novel included thriller and horror elements, and these work quite well 🙂 For the most part, the thriller elements consist of suspenseful and perilous situations and, although this is more of a moderately-paced thriller, these scenes really help to add some extra energy to the novel. Likewise, although this novel isn’t exactly frightening – the horror elements really help to add some atmosphere and, in a creative touch, the “ghosts” aren’t the main source of horror. If anything, the novel’s horror elements mostly consist of a mixture of subtle psychological horror, monster horror and dsytopian/cruel/claustrophobic horror.
In terms of the characters, they’re extremely well-written – but slightly different to the TV show. Unlike the more cheerful TV show, almost all of the main characters have things like inner conflict, flaws, motivations, angst, backstories, interpersonal conflicts and actual character development/character arcs 🙂 They actually feel like complex realistic people 🙂 Needless to say, this adds a lot of drama and realism to the novel and, even if the characters may not act exactly like you’d expect in the TV show, these moments still “work” because of the excellent characterisation 🙂 Plus, since it’s an early spin-off novel, Tasha Yar also appears in it too.
Yes, all of this extra characterisation might put “Star Trek: TNG” purists off of the novel. But, I prefer to see it as an alternative version of the TV show – what could have happened if the show had gone in the slightly grittier and more realistic direction that sci-fi TV shows wouldn’t regularly take until the early-mid 2000s. After all, the TV show was still in it’s infancy when the novel was written and it’s fascinating to see the road not taken. Plus, on their own merits, the versions of the main characters in this novel are compelling, dramatic and well-written characters.
In terms of the writing, the novel’s third-person narration is really good 🙂 As you’d expect from a sci-fi novel of this vintage, it’s a little more on the formal/ descriptive side of things – but it remains focused and “matter of fact”enough to keep the plot moving, whilst also adding atmosphere and depth too. Seriously, the writing in this novel is really good – especially given the amount of story and characterisation Carey manages to cram into a relatively short novel.
As for length and pacing, this novel is really good too. At an efficient 258 pages, the novel never feels bloated or unfocused. Likewise, whilst you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast paced novel, the story moves at a decent enough speed, with a good mixture of suspense, tension, character-based drama and mystery keeping everything compelling throughout.
As for how this thirty-two year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged reasonably well – whilst also offering us an interesting lesson about modern history too. It shows us that, in 1988, people still thought that the Soviet Union would be around during the mid-1990s (seriously, I did a double-take during a later scene which pointed out that the prologue took place in 1995). It really hammers home how sudden and unexpected the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (and the dissolution of the USSR over the next year or two) really was.
This aside, the novel is pretty much timeless. The characters are still compelling, the setting still feels futuristic and – whilst it contains a couple of mildly dated descriptions and uses a mildly more formal style – the writing still holds up surprisingly well when read today.
All in all, this is a really good “Star Trek: TNG” novel 🙂 Yes, series purists might not like it – but not only does it contain well-written narration, complex characters and a compelling plot, it is also a fascinating glimpse into an alternate past/future too – one where the Berlin Wall never fell and where “Star Trek: TNG” went in the more “realistic” direction that sci-fi TV shows didn’t really start doing until the early-mid 2000s.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.