Review: “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Ghost Ship” By Diane Carey (Novel)

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.

This is the 1988 Titan (UK) paperback edition of “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Ghost Ship” that I read.

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.

Review: “Aliens: Cauldron” By Diane Carey (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for horror fiction and, since it’s been quite a while since I last read an “Aliens” novel, I thought that I’d check out a second-hand novel I found online a few weeks earlier called “Aliens: Cauldron” (2007) by Diane Carey.

Although this novel tells a self-contained “Aliens” story and can probably be enjoyed without having seen any of the films, it’s probably worth watching at least one or two of the first four “Alien” films before reading this just so that you have a better idea of what the alien monsters look like. Even so, they are described in this novel.

So, let’s take a look at “Aliens: Cauldron”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2007 Dark Horse Books (US) paperback edition of “Aliens: Cauldron” that I read.

The novel begins in space, on the cargo ship Virginia which is caught in a moon’s gravity and close to spiralling out of control. Directed by their charismatic captain, Nick Alley, the crew barely manage to keep the ship under control and, after a small crash with the ship they are meeting to exchange cargo with, both crews breathe a sigh of relief.

Later, in the cargo hold of the Virginia, a couple of crew members carefully doctor the ship’s records to disguise a rogue cargo container containing several dead alien specimens that they’ve been paid a lot to smuggle. However, due to a bizarre series of coincidences, the container gets opened and it turns out that the alien specimens aren’t quite as dead as they had been led to believe.

Meanwhile, on the cargo vessel Umiak, several space cadets are getting ready for a tour of duty before being dropped off at university on the terraformed planet Zone Emerald. The ship’s harsh captain, Pangborn, hates the cadets – not to mention that the cadets don’t exactly get along well with each other either. Still, the tour of duty promises to be a boring one – with the highlight being an upcoming automated cargo transfer with a ship carrying stasis-frozen livestock to Zone Emerald. That ship is, of course, the Virginia….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that I both loved and hated it. In short, this novel was one that slowly grew on me when I was reading it. Even so, when it is good it is good and when it isn’t, then it really isn’t.

I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements and these are really good, if somewhat different to what I’d expected. Although there are a few well-written moments of gory horror, cruel horror, tragic horror and/or monster horror, the bulk of this novel’s horror comes from suspense, tension, claustrophobia and the characters. And this is handled expertly – whether it is several creepily unsympathetic characters who are trapped in space together, the inexperienced cadets facing danger, the constant feeling of fractious tension between the Umiak‘s crew or the many moments of claustrophobic suspense. Although this novel probably won’t frighten you, it’ll certainly make you feel nervous or uneasy at times.

The novel’s sci-fi elements are also fairly complex too, which is both a blessing and a curse. On the plus side, all of the futuristic technology etc… in the story feels well thought-out and very “real”. On the downside, this is achieved through lots of slow-paced descriptive segments (especially in the earlier parts of the novel) that almost seem more at home in a more sedate “Star Trek” novel than a thrilling “Aliens” novel. In other words, all of the cool sci-fi stuff actually tends to weigh the story down a bit too much at times. Even so, all of this meticulous description does pave the way for some brilliant set-pieces during a few later parts of the story.

Talking of “Star Trek”, one of the interesting things about this novel is how it is a bit like a more cynical version of “Star Trek”. The novel does this by focusing a lot on nautical traditions and by making several of the characters a bit more morally-ambiguous than the upstanding spacefarers you’d expect to see in “Star Trek”. On the one hand, this adds a satirical edge, a slight dose of realism and a bleak, tense atmosphere to the story. On the other hand, this also results in a few yawn-inducing nautical lectures, too many characters (2-3 crews, plus some space pirates) and a few cartoonish characters (eg: the harsh captain, the arrogant cadet etc..). So, this element of the story is kind of a mixed bag.

As for the novel’s thriller elements, they’re reasonably good most of the time. There’s a good mixture between fast-paced action scenes and slower moments of suspense. However, although this novel includes thriller novel-like moments throughout, it only really seems to become the kind of grippingly streamlined thriller novel that you’d expect during the later parts. Even so, the novel’s story remains intriguingly unpredictable throughout and it contains many moments that might catch you off-guard or make you curious about what will happen next. Even the story’s ending is, for an “Aliens” novel, something that might catch you by surprise.

In terms of the characters, they aren’t really one of this novel’s strengths. One of the problems is that there are almost too many of them to keep track of, or become invested in, during some parts of the novel (the slightly confusing opening scene is especially annoying in this respect). Whilst there is a core group of characters that you’ll get to know and will probably end up caring about, they can sometimes be a little on the corny and/or stylised side of things. On the plus side, this novel includes some suspenseful “villain vs villain” scenes between Captain Pangborn and one of the cadets, which are almost cartoonish enough to be amusing but just about understated enough to be creepily menacing.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is also a bit of a mixed bag. In the later parts of the novel, where the narration becomes a bit more streamlined and “matter of fact”, it really helps to carry the story and bring it to life. However, the earlier and middle parts of the novel often tend to use a slightly more formal, slow-paced and description/exposition-heavy style which, whilst it does add some depth and atmosphere to the story, isn’t really a good fit with the kind of thrillingly fast-paced story you’d expect to see in an “Aliens” novel and it can make these parts of the story a bit of a chore to read at times. Still, once you get used to the writing style, then this becomes less of an issue.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is also a mixed bag. At 284 pages, this novel may seem reasonably short but the small print and passages of formal narration can make it feel slightly more like 400. As for the pacing, the novel’s early-middle parts can be a bit slow-paced (which works well during some suspenseful moments, but can make other moments a bit boring), although the middle-late parts of the novel are the kind of confident, streamlined and grippingly fast-paced thriller that you’d expect from an “Aliens” novel.

All in all, this novel is a mixed bag. Although it isn’t perfect, there is a good story in here. This is one of those books that will grow on you if you keep reading it and, although it can be a bit too slow-paced and/or corny at times, it is also a fairly unpredictable, suspenseful and creepy sci-fi/horror thriller novel.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and three-quarters.

Review: “Aliens: DNA War” By Diane Carey (Novel)

Well, it has been a while since I last read an “Aliens” novel and, since I was going through a bit of a sci-fi phase, I looked around online and ended up finding a second-hand copy of Diane Carey’s 2006 novel “Aliens: DNA War”.

Although it is theoretically possible to read this original spin-off story without watching any of the “Aliens” films, it is worth watching at least the first two films (Alien” and “Aliens) before reading this book, since the novel basically assumes that the reader knows at least a little about the series’ famous alien monsters.

So, let’s take a look at “Aliens: DNA War”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2006 DH Press (US) paperback edition of “Aliens: DNA War” that I read.

The story begins on the spaceship Vinza, which is trying to land on a habitable planet called Rosamond 6 to evacuate a science team before a team of aggressive terraforming robots can deal with the xenomorph infestation that is killing off the planet’s fauna. However, the ship is having some problems. Namely that the medic’s pet bat has got loose and the rest of the crew are trying to catch it.

When they eventually land on the planet, the ship’s legal officer – Rory Malveaux – joins in the expedition to find the scientists, since he is the son of famed ecologist Jocasta Malveaux, who is leading the research team. Needless to say, Rory did not have a happy childhood and feels that he will be the only one there who will be able to persuade his fanatical, manipulative and charismatic mother to leave the planet.

However, when they reach the main research settlement, all that the team finds are several corpses. Although the rest of the crew want to get the hell out of there, Rory points out that most of the research team is still unaccounted for and that he won’t sign off on using the terraforming robots until he has found them……

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a suspenseful, and gloriously cheesy, sci-fi horror thriller 🙂 Whilst this novel is both similar and different to the other “Aliens” novels that I’ve read, it remained compelling throughout. It also reminded me a little bit of the later “Prometheus” prequel movie (mostly due to the planet-based scenes), whilst still having a fairly classic “Aliens”-style atmosphere too 🙂

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, it tends to rely more on suspense and character-based horror than on gory horror. Sure, the novel contains a few grotesque scenes of grisly alien-based horror but the main sources of horror here are the hostile environment that the characters find themselves in, Jocasta’s sociopathic nature and the way that character deaths affect the other characters. So, whilst this novel isn’t that much of a gore-fest (relatively speaking), it still works really well as a horror novel.

In terms of the characters, although there are a surprisingly large number of background characters, the main characters are fairly well-written (if a little stylised). Although Rory is a likeable and slightly morally-ambiguous main character, the most well-written character is probably the story’s villain, Jocasta. She’s this creepily evil charismatic cult leader, who is also a fanatical environmentalist who cares more about aliens and science than about humans. Seriously, as villains go, she’s actually scarier than the aliens.

Jocasta is also contrasted with a space medic called Bonnie who, in addition to being a love interest for Rory, also seems to be like a “good” version of Jocasta who cares about both humans and animals (eg: an adorable pet bat called Butterball). Although she makes some rather naive mistakes during the story, which help to add suspense to some scenes, she comes across as a really likeable and realistic character.

In terms of the sci-fi elements, this novel contains some fairly interesting technology, not to mention an intriguingly mysterious planet too. Still, a lot of the focus of this story is on the ethics and legality of things like space exploration and terraforming.

This is also used as an avenue to show the inadequate nature of fixed rules in a complex universe, with even the most “lawful” character (Rory) having a fairly morally-ambiguous past. Likewise, the novel’s laws about terraforming are used as both a weapon against Jocasta and a tool for Jocasta and her fanatics. It’s a really interesting novel about the gap between formal rules and reality.

It’s also a novel about the dangers of things like ideologies and personality cults too, with these elements being one of the novel’s main sources of horror. And, in this spirit, the novel is also written in a brilliant way that will probably frustrate anyone wanting to analyse it in political terms (eg: it’s both a liberal and a conservative novel etc..). In other words, this is a novel about ambiguity and plurality.

Likewise, the novel mostly stays within the general mythology of the “Alien” films, whilst also doing a few innovative things with the alien creatures too. This helps to keep things surprising and suspenseful, whilst also allowing Carey to use the reader’s knowledge of the films to add extra suspense and implied horror during a few scenes too 🙂

In terms of the writing, the novel’s first-person narration is written in a fairly informal way. Although this includes a few slightly quirky descriptions, these help to give the story a bit of personality (as well as adding to the “cheesy late-night sci-fi movie” atmosphere 🙂) and are part of the fun of the novel. Likewise, the informal narration also helps to keep the story moving at a decent pace and allows for a few occasional moments of comedy too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a wonderfully efficient 269 pages in length, this novel never really feels too long. Likewise, there’s a really good mixture between slower-paced moments of claustrophobic suspense, character-based drama etc… and faster-paced moments of drama and action. This novel flows really well and moves along at a fairly decent pace.

All in all, this is a really fun, suspenseful and compelling sci-fi horror thriller 🙂 Yes, it contains a few tropes which seem to turn up in almost every “Aliens” novel I’ve read (eg: sociopathic scientists, desolate planets/space stations etc..) but it still a compelling story with some really good character-based horror too.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.