Many and varied are the types of Star Trek novel. The vastness of the setting allows for a great many different stories, and even genres of story, from comedy to horror. It is so rich that it even allows for meta-narratives: books which are themselves commentaries on the type and nature of stories told within Star Trek. Let us consider Strike Zone, by Peter David.
Deep in the uncharted regions of our galaxy, the Kreel, a primitive, warlike race have stumbled upon weapons powerful beyond their wildest imagination. The Kreel have used those weapons to attack their most bitter enemies, the Klingons. Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise are called in to mediate the dispute by ferrying diplomatic teams from the two warring races to the source of their conflict, the mysterious planet where the weapons were discovered in an attempt to find a peaceful solution to the conflict, and discover the origins of the super-powerful weapons. Before the entire galaxy erupts into full-scale war…
There are a great many things I enjoyed when reading Strike Zone. The premise itself is endlessly fascinating: the consequences of a relatively low-tech species gaining access to weapons technology far superior to that of any of their neighbors, completely upsetting the local balance of power. Iain M. Banks coined the terms “outside-context problem” and “excession” for this in his Culture novel Excession, which includes a similar scenario.
I also like the idea of a cache of potentially powerful alien technology, fraught with malfunctioning or just outright booby-trapped devices such as the self-described “extremely stupid weapon” which makes an appearance near the end of the novel. Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers is an excellent portrayal of a world where brave and foolish individuals attempt to salvage mysterious advanced technology which is often as dangerous as it is valuable.
And I even like the idea of one element to a test of intelligence being to see if the subject will think to simply to ask politely. It strikes me as a startlingly simply yet ingenious (but ultimately not foolproof) method of testing an applicant’s maturity and manners; a test other than the done-to-death “show mercy to an apparent enemy” or “abandon the test to aid an apparent bystander in need” which seems like a clever way of separating the more cultured races from the more violent and barbarous ones. Though this is then unfortunately immediately undermined by the Cognoscente saying they wouldn’t have done the same for the Kreel, indicating the “test” was rigged to produce the outcome they desired and therefore irrelevant.
Unfortunately, that’s the exact point where Strike Zone falls apart: the ending. The point of the novel seems to be to criticize the trite “everything was just a test by an ancient race of all-knowing, all-powerful, yet incomprehensible aliens” resolution, which has been the basis of far, far too many Star Trek episodes over the many series – indeed it was used no less than three times in the very first season of the Original Series, in the second episode “The Corbomite Maneuver” and then again in “Arena” and “Errand of Mercy”, and I shudder to think how many times since. Picard himself acts as the mouthpiece to denounce this tired old trope:
“NO! I have had it! We have had it! All of us! We are sick to death of mysterious Alien races who think they know better than us! Who think that we’re little white mice to run through mazes for their amusement! We are not test subjects! We are not guinea pigs! You, all you blasted ‘superior’ races, have the fall to arrange these massive, insane tests and act as if your ability to manhandle us makes you better. It does not! We have come this far, not because of beings like yourselves, but despite you all! Despite all those throughout history who have called us barbarians and sought to judge us. We have brought ourselves this far and we’ll bring ourselves further still. And you can keep your tests to yourselves! Is that understood! We will not be threatened! We will not be pushed! We will not jump through hoops, and we will not, repeat, not, be subjects of tests anymore. Do you understand? No . . . more . . . tests!”
– Jean-Luc Picard
This impassioned speech, however, unfortunately falls somewhat flat; because though the novel is attempting to criticize the all-powerful-alien deus ex machina, its own ending relies on that very same deus ex machina to explain all the questions and tie up all the loose threads. There’s no need to come up with an explanation for why an advanced race of aliens would leave an easily-accessible armory filled with intermixed useful and sabotaged weapons; it’s just part of an incomprehensible test. And there’s no need to come up with a resolution which handles the problem of the new power imbalance between the Klingons and the Kreel; sufficiently advanced aliens just use their magic powers to take all their toys away and restore the status quo.
The novel also has a Wesley Crusher plotline, because of course it does. However, it is happily not another unbearably trite “Wesley saves the ship!” plot, but a rather more fresh and compelling story about Wesley coming to terms with limitations, failure, and loss. So no stars have been deducted on Wesley’s account, thereby sparing this book from complete worthlessness. So at least it’s not as bad as it could have been.
Final Rating: 2/5