Exclusive Interview: “Star Trek: Coda, Book III: Oblivion’s Gate” Author David Mack

 

With Star Trek: Coda, Book III: Oblivion’s Gate (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), writer David Mack is ending the Coda trilogy that launched in September with Book I: Moments Asunder and continued in October with Book II: The Ashes Of Tomorrow. Except unlike most trilogies, Star Trek and otherwise, David Mack didn’t write all three. Or even come up with the idea for this saga on his own; Moments Asunder and The Ashes Of Tomorrow come courtesy of fellow Trek scribes Dayton Ward and James Swallow, respectfully. Though in the following email interview, it’s Mr. Mack who gets stuck answering my questions about how this all came together, and how this trilogy earned the title of Coda.

David Mack Star Trek Coda Book III Oblivion's Gate

Photo Credit: Dave Cross

 

I’d like to start with some background. What is the Star Trek: Coda trilogy about, and when and where in relation to the shows does it take place?

It’s about a temporal apocalypse that’s collapsing entire timelines, violently erasing them from the multiverse.

The story is set in early to mid-2387, which in the Star Trek continuity would be about eight years after the events of the film Star Trek: Nemesis. For further reference, 2387 is roughly 16 years after the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation, 12 years after the end of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and 9 years after the end of Star Trek Voyager.

And are there any direct connections between Star Trek: Coda and any other Star Trek novels?

Oh, man — too many to list. The Star Trek novels have been building their own interconnected literary continuity since roughly 2001. For nearly 20 years, the Star Trek novels set in the 24th century (and some, like Star Trek Vanguard, set in the 23rd century) have been continuing the stories of the characters from the TV series and films, and mingling them with new, literary-original characters to tell exciting new stories that have, at times, radically altered the status quo of the Star Trekuniverse.

Recently a reader asked me online what novels I considered “essential” as backstory for the Coda trilogy, and after I looked at the rather impressive Treklit Reading Order Flow Chart, I was able to whittle the list down no further than to 47 titles.

If I were to list only the five most recent books whose content is integral to the new trilogy, I’d have to list the Star Trek: The Next Generation novels Armageddon’s Arrow and Headlong Flight, both by Dayton Ward, and Collateral Damage, which is one of my books; and also my Star Trek: Section 31 novel Control, and my Star Trek: Titan novel Fortune Of War.

But seriously, the more invested a reader is in the past 20 years of Star Trek novels and their ongoing, serialized narratives, the more they’ll get out of the Coda trilogy. That said, we put brief “Previously…” sections at the front of each of the books in the trilogy, to help folks get caught up with back story, and we wrote the books with an eye toward making them as broadly accessible as possible, given the circumstances.

So then what is Star Trek: Coda, Book III: Oblivion’s Gate about, and aside from being the final book of the trilogy, how does it connect, both narratively and chronologically, to the second, James Swallow’s The Ashes Of Tomorrow?

If you’re asking what it’s about from a plot perspective, our heroes make a daring last stand against the Devidians, who are the architects of the temporal apocalypse. If you’re asking from a more thematic standpoint, I’d say it’s about the struggle to face an inevitable end with one’s humanity and dignity intact. It’s about not losing hope when all reason for hope is gone. And, in the final equation, it’s about the ancient conundrum of finding a meaning for one’s life in a universe that seems to be aggressively bereft of meaning.

Narratively and chronologically, Oblivion’s Gate picks up roughly 48 hours after the end of Tomorrow. Our heroes follow through on Doctor Bashir’s suggestion that they seek asylum and assistance from the allies he made in the alternate universe (which we know as the Mirror Universe), while Admiral Riker grows swiftly more unhinged in his Ahab-like hunt for the suddenly vanished Picard and company.

Who came up with the idea for the Coda trilogy?

The basic idea for the trilogy was developed simultaneously, and independently, by myself and Dayton Ward, starting in the early months of 2019. At the time, Dayton had just started working as part of the Star Trek Licensing team, and I had just begun working as a consultant for both Star Trek: Lower Decks and Star Trek: Prodigy.

Dayton and I had both stayed in touch with our friend and fellow Trek novelist Kirsten Beyer, who by then had worked her way up through the ranks of the Star Trek television office at Secret Hideout to become a co-creator on Star Trek: Picard. I knew some of what was in the works at Picard thanks to Kirsten, but I didn’t know nearly as many of the details as Dayton did, because he was seeing the early story proposals and draft teleplays.

By the spring of 2019, Dayton and I had both independently come to the conclusion that, no matter what else came of Star Trek: Picard, its setting at the end of the 24th century meant that it was likely to establish details about the decades in which we had been writing our novels’ adventures — and it was a pretty safe bet that the producers’ ideas were not going to be compatible with ours. Which meant that their stories would supersede ours.

That was a problem for us because one of the cardinal rules of media tie-in fiction is that it must be consistent with the canon material as it exists at the time the tie-in is written. Which meant that, once Picard arrived on television, the Trek novels’ twenty-year literary improv session was likely to come to a sudden end.

We had seen the fan backlash that erupted when the team at Star Wars had abruptly halted their ongoing literary-original story arcs, and rebranded their past few decades’ tie-in stories as Star Wars Legends. We didn’t want to spark that kind of reaction from our longtime readers.

Star Trek novels, though, have never been considered canon, so we didn’t have that to worry about. But what we had were a lot of ongoing story arcs, and we didn’t want to abandon them all in mid-narrative, never to be heard from again. Which meant we needed to think up one last epic adventure that would let us tie off as many loose story threads as we could.

With that in mind, I started brainstorming, looking for some enemy that could threaten our entire literary continuity without pushing it further into conflict with the newly emerging canon. By the summer of 2019 I had cooked up the basic premise for what became the Coda trilogy, which I pitched to fellow author James Swallow while he was in New York City for a writers’ conference. At first, he wanted nothing to do with this project, but over the course of a July Fourth afternoon of brisket and beers, I sold him not just on the idea itself, but on the notion that he and I ought to be part of the team that made it happen.

Unbeknownst to us, at that time, Dayton Ward was developing a nearly identical story concept for all the same reasons. A couple of weeks later, I sat down with Dayton at the Shore Leave Convention, and over a few rounds of drinks we compared notes. I expressed my concerns about the danger Picard posed to the books’ continuity, and Dayton almost laughed. “Dude,” he said, shaking his head, “it’s so much worse than you think.”

After he heard my pitch, he told me his was nearly identical except for a few details, and that the differences were rooted in what he knew about Picard‘s back story that Kirsten had not been able to share with me. Once he clued me in to what was coming, he pitched me his version of the story, and we agreed to collaborate to bring it to life. This was the beginning of what Dayton later dubbed “The Plan.”

David Mack Star Trek Coda Book III Oblivion's Gate

Interesting. So then where did you get the specific idea for this trilogy?

The core idea behind the story is extremely metatextual. In many respects, a story about our characters railing against the arbitrary destruction of their reality, and their ultimate mission not to save their own universe but to end the enemy’s rampage in order to save other realities not yet breached, emerged from my imagination as a commentary on the nature of what we knew we had to do with Coda, which was bring down the curtain on the past 20 years of work by ourselves and dozens of our colleagues, all to serve the needs of the canon continuity.

The notion of the Devidians as the Big Bad of this trilogy is one that I lifted from an earlier Star Trek novel proposal of mine, one I pitched back in 2011. At that time, there had been some speculation that Simon & Schuster might give up the Star Treknovels license at the end of 2012, and they wanted a trilogy of novels to serve as a capstone for the line. My idea for the final book of that trilogy was one that featured the Devidians as the villains, though on a much smaller scale — they were tormenting Jean-Luc Picard specifically because of his actions in the TNG episode “Time’s Arrow, Part 2.”

While I was still developing that pitch, for what eventually became my Cold Equations trilogy, the publisher renewed its license for Star Trek novels. Thus, my story about an elderly Jean-Luc Picard fighting dementia and Devidians was shelved — but as Coda proves, not forgotten.

You explained how you, James, and Dayton came up with the idea. But whose idea was it to have three different people write the three books?

That was something Dayton, James, and I knew was going to be the approach when we first started developing the proposal. Because the number of Star Trek books published each year has been declining steadily over the past decade, the era when they would give big trilogy projects to one author are likely behind us for a while. There are only a few spots in the schedule each year, and a far larger number of experienced Star Trek novelists vying to fill those spots.

It also was necessitated by the fact that we were developing the story as a team, but neither James nor I particularly enjoy collaborating in the drafting of a manuscript. Our solution to this was to agree up front that we would share a collective “story by” credit on the title page of all three novels, and that we each would take the byline for writing one book of the trilogy.

So, how much collaboration was there between you, Dayton, and James? Did you guys get together for a long weekend at a spa and discuss plot points while sitting in a hot tub?

There’s a mental image I really didn’t need. Thanks, Paul.

You’re welcome.

Yeah, we had a ton of collaboration. More than on just about any other project I’ve ever worked. For a few months when we started, we held weekly Zoom calls to talk through all kinds of ideas. Everything from big-picture stuff, like “Who’s the bad guy?” to bits like “We should do a riff on stealing the Enterprise in Star Trek III!”

I took tons of notes, jotting down everything we agreed was worth remembering. We talked about structure; what kinds of endings each book should have; whether we wanted both books one and two to end on cliffhangers, or if that was too cruel and manipulative.

We also asked one another about ongoing story arcs in the various 24th-century book series. Had this story been wrapped up? What about this plot point? Had that thread been explored? What relationships were in limbo? We were looking to maximize our opportunities for closure.

For some of the time-travel stuff I worked up diagrams with color-coded lines. One of them for Oblivion’s Gate looks like a conspiracy map webbed with multiple hues of yarn. I made spread sheets so we could track how much time was transpiring in each story thread, to make sure that all our stories stayed lined up, as best we could.

After the editors accepted our verbal pitch, and the folks in charge of licensing approved it on a conditional basis, our editors asked us to turn in a draft of the complete outline for the entire trilogy, showing how we’d split it up into three books. And this was where Dayton, James, and I did some of our best work. We were cooking up great ideas not just for our own books but for one another’s books, and feeding each other some of our best ideas. It was true teamwork, not a whit of selfishness, just a shared desire to create the best story we could.

What was the biggest argument you guys got into about Star Trek: Coda? And I mean the story itself, not whether Dayton ate all the brown M&Ms.

Our biggest point of creative conflict was over the ending. How definitive did we want it to be? How much did we want to set in stone, and how open to interpretation did we want to it be?

On one side, there was the argument that we should make it clear that our heroes somehow “save the day,” and that even if their specific reality is lost, some echo of it lives on. Another approach was to posit that our characters had to understand that they were in fact sacrificing themselves for a greater good. Both approaches had their merits.

We also had to address the need to tie off this incarnation of Star Trek literary continuity in order to reset the stage for future tie-in novels, which would hew to the new canon of Picard, Lower Decks, Prodigy, and Discovery. We debated whether that need was best served by bringing a definitive end to the literary continuity, or if there was some way to leave open a pathway that readers could imagine promised a continuation, even if they never got to see it.

To see what we chose to do, and why we did it, folks will just have to read Oblivion’s Gate.

I assume that like all things Star Trek, Oblivion’s Gate is a sci-fi space opera story. But are there any other genres at work in this story?

Absolutely. I think that’s true of most novels, regardless of their genre niche, and Oblivion’s Gate is no exception. There are several stories woven together in this novel. There are action plots, but there’s also a romance sub-plot, and a nested tale of grief and denial.

In a more literary vein, the entire novel is a rumination on what it means to find a “good” death, a quietus with significance, and an exhortation to remember to live while one can, and not merely exist.

David Mack Star Trek Coda Book III Oblivion's Gate

Now, you have written 36 novels, including nearly thirty for Star Trek. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a particularly big influence on Star Trek: Coda, Book III: Oblivion’s Gate but not on anything else you’ve written, especially within the Trek realm?

Within that rather strict set of restrictions and qualifications…no. I can’t think of anything that influenced me only with regard to Oblivion’s Gate without also informing my weltenschaung with respect to some of my other work. Though I think it would be fair to say that this novel, more than any other I’ve written to date, is meant as a sort of rebuttal to the pervasive hopeless nihilism of Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against The Human Race.

How about movies, TV shows, or games? Was Star Trek: Coda, Book III: Oblivion’s Gate influenced by any non-literary influences? Save for Trek stuff, of course.

One non-Star Trek film immediately springs to mind: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. A tale of heroism and sacrifice, a reflection on the power of hope, and on the kind of courage that comes only from selfless love. I played that soundtrack a lot while I wrote Oblivion’s Gate.

However, if anything acted as an influence or inspiration exclusively for the writing of Oblivion’s Gate, I’d have to say it was a trifecta of deaths over the course of 2020, while I was drafting the story outline and, later, the manuscript.

In January of 2020, my idol Neil Peart of Rush died. In April of 2020, my mother died. And in December of 2020, my friend and fellow Star Trek novelist Dave Galanter died. All three of them succumbed to some form of cancer.

Consequently, 2020 was an emotionally devastating year for me, and questions about the meaning of life and death were in the forefront of my thoughts while I wrote Oblivion’s Gate.

I’m sorry. And now I feel bad because I was going to jokingly ask what threw in more: references to Rush or nods to Led Zeppelin?

In fact, Rush references abound in Oblivion’s Gate, to an even greater degree than is found in my earlier works. The reason for this is that the death of Neil Peart hit me pretty hard. He had been a creative and personal idol to me since I was about 12 years old. I’d never had the honor of meeting him, though we did once briefly exchange some emails back in 2007.

The section titles of Oblivion’s Gate, as well as many moments throughout the novel, were inspired by the lyrics of the song “The Garden,” which is the final track on Rush’s last studio album, Clockwork Angels. I found echoes of Neil’s lyrics for “The Garden” in works by Voltaire, in the dialogue of Star Trek: Insurrection and Star Trek Generations, and in the poetic final tweet of Leonard Nimoy. I pulled all of those elements together in Oblivion’s Gate as a grand homage to Neil, a loving farewell to someone whose work helped shape me as an artist.

Now, you had previously written two Star Trek trilogies: 2008’s Destiny [Gods Of Night, Mere Mortals, and Lost Souls], and 2012’s Star Trek: The Next Generation: Cold Equations [Persistence Of Memory, Silent Weapons, and The Body Electric]. How do you think writing those books specifically influenced what you did in Star Trek: Coda, Book III: Oblivion’s Gate especially in regard to it being the end of a trilogy?

Writing those earlier trilogies gave me a sense of the scale of such an undertaking, which was a big part of why I was happy to collaborate on this project rather than try to do it all by myself.

I also learned to appreciate the importance of a strong ending. Destiny was more successful in that regard than was Cold Equations. I think that was partly because Destiny was structured in the mode of The Lord Of The Rings, a massive epic story split across three books, while Cold Equations had been written in the classic trilogy mode, which is three books sharing a core group of dramatis personae and key themes, but telling three self-contained stories.

However, the ending of Coda demanded something even greater than either of those two previous works. Oblivion’s Gate isn’t just the ending of a trilogy; it’s the finale to 20 years of shared literary efforts by dozens of different writers and half a dozen editors. It’s the capstone of a grand literary experiment that comprises dozens of novels and numerous short stories. Oblivion’s Gate has to do justice not only to its own narratives and those of the Coda trilogy, but also to the full sweep of two decades of Star Trek storytelling. It’s the end of a universe.

To say I felt a greater-than-usual level of pressure to make this book the best that I could would be an understatement of epic proportions.

As you mentioned, you worked as a story consultant on both Star Trek: Lower Decks and Star Trek: Prodigy. Did you incorporated anything from Coda, and specifically Oblivion’s Gate, into Lower Decks or Prodigy?

It never would’ve occurred to me to try to do so.

The principal reason I didn’t even raise the notion is that my role as a consultant was not to originate ideas or propose content to the producers. My role on both shows (which lasted for ten episodes on Lower Decks and twenty episodes on Prodigy) was to answer questions raised by the producers or members of the writing staff or creative team, and to flag anything problematic with regard to canon that I noticed in story outlines or scripts.

That’s not to say that I didn’t suggest using details from the Star Trek novels in both shows. When it was appropriate to make such suggestions in response to the producers’ queries, I did so. In a few cases, small details (and a few big ones) from the Star Trek novels have made it into Prodigy — but only when doing so served Prodigy‘s needs. The shows always come first.

David Mack Star Trek Coda Book III Oblivion's Gate

Finally, if someone enjoys the Star Trek: Coda trilogy, which of your stand-alone Star Trek novels would you suggest they read next, and which of Dayton’s and James’ would you suggest they read after that?

The Star Trek novel from my bibliography that I would recommend to folks who enjoy the Coda trilogy would be my 2010 Mirror Universe novel The Sorrows Of Empire. It details the story of how, in the Mirror Universe, Spock rose to power, took control of the Terran Empire, and how and why he deliberately orchestrated its downfall. As long as you’ve seen the Original Series episode “Mirror, Mirror” and the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode “Crossover,” you know all you need to appreciate this grand-scale novel of political gamesmanship, which is also a bittersweet romance.

From Dayton’s extensive list of Star Trek novels (which is nearly as long as mine), a reader looking for a standalone adventure should try out his Star Trek: Discovery novel Drastic Measures. It’s a tense, action-packed story about Philippa Georgiou and Gabriel Lorca (the real one, not the Mirror Universe one) coping with the horrific tragedy caused by Kodos the Executioner on the Federation colony world of Tarsus IV. [For more about Drastic Measure, check out this interview with Dayton Ward.]

Lastly, from James’ oeuvre of Star Trek novels, I’d recommend that folks who enjoy Coda check out his Star Trek: Picardnovel The Dark Veil. It tells a tale from Captain William Riker’s tenure as commanding officer of the Starship Titan, and it offers some insight into how he and Troi wind up living in self-imposed exile on Nepenthe by the time of Star Trek: Picard.

 

 

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