While the original mission of the Enterprise only made it through three of its planned five year schedule, it’s more than made up for it thanks to numerous Star Trek novels (and comics, and games…). The latest of which is James Swallow’s Star Trek The Original Series The Latter Fire (paperback, digital), which presents yet another adventure for Kirk, Spock, and their coworkers. Though in talking to Swallow about this book, it’s interesting to learn that Star Trek novels come with their own version of The Prime Directive.
To start, what is Star Trek The Original Series The Latter Fire about, and where does it fit in, chronologically, with the TV show and the movies?
I tried to go for something that was tonally like my favorite episodes. The Enterprise crew are on a diplomatic missions to meet a race of aliens who they had previous met when the Enterprise had rescued one of the alien’s ships. It’s a year later, and the Enterprise are going to the aliens’ planet for a formal first contact meeting, but when they get there, they find there are some questions as to whether The Prime Directive was violated during the rescue, and as they’re investigating that, they uncover a much larger problem as it turns into a war-like situation when another alien species show up and the Enterprise is caught in the middle.
Obviously, writing a Star Trek book involves a lot of back and forth between yourself and the gatekeepers of the franchise. Do you find this to be restrictive, or is it helpful to have some constraints, or a combination of the two?
The thing about writing Star Trek books, and I think this is true in writing any kind of tie-in fiction, is that you don’t do the job if you don’t already know where the walls are. You have to respect that, and you don’t get the job if you didn’t already know the dimensions of it.
That said, every element of the story from the very beginning goes to the team at Pocket Books [who publish the Star Trek novels] and also the people at CBS [who own Star Trek] and they check everything to make sure it makes sense in the larger context of Star Trek continuity.
And I would think the other books come into play in that as well.
Yeah. Most of us who work on the books, there’s an open friendliness between us, and we’ll sometimes get in touch with each other and say, “I’m going to do a story in this area, how did you handle it?” So there’s a two-and-fro.
But to go back to your original question about whether it’s restrictive, the answer is “Yes, but.” It is a restriction, but it’s not like a millstone around my neck. It’s no different than writing a story in any environment. If I was writing a novel set in Paris during the Second World War, I’d still have to make it feel realistic and true to that time and place.
Right. But there were a lot of alien races and other elements that were added during the other shows and movies, ones that would’ve been around during the timeframe of the original show, like the Cardassians. Are you allowed to bring in any of those elements?
We can if we need to. I didn’t do any of that in The Latter Fire, but only because I didn’t need to. As long as it’s not contradicting something that was shown on screen, it’s pretty much fair game.
Do you ever catch yourself making a small joke or a reference to something and then realize, no, no one in the time of Star Trek is going to know who the Kardashians are?
With Star Trek set so far in the future, referring back to elements from our time feel a bit anachronistic, so it’s not something I tend to do. You can do it in a sort of vague sense, but making a full-on gag, I’d be a bit leery of that.
This, of course, is not your only stint on Star Trek. You’ve written other Star Trek novels, as well as two episodes of Star Trek: Voyager. I am wrong in thinking that you have more freedom when writing a novel than a TV script because you don’t have to worry about budget restrictions?
It’s interesting that you use the word “freedom.” It’s a different set of tools. When you’re working on a TV project, it’s a collaborative thing because one person writes the script, but someone else is going to direct it, and other people are going to make the sets and the costumes and the special effects, and you have the actors…all of those people are contributing their energy to the story. Whereas, if you’re writing a novel, it’s just you, the writer. And maybe you’ll have an editor, and in a case like this you’ll have the license people, but it’s still a much more focused experience. So you do have more freedom to put your stamp on it.
Do you ever think of an idea for something you’re working on, but it gets rejected so you use it for something else you’re working on or another book in that series?
Oh, yeah. One rule you should always adhere to as a writer is “never throw anything away.” I’m constantly coming up with ideas, that’s the currency of being a writer, and I’m always filling up my notebooks with ideas for a story or a cool character or a line of dialog. I’ve even gone back to ideas a decade later.
Now, aside from Star Trek The Original Series The Latter Fire, you’re also working on the new Deus Ex game, Mankind Divided. as well as the novel Deus Ex: Black Light. How, if at all, does your work on a game influence your novel writing, and vice versa?
Well, at the end of the day, a story is story, it doesn’t matter what format it comes in. It’s just that you use a different set of tools if you’re writing a book as opposed to a game script, they tell stories in very different ways. So in terms of how one effects the other, I don’t think one there’s a direct connection, but I think writing in many different styles has made me a better writer because it’s given me a bigger tool kit to draw from.
Finally, if someone is a Star Trek fan, but they’ve never read any of the novels, which do you think they should start with?
Well, when people ask me that, it’s very much a “How long is a piece of string?” sort of question because there’s lots of different Star Trek novels. For instance, if you’re a fan of The Wrath Of Khan, you might want to read a novel I did called Cast No Shadow, which was set during that era. But if you prefer Star Trek: The Motion Picture, you might like Christopher Bennet’s Ex Machina or Greg Cox’s ebook novella Miasma.
But in terms of the one book I’d recommend…that’s a tough call. My two favorites, and they’re not typical of any Star Trek TV show, are The Final Reflection by John M. Ford, which is a great classic Trek book about the Klingon empire, and A Stitch In Time, which is a Deep Space Nine novel about Garak by the guy who played him [Andrew J. Robinson]. Both are really great books that give you a really interesting view of what those two different alien races’ cultures are like. I found they both to be great reads, so I always recommend those.