Star Trek: Strange New Worlds

I’ve only seen the first episode. I loved it. I’m really excited for more.

It’s hard for me to see this show without immediately comparing it to Star Trek: Discovery. Obviously, the two shows are connected by their events and characters. And, very mild but necessary spoilers, if you watch the first episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds you will be spoiled for the end of Discovery’s second season. Given the continuity of experience for several main characters (and especially Captain Pike), that’s inevitable.

Most of the details of Discovery aren’t brought up because they’re classified in-setting and there’s little reason for anyone to actually divulge anything. But the vital bits come out in a few conversations, or are heavily hinted at and shown in characters’ internal struggles. This means that you don’t need to have seen Discovery in order to enjoy this show, and all the plot-relevant emotional strife that grew out of the previous show’s events is made accessible to new viewers.

That’s all for the best. I have mixed feelings about Discovery, and I think Strange New Worlds made the right choice by making itself more accessible to new viewers. Moreover, I think Discovery’s emotional and narrative tone felt more like a grim Star Trek movie… and Strange New Worlds feels like a marvelous return to the tone of Star Trek as a TV show.

I’ve written about this here before. Discovery had piles of narrative tension, and character development, and drama… and it felt like watching a high production-value miniseries set in the Star Trek universe, with all the bubbling idealism stripped out. When I watched it, I did not feel hope. I was engaged by the story, and I appreciated the growth seen throughout each season. But Discovery was fundamentally about season-spanning dramatic narrative arcs. 

Star Trek benefits from dramatic narrative arcs. Yet for all my love of a good narrative, Star Trek has long been more focused on exploration, and on ethical, moral, and intellectual engagement with difficult subjects. Sometimes it does that well, sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes it leavens itself with exciting narrative interludes. But it’s a series anchored in idealism, hope, and a willingness to engage critically with its setting (with varying levels of success).

Strange New Worlds delivers that. Watching Strange New Worlds felt like watching the next iteration of the old Star Trek shows, in the best possible way. I loved it.

I know there are some people who have seen it and don’t like it. I understand that a number of people are upset about the bridge crew being both mostly non-white and/or women. Fuck ‘em. If that’s seriously their gripe with the show, they haven’t paid enough attention to the whole rest of the show’s history—and they’re apparently unsatisfied with the fact that the captain is still a white dude.

I haven’t yet heard other people’s critiques of the show, and I’d be more curious to hear those. This meme applies, to be sure:

But not only does this new Trek feel hopeful, I once again trust that the show will continue in the optimistic and idealistic traditions of older Star Trek shows rather than chase ”serious drama” at the expense of its emotional and philosophical tone. I am so excited for more.

The Black Tides of Heaven, by Neon Yang

The author’s name has changed since initial publication, hence the different name on some hard copies and publicity images

The Black Tides of Heaven, by Neon Yang, left me feeling a little narratively unmoored.

I suspect that the biggest cause for that was my own fault: I put the book down about halfway through, and then took over a month to return to it and finish it. But that means that I’m writing this from an odd place. I’m not sure how much my perspective has been shaped by that prolonged delay, and I can only recommend that you take my review with a grain of salt or three. The book certainly seems to have worked better for other people than it did for me.

Part of my sense of being narratively adrift grew from the way in which the book is divided into sections, with each section separated from the last by a big temporal gap. Each section felt like an extended short story about that time period in our POV character’s life. But chaining those extended short stories together into one novel didn’t feel like it created the narrative cohesion I wanted.

In some ways, this is the opposite of the cool technique that Martha Wells used for her first four Murderbot novellas. Where Wells wrote a series of four stories that each gave a snapshot of emotional development and then kept them in separate novellas to let them stand on their own and build on each other, Yang has written those separate stories and put them all in one book. It didn’t work as well for me.

Writing is all about adding just enough to let your audience fill in the rest, without adding so much that they get tired of it. I think Yang went just a little too light for me. I could sketch out the narrative arc and tell you what the points of growth and resolution were, but it didn’t feel like there was quite as much connective tissue between the narrative dots as I would have liked.

Maybe, if I’d expected the book to consist of those discrete mini-stories beforehand, I’d have a different opinion of it now. Maybe, if I hadn’t put the book down halfway through, I’d feel like Yang cut out just the right amount of material. Instead, none of the smaller segments individually brought me the kind of narrative movement or growth that I wanted. And the individual segments didn’t quite gel together to make the larger whole feel quite right either.

But…

Maybe I’m still looking at this the wrong way. There are several other books out by Yang, all in the same series, at least one of which looks like it’s supposed to be semi-contemporaneous with or closely following this book. Perhaps those, in connection with this one, would give me the more complete perspective and narrative arc that I’m looking for. I’ll probably pick those up and read them just to find out. Maybe not right away.

Having said all that, I should add that The Black Tides of Heaven has solid child-parent struggles, a setting that feels refreshingly distinct from standard Western fantasy, and lots of good queer content. And it’s well-written! I feel bad complaining so much above when the fault may be my own. Whoops.

So, if any of those things sound interesting to you I suggest checking the book out. And I recommend reading it all in one go, or at least not stopping for over a month right in the middle. That was definitely a mistake on my part.