Living on the fringes, 17-year-old Jim Kirk has fled from his father’s Iowa farm to that traditional haven for rebels, San Francisco, where he is a dropout hacker who has seen and experienced too much at a young age: As a wide-eyed space enthusiast three years before on Tarsus IV, he was caught in a nightmare of murder and betrayal, caused by the sudden dictator who called himself Kodos (familiar of course to TOS fans from the episode, “The Conscience of the King.”) We meet Jim as he is trying to clear his Academy cadet girlfriend of false charges, and to show up Starfleet at the same time, for reasons that become clearer as the story goes on.
Meanwhile, the 19-year-old Spock is living a privileged life as the brilliant son of a high official at the Vulcan Embassy in nearby Sausalito, but a rebellious streak from his human side urges him into a private adventure investigating thefts of Vulcan artifacts from the embassy. The separate obsessions of these two teenagers lead them both to bend the rules and get into dubious situations (as of course they would again), and so the two collide in semi-comic circumstances, and their fates become intertwined, forever.
As the story unfolds, they partly choose and are partly manipulated into joining Starfleet, starting out as enlisted recruits. At the same time their separate adventures collide until they combine, all connected by the horrific events on Tarsus IV, eventually involving Starfleet and a certain starship called the Enterprise.
The story is full of twists, yet is logical enough for even the older Spock. It gets pushed several times towards the implausible, but always gets pulled back to become another surprising adventure, so it’s a fun ride. It’s skillfully told, with clean, swift prose and the well thought-out characters are developed through story. The dialogue crackles, and you can hear both the youth of those familiar voices, and those familiar voices themselves.
Among the other characters in the book, perhaps the most intriguing has a last name simply mentioned in a TOS episode, and shares a first name with a certain Roddenberry and a certain Coons: Eugene Mallory. His secret job within Starfleet is “to see that the unknown dangers of the frontier never took the Federation by surprise,” so he is the behind-the-scenes prime mover of what happens, but as a thoughtful and empathetic phantom father figure, he also sees and nurtures the potential in Kirk and Spock.
Though this book is not at all a Kirk ego trip, his coming-of-age story emerges pretty clearly. Mature for his age in many ways, this Jim Kirk is still recognizably a teenager—intense in his loyalties and his opinions, already shrewd and clever, with outward charm and inward emotional turmoil, but at 17, “his only weapon is defiance.” The authors perhaps take more chances with Spock, but his teenage self-consciousness applied to his Vulcan/human inner conflict is also described plausibly and affectionately. (And yes, Kirk calls him “Stretch,” as he never did on screen, but lots of us acquire nicknames we later lose. Like one of mine… which was “Spock.” It seems quite logical to me.)
There are Starfleet boot camp and Academy scenes in the tradition of the kind of “boy’s books” about West Point and the Naval Academy that were staples for generations from Roddenberry’s youth to Shatner’s to mine. (In fact, these books inspired the West Point and Annapolis TV series of the 60s that provided Roddenberry with some of his first writing assignments.) These stories depend on details and lore, and having recently read a contemporary nonfiction book on West Point, I can vouch for this book’s accuracy in cadets referring to hats as “covers.” At the same time, this story brings painfully alive in these future settings the contemporary tragedy of child soldiers in Africa and Asia.
As for what Trek fans call continuity and canon, there are some interpretations and one can imagine some anomalies, but basically it’s rock solid. In fact, some of the touches I liked best were derived from the canon, like the deference given to the historic role of Lily Sloane, Zefram Cochrane’s associate in “First Contact.” Characters like Captain Pike and cadet Finnegan have intriguing cameos, Kirk’s father and Spock’s parents have somewhat larger roles, and Kirk’s older brother is a significant presence, at times a kind of “road not taken” version of Jim, at other times a complex character in his own right.
The authors fill in some fascinating background history between Archer’s time and this one– and it is in suddenly considering the role of history that the young Jim Kirk has an epiphany, an insight that changes his attitude. It’s a coming-of-age moment for him, as it was for Star Trek’s 22nd century Earth. I won’t spoil it except to say that it is one wonderful, concise expression of the point of the canon: the soul of Star Trek.
Star Trek Academy Collision Course
Pocket Books – 452 pages (Hardcover)
by William Shatner and Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens
…available now at Amazon
Bill Kowinski (aka Captain Future) also writes on Star Trek, Doctor Who and related matters at Soul of Star Trek