Star Trek: Strange New Worlds – The High Country
Written by John Jackson Miller
Published by Simon & Schuster in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook
Release date: Tuesday, February 21, 2023
“Everyone mount up!” she shouted. “It’s a wagon train to outer space!”
The first Star Trek novel of 2023 is John Jackson Miller’s The High Country, which is also the first tie-in to the Paramount+ series Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, which debuted in 2022. Set during the first season of Strange New Worlds, between the episodes “The Serene Squall” and “The Elysian Kingdom,” The High Country is a high-stakes adventure packed with interesting and creative ideas, that builds to a fever pitch but has difficulty sticking the landing.
Gene Roddenberry, in his original network pitch for Star Trek, described the show as “Wagon Train to the stars!” and most Star Trek shows at some point attempt an episode featuring elements of the American Old West. The Original Series had “Spectre of the Gun,” The Next Generation had “A Fistful of Datas,” and even Strange New Worlds boasted a horseback-riding, scruffy-bearded Christopher Pike in its pilot episode. This novel is a direct sequel to the Star Trek: Enterprise episode, “North Star,” in which the NX-01 encountered a planet whose human inhabitants were descendants of people who had been scooped up from their frontier town in the 1860s by an alien race known as the Skagarans and deposited on a planet in the Delphic Expanse, where they were put to forced labor.
In “The High Country,” a shuttle crewed by Pike, Una, Spock, and Uhura crash-lands on a planet surrounded by an energy field that neutralizes anything electronic, including all transtator-based technology. Separated before the crash, the four struggle to locate each other and survive a patchwork world made up of a variety of human and alien settlements, each deposited here by a Skagaran project attempting to create a non-technological paradise. Here, Pike meets an old friend, a band of misfit inventors, and “the Sorry,” a mysterious fiery force that seems bent on destroying any technological innovation.
Along the way, The High Country draws together elements from a wide variety of Star Trek sources, including a Viridium patch (a la Star Trek VI), plenty of references to Miller’s phenomenal Discovery tie-in novel, The Enterprise War, and even one character directly taken from Enterprise’s “North Star” episode. While the first section of the novel takes its own sweet time building elements for the plot, once into the mid-section, Miller throws so many creative ideas into the mix that it will make your head spin. By the time the “Vulcan Navy” arrived (yes, I know!) I found myself laughing out loud with glee.
I loved how Miller involved the USS Enterprise herself in a story where she can’t even approach the planet without being destroyed. I loved that almost the entire book went by without a hint of phasers or photon torpedoes. I loved that Miller attempted a scientific solution rather than a military one.
The book has three main flaws, none of which are fatal. The first is that it takes a while to bring Una into the flow of the story (something often true of the series itself), and a very long time to add Spock and Uhura into the mix. However, by the back half of the book, they do become vital to the story. The second flaw is that while every element in the book does get incorporated into the conclusion, the actual solution to the conflict made very little sense. Maybe I’m just not scientifically savvy enough, but the solution felt more like Hemmer’s line from “The Elysian Kingdom,” “the power of science prevails!” with a flourishing of the hands, rather than an actual explanation. The novel also has far too many endings once the action has concluded.
The third flaw is the cover, which is of course not on author John Jackson Miller. Don’t get me wrong, the cover is lovely, but there is nothing about it that reflects the actual content of Miller’s story at all. I would have loved to see Uhura with an Empatherm on the cover, or a sailing ship on ice skates, or a dirigible shaped like the Enterprise, or riders on horseback, or anything that connected with what makes the book itself worth reading. This is a book that wants a painted Boris Vallejo cover, not a generic photoshop cover, however well done it might be.
Bottom line, The High Country is worth reading for its sheer creativity, its adherence to the Star Trek spirit, its excellent characterizations, and its powerful narrative buildup. Fans of Enterprise will love the extensive connections with the adventures of Jonathan Archer and his crew, and fans of Strange New Worlds will love what Miller does with the main four characters, as well as La’an, M’Benga, and Hemmer. Only Ortegas and Chapel get short shrift. While the first third is a slow build, and the landing stumbles a bit, the bulk of this novel was difficult for me to put down, and I wound up staying up late in order to see how it ended. What more could you ask for than that?
It is also available as an audiobook at Amazon and Audible, ready by Robert Petkoff.
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