Review: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds – The High Country
The new era of Star Trek has seen novels pop up from all recent live-action entries. Star Trek: Discovery has enjoyed eight books so far, and Star Trek: Picard has four books. Two of those Discovery books and one of those Picard entries were written by John Jackson Miller, the veteran scribe behind the newest addition to the Star Trek literary universe: Star Trek: Strange New Worlds – The High Country. This is the first novel based on the titular TV show, so we were excited to see how Miller blends the hit series with his well-practiced sensibilities suited toward Star Trek novelizations.
As we would expect from a John Jackson Miller narrative, flipping through these pages feels like watching an episode of Star Trek in your mind’s eye. And to our great surprise, using relatively little source material to form the personalities of the main Starfleet characters hasn’t stopped Miller from faithfully translating these people into this novel, with a familiar and exciting setting to boot.
Captain Christopher Pike, as played by Anson Mount in SNW, is reliably witty, cool-headed, and passionate when the need calls for it. Una Chin-Riley, as played by Rebecca Romijn, is appropriately aloof, curious, and determined. Likewise, Spock (Ethan Peck) is cooly logical and inquisitive, and Cadet Nyota Uhura (Celia Rose Gooding) is green, but intelligent, and accepting of circumstances beyond her control.
All these personality traits come into play as our heroes are launched into a plot Miller has concocted with various other Star Trek influences in mind. For historians who care about such things, this book takes place in 2259 in between the Strange New Worlds episodes “The Serene Squall” and “The Elysian Kingdom”. The book wastes no time in launching our protagonists on an adventure that challenges their notions of non-interference and morality. Spock, Pike, Uhura, and Una crash land on a planet where its inhabitants use no technology, instead living in a way the settlers of the American West did in the 1800s. The reason for this deceptively peaceful life is explained using Star Trek: Enterprise as a starting point, so our advice is to watch the episode “North Star” before diving into this book.
“Setting out to find his crewmates, [Pike] encounters a surprising face from his past—and discovers that one people’s utopia might be someone else’s purgatory. He must lead an exodus—or risk a calamity of galactic proportions that even the Starship Enterprise is powerless to stop….”– From the publisher’s official description.
Of course, the peaceful existence of these natives isn’t exactly what it appears on the surface, and Captain Pike gets into some hot water as he becomes the de facto leader of a group willing to break away from established societal norms. The setting for this tale – a planet called Epheska – perfectly fits Captain Pike’s spirit; the man was always geared as an American West-type hero, complete with a love of horseback riding and upbringing in southern California. We want to praise Miller for so smartly pairing this man with Epheska. However, just because the book largely takes place in the green outdoors doesn’t mean The High Country doesn’t have its share of futuristic sci-fi world-building. Like any good Star Trek book, there’s plenty of that to go around.
We did have two noteworthy observations about this book, one of which may or may not come as good news to readers. First, the chapters in The High Country are consistently quite short, certainly more so than in other John Jackson Miller books. We didn’t see this as a bad thing, as it can help keep the book’s pace brisk, but others may want longer, more in-depth chapters. It’s ultimately up to the reader’s preference. But second, what should be universally considered a good thing is that The High Country includes a few black-and-white illustrations of Epheska, which will undoubtedly help the reader orient themselves to this strange new world. These maps are a great touch and fit the book’s western ethos perfectly.
As the debut entry for Star Trek: Strange New Worlds on the printed page, Miller does a great service to these characters. You’ll likely be thrilled at some of the twists and turns Miller presents to our heroes, and stop to think about why living in paradise may not be such a great thing. You’ll definitely look forward to the next time our newest live-action characters get the novel treatment.
Author Interview: John Jackson Miller
We had the chance to sit down with John Jackson Miller ahead of his newest book’s launch, and we gleaned quite a bit of insight into how he approached the first-ever Strange New Worlds novel.
TrekNews.net: One of the things fans love about Star Trek novels is that you really contribute to the universe in such a fantastic way that’s just not possible with the hundreds of TV episodes and the dozen movies in the Star Trek pantheon. Would you talk a little bit about your attraction toward science fiction?
Miller: Well, what I find is my appetite for some other genres is satisfied with writing Star Trek or Star Wars. For example, clearly the Star Wars: Kenobi novel is a western for Star Wars. We were kicking around whether we should refer to The High Country as a western because a lot about it has a western feel for obvious reasons. But when we got to the end of it, my editor, Margaret Clark, said, “No, this is not a western. This is a science fiction novel with horses.”
I think that’s probably true because there are a lot of elements in the book which you would not find in a western. So, we hop genres a bit. Genres are about more than just the mode of transportation that’s available to you. I try to find ways to get at other genres without necessarily having to be in a franchise where there’s one main genre. And I think that works out. I mean, the fun thing for me is to try to mix and match elements in a novel in a way that they aren’t that easy to categorize.
I want to put the characters in some interesting situations and challenge what they know how to do and what they can do. For example, in the situation, we put the Enterprise in, both the crew on the ground and also the ship itself in The High Country. We’re tying both hands behind their backs and saying, “Hey, look, you can only use technology that is going to be functional given what’s going on on this planet.” And that gets interesting because it allowed me to go back and research things.
TrekNews.net: What was your research process like for this book?
Miller: I had folks providing advice. There’s a particle physicist, the senior scientist from Fermilab, Dr. Don Lincoln — who I bounced some ideas off of. And he more or less said, “Okay, well this is how things might function in the situation you’re describing. And this would not pass muster for anybody who’s actually in the business, but it will probably work for Star Trek.”
And one of the cool things about that is Dr. Lincoln and I will be doing a panel at C2E2 [a convention in Chicago starting March 31] on the science of Star Trek. I also talked with others about some of the technical aspects of the book. And I even have an equestrian advisor who has now advised me in the Star Wars universe and the Star Trek universe.
TrekNews.net: It sounds like you spent quite a bit of time world-building for the places and people in The High Country.
Miller: I have usually tended to follow the advice that says don’t spend so much time developing the planet or developing the setting before you start writing. You could figure that stuff out as you go along.
For example, in the Star Trek: Discovery: Die Standing novel, I had three different alien cultures, and I knew they would have a triangular trade relationship between them. And that bare-bones information was pretty much what I had when I started writing. I didn’t really elaborate on what was happening in this world or what they looked like or what they felt like. That came as I was going along. And I realized it would be really interesting if this second group of people were completely the polar opposite of the way the first group of people act, and then the third group were a completely different group. And so the story gave me all the other details about society.
For The High Country, this is one book, though, where the whole idea at the beginning was that I’ve done these other books, like Star Trek: Discovery: The Enterprise War, where they stay in space almost entirely. In my Star Trek: Takedown novel, they don’t even touch dirt in the entire novel. And the Die Standing book is three very different places in this sort of whirlwind tour that Georgiou goes on. But for The High Country, I said, “I want to do one planet. We could very easily do a Strange New Worlds story where it’s multiple planets they go to. I want to do one planet, many worlds. One planet, with many different kinds of looks on this planet.
So, I will say that this book was a heavier lift than most of my books in terms of preparation, in terms of that world-building. The maps which appear in the book were only just sort of a vague thing in my mind. It was because the book was delayed from November 2022 to February 2023 that I had time to put the maps in.
TrekNews.net: One thing we noticed in The High Country is that the adventure starts literally on the first page – there’s really no prologue or ramp-up to the story. The chapter lengths are also much shorter than what we are used to in a Star Trek novel. Was that on purpose?
Miller: Yes, the chapter lengths give the book a kinetic feel. I know that’s kind of a catchword, but I want to do something where it was very much driven. Driven forward, driven somewhere, driven from the beginning point to the end. A lot of my books are kind of slow starts as you get a sense of where we are in the world we’re inhabiting. If it weren’t for the prologue in the Kenobi novel, which originally did not exist when I first wrote it, Obi-Wan Kenobi shows up on page 60 of that novel. But then the publisher said, “No, no, you got to have him in there earlier.”
I was even torn on where to put the section breaks in The High Country. I wasn’t sure where I wanted the maps. But I figured out that it made the most sense to put them where they were. So, it’s one of those things where I think that we have a story that, even though it has multiple threads with multiple characters, it’s always going forward. You will notice every other chapter involves Pike. And with few exceptions, you might get Pike in between the chapters. But if we leave him for a time, we’re right back there.
We were talking about this book’s outline, and a lot of it was just determining how many people could I put on this planet and still follow their stories. I initially had five or six. And as I started working it out, I even got out a spreadsheet. And I realized there’s no way I could do this. In the second draft of the outline, we actually toyed around with instead of having four individuals stranded, what if we had three sets of two, or four sets of two? Does that change the dynamic? And we realized, yeah, it did change the dynamic in ways we didn’t like. What we ultimately went with is there are three characters who have story paths, and then I chose to take the fourth character, which was Spock, and hide what he was doing for much of the book.
TrekNews.net: So, how much of a fan of Strange New Worlds are you?
Miller: Oh, it’s wonderful. I mean, Anson [Mount] is wonderful. Ethan [Peck] is wonderful. Everybody involved in the show is wonderful. I love Una, and the new Uhura is fantastic. And Hemmer! One of my editors had said, “Whenever we set this book, let’s see if there’s a way to get Hemmer in there.” I had not seen Hemmer in the show yet when I started working on the outline, and she said, “No, he absolutely should be here somewhere.” And I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And then I saw Hemmer in the show and I was like, “Okay, yeah, I get it.”
TrekNews.net: Are there any other recent Star Trek shows you’re fond of?
Miller: I’ve been very fortunate in that in the streaming era novels, I’ve gotten to write about the characters I was most interested in. So, Emperor Georgiou, I was like, yeah, I’ll write that. And with the Rios book [Star Trek: Picard: Rogue Elements], that was one where when they said, “We’d like you to do a Picard novel,” I said, “I’ll do it, but only if it’s Rios.” And they said, “Well, you’re in luck. That’s what we’d like you to do.” I have my own theories for how that character could continue to have adventures. I can resolve the end of Picard season two as far as Rios is concerned with two words: Guinan fibbed.
TrekNews.net: Have you seen the Picard season three premiere?
Miller: Oh yeah. It’s great. You know, some people are going to get in there and worry about whether the Titan looks the way the Titan ought to look or whatever. But I don’t care. My first gig for Star Trek was a Titan novella. And I’ve got a photo on my wall with Daniel Davis [who reprises his role as Moriarty in Picard season three]. When I started working with Star Trek, I was actually trying to pitch a Moriarty book. So yes, I’m looking forward to Picard season three.
Star Trek: Strange New Worlds — The High Country can be purchased on Amazon now.
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