Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Eugenics Wars: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh, by Greg Cox

I don't read Star Trek novelizations.

This isn't from any sense of snobbery - following the fictional adventures of Captain Kirk doesn't seem any less worthwhile than following the fictional adventures of Inspector Morse, or Jason Bourne.

It's more about the fact that Star Trek novels are considered 'non-canonical' - as in, they're not accepted as an 'official' part of the Star Trek universe. Ultimately, that means a Star Trek novel is a story that didn't happen set in a universe that didn't happen - double jeopardy.

Recently, though, I was given two Star Trek audio books which piqued my interest, so I listened to them on my commute to and from work.

Greg Cox's two-volume story The Eugenics Wars: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh follows the exploits of one of the most fascinating side-characters in Star Trek mythos - a genetically engineered superman who tangled with Captain Kirk on two deadly occasions.

In a 1967 episode of the original Star Trek TV series, charismatic superman Khan first befriended Kirk and co, before betraying them and trying to take over the Enterprise. In 1982, the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan reintroduced the popular villain, with a furious Khan hijacking a Federation starship in an attempts to extract bloody revenge from Captain Kirk.

Both the episode and the movie are widely considered the best of the Star Trek series; and proved that fans were eager to learn more about the enigmatic character.

Hence Greg Cox picked up his pen to tell Khan's story - but in doing so, he faced a singular challenge. This futuristic villain has a back story actually set in our own past.

In 1967, when the character of Khan was introduced, the 1990s were decades away - so the Star Trek writers created a colorful story about 'the Eugenics Wars' unaware that the character would remain popular long after his supposed 'history' had been and gone.

Cox approached this by weaving an intricate 'secret history' that intertwined the story of Khan's birth, childhood and rise to power with actual events from our recent history.

Khan was created in a laboratory under India's Thar desert - and the explosion that destroys it coincides with India's first nuclear weapon's test in 1974. Other important events in human history - the fall of the Berlin Wall and the conflict in former Yugoslavia are all presented as parts of Kahn's covert war with his genetically-engineered rivals.

In that way, Greg Cox manages to neatly consolidate established Star Trek history with the history of the real world - and adds a nice layer of fact to his fantasy.

True-blue Trekkies will enjoy the fact that a host of seemingly obscure Star Trek characters crop up throughout the novel - the protagonists, aside from Khan himself, are Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln from the 1968 Star Trek episode 'Assignment: Earth' (originally intended to be a 'backdoor pilot' for a spin-off show.)

In 1986, Roberta is assigned to tidy up a temporal time-bomb left by Kirk's visit to Earth in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Later, she encounters Dr Jeff Carlson, who was assigned to Roswell, New Mexico, when characters from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine crashed there in the 1995 episode 'Little Green Men'.

It's apparent than an awful lot of thought went into weaving this tapestry; and ultimately it's a very satisfying read (or, in my case, listen.) I'm not a Star Trek nut, so I was pleased to be able to enjoy the tale without necessarily having an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek lore - both those who do will be equally satisfied with the result.

A note on the audio book experience - Volume 1 was read by Anthony Steward Head; better known as Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He did a terrific job; nailing an enormous number of accents to bring the multitude of characters to life and reading briskly enough to keep the pace cracking. Volume 2 was narrated by Star Trek veteran Rene Auberjonois - who did a similarly proficient job.

As I said, I don't normally read Star Trek books, so I can't say I'd have been likely to pick these up myself - but I'm pleased I did, as The Eugenics Wars ultimately expanded on some of the aspects of Star Trek history that I found most interesting.

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