Recently I've been trying out a few of the new spin-offs, which have been of variable quality: SCE, Vanguard, and Articles of the Federation.
First up, Star Trek Vanguard: Harbinger, by David Mack. Checking my records, I see that I bought this book last September, so it's been quite a while since I read it, and my memory's a bit hazy. Ah well, no matter. The basic idea here is that Harbinger is the first book in a new series, based around the space station Vanguard (aka Starbase 47). What's slightly unusual is that this is set in the TOS era, so Kirk's Enterprise turns up at the station for a visit in this story; basically, they're doing a new version of DS9. They've put quite a lot of thought into this, and the book includes a fold-out section in the middle with diagrams of the station. There are also some ideas that I recognise from elsewhere, e.g. a monorail that runs around the station - according to the DVDs, this was one of the original plans for DS9 before they decided to go with the standard turbolift approach. There are also a few ships which are permanently based at the station, so that avoids the problem of "Here we are, twiddling our thumbs, waiting for something to happen". Those ships each have their own command crews, which solves the problem of "Who's left running DS9 when Sisko and co bugger off in the Defiant?" (The DS9 relaunch novels have taken a similar approach, by bringing in Commander Vaughn to be in charge of the Defiant while Kira runs the station.) That does mean that they've established quite a large cast, so it can be a bit tricky to keep track of all the characters, although there is a list of principal characters near the back of the book.
As well as the various Starfleet personnel, there is also a fair sized civilian population, including various reporters. This is where I had a slightly odd reaction to the novel. It has certainly been established in the past that there are news agencies in the Federation, e.g. the reporters who attended the launch of the Enterprise-B in Generations, and Jake Sisko in DS9. However, I just saw these characters as a blatant rip-off of the Battlestar Galactica relaunch, i.e. an attempt to mimic the things that made it successful. I'm not quite sure why, so this may well be unfair on my part - perhaps it's the fact that these reporters are more like the gutter press than reputable journalists.
On that theme, one of the slightly controversial aspects of this book involves two leading characters having an affair, i.e. cheating on a third character. Opinions seem to vary on whether:
a) This is a bold step forward, showing real, flawed people in real situations.
b) This is a downward slide, trying to turn Star Trek into Temptation Island.
I lean towards the latter view, although I think that's mainly because of the execution; there was something similar in a recent New Frontier novel which was handled a lot better.
One odd aspect of this novel is that a bunch of the characters (particularly Kirk) spend a lot of time trying to solve a mystery - why did Starfleet expend huge resources in order to build this Starbase in the middle of nowhere? However, the answer to this is given in the prologue at the start of the book, i.e. it isn't a mystery for the readers. It's a bit like the novel Fatherland (by Robert Harris) in that respect.
More generally, I think my main problem with the book is that it doesn't really work as a complete story by itself - it is very much a pilot episode for an ongoing series. I'd say that the series as a whole does have potential, but it hasn't completely grabbed my attention. When I read this book, I saw that the next one wasn't due out until June 2006, and I was mainly relieved about that, since that gave me plenty of time to decide whether I wanted to continue with the series. That second book (Summon the Thunder) is now out, and I haven't picked it up yet; I may see about borrowing it from the library rather than purchasing my own copy. That new book is by Dayton Ward, i.e. a different writer - I don't know whether that will help or hinder it.
Ultimately, I give this book the thumbs down.
Next on the list, Star Trek: Articles of the Federation, by KRAD (Keith R. A. DeCandido). Although this just has the basic "Star Trek" prefix, it's set in the same time period as TNG/DS9, rather than TOS. More specifically, it's set shortly after Nemesis, and spans a year in the Star Trek universe.
There were recently a set of 12 TNG novels published, and they all had titles that began with "A time to...", e.g. "A time to die". This book is set after them, and also after the first couple of Star Trek Titan novels (which follow the adventures of Captain Riker). I haven't read any of those books, and I don't think this caused any problems - as far as I can tell, this novel recapped everything that I need to know. However, by necessity that meant that it had to give away certain key events from those books, so if I now choose to read them then they've been spoilt a bit. I don't say that as a criticism of this book, it's just something to be aware of, i.e. if you are likely to read the other novels then it makes sense to read them first.
Apparently the brief for this book was "Star Trek meets West Wing"; I've never actually watched "West Wing", but I liked KRAD's previous political Trek novel (Diplomatic Implausibility), so I was happy to give this one a shot. Speaking of the previous book, I enjoyed reading about Ambassador Worf, so I was annoyed to see him rejoin Starfleet in Nemesis. This book follows up on that by saying that his son Alexander has taken over the job, so there is still (sort of) an Ambassador Worf liaising between the Federation and the Empire.
Anyway, this novel is set in and around the office of the President of the Federation, so the President and her support staff are the leading characters. As with Harbinger, reporters play a prominent part in the story, with frequent press conferences. However, that seemed perfectly natural in this story, and didn't bother me at all. One thing that did surprise me was how open they were about the position of the President's speechwriter, i.e. that she wasn't actually reading her own words. When I think about it I can sort of see a justification for it, and I'm sure that the same thing happens with modern day politicians, but I wouldn't expect any of them to advertise this fact - perhaps I'm just being naive there.
There are also a few nice cameos from familiar faces. For instance, at one point in the novel there's a debate where various planets are requesting aid, i.e. resources to rebuild in the wake of the Dominion War. More specifically, Garak is representing Cardassia while Lwaxana Troi represents Betazed, and they are in opposition about who is more deserving: Cardassia sustained worse damage, but arguably that's their own fault for allying with the Dominion in the first place. I liked this debate, because I'm sympathetic to both characters, and therefore both sides - it's not really about good vs bad, just that each person has their own agenda, to best serve their people. (Digressing slightly, this is something that Priest handled very well in his run on Black Panther.)
While this book refers closely to the novels I mentioned above, and to the Reman crisis from Nemesis, it also picks up on some plot points from other novels, which I thought was a nice touch. Specifically, it mentions the Selelvians (from New Frontier), and the problems on Trill (from the DS9 relaunch).
Unlike Harbinger, this book tells a complete story, and it does that well. I'm not sure whether it's actually intended to be the start of a new series, but I would be very happy to buy any follow-up novels.
Overall, this book definitely gets thumbs up.
Finally, Star Trek S.C.E.. This is a series based around the Starfleet Corps of Engineers, and more specifically a group of them who are based on the starship DaVinci.
Each installment is more or less a self-contained story, but there are also plot threads that continue between installments, so I don't think that you can really pick and choose at random. They are initially published as ebooks, available for $3.32 each from eReader.com; the most recent one is #64. Then each group of four is collected into a paper copy ($6.99), which gives you an idea of the length involved - the average ebook is about 100 printed pages. So far they've printed 7 paper books, i.e. the first 28 ebooks. KRAD has a bit more info about the series on his website.
In principle, this all sounds like a good idea. I remember Scott Adams (the Dilbert guy) saying that engineers like Star Trek because it portrays them as heroes, and this series puts the engineers at the forefront - it's all about figuring out how things work, rather than just blowing stuff up. I'd say that there's some similarity to Stargate Atlantis - while there are military types around, their job is to help out the scientists, rather than vice-versa. In the case of SCE, the starship has its own captain/command crew, along with security personnel, but the engineers are calling the shots. Scotty is in charge of SCE as a whole (i.e. all the various personnel/ships), but he's based at Starfleet HQ on Earth, so he just makes short appearances to brief the crew on new missions, a bit like Charley in Charley's Angels.
Like some other books, this series does involve a few obscure characters from the TV series. However, I don't really think it works well here. For instance, New Frontier features Commander Shelby from the TNG episode "The Best of Both Worlds" (where Picard gets turned into Locutus), and Robin Lefler (Wesley's girlfriend from the TNG episode "The Game") - those are both memorable characters, and I was happy to see them again. Similarly, Diplomatic Implausibility features a whole bunch of Klingons to crew the IKS Gorkon, including Toq (the boy Worf rescued from a Romulan prison camp in "Birthright"), Klag (Riker's second officer on the Pagh when he did an exchange program in "A Matter of Honor"), and Rodek (Worf's brother Kurn's new identity from the DS9 episode "Sons of Mogh"); I remembered them all, and their characters were fleshed out further in that story. In SCE, we have Sonja Gomez (engineer who spilt hot chocolate over Picard in "Q Who"), Dr Elisabeth Lense (the one who beat Dr Bashir to first place in the medical exams at Starfleet Academy, as seen in "Explorers"), and Fabian Stevens (engineer from the DS9 episode "Starship Down"). Having seen all the episodes in question, I recognise Gomez, and I remember her being polite to a replicator, although I don't remember the hot chocolate incident; similarly I remember that Bashir met the doctor who beat him, but not much else about her. As for Stevens, I remember that episode (which was pretty good), but nothing at all about him - as far as I can tell, the only reason he's in the SCE books is because one of the people who wrote that episode is involved with these novels. So, not really an inspiring group.
As for the stories themselves, I recently purchased the first two paperback collections, so I read through the first 8 ebooks while I was on holiday last week. I'd say that they're a bit of a mixed bunch. The first one is "Belly of the Beast", by Dean Wesley Smith, and I wouldn't have bought any more just on the basis of that; it didn't help that they put Geordi LaForge in a prominent role, which shows a lack of confidence in their own characters. Next up was "Fatal Error" by KRAD, which was a lot better - basically it's what I'd expect from him, i.e. a good solid story, and I think they would have been better off starting the series with this one (barring plot threads). After that, "Hard Crash" by Christie Golden, which was very moving, so I may try out some of her Voyager relaunch novels after this. Then "Interphase" by Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore - this wasn't a bad story, dealing with the reappearance of the Constitution class Defiant that had been caught in the Tholian web in a TOS episode, but it's unfortunate that it has now been contradicted by an episode of Enterprise; they also lose marks for splitting this story across paperbacks. The next one was "Cold Fusion" by KRAD, which was a slightly odd one - it ties into the DS9 relaunch, where the SCE help Nog get some spare parts for DS9 from Empek Nor, but you don't need to read it to understand the DS9 stories (I read the related books a couple of years ago without any problems), and it portrays the SCE crew as a bunch of arrogant arseholes, so I'm not sure that any DS9 fans would be inclined to stick around afterwards. Finally, "Invincible" by David Mack and KRAD (a 2 parter) - this was a decent story, although it didn't really have much to do with engineering.
I wonder whether part of the problem is that it's difficult to do real science in Star Trek, rather than technobabble. For instance, I really like the Hammer and the Cross trilogy (by Harry Harrison), which have a genius wandering around in Viking times and figuring out how various things work (e.g. siege weapons, the printing press, and the significance of the digit zero). Rocket Boys (by Homer H. Hickham) is also very good - it's the autobiography of someone who now works for NASA, talking about launching mini-rockets in his youth. Even then, I don't think that fake science is necessarily a barrier - Falling Free (by Bujold) has a great story about an engineer trying to solve problems with faster than light travel. But for whatever reason, it just doesn't really seem to work here.
Overall, I think thumbs down again - I'd be willing to buy some of them if I thought that I could understand them in isolation, so as it stands I think that I'll just wait for them to trickle through the library in paper form, which may take quite a while.