A cold front moves in this week as the planet Nordstral faces a host of problems. Medical staff aboard an orbital pharmaceutical station have gone cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs; a team of researchers has been lost in a shuttle accident; and constant polarity reversals are turning the planet into the terraforming project from hell. While Kirk and Bones go 20,000 leagues under the sea and release the kraken, Uhura and Chekov run from a village chief whose city-slicker upbringing belies a dangerous mean streak. Is Chekov’s paranoia justified? What’s the straight dope on sugar-free lemon drops? And since when is Bones afraid of water? All this and more in Ice Trap, the book that’s all in on this exciting new field of study known as phrenology.
Author: L.A. Graf
Published: July 1992
Timeline: One year after Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Pharmaceutical station Curie, in orbit around the planet Nordstral, is suffering from a mess of problems. Several of their medical staff have gone completely insane, and they’ve lost a research team down on the frozen wasteland below. So in case you’re keeping score, that’s the second time in four weeks that we’ve visited a snow planet, and our second consecutive book to feature a mysterious outbreak of mental collapse.
Chekov is in charge of the expedition to find the missing researchers, and Uhura tags along with a group of cruelly well-developed redshirts. Meanwhile, Kirk and Bones join Captain Clara Mandeville on an underwater voyage to root out the source of Curie’s mental turmoil and look into some serious planetary polarity issues. This is terribly inconvenient for Bones, because as we learn, he has a severe case of hydrophobia brought on by a brush with death at a family reunion as a wee lad. Despite the fact that we’ve never heard word one about this before now, it is apparently even more debilitating than his dislike of transporters. McCoy’s heretofore unrevealed aversion to water recalls Uhura’s similarly sudden fear of fire in The Three-Minute Universe, and much like in that book, arbitrarily giving a character a man-versus-self conflict adds little to nothing memorable or meaningful to the overall picture.
Ice Trap is the kind of book where if anything short of a major character death can happen, it will. When I think of shit1 hitting the fan, I think of a singular event that irrevocably turns the tide of a story. But this is one of those instances where hitting the fan happens over and over and over, and characters narrowly escape one harrowing situation after another. Tales of an episodic nature are rarely so stressful, but even equipped with the knowledge that no permanent harm will befall top-billed cast members, Ice Trap manages to seize effectively on a number of common relatable fears.
Earlier, I mentioned some ways Ice Trap resembles other recent installments, but there are even more. It’s the second TOS novel in a row to put Chekov under the microscope. But whereas in The Disinherited he was a doe-eyed young ensign who lived every day wondering which mistake would be the one to get him unceremoniously drummed out of Starfleet, here he’s an older, wiser chief of security whose meticulous preparation is often glibly dismissed as paranoia. I don’t blame him one bit for being irked by this perception; no one would ever dare, e.g., to tell Scotty how to run his engine room. But his skills really come to the fore when he, Uhura, and his team are on the run from Alion, the city-boy village elder who doesn’t talk to the gods the way the good honest country folk do, and has a less-than-rosy opinion of the human presence on Nordstral. Authoritative rugged adventurer is a good look for Chekov, one we don’t get to see very often at all.
Yet another quality shared with a recent book is that this is a collaboration between multiple authors, in this case a group of women writing under the collective pseudonym L.A. Graf, an acronym for Let’s All Get Rich And Famous. We’ll see much more of this team’s work in the months and years to come, but we’ve already seen what one of its members is capable of; Julia Ecklar previously turned in The Kobayashi Maru, one of the most outstanding numbered installments. For Ice Trap, each writer took on a different character—which, as ways to make multiple voices cohere into one go, is pretty clever. I think it works. Even knowing there are multiple people behind the L.A. Graf moniker, I was never able to pick out one voice or style over another. I don’t think that homogeneity implies anything bad about identical writing styles; in fact, I actually sort of prefer it to the reverse, where it’s glaringly obvious when Peter David wrote this part or Michael Jan Friedman wrote that one.
Despite my preference for a smoother blend, however, I can’t say it produced quite as amazing a product as The Disinherited, though the ladies did come very close. Ice Trap is definitely more on the run-and-gun action-oriented side of Trek adventures, with a relatively small amount of philosophizing reserved for the eco-terrorism plot line that eventually overtakes the other threads. But it’s full of great character beats all the same, and even McCoy’s water phobia, pointless as it is, is handled deftly and with reasonable pathos. This one may not exactly be a feast for the mind, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that makes it a carefree romp.
MVP & LVP
- My MVP this week is Chekov. It’s so rare that he gets to take charge in such an outsized way, and I gotta say, it wears well on him. Shout-out to Scotty as well, who only modified an entire freaking shuttle to locate the missing crew … but that plot line was cut, so it’s tough to accurately assess the impact he had on the mission.
- I have a few choices for LVP, but I think I’m going to go with Dr. Muhanti, the medical chief on the Soroya. When Kirk and McCoy first meet him, he’s raving about this hot new science called phrenology, and it’s unclear at first whether Muhanti is also a victim of the insanity outbreak or if he’s just a huge weirdo with a shut-in’s sense of humor. The former becomes apparent during a bitter fistfight with McCoy … but then he’s instantly lucid when a medical emergency summons the docs to the bridge. I’m comforted that Bones was as baffled as I was, but it doesn’t do much to ease my frustrations with the character. I also considered Nicholai Steno, the station manager of the Curie, who ably fills the annoying civilian role, but he gets the tundra painted with his guts, so at least he goes out with a bang.
Ten Forward Toast
Ice Trap is a good enough book that it would be uncouth to spoil the recipients of this week’s Toast, so instead I’ll simply say this: it’s way worse when they let you get to know the redshirts. I cried like a baby at the end of “Lower Decks”. Yes, redshirts are people too, but it’s way less taxing on my evidently very fragile emotions when they’re faceless nobodies.
Nuggets & Other Stray Bits
- Cover Art Corner: Despite what the cover would have you believe, this book doesn’t take place during the five-year mission, but rather about a year after The Motion Picture (though a handful of other inconsistent details call even that time frame into question). The shuttle depicted is also an anachronism, looking decidedly more TNG than TOS. Still, this is a spectacular piece of artwork, one of Keith Birdsong’s very best, and knowing me at roughly age 12, I’d bet that cover contributed significantly to my decision to pick it up.
- p. 33: McCoy checks out Uhura while they’re suiting up for snowbound shenanigans, but immediately chastises himself for it. Good of him to check himself—Uhura doesn’t deserve that male gaze and no one wants to have to grapple with the unpleasant thought of Bones as a dirty old man.
- p. 57: “The inside of [McCoy’s] mouth tasted filmy and bitter, and he was briefly reminded of the unsweetened lemon drops his grandfather had favored.” — I wasn’t too sure about these things. They sounded like a young person’s attempt to imagine the kind of candy old people eat. But a perusal of Amazon reviews, of all things, proved surprisingly enlightening. Sucking on sugar-free lemon drops helps prevent dry mouth! They come wrapped individually for easy pocketing! Eating too many of them can give you diarrhea! What a world we live in.
- Bones, p. 169: “Well, I don’t know about the Kitka, Nuie, but the McCoys never go down without a fight. Just ask the Hatfields.” — I can’t believe it took this many books for someone to make a Hatfields and McCoys reference. It’s so low-hanging and hacky, but also, like, how could you not??
- p. 179: “McCoy cursed luridly, coupling Muhanti’s name several times with physical feats one could only do if they were ten feet tall and possessed a double-jointed spine.” — I like to think I know a great sentence when I see one. And that, folks, is definitely a great sentence.
- p. 185: “Taking a few deep, shuddering breaths to steady himself, he clenched his jaw for strength and looked down to access the damage.” — This is the kind of language flub that if I heard someone say this in real life, I would spend the entire rest of my life laughing about it and dredging it back up at every available opportunity, because I am in fact a terrible person.
- p. 249: Chekov asks Uhura to create a distraction. I don’t think the weather on Nordstral will accommodate her usual tactic.
I give Ice Trap 3.5 out of 5 modified shuttles. The debut adventure from the L.A. Graf team is full of heart-stopping thrills, with hardly a single chapter that doesn’t end on a note of suspense. It also shows a mature understanding of several beloved bridge officers and their relationships. Ultimately, it’s a little less than the sum of its parts, but it’s still a good time from start to finish and an easy one to recommend.
NEXT TIME: Riker reconnects with his Imzadi