#118: The Great Starship Race (TOS #67)

This week, a race of anime-eyes people learn they’re not alone in the galaxy and hold a race to their planet to celebrate. But when a Romulan ship enters the contest, its commander is determined not to fall for those puppy-dog eyes a second time. How fair is it to make things fair? Are the Romulans sitting on some primo blindness-curing tech? And who honestly thinks the South will rise again? All this and more in The Great Starship Race, the book that’s part of a complete down-home breakfast.

The Great Starship Race
Author: Diane Carey
Pages: 308
Published: October 1993
Timeline: After “A Taste of Armageddon” (S1E23)
Prerequisites: None

The people of the planet Gullrey are sponsoring a starship race, their first gesture of goodwill to the greater galaxy since the USS Hood made first contact twelve years prior. The Rey’s event draws contenders from all over the Alpha Quadrant, including the Enterprise and a handful of other Constitution-class ships. Some civilians are salty that Starfleet gets to participate, but the Starfleet crews agree to run at 80 percent of full power and have some of their more advantageous accoutrements removed, a show of good sport that will definitely at no point bite them in their butts.

When the Romulans show up wanting to play, Kirk gets cheesed at the race committee for not taking a firmer stand against them and demands to meet their commander. Said commander is one Valdus, the lone survivor of a disastrous encounter with the Rey nearly three-quarters of a century before. The Rey boarded the Romulan vessel, and at first everything seemed hunky-dory, even weirdly joyful. But a communication breakdown caused frustration to set in, and violence soon erupted. Valdus escaped and destroyed the ship in his wake. Hailed as a hero but burdened with the true knowledge of the circumstances, Valdus now seeks to confirm that the Rey are the selfsame species he met in his youth—and vows to destroy them before the Federation can weaponize their terrible secret and bring the full force of it to bear against the Romulan Empire.

Debate has long raged over the true extent of the military nature of Starfleet, and no one is a bigger proponent of that point of view than Diane Carey. Rare is the opportunity to flex her history-buff muscles that she takes a pass on. The Great Starship Race is no exception, inspired as it was by a trip to the Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race in Baltimore, as well as more generally by her love, experience, and encyclopedic knowledge of sailing. But the thing about military history is it’s one of those things where you have to keep people who are a little too into it at arm’s length. And Diane Carey is one of those people.

The writer Diane Carey most resembles, as I see it, is Peter David, in the sense that both are authors who possess massive reserves of pure, raw talent, but have unfortunate tendencies that regularly undermine that talent and threaten to derail otherwise outstanding novels. In PAD’s case, it’s usually the sex stuff. I’ll take that eight days a week, however, over the hole Carey digs for herself, which typically is to endorse something that either makes her and her characters sound like pipe-smoking Ward Cleavers or is otherwise politically problematic. This book suffers from the latter by expecting the reader to feel bad for a character who deserves far less sympathy than the actual antagonist. More on that—much more—later.

Let’s try to focus on the good qualities, which are … well, everything else, really. The race itself is a great concept, and not just because it’s loads of fun; it’s easy to pile up the exploits of the Enterprise and take them at face value, but pitting it against other ships really brings into sharp relief why it’s the best of the best. There’s lots of excellently written camaraderie, particularly among Starfleet officers, and Carey can write an assembly scene with an effortlessness that frankly makes me jealous. Valdus and his subcommander Romar rank among the best Romulans in a novel to date, earning sympathy even as they make strides toward their ultimate goal of Rey genocide.

This is a real romp of a book—lots of exciting action setpieces, cracking dialogue, and good old-fashioned fun. Sometimes it can get a little too old-fashioned, but it’s hardly any reason to write off a story that does so many other things right. It seems like Carey had a lot of fun with this one, and that’s when she’s at her best; not when she’s trying to lecture readers or impress them with obscure nautical jargon, but when she’s just plain having fun.

MVP & LVP

  • My MVP this week is Dr. McCoy, entirely because he spends most of the book aboard the Ransom Castle, which in just a second will make this award self-explanatory. 
  • LVP of the week, maybe of the entire past calendar year, is Nancy Ransom. Nancy is the captain of the privately owned mining freighter Ransom Castle, as well as the main opponent of Starfleet’s participation in the race. Early on she’s revealed to have washed out of the Academy and blamed Kirk for coming up short, and though she’s rather unpleasant, you might allow, as I initially did, that maybe they’re being unnecessarily mean to a woman in a male chauvinistic sort of way. But then we find out she stans the Confederacy, and quickly realize that if anything, they weren’t harsh enough. It makes you wonder why she gets so huffy about Starfleet being in the race—if she rides so hard for the Stars & Bars, she should be used to being a loser! Armed with this information, it’s hard not to mentally hear the dog whistles coming from certain passages—e.g., when her first mate Mike Frarey is thinking about all the reasons the Ransom Castle crew loves having her as a captain, and one of them is “Add that she was one of their own kind” (p. 129), which is awfully hard not to read as “white”. She’s also not “quite convinced the Confederacy lost”, an opinion often held by people who are dumber than drywall. But for Mike, that’s “enough to keep down-homers [i.e., racists] like [him] signing on season after season” (ibid.). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nancy also regularly acts against her best interests, and Bones has to practically pull teeth to get her to do anything that will ensure her crew’s survival. I have not hated a character as much as I hated Nancy Ransom in a long, long while. It’s sad when a Romulan planning to genocide a planet by turning a ship into a giant bomb is a more sympathetic character than the captain of said ship, but that should show you how little quarter I give to supporters of a faction that threw a giant diaper-filling tantrum because they couldn’t own other humans as property.

Nuggets & Other Stray Bits

  • Cover Art Corner: As you might have noticed from the picture above, this is the first TOS novel without the triple-pinstripe rounded border around the cover. End of an era. Sad face.
  • For some reason, many (though strangely, not all) chapters contain subheadings that tell you where that passage is taking place. These are completely unnecessary. I can tell well enough from context where a section is set. Sometimes within the first or second sentence! These are really aggravating.
  • Memory Beta identifies the Romulan on the cover as Valdus, but based on the description in the book, it’s very clearly Romar. Boy, I sure hope someone got fired for that blunder. #GeniusAtWork
  • No Diane Carey Trek novel is complete without a cool piece of supplemental material, and though it’s no hand-drawn ship diagram, the race manifest is still pretty rad:

    Of particular interest is a name toward the top of the list. It’s cool to imagine that it’s that Hunter, but unless she was born on Proxima Beta where they typically roll with just one name, or she piloted a ship prior to the Aerfen that we don’t know about, it probably isn’t her. (p. 50)
  • Kirk, responding directly to the accusation of the unfairness of Starfleet’s participation in the race, p. 36: “Fairness doesn’t get anybody anywhere. Every running river knows that. Some rocks get washed away. Some hold their ground and eventually they turn the tide. Why run a race where everything’s ‘fair’? You’ll never know how you did.” — I don’t know what this is supposed to mean in this context or accomplish constructively. Meant simply in the spirit of fun and sport, it just sounds like he’s taking the contest way too seriously; but if it’s supposed to also somehow to apply to life and the wider universe at large, which the hard dense ball that forms in the pit of my stomach when I read the passage makes me think it may, then that’s even worse, like, “Okay, calm down there, Ayn.” But beyond that, it just feels plainly incorrect. I’ll grant that “fairness” is a vague and highly subjective term, but I believe that fairness, applied properly, would get at least some people somewhere without depriving those who don’t need the boost of any substantial material wealth. Also, comparing people to rocks doesn’t track. Carey is indulging in anthropomorphization, ascribing active abilities to passive objects that are fully subject to the whims of indifferent forces nature. Rocks don’t have agency—but people do. I’m not totally sure what Carey is driving at here, but I’m reasonably confident I don’t like any of it.
  • “Here you go. Bonafide one hundred percent gen-u-wine downhome Confederate breakfast.” — Or as we call that in 2020, the Loser’s Special! (p. 126)
  • Romar is revealed to have been blind as a child. I sincerely doubt TOS-era Romulan medical science could cure a kid’s blindness so comprehensively while the best the Federation of TNG could do was the VISOR, but I suppose stranger things have happened. (p. 175)
  • “Kirk knew what it was like to lose one of his crew, even a finger off the hand of one of his crew.” — Is this just a general reference to James Doohan’s hand, or to something that happened in the show or one of the movies that I’m not remembering? I feel like it’s the former. (p. 211)

Final Recommendation

I recommend The Great Starship Race. I can’t even with characters who rock the rebel flag in the 23rd century, much less today, but aside from that blemish, The Great Starship Race is both a lot of fun and an inspired use of Diane Carey’s peccadilloes and proclivities. The pages go by quickly for the most part, with exciting action setpieces and the brisk camaraderie of friends and line officers pushing things along at a nice clip. I didn’t talk about the Rey much, but they’re an interesting species as well, even if their overwhelming desire to be just like their best buddy Earth reeks strongly of wish fulfillment. As more action-oriented Trek goes, it does rank among the better efforts.

NEXT TIME: Hate leads Data to the dark side in Descent

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#117: Guises of the Mind (TNG #27)

4 Comments

  1. Adam Goss

    As a friend of mine once said to me, some authors have “a squid in their mouth”. As stated on a page at the SFWA webiste:

    “The failure of an author to realize that his/her own weird assumptions and personal in-jokes are simply not shared by the world-at-large. Instead of applauding the wit or insight of the author’s remarks, the world-at-large will stare in vague shock and alarm at such a writer, as if he or she had a live squid in the mouth. (Attr. James P Blaylock)”

    Methinks Carey has a squid in her mouth pertaining to not just military history but also the Civil War and Confederacy (which is even weirder when you take into account she’s from Michigan…!). I’m afraid the whole business with Ransom and her crew will make me take a pass on this one. (The thing about Kirk and “fairness” doesn’t make a good impression either.)

    • jess

      It is really good ….. IF you can let that kind of thing slide (and it’s totally understandable if you can’t).

  2. DGCatAniSir

    There was a bit when I last read this that stuck in my craw – a minor crewman mentions being afraid, and Kirk snaps at them to get off the bridge because of it. It just never really struck me as a Kirk thing to say or do, even in a crisis. I think of him hearing that and offering something of a “fear’s natural, but don’t let it act for you” pep talk. Even if pressed for time, I don’t see him taking an officer off duty for that admission.

  3. Adam

    I’m certainly not trying do defend the Confederacy or, by extension, slavery (I mean seriously!)… But I do think you have to set this book in context, less than a decade removed from the fan-favorite Dukes of Hazzard series in which The South was seen as a cultural way of life rather than a set of ancient and prejudiced political beliefs. Even your description of the meal makes it seem that Diane Carey is equating “Confederacy” with “Southern style.” And if we *really* want to get into the politics of it all? Then one can certainly state the case that The North was not actually against slavery at all; slavery made money for them. Instead, it was the newly-formed Republican Party and the newly-elected Republican President that was absolutely against the expansion of slavery into the Western territories that put a dent in that outdated practice. The South felt with the recent election, they had lost power and influence and ultimately decided to secede.

    Anyway, you could never convince me that Carey is pro-slavery or would make any claims that the Confederacy Was Right. It is my belief she simply created some Southern characters “with personality” who, in 2020 hindsight, are “problematic.” (It is also noteworthy that she herself is a Republican with Libertarian leanings.)

    The passage about fairness seems bizarre and, upon reading your review, I am not a fan of the author’s gist. However, I would need to read it myself in order to make a real decision about Carey’s intent.

    With all of this said, I actually own a copy of this book. I purchased it a few years back – along with stack of other Pocket Trek novels – from a fantastic used bookstore, and, yep, I’m actually looking forward to tearing into it; I’ve loved Carey’s work since I was a kid. Dreadnought!, Battlestations!, and Best Destiny are among my favorite Star Trek books.

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