#173: Starfall (TNG YA #8)

This week, when Jean-Luc fails his Academy entrance exam, his father squashes dreams of further attempts like grapes underfoot. But the young Picard is convinced he’s seen the last of the summer wine. Will Jean-Luc buckle under the twin weights of tradition and parental expectation? Is everything better under the sea? And what exactly is Louis getting up to with those twins? All this and more in Starfall, the book where you find out who your true friends are.

Starfall
Authors: Brad & Barbara Strickland
Pages: 111
Published: October 1995
Timeline: 40 years before “Encounter at Farpoint”
Prerequisites: Mild familiarity with Picard’s immediate family (Robert, et al.) is advised but not strictly necessary

“Jean-Luc Picard was a failure.” Pow! With that whopper of an opening sentence, the stage is set: Picard has not been selected for Starfleet Academy, and his father Maurice is quick to put the kibosh on his son’s desire to retake the exam. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t recognize the boy’s genius. In fact, Maurice has a surprise for Jean-Luc: he plans to buy a plot of land east of the vineyards and make a white wine to add to the repertoire of award-winning Chateau Picard wines—and he wants to put Jean-Luc in charge of producing it. But Jean-Luc doesn’t want that life and continues to pine for the stars, making Maurice angry and his brother Robert resentful.

While Jean-Luc plans his next move, his friend Louis drops by with a fascinating opportunity: a one-week tour of an experimental undersea lab in the Mediterranean that could potentially be parlayed into a career. Jean-Luc sees it as the perfect time to sneak off and reapply for the Academy in person, and does so at a local branch in Paris. Soon after, Maurice’s Picard Noir wins a major award, validating his no-tech approach, and his newfound notoriety gets him invited to speak at a seminar in California. While Maurice is away, Jean-Luc is summoned to the European Testing Center, where he learns that only one applicant will be chosen to move on to the Academy…

Extrapolating a vision of Picard’s youth from the small slice of La Barre life The Next Generation gave us in season four’s “Family” is a clever idea, and among the authors who have contributed YA efforts to this point, Brad Strickland is one of the better choices to ensure it works. He’s joined on this occasion by his wife Barbara; both were teachers when they wrote this book, which gives them valuable insight into how to communicate with and reach kids. It’s a leg up that serves them very well, enabling them to put together a story with realistic, down-to-earth concerns that’s as adult as any of the mainline novels.

There’s so much tender meat on Starfall‘s bones that it makes the ones that are just like “tRaPPeD iN a ViDeO gAmE” look that much worse by comparison. Starfall tackles a boatload of mature themes and handles them all with remarkable finesse. In just over one hundred pages, the Stricklands take on big ideas like the weight of parental expectation, sibling rivalry and resentment, and the fear that doing something for yourself that you know is right for you might be selfish or keep someone else from achieving their dream. It also gets into the economy of decision-making—i.e., how everything you do costs someone else something, whether it’s negligible or major. This is pretty heavy stuff for this book’s demographic, but it never pulls its punches.

Best of all, the pacing is absolutely perfect, like a meal where each course comes out the exact moment you finish the one before it. No four pages of rushed climax here—the flow is impeccable. Ironically, it is in fact the action bits that are the least exciting. A lot of the tension built up by the filial drama kind of goes out the window once he’s actually at the testing center, and although the announcement that only one applicant will advance to the Academy tries to pump a little suspense back into the proceedings, it still feels like basically a foregone conclusion. Jean-Luc does have a run-in with family while at the testing center though, and unsurprisingly, it’s the most gripping moment of the second half.

Starships and aliens and fantastic technology are always cool, and there’s always a place for those things in Star Trek. But if you wanted to show a curious kid, maybe one who’s a little mature for their years, what Star Trek is capable of beyond all that, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better example than Starfall. Except for one Betazoid, aliens are barely part of this book at all. This is one hundred percent human experience, an exploration of inward frontiers rather than galactic ones. Just like the episode it takes its setting and characters from, Starfall proves that Star Trek doesn’t always have to go planet-hopping to find rich veins of drama.

MVP & LVP

  • The MVP in a YA Trek book is almost always the protagonist, and this week is no exception. Jean-Luc stands up for his dreams in a way I wish I’d had the confidence to when I was his age. I think this book would have hit a lot different if I’d first read it when I was eleven or twelve.
  • Dual LVP this week for a pair of sisters: the Bloom twins, Kim and Misty. Jean-Luc’s friend Louis Blanchard appears in “Family” to convince Picard to lead the New Atlantis Project, and here shows up now and then to try to convince Jean-Luc to go on this or that jaunt with the three of them. They don’t do much of anything except hang off of Louis’s arms, really, though they’re nice enough. Incidentally, I don’t think this implication was intentional, and it doesn’t factor in to why I gave them LVP, but I got the feeling every time Louis popped by that these three had been off having a ton of sex. “Why don’t you join us, Jean-Luc? Kim and Misty would love for you to come. Uh, along. Come along with us. Ahem. Anyhow, what do you say? Do it with th—I mean, do it for them. Do it for them, Jean-Luc!”

Nuggets & Stray Bits

  • “If everything had gone exactly right, if all the hard, hard work paid off, the juice would become a world-famous wine, just like Picard Noir.” — If you can read the words “Picard Noir” without belting them out like Titus Andromedon, well, then you are far more capable of exercising restraint than I. (p. 7)
  • “He had already decided to do his essay on the work of John Devlin, a twentieth-century poet and writer. Devlin’s books Where Youth and Laughter Go and When Duty Whispers Low had changed a lot of Jean-Luc’s ideas regarding war.” — Oh man! More extracurricular reading? I still haven’t gotten to the Sheckley stuff yet! Although there is a chance that this could be one of the rare cases where an author made up a historical figure from whole cloth, as Google doesn’t seem to be terribly forthcoming with info about either of these works. They sure sound real enough, though. (p. 61)
  • I think it’s worth pointing out that STARFALL is an anagram of ALL FARTS. I apologize in advance for breaking the internet.

Final Assessment

Excellent. The Stricklands score another big win on the Star Trek YA front, taking on themes much more profound and mature than what you usually find ’round these parts, and absolutely nailing them with outstanding writing and an enviable grasp of pacing. There are feelings in this book that even adults struggle with, and it’s as good as any novel intended for grown-ups—better than a good chunk of them, even. So far, if I had to recommend only one Starfleet Academy book to check out, it’d more than likely be this one.

NEXT TIME: Lieutenant Worf reports for duty in The Way of the Warrior

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2 Comments

  1. Adam Goss

    Louis was more than mentioned by name. We see him in TNG “Family”, he has two or three scenes with Picard.

    All Farts? Seriously? Bad reviewer. No Biscuit.

    Seriously tho, good review and I’m adding this one to my wishlist.

    • jess

      D’oh! Corrected. For some reason all I think of when I think of that episode is Picard and his brother rolling around in the mud and then Picard having a breakdown.

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