Star Trek: The Face of the Unknown
Set during the latter half of the original Enterprise’s five year mission, Christopher L. Bennett’s novel The Face of the Unknown is a sequel to the Original Series episode “The Corbomite Maneuver.” That episode introduced the diminutive Commander Balok and his enormous orb-ship, The Fesarius. “The Corbomite Maneuver” is a terrific early episode of The Original Series, with a wonderful twist ending. But by leaving the reveal of Commander Balok until the very end of the episode, we don’t actually learn much of anything about Balok or the people he represents, who call themselves The First Federation. Enter Christopher L. Bennett and The Face of the Unknown.
In the novel, reports of First Federation attacks on nearby planets send the Enterprise on a quest to locate Commander Balok’s mysterious people. What Captain Kirk and his crew discovers is astonishing: the giant-headed puppet that Balok used in an attempt to intimidate Kirk and the Enterprise in “The Corbomite Maneuver” was in fact a representation of an actual alien race, gone for millennia but now returned to seek vengeance on those in the First Federation who they believe had wronged them.
As I noted above, “The Corbomite Maneuver” gave us only the barest of hints about the First Federation and Commander Balok’s people. The episode was thus ripe for a follow-up, and Christopher L. Bennett has done an impressive job of exploring this alien society, fleshing out its people as well as its social structures and history. I have always been impressed, in his novels, by Christopher L. Bennett’s attention to detail, and the way he is able to expand upon those small details to fill in backstory and to answer questions that I never even knew I had. That talent is once again on fine display here in this novel, as he has used a variety of small references and suggestions from “The Corbomite Maneuver” to flesh out a fascinating new alien culture. I loved reading about the First Federation’s hidden “Web of Worlds” (a vast, interconnected refuge for countless different alien races, hidden deep within a gas giant planet), and I enjoyed the way that Mr. Bennett developed several of the different races who make up this society. The Web of Worlds is a fascinating concept. It fits logically with what we knew of the First Federation from “The Corbomite Maneuver” while also expanding upon Balok’s people in fascinating new directions. (I also enjoyed how the description of the Web of Worlds sounded, in a very clever touch by Mr. Bennett, very reminiscent of the interlocking dome design of the Fesarius, as seen in the book cover image above.) I was even more taken by the very interesting idea that Balok’s dummy wasn’t just a random image, but that it was actually a representation of a real alien race. I enjoyed Mr. Bennett’s exploration of this race, called the Dassik. That the novel builds to an attempt to bridge the gap between ancient enemies, the First Federation and the Dassik, gives the book a classic sort of Star Trek message that I like to see.
The Face of the Unknown also contains some interesting character developments for various Enterprise crew-members. Probably the most dramatic is the exploration of the idea that Spock is beginning to feel himself at a crossroads in terms of his Starfleet career. Spock has found a home in Starfleet, and as he has succeeded he has risen up the ranks. But Spock has no desire for command of a starship, and so his success now presents him with a quandary — what to do next, if being a starship captain does not interest him? Has his Starfleet career reached a dead end? Is it time for him to consider a different path? This was an interesting, and somewhat surprising, story point. I’d always thought of the five year mission as probably the happiest (perhaps I should say “most satisfactory,” considering we are discussing the Vulcan Mr. Spock) period in Spock’s life. This is the time in which he has not only found a true family for himself, but is also at the forefront of exploration and the expansion of knowledge. And so I’m not sure I was quite sold on the idea that, at this point in time, Spock would be feeling loneliness or dissatisfaction. I assume Mr. Bennett included this story point as a way of planting the seeds of Spock’s decision to pursue Kolinahr, the abandonment of all emotion in the quest for perfect logic, as seen at the start of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Myself, I’ve always assumed that Spock’s choice to attempt Kolinahr came from something that happened at towards the very end of the five year mission (which is what I believe was suggested by the “Lost Years” series of Trek novels from several decades ago, though it’s been so long since I’ve read them that I am not sure). The idea that Spock spent the last year or two of the five year mission unhappy (perhaps that is again too strong a word for Spock, and instead I should say “dissatisfied”) is surprising and a little unsettling to me. Still I was intrigued by Mr. Bennett’s exploration of this story point here in this novel.
I also enjoyed seeing the mention of Chekov’s relationship with Irina (as seen in the late-in-the-third season Original Series episode “The Way to Eden”), and the revelation that Chekov, too, has been wondering if it is time for him to leave the Enterprise. At the end of the novel, we learn that Chekov has temporarily departed the Enterprise in order to undergo advanced security training. This, too is a connection to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, at which point Chekov has moved from ship’s navigator to security. At the end of the novel, we also learn of the arrival of new crew-members Arex and M’Ress, two characters who appeared on Star Trek: The Animated Series, which was set towards the end of the original five year mission. (In the “acknowledgements” section at the end of the novel, Mr. Bennett notes that Chekov’s departure and Arex’s arrival were depicted in James Swallow’s novel The Latter Fire, which Mr. Bennett suggests takes place immediately after the events of this book. I haven’t yet read The Latter Fire (though it’s on my to-read bookshelf), but I appreciate Mr. Bennett’s efforts to maintain continuity with other Trek novels, not just the canonical Trek TV shows.)
I should also note, while we’re discussing continuity, that the novel’s title is actually a reference to a line from “The Corbomite Maneuver.” It’s what Kirk says to Lt. Bailey before they beam over to the Fesarius at the end of the episode: “The face of the unknown. I think I owe you a look at it.” This is a nice touch by Mr. Bennett!
I noted above that the novel’s main thrust is about bridging the gap between old enemies, in this case the First Federation and the fearsome-looking Dassik. In broader strokes, the novel is also about the importance of communication, about not judging someone by their appearance, and about the necessity of different people being able to work together and live together. These don’t seem like controversial topics, and yet, the book’s strong emphasis on these ideas give the novel a distinctly political feel, coming out as it did shortly after the election of our current president. The book was, of course, written before the election results, but even so, the book’s having been written during the course of last year’s contentious political campaign seems to have certainly influenced Mr. Bennett’s story. I wonder how conscious this was.
For myself, I quite enjoyed The Face of the Unknown. There have been quite a number of recent Pocket Books Trek novels that had served as sequels to individual Trek TV episodes. Any connection to a classic Trek episode is always fun, but it’s particularly worthwhile when the novel breaks new ground, allowing us to explore and develop ideas or concepts or characters beyond what we saw in the original episode. The Face of the Unknown succeeds in this admirably.
Previous Star Trek novel reviews:
Star Trek – Unspoken Truth , Troublesome Minds, Cast No Shadow, Excelsior: Forged in Fire, Allegiance in Exile, Legacies Book 1: Captain to Captain, Legacies Book 2: Best Defense, Legacies Book 3: Purgatory’s Key
Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Sky’s The Limit, Resistance and Q & A, Before Dishonor and Greater than the Sum, Destiny trilogy, A Singular Destiny, Losing the Peace, Immortal Coil, Cold Equations Book 1: The Persistence of Memory, Cold Equations Book 2: Silent Weapons, Cold Equations Book 3: The Body Electric, The Light Fantastic, Takedown, Armageddon’s Arrow, Prey Book 1: Hell’s Heart, Prey Book 2: The Jackal’s Trick, Prey Book 3: The Hall of Heroes
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – DS9 relaunch overview, The Soul Key, The Never-Ending Sacrifice, Plagues of Night and Raise the Dawn, Section 31: Disavowed, The Missing, Sacraments of Fire, Ascendance, Force and Motion
Star Trek: Enterprise — Kobayashi Maru, The Romulan War: Beneath the Raptor’s Wing, The Romulan War: To Brave the Storm, Rise of the Federation: A Choice of Futures, Rise of the Federation: Tower of Babel
Star Trek: Typhon Pact – Book 1: Zero-Sum Game, Book 2: Seize the Fire, Book 3: Rough Beasts of Empire, Book 4: Paths of Disharmony, The Struggle Within (e-book), Plagues of Night and Raise the Dawn, Brinkmanship
Star Trek: New Frontier – Series overview, Stone & Anvil, After the Fall, and Missing in Action, Treason and Blind Man’s Bluff
Star Trek: Mirror Universe (Books 1 & 2) – Star Trek: Mirror Universe: Shards & Shadows – Star Trek: Mirror Universe: The Sorrows of Empire — Star Trek: Mirror Universe: Rise Like Lions – Star Trek: Myriad Universes (Books 1 & 2) – Star Trek: Myriad Universes: Shattered Light