David Mack interview
When we last interviewed David Mack in September of 2008, his Star Trek Destiny trilogy was about to be released. Given that he spent 21 months working on the trilogy, he was, of course, especially curious how the project would be received. Now, over a year later, he is pretty content with the response to the trilogy, despite some warranted and unwarranted criticism. “I’ve received a lot of really complimentary fan mail from readers of the trilogy, and, last I’d heard, all three books were continuing to sell well – better even than expected,” he reveals, sitting down to talk to us for a second time. “There have also been some very negative reactions to the trilogy, of course. Some of them I haven’t agreed with, but others I admit have merit. In hindsight, there are some things I wish I had done differently, but the work is what it is, and I remain happy with it.”
After the demanding writing process, others might have taken a break, but David Mack never slowed down. 2009 has seen the release of new stories for both Star Trek (For Want of a Nail in Mirror Universe: Shards and Shadows) and The 4400 (Promises Broken), not forgetting his first original novel The Calling. But the year isn’t over yet, and David holds a year-end rally on the bookshelves.
David’s newest Star Trek Vanguard novel, Precipice - the fifth volume in the series he co-developed with former Pocket Books editor Marco Palmieri - was just released. David took a different approach to writing in the Vanguard setting this time. “Precipice… represents a temporary change of pace in the series,” he reveals. “I chose to take a more intimate look at the lives of just a few of the principal characters, to examine the effect that the saga’s events to date have had upon them. At the same time, I sought to include the action-and-adventure elements that have been a staple of the series.” That approach led him to a particular set-up for the novel. “What I ended up with were two parallel main narratives plotted on a collision course, as well as a few ancillary subplots.
“The first major story arc was about recovering alcoholic Cervantes Quinn coming to grips with his grim past as a mercenary while on an undercover mission for Starfleet Intelligence with Lieutenant Commander Bridget McLellan, who had been established in Reap the Whirlwind as the second officer aboard the 14-person scout ship U.S.S. Sagittarius. On a remote planet, Quinn and McLellan find evidence of a Shedai Conduit. Unfortunately, the Klingons have also found it and sent an entire army to stake their claim to the planet and excavate the artifact.”
But despite all this off-station action, Starbase 47 won’t be forgotten. “Back on the station, Rana Desai is coping with her grief over the apparent death of Reyes, Admiral Nogura is learning how perilous a juggling act commanding Starbase 47 really is, and everyone adapts to working with the new Starfleet Intelligence liaison – T’Prynn’s successor, a middle-aged Andorian named ch’Nayla.”
In our last interview, David hinted at his tentative plans for this novel, but said that they would be in flux until he had read the preceding book, Open Secrets. So, how many of his original ideas have survived, and how much have the events of Open Secrets changed his plans? “Well, much of my core idea for the two main story arcs remained intact, despite some major changes wrought by Dayton Ward to the series’ status quo in Open Secrets,” he reveals. “The T’Prynn/Pennington storyline evolved organically to mesh with the events in Ward’s book, which also inspired a caper-style sequence in the middle of Precipice.”
Not all the characters and plots evolved the way David imagined they would, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “As with previous instalments in the Vanguard saga, Open Secrets forced me to change my preconceived ideas about where many parts of the series were headed – and in a way, that’s a good thing,” he ponders. “It’s nice to be surprised by the story, sometimes.”
One major example of a major change in the series that wasn’t part of the original plan is the replacement of Diego Reyes by Admiral Nogura as Starbase 47′s commanding officer. “The change of command was not planned at first but rather something that sprang from the depths of my subconscious as I was shaping the story for [the third book,] Reap the Whirlwind,” David reveals. “In that book, I saw that I and Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore had been heaping stress and pain on Reyes, as if we all wanted to see what his breaking point was. Well, in Reap the Whirlwind, I found it.
“The cliffhanger ending of book three led to a conversation between myself, Dayton and Kevin, and editor Marco Palmieri, who at that time was still the guiding editor on the saga. We talked about what Reyes had done at the end of the third book, and what the fallout likely would be. After considering how various outcomes would affect Reyes as well as the people around him, not to mention what would be a plausible reaction by Starfleet, the decision was made to have Nogura brought in as an interim commander who then inherits the position on a permanent basis after Reyes is convicted in a court martial and sentenced to ten years in prison.”
Comparing the two officers, David muses that “the differences between Reyes and Nogura are interesting and subtle. Although the admiral is not quite so obsessive about secrecy as Reyes was, he is still a shrewd and ruthless operator. Nogura is more controlled and less emotional than Reyes, and less likely to make impulsive mistakes. However, he shares Reyes’ penchant for staying the course, no matter the consequences, and he is at heart a soldier and a strategist.”
One element of Star Trek lore that won’t have any influence on the Vanguard series, despite occupying the same timeframe, is J.J. Abrams’ 2009 movie Star Trek. “Because the 2009 feature film established that it is set in an alternate reality – a parallel universe – the official line from our editors and the licensor is that the ‘Star Trek Prime’ universe continues to exist, unchanged, in its own, separate reality,” David clarifies. “Unless we are told otherwise, I and the other Vanguard writers will continue to tell our stories in the setting of the original series and stay true to its aesthetics and continuity.
“In fact,” he adds, “I’d say Vanguard owes more, in terms of its tone and style, to Ron Moore’s re-imagined Battlestar Galactica than it does to J.J. Abrams’ retooled Star Trek.
“As for the continuity elements that predate the alteration of the timeline, the fact that we don’t have canonical names or details for some of the alien species we were shown makes it difficult to incorporate them into the established original Star Trek setting. While it’s possible that we might in a future Vanguard novel see an Admiral Robau, don’t expect to see any aliens patterned after Keenser or the large-eyed nurse from the Kelvin.”
Marco Palmieri, the former editor and co-developer of the Vanguard series, was laid off last December. One might think that David, the sole developer still involved in the creative process of the series, would have taken over some quasi-editorial duties, but that isn’t the case. “No, my editor on Precipice was Margaret Clark,” he says, “who prepared for the task by reading the entire series up to that point, which at that time included Dayton Ward’s manuscript for Open Secrets, fresh from the laser printer.” But sadly, that wasn’t the last change in the editorial side of the series. “In July of 2009, after I’d finished writing Precipice, Margaret met with me, Dayton and Kevin to plot out the next two epic instalments of the Vanguard saga. She subsequently gave me feedback on the finished manuscript of Precipice before she, too, was unfortunately laid off from Pocket Books at the end of August 2009.”
But despite all the stones thrown into their way by the effects of the financial crisis on the publishing industry, both David and the writing team of Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore remain determined to keep the series’ steam up. “Currently, I am talking with Dayton and Kevin about where we next want to take the series. We have some ideas, and I’ve written up some notes that I’ve sent them for their feedback, but we haven’t made any final decisions yet. Once we work out our plans, the next step will be to submit our proposal for more Vanguard novels to the current Star Trek fiction editor, Jaime Costas, who will take on editorial responsibilities for the series if she chooses to acquire more books for it.”
As for where the Star Trek novel line as a whole is heading after the upheavals of the last 12 months, David is unsure, but remains hopeful. “All I know for certain as of this [interview] is that a capable new editor, Jaime Costas, has been named as the acquiring editor for the Star Trek books, and I hope to have the chance to work with her on new Star Trek fiction in the near future.”
One partial consequence of the editorial changes of the last year is David’s next Star Trek novel to be published: The Sorrows of Empire, the expanded version of his critically acclaimed short novel from the 2007 anthology Mirror Universe: Glass Empires. “The reasoning [for publishing an expansion of an existing story, instead of an all-new novel] was partly logistical, partly budgetary, and partly a matter of editorial preference,” David explains. “After the layoff of Marco Palmieri, editor Margaret Clark inherited responsibility for the entire line of Star Trek fiction, in addition to her many other duties and projects as an executive editor. She needed to get up to speed quickly on a number of series with which she had only passing familiarity – among them Vanguard and Voyager - and she also needed to fill slots in the 2010 schedule with great haste.
“To get a finished novel into a slot for which there was little lead time (and for which another project had, I think, fallen through), Margaret asked me to expand my well-received Mirror Universe short novel into a full-length mass-market paperback. This worked well for Margaret,” he elaborates, “because it required paying less than the cost of an all-new novel; the project was half written, meaning I would be able to finish the expansion in less time than it would take to write a new book; and she and I both felt there was more that could be done with the story if I had the time and the word count to attack it. So she gave me that chance.”
The fact that the novel is an expansion of an existing story might lead to scepticism amongst readers as to whether the new version is worth buying. What, in David’s opinion, makes the new Sorrows a worthwhile read? “The first reason is that the new novel is more than twice the length of the original, clocking in at around 92,000 words.” But quantity isn’t everything, so David has made sure to improve the existing material, too. “In the course of adding new material, mostly in the form of new chapters, I have also taken the opportunity to streamline much of the original work. In some cases this was done to mesh old and new material; in other cases I was addressing stylistic issues, tweaking my word choices, or otherwise applying the lessons I have learned in the last few years since I wrote the original.”
The expansion has also given him the chance to explore some plot elements and characters which were sidelined in the short novel in more depth. “I’ve plumbed deeper into characters other than Spock,” he reveals, “and I’ve detailed at least one event from each of the 28 years spanned by the story. Marlena’s point of view is given greater examination, and I’ve worked to better integrate the characters who previously had made only cameos – in particular, Saavik and, to a lesser degree, T’Prynn from the Vanguard series.”
Before expanding The Sorrows of Empire, David had updated readers on how Spock’s plan was fairing in the Next Generation timeframe in his short story For Want of a Nail, in the Mirror Universe anthology Shards and Shadows. And David hopes to show us the final outcome of Spock’s plan, too. “I have a proposal for precisely that story on the desk of editor Jaime Costas right now. So if fans would like to see that story someday in the near future, it would be a good idea if they bought lots and lots of copies of The Sorrows of Empire.”
While the new movie won’t have any influence on his work on the Vanguard series, that doesn’t mean that David won’t be involved with its new timeline, as his 2010 novel More Beautiful Than Death will be set in that alternate universe. He kindly gave us a little teaser for the novel…
“The Enterprise crew is ordered to escort Ambassador Sarek to a dilithium-rich planet called Akiron, which has sent out a planetary distress signal. When the Enterprise crew reaches Akiron, they find that the planet is under siege by dark-energy creatures that some of the planet’s more religious denizens believe are demons. In short order, one calamity after another puts our heroes in jeopardy. Sarek begins trying to pull diplomatic rank so he can pull the plug on the mission, and young Captain Kirk must fend off this unexpected challenge to his still-fragile command authority.
“As Kirk sinks himself, his crew, and his ship deeper into danger with each passing minute, he finds his own beliefs in a rational universe challenged by a mystic who insists it’s no coincidence that has brought Kirk to Akiron but rather the alien equivalent of a Karmic debt. Meanwhile, one of Sarek’s young Vulcan aides has a sinister agenda – and its chief objective appears to be the cold-blooded murder of Spock.”
The novel features familiar, yet unfamiliar characters, so how hard was it to not fall into the trap of relying on what he knew about those characters from the “Prime” universe? “Actually, it proved much easier than I had expected. I had a lot of fun watching the new film, and I saw it several times on the big screen. Consequently, when I sat down to channel its characters and its attitude onto the page for More Beautiful Than Death, it was easy to hear Chris Pine’s incarnation of Kirk, or Zachary Quinto’s version of Spock, etc. I also kept myself in the right frame of mind by listening to the film’s score repeatedly while I was working.
“As for unlearning what I had learned of the original, ‘Prime’ Star Trek universe, that also was easier than I had expected. For once I didn’t need to worry about each bit of trivia or history. As long as I stayed true to the film I had just seen, I knew all would be well. It was actually kind of liberating, to be honest,” he admits. “All the fun of Star Trek with none of the minutiae.”
As for the main differences between writing for this timeline in contrast to the familiar TOS line, David highlights “the new backstories of the characters’ lives – Kirk’s delinquent adolescence and his swift rise from cadet to captain, for one thing – and the new continuity, especially the destruction of Vulcan.” But there are even more important differences in his opinion. “The biggest adjustment is learning to hear the tone and the attitude. In this version of Star Trek, the characters are sassier, funnier, feistier, more hot-tempered. It also is more consistently action-focused than philosophical, a big shift from the original series.”
There will be four novels set in the new movie’s alternative reality – Alan Dean Foster’s Refugees, Christopher L. Bennett’s Seek a Newer World, David’s More Beautiful Than Death, and Greg Cox’s The Hazard of Concealing - published back-to-back between June and September. Was there any communication between the authors to keep the characterisations and details as cohesive as possible? “I’ve had some limited communications on the subject with Greg Cox and Christopher L. Bennett,” David says, but he insists there was no need for any overly close cooperation between them. “We’ve not really had to worry about coordinating our efforts on these books as we have on other series. There isn’t supposed to be any interbook continuity between these four novels. Our marching orders were to make each one a standalone adventure and to put all the toys back in the box just the way we’d found them. All we had to be mindful of was staying true to the tone, characters, and continuity of the new film.”
Despite the fact that the makers of the movie are working for Bad Robot, a company which is independent from CBS (who own Star Trek), there won’t be another step in the approval process. “To the best of my knowledge, the approvals process for these books remains the same as for all other Star Trek books: it has to pass muster with its editor and the licensing executive, currently John Van Citters, at CBS Television Consumer Products. No one affiliated with Bad Robot is currently involved in the tie-ins approval process, so far as I know.”
After his excursion to the new timeline, David returns to the Prime universe in November with his contribution to the Typhon Pact miniseries, Zero Sum Game. Despite it being a long time until the novel hits the shelves, David gives us some insight into his plans for the novel. “To be honest, as of December 2, 2009, I haven’t even started writing it yet – though I plan to start any day now, I promise. What I can tell you about Zero Sum Game is that it will be a tense, action-packed science-fiction spy thriller that focuses on the Breen Confederacy, and that it will feature Captain Ezri Dax and her crew aboard the U.S.S. Aventine, as seen in my Star Trek Destiny trilogy.
“If I give you any details beyond that, Pocket Books has ninjas who will come to my house and kill me in my sleep,” he laughs.
The Breen are one of those Star Trek races who, whilst mentioned regularly and featured in a number of episodes, were never really fleshed out and benefited from little world-building in either canon or the novels – but that is about to change. To give the readers some more background information on the Breen is “the plan, yes – to go deep inside the culture of the Breen, into their cities and their private lives, to go beneath the snout masks and see what’s going on with these enigmatic aliens. In fact,” David reveals, “that was the inspiration not only for this book but for the entire Typhon Pact miniseries. I was standing around the Pocket Books offices one afternoon in late 2008 with editors Ed Schlesinger and Marco Palmieri, and we were talking about the alien races involved in the Typhon Pact that author Keith R.A. DeCandido had established in his novel A Singular Destiny.
“I expressed a desire to write a Star Trek spy thriller,” David explains, “one set inside Breen space, and then the three of us began volleying ideas about what the show had said of the Breen, and how I might develop the idea. And then Marco and Ed saw the potential of a series of books, with one focused on each of the major players in the Typhon Pact.” The changes in the editorial office at Pocket Books could have threatened to derail the project, but luckily that wasn’t the case. “After Marco was laid off in early December 2008 (wow, has it really been a year?), I and some of the other authors worried that the Typhon Pact miniseries might perish with his departure. Fortunately, Margaret chose to go forward with it, and she at least got it to the stage of outlines and contracts before her own unfortunate layoff this past August.”
Zero Sum Game has been billed as an Aventine novel on Trek literature websites, a designation that’s not entirely accurate. To begin with, the novel “will not have an Aventine logo. All the books in the miniseries will be branded as Star Trek: Typhon Pact, or maybe The Typhon Pact - I’m not sure if the editors plan to retain the definite article in front of the title. Although Captain Dax and the Aventine figure prominently in the story, I should probably drop this hint right now to nip wild speculations in the bud: they are not the stars of the story. However, I’m not going to confirm or deny at this early date who my main character really is. You’ll all just have to wait and find out in 2010.”
While the novels of the Typhon Pact miniseries will have some linking elements, they’re designed to be readable individually, too. “Each book is intended to be a standalone; you don’t have to read any one of these to understand any of the others,” David explains, and continues that “there will be some subtle cross-referencing of events, and there is an overarcing story for the miniseries. That narrative will not be referenced in my book so much as felt, like subtext.”
As you can see, the next 12 months will be another good year for David Mack fans, and knowing David’s productiveness and energy, it wouldn’t be surprising if one or two additional projects were to be added to his agenda in the near future.
Star Trek Vanguard: Precipice is in stores now, The Sorrows of Empire will be available within a month, and both More Beautiful Than Death and Zero Sum Game will hit the shelves in 2010.