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Roundtable: Miracle Workers – remembering S.C.E. (Part 3)

In 2007, the Star Trek: Starfleet Corps of Engineers eBook series was put on a so-called hiatus – at the same time that Amazon introduced its Kindle, and other new eBook readers were being produced.

Does this unfortunate timing ever make editor Keith R.A. DeCandido wonder about what could have been had the series been given just a bit more time? “All the time, sadly. It frustrates me that they pulled the plug around when the Sony eReader and the Kindle started to show up – not to mention Nooks and iPads. In a lot of ways, what we were doing was about ten years ahead of its time.”

“Putting the line on hiatus came down to simple economics,” points out regular writer Dayton Ward. “They weren’t making enough money to justify the cost of continuing to produce more stories, and from what I understand, the series was never a real money-maker. With that in mind, I’m amazed it lasted as long as it did, and I’m happy someone at Pocket saw fit to allow it to continue for that length of time even if it wasn’t raking in big bucks.”

While the S.C.E. series was an eBook-exclusive at first, in 2002 Pocket Books started to reprint the novellas in paperback format, first in mass market paperbacks, later in trade paperbacks. Could those reprints have been hurting the sales of the eBooks, and therefore have played a role in the demise of the line? “It’s hard to say,” Dayton says. “I’m sure some folks preferring to wait for a print version versus buying the eBook had some effect, but from what I’ve been told, the eBook numbers never really sold in great numbers to begin with. For what it’s worth, any royalties I’ve received from the sales of our S.C.E. stories are as a result of the print compilations, not the eBooks themselves.”

Fellow writer David Mack doubts the reprints hurt the eBooks. “The reprints ran so far behind the eBook schedule that they more likely served to whet some readers’ appetites,” he points out, “and entice them into trying the eBooks so that they could enjoy new stories more quickly.”

Dayton’s writing partner Kevin Dilmore agrees. “I can say that in my conversations with readers and Star Trek fans, I have been told that many of them experienced S.C.E. first with the paperback reprints and then joined the ranks of the e-readers because they could not wait.”

So why were sales so low? “I think that people’s resistance to reading books on computer screens hurt the sales of the eBooks,” says Keith. The name of the series was another potential reason for lower than expected sales. “‘S.C.E.’ wasn’t a particularly well-known acronym and didn’t really say anything to the casual reader, which was, we felt, hurting us in the marketplace,” Keith remembers. “So we relaunched both the eBook line and the paperback line under the new, much more descriptive title.”

The relaunch sadly was unable to rescue Corps of Engineers, as it was known post-relaunch, and its hiatus has now lasted three years, but with a run of about seven years of almost-monthly entries it must have had an impact on the Trek lit landscape.

For Kevin, the line gave the Star Trek prose an almost TV-like feel missing in other series. “In some ways, I think the Corps stories came as close to capturing the narrative structure of a Star Trek TV series than any other line of Star Trek fiction,” he believes. “At its heart – I’m avoiding saying ‘core’ on purpose, that’s a Keith joke – the stories were monthly episodes of fun and thrilling adventures woven together over time by compelling and constantly developing characters in the hands of a large group of contributing writers. Sounds like good TV to me.”

“The series’ novella format was a definite plus, I think,” Dayton agrees, “as it really forced the writers to get on with telling the story, and each instalment had the feel of a television episode. They weren’t purely episodic or standalone, but instead came across in a way very similar to television shows like The West Wing or ER, where plot arcs can stretch the length of an entire season while individual episodes still present self-contained stories. In this regard, it was very different from anything else Pocket Books was putting out at the time.”

“The series had to be run like – and at times read like – a TV series,” agrees David. “Keith and John [Ordover, co-creator] acted as its showrunners – and later on it was just Keith – riding herd on their eclectic and unruly ‘writers’ room’ filled with us hacks. The result, in my opinion, was the most varied, unique, and dynamic Star Trek literary series ever produced. From one month to the next it could deliver action, comedy, mystery, hard SF, or drama, or any mix thereof. I can’t think of any other Star Trek book series with that kind of range.”

While Dayton doesn’t “know if it had any major lasting impact on its own, aside from presenting what I was a very engaging cast of characters involved with a wide variety of adventures told in a very lean, fast-paced fashion,” David on the other hand can think of several more reasons why the series did make an impact.

“Though the editors disagree with my use of the following analogy,” he reveals, “I always thought of S.C.E. as a great Minor League baseball club attached to a successful Major League franchise – a ‘farm team’ if you will, where new talent is auditioned and nurtured, and from which the most promising prospects are ‘called up’ to play in the big leagues.” Beyond its role as a breeding ground for authors, David also believes that “from a storytelling and style perspective, S.C.E.’s biggest impact on the rest of the Star Trek literature of its era was the dismantling of the ‘reset button’. Other literary-original series before it – such as Peter David’s acclaimed New Frontier and Michael Jan Friedman’s Stargazer - had paved the way for developing new ongoing series with original characters and situations. Unlike those series, S.C.E. employed a wide range of writers with different styles and interests, which made the S.C.E. novellas very diverse.”

Having been involved with the series for such a long time, all our interviewees have a lot of good memories about their time working with the crew of the da Vinci.

“Among my favourite moments of writing for S.C.E.,” David recollects, “would be the sensation of catharsis that I felt as I wrote the final lines of Wildfire and realised I had just created something worthwhile, something that was deeply personal and important to me; laughing as a I drafted the interrogation of Hawkins in Failsafe; and the declaration by the Koa leader in Small World, when he told the crew of the U.S.S. da Vinci, ‘To some, the idea of your Federation… is the beginning of hope’. That line, like the S.C.E. series as a whole, seems to me to capture the essence of what Star Trek is about.”

But most of the positive memories for all participants involved the creative process with their peers. “I used to love brainstorming story ideas with Keith over lunch, and with Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore via email,” David explains. “The four of us developed an easy rapport very early on in the S.C.E. series, and that carried over into our work together on the A Time To… miniseries and, in the case of me and Dayton and Kevin, the ongoing Star Trek Vanguard saga.”

“One of my favourite memories of such things took place in the hotel bar during a Shore Leave convention several years ago,” Dayton chimes in. “Dave was in the midst of writing Small World for the series, and was working on a scene with Tev and Sonya Gomez. He couldn’t decide how to end this scene where Gomez essentially is chewing out Tev. Now, bear in mind that comparing S.C.E. to M*A*S*H so far as the character dynamics are concerned was already a popular bit with Keith and some of us, and Tev in particular was meant to be a sort of riff on Major Winchester from M*A*S*H. Thinking of this during the conversation with Dave, I did my best impersonation of David Ogden Stiers and while referring to Gomez, had Tev say, ‘The poor girl obviously wants me’ or words to that effect. Everybody at the table had a good laugh over that, and Dave promptly informed me that he was stealing that bit for his story. The rest is in the eBook he wrote.”

“I loved watching the way things would develop unexpectedly,” Keith admits. “For example, Ian Edginton and Mike Collins threw in a tiny subplotty thing in Caveat Emptor about Gold’s granddaughter dating a Klingon. It was just a throwaway they were using for just that story, but it was sufficiently intriguing that we followed up on it more than once – including by me in Breakdowns - eventually leading down the line to having the pair of them getting married in Glenn Hauman and Aaron Rosenberg’s Creative Couplings, the first-ever Klingon-Jewish wedding! Another example was Ilsa J. Bick getting Lense pregnant. That wasn’t part of her original plot for Wounds, though she and I had discussed the possibility for a future storyline. I could have just told her to write it out, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. Unfortunately, William Leisner had already turned in the next story, Out of the Cocoon, and I had to sheepishly email him and tell him that he had to make a slight change. That worked out especially well, as Out of the Cocoon is considerably more poignant with Lense as an expectant mother. It also affected Terri Osborne’s Progress, because we decided to add Sarjenka to the cast as Lense’s assistant/replacement, so her spotlight on Gold guest-starring Sarjenka instead became the introduction of Sarjenka with Gold as a secondary character.”

“Of my many good memories about my time with the Corps, the best ones centre on the friendships and collaborative efforts that sprung from the writing,” Kevin agrees. “Of course, my work with Dayton is the greatest part of that, but also with Keith and John as well as many of the other writers. We made sincere efforts to communicate with contributors on either side of our instalments so we could incorporate and build upon their ideas in our writings, and we paid close attention to not jeopardise or undo their ideas for future stories either with big plot points or throwaway lines.

“On a number of occasions, Michael Jan Friedman has described the community of Star Trek writers to me as a fraternity that welcomes its members and looks out for each other. I love that sentiment, and to that end, I might describe the subset of Corps writers as a pledge class that has forged and still continues some fun friendships while fostering a great deal of professional respect among its members.”

With the recent releases of Out of the Cocoon and What’s Past, only eight novellas are left that haven’t been reprinted in paperback format, begging the question of whether the line has a future in one form or another once all the stories have been reprinted. “Anything is possible,” says David, “but given the changes in the editorial ranks, the shifting careers and priorities of the writers, and many other factors, I suspect it would be unlikely.”

Dayton has a bit more hope “Never say never, as the saying goes. I’ve heard nothing about S.C.E. from anyone at Pocket for a while now, but who knows? Now that eBook readers are becoming more common, and with all of the original S.C.E. titles still out there and available for purchase, I’m hoping somebody at Pocket’s keeping an eye on those sales numbers. Maybe sales one day will justify reviving the series.”

“Anything’s possible, absolutely,” echoes Keith, vowing that he “certainly intend[s] to bring up the possibility any chance I get”.

And if his pleas fall on receptive ears one day, he certainly won’t have to look long for authors. “Should publications of stories resume, I’m always open to helping to tell them,” Kevin promises.

“Kevin and I still have a couple of notions in our ‘idea file’ that we’d like to revisit one day,” smiles Dayton, “should circumstances allow, plus one day we still need to finally tell ‘the Tellarite Story’ once and for all!”

Until then, Corps of Engineers fans who haven’t read the eBooks yet can find ten new novellas in the recent trade paperbacks Out of the Cocoon and What’s Past.

Out of the Cocoon has four stories that continue the high-adventure theme, but also have stories that have personal impacts on several of the crew,” explains Keith. “Lense dealing with her new pregnancy, Corsi dealing with an unusual Prime Directive dilemma, Hawkins dealing with the aftereffects of the Dominion War, and Faulwell dealing with a very very personal crisis.

What’s Past was originally done for the fortieth anniversary of Star Trek in 2006, with six flashback tales that explored the pasts of various members of the cast – Gold, Scotty, Faulwell, Soloman, Gomez – with guest stars from all across the Trek tapestry: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, New Frontier, Vanguard…”

The 66 Starfleet Corps of Engineers stories were released by Pocket Books as downloads between October 2000 and September 2006, and collected in 13 print volumes between January 2002 and August 2010. The eight Corps of Engineers stories were released by Pocket Books between December 2006 and November 2007, as downloads only.

Jens Deffner has been with Unreality SF from the start in March 2008. After mostly covering the releases in the various Star Trek series with his reviews at first, over time he has started to cover a plethora of other tie-in lines and original series as well, including Supernatural, Doctor Who, CSI, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Scattered Earth. (To show how bad his tie-in addiction has become here's a dirty little secret: he has toyed with the idea of sampling the Murder She Wrote books.) Despite his obvious mental problems Unreality SF has also continuously let him loose on authors to interview them since September 2009, and luckily none of them have been injured in the process. He also represents Unreality SF on Twitter and runs the Unreality SF page on Facebook.

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