The Kestral Voyages, and their Star Trek roots


cover of The Kestral Voyages: My Life, After BerserkerThe novels of The Kestral Voyages are my most popular stories, hands down; not only my best sellers, but earning more comments, reviews and requests for more stories than any other novels I’ve written to date.

It’s not hard to guess why: When I created the series, it was originally based on the Star Trek universe, a story idea I intended to pitch to Paramount as the next Trek series after Voyager.  Though I made changes to fit it into its own universe, it still has many similarities to the Trek universe that is still so popular with fans.

So, what happened?  Well, it’s like this…

Back when Star Trek: Voyager was about mid-way in its run, everyone was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and knew Paramount would soon have to start prepping a new Trek series to take over when Voyager was done.  One day, a report went out that Paramount was actually asking for fan input about what the next series should be.  The expected response from the Trek community was, naturally, incredible, and Paramount was quickly flooded with Trek premises.

Personally, I believe this to have been a PR smokescreen: I don’t believe for a moment that Paramount was going to leave it up to Trekkies to decide what the next show would be.  I’d bet that, by then, they already knew what they planned to do—many of the seeds of the new series were already in place on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine—and may have, at best, mined the many letters they received for additional elements or subplots to add to their established premise.

But at the time, it naturally served to get my juices flowing; and, like every good Trekkie, I started thinking about a new Trek series.  I quickly decided that my series would revolve around the rarely-seen Federation animal, the entrepreneur.  Despite the “we don’t use money in the Federation” mantra, we’d seen people making a living as freighter captains, bar owners, traders, restauranteurs, etc, all the way back in the original series, through Star Trek: The Next Generation (and episodes such as “The Outrageous Okonna”), and into Deep Space Nine.  You don’t work jobs like that for nothing.  Clearly, there was a story here, one the existing Trek shows and movies refused to tell.   And I wanted to tell it.

So I conceived of a freighter run by some ex-Starfleet personnel (the captain, at least) and some civilians, flying around Federation space and maybe beyond, doing commerce and occasionally getting into interesting adventures.  They wouldn’t be hanging around Federation ships or outposts, and mostly they’d be solving their own problems without Galaxy-class starships showing up to save their bacon from Klingons.  They’d be spending their time with the civilian populations, the established worlds and colonies, and occasionally making cargo runs into the newly-established frontier worlds… the kind of life that non-military, non-Starfleet people generally have.

I even went to the source for my main character.  Carolyn Kestral’s character was originally based on Captain Anne Gauvreau, from the Star Trek novel Prime Directive: Anne was an ex-Starfleet officer who decided to quit Starfleet when she didn’t like her advancement prospects (she was passed over for front-line starship commands she thought she deserved—Star Fleet seemed to be actively avoiding putting women in front-line command positions), and go into business for herself.  Gauvreau was sharp enough to recognize a bearded James T. Kirk, when he was on the run following a disaster on Talin IV, and willingly bent a few rules to get Kirk as close to Talin as possible so he could try to fix the wrong done there.

In a way, Kirk represented my next crewmember idea, another ex-Starfleet officer who had developed a dissatisfaction with the way Starfleet ran things, and decided to go civilian.  These characters could provide the Starfleet connection to the audience, a sort of conscience, occasionally debating Starfleet’s wisdom in certain areas, regularly doing things that they knew Starfleet would refuse, on principle or by law, to do.

The rest of the characters were up for grabs, but I was aiming for a small crew for this freighter, four or five people that would always be involved in the story action.  With that, I sketched up a premise that, I thought, would have made a great TV series.  But as I said, I didn’t believe Paramount would actually consider any outsider’s show idea; and by the time I’d developed this, the word was already out that Paramount was swimming under a deluge of mail that was only surpassed by the original “Save Star Trek” writing campaign that so changed history in 1968.

So I didn’t send it in.  Before we knew it, we were hearing stories about the upcoming show, Star Trek: Enterprise.  Another show about another military ship.  sigh.

So, I had this story premise, and a yen to use it.  I came up with a general story outline; but before I put down a word, it occurred to me that I’d never be able to publish the story, being based in Paramount’s Trek universe.  If I ever wanted to sell it, therefore, I’d have to make changes to remove the trademarked Trek elements and make it original.

Well, I reasoned, if I can’t have it be like Trek, I could at least make it… better.  That meant ditching some of the baggage that Trek had come to be known for, and injecting what I thought were elements of a much better, more believable and more interesting universe.  After all, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek was created in the 1960s, a hybrid combination of the real science and physics we knew at the time, and the pseudo-science demanded of 1960s television narrative, further molded by budgetary limitations… Star Trek was hardly ideal, because it was a 1960s television production.  Being that I was writing in the 21st century for books, I didn’t have to be hobbled by those old TV tropes.

The first thing I addressed was the oft-ridiculed idea that all aliens were essentially humanoid, with very few exceptions; and that even on an initial meeting, almost all of them would be able to speak with the humans they encountered (in English, natch), see and hear the same things, eat the same foods, etc.  These aliens were generally presented as analogous to certain Earth nationalities, themselves caricatures of the peoples of reality.  Obviously this concept is great for television, but we can hardly expect to meet English-speaking humanoid aliens on every planet we visit.

Instead, I postulated a galaxy where humans had gone to many worlds and terraformed them to suit us.  I reasoned that many of those planets would not quite be capable of being turned into a human-standard world; so, humans would do the next best thing, altering themselves to fit the worlds.  Heavy-gravity worlds would see humans with augmented musculatures and bone structures, to handle the load… worlds with unusual chemicals in the air would see humans with altered lungs; worlds with varied light characteristics would see humans with adjusted eyes… etc.  In essence, all of them would be evolved from the human baseline, slightly different, but still essentially human.  This would mean that they’d still be able to speak the same language, eat the same foods (with a few dietary restrictions in some cases), breathe the same air, etc, and have a logical reason for it to be so.

I also decided to use a pet trope of mine: Humans whose ancestors had tampered with genetic manipulation before they were ready, resulting in offspring and their descendants who were jet-black in skin and albino-white in hair color.  These people, from any and all nationalities, would become known as “blacks” to the human population, and would in one fell swoop take away most of the animosity between Earth’s original races.  Since their parents were considered foolish to have meddled in genetic manipulation without being fully cognizant of their actions’ results, a stigma of ignorance followed blacks in the early days; but at the time of my stories, it was considered Old History and largely ignored or forgotten (much like the U.S. has moved on from its years of looking down upon certain immigrants who arrived on our shores, unprepared for life in the New World.)

After some additional thought, I decided that these people were descendents of the earliest Mars colonies, and that their efforts to genetically adjust themselves to Mars’ environment resulted in the “black” side effect.  Thereafter, my “blacks” were simply Martians, one more alteration from the human baseline and as instantly recognizable as many of the other augmented races.  More than the other augmented humans in my stories,  the black Martians would be my icon for the past days of racial hatred that the Human race had once embraced, and eventually seen sense and gotten over.

Already, I had a galaxy that made more sense than Trek’s TV-guided universe… and I liked it.  I ended up removing most of the aliens that were common to Star Trek, basically leaving me with a galaxy primarily consisting of baseline and augmented humans.  But I still had different worlds, different peoples, and plenty of potential stories for a freighter and the civilian population that they’d interact with.

One element I wrestled with was one that I personally don’t like, but that has become a mainstay of sci-fi literature and a major element of Trek: The warp drive.  Warp drive made it possible for ships in Star Trek to cross the galaxy as easily as we cross an ocean today; it brought exotic worlds to within a few TV-convenient minutes of each other, instead of a lot of unsatisfying years.  But because I’ve always doubted that it would work that way, I’ve never liked the conceit of warp drives. I liked the verisimilitude of either longer voyages, or worlds much closer together (or a more “realistic” way of traversing galactic distances, like the system I later developed for Verdant Skies).

But regardless of my likes, I knew the readers loved warp drives and all they implied, our future magic carpets to the stars, a Route 66 cosmos.  It was a scenario that Star Trek had made so commonplace that it was hard to imagine a space story without it, however crazy it was.  After much soul searching, I decided to leave in the warp drive, and just accept that that particular element of my sci-fi universe would make as little sense as everyone else’s.

After that, I put as much effort as I could into explaining how the civilian side of a galaxy-wide race of humans worked, from the inside of their freighter quarters to the outer aspects of politics and social systems as planets were terraformed and business was transacted.  I’d developed a universe that was aching to have stories told within it.

As it turned out, my new universe would share a number of similarities with the universe of Joss Whedon’s Firefly.  Especially ironic was that Firefly first aired while I was still working on the first story in my newly-formed universe.  After spending quite some time wondering how the hell Whedon had managed to tap into my private notes so clandestinely, I accepted our similarities as a classic example of two great minds thinking alike, and got back to work.  And even though Firefly was pulled off the air in no time, I never believed for a minute that it was due to a lack of quality or worldbuilding on the program’s fault, and could only have been a victim of television executives that couldn’t recognize a science fiction show without the recognizable elements made famous on shows like, yes, Star Trek.

My series was much more like Star Trek than Firefly was, so I reasoned (hoped) it would do better on the market.  Of course, Firefly became a cult hit, whereas my novels are barely known beyond a small but eager band of fans… so, you can’t just say Star Trek drives all success.  But in this case, if it hadn’t been for Star Trek, I probably would never have created The Kestral Voyages, nor enjoyed half the popularity I’ve experienced so far.


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