Local author is the No. 1 authority in the “Star Trek” universe

Local author is the No. 1 authority in the “Star Trek” universe
By Jeff Shannon
Special to The Seattle Times

Jeff Ayers was 13 when he bought James Blish’s “Star Trek 1,” the first of 13 short-story anthologies adapted from episodes of the popular TV series. As he indulged his fascination with the future envisioned by series creator Gene Roddenberry, Ayers had no way of knowing he was glimpsing his own future as well.

Most people know “Star Trek” from five TV series, one animated series and 10 feature films (with “Star Trek XI” due in 2008), but it has also inspired a publishing phenomenon of galactic proportions. Since “Star Trek” premiered in 1966, Roddenberry’s original concept has spawned the most expansive realm of imaginative fiction in the history of the printed word. Nearly 600 “Star Trek” books have been published to date, with many more to come. Just ask Ayers — he’s read every one of them. As the author of “Voyages of Imagination: The Star Trek Fiction Companion” (Pocket Books, $21), he is now the top authority on “Star Trek” in print.

Though Ayers once wore a Mr. Spock costume for Halloween, he doesn’t fit the Trekkie stereotype. At 41, he lives with his wife and two children in Shoreline and works at the Magnolia branch of the Seattle Public Library.

Like most fans, Ayers was drawn to Rodenberry’s hopeful vision of the future, but as a voracious reader he gravitated to “Star Trek” fiction to further explore an imaginary universe that appealed to his sense of wonder. The “Star Trek” series and movies were a tasty appetizer, but for Ayers, the books provided a full-course feast.

“As a fan I’d read the ‘Star Trek’ bulletin boards online,” says Ayers. “People were asking the same questions I had about [the need for] a guide to ‘Trek’ fiction. The concept for the book flashed in my head, and I wondered if anyone would ever write it.”

Ayers ended up writing it himself — a two-year labor of love published last November to coincide with “Star Trek’s” 40th anniversary. Current as of December 2006, it’s a useful compendium for fans that’s long overdue. While previous similar proposals had been rejected by Pocket Books (the division of Simon & Schuster that publishes all authorized “Star Trek” fiction), it was Ayers’ pitch that got him the job. “What most people had been proposing was an encyclopedia of characters from the fiction, but I wanted to interview the authors and create a history of the novels themselves,” Ayers recalls.

“Jeff hit all the right notes in terms of the structure and content we wanted the book to have,” writes Pocket editor Marco Palmieri via e-mail. “As an experienced researcher and devoted reader of ‘Star Trek’ fiction, he had the right qualifications for such a colossal undertaking.”

And colossal it was. Ayers read or re-read every “Star Trek” book in his ever-growing collection, and spent his evening and lunch hours tracking down hundreds of “Star Trek” authors, from the most prolific to those who could barely recall what they’d written.

The result is a tome the size of a big-city phone book, providing not just an exhaustive guide to “Star Trek” fiction but also a revealing glimpse into the publishing industry that surrounds it — an occasionally turbulent history of good ideas and bad, hacks and gifted prose stylists, and editors responsible for ensuring that “Star Trek” fiction isn’t sucked into a worm-hole of historical contradictions.

In the beginning

James Blish’s books weren’t the first inspired by “Star Trek” — that distinction goes to “Mission to Horatius,” a young-adult novel written by Mack Reynolds and originally published in 1968. (Reissued in 1999, it’s still in print.) But the Blish books and subsequent “Star Trek Logs” (adapted from the animated TV series by Alan Dean Foster) had proven the potential of “Star Trek” publishing, first at Bantam (which published “Trek” fiction until 1981) and later at Pocket, which reached its peak of “Trek”-related output in the mid-’90s (when “The Next Generation,” “Voyager” and “Deep Space Nine” were thriving on TV). It still publishes original “Trek” novels at the rate of one per month, spanning virtually every parsec of the established “Star Trek” universe.

Which brings us to the frequently misunderstood concept of “canon” in “Star Trek” — that is, the occasionally challenging relationship between “Star Trek” on TV and film and the expanding histories of “Trek” fiction, which now requires a routinely updated timeline (included in Ayers’ book) to organize a seemingly infinite array of fictional possibilities. In order for “Star Trek” to maintain its narrative integrity, authors and editors must follow some basic rules of continuity.

“There’s always been room to play as far as I’m concerned,” says Michael Jan Friedman, a prolific author of “Trek” novels and comic books who wrote the first “Next Generation” hardcover and also created “Starfleet: Year One” and the “Stargazer” book series, which chronicles Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s first (i.e. pre-“Next Generation”) starship command. “I’ve never tried to reinvent ‘Star Trek,’ so I’ve always been given a fair amount of freedom.

“On the other hand,” says Friedman, “if the new movie goes where I hear it might, it will contradict canon, and we’re going to be torturing ourselves to fit everything together.”

Expanding his universe

While editors and authors continue to wrestle with the “Star Trek” timeline, Ayers is gradually advancing his writing career. He launched a Web site (www.voyagesofimagination.com ), where he’ll showcase his freelance work and review “Star Trek” fiction. And he has begun a writing partnership with Kevin Lauderdale, a published “Star Trek” author with whom he’s currently writing a thriller for young adults. Naturally, they’re preparing to pitch Pocket Books with some “Star Trek” ideas of their own.

“Fiction is the forgotten stepchild of ‘Star Trek,’ ” says Ayers, “but if it wasn’t for the books, I don’t think ‘Star Trek’ would still be thriving. ‘Star Trek’ lives in the books.”

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