When Una McCormack was selected to write the first tie-in novel for Star Trek: Picard, one could only imagine the pressure she must have felt. The Last Best Hope is a prequel to the TV series and tells the story of how the plan to evacuate Romulus went so wrong.
For the record, I am a Picard fan. I decided to read The Last Best Hope as I rewatched season one, in preparation for the upcoming season two. I acknowledge the show had its faults (particularly in the last couple of episodes), and it is a much darker Trek than what we’ve had before. It’s not everyone’s cup of earl grey, and that’s okay.
Anyway, back to the book. My wife said to me once, “Sometimes you pick up a book, read the first page, and you just know that you’re in good hands.” That’s how I felt picking up The Last Best Hope. The first thing I noticed is how lovingly the book is written. The prose is neat and clean, and the story is nicely paced — not too fast, not too slow.
The plot goes like this: the Romulans, long time enemies of the Federation, are facing certain destruction as their sun is set to go supernova. Jean-Luc Picard, now an Admiral, leads a massive rescue effort. However, not everyone thinks Starfleet should burn the candle at both ends saving their old enemy. Furthermore, they face resistance from the Romulans themselves, who have a longstanding culture of fear and paranoia.
If the book has a theme, I’d say the following quote (which is used in the book) sums it up nicely:
It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.
— Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation
The main story thread involves Picard and his new XO Raffi Musiker tirelessly trying to save as many Romulan lives as possible. The pair, and all those involved in the rescue effort, really do nothing especially wrong. Yes, they take some risks. But they never stuff it up. The mission fails due to a confluence of events largely out of their hands. And yet, the failure utterly wrecks their lives. I guess, reflecting on the above quote, they get a solid taste of life.
Una McCormack does a stellar job introducing Raffi and building her relationship with Picard. The mission wreaks havoc on Raffi’s personal life, as she sacrifices her relationship with her husband and son to keep going, year after year, saving Romulan lives — even when they are less than grateful. Despite the unhappy ending, it was a joy to watch their camaraderie grow in the early stages of the book.
The Last Best Hope creates an essential bridge between the optimistic Trek of yore and this newer, darker take. We learn that most Federation citizens were in favour of helping the Romulans. But as the rescue effort dragged on and the costs piled up, support waned. Opportunistic politicians such as Olivia Quest found a way to capitalise on anti-Romulan sentiment. And then the synths went rogue on Mars, which was the final nail in the coffin for the rescue effort.
Bringing Jordie La Forge into the story was a stroke of genius. I didn’t know that his character would make an appearance, and the early scenes with him puzzling out the shipyard production issues were outstanding. It was a nice little bonus to have a character from The Next Generation TV series find his way into the book.
My favourite subplot was the one that focused on Earth scientist and astronomer Doctor Amal Safadi and her Romulan counterpart Doctor Nokim Vritet. Safadi discovers that the Romulan sun is going supernova faster than expected, and the effects will be bigger than expected. However, she can’t get this information corroborated by her Romulan counterpart, as the Romulan secret police (the Tal Shiar) keep getting in the way. The two characters never meet, and yet they feel connected. Vritet eventually goes full 1984 and buys into the Romulan propaganda, believing everything is fine. It’s a horrible, tragic and yet profound moment in the story.
Another plotline focuses on Agnes Juradi and Bruce Maddox. They create an army of non-sentient worker synths who populate the shipbuilding facility on Mars, churning out huge starships for the rescue effort. And then the other other plotline focuses on politician Oliva Quest, who leads a campaign to have the rescue efforts reigned in. Yeah, there are quite a few plotlines in this one.
Many themes from today work their way effortlessly into the story. Real-life Brexit, for example, was nothing but a thinly veiled manifestation of anti-refugee sentiment in the UK. In this story, a Brexit-like campaign is carried out by Olivia Quest and her cronies. Other themes such as climate change, misinformation, the importance of independent media and independent scientific research litter the pages. In many ways, McCormack wrestles with these big ideas better than the TV show — they’re woven into the story by the very nature of the action and events, rather than feeling tacked on and preachy.
In many ways, McCormack wrestles with these big ideas better than the TV show
Interestingly, the book isn’t afraid to drop an f-bomb or two. There is quite a bit of coarse language used. Those of us who remember the nice, family-friendly Trek of the 80s and 90s might find this a bit jarring. But then, like all things, Trek must move with the times.
My one criticism of the book is that the story seems to lose a little oomph in the second half. Many storylines peter out, shrinking into themselves rather than resolving satisfyingly. Jordie La Forge, for example, doesn’t do much once the shipbuilding plant is up and running. Picard and Raffi continue their mission with varying degrees of success until, finally, an unexpected event cuts their mission short.
It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. Maybe. But perhaps one last little juicy plot point towards the end of the book would have really wrapped up things nicely. For example, what if Picard ordered Jordie La Forge to give him an in-person report, and so Jordie left Mars (to visit Picard) just before the synth rebellion took place? Thus, Starfleet grew suspicious that Picard had prior knowledge of the synth rebellion. That would give them an extra reason to cut the mission short. What if Quest found this out, and used it as political ammo?
All that being said, The Last Best Hope still does a fantastic job detailing the events leading up to the show. The book is lovingly crafted with thoughtful detail, has an excellent grasp of character, and has a tone that complements its small-screen counterpart nicely. It’s balanced and considered, and for me, I like the TV show more for having read it. I’d say that’s pretty high praise.
In a few months, Una McCormack’s follow-up novel Star Trek: Picard: Second Self will be hitting the shelves, and I, for one, cannot wait to read it.