Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Best and the Brightest

Star Trek: The Next Generation
The Best and the Brightest by Susan Wright
Published February 1998
Read August 14th 2015

Previous book (TNG publishing order): #46: To Storm Heaven

Next book (TNG publishing order): Planet X

Spoilers ahead for The Best and the Brightest!

From the back cover:
Every year, Starfleet Academy in San Francisco attracts many of the most talented and ambitious young people in the Federation. They come from all over the Alpha Quadrant, from hundreds of worlds and species, to prepare themselves for the challenges of the final frontier. 
Meet a new generation of cadets: a newly joined Trill just beginning the first of many lives; a Bajoran vedek who finds himself torn between his vows and an unspoken love; a reckless young man fond of pushing the limits; a feline alien raised among Humans; a brilliant but immature young woman with a lot to learn; and a native-born Earth woman with a talent for engineering. 
Together they will learn about courage, life, teamwork, and themselves. Their future is just beginning—but one of them will not survive!

My thoughts:

I first read The Best and the Brightest years ago when it first came out. I was in high school at the time, and I suppose that much of what the main characters were going through echoed a lot in my own life. Looking ahead to college and what I wanted to eventually do with my life, I found myself facing the same problems that confronted the cadets in this novel. What if what I chose ended up not being what I wanted to do? What if I failed? What if the expectations I set for myself or that others set for me turned out to be too high? Reading this novel years ago helped me to confront those questions, though I may not have been entirely aware of it at the time. All I knew is that this story spoke to me on a basic level, and I developed a fond remembrance of The Best and the Brightest.

So, re-reading The Best and the Brightest years later, how does it hold up? Truly, I am torn.

I did enjoy the re-read, mostly through the lens of nostalgia. I remembered loving the characters and enjoying the exploration of the heady days of young adulthood when the entire world lay before me. Since first reading this novel, I have had a wonderful amount of life experiences (with still much more to come, hopefully). Looking back with a more experienced eye, it was a little harder to identify with the characters and where they were in life, which detracted from the experience somewhat. That's not to say that these issues aren't still a part of my life; they really are, even though I'm at a much different stage than I was all those years ago.

The cadets at Starfleet Academy contend with their own life decisions as well as the political goings-on of the galaxy at large.

While I enjoyed the story and the characters, I couldn't help feeling that there wasn't quite enough there. The story flies through the years, jumping from one situation to the next, and never lingering long enough on the individual stories to give us a complete picture of the lives of the cadets (with a couple of exceptions). With six different characters to explore, I could have used a more deliberate pace, allowing us to go beyond the fast impressions we get. That said, if the pace were more deliberate, would my fifteen year old self have been as enamored with this book as I was? Maybe it is just written more for the young adult sensibility, and I have to make my peace with that.

Even with the fast pace, there is a lot to recommend the story. I really enjoy the interactions among the characters, and the insight into the wider world of the Federation from a perspective other than the Enterprise or Deep Space Nine was very interesting. The novel takes place over a tumultuous period in Star Trek history, tackling things like the discovery of the Bajoran wormhole, the loss of the Enterprise-D, the rise of The Maquis, the introduction of The Dominion, and much more. It is a crossroads in Federation history, and The Best and the Brightest gives us a unique perspective on these events. The cameos by familiar characters such as Jadzia Dax and Guinan serve to tie the story to the wider Trek universe as well.

A dark moment in Star Trek history takes on an even deeper meaning for the characters in this novel.

Finally, I have to acknowledge one aspect of the story that I absolutely loved, both then and now. In The Best and the Brightest, two of the cadets enter into a romantic relationship. Moll Enor and Jayme Miranda, both female, go through the same things that any two people go through during young love: crushes, awkwardness, and silly, day-to-day concerns. These days, this is far less out of the ordinary than it was for fifteen year old me. This was the first exposure I had to a same-sex relationship that seemed just as "normal" as any other. None of the other characters batted an eye, and it was treated as genuinely as any other romantic relationship. Since those days, I have learned terms like "heteronormativity," and I understand now how big a deal this story was and how much it helped to shape my values and beliefs to this day. So, for this reason as well as the enjoyment I got out of reading this novel: thank you, Susan Wright. You made a difference in my life.

Final thoughts:

While the story may have lost some of the luster it had when I first read it seventeen years ago, it remains a fun story with characters I truly came to care about. It taught me about friendship, love, grief, and the importance of recognizing the importance of people who are different from me, and about the validity of another's experience, all lessons that resonate in my life to this day. While I would have appreciated a slower, more deliberate pace and, ultimately, more time with these characters, I can't fault the story for playing to its audience. Adolescent me was very thankful to have read this story, and adult me was happy to rediscover it.

Also by Susan Wright:

My next read:

Next week: the much-anticipated new release by Kirsten Beyer: Voyager: Atonement!

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