Baen Starline, 1998, 364 pages, C$31.00 hc, ISBN 0-671-87788-7
Nichelle Nichols did it. George Takei did it. Jonahan Frakes did it. James Doohan did it. LeVar Burton did it. And of course, William Shatner is still doing it.
No, not only play on “Star Trek”. All the above-mentioned people followed their stints as actors in that celebrated SF franchise by “writing” a science fiction novel. Now, let’s not fool ourselves by pretending that these brainy actors actually typed a whole 500-pages manuscript and sent it off to some publisher in hope that it would be picked up. No; far more logical, as Spock would say, to assume mercantile interest from both the actor, the publisher and some often-anonymous SF writer with a house to pay.
Baen books has pushed the celebrity-novel idea to what might be its limits with its “Starline” imprint. It’s a book collection specialized in celebrity novels. Diplomatic Act is their third title.
Historically, celebrity novels have never been of exceptional quality, and Diplomatic Act‘s greatest achievement might very well be that it does not suck.
Peter Jurasik is one of the stars of fan-favourite TV Show “Babylon-5”. He plays ambassador Londo, a representative of a glory-starved extraterrestrial race. Diplomatic Act‘s premise starts from there; a human playing a wise extraterrestrial ambassador is kidnapped by fiction-challenged aliens convinced that the ambassador is for real. Oh, and one alien stays behind to impersonate the actor.
At least two separate warning bells should ring loudly in your heads by now. First, the alien-among-us-trying-to-figure-out-humankind shtick has been done to death. First in the magazines of the Golden Age, then in the books of the sixties, and then on television ad nauseam. STARMAN, ALF, STAR TREK’s Data, etc… It’s not new, it’s not fresh and it should definitely be forgotten.
Second, the ordinary-human-is-whisked-off-to-an-alien-place-where- he-ultimately-wins-over-all cliché has also been done to satiety. Whoever plotted Diplomatic Act (whether Jurasik contributed something else than his name or not) didn’t waste any brain cells there.
Beyond the premise, the book drags on for almost half it length after a fairly zippy “behind-the-scenes-of-a-TV-Show” first chapter. While not exactly boring, the plot does takes a break in its first half.
So, it’s almost a surprise to find out that, after all, Diplomatic Act does manage to pack an entertaining amount of fun.
As the plot manages to start again, we’re gradually introduced to another dynamic arc that suddenly ties up the narrative together. The heightening of tension slowly sucks you in until the book concludes.
What also helps is Keith’s talent in creating believable advanced civilizations. Too many inferior SF writers will just say “hyperspaceship, nanotechnology and antigravity” and expect us to believe in an immensely advanced civilization. Keith backs it up with competent-sounding jargon and interesting philosophical issues. (Though these tend to be solved far too easily.) Obviously, Keith knows his hard SF, and if Diplomatic Act is lighthearted, at least is sounds okay.
Furthermore, the novel is definite entertainment. Unlike other novels which will remain nameless, Diplomatic Act does talk about the Grays and other aliens, but does it tongue-in-cheek, even putting an intriguing spin on the mythos. We’re there to have fun, and Keith’s having fun with us.
It may strange to praise a novel by saying that it doesn’t suck, but that’s the most apt qualificative for Diplomatic Act. It doesn’t do much for the advancement of the genre, relies on stock premises and simply competent writing, but can be read with a certain amount of pleasure. Not bad for a celebrity novel.