For years, I wanted to create a sci-fi series… a sort of “comfort project” that I would enjoy working on over time. The Kestral Voyages became that series, a unique combination of serious science fiction and adventure elements designed to make a fun read. But how it came together is a story in itself, because it was originally supposed to be an entirely different series.
And if I’d played my cards differently, it might have been the series that would’ve made me famous. (Shows what I know about card playing.)
During the last season of Star Trek: Voyager, Paramount studios announced that they would be making a new Trek series, but wanted to take ideas from Trek fans on what the setting of that new series would be. Trek fans were quick to respond to the challenge, and I was no exception.
I started upon designing a new Trek series, but not another space-warship discovering monsters and riddling out esoteric physics phenomena, as all the past series had done. I wanted a series that would show the civilian side of the Federation, something we’d gotten only in tiny spoonfuls over the years. I wanted a series about regular people, carving out a living (and hopefully having some cool adventures) in Federation space.
Television has plenty of examples of such shows, which I won’t enumerate here; but interestingly, where the original Star Trek was described as “Wagon Train to the Stars,” my series would be a lot like “Rawhide to the Stars.”
I took my inspiration from the Star Trek novel Prime Directive, in which James Kirk was introduced to Anne Gauvreau, a former Starfleet officer who, tired of her superiors refusing to give her a major command of her own by virtue of her simply being female, resigned her Starfleet commission to become a freighter captain instead. She was capable, intelligent and shrewd, but she was also perfectly happy captaining her own freighter and going wherever time, tide and freight shipments carried her.
I based Captain Carolyn Kestral on Anne Gauvreau. I also altered Kestral’s reason for leaving Starfleet, since discrimination in the Star Trek universe isn’t quite what it used to be: Instead of having her quit from frustration of not being given a ship of the line, Commander Kestral was dosed with an alien virus during battle, a virus that was supposed to turn her into a berserker killing machine, a space-Hulk intended to wipe out as much of her surroundings (and fellow officers) as possible before her body burned out and killed her.
The catch: The virus never triggered; but Starfleet’s medical experts couldn’t remove all of the virus, either. Because a trace of the virus remained in her, her fellow officers and crew were always concerned about the possibility of her being triggered by a moment of stress or anger (though her medical record did not indicate that as a possibility at all). Concern became discrimination, and she was unable to rise to Captain or command a ship. So she resigned her commission, and bought a freighter.
Having established my main character, I went about creating members of her small crew. First was a pilot, possibly an alien, possibly from Mars, also an ex-Starfleet man, who had disobeyed orders to save civilians; and was given an honorable discharge so a superior could save face. He was wrongly treated, but since ultimately he did the right thing, he wasn’t concerned about how others saw him. His character would give Kestral a connection to their former service, as well as someone who could remind her that they were civilians now, but through no fault of their own.
Next I wanted a couple, a burly engineer from Earth, and an alien wife. Their being married was most significant here: Inter-species marriage is something Star Trek has mostly paid lip-service to, but rarely shown in its various series. I wanted them to help ground the series as well as representing Trek’s credo of infinite diversity in a family dynamic.
And finally, I added a character who would take over some of the cargo holds and grow their own food on-board. I saw this as a further way to return to humanity’s roots—so to speak—and give a socially- and ecologically-minded audience the familiar look of farm-grown foods and sit-down dinners in a galley-kitchen. Thus, I had created an extended family unit, working together, bringing different perspectives to situations they encountered, and getting into as many domestic scrapes as external adventures.
So, here’s the thing: I’d created all of this, with the original idea of sending it to Paramount to see if they’d bite at a new series, and achieve fame, fortune, all that stuff. When I suddenly came to my senses. I realized that the whole “choose our next series!” bit was exactly the kind of PR thing a studio would do to keep audience excitement high while they readied their next series. In fact, I was willing to bet everything I had that at the time of the initial announcement, Paramount had known for some time exactly what they intended to do for the next series, were probably already setting everything up and building set pieces, and were only shy of actual cast members to begin production.
(As proof of my theory, I offer Star Trek: Enterprise, a premise that was so much lamer than I-don’t-know-how-many other series pitches I heard in online forums and such. You guys at Paramount had some great ideas sent to you. That you chose to do Enterprise clearly demonstrates that you had no intention to even look at all the other ideas out there. More’s the pity.)
I further reasoned that a studio that would pull this stunt on Trek fans would also not be above stealing an idea I sent to them and not giving me credit—or payment—for it. Faced with this reasoning, I decided not to send Paramount my idea; it was too good to be wasted by them.
But the premise I’d cooked up had good bones, and I didn’t see any reason to waste it myself. I would write my own stories. However, I couldn’t write Star Trek stories, because I didn’t have the rights to them, which meant I couldn’t sell them. So I decided to make alterations to the names, places, races and universes depicted in my premise, and create an original universe for the characters to cavort within. I wrote The Kestral Voyages: My Life, After Berserker, set in a universe that was similar to the Trek universe (though really more similar to the Firefly universe… that’s another story) and released it to comments and reviews that were decent enough to convince me I should write more.
This was, quite probably, the biggest mistake of my life.
What I should’ve done was to write the stories set in the Star Trek universe, then offered them online to everyone for free. It would have earned me no income… but as free Star Trek fanfic, the stories could have garnered more attention from the world’s many Trek fans, in much the same way that 30 Shades of Grey, originally written as Twilight fanfic, became a worldwide phenom. If my books had become popular, they could have earned me a fan base that might’ve propelled my non-Star Trek novels… and that might’ve actually made me some coin.
To date, I have sold more of the three Kestral books than any other series or standalone novel I’ve written. Not that that’s saying much: The grand total of sales from the Kestral series wouldn’t get me and my wife a single meal in a decent restaurant. But it suggests they would have been even more popular as free commodities. In short, taking out the Trek elements and selling the novels only served to rob me of the best opportunity to become known in science fiction circles.
I effectively self-strangled my own writing career.
And coming to that realization, I’m still wondering whether I can do anything about it. As in: Should I rewrite the Kestral novels back into the Trek universe and offer them free to anyone who wants them? Is there a possibility that the series could still take off and gain big popularity? Is this a good time to do it, with a new Trek series right around the corner?
Or is it already too late? Is the Karma train long gone, never to come back this way again?
As I’m presently busy trying to lock down a full-time job (anyone need a front-end web developer? Drop me a line), I won’t be doing any writing anytime soon. But assuming I find a job in time to continue living in the manner in which I’m accustomed, it’s entirely possible that I’ll eventually go completely insane and decide to write once more. And if so, the rewrites of the Kestral books are one possible project. Feel free to weigh in on the matter; unlike Paramount, I haven’t made up my mind yet.