Another year, another collection of Star Trek stories, by fans and for fans. Yes, it's Strange New Worlds VIII, and it follows the same rules as all of the others (including Strange New Worlds VII). It's a collection of stories written by authors who do not have much, if anything, published. Dean Wesley Smith (with help from Elisa J. Kassin and Paula M. Block) choose the stories that will be included from hundreds of submissions, and they usually make some good choices. As always, not all of the stories work, but they all have something to them that shows us why they were chosen. Unlike last year's edition, however, I disagree with one of the prizes.
The grand prize winner is "Alpha & Omega," by Derek Tyler Attico. This is a huge story about the fall of the Federation to the Borg, how Admiral Janeway and Captain Picard have kept fighting, trying desperately to figure out some way to defeat the Borg. An attempted infiltration of the Borg by Picard and Seven (along with Janeway and Worf), goes horribly awry, and only Janeway's forethought and Dr. Crusher's ability save them from being wiped out. We then discover the true reason Q spent so much time with Picard, and how his ultimate mission has failed. Yet when the end comes, it eventually leads to a new beginning. I was really impressed with this story, and its Grand Prize award is well-deserved. Attico gets the characterizations of our heroes perfectly, with just enough changes to reflect the fact that everything they have known and loved has fallen down around them. Picard still shows some compassion to those drones who are assimilated against their will, and Janeway (along with Seven) is the Borg expert. The ending is perfectly fitting, as the cycle of life and the universe begins again.
The second prize winner is "Concurrence," by Geoffrey Thorne, and it is another "Speculations" story. I can't say too much about this one without spoiling both twists, but I will say that it involves a race from what appears to be beyond the galaxy, having retreated their after a time in the Alpha Quadrant, who have been fascinated with Earth for many years (and the reason for it is logical, so don't roll your eyes about another alien culture fascinated with Earth). They detect a weak distress signal from a planet and send a ship to investigate. They discover what appears to be a Vulcan research installation with all of the inhabitants killed. Could it have been the Dominion? And what about the one Vulcan woman they find alive, in apparent stasis? What's her secret? And will the ship and its crew survive once the secret comes out? This story surprised me as it doesn't have any of the "regulars" in it, but it does have a very concrete tie to the Star Trek universe. It's not apparent for a while, though (except the Vulcans, of course), but it's well worth waiting for. Thorne gives us interesting characters and a puzzle to solve. Even when we discover the truth about one side, the revelation of the other just makes the story even better. Thorne's prose is also quite good, making the story interesting and keeping the reader entranced. It's not quite as good as the Grand Prize, but it gets an acceptable Second Prize.
My choice for the Third Prize, however, would be different. There's nothing wrong with "Final Flight" (a story about Picard trying to deal with Data's death in Nemesis and whether the android B4 will ever make a substitute), but there was one story I liked better. Perhaps it's because I'm one of the biggest DS9 fans around, but I loved "Gumbo," by Amy Vincent. It's a wonderful little story (almost intimate) that takes place very shortly after the finale. Vincent tells the story of how to create Gumbo for your friends and how to host a dinner party that gives your grandfather a little bit of peace about what has happened to his son, who is now with the Prophets. Told in an instructional way ("Take the vegetables you've bought - onions, celery, bell peppers, and okra - and start chopping."), it also has other instructions in it ("Watch Worf swallow the tabasco as though it were water, then give you a pitying look you obviously deserve.") as well. Vincent manages to capture all of the characters beautifully through Jake's eyes as he prepares the gumbo dinner party for all of his friends, and most importantly, for his grandfather. I had a tear in my eye at the end, even knowing that Ben Sisko will eventually be back. This story loses a lot in me describing it. It can only be experienced. If you're a fan of this show, then you will love this story.
This year, there were no stories that affected me negatively, and all of them seem worthy of inclusion (though obviously, I don't know what didn't make the cut. Some are very light (though some, like "Once Upon a Tribble," hold a little bit of darkness to them), some are adventurous, and others are just another story told with our favourite characters, but told pretty well. No major characterization errors leaped out at me and I was able to let these great stories wash over me. Strange New Worlds VIII is well worth a look.