Imagine there’s no VHS tapes. I wonder if you can. For the earliest Trekkies, the ability to own your favorite episode of Star Trek wasn’t difficult, it was impossible. This meant that some other media was required to record the true logs of the USS Enterprise. Enter books. The most reliable data storage device in history, and the first and possibly best destiny for Star Trek merch.
Since 1967, there have literally been hundreds of officially licensed Star Trek books published. The question is, if fans only care about “real” canon do any of the Star Trek books actually qualify as part of the “real” story of the Final Frontier. The answer doesn’t fall into a simple binary. Star Trek books have been an integral part of the growth of the franchise since the very beginning. Here’s a quick and dirty guide to the mixed canonicity of the various Star Trek books.
A very brief history of Star Trek tie-in books.
In terms of U.S. book publishers of officially licensed Star Trek print fiction (excluding roleplaying games), there have really only been two publishers. First was Bantam, which published the very first novelizations of episodes from The Original Series. Written by James Blish, these books have a strange canonicity insofar as there are not really direct novelizations of TOS episodes. Instead, the Blish stories almost read like impressionistic notions of what Star Trek would be like if it existed as a series of 1950s short stories. This isn’t to say Blish’s novelizations are bad — they’re great! It’s just that they are very different from the aired episodes. Most of the time this is because Blish was working from early scripts, but even more often it was because just like the readers, it wasn’t like he was able to rewatch the episodes over and over again to make sure he got it “right.” In his version of “Arena,” the Gorn even has a tail!
Blish also wrote the first “original” Star Trek novel, titled Spock Must Die! This refers to a transporter duplicate of Spock, who is created on accident during a long-range beaming gambit at the beginning of the novel. This novel slaps, even if it does open with a long conversation about the metaphysics of beaming in which nearly nobody sounds like they’re in character. In any case, the success of Blish’s novelizations and Spock Must Die! led to more original short story collections and novels. However, by the end of the 1970s, Bantam lost the license for Trek books, and it was subsequently snatched-up by Simon & Schuster, where it remains to this day.
Are the post-Blish Star Trek novelizations canon?
In 1979, Pocket Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) began Trek fiction anew with the publication of the novelization of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, written by Gene Roddenberry. So, this counts as canon, right? It’s the novelization of The Motion Picture and it’s written by the Great Bird of the Galaxy himself.
Well… the novelization of The Motion Picture begins with a forward from Kirk himself, in which he makes all sorts of interesting claims. For one thing his middle name is Tiberius. This checks out— that’s canon! (Although the Tiberius thing wasn’t spoken aloud until Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.) But, after Kirk’s intro, we also get a scene where Starfleet sends him signals straight into his brain via something called a “senceiver implant.” Basically, Kirk has a top-secret implant in his brain that lets him receive classified data—just downloaded straight in there, like cyberpunk style. Obviously, there is no reference to this brain implant in other Star Trek canon, which makes the one and only Trek novel written by Gene Roddenberry either a classified document, or mostly non-canon.
If you jump ahead to the David Gerrold novelization of Star Trek: The Next Generation premiere “Encounter at Farpoint,” you’ll discover that Jean-Luc Picard was getting over the death of a girlfriend named “Celeste” right before he took command of the Enterprise. Gerrold was on staff with TNG at the time, and of course, wrote “The Trouble With Tribbles.” But, it’s not like we’ve heard about Celeste in Jean-Luc’s other adventures.
Star Trek books tend not to be holistically canon, but do seem to create canon.
Not only was Kirk’s middle name affirmed by Roddenberry’s TMP novel, but Sulu’s first name, Hikaru, also came from a Star Trek novel. 1981’s The Entropy Effect, written by Vonda N. McIntyre first established Sulu’s first name, which was later made canon on screen in The Undiscovered Country.
Similarly, another famous helm officer in Starfleet — Keyla Detmer — got her name from the Star Trek: Discovery novel Desperate Hours, written by David Mack and published two weeks after Discovery first aired. The name Keyla stuck, and as long as she’s on DISCO, she owes her moniker to a Star Trek novel.
So which Star Trek books are canon?
According to longtime Trek novelist David Mack, “There is an official stance within Star Trek licensing and Star Trek publishing vis-a-vis the books’ relationship to canon.” It is as follows: 1) no Star Trek narrative tie-in, regardless of medium, is canon and 2) official Star Trek tie-in stories must be consistent with canon as it exists when the work is written and approved. That said, some Star Trek novels have helped create canon…
If you’re looking to find out which Star Trek books completely adhere to canon in the way the newer Star Wars books (supposedly) do, it’s kind of tough. That said, literally everything published since 2017 has been closely connected to what you’re seeing on the various new Star Trek TV shows. For example, remember that mysterious character “San” that Georgiou talked about in Season 3? (Remember those scary, bloody flashbacks?) Well, that character is mentioned in a recent Discovery novel Die Standing by John Jackson Miller, which, yes, was published before Season 3 aired.
Miller also wrote the book The Enterprise War, which reconciled what was going on with Pike and the Enterprise during the Klingon War in Discovery Season 1. This book also managed to fix a strange canon gap created by the novel Desperate Hours in which Pike and the Enterprise teamed-up with the USS Shenzhou and Burnham before the events of Discovery. Basically, Burnham and Spock hung-out in Mack’s novel way before Discovery Season 2 happened. But, in Miller’s novel, all of that was fixed with a few lines.
Picard: Countdown and the Discovery comics
Most hardcore Discovery and Picard fans probably know this, but writer Kirsten Beyer was a longtime Voyager novelist before joining the writing team of Discovery, and then, later, co-creating Picard. This means that nearly all the tie-in fiction she’s involved with that connects to the new shows has some whiff of legit canonicity to it. For example, Beyer was behind the Star Trek: Picard — Countdown comics, which were published in late 2019, right before Picard debuted. These comics give you a full background of what Raffi and Picard were doing during the evacuation of Romulan space, and also introduce the characters of Laris and Zhaban. Because their backstories are established in this comic, co-written by Beyer, it seems pretty legit to think that, yes, this all completely counts. Some of Beyer’s other comic stories like Discovery: Aftermath also feel pretty close to being actual canon.
Missing New Trek? Just Read the New Books!
With the post-2017 novels and the contemporary comics, Star Trek print fiction is closer to being canon than it ever has been before. Meaning, if you’re wondering where to start with Star Trek books that feel like they actually “count,” the new stuff — like Una McCormack’s The Last Best Hope or James Swallow’s The Dark Veil—is actually pretty close! Reading the new books is easy, too, because you don’t have to go searching for which books actually “count.” Just find the new Picard and Discovery books! There’s a good chance those are closer to canon than they’re not.
So, go ahead, boldly read the new books that some fans have never read before. You just might find something in those pages that even Kirk’s top-secret brain chip doesn’t know about. Yet.