Star Trek: The Next Generation – Metamorphosis by Jean Lorrah (March 1990)

★★★☆☆

Back in the 90s, I was full of TNG awe. It’s the first “grown up” TV show I latched onto (my parents watched it by themselves for years because it came on after my bedtime — so I heard the Red Alert noise, the theme music, and other sounds before I ever watched the show).

Also in the 90s, I got into reading with more of my own agency. Sure, I was still in school, and to this day I get cringey when I hear the words “required reading”, but I learned that not all books were mind-numbingly boring, and I looked forward to going to the bookstore for more than just the little toy section.

The Nancy Drew Files were an easy pick for me at the time — they were actually written in the 80s and 90s, as opposed to the “original” series, which was favorable to my boring parents. (Tom Swift IV was another rebooted Stratemeyer Syndicate-adjacent series about a young inventor who did time travel and other cool stuff. I picked that one because they looked enough like Nancy Drew files to pique my interest, and the guy on the cover was handsome. Couldn’t read the Hardy Boys Casefiles, though, because they were for boys. Face-palm emoji.) I liked Sunfire romances (even though I argued profusely they weren’t romances, because for some reason there was a mortal stigma attached to that genre) because their cover artwork was beautiful, and they showcased different eras in such an interesting way. Sure, there was a love triangle, but the stories, man.

Around the same time I started watching TNG (not just listening to it from down the hall), my sister and I discovered a young adult book series about the same characters: Star Trek: The Next Generation – Starfleet Academy. Like it says on the tin.

At the time, there were only two or three books in the series, and we burned through them pretty quickly. Lucky for us, the same authors also wrote for the Star Trek books in the adult section, so on our regular trips to the used bookstore, we picked a few of those up. One of them was Metamorphosis by Jean Lorrah.

You could tell from the cover who the dominant character would be. Usually two or three characters would be on the cover, and the one in the center was the one to look out for. This one promoted Data, who was (for I don’t know what reason) my favorite character on the show (although to this day, I’m a sucker for a humanoid robot character — finishing up the third season of Westworld now). This was a big fat novel, too. The only thing I needed to know was that Data became human in the book, and I was like, “hell yes.”

I loved this book so much when I was a teenager I still remembered some of the plot points into adulthood (enough that I wanted to read it again just now).

I almost didn’t want to read it again because sometimes stuff from back then doesn’t hold up, and I liked having a good memory. But after a few pages, I was suddenly halfway through the book.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Because Star Trek plots can be convoluted (and this one was no exception), in a nutshell, the ship flew through the neighborhood of a planet and experienced power surges, but why? They sent a crew to the planet’s surface to investigate, and long story short, Data is left alone and he accidentally gets involved in a quest to see the planet’s gods. Data thinks, “oh good, I’ll ask the gods about the power surges so we can get this under control.” At the end of the quest, the gods might give you your dearest wish (the answer to that question, for example). You might also fail and get nothing.

He doesn’t undertake this quest alone, however. A young woman shows up for her own quest, who she knows will be with a stranger from far away — oh look, it’s Data, from far away. Let’s go.

Their quest is perilous, but they get through it. Data wants to ask his work-friendly question, but you know Data really wants to be human. And those seeds of want have been planted throughout the beginning of the novel. Because that’s his dearest wish, that’s what the gods give him.

With the quest over and able to contact the ship again, Data has to adjust to being human now, and not having all the world’s knowledge programmed into his head, and not having super strength, and having to do things like sleep and eat (and take a poop). (Also, women are super distracting.)

But being human how, he’s got to re-qualify for all his Starfleet positions, and can’t go on away missions because there’s no telling if he can hack it or not. So he does training of the mental and combat kind, and does really well — so well that you think he’s going to be a dick as a human. But he gets his ass handed to him in enough ways (mostly in smartness areas) (and also women are making him super depressed) that you keep rooting for him.

Finally, he’s so bummed (and getting fat, and his blood pressure’s going up) that he goes to talk to the counselor and discovers he’s in love with the woman he went on the quest with. So of course, they turn the ship around so he can go back to the planet and find her, and he’s stoked about that. But once he gets there, not only is she Queen of her country, she’s getting married to some dude from another country so their regions can finally unite and stop fighting, and it’s an annoyingly noble thing. She’s happy, the countries are happy, and Data can’t justify breaking all that up so he can get the girl. 

More bummed than ever, so the gods take Data back to their temple and give him a talking to. Yes, when she kissed him on the cheek at the end of their quest, they accidentally bonded for life (but he had been a robot at the time, so she didn’t think that would happen). No, the gods can’t take that bonding away. No, she can’t not marry the dude from the other country. Yes, Data has to be a sad sack forever because he’ll be pining for her until he dies. I mean, unless he becomes an android again. Exchange your gift for another one, maybe? Holy Status Quo, that’s perfect! So Data gives up his humanity in exchange for knowledge of how the gods work on that world and knowledge of the future, which involves an intergalactic war because of his initial turning into a human and being kind of incompetent.

But hey, the catch is that once he’s turned back into an android, he loses ALL that memory and information, as if nothing happened at all. He’s returned to the moment right before he went on the quest in the first place. The guy the woman was supposed to go questing with was the dude she eventually married, so Data stays back and lets that happen (mind you, not remembering anything that happened), and goes back to the ship.

And so after the actual climax of the A story, we still have about 15% of the book left to wrap up, and it’s all the B story you didn’t really care about. And because Data has essentially gone back in time, but as an android this time, there are identical scenes from before. Only this time, Data has all this robot computing power, and he solves the problem with flying colors, avoiding war, and setting the ship ready for the next syndicate-appropriate episode.

A couple of things:

While I remembered very vague plot points from when I read this as a teen, I didn’t remember the “oh nevermind” ending.

What I liked:

  • Good Lord, Data and his crush’s interactions at the beginning of the book were so sweet. Both of them totally came apart by the time their quests were over, and they took care of each other.
  • There’s a tip in writing that encourages you to describe only the things that are different for the character. For instance, if you (your character) walk into your own house, you’re not going to fixate on stuff that’s been the same forever. You’ll notice something out of the ordinary, so you describe that, and in so doing, also describe the ordinary things for the reader in a good way. Because Data is new to being human, the author was able to describe things like being tired, or how fruit juice tastes in an interesting way. Excellent example of how to use descriptions.
  • Even though Data was poised to be an absolute asshole because enough of his android skillz copied over to his human form, he has enough humbling experiences to keep that full transformation from happening. That’s good because I love this character and I don’t want him to be a shithead.

What I didn’t like:

  • This book was written in 1990, which I guess was before the full cutoff for plots involving the whole “it was all a dream” resolution. Maybe it was a product of its time, but the gods revealing that Data’s entire human experience took place on top of the mountain and not in reality … I was done with the book at that point. An absolute deflation of the good reading experience I’d had up until that point.
  • The “how do we stop this planet’s civil war” plot repetition. Oh my god. For me, it was the most boring part of the book, and she repeated it almost verbatim twice.
  • Granted, this novel belongs to a universe where each episode has to wrap up in such a tidy way that the watcher/reader can pick up any syndicated episode and know exactly what’s going on. That leaves so little room for character development and plot progression it’s almost maddening. Now that we’re doing TV shows like novels instead of episodes, it’s hard to go back to a time when everything resets every 40 minutes. If this novel had been a stand-alone piece with its own original characters (but the same otherwise), it would have probably been one of my favorite books. But the return to status quo zapped its magic.
  • Star Trek definitely has a particular … way of talking. Did Shatner start this? Because it’s … annoying.
  • Also, the cat. I love cats so much — I’ve had one almost my entire life. So when at the beginning of the novel the characters are petting the cat and she’s purring for everyone except Data (because he’s a machine, and “cats don’t purr for machines”), I was calling bullshit through the whole scene. Look, a cat gets on a purring streak because you’re rubbing her, and she does not stop purring when she takes a break from your hand and rubs against the edge of your phone/laptop/remote control because it’s a machine and not a human. She just keeps purring until she’s done with the whole session and goes back to licking her own butt.

Overall, I liked the book better than I thought I would. I have to be fair about the parts that didn’t gel with me, but damn, that ending was unsatisfying. If the whole telepathy planet/civil war part wasn’t involved and the story ended with Data returning to his android form and going back to his ship to continue with his life (and allowed to keep the memories he’d formed, to learn from them, to get a little character development), it would have been perfect.

It’s hard to say if I recommend this book or not. If you’re a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, you might enjoy this one. If you’re not into the show, the ending is going to piss you off. With my writer’s brain, I like thinking about how the book “should” have been more than the actual book.