Robert E. Vardeman’s “The Klingon Gambit” is not good. It is, in fact, bad. That’s it. That’s my conclusion.

As usual, let’s do what we’d do at the bookstore and check out the back cover copy that tries to sell you on this one:

When Captain Kirk and his crew are ordered to challenge the deadliest Klingon starship Terror, they think they’re ready for anything — or so they think. But the defenseless Vulcan crew of a Federation science ship has been wiped out. The remaining members of the Alnanth II mission have discovered an ancient city — but their report doesn’t make any sense. The Klingon battle cruiser has the USS Enterprise in its sights, and it’s ready to destroy it.

But Captain Kirk can’t seem to make decisions, Spock has started to throw temper tantrums. And Chekov has disobeyed vital orders. The crew of the Enterprise are losing their minds one by one… all victims of…


I think there’s an actual law on the books about using that many ellipses and em-dashes without a license, but it gives you a decent summation of the setup:

  1. The Enterprise has been summoned to a planet to investigate the death of an entire Vulcan science vessel’s crew, who appear to have all passed peacefully with no external cause.
  2. There’s an archeological expedition happening on the surface.
  3. There are Klingons there, and their ship is super-badass.

That’s not a bad starting point right there. In fact, that sounds like a pretty decent Season 3 episode setup.

Hey, that does!

Too bad 1972 Hugo Award1For best fan writer, I should make sure you know. Winner Robert E. Vardeman has no idea how to write a Star Trek.

(Before we go into this, a personal note: I don’t want to write this kind of criticism about these books, for a very basic reason: I actually want to enjoy the things I’m spending time with. I burned out on snark as a motivator for writing in the late 00s and early 10s when I had a comic book blog2That is, perhaps thankfully, lost to the ages thanks to a WordPress hacker. and really, I’m just too damned old now to drink from the shallow, bitter cup that is Being A Dick About Something Online.)

So, anyway, as I was saying.

Oh god, you’re going to go off, aren’t you?

Shut up, okay? Let me do my thing.

Albuquerque-based Vardeman graduated from the University of New Mexico in with a B.S. in physics and a M.S. in materials science and worked in the Solid State Physics Research Department at Sandia National Laboratories before coming a full-time writer. In addition to The Klingon Gambit and, later, Mutiny on the Enterprise, Vardeman co-authored The War Of Powers, a six-volume fantasy series and handled solo writing duties multiple science fiction novels including Weapons of Chaos and Road to the Stars, and even video game novels including God Of War and tie-ins to Magic: The Gathering and Crimson Skies.

Born in 1947, Vardeman was at the perfect age when Star Trek hit the airwaves. In Jeff Ayers’ Voyages of Imagination3A book I bought just to make this blog more informative. You’re welcome., he talks about how inspired he was by the show and its infusion of real-world concerns into a science fiction setting.

In Ayers’ book, he also goes into detail about his disappointment in the Bantam adaptations by James Blish and the publisher’s tie-in novels: “Not one of those books had the feel of Star Trek, no matter what the character’s name. The contract for the books migrated to Simon & Schuster, overseen by the inimitable David Hartwell. I had started writing full-time about five years before. I heard he was looking for original stories. How could I pass up the chance?”

The Klingon Gambit was the first book bought by Hartwell4Who, again, was offering half of what the publisher paid for original fiction., but ended up being the second of the original novels published.

It was a bad move.

I get that Star Trek in 1981 was in a very different place than it is in 2020, with only three seasons of television and one movie to serve as the canon, but time and again, Vardeman shows that he just doesn’t care much about the world the stories are set in, using phrases like “ray guns” and “turbo elevators” to describe the basic technology, describing Vulcans as emotionless5They’re not and you’re wrong if you think they are. They suppress the outward expression of their feelings, but they very much have them., and, maybe most gallingly, referring to Sulu as “The Asian” on page goddamn one.

But setting aside the finer, nerdier details, Vardeman’s prose is lifeless, with jagged scene transitions and an inability to describe basic human actions or get inside anyone’s head in a meaningful way. The last two are essential when the reader is not able to see the cast perform the dialogue described. Without Shatner’s ability to convey internal conflict or Nimoy’s famous restraint, the book just kind of vaguely waves at the idea that something is hinky with our space friends’ brains.

And this brings me to my big beef with the book: a premise like this gives the writer an opportunity to show the Enterprise and the Klingons working together to solve a big space mystery, and that would be neat, right? They’re orbiting a world that’s the focus of an archeological expedition6Run by an Andorian academic who has potential to be truly hilarious instead of annoying an entire ship’s crew has died mysteriously, and the Klingons aren’t taking credit, even as the crew gets hornier, lazier, and crankier. Again, that’s a good Star Trek setup.

Instead, the crew (outside of Kirk) doesn’t seem to realize they’re having their minds manipulated yet again7Big ups to “The Naked Time” and “This Side of Paradise” and choose to blame the plainly-innocent Klingons in order to create what Vardeman seems to think is dramatic tension.

Stupidity on the part of the protagonists is not dramatic tension.

Clashing cultures working together against an alien force they don’t understand even as they’re become more and more volatile? That’s dramatic tension.

Okay, you’ve almost hit 1,000 words. Let’s wrap this up.

No, I’ll tell you when I’m wrapping this up and how. This is my blog, dammit.

But you’re right.

All of this, compounded by bad character work, repetitive scenes, a chauvinist attitude8Don’t get me started on Scotty’s Hot New Assistant, and an inability to actually explain what’s happening in the last 30 or 40 pages of the book, make this a Trek tie-in you can definitely skip.

There are two things about this book that I liked:

  • Kirk solved the mystery himself, using the empirical approach versus the theoretical, something that makes sense given Vardeman’s background as a materials scientist.
  • The Klingon dreadnaught’s name was Terror, a nice counterpoint to the more aspirational Enterprise.

This is a bad book that took me twice as long as usual to read because I kept putting it down after ten pages to find something, anything else to do. It’s so bad, I’m not even going to put Amazon buy links at the end of the post to try to make a penny or two from the morbidly curious.