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Stellar Cartography is a hard book to review because it really, really is a love-letter to Star Trek fans. The production values alone would bump up the worth of this book in any consumer's mind. Unfortunately, the actual content is very much a mixed bag. I'll try and be as clear and succinct with this review as possible, but be warned that specific details regarding this product are a bit difficult to articulate as it is more a work of visual art than literary art.
[ What's Awesome ]
The "book" is packaged in a large box with reflective-foil type and a beuatiful illustration of the Enterprise 1701-D flying over what looks like an old "textured" globe from the 1960s; the background is composed of a green nebula that forms a shape reminiscent of the Romulan Star Empire's emblem, dotted with small planets. The box is made of high quality cardboard and held shut with a "flap" with a magnet.
When you open the book, two panels fly outward, revealing a "frame" for the hardcover book flanked on either side by folders, each containing five enormous poster-sized maps. The maps are big, and mostly beautiful to behold.
The book contains various reproductions of the maps depicted in the 10 large posters, with along with some explanatory text. The paper is thick and glossy, and the book has approximately 48 pages.
[ What's Not Awesome ]
Many of the maps look very similar to each other, and many of them are "alien" -- that is to say, they have no legible writing anywhere, displaying instead imaginary Klingon, Romulan, or Vulcan script.
The composition of the maps also leaves a lot to be desired--so much so that I found their arrangement to be irritating, at best. In an effort to shoehorn as much of the geographic content from the franchise into a single, cohesive map of the setting (something anyone devoted Trek fan can tell you, immediately, is an impossible task) the maps feature all manner of inane, implausible features. To list a few:
-All of the major governments are located extremely close to Earth, the result being that the major homeworlds--Qo'noS, Romulus, Cardassia, etc.--are pressed up against the Federation border. In order to accommodate some of DS9's silliness, Cardassia and Bajor are depicted as being around 2 light years distant--which, if true, would have made Cardassia THE most vulnerable world in the Cardassian Union and the resolution of the Dominion War a much simpler proposition than it was depicted in the series.
-The scale is also wonky. The Federation is depicted as covering a super-massive area of space. That's fine--we know they're supposed to have over 1000 planets composed of over 100 species.But what's not fine is that all the other species--particularly the Cardassians and Romulans, who pose such enormous threats to the Federation--are depicted as having such miniscule territories. The Romulans and Cardassians are depicted with scarcely more than a dozen systems each.
-the Sarek-era map of Vulcan is by far the most visually unique (and appealing) map, but it's also the least credulous. It's a very "stylized" depiction of the Vulcan solar system that makes it seem like the Vulcans of Sarek's time would have had only the crudest understanding of their local system, when in fact they would have had warp drive and interplanetary travel for some time by then.
-There are too few systems, period. There are hundreds of Goldilocks-zone (potentially Earth-like) planets within 60 light years of us right now, so it's strange to see these vast interstellar states spanning hundreds of light years contain so few claimed systems. I guess we can assume that only the MAJOR population centers are mapped here, but if that's the case, there should still have been some indicator of systems that were claimed/settled, but not major--like little stars with colored circles around them or icons, or something like that.
-The written content in the book is exceedingly sparse and provides zero insight into the setting. It's double-spaced, so it's there's even less per page than you'd expect. What's worse, the content takes the profoundly stupid plot of J.J.Abrams' 2009 Star Trek as gospel writ, with multiple references to Romulus being destroyed by a magic (ulgh) supernova. Sure, this is a much more subjective thing, but in my opinion J.J.'s s***e should be kept out of the "prime universe" stuff as much as possible. Even acknowledging that garbage is a slap in the face.
Another issue is a map of the various exploratory voyages from the series, which (as you'd expect) completely fails due to trying to reconcile so many contradictory things. The dotted lines showing one Enterprise making a tiny little five-year mission in a narrow arc along the frontier of known space was laughable next to a giant-ass straight line depicting another Enterprise' voyages to the galactic core and rim, respectively, in even less time. Yikes.
The simple fact of the matter is that no one can create a single cohesive continuity out of Star Trek, due in no small part to the fact that for much of its history the producers of Star Trek were actively AGAINST the very notion of continuity in the first place. If a book like this is to be written, it needs to be prepared to play with the setting a little to make it cohere. You can't just toss everything in and hope it all lines up--it won't.
[ What Could Have Been ]
The real kicker here is just how much wasted potential there is in Stellar Cartography. Basically, the maps fail to elaborate (at all) on the setting. There was so much potential here!
All of the maps are drawn from the same top-down perspective--why no lateral view of the galactic disc demonstrating the "vertical" height of the individual territories?
Why only political maps? Some population density maps would have been cool, or subspace maps (we know, for example, that subspace has its own "geography" that determines how easily ships can go to warp--this could go a long way to explaining various incongruities, like the ease of travel between Bajor and Cardassia, for example). Any why not a map of population density--or the density of habitable worlds?
Or maps of local space at various times in the Federation's history? The "local space" of the ENT-era was very different from the TOS-era, which would be different from the TNG era--so much potential here. And then there's other stuff: why not "Vertical slice" maps that show the political entities and their approximate location encountered by the USS Voyager? Or the route of the Romulan exodus from Vulcan showing where they went, and where they split off to found other states?
And why no map of the gamma quadrant? We know nothing about it, but presumably it would have been mapped a little bit--as there were several colonies and trade agreements established prior the the Dominion War--not to mention the fact that a map of the Dominion itself would have been AWESOME.
Ultimately, Stellar Cartography ought to have made the Star Trek setting feel BIG. The shows may deal only with a small section of the galaxy, but even that small section of the galaxy is HUGE. Yet this book produces the opposite effect: it makes the galaxy feel oppressively small. The territory of the Federation is depicted as too big, too spindly and too thinly-stretched to be even remotely defensible, and the territories of most of the Federation's foes (everyone sans Klingons) so small in comparison that they don't make credible threats--particularly with their homeworlds pressed up so close to Earth itself. Yikes.
Overall, in spite of the fantastic production values, this book is a major disappointment. Stellar Cartography does not have much content, and what's there is very much a mixed-bag--and what's not there is a conspicuous in its absence. Honestly, I was very disappointed in this product, and if not for the fact that I got it at a discounted price or the fact that the artistic quality of some of the poster-maps is very good, I would probably have returned it within an hour of first cracking it open.
5/5 for production value.
3/5 for map quality.
1/5 for content.
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The first thing you'll notice about Stellar Cartography when you get your hands on it, after noting it's a pretty hefty volume, is that it's much more than a book. What you get is a folding box (with a nifty magnetic panel to keep it all neat when it's closed up), with the actually book held in the center (with a little ribbon behind it to make it easy to pop out from its boxed in holding place). There are two envelopes on the panels either side, each of which hold five maps printed on sheets a smidge over 60x90cm. The book is written by Larry Nemecek, with the maps illustrated by Ian Fullwood, Geoffrey Mandel, and Ali Ries.
Just the experience of open this up and unfurling all the maps is pretty fun, but also a practical way of keeping the whole set together; in contrast to the pretty pointless bookstand-thing with last year's Federation: The First 150 Years. In common with the Federation book, this set is built upon the conceit of being a hard-copy reproduction of information retrieved in-universe from Memory Alpha. The present day is shortly after the Hobus supernova in 2387, although the maps are dated up to 2386, so they don't have to take into account any fallout from the destruction of Romulus.
The book is basically a guide to each of the maps in the set. Each map is reproduced as a two page spread, often slightly differently from the sheet maps, with more or less notation, and/or cropped into a particular section. Two pages then follow discussing what each map depicts, and giving wider historical context. What this book does not do is give the same type of overview of the entire galaxy, and explanation of spacey stuff, that Star Charts did. Star Charts had a lot of information detailing things like how sectors work, what the different types of planet and star are, and more diagrams and details of specific planets and systems. This new book seems to be more about the history of local space, using the maps as a window to frame the subjects it discusses.
The first of the ten maps in the set (as ordered in the book at least), is an impressionist overview of local space, purportedly made by an Andorian artist in 2386. It's quite an attractive abstract artwork, but also accurately reinterprets the boarders of all the major interstellar powers, which are given in more detail on other maps. It's splashy and bold, and even if you had no idea what it represents it still looks interesting, which would make an ideal display piece; it means something if you want it to, but also just looks good - If I were going to frame any of the maps in the set, it would probably be this one.
There are a pair of maps giving us a close look at the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. These are portrait format, but if you lined them up right, displayed next to each other they create one huge landscape map of the Federation and its neighbours. Unfortunately both maps feature a small slither of space on the adjoining side of the Alpha/Beta boarder, so everything either side is duplicated. That means if you did want to display both maps together you'd need to do a bit of surgery to remove the overlap; all the labels either side are positioned in a way that doesn't cross the boarder, so it would be possibly to cut off the excess on one side and line them up. Alas the labels are not arranged in such a way that you can just overlap the maps unaltered, as they then cover up labels further in. It's a real shame this interface wasn't thought through more, as surely the main benefit of having these separate maps of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants is that you can position them next to each other for one massive map of local space.
Like all the maps in this set, these are built upon the layout of space established in the previous Star Charts book, with a few extra locations added in later seasons of Enterprise. Curiously while the position of Hobus (the star that went supernova and destroyed Romulus in subspace shockwave, as seen in nuTrek stories) has been established in other maps in the set, it is not marked on Beta Quadrant map. The look of the Alpha and Beta Quadrant maps is a little simplified from the Star Charts format, the stars are marked with twinkling star icons, rather than giving technical information about the star-types, and there are just sector grid-lines very faintly marked, no other information on trade routes and such like. This leaves the maps a lot less busy, so they work nicely for a general overview of the quadrants.
My favourite map in the set does retain all that extra information from Star Charts, and a whole lot more. The History of the United Federation of Planets map encompasses pretty much all of local space, a slightly wider view than that given on the Alpha/Beta maps, with a bigger chunk of the more distant parts of the Federation in the galactic south included.
This map is bursting with information; I've spent a long time looking around, taking in every detail, not just of boarders and stars, but many different journey lines marked in, noting the paths taken by various ships of historical note. It's a bit like a treasure hunt looking at this map, my favourite find was locating Starbase 47: Vanguard, which has snuck in from the novel series. Also marked is the original boarder of the Federation at its founding, a tiny area of space in the sea of blue of the 24th century Federation. While much of the content of the map is carried over from Star Charts, it's a completely different experience reading it on one sheet, a much better experience I'd say. There are also some significant additions, with the Delphic Expanse (from the third season of Enterprise), and Hobus, now marked in.
Around the edges of the map are some inset sections with additional information. Down the right side the Founding planets of the Federation are all detailed, with information like population and capital cities listed. At the bottom right there is a key, explaining how the map marks star types, different types of starbases and such. In the bottom left there is an overview of the galaxy, showing all four quadrants and noting various significant locations and journeys taken. And top left is a blown up detail of part of the map, showing more information around the more densely charted area of space around Earth and Cardassian space.
There is just one map in the set that focuses down to the scale of a single star system, specifically the Vulcan system. This is supposed to be a 4th century map, from the Time of Awakening. It marks all the stars in the trinary system, and three planets. There is also a disk around the star, which I assume is meant to be the system's asteroid belt. Absent, despite being referenced in the book, is the planetoid Delta Vega, as seen in nuTrek. This is another really attractive map, another one I think would look fantastic on the wall as just art, with all it's swirly background, and pretty Vulcan script. It is not however an especially practical map; none of the orbits of the planets are marked, which makes it basically impossible to read any information about the system from what you can see. You can't tell there is any relationship between Vulcan and T'khut, or where any of the other bodies in the system sit in relation to each other. Is it worth sacrificing that information to make this sheet look good? Maybe, it is very pretty, but it definitely fails as a map.
There are two maps in the set that specifically chart conflicts. The Dominion War map is great, it makes understanding the entire conflict so easy. It focuses in on the area of space around the Cardassian Union, stretching just far enough into the Beta Quadrant to show the nearest boarders of Klingon and Romulan Space, and the Federation core worlds. The only locations marked are those specifically involved in the war. All the locations are marked with various signs indicating battles and skirmishes, victories and defeats. There are also three inset maps giving the details of some of the most significant battles in the war.
The other conflict map is the Romulan War. In a similar fashion (but with Enterprise computer style design, and in portrait orientation), the map charts the area of space from Earth to Romulus. More local stars are marked on this map, but mostly very faintly, with only the worlds most directly affected by the war shown more boldly. The details of the Romulan War are based on how it was described in Federation: The First 150 Years, and like the Dominion War map, there are three inset diagrams detailing specific battles. I find this map much less engaging than the Dominion War one; it's a smaller conflict, so the map doesn't have as much to say, and it's also not connecting up dots from multiple episodes in the TV series in the same way. I really wish they had given us a map of Enterprise's year in the Delphic Expanse instead, that would have been far more enlightening.
The remaining three maps are all meant to be from alien origins. There's a Klingon map from 2266 (the height of the conflict with the Federation), a Romulan map from 2366, and a Cardassian map from 2364 (before the withdraw from Bajor). All show us how each empire considered its own space at significant points in their history, and all three are styled appropriately for each race. The Romulan and Cardassian maps are presented in both the native languages and English, while the Klingon one is entirely in Klingon, with an English version of the map included in the book. I guess the idea with all of these is to change things up from the Federation styling and focus of the other maps, while also giving us maps of each Empire, and to that end they are wholly successful. I'm not hugely into Cardassian or Klingon design, so they don't especially appeal to me aesthetically, but I think the Romulan one is quite attractive.
So that's all ten maps. It was after going through them the first time something dawned on me: Where the heck are the Delta and Gamma Quadrants? Despite all the maps in the set being listed prior to publication, I hadn't realised until I got it, what wasn't included. DS9 is at least quite well serviced by the excellent Dominion War map, but Voyager fans seem rather left out without some Delta Quadrant love. The Voyager section of Star Charts was my favourite part of the book too, with it joining up all the territories of the recurring aliens, and charting Voyager's jumps and such on the journey home; it would have been amazing to have that as one long sheet. The lack of maps of both Quadrants also seems an odd omission from an in-universe perspective on the concept of the collection; you'd think the rare mapping of both distant quadrants would be a stellar cartographical treasure!
Those curious omissions aside this is such a great product. It's all about the maps; having them as big sheets, rather than broken down into pages of a book as before, is a wholly different experience; it's much easier to see how things are arranged from one area of space to another, much easier to take in the entire picture. We get a good variety of maps here, from the beautiful art pieces, and aliens maps, through to the most information dense History of the Federation map, and the enlightening Dominion War map.
The book in this set is very much a guide to the specifics of each map included, and isn't a replacement for Star Charts; that older book still has the upper hand in terms of giving an overview of how space works in the Trekverse. I would imagine the new book does make things much more accessible for a more casual Trek fan, as it gives a lot more context than Star Charts did. Had there been no book at all though, this would still be more than worth getting, just for all the brilliant maps.