William Shatner's story -- The ''Star Trek'' star's ''Tek'' novels launch him into the literary cosmos

”What is this place?” William Shatner wants to know. ”Why did you want to bring me here?”

The place is Los Angeles’ hippest literary hangout, a deeply funky, fashionably dumpy bookshop-coffeehouse called the Big & Tall Cafe. Chockful of goateed neo-beats and pale, ponytailed waitresses, it’s a picture-perfect setting for an intimate interview with an author. But Shatner, 61, whose latest novel, Tek Vengeance, has just arrived in bookstores, appears to be having doubts. ”Mocha slushee?” he reads from the menu. ”Kiwi strawberry decaf tea?” If he could beam up, he probably would.

Shatner, of course, is best known for zooming around the galaxy in a yellow velour top on TV’s legendary Star Trek. But these days the Canadian-born actor is also a hot literary property. Over the last four years he has banged out a hugely successful series of futuristic thrillers — 1989’s TekWar and 1991’s TekLords and TekLab — which has sold more than half a million copies. The novels have also spawned a collection of Marvel comic books (with Shatner’s picture in the back pages of most of them), and they have inspired a syndicated hour- long TV series due to debut next fall. There’s even talk of a line of Tek toys this year, starting with trading cards and action figures.

”I wrote them as the sort of books you could read on airplanes and throw away afterwards,” Shatner says, clearly a bit stunned by his literary success. ”But they’ve become this phenomenon.”

Like the three earlier Tek books, Vengeance is set in the 22nd century, in a world filled with kamikaze androids, smart- aleck computers, cryogenic prisons, and a superaddictive controlled substance called tek. Its hero is a hard-boiled ex-cop-turned-private eye, Jake Cardigan, whose exploits have included wrestling robot bulls, romancing beautiful rebel leaders, and smashing international tek cartels. Cardigan, not incidentally, is in his mid-50s, and bares more than a passing resemblance to a certain aging starship captain named James Tiberius Kirk.

”In the beginning I planned TekWar as a screenplay for myself to star in,” Shatner says. ”I had this idea of putting T.J. Hooker (the cop show he starred in before his current TV incarnation as host of Rescue 911) into a futuristic milieu.” But in 1987, when production of the feature film Star Trek V was held up by a writers’ strike, Shatner decided to keep busy by blowing up his Tek notes into a full-size novel. ”I’d doodle with a paragraph,” he recalls, ”and it would grow into two pages. Then I’d fiddle with the two pages and that would become 20 pages. Eventually the book sort of evolved by itself.”

Well, not entirely by itself: From the start, Shatner’s prose has been professionally sleekened by a writing ”consultant” named Ron Goulart, author of more than 60 science-fiction novels (After Things Fall Apart, Now He Thinks He’s Dead). ”I’m just an adviser,” Goulart says. ”I just give Shatner my opinion from time to time. I help with timing and tone and other technical things.” Shatner offers a faintly different take on the relationship. ”Goulart doesn’t actually edit me,” he says. ”He just sort of suggests things and does some rewriting. He’s a great help, and I’ve tried to give him as much credit as possible — short of putting his name on the covers.” The resulting Shatner-Goulart style probably won’t win any Pulitzers (”She was tall and wide with an ample chrome-plated bosom showing beneath her shimmering glogold dress…”) but it has garnered some unexpectedly positive reviews (”Essentially harmless,” said The San Francisco Chronicle).