Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Christopher L. Bennett's Ex Machina: A Review

I've been waiting for Christopher L. Bennett's first novel, Ex Machina, since it was announced. Partly because it's a follow-up to the woefully underrated Star Trek - The Motion Picture, and partly because I'd gotten the sense from Christopher's posts online at TrekBBS and elsewhere that he's a fan, but he's also pretty thoughtful and is capable of structuring a sentence. I can't say that for everyone who's published a Star Trek novel.

Anyway, the book is out now, and it's no disappointment. It's a big, dense book, with the feel of the old Pocket Giant Novels or the early TOS hardcovers. So why did it take 25 years for someone to write it? TMP is not just another Star Trek story. As it begins, the old familiar cast members have been out of touch with each other, some for months or years, and their choices have taken them to different places. They haven't been all happily having adventures on the Enterprise. They haven't all been happy, period.

Ex Machina presents a number of characters in the process of changing and growing. Kirk is thinking about how he behaved in TMP, and whether he was fair to Decker and the crew. Spock is coming to terms with his Kolinahr failure, his V'Ger revelation about the coldnes and emptiness of pure logic, and the reaction of other Vulcans to his experiences and his attempt to deal with them. McCoy had left Starfleet and is uncomfortable with the new Enterprise, its new crew, and is really uncomfortable with Natira. We also get to see that Scott, Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov have been through some changes of their own. Other characters, including new alien crew members and Natira and some other Yonadi, are also given personalities with multiple dimensions and growth.

The use of Lindstrom from "The Return of the Archons" demonstrates a number of things about this book. First, it's tied very tightly into Star Trek continuity, with a lot of references to other episodes and series. Also, by bringing in references to the Enterprise crew's Landru encounter, it does something that few books do: it takes something that people outside Star Trek's reality (i.e., fans and critics) often comment on but that the characters seem oblivious to, and takes it seriously. Instead of ignoring other Star Trek AI episodes as being some kind of cliche, with Kirk blowing up computers across the galaxy, Bennett refers to those other incidents and makes them significant to the characters, with the Yonadi cultists seeing AIs as gods and Kirk as a godkiller. But Lindstrom also gets some characterization, looking back at his blunders during the Landru situation and bringing an interesting perspective to the Federation side.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Star Trek novel without some inside jokes (alas), but Bennett doesn't get carried away. Yes, I did get bumped out of the story by the Christine Chapel lines "Do I sound like the computer?" and "Do I look like somebody's mother?" but I was also amused. And the use of Uhura as a recruiter of alien crew members to the Enterprise was a nice reflection of Nichelle Nichols's own role as a minority astronaut recruiter for NASA, something appropriate to both the character and the actress. I also liked the explanation for the missing NX-01 on the rec deck screen.

And speaking of Enterprise, Ex Machina does good work with Vulcans. At times I wondered why Enterprise portrayed Vulcans as it did, but the truth is that Vulcan society has always been a mass of contradictions. A logical, rational, scientific culture that maintains ancient violent mating rituals, Vulcan isn't really what we sometimes think it is. Spock, Tuvok, and sometimes Sarek represent Vulcan at its best, but there have always been Vulcan characters who would get along just fine with Enterprise's Vulcans, and Bennett's book acknowledges and makes use of that, particularly through the character Soreth.

The religious issues are also handled well. There are few black-hat villains here; most of the characters who clash are well-intentioned. And the handful who aren't... well, there's no shortage of real world analogues for that kind of fanatics. Kirk and the Enterprise crew can't simply dismiss some of Natira's critics easily, but Natira herself isn't the simple oppressive enemy her opponents see her as, either.

So... this wasn't a whizbang goshwow roller coaster ride; it was too long, too thoughtful, too character-driven for that. Ex Machina is a good, long, solid read, well worth immersing yourself in for several hours. There's a lot packed in here, from Trek trivia to philosophizing. It reads like the kind of book only a fan who takes Star Trek seriously could possibly have written. It also reads like a book by a disciplined, professional writer and not a gush of fanwank. Ex Machina fits in very well with recent works by the new wave of Trek novelists (David R. George III, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Dayton Ward, the Mangels and Martin team, S.D. Perry, and all the other great new talent of the last few years).

(Now playing: The Creatures, "Standing There," Boomerang.)


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