Monday, August 25, 2008

Myriad Universes: Echoes and Refractions

Spoilers ahead!

I talked about the first Myriad Universes book, Infinity's Prism, a few weeks ago. Now it's time for the second volume. The three stories in the first book could be seen as unified by a theme of rediscovering or keeping alive the core values of the Federation and Starfleet even when things are bleaker than in the usual timeline. The stories in the second don't seem to share a theme; the first two are dark, and though some characters may survive, things don't look good for the Federation. The third is neither darker nor lighter than the usual; it's just different.

The first story, Geoff Trowbridge's The Chimes at Midnight, shows everything going to hell in the 23rd century. In general, I liked it quite a bit. The characters who appear in it are used well, and the story builds up a gradually increasing sense of impending doom. Because the story starts with the point of change being the alternate timeline from "Yesteryear," I was expecting the story to focus on Thelin much more than it did, but the story isn't responsible for my expectations. Early on I wasn't entirely sure where the story was going, or who the main viewpoint characters were, as we moved from character to character. Then it clicked that the story was working through the key events of the movie era, rather than starting from the point of change and going off in a completely new direction. What kind of person is Saavik without Spock as a mentor? What if Spock wasn't around to identify nature of the Probe's call in Star Trek IV? What if the Klingons' concerns about the Genesis Device weren't so neatly swept under the rug by the destruction of the Genesis planet? Things go from bad to worse, a lot of people die, and the closest the story comes to having hope for the future is that Saavik and David Marcus have a shot at happily ever after... on Romulus. Familiar scenes play out differently, other scenes no longer happen at all, and as the story progresses it moves farther from the movie continuity. There are some shocking developments, not least the new fate of the Klingon moon Praxis.

Geoff made a good start with his short story "Suicide Note;" his first novel is well worth reading, too.

The second story, Keith R.A. DeCandido's A Gutted World, shows everything going to hell in the 24th century. The point of departure here is Cardassia deciding not to abandon Bajor. As a result, Sisko doesn't go to Bajor and consequently doesn't discover the wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant. The result is that someone seems to be manipulating events to push the Alpha Quadrant powers into war with each other, and Kira Nerys is trying to reach the Federation to let them know who's behind it.

Anyone who's read The Art of the Impossible knows that KRAD can handle clash-of-empires stories, and he's also demonstrated that he can write for a variety of Trek series. This story presents characters from The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager trying to survive a war and fight the Founder conspiracy behind it. The tension is high, the outlook bleak, the characters heroic, the body count epic. And again the ending is not exactly cheerful.

A Gutted World may be my favourite story in this volume. It's a big, widescreen story, and one that allows a number of characters to shine. This has been a good year for Deep Space Nine stories, and this should be on any DS9 fan's must-read list, though it has a lot to offer TNG fans, and a fair amount for Voyager fans as well.

I didn't think I knew who Chris Roberson was when I read his contribution, Brave New World. Geoff Trowbridge may not have nearly as many Trek publishing credits to his name as Keith DeCandido, but knowing both through the Internet, I know they're both fans. They know Star Trek. So... does Chris Roberson? On the evidence, yes.

Brave New World, like Jeffrey Lang's TNG novel Immortal Coil, looks at the question of artificial intelligence in the Star Trek universe. This being an alternate universe story, though, Roberson has a lot more freedom to explore the idea, beginning with the point of divergence: Noonien Soong manages to successfully create a large number of androids, of whom Lore and Data are the first. How does the Federation deal with a large number of androids in its midst, many of them all but indistinguishable from humans (or other species)? How do other galactic powers respond? What uses can artificial intelligence be put to? What do androids want -- and why did Data and thousands of others disappear after the Federation granted limited rights to androids? And what happens when people can upload their consciousness into positronic brains?

Where some alternate universes start with a "what if" question, Roberson seems to have started with "what are the implications that the show missed?" Artificial intelligence was dealt with occasionally on Star Trek, but the implications, technological, cultural, and ethical, were rarely explored. Though Data was a regular on TNG, the greater implications of humanoid androids and their possible effect on the Star Trek universe were never really explored. (Arguably, some of those issues were played out in certain Voyager episodes dealing with holographic rights, but those stories tended to be poorly thought through, technically and otherwise.) Likewise, the popular science fiction concept of extending life by uploading into a computer was rarely explored in Star Trek, the obvious exception, "The Schizoid Man," being one of the episodes Roberson builds on here.

Roberson demonstrates familiarity with the Star Trek universe by bringing in elements from a variety of TNG episodes, including the various stories dealing with Data's creator Noonien Soong, the aforementioned "The Schizoid Man," and "Contagion," which introduced the Iconian gateways. And like Jeff Lang, he includes a reference to Gene Roddenberry's TV movie The Questor Tapes, which featured a Data-like android years before TNG.

The threat of war and disaster looms throughout Brave New World -- Data's android community has chosen to live on an otherwise uninhabited planet in the Federation/Romulan Neutral Zone, drawing unwanted attention from the Romulans. The latter have begun widespread use of androids and artificial intelligences, though in a relatively unenlightened way. Their androids lack autonomy and are less intelligent; they're used as soldiers, nothing more. But Roberson's tale is about finding a way to avoid war, and he manages to end the book on an upbeat note.

Turns out, by the way, that I should have recognized Roberson's name. Not only did I read a short story by him in Peter Crowther's Forbidden Planets anthology, he's also co-publisher of MonkeyBrain books, who've published one book I own (the revised edition of The Discontinuity Guide: The Unofficial Doctor Who Companion) and several I want (books on Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, books by Kim Newman, etc).

So... after many years of waiting, we have two six stories in two volumes of Myriad Universes, and the promise of more to come. So far, so good. I'm curious whether the current format (three short novels in one book) will continue. When talk of this project began years ago I expected a collection of short stories rather than short novels; though I like the idea of getting more stories per book, and remember some alternate universe stories that managed to be powerful and memorable in a handful of pages, the short novel format allows much greater exploration of the alternate timelines. As long as we keep getting more, this is probably the best way to do it.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Five years ago today, the canon wars ended.

Okay, so the canon wars didn't end. But I did happen to notice the other day that today is the fifth anniversary of the following, as posted on TrekBBS:


DICK: Say, is this here item cannon?
JANE: Does it fire large iron balls at your enemies?
DICK: Huh? No, I mean is it official Star Trek, you know, cannon.
JANE: You mean canon. The term originally referred to the books of the Bible that were chosen by early Church leaders to refer to those books that would be retained and accepted as those directly inspired by the Word of God. One of the original and still most popular literary uses of the term refers to the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, to differentiate them from the thousands of stories about Holmes written by other people. Many Sherlock Holmes fans dislike the imitations and thus read only the canon.
DICK: Whatever. Okay, so is this canon?
JANE: Is it a Star Trek movie or episode produced and released by Paramount (or Desilu, if it's old enough)?
DICK: Why, no, it's a b--
JANE: Well, then, it isn't canon.
DICK: Huh?
JANE: If it isn't an official Star Trek episode or movie, it isn't canon.
DICK: Well, it's a book.
JANE: Right. So it isn't canon, is it?
DICK: It could be.
JANE: Is a book aired on TV or shown in movie theaters?
DICK: No, but--
JANE: Then it isn't canon.
DICK: But this here book was written by someone who used to write for the series.
DICK: Well, doesn't that make it cannon?
JANE: Canon. Not cannon. Not any kind of artillery or weapon in general. Don't make me go through this again. Or are you one of those Star Track fans?
DICK: Okay, doesn't that make it canon, then?
JANE: The creators of the shows don't regard each others' books as canon. They feel completely free to contradict what Jeri Taylor wrote in her books, for example. So what does that tell you?
DICK: I don't know.
JANE: It tells you that the books aren't canon, no matter who writes them. Because the books are not TV episodes or movies.
DICK: I don't understand. My dog Spot told me that Attack of the Clones had forty different references to a children's book from 1984 about Ewoks, because in Star Wars everything is canon. Even the Happy Meal boxes.
JANE: Is Star Trek part of Star Wars?
JANE: Is Star Trek related to Star Wars in any way?
JANE: Does it make sense to compare ten hours of filmed story with five or six hundred hours of filmed story?
DICK: Well, I dunno, not really.
JANE: Then what in the Black Hole of Carcosa does Star Wars have to do with this discussion? I'll answer that for you: nothing.
DICK: So this book isn't canon?
JANE: Is it a book?
DICK: Yes...
JANE: Well, then?
DICK: I guess it isn't canon.
JANE: By George, I think he's got it.
DICK: But maybe it could be canon if enough fans think it's good enough to be canon.
RICK BERMAN: Dick, I'm Rick Berman. I run Star Trek. The books aren't canon. Period.
DICK: But what about Gene Roddenberry?
THE GHOST OF GENE RODDENBERRY: Dick, I don't even think some of the movies are canon. And if I was still alive I'd be going on about some of the newer Star Trek TV series not being canon. And you want the books to be canon? Didn't you people get the message from my boy Richard Arnold?
DICK: Yeah, but I can call it canon if I want.
THE GHOST OF NOAH WEBSTER: Words have meanings, my lad, and you seem not to grasp the meaning of that word.
DICK: Huh? Whatever, word nazi. Anyway, I'm a fan. I am the true owner of Star Trek because I keep it alive. I can determine what is canon.
SOUND EFFECTS: Jane, Rick, Gene, and Noah apply the Steel-Toed Doc Martens of Correction.

Five years later, ain't a damn thing changed.

Well, actually, some things have changed, not that you'd know it from the occasional recurrences of the Holy Canon Thrash. People are somewhat more aware that calling Expanded Universe stuff canon is not accurate, thanks to little things like this summer's new Clone Wars movie, among others. Rick Berman and the people then running Star Trek have moved on to other things. The only filmed Star Trek in the works is a movie that may or may not be consistent with what we've long thought of as canon. Its return to the TOS era leaves the 24th century without a canonkeeper.

Though the thrashes come up with annoying regularity, canon doesn't matter so much. If you want 24th century Star Trek, books and comics are the place to go, and there's really not much chance that they'll be contradicted by any movies or TV series in the foreseeable future.

Canon is pretty much irrelevant now. And that's a good thing.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The other Star Fleet Universe

Just ordered the book For the Glory of the Empire from Amarillo Design Bureau, the people behind Star Fleet Battles and various related games. They've reportedly been planning to print some books of fiction for some time. From their online store:
Our first paperback book, compiling several stories about the Klingons from Captain's Log. These are prototypes from the first production run and offered as collector items. When we do an official release, the book may be a little different in size and some cover elements may be moved a little bit here and there. We have only about two dozen of these, and when they are gone, we won't have more until we do the real production run later (not sure when).
Haven't seen any solid publication date yet, but according to a forum post a second book is in the works. Day of the Eagle will be a collection of Romulan stories.

The SFB fiction I've read -- a couple of stories in the SFB Captain's Logs magazine/books -- aren't exactly literature; they seem to be designed to introduce certain gaming concepts. Lots of action and tech, not so much character. I can't imagine these first two books catching on to any great extent outside SFB circles, so Pocket has nothing to worry about, but I hope that they may lead to more original fiction set in the game's Star Fleet Universe. It's a very different universe that has developed from the original Star Trek, and the right writers could probably do some interesting stuff with it. Whether ADB will try to draw writers from outside their usual contributors to create more original fiction remains to be seen, but I think it could be worthwhile.

Recent reading

There have been times when keeping up with the latest Star Trek novels felt more like an onerous responsibility than something to be excited about. This is not one of those times.

The bad news about Greater Than the Sum is that it's not my favourite Christopher L. Bennett novel. It's much less of a standalone than his other novels; he's carrying on the TNG relaunch story developments (the Borg resurgence, the Picard/Crusher relationship, rebuilding the crew following the departure of Riker and Troi) and, to a lesser extent, setting up the Destiny trilogy. As a result, there's a lot of sorting out the "previously on TNG" before the novel kicks into gear. But that turns out to be a good thing. Unlike the writers of the last few novels in the series, who apparently didn't get enough time and information to make things consistent, Bennett has had the time to look at the characterization flaws in Before Dishonor and been able to make sense of them. The problems are dealt with rather than ignored.

Once we get into the story itself, we're in classic Bennett territory: exploring a strange, new area of the galaxy with a strange, new form of life. Yes, it's a Borg story, but it's one that's character-driven, one that brings back some surprising but welcome guest characters, and one that still manages to work in some of the good ol' exploration and sense of wonder that Star Trek was originally supposed to be about. And there's action, too.

Bennett does a pretty good job with the core TNG regulars, and as I mentioned makes sense of some of the recently introduce characters. He also introduces several characters, who get varying degrees of growth and development. T'Ryssa Chen is reminiscent of past Trek characters -- she's a Spock in reverse, being half-human, half-Vulcan, but identifying as human; she's also a bit like Ro Laren, the nonconformist Starfleet officer who seems like she'll be an odd fit for the ship but grows into a reliable officer. But she's also, to borrow a phrase, greater than the sum of those parts; she has her own personality. Some of the other new characters get less screen time and consequently aren't quite as well developed, but I'm looking forward to learning more about Jasminder Choudhury and Dina Elfiki in future books. And I like the fact that women are now so well represented in the bridge crew.

There's a lot of good use made of Star Trek continuity. Picard's "Inner Light" experiences play a key role in the Picard/Crusher storyline, and the Borg storyline builds on "I, Who," "Descent," "Unimatrix Zero," and more. It's good to see the implications of past events taken fully into account; that's not fanwank, it's taking the events of the show seriously.

So, the good news: not my favourite Christopher L. Bennett novel, but still a very good one, and one of the bright spots in the inconsistent TNG relaunch.

Infinity's Prism is the first collection of what if? stories. We've been waiting for this for several years now, and if it disappoints it's only because there are only three stories in the book.

William Leisner's A Less Perfect Union may be my favourite in the book. Its starting point is the Terra Prime movement from Enterprise, which is successful in keeping Earth isolated. But the story itself is set in the TOS era, one very different from the one we know, with appropriately different versions of familiar characters. Enterprise's T'Pol is a well-drawn lead character; the story also includes Christopher Pike and James T. Kirk in key roles, and a lot of other familiar faces, some playing intriguingly different roles. It's not a Mirror Universe type of story; these characters, even through their different life experiences, are recognizably the characters we know and love, and the story shows the classic Trek values being rediscovered in a Trek universe that took a turn for the worse. Leisner gives us thoughtful character work, some solid use of continuity tweaks, and a story that takes advantage of the wider Trek canvas to bring Star Trek to life in a different but ultimately faithful new way.

Christopher L. Bennett returns with a look at Voyager. What if Janeway and Voyager didn't help the Borg fight Species 8472? What if they stayed in one area of space while that conflict played out, in order to repair a badly damaged Voyager? Bennett takes seriously the implications of Voyager's premise and goes where the TV writers would never go. Several series regulars are killed; others go through some drastic changes. And yet the story feels true to Voyager. The characters allow themselves to talk through issues that the series glossed over. It's Voyager for a post-Ron Moore's Galactica world, one where decisions have consequences and there's no reset button. But there's still hope and optimism. It's a story that should appeal to Voyager's fans and critics.

James Swallow's story is closer to a Mirror Universe sort of story. Several of his core characters aren't versions of familiar faces who've lived through different times; they're profoundly different, emotionally, psychologically, physically, morally. They're the descendants of Khan Noonien Singh's followers, though they have names like Bashir, O'Brien, and Sisko. The story is the flipside of "Space Seed": Khan won, and a handful of people managed to escape his world in the Botany Bay, only to be awakened in a universe that reflects their worst nightmare. It also parallels Deep Space Nine to an extent, not just as a source of some of its cast of characters but because Kira Nerys is leading what seems like a futile fight against a much more powerful enemy. As with the other stories, it's obvious that the writer knows the Star Trek universe and has thought through the implications of the changes he's made to that universe, and like the others he finds light in the darkness. This is a darker and more violent story than the others but there's hope nonetheless.

Not that more (or any) proof was needed, but this book is yet more proof that people who claim they can only enjoy tie-in books if they're canon are idiots. These stories are created to exist outside the main continuity, which would damn them in the eyes of such idiots, but what's important is that this is the kind of story the books can do much better than the TV series. Drastic changes can be made and not reset. Consequences can be incurred and explored in detail. No reset necessary.