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.


At 11:51 PM, Blogger Keith R.A. DeCandido said...

Thanks for the review!

At 10:35 AM, Blogger 8of5 said...

Hmm, sounds rather good, I might pick this up sooner than I previously planned...


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