Monday, October 27, 2008

Destiny Book II: Mere Mortals

Wow continued.

SPOILERS below. You've been warned.

In my comments on Gods of Night I made a few guesses about what might be coming. I was wrong about a couple of things, most notably that the flashbacks were mostly over and done with, and that Voyager might have more of a role in this one. But we do get to know Erika Hernandez a lot better in this book, as her storyline becomes almost entirely about her and how she copes with isolation, loss, aging, and her change into a new form of life. She continues to be a sympathetic character, trying to find the right thing to do and trying to keep from giving in to despair or madness. The longer she stays there, and the more she learns about the Caeliar, the more humanlike their behaviour seems to be. There are petty and paranoid leaders, but there are also characters like Inyx, who demonstrate compassion, friendship, and scientific curiosity. (It's not unusual in stories about long-lived beings from alien civilizations to portray them as having abandoned their interest in progress and science, becoming decadent over the millennia.)

The other storylines progress quite well, though David Mack's not going to lose that Angel of Death tag by writing books like this. It's good to see things coming together, as the Caeliar and the subspace tunnels in the Azure Nebula turn out to be connected. The glimpses of what was at the other side of the tunnels were intriguing. The ancient galaxy with stars hidden behind shells had me expecting something very bad. Worf was right to ask whether they really wanted to get the attention of the builders of those shells. (Are they the Caeliar who went far back in time?)

It was ironic that the big epic battle for the Enterprise and the Aventine in this book turns out to involve the Hirogen rather than the Borg. But it's a very different kind of fight than they would have had with the Borg, and allows for a more suspenseful shipboard battle (and the EVA element was a nice touch). Two ships slugging away at each other are never as interesting as two characters slugging away at each other.

Speaking of Voyager (well, by way of the Hirogen), I'm not sure what's going on with Seven of Nine in this story. She doesn't seem to be entirely herself. I don't think it's just me, because her scene with Jellico was picked for the inside-the-front-cover excerpt. Is there something going on with her? Will that have some kind of payoff in the third book, or is it tied in with something in Kirsten Beyer's books, or am I making too much out of it?

Speaking of acting in an unusual manner, Deanna Troi seems to have gone off the deep end in this one. Her reactions seem to be purely emotional. She's always been a strongly emotional character but she's rarely seemed self-destructively stupid. At least we're given the impression that she's hiding her situation successfully from most of the Titan crew members with her, so the reader can't get too frustrated with the other characters not acting on a problem they don't know about. Doctor Ree's solution is certainly unexpected, though. I thought after the first book that Caeliar tech might offer some magical solution for Troi's problem, but the revelation that Hernandez's continued existence is based on catoms and requires staying near the Caeliar (or does it? she'll find out soon enough) made that seem less likely. Ree's intervention makes it seem even less likely, though it'll presumably force Troi to accept Caeliar medical help. I'd be very surprised if Ree has ended up killing the patient in order to save her.

Where the first book offered a variety of story types in its alternating sections, this one has two main stories playing out: the ever more violent struggle of the Federation to survive the Borg attack, and Hernandez's much quieter struggle to cope with her polite incarceration among the Caeliar. The Titan storyline this time seems to be more about putting pieces in place and building up to the meeting with the Caeliar, though it had its share of good character moments, building Ra-Havreii and Melora Pazlar's characters in particular. I liked the fact that a seemingly sensible high tech solution to Pazlar's problems is actually rooted in Ra-Havreii's psychological and emotional issues.

Hernandez's story is much smaller and more intimate than the Borg epic, but the emotional weight is often much stronger. I can't imagine what it'd be like to experience something like a Borg invasion, but being alone in a place you don't want to be, watching people close to you die, those kinds of things anyone should be able to relate to. And given how complete Hernandez's isolation is, and how long it lasts, those emotional stakes keep getting raised. And meanwhile, though Nan Bacco et al back on Earth don't get many scenes, they're good ones. Using the Ferengi to get the Breen onside as mercenaries was a nice touch, not that it ultimately made much difference at the nebula.

The line I never thought I'd see in a Star Trek book: "I want a hard shag, and I don't care who knows it!" (And the ferret line on the previous page.) Funny and unexpected but also very real, considering the circumstances.

All in all the second book doesn't look like it'll feel like a case of middle volume syndrome when the trilogy's complete; a lot happens, and some things are resolved (the story of Hernandez's last several hundred years, the failed attempt to block the Borg at the nebula). There's a lot of intimate drama and all-out action, and certainly no shortage of suspense. The intensity increased from first book to second, and will doubtless do the same in the third. And though we've been warned and shown that everything is wide open now that the 24th century is almost the exclusive property of the books, I have a strong feeling that the third book will have several "I can't believe they did that without a reset button" moments. I don't even want to try to predict what's going to happen next, because I just don't know how far David Mack et al. are willing to go.

In summary: this trilogy combines everything that's great about the last few years' worth of Star Trek novels: Titan's sense of wonder; TNG's political intrigues; DS9's example of creating new characters alongside familiar faces, who quickly become as essential to the stories in their own right as the old stalwarts; SCE's focus on building and developing new characters and making drastic changes in their lives, or ending them; and the wide open possibilities of a Star Trek no longer constrained by what might happen in next week's TV episode. It's a mature and powerful work that would surprise the hell out of people who are dismissive of Star Trek novels, if they'd give it a chance.

Klingon Empire: a continuation and a new beginning?

Earlier this year, Keith R.A. DeCandido's I.K.S. Gorkon returned, this time under the banner of Klingon Empire. Tthe series premise was changed to provide a more expansive view of Klingon life, instead of focusing on the kind of characters we're already used to seeing on TV: the crew of a military vessel. It's a good idea, and one that benefits from the fact that it isn't starting from scratch; we've had a few books to get to know the Gorkon crew, and in this book we follow them off the ship as it undergoes repairs and maintenance and get glimpses of the Empire as crew members make use of their downtime in different ways.

I haven't always been a big fan of the Klingons, but that's probably due to the lazy stereotypical way Klingons are sometimes written. The Gorkon crew, though, are individuals, each with his or her own distinct personality. And I really liked the way Klingon Empire: A Burning House broadened the canvas to let us see more of nonmilitary life on Klingon worlds, while still featuring the Gorkon characters I'd come to really like over the course of the previous books.

Too often Star Trek gives us just a narrow slice of each of its cultures. You can't have a functional society where everyone is a warrior and no one does all the other jobs. For that matter, you can't have a functional military where everyone's a gung ho frontline fighter who can't wait to die gloriously. Star Trek on TV tends to show us those kinds of characters because they're the ones people in Starfleet are more likely to meet. We don't see the opera singers and composers, the farmers, and all the other people who make Klingon society a society instead of an army. But in Burning House we do. We see how Klingons on colony worlds actually get along with the subjugated locals. We see how people live in the slums of the poorer cities. And, yeah, we see what goes into the making of one of those epic operas.

Though this is a new beginning for the series, nothing's been announced about future Klingon Empire novels yet. I don't know how well A Burning House sold. I haven't noticed any announcements about any new books, though.

If anyone's resisted buying it because they don't like the usual Klingon cliches, they're missing the point of this series completely. This is really good stuff, fun and thoughtful. So buy it already. I want more.

BFI TV Classics: Star Trek by Ina Rae Hark

This is a short (~150 pages) book taking a critical look at the five live action Star Trek TV series. Hark is a longtime fan; she's also written several academic papers and articles on Star Trek over the last few decades.

Short though it is, the book packs in a lot of critical thought about each series. Unlike some of the more academic works she occasionally cites, Hark's book is an easy read, but with enough ideas, criticisms, and arguments to keep the reader from sailing through too breezily. Along the way she discusses the myths built up around the original series and Gene Roddenberry and makes interesting observations on each of the series.

Hark became a fan through the original series, as I did, but she's not blind to its inconsistencies and faults. She's also a major fan of Deep Space Nine and does a good job of pointing out what that show did right, and what its successors, Voyager and Enterprise, did wrong. This is an opinionated work, and I can imagine a fair number of fans disagreeing with Hark on some issues, but she generally makes her case well, even with limited space.

This book could work as a kind of flipside to Pocket's Star Trek 101, introducing the Star Trek universe in a more critical and analytical way. I'd love to see reactions to this book from other fans, but I don't really expect many fans to read it. Star Trek fandom doesn't seem terribly interested in critical nonfiction about the show.