Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Troublesome Minds


Dave Galanter's Troublesome Minds is a deliberate throwback to the old days of standalone Star Trek novels. He's said he wanted to go back to the feel of original series episodes, so we have a story that focuses on Kirk, Spock, and McCoy as they deal with the alien of the week. So far, so good. He's also said he wanted an ending that doesn't tie things up neatly, that leaves the reader wondering if there might have been another way. Still sounds promising. And the core idea, that an exceptional telepath can take over his or her entire society of telepaths without even understanding that it's happening, is an interesting one.

But the book didn't really work for me. There are some great stories that begin with someone doing what seems like the right thing, only to learn that it may not have been, and every step taken towards putting things right takes the protagonist farther away from any kind of positive resolution. What often makes that kind of story work is a tight focus on a viewpoint character, so we can clearly see the thought processes going into the decisions, understand what seems to be the right way to go, and share the character's concern/frustration/despair/desperation that things keep getting worse. A lot of noir fiction, for example, is built on this sort of thing.

But we don't really get that character perspective in Troublesome Minds. We're introduced to a number of new alien characters, but the telepathic Isitri never become real characters, much less viewpoint characters, because of the key point in the story: their minds are being controlled by a "troublesome mind," an extraordinarily powerful telepath who may not even realize that he's controlling everyone around him. Berlis himself, the troublesome mind, is presented as a guy who's not necessarily bad. He's not a cackling evil villain, he's a naive nice guy who just has a way of making everyone agree with him on everything, and on agreeing that he's a nice guy. But again he's not a viewpoint character. Kirk, Spock, or McCoy could be -- but a key part of the story is that Spock may be compromised by exposure to Berlis's telepathic control, so he won't work as a viewpoint character. As the man who makes the decisions, Kirk's the logical choice. But instead Galanter opts for third-person omniscient narration. He occasionally gives us bits and pieces of what characters are noticing or thinking, but generally stays on the outside, giving us a lot of what's going on in people's minds by saying that someone is smirking or scoffing or sneering. (There's a bit of Diane Carey-style writing going on here. More below.) That distancing is fatal, because I never really cared about any of the aliens, and I didn't get close enough to the regulars to feel what they were going through. I sometimes wondered, why is Kirk doing this? I didn't get enough of the reasoning behind some of his actions. To mix metaphors, the characters were like pawns in a game of chess played by someone with a stacked deck.

I think the book will do reasonably well, though; a lot of people have been waiting for a straightforward standalone novel. For that matter, a lot of people, including writers whose work I enjoy, like Diane Carey-style writing. There will probably be people who will find this one of the most satisfying Star Trek novels in some time, and fair play to them.

And now for some nitpicking. The main review is over. This is stuff I wrote while reading the book; it's some of the things that bugged me and don't really rise to the level of being a proper review. But still, they tasked me, and I will have them.

Okay... telepathic aliens. They don't use spoken or written language, and a lot of them are deaf (never mind that deafness puts them at an evolutionary disadvantage; hearing's not just good for talking, it's good for knowing there's a dangerous animal growling at you, or a truck behind you honking its horn). They either use telepathy or sign language. They don't string letters together because they have no written language, and they don't string sounds together because they have no spoken language and many of them are deaf. So how do they come up with names like Berlis and Chista?

They're also a reasonably advanced technological culture, but their telepathy does not result in a hive mind, so we can't assume they use their brains for distributed computing and information storage. They have cities and space travel but no books. To take one simple example, what do their engineers use for math tables? If a troublesome mind, as the Isitri call powerful telepaths, takes over everyone's consciousness for a generation or two and people have no memory of what happened during his or her rule, how do they preserve any information -- history, culture, whatever? This is addressed somewhat eventually, by saying that information is shared in the it's-not-a-group-mind, but I'm not convinced.

Then there's the prose.

"He had large eyes that bulged even when closed, and flat nostrils without a pronounced nose -- an interesting evolution." (p.5) Interesting to whom? There's no clear POV in this passage. The scene begins with McCoy talking, but a few paragraphs later Kirk is noticing something. There's no real attempt at portraying the scene's events from one character's perspective, it's written as by an omniscient third party narrator. So who finds it interesting? And for that matter, "an interesting evolution?" Wow, that's quite the evolution you have there, Bob!

Next, let's review a couple of definitions. Sneer: to smile, laugh, or contort the face in a manner that shows scorn or contempt; to speak or write in a manner expressive of derision or scorn. Scoff: to speak derisively; mock; jeer.

On p.113, Galanter has Kirk scoffing at Spock. On p.125, Kirk sneers at Chekov. On TV, Kirk has some disagreements with his officers. But scorn? Contempt? Derision? I don't think so. In this context, I suspect it's just meant as a Careyism: the use of any word other than "said." But those aren't action words (see below), they express a particular emotional state that's wrong for Kirk in general and for Kirk in these scenes in particular.

Action! "Kirk hammered the doctor with a sharp glare." Another Careyism, from a paragraph on p.126. This is a cheap and silly effect. It's not an action sequence. Writing it as if it is doesn't make it exciting, it detracts from any real drama or suspense the scene may be building. Should you really stop reading at this point to try to picture a sharp hammer? Not the only time this sort of thing happens. Still, at least Galanter doesn't indulge himself with this stuff as much as Carey does. And, hell, I doubt Galanter minds being compared to Carey, who I gather has been something of a friend and mentor, along with her husband, Greg Brodeur.


At 8:17 AM, Blogger Dave said...

"On p.113, Galanter has Kirk scoffing at Spock. On p.125, Kirk sneers at Chekov. On TV, Kirk has some disagreements with his officers. But scorn? Contempt? Derision? I don't think so."

Hi. :-) I found this while googling for reviews. One p.113 Kirk is scoffing at the situation, not Spock. On p.125 Kirk IS showing contempt for the young ensign's idea that they just need to kill Berlis and then everything will be okay.

Yes, I sometimes have a very Carey-like style. Diane taught me how to write. But, there are a lot more elements of my style which are my own, and more still that are from Robert B. Parker's style, which is even more Spartan. I'm sorry that didn't do it for ya... but I totally understand that it can't be everyone's cup of tea. I'd have thought that Meshu's point of view would have--as intended--described both Berlis's and Spock's "issues" sufficiently, but in your case I didn't pull it off, and for that I am sorry.


At 9:18 AM, Blogger Steve said...

Hi, Dave. Didn't want to dump too much negativity into the TrekBBS topic, so I just left this here. When it comes to things like literary style, I find the mainstream of Trek fans seem to disagree with me anyway...

Yeah, Meshu was the best-presented Isitri character, but she came into the story fairly late.

As for the writing... it's been a while since I read any Robert B. Parker, because I found his books were getting too formulaic, but I wouldn't necessarily describe his style as Spartan. That suggests something more stripped down and functional, to me, at least, and Parker has some definite stylistic flourishes. Diane Carey's writing has even more of a distinctive style, one that (imho, of course) draws attention to itself at the expense of the story being told.

At 10:15 AM, Blogger Dave said...

Steve, it's kind of you to make it a bit less public. I really love the story in this book and want it to succeed. That said, my style isn't for everyone, and you do have some valid points I'd not considered (perhaps getting more into Berlis' mind--but I'd wanted to keep him a bit of a mystery until we met Meshu, so that people wouldn't be sure if Spock was okay or not.)

Still, your comments are taken as they should be--importantly, because you're the audience.



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