Monday, August 31, 2009

The Never-Ending Sacrifice

GARAK I can't believe I'm eating lunch with a man who thinks The Never-Ending Sacrifice is dull.

BASHIR I just thought it got a little redundant after a while. I mean... the author is supposed to be chronicling seven generations of a single family... but he tells the same story over and over again... All the characters live lives of selfless duty to the state... get old... and die. And then the next generation comes along and does it all over again.

GARAK That's the whole point, Doctor. The repetitive epic is the most elegant form of Cardassian literature, and The Never-Ending Sacrifice is its greatest achievement.

BASHIR But the characters never really come alive. I mean, there's more to life than serving the state.

GARAK A Federation viewpoint if ever I heard one.
Fortunately, Julian Bashir is not describing this book. Una McCormack's The Never-Ending Sacrifice is a great DS9 novel.

There's two ways to explore a society in a novel: from an insider's perspective, or from an outsider's perspective. In Andrew J. Robinson's A Stitch in Time, we see Cardassia from the perspective of insider (if occasional exile) Elim Garak. Here, we see Cardassia from a very different perspective, that of Rugal, a young man born and raised on Bajor until his Cardassian father discovers he's still alive and risks his career and his position in Cardassian society to bring his son home (as seen in the episode "Cardassians"). Not that Rugal appreciates that at all; he sees himself as more Bajoran than Cardassian, and he distances himself from his newfound family and homeworld.

Basically, Una McCormack's Never-Ending Sacrifice is a classic coming of age novel. Rugal finds himself in a very different place from the one in which he grew up, he has a lot to learn about culture and politics, and he goes through a lot of changes before he finds his place in the world. It's a common story type, used often in mainstream fiction. It's also often used in science fiction, because the coming of age in a strange land story allows a lot of opportunity for worldbuilding. We learn about the character's world as he or she does, so exposition is built into the structure.

Rugal's story spans several years, from the second season of DS9 to the time of the relaunch novels. On Cardassia, he rejects the status that could be his as the son of an important man and leads us through parts of Cardassian society we never saw onscreen. Even though we know in broad strokes what happens to Cardassia -- Klingon invasion, the military and Obsidian order loss of power folowing their failed attack on the Founders, the brief rule of the Detapa Council, Dukat's deal with the Dominion, the war, Damar's resistance, the devastation of Cardassia -- Rugal allows us to see all of it from a different perspective, and a growing, maturing perspective at that.

A coming of age story needs a believable and believably maturing protagonist, and McCormack fleshes Rugal out, from (understandably) petulant teenager to thoughtful young man. Unlike the characters Bashir describes, the characters in this book do come alive. The supporting cast, some new to the book (e.g., Penelya), some from episodes on TV (Kotan Pa'dar, Gul Dukat, Alon Ghemor, Tora Ziyal, and more), are also well drawn. Through his exploration of Cardassian society, from the ranks of the political elite to the garrets of revolutionary students to the slums of the underclass, Rugal experiences Cardassia and grows accordingly. Sometimes he's able to make his own way, at other times, he's at the mercy of the plots and schemes that pervade Cardassia. By the end of the book he's able to find his own direction, one that might have surprised his younger self.

McCormack's Never-Ending Sacrifice is not much like the Cardassian repetitive epic of the same name (a book Rugal doesn't care for), but it does seem like a tale of never-ending sacrifice. Rugal loses his Bajoran adoptive parents and much more, and his parents, both adoptive and Cardassian, have plenty of sacrifices to make as well. Duty to the state is on everyone's mind -- not always by choice, but because the state expects it. Rugal's father Kodan finds his ways of serving the state, while Rugal balances service to the state with rejection of it.

As a story, it's an intelligent and emotionally affecting work, with political suspense, romance, action, tragedy, and occasionally a little humour. It's proof, as if any more were needed, that a damn good Star Trek novel can be told about a character who appeared in only one episode. You don't have to be a DS9 fan to like it, though you'll get more out of it if you are. Whether you like stories with an epic sweep or intimate character studies, there's something here for you.


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