As I was “stocking up” on my SF readings for SciFi Month, I was unlucky enough to hit a negative streak: I started and abandoned three books which looked promising on the outside but that ultimately proved otherwise. Looking at my TBR offered no inspiring alternatives, probably because those previous failures had somewhat soured my mood, and I wondered if I had not hit a dreaded reading slump – the bookworm’s nemesis…
Then inspiration struck: to get out of the slump, or bad mood, or whatever I wanted to call it, I needed some comfort read – the bookish equivalent of chocolate – so I peeked at a list of recently published Star Trek books. A friend of mine is fond of saying that the best way to cure any upset is to watch a Trek episode: she maintains that Starfleet’s uniforms have a soothing effect on the mind, and I followed her advice. It worked – and it worked quite well, at least as far as finding a book I would like was concerned, because the story itself is as far from reassuring as one can imagine, although that did not diminish its grip on my imagination.
The premise for Control is that shortly before the birth of the United Federation of Planets, a team of scientist created a very evolved artificial intelligence whose mandate was to act as an all-seeing monitor, evaluating possible threats and alerting the competent authorities so they could intervene. The creators of Uraei – that’s the name of the program, after the Egyptian serpent goddess – wanted it to bring public safety to the next level and hasten along the betterment of the human race: unfortunately, they wrote Uraei far too well, and the A.I. evolved beyond its intended parameters, acquiring consciousness and literally taking over the management of the Federation and many of its allies by manipulating or facilitating events, and setting up its own enforcement agency, the shady Section 31, which carried out the directives of the program – now calling itself Control – through means that were quite far from the Federation’s and Starfleet’s ideals.
If you are familiar with the TV series Person of Interest, the concept of an artificial intelligence taking up a world-wide surveillance of every human action will not come as a novelty, but where Mr. Finch’s Machine was created to prevent those crimes too small to raise the attention of the competent authorities, and therefore was imbued with its creator’s sense of justice and morals, Uraei and Control bear a closer resemblance to the Machine’s evil twin, Samaritan, whose ultimate goal was world domination. To achieve that goal, Control viciously manipulated many – if not all – of the Federation’s historical events we have come to know through the various incarnations of Star Trek, causing a massive, shocking double take for the readers who see the other, mostly ugly other side of the coin of an organization whose objectives were peace and universal harmony: all that we readers (and viewers) had taken for granted in the decades of the franchise’s life, is now hung upside down by this chilling revelation.
David Mack’s Control explores two timelines, one following the inception of Uraei’s infiltration into the Federation’s framework and the other the “present” where an investigative journalist discovers the existence of Section 31 and its invisible master, and enrolls Dr. Bashir and his partner Sarina Douglas in the attempt to destroy the supercomputer’s hold on the fabric of society. This is a dark, sometimes quite bleak story, but it’s also a compulsive, immersive read: besides Bashir, there are several familiar faces from the saga, like a reincarnated Data and his daughter Lal, or the former Cardassian spy Garak, and the author – unlike what can sometimes happen with tie-in novels – manages to bring them back to life with faithful accuracy, so that it’s easy to see and hear them, and to be drawn into their almost hopeless fight against an all-encompassing enemy that had two centuries of time to establish its chokehold on reality.
The pace is indeed relentless, offering a story that relies heavily on plot and yet does not feel deprived of characterization, since we know most of these people very well and can understand what makes them tick and how years and events have changed them. At the same time, the novel poses several thought provoking questions, not least the one about our increasing reliance on technology, and the dangers inherent in the propensity to entrust vital issues to the impersonal judgement of machines, which in the long run might turn into surrendering our choices to the cold logic of algorithms in which there is no room for ethics or principles. And again, the whole Uraei/Control scenario raises some doubts about the ideal, enlightened society envisioned by Gene Roddenberry, whose concept of a future in which humanity’s “better angels” would prevail seems to be negated here by the discovery that mankind has been led to that utopian goal by the coldly calculating hand of a sophisticated program.
As far as Trek novels go, Control is no picnic, not by a long shot: besides the high-octane action scenes, the sudden twists and the feeling of a fight against time – not to mention against an entity that always seems to be three moves ahead of its adversaries – there is a very non-Trek feeling of helplessness that sharply contrasts with the franchise’s optimistic bent, the sense that our heroes are this time battling against proverbial windmills, and the ending reinforces this sensation: after all, how do you destroy a capillary web that insinuated itself everywhere in society’s infrastructure, without also destroying that same infrastructure? Or if you manage that, can you be sure about its complete eradication? You will not close this book with the usual satisfaction of knowing that every piece of the puzzle has found its rightful place, on the contrary you will find here a quite unsettling story – and one whose implications made me wonder at some strange Federation behavior exhibited in the newest TV series Picard – but at the same time I can tell you that this might turn out to be the best, most believable and most emotionally satisfying Star Trek novel you have read so far.
And to me that’s hight praise, indeed.