Reviews

STAR TREK: A TIME TO HEAL, by David Mack

As the second book in this duology, A Time to Heal focuses on the aftermath of of the events portrayed in A Time to Kill: where book one leaned more toward action, this second volume looks more closely to the consequences of those acts, and the impact they have on the characters. And it’s often an harrowing tale…

Having failed in his bid for supremacy through aggression, former Prime Minister Kinchawn – now ousted by his second in command and by the new Tezwan government – has gone into hiding while his loyalists carry out a war of attrition through terrorist acts that target both their own compatriots and the Federation relief personnel who came to help the distressed population of the planet.  The crew of the Enterprise is also frantically searching for Cmdr. Riker, who was taken prisoner by Kinchawn’s loyalists during the commando strike against the weapon emplacements, a search that is made more difficult by the severe losses incurred from the loyalists’ strikes and by the rapidly deteriorating political situation, which is not helped by president Zife’s attempts at hiding the Federation’s hand in creating the present conditions.

By now I have become used to David Mack’s grimmer version of the Trek universe, and I appreciated his “no holds barred” choice of showing the harsher realities of war – which in this specific case is a war of attrition: Star Trek rarely dwelled on the stark details of war, even on Deep Space 9 where the conflict with the Dominion held such a large portion of the story. With the exception of a single episode, war – and here I mean ground combat, the close and personal kind – has more often than not been something that happened off screen, offering something of a sanitized version of the real thing.  A Time to Heal takes us at the center of the events developing on ravaged Tezwa and we are not spared any detail of the bloody guerrilla tactics of Kinchawn’s loyalists who strike with equal ferociousness their compatriots and the Federation personnel, whose ranks are severely depleted – both in security forces and in medical staff.

These circumstances offer great opportunities for character development, because the reactions to the constant attrition of these attacks speak loudly about the way individuals are changed by events outside of their control: from the pain of the security officers forced to send their people into potentially lethal situations, to the heartbreak of medical personnel having to deal with the wounded, the maimed, the dying on a daily basis with no end in sight, to the grim resolve of those who until that moment had tried to adhere to higher ideals and find themselves forced to respond to cruelty with the same degree of ruthlessness – no one comes out of this page in Trek history unscathed, or unchanged.

One of the characters that is more dramatically altered is the otherwise serene Counselor Troi, as her anguish for Riker’s fate compels her to resort to psychological torture of a captured officer from Kinshawn’s army, in the attempt to learn where the Enterprise’s XO has been taken: Troi goes down a very dark road here, and only at the very last moment she is forced to acknowledge that despair and a desire for retribution have taken her almost beyond the brink of decency.  It’s hardly necessary for her to recall the famous quote from Nietzsche to understand that her fight against her opponent’s darkness almost took her inside that darkness where monsters lurk and stare you in the eye.

Even Captain Picard is affected deeply by the rapidly degenerating situation, and it looks as if he’s more prone to reacting, rather than acting proactively as used to be his modus operandi: in later books by this author he appears less sure of himself, burdened by guilt and the awareness of having been forced to renounce some of his principles, so I believe that the downward spiral might have started here, as he finds himself confronted with a kind of brutality the Federation is not used to. We rarely – if ever – saw Picard out of his element as he’s shown here, but his decision to endorse Zife’s removal from office ends up being the less damaging path in a range of impossible choices. That this decision weighs heavily on his conscience, and will come later to haunt him and endanger his career, only manages to make him more human and approachable that he ever was before.

And to add more weight to the awareness that this is the start of a downward slide for the Federation and its professed ideals, there are the constant glimpses of something ominous moving behind the scenes: with the hindsight offered by the later books I read before this, it’s easy to perceive the long hand of Section 31 and its henchmen, and to find those hints even more disturbing as the realization of how pervasive the darkness already is. For this reason I’m still wondering, as I write this, at the choice of title for this book, because there is very little healing in here, if any, even though this did nothing to detract from my appreciation of a compelling story and my respect for this author’s skills in dealing with a well-know franchise and taking its tie-in books to a higher level.

My Rating:

Reviews

STAR TREK: A TIME TO KILL, by David Mack

Not long ago I rekindled my interest in the Star Trek tie-in novels thanks to the narrative thread concerning the shady Section 31 and its heavy involvement in Federation policies: through David Mack’s Control and Collateral Damage I learned of a dark event in the continuing story, one concerning a corrupt Federation president and the unavoidable conspiracy to remove him from office.  At the time, most of the people involved in the situation, including Captain Picard, did not know that Section 31 had decided to later kill president Zife, which in the end caused the Enterprise’s captain to be prosecuted for his role in the whole sorry mess.  

A Time to Kill, and its companion novel A Time to Heal, portray the circumstances that led to the massive interstellar crisis which later decreed Zife’s removal from office: these books represent a prequel to the ones I mentioned before, and they helped me put in better focus the overall story – they are also part of a longer series filling the blanks between the end of the Dominion War and the events of the movie Nemesis, which marks several changes in the composition of the Enterprise’s complement.

In the darkest hours of the Dominion War president Zife and his closest advisors (probably prompted by Section 31) decided to arm the planet Tezwa, lying close to the Klingon border, with a new kind of devastating weapon as a last resort against the invasion, although it was a choice in direct violation of the treaties between the Federation and the Empire.  Now that the Dominion threat is no more, Kinchawn – Tezwa’s new Prime Minister and a power-hungry individual – threatens to encroach on Klingon territory, knowing that those same weapons would give him a formidable advantage.  Picard and the Enterprise are sent to defuse this potentially explosive situation, but lack of knowledge of the powerful armament’s existence, or of the Federation’s higher echelons’ involvement, places him and his crew in a disastrous situation that looks more like a no-win scenario with every passing hour…

As I found out with the two previous Star Trek tie-in books written by David Mack, this is not the kind of story we saw in the televised episodes, where no matter how dire the situation, or how troublesome the political implications, at the end of the episode’s 45 minutes a solution is found and everything is tied up nicely: A Time to Kill is a thrilling mix of action sequences and behind-the-scenes machinations that combine to depict what is probably the worst diplomatic crisis ever faced by the Federation and make this novel a compelling page turner. The story also focuses on a good number of new faces among the Enterprise’s complement, which helps in broadening the narrative scope and gifting the novel with a definite choral feel by presenting these people with a depth of background, motivations and dilemmas that turn them into something more than cardboard characters to be introduced in one scene and killed off in the next.

One major thread in the story concerns the commando-style mission carried out by the crew to destroy the six weapons emplacements scattered across the planet before the guns can be used against the advancing Klingon fleet: the POV shifts between the various teams, and the problems they encounter in the mission, provide all the adrenaline one could ask for – and more – and offer a dramatic counterpoint to the equally difficult diplomatic situation faced by Captain Picard, who’s compelled to ask his former officer Worf, now the Federation ambassador to the Klingon empire, to perform a covert and dangerous operation on his own homeworld.  

Nonetheless, even though these sections offer a compelling read, I found that what happens on Earth in the rarefied heights of politics represents the true backbone of the story, mostly because I discovered that the infamous president Zife looks little more than a front for his Machiavellian chief adviser – a man gifted with great strategic skills but cursed with a chilling lack of empathy –  and that the Section 31 masterminds are the real movers and shakers of the whole scenario. What I find fascinating here is the strong House of Cards vibes I derived from this part of the story, where cut-throat politics and scheming feel very unlike what we have been shown of the Federation so far, while making me wonder how much of its flawless public image was really just a façade.  It all fits with what I’ve learned so far about Section 31’s involvement in the management of Federation politics, and it also shows the author’s skill in developing this concept of the darkness at the core of the utopia, and expanding it in the later books.

Character-wise, A Time to Kill offers some intriguing angles on the ones we know best, showing how recent events plagued them with some insecurities which weigh heavily on the choices they have to make: in a sense this makes them more sympathetic and helps to show they are normal people trying to deal with extraordinary issues, rather than larger-than-life heroes. Oddly enough, I find I like these characters more when they are less heroic and invincible, because they end up feeling more real.

As the first part of a duology, this book ends with something of a cliffhanger and I count myself fortunate to have had the possibility of reading the sequel back to back, because the wait would otherwise have been hard to bear…

My Rating:

Reviews

COLLATERAL DAMAGE (ST: TNG), by David Mack

After the heart-stopping intrigue of Control and the quieter transition of Available Light, I finally reached the conclusion of this narrative arc focused on the infamous Section 31 and its heavy-handed involvement in Federation policy.  Well, in truth there are two more books that deal with past events leading to the present confrontation, but I discovered their existence only recently, and I plan to read them in the near future: I’m aware it’s a strange, backward way of following the development of this storyline, but on the other hand the novels I read so far did a great job of filling the background and making those issues understandable, so it will be more a matter of connecting the dots than anything else…

Back to Collateral Damage: after the discovery of Captain Picard’s involvement in the plot to depose a former, corrupted Federation president, who was then killed on the orders of Section 31, the Enterprise’s captain is called back to Earth to testify about his connection to the events; although he was not aware of president Zife’s murder, he still has to answer for his past role in the conspiracy to remove him from office, and the tribunal will have to decide if he should be deferred to a court martial.  The novel’s secondary plot focuses on the Enterprise chasing a group of rogue Nausicaans who interfered in a Starfleet Intelligence operation, stealing a powerful weapon they intend to use as a blackmail tool to pursue their desperate goal.

While I have sometimes complained about the thinness of B-plots in tie-in novels, this is not the case here: on the contrary, I can easily say that Collateral Damage stands on two outstanding A-plots that enhance and complement each other, turning the story into a compelling narrative and ultimately dealing with the same kind of dilemma – the consequences of one’s actions and choices – from two different points of view.  In the few instances in which we saw Nausicaans on screen, they were depicted as quarrelsome and brutish, but here their acts – reprehensible as they are – come from desperation and loss, since their homeworld was destroyed and the handful of survivors did not receive the expected support from a Federation far too distracted by its own problems. 

This thread of the novel held my attention in many ways: for starters it offered an in-depth view of the Nausicaan culture, a rich and layered one that contradicts those few glimpses seen on screen, the effect strengthened by the use of exotic language as a means of conveying the sense of alienness of the characters. Then there is the question about the lack of Federation response to the tragedy suffered by the Nausicaans: as I remarked in previous reviews, this is not the Federation envisioned by Roddenberry, and it’s quite far from the utopian ideal of its creator – it’s an entity whose mistakes can have shocking consequences and worse, it’s guilty of turning a blind eye toward the suffering of others, showing the first(?) cracks in what so far had seemed a flawless exterior, allowing the repercussions of that failure to bite it, hard, on the behind.  

The resolution of this narrative line is one that feels right in many ways: first because it owns the Federation’s past mistakes and then acknowledges that there is always room for mutual understanding, even in the worst circumstances, and second because it allows Worf, who is in command of the Enterprise for this mission, to shine as a character and to show enormous growth, something that rarely happens in tie-in novels where the unwritten rule seems to require crew-members be kept in a sort of unchanging limbo. This author is clearly not afraid to take those characters and let them move forward on the strength of past experiences and gained wisdom, and they benefit from this choice by becoming their own persons, delightfully three-dimensional and believable.

Where the Nausicaan angle offers a lively and often tense narrative, the part of the novel dedicated to Picard’s trial – the one I was eagerly waiting for – is equally fascinating, sustained by a keen focus on the technical elements of the proceedings, one that turns those scenes into emotionally gripping moments.  There is a great deal of well-portrayed courtroom drama here, a theme I enjoy and that is built up by the apparent desire of prosecutor Louvois to find Picard guilty and to ruthlessly destroy his image and career. It makes for some very tense narrative segments, where I experienced genuine worry for the path the events were taking, but the true core of the story resides in the two-pronged question of the far-reaching consequences of one’s actions on one side (a mirror to the theme of the Nausicaans abandoned to their destiny), and about the dilemma of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons on the other.

There is of course no clean-cut answer to the second question: removing corrupted president Zife was a necessary choice given the situation at the time, but we see Picard wrestling with the moral implications of his actions and feeling that some of the other conspirators’ stigma has tainted him as well. Although not involved in the decision to kill Zife, he perceives that his integrity – the character trait he clearly most cares about – has been compromised and that, as he tells Louvois in their parting exchange, “None of us is innocent […]. Not anymore.”  This loss of innocence is shared by the whole Federation, for a long time unknowing hostage of an organization that forged policy with means that went dramatically against everything the Federation itself stood for.  It’s a bitter acknowledgement, but again it feels more true – humans being humans – than the polished, utopian perfection we used to see on screen; and no matter how bleak this consideration looks, it leaves room for the hope that humanity might learn from its mistakes and keep striving for better ideals.

With Collateral Damage I once again found myself enjoying a tie-in novel that had the courage to explore the darker side of its background, and in so doing went well beyond the pure entertainment value of its brethren, making me think about serious issues while keeping me thoroughly engrossed. A rare and welcome combination, indeed.

My Rating:

Reviews

STAR TREK: AVAILABLE LIGHT, by Dayton Ward

Continuing from linked book Control, detailing the struggle against the shady organization called Section 31 and the disclosure of its dark deeds by the work of an investigative reporter, Available Light offers a two-pronged story that on one side follows the ongoing investigation into Section 31 and its Starfleet high-ranking members, and on the other a more run-of-the-mill adventure of the Enterprise-E tasked with an expedition into an unexplored region of the galaxy.

On Earth, the Section 31 officers are being hunted down and arrested, despite their attempts at hiding or keeping a low profile, and a case against them is being mounted by Federation authorities: figures we learned to know in the course of the various Trek series, like Admirals Ross and Necheyev, make their appearance as we learn of their involvement in the organization and in the forced deposition of a former, crooked Federation president, who was subsequently murdered.  What’s sadly surprising is that Captain Picard had taken part in the events leading to the deposition of president Zife, and although he was not entangled in the man’s murder, his unwitting connection with Section 31 threatens to stain his reputation and puts him under an unwelcome spotlight, not to mention Starfleet’s embarrassment at the blemish falling on such a renowned officer.

Meanwhile, in deep space, the Enterprise encounters what appears like a huge derelict ship: the boarding party finds that the vessel is however in pristine condition and this mystery leads to the discovery that it’s one of several arks bringing the population of a doomed planet toward a new home. To face the long voyage, they decided to employ a combination of transporter and holodeck technology that enabled them to live a sort of virtual life while in transit, but a malfunction in the energy distribution system is threatening their existence, so that they need the Enterprise’s help to survive and continue their voyage. 

As I said, this novel moves on two quite different tracks, and this dichotomy makes for a somewhat uneven narrative: while the eventful and intriguing plot about the alien craft supplies the ‘adventure’ part of the story, it is nothing more than the kind of standard fare we could find in any one of the televised episodes, and in my opinion it does not hold a candle to the much more interesting segment concerning the investigation and trial preparation against Section 31, which was explored only as the B-plot.  Granted, the chapters devoted to the Enterprise’s mission allow the reader to get to know in depth the ‘new faces’ in the ship’s complement: time has passed since our last look at this crew on a screen and there have been many changes here, so it’s interesting to see who these new people are and how they are filling the proverbial shoes of the crew members we used to know so well.  Still, I could not avoid a sensation of “been there, done that” as the story developed on the well-oiled rails of strange encounters, initial misunderstandings, brief conflict and then peaceful cooperation: nothing wrong in that, of course, but the number of pages devoted to a fairly predictable script seemed too high when there was a much more intriguing narrative track to sink one’s teeth in – particularly after the breath-stopping narrative I enjoyed with Control.

It’s widely recognized that conflict offers the best opportunities for plot and character development, and the Section 31 thread looks like the perfect opportunity to explore – borrowing the saga’s famous motto – territory where no one has gone before: the discovery that despite the high ideals animating the Federation, it could nevertheless harbor a secret organization acting more often than not against those ideals and pursuing questionable goals through disreputable deeds.  Such a concept might have greatly enraged creator Gene Roddenberry, whose utopian vision of the future did not include such elements, but still it holds great storytelling potential and the possibility to explore the moral quandary of doing the wrong thing for the right reasons – provided that one could truly determine what those right reasons are, of course.

Sadly, we don’t see enough of the difficult work of obtaining enough information to prosecute the officers responsible for Section 31’s actions, nor are we afforded a deeper look into the public’s reactions to what amounts to a mediatic bombshell that must surely have shaken the Federation to its foundations.  There are long discussions between the new Federation president, Starfleet’s commanding admiral and the Federation’s Attorney General Louvois (whom we met in one of my favorite TNG episodes, The Measure of a Man) about how to proceed, how much to reveal to the public and what to do with Picard – who holds the difficult position of being a distinguished and respected hero but is now tainted by his connection with the conspirators – and some of the moral implications of the whole sorry mess are touched on, but never delved in too deeply.  Picard’s side of the situation is fortunately given more narrative room, as we see him struggle with his conscience and his principles: his superiors would like to keep him out of it entirely, considering that his involvement was a matter of misplaced good faith rather than intentional wrongdoing, but still he’s faced with an ethical dilemma, and remembering the precept that a Starfleet’s officer first duty is to the truth, he decides to return to Earth and offer his statement on the facts as he knows them. He also knows that this is the only avenue open to him if he wants to hold on to his integrity, and he’s ready to face any consequence that might be in store for him – which is perfectly in character with his personality as we got to know it on screen.

Much as I felt somewhat cheated of an intriguing storyline here, there is the promise of more on the subject of Section 31 in the next novel in this sequence, Collateral Damage, where I hope that what I sorely missed here will be explored in depth.

My Rating:

Reviews

STAR TREK BEYOND: a short, spoiler-free review and some longer musings

maxresdefault

It was impossible not to be aware of the expectations – both for good and bad – surrounding this movie, in consideration of the troubled life of its predecessors, disowned by the staunchest Star Trek fans for the perceived lack of ties with the original material, if not for the outright betrayal of the original vision.

While I enjoyed Star Trek in the past, with time it lost much of its appeal, especially once I was able to compare it with other more mature, and more daring, science fiction shows: don’t misunderstand me, Trek will always have a place in my “affections”, because I started studying English some 40 years ago through the TOS episodes’ novelizations by James Blish, and in so doing discovered the fascinating universe it depicted, and the existence of a SF show I had not been previously aware of.  Yet it’s not the one I would choose to define what I most enjoy in science fiction.

For starters, what looked like innovative premises at the time of its conception (a huge alliance of cultures working together in harmony; a society that has gone beyond the need for money or basic creature comforts; a galaxy where knowledge and mutual understanding are highly valued; and so on…) represents the kind of utopia that’s nice to see but that we know could never take shape, not with what we understand about humanity now, when we have lost many of the hopes that were the show’s backbone then.  Moreover, the need to follow this particular universe’s ground rules ended up creating several constraints for the many writers who were called to work for the franchise. In Gene Roddenberry’s vision, there should have been no conflicts, no troubles among the perfectly integrated crews of the Federation starships, or among the many races of the Federation, and in such far-reaching peace and harmony there was far too much space for predictability and boredom, and almost none for some interesting clash of characters and personalities.  Some of the most die-hard fans adhere to this vision with far more tenacity than did the series’ creator himself, and look with suspicion – or worse – on any attempt at splicing some different features into Trek’s “genome”.

It’s no secret that the Trek incarnation that attempted to get out of these rigid schemes – Deep Space 9 – is the one that those die-hard fans like less: in DS9 there was interpersonal conflict and we were shown how the Federation and Starfleet were not perfect and irreproachable entities but were instead, quite humanly, prone to flaws and areas of darkness. What others might perceive as shortcomings was, to me, the reason for a renewed interest in the saga, so that this series is the only one I can re-watch even now without feeling that time has left its inexorable mark upon it – at least for the episodes who follow a particular narrative arc, without wasting time and effort in improbable holodeck escapades or Ferengi capers that to me hold nothing of the wonder and adventure I expect to find in space opera.

After the poor results of the last TV series, Enterprise, it looked as if Star Trek had said all it had to say, so the news that a reboot would be accomplished through big-screen movies was welcomed with mixed reactions: many worried at the changes that would be introduced by story and characterization, altering forever the perceptions built over the decades. For me, the first two movies – while spectacular and entertaining – were something of a disappointment: the use of the word “reboot”, at least as I intend it, means the renewal of a story through the insertion of fresh ideas and points of view. Sadly, there was nothing of the sort in those two first movies, on the contrary they re-used old patterns and narrative threads, only presenting them in a new, more modern and glittery dress.  It seemed to me that the powers-that-be had decided to take the show’s catchphrase and to twist it into an unimaginative “where everyone has already gone before” – too many times.  For a story that took its inspiration from the exploration of the unknown, it seemed that the boldness had evaporated and the choice for time-tested secondhand material had removed any desire for expansion and evolution out of the playing field.

That said, I was nevertheless curious about this latest movie, and as I always do I was ready to give it the benefit of the doubt, refusing to condemn it out of hand like many did, especially when the first trailer hit the web. True, it looked like another offer with a great deal of action, explosions and daring stunts, and little in the way of character growth or depth, but I told myself that in summertime even a loud, boisterous “popcorn movie” can be acceptable, even if it’s not on the same line of its source material. And the friends with whom I went to the theater agreed with me.

Well, sometimes going in with low expectations does pay off in the end: the movie was a pleasant surprise, overall. The story, for once, was original and not a rehash of some previous episode, or some already-used theme: granted, it was nothing world-changing, but it went over well, and the pacing was fast and at times quite breathless.  The characterization showed some improvements too, offering new facets on the main characters’ personalities and inner drive, with a few introspective moments that were rather nice to witness. There was the appropriate amount of humor, placed at the right moments, and when it was directed inwards – almost in an attempt to deconstruct some long-standing traditions of the show – it worked like a charm: there is a brief sequence, near the beginning, when Kirk comes back aboard after a not-so-successful mission, and he off-handedly comments about “another ripped shirt” that had me laughing out loud in sheer delight, since it was very effective because of its tongue-in-cheek nature, and the unspoken but clear subtext it carried.

There were some poignant moments as well, and they integrated seamlessly with the more boisterous whole: the brief, almost subliminal “for Anton”, paying homage to the recently deceased Anton Yelchin (a.k.a. Chekov); and the tribute paid to the passing of Leonard Nimoy, the first, iconic Mr. Spock: this was carried out in a way that was so starkly emotional that even a true Vulcan would not have objected to it – to say how deeply spectators were affected would be redundant…

And even if the required Bad Guy’s motivations seemed a bit of a dejà vu, even if there were a few plot glitches – something that hit my awareness only after the movie ended, which means that the momentum carried them well nonetheless – the overall effect is more than positive, and for the first time since the Borg I felt that the adversaries’ might was something to be frightened of.  Look at that swarm of ships and tell me you are not scared!

If this is the new course the franchise has chosen to travel on, I can get back on board: nothing special or Earth-shattering happened, I’ll give you that, but for once I felt some substance under the glitter, and it was enough.

 

My Rating: