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.