Reviews

RESISTANCE (ST: TNG – the Second Decade #2), by J.M. Dillard

 

After my successful encounter with the tie-in book acting as a prequel to the new Picard TV series on Amazon, and feeling some nostalgia for the world of TNG I enjoyed during its run, I went in search of books that might bring back some of that old “magic” and also fill the hiatus between the last TNG movie Nemesis and the current TV show. My search brought me to this novel that was indicated as focused on that time period and also on the most interesting adversary ever created in the Star Trek universe: the Borg. The book promised to bring the old enemy back, so I decided to take the plunge in the hope of connecting once again with a narrative arc that, highs and lows notwithstanding, had managed to capture my imagination in the past.

In Resistance we encounter a Captain Picard having to adjust to a series of changes in his command staff: Riker, the former first officer now promoted to captain, and his wife Counselor Troi, have moved to their own ship; Worf, the best candidate for the position of XO is reluctant to take the post; a new Vulcan counselor has been assigned to the Enterprise; and the loss of Data, whose sacrifice saved them all, still feels very painful.  On top of all this, Picard hears again his connection to the Borg and the voice of the collective, which was not completely vanquished and is now working toward the creation of a new queen and the resurgence of the assimilation program.

Compelled to act quickly, Picard contravenes Starfleet’s orders and heads to intercept the Borg cube before the queen can be activated, and when the first attempt at destroying her fails, chooses a dangerous path to prevent the possibility of a new, devastating invasion.

While the main theme for this novel looked promising, this story unfortunately did not completely deliver on that promise, mostly because it did not add anything new to the concept of this detached enemy following directives like a computer, without personal or emotional motivations. Worse, the plot seems like a mere rewrite of the script for First Contact, with the addition of some outlandish notions bordering on the absurd, like the premise that to build a new queen a male drone is subjected to a special treatment that turns it from male to female. I’m still puzzling over this, since it’s established in canon that Borg drones are captured and assimilated beings – both male and female – and that their inclusion in the collective does not change their gender and at most makes it irrelevant to the hive mind’s goals.

If the writing is good enough and the pacing adequately sustained, the story falters in the plentiful descriptions of characters’ thoughts and feelings with an abundance of telling vs. showing that soon becomes tedious and spoils the overall effect.  Not to mention that some of the characters’ decisions feel out of place, namely Picard’s disturbing solution for boarding the cube without raising the alarm: in consideration of his past trauma at the hands of the Borg, it goes against everything we have seen so far about his PTSD.

There are however some positive elements in Resistance, the most significant being the look into Worf’s personality as he still labors under the weight of guilt for the failure of a previous mission: the reasons for not wanting to accept the position of first officer come straight from his psychological makeup and past history, and help to shed more light into what makes him tick.  And the newly-minted Counselor T’Lana is a promising addition to the team – should she remain as a canon character and be further developed, of course – because her nature as a Vulcan and her posting as a counselor dealing with the crew’s emotions could lead to interesting developments.

When all is said and done, Resistance ended up being something of a letdown after my successful experience with The Last Best Hope, even though I acknowledge that at least the action scenes held my attention and the book was a fast, diverting read. Still, it had a little “paint by the numbers” flavor that did not completely agree with me, although it did not stop my search for more interesting and promising books: as this “quest” is undergoing during a difficult moment in everyone’s life, I feel in great need of some optimistic stories and I have to admit that Star Trek, even in its direst visions, always had the power to offer at least a glimmer of hope. And a vision, no matter how idealistic, of a better future is exactly what everyone needs when finding themselves in dire straits…

So, can anyone advise me on some good titles to read in the Star Trek tie-in universe?  😉

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

PICARD: THE LAST BEST HOPE, by Una McCormack

 

My record with tie-in novels has not been exactly stellar, so far: most of the stories I read gave me the impression that the authors were not overly familiar with the universe and the characters they were dealing with, or that they were doing a paint-by-the-numbers job with little motivation to deliver a gratifying story.  For this reason I approached this novel, that acts as a prequel to the new Trek series Picard, with some hesitation, but to my great relief and appreciation I encountered a solid story whose characters – especially the central one – felt both substantial, well-researched and consistent with their on-screen versions.

The core premise in Gene Roddenberry’s vision of his future was that of a utopian society where greed, bias and bigotry had been erased; a post-scarcity civilization that had relegated poverty and hunger to its remote past; a political association where dialogue and diplomacy could solve the most bitter conflicts.  As every utopian vision it was a worthy, inspiring one – even a model to strive for – but as such it did not take into account the darker side of our nature. The original Trek, and TNG, were the product of times when optimism made us think we could start reaching for that goal, but as society and politics changed over time, the following series started incorporating more and more or this transitioning reality into their background, showing a not-so-perfect Federation, one prone to very human (and I’m using this term broadly speaking) flaws.

This prequel novel moves from the discovery that the greater part of the Romulan Star Empire is destined to be obliterated by a supernova and that Starfleet launches a massive rescue mission to relocate the endangered population to safety. The huge effort is fraught with technical and political difficulties from the very start, and when an act of sabotage destroys the Mars shipyard, Starfleet choses to pull out of the mission, causing Picard to resign his commission in anger and frustration.   This less than flattering view of Starfleet and the Federation has been at the root of many objections moved by a number of fans, so I will start by addressing this narrative angle first.

Roddenberry’s perception of the Federation as a cohesive whole in which everyone worked for the common good always looked more like wishful thinking, and while remaining as a basic guideline for the shaping of mankind’s future society it was not free from exceptions even in the original series, so that we saw several examples of humanity’s worst at play. In this novel, this kind of reality check is brought to the fore on several levels: the widespread reaction at the announcement of the rescue mission for example, with people wondering why so many resources need to be employed to the benefit of a long-standing adversary; scientists dragging their feet at having to put their projects on hold to work on new and more efficient ways to relocate, house and feed so many refugees; politicians using the emergency as a leverage for their own agendas, and so forth.  Does all of this sound quite familiar? Of course it does, because science fiction is often – if not always – a mirror of our present times and issues and it reflects them back at us through the lens of an imagined future. This might not look like the Federation his creator envisioned, but it’s a possible look into what we might become one day, and a prediction that our present “baggages” might still follow us into the centuries to come.

In this rude awakening from the dream of a perfect future, the most excellent victim is Jean-Luc Picard, the very symbol of Roddenberry’s vision: from the very start he’s forced to walk an uphill road, battling against short-sightedness, reluctance to fully commit to the task and political expediency, and despite these difficulties, added to the monumental task of moving 900 million people out of harm’s way, he struggles to keep the optimistic outlook that drove his past missions so far, although day by day that optimism is corroded by the mounting awareness of the hopelessness of it all. Many chapters of this novel start with excerpts from his log, and we can see the slow, inexorable way in which that hope keeps dwindling and is ultimately ground into dust by what he perceives as the ultimate betrayal from the organization he gave his life to.  The ominous quality of the storytelling goes hand in hand with the deconstruction of Picard’s noble, dignified figure as he comes face to face with his powerlessness and starts to turn into the bitter, discouraged person we meet at the start of the TV series, someone whose gaze has turned inward where once he used to look out to the stars.

Picard’s second in command, Raffi Musiker, suffers a similar fate even though she comes from a different outlook: she holds little faith in humanity’s virtue and yet her cynical approach to the obstacles on their path does not save her from the crushing disillusionment they are destined to endure. More than that, she pays a terrible personal price for her dedication to the mission (something we see more clearly on screen), and what we see of her in this novel explains a great deal her attitude in the TV series, because she is forsaken both by Starfleet and by a commanding officer who choses to sever all ties with his past in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Picard: The Last Best Hope is not an easy read, because it will subvert many of the beliefs we held about Starfleet and the Federation; it will lead us to confront some unpleasant realities under the utopian surface we thought we knew; and it will force us to see how complete failure can affect even the most steadfast of personalities. There is a grimness of perspective in this novel that we are not used to seeing in Star Trek, and yet this story is a compelling one – not just because of the background it builds for the TV series, but because it makes us understand that sometimes we need to reach bottom before starting to swim back up to the surface.  Grimdark might have reached its proverbial tentacles into one of the most optimistic franchises in speculative fiction, but I am convinced that redemption will not be out of the characters’ grasp, and I’m waiting to see if I’m right.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Review: BIG DAMN HERO (Firefly #1), by Nancy Holder & James Lovegrove

 

Every time I think about the ill-fated TV show Firefly, or hear it mentioned, I can’t avoid a combined feeling of sadness and irritation, the former for the untimely demise of a very promising story, and the latter for the short-sightedness of the network executives responsible for that decision – a situation all too common in the unfathomable world of television, and whose lack of wisdom is stressed by the huge success that the short run of 14 episodes and the 2005 feature movie Serenity are still enjoying today, a long time after the cancellation.

For this reason, any opportunity to enjoy new stories focused on the crew of the ship Serenity is still welcome, so that when I learned of the publication of this book (thank you Tammy!!!) I made it a point to check it out as soon as I could, despite a few misgivings: over the years I had tried some fan-written stories, but I was never lucky enough to find any that truly could bring the old ‘magic’ back, so I approached Big Damn Hero with some trepidation.  Well, as it turned out I should not have worried, because this novel is the closest I ever came to the true spirit of the TV show and its characters.

Shiny! 🙂

The story starts more or less where the last episode of Firefly left off, which is a double bonus, since it works as a continuation of the show and allows me to avoid dealing with the painful losses suffered by the crew in the movie Serenity: the old gang’s all here, and they are a sight for sore eyes… Of course they are in trouble, but that’s nothing new: with finances at an all-time low, and with the ship needing constant repairs, Captain Reynolds must accept a cargo from the disreputable Badger, the crafty boss of Persephone’s criminal underworld.  This time the shipment carries an added problem, since it consists of several crates of highly volatile explosives, destined to a mining operation, which must be delivered in a short time frame, or they might blow up in transit.  In an attempt to kill two birds with a stone, Mal also takes on another commission, an apparently easy task whose destination lies on the same course as the main job – and since in this part of the ‘verse “easy” often equates with “tricky”, the meeting with the mysterious client ends up with Reynolds being attacked, kidnapped, and taken off-planet for destination unknown.

What follows is a fast story running on parallel tracks: the crew must deal with the dangerous shipment and take it to destination before it – and Serenity – are blown to smithereens, while trying to find out what happened to their Captain, the only certainty being that he’s in danger and that time is of the essence. Meanwhile, the Alliance is on their tracks, again, searching for their two most-wanted passengers, Simon and his disturbed sister River, and tempers aboard ship are becoming as volatile as the explosives in the cargo bay. As these threads develop, we discover some interesting details about Malcom Reynolds’ past and that of Shepherd Book, one of the most mysterious members of Serenity’s crew, while we renew our acquaintance with each one of the characters we learned to appreciate and love in the past, as every one of them enjoys some screen time.

Zöe gets indeed the lion’s share of the focus here, and it’s a narrative choice I greatly appreciated since she’s always been my favorite character: if on the show she distinguished herself for her no-nonsense attitude and short, caustic utterances, here we are able to get into her mind and see what makes her tick. Her unfailing loyalty to Mal plays as a nice counterpoint to Jayne’s selfishness and matter-of-fact acceptance of the possible loss of their captain, and it’s in the interactions between the two of them that I found the true spirit of Firefly in this book.  The brisk pace of the novel does not permit the same level of depth for the other members of the crew, although there are a few moments in which River’s uncanny powers play a significant role and we can perceive the hidden layers of her formidable but deranged mind, and in those moments I could very easily hear her voice and its peculiar cadence.  The true discovery in Big Damn Hero is reserved for Shepherd Book however, and the hints (too few, granted, but better than the continuing mystery) about his more… energetic past: it’s interesting to see him in a more active role and I liked how he was able to balance the compassion required by his calling with the ability to meet physical threats.

The “meat” of the story, though, comes from Reynolds’ abduction and the reasons at the root of it: these reach far into his past and focus on his youth and the later war experiences, giving the readers a chance to witness some of the events that molded him into the present individual. This thread also takes a closer look at what it means to be a former Browncoat in a world now firmly ruled by the victorious Alliance, and how the bitterness of that defeat can still prey on the minds of those who lost the fight – sometimes with toxic effects.  Another interesting side of this narrative theme comes from the fact that the crew is forced to scatter in different directions, as some of them try to fulfill their job and others need to stay and investigate Mal’s disappearance: the main strength of Serenity’s complement comes from their being an actual family, and the lack of one member – especially the pivotal Captain Reynolds who is their glue – deeply unsettles them, besides being a source of deep worry for his safety.  I was reminded in several instances of one of my favorite episodes, Out of Gas, where a life support malfunction forced them to abandon ship leaving Mal alone aboard as he tried to restore the systems: as it happened in that episode, the crew’s separation mines their confidence and for a while makes them unable to effectively react to the situation at hand.  But once they do, their synergy is a joy to behold…

Big Damn Hero might not be a perfect novel, since it sports some quirks and weaknesses, but they are negligible when compared with the sheer joy of being immersed once again in this ‘verse and meeting again these beloved characters.  A joy I expect to renew with the next book in this welcome revival series.

 

 

My Rating:

Reviews

Downton Abbey: Season 1 Scripts – Julian Fellowes

Despite my abiding interest for speculative fiction, now and then I enjoy stepping off my well-traveled paths to sample something different, and this is one of those instances…

When I received this book as a Christmas gift I was very pleased, because I knew it would offer me the opportunity to revisit the first season of one of the best shows I’ve ever encountered, a well-written, carefully plotted and wonderfully portrayed little masterpiece.

As I read on, I discovered that the revisitation was just the tip of the iceberg: the footnotes added by the show’s creator Julian Fellowes are much more interesting than the episodes themselves, as they relate the day-to-day choices in the filming of the series as well as conveying many fascinating details on the period’s customs and social interactions.

I would go as far as saying that after a while I focused less on the scripts and more on the commentaries, actively looking for them rather than refreshing my memory on the story-lines.

The time frame of the show – the very beginning of the 20th Century, starting in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic – was a time of great changes, the birth of the modern world if you want, and the microcosm of the residence where the action takes place is a faithful mirror of those changes, and of the forces that either propel them forward or try to stop them.

Fellowes gives the readers a historical context for the story unfolding on the screen, and also a more important social one, explaining the complex web of relationships between the Crawleys and the house staff, and the inner dynamics of both groups. Many of those dynamics appear strange, if not downright silly or outrageous, to our modern sensibility, but the way the author puts them in relation with the period’s mentality helps the readers better understand where they come from and how they fit into the narrative.

One of the pillars of this informative corpus of notes is Fellowes’ constant praise of the actors for their contribution in creating depth and believability for their characters, while the author’s admiration for Ms. Maggie Smith – in my opinion the best of them all – shines clearly through in several places.

Even more interesting are the fascinating minutiae concerning the production itself, like the need to keep a close watch on the way the actors gave life to their characters, and therefore avoid mistakes in their portrayal.  One such example remains fixed in my memory: Fellowes speaks of a particular scene in which Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley) did not rise from his seat when Maggie Smith (the Dowager Countess) came into the room.  For a man of that era it would have been unthinkable to remain seated when a lady, and especially one of high standing as the Countess, entered a room, but the author sadly admits that it’s by now a long-lost habit, and that he had to re-shoot the scene to correct the mistake.

This is just one of the many details, big and small, that made me appreciate even more the huge amount of work and dedication that went into the creation of this amazing production, and helped me to better understand the reasons for the huge, and well deserved, success of the series.