Taking back Control?

The latest Star Trek novel to be released is the much antcipated Control, by David Mack. It continues Dr. Julian Bashir’s arc of taking down the United Federation of Planet’s ruthless, self appointed, and self professed “protection” service, Section 31, which began back in Deep Space Nine‘s sixth season.

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Control is Mack’s fourth novel to focus on Bashir

As with the best of Trek, Control is a story that is as much about our present as it is the future, and is highly influenced by today’s ever pervasive atmosphere of surveillance, hacking, and Snooper’s Charters. At Section 31’s centre is the titular Control; no doubt a nod to Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but the enigmatic leader of 31’s name also comes as a prophetic warning.

Here is an artificial intelligence that is as much a calculating dictator as it is the basic operating system of the entire Federation: making decisions on behalf of the ‘inferior’ citizens it protects, it does so by crunching the astronomical numbers gleaned from starship sensors, to an individual’s replicator habits. As any half decent Vulcan would applaud, it deems that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but it is doubtful there are any who would consider the few as completely expendable in a fashion as merciless as Control.

Through frequent flashbacks to the 22nd Century we are given the backstory of a relatively simple computer code designed to recognise potential threats (via the means of the unchecked surveillance which we in the 21st are becoming alarmingly aware) and inform law enforcement as appropriate. On one hand it is certainly an interesting concept, and the fact that it spans every single piece of technology of an entire interstellar superpower is fully warranted in order to fully grasp the analogy of interlinked handheld and camera/microphone equipped computers that are literally lining the pockets of our own civilisation.

As an independent piece of science fiction (it’s not like something so accurate can be described as speculative fiction) it would have been a fascinating thriller. In fact for all it’s derivation from its source material, 2004’s i, Robot was at least a blockbuster with some similarly interesting philosophy behind it.  But Control isn’t an independent piece of science fiction.

It’s an official piece of Star Trek fiction. And that’s where the problem lies…

Author David Mack has been writing Star Trek prose for well over fifteen years, having  previously co-written the screenplay and story for the DS9 episodes Starship Down and It’s Only A Paper Moon respectively. Novel-wise he is perhaps best known for Star Trek: Destiny, a centuries spanning epic in which the Borg learns that resistence is far from futile and their reign of terror is finally brought to end, albeit not without a fight.

On a more personal note, Mack has also written some of my favourite Trek novels, including the previous Bashir/Section 31 adventure Zero Sum Game, and the destruction of the USS Bombay within the pages of Star Trek: Vanguard‘s Harbinger is one of the most touching events I’ve read in any book, Star Trek or otherwise.

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Destiny featured characters from TNG, DS9, and Enterprise

Thanks to its far reaching consequences, Destiny heralded a new era for Star Trek novels and showed that the post televisual relaunch had well and truly set its own course in the stories it would tell, and praise was rightfully lauded everywhere in its general direction.

His next trilogy, the Next Generation specific Cold Equations also ended on a high after the Enterprise crew had literally saved the entire galaxy. Despite so much hanging in the balance, the tale wove together established Trek lore from both screen and page to ensure that it remained entirely believable throughout.

Other novels have increasingly extended his reach in terms of the interstellar stakes, and as impressive as his writing is however, the riskier road leads not just to greater profit, but also greater losses when things don’t pan out.

Mack’s 2011 novel Rise Like Lions follows on from his previous novella-turned-novel The Sorrows of Empire (which I will admit I haven’t read because there are SO MANY Star Trek novels it’s impossible to read them all), and sees the races of Star Trek‘s mirror universe unite into the Galactic Commonwealth. Something perhaps not so surprising, given that it effectively mirrors the way in which Destiny sees the standard alpha and beta quadrant powers suffer unheard of misfortunes. That said, it is a change which is so sweeping that the mirror universe becomes all but unrecognisable from it’s onscreen adventures; humanity has gone from a plucky rebellion to being handed technology the Federation would almost deem all but impossible to the point where it strains credibility, and breaks all suspension of disbelief, in the process.

As I mentioned, I haven’t read its predecessor which no doubt fills in many gaps, but surely any novel should be able to work solely on its own merits? It does have to be said that Mack’s Disavowed, of which Control is an immediate sequel and which also combines his mirror universe narrative with those of Bashir/Section 31, makes great use of the changes that had been introduced, but without suffering the consequences of the almost Deus ex Machina transformation itself.

Somewhere between The Body Electric and Rise Like Lions then, Mack has shown that he is more than capable of handling such extreme narratives, just not with a 100% success rate. With Control however, Mack has managed to combine making such high stakes and revelations believable and entertaining, whilst simultaneously extolling the most jarring feature of any Star Trek novel (that I have read) in that it comes completely at odds with what Star Trek is, and undermines the entire basis of arguably entertainment’s most loved, enduring, and optimistic mythology.

50-something years ago, Gene Roddenberry dreamed of a future where humankind had put its petty differences aside. Poverty, racism, and sexism, (and had paramount not intervened, homophobia) were a thing of the past, and Earth’s only adversaries came from outside it’s orbit rather than within. In fact Roddenberry’s vision was so utopian that his insistence that conflicts between crew members simply wouldn’t happen often lead to accusations that his series were too boring, and lacked significant dramatic tension.

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Section 31 was first introduced in Inquisition

Although Star Trek‘s longevity owes much to the outside influence of a host of other writers and producers, each merely put their own spin on the core optimism that is at Star Trek‘s heart. DS9 was only concieved after Roddenberry’s death, and despite making humanity a little less perfect – in part by throwing Section 31 into the mix – than he had initially intended, it showed that the light still shines the brightest in the dark.

In fact some of the best stories can be defined by Picard’s quote that “we work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity” by placing the emphasis on the actual work that is needed to achieve humanity’s potential, rather than merely presenting it as a done deal.

Flying right in the face of this established notion however, Control retcons the forming of the entire Federation, even that of a united Earth government, by uncovering the “truth” that humanity’s destiny was in fact shaped by Bashir’s ultimate nemesis and Section 31 founder: an all seeing and all watching computer code. In this version of the future, humanity was steered towards a better world rather than having the strength, willpower, and compassion to build it themselves.

It certainly raises some interesting questions about the nature of democracy and free will, but in a way which just doesn’t fit with its surroundings. I’ll admit that it would be a stretch to say that (narratively at least) the entirety of Star Trek is therefore built on a lie, but not by much.

Control isn’t the first Trek story of any medium to question the cooperative/assimilation expansive nature of the Federation, and Control’s belief that the Borg would have eventually ruled over Earth and its allies if it had introduced itself via means of seduction rather than conquering is one of the book’s most thought provoking notions. But others who take part in that debate, such as last year’s Star Trek Beyond, at least do so in terms of a humanity that overcame its own problems before finding different ones amongst the stars.

Gene Roddenberry once described Star Trek as “an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. […] If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.”

We can always wonder how much better off (in the short term) we ourselves could have been with a sentient computer safeguarding our best interests during Brexit and Trump’s comparable elections, but that would have been taking the easy way out.

And that’s not how Star Trek works.

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Review: ‘Star Trek: The Fall – A Ceremony Of Losses’

Whilst no longer in their heyday in terms of the number of books published each year, current Star Trek novels now seemingly try to outdo each other in terms of galactic importance. A Ceremony Of Losses comes as part of the The Fall miniseries, and sees a third threat to a Galactic head of state in as many novels.

A_Ceremony_of_LossesIn this volume it’s the turn of the Andorians, as Doctor Bashir turns his attention to the reproductive crisis that has plagued the former Federation members so prominently in recent years. As such, this novel relies the most on prior knowledge of ‘current’ (ie, relaunch novel) 24th Century events.

Not only does the political angle continue the ongoing story-lines of Andoria’s medical problems and succession from the Federation, but even those who have read the 23rd Century Star Trek Vanguard series will have an advantage over those who haven’t. Obviously the preceding Fall novels Revelation and Dust and The Crimson Shadow also both go without saying.

All the relevant back-stories are adequately explained however, but it is the fresh cloak and dagger – and eventual all out knives drawn – angle that make this story shine. For all the various plot threads it relies upon, it is the tradition of using Bashir’s espionage tales sparingly that Ceremony best continues. It is here that Dr. Bashir makes what is possibly the ultimate decision of his ongoing personal struggle between superior intellect and bleeding heart.

Bashir’s decision (and its consequences) are chronicled with all the talent of dramatic description readers have come to expect from Mack, the political issues are far less enduring than some others, all the while focusing squarely on those characters readers know and love.

Book Review: ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation – Cold Equations’

When leaving the cinema having just watched Star Trek: Nemesis, it is likely that many disappointed fans correctly presumed it would herald the end of The Next Generation on the big screen. What they may not have predicted however, is the successful relaunch that the tie-in novels have been enjoying in their decade of free reign storytelling since.

Persistence_largeCoinciding with the final films ten year anniversary the Cold Equations trilogy, released during the final months of 2012, told what is arguably the one story which fans had been eagerly waiting for ever since, particularly after the publication of 2009’s Star Trek prequel comic, Countdown. Between his sacrifice on board the Scimitar and his captaincy of the USS Enterprise E, readers were finally treated to the tale of Data’s resurrection in the first of the three books, The Persistence Of Memory.

The bulk of the story recounts the secret history of cyberneticist Dr. Soong, retconning his death in the TNG episode Brothers to an elaborate deception in the process (something which, it has to be said, Brothers itself was guilty of first). Having designed and built himself a top-notch – even by his standards – android body to carry his own consciousness, he sets off to find and win back his beloved Juliana Tainer, with whom he plans to share his immortality. Until the pesky Breen show up, that is.

Silentweapons_largeContinuing where Persistence leaves off, Silent Weapons sees a newly resurrected Data, all too fully aware of how possible it can be, embark on a quest to do the same for his own daughter, Lal. Caught in the middle of a Breen/Gorn scheme to turn the balance of the galaxy’s power in their favour however, this second book also continues in the tradition of the more recent Typhon Pact novels as much as it does its immediate precursor. In fact Federation president Nanietta Bacco also makes a welcome return, accompanied as ever by her loyal staff, although as events unfold it is one appearance she would most likely end up regretting.

Set largely on the Orion homeworld, readers are also shown a largely unexplored side to this culture that has generally remained overshadowed by its criminal syndicated underworld, but does so in such a way that all but makes its existence almost inevitable in the first place.

Body_ElectricIn contrast to the first two however, the third and final novel, The Body Electric, seems almost a stand alone story were it not for the continuation of Data’s personal quest. Leaving the Typhon Pact far behind, the crew of the Enterprise find themselves against an antagonist so incredible that believability is almost defied to the point of becoming non-existent. Especially when a billions of years ticking clock is reduced to a matter of minutes.

A Next Generation tale of reunion wouldn’t be complete without fully grown Traveller Wesley Crusher however, even if the comparisons to character and TV actor Wil Wheaton aren’t all that subtle either.

Although Cold Equations may not have the same page turning suspense as author David Mack’s Star Trek: Destiny, this is something that can be put down to the previous trilogy’s sheer scope, and shouldn’t be held against this offering personally. That said however, the more personal events of the novels are treated with the drama and weight they deserve, the cold climax of Persistence in particular is felt throughout Worf’s continuing narrative, no doubt well beyond Weapons and Electric, almost as much as the events of DS9‘s Change Of Heart.

This itself is one of the trilogy’s strengths, containing as it does nods to both canonical events and previous novels in all the right places, that can only come from such a knowledgeable Star Trek author. 

All in all, a trilogy of stories that recounts one defining moment but doesn’t for a second rest on its laurels, adding its own to the mix that stand their own ground, on their own terms.