22 December 2015

Deep Space Nine Reread, Season Six, Part I: Far Beyond the Stars by Steven Barnes

Reread October 2015
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: Far Beyond the Stars
by Steven Barnes

Far Beyond the Stars is pretty unique. In the era where Pocket Books did Star Trek episode novelizations, typically the only episodes to receive them were multi-parters (so usually finales/premieres): Unification, Descent, The Search, Caretaker. The only real exception to this were TOS crossovers; Relics, Flashback, and Trials and Tribble-ations are the only 45-minutes episodes to be novelized (plus the Voyager episode that tied into Pocket's own Day of Honor crossover).

Except for "Far Beyond the Stars." This is, of course, one of the greatest, most heart-breaking Star Trek episodes, and as Keith R.A. DeCandido's excellent writeup points out, even sixteen years later, it's sadly still relevant in an era where a man of color is rarely a dramatic lead in genre television. Despite the episode's quality, I have to wonder why this book exists: DS9 produced many excellent hours of television, and it's not like John Ordover called up anyone when the scripts for "In the Pale Moonlight" or "Duet" crossed his desk.

But I'm glad it does. Steven Barnes's novel was actually my original exposure to this story. Watching DS9 in its original run in the late 1990s, "Far Beyond the Stars" was one of those episodes I just happened to miss, and in those days, there wasn't much you could do about that; I didn't see it until sometime after it hit DVD in late 2003. The book caught my eye in the bookstore because of that awesome retro cover, and I purchased it on a whim, and loved it. I loved it so much that when I finally saw the episode on DVD, I was almost disappointed.

To get 45 minutes out to 262 pages, Barnes adds a whole subplot about Benny Russell's childhood, essentially a miniature bildungsroman. Once Sisko is subsumed into his vision, the book shuffles back and forth between Benny coming of age in 1940 and his attempts to publish "Deep Space Nine" in 1953. Perhaps oddly, the 1940 plot probably takes up more of the book. In it, Benny goes on a school trip to the 1939 New York World's Fair, where he encounters an Orb of the Prophets that crashed-landed in Africa centuries ago, which gives him visions: most notably, visions of lottery numbers, and of actions people will take. Eventually these subside-- until the preacher in 1953 reactivates them-- but in the meantime, Benny gets into fights, makes a windfall, falls in love, and experiences loss. It's a typical coming-of-age narrative in some senses, and I can see why I liked it so much at age 13, even if it didn't quite grip me as much now.

There are a couple of potent scenes here, one of which is Benny's realization upon leaving the World's Fair that, as constructed at the fair, the future only contains white people. I have a friend who studies World's Fairs, actually, and one thing she's told me about is the idea that people building fairs often discussed them in terms of literally constructing the future in the present day. As a middle-class, cis, white, straight male, I've never not seen myself in the future, while here people have gone to great effort to build a future that doesn't contain anyone like Benny Russell. But at the same time he's still captivated by it. Despite the absence of people like him, it's still a world he wants to live in, all glimmering geometric shapes.

One of the most powerful sequences is when 1940 Benny returns to the exhibition hall where he saw the Orb, and he sees all the Bennys who preceded him, all the way back into the mists of prehistory in Africa, and all the Bennys who will follow him, including:
a string of Bennys who were dedicated to service, each in a more advanced and enlightened world. A Benny who lived to see a Negro president. A Benny--
     God! This was the Twenty-first century!
In the Obama era, this line takes on an additional overtone which gave me chills, because it only adds to the message that Benny receives in this vision: things will get better. Never as fast or as well as we would like, not in this era of police shootings and the prison-industrial complex, but they can improve. We can build a future that does include people who look like Benny Russell, and Star Trek is part of that.

Barnes doesn't add as much to the 1953 sequences, and to be honest, they're not quite as powerful as their television counterpart, lacking Avery Brooks's spell-binding performance. That's the part of the episode that I didn't appreciate back when I watched that DVD in 2003 as much as I do now, though what's always gotten to me in both the screen and prose versions is the scene where Benny is beaten by the Dukat and Weyoun cops for no real reason. How awful an indictment of our society it is that things like that still happen over sixty years after this scene takes place. We may be inching into the Star Trek future, but we have a long way to go.

Continuity Note:
Barnes adds a scene where Kira returns from Bajor with word from Shakaar and the Council of Ministers that the Federation will not be allowed to carry out mining operations on the surface of Bajor vital to the war effort . It's the only real addition to the frame story, though it doesn't quite fit with Kira's trip to see Shakaar a few episodes later in "His Way"; no one in that episode acts like Kira has already recently spent a few days on Bajor with Shakaar!

Other Note:
There's a scene in the 1953 segment where Benny reflects back on his worries about the first time he visited the Incredible Tales office, because it would mean editor Douglas Pabst would find out he was a Negro:
[W]hat if Pabst didn't believe he had actually written the stories? Or what if he decided that he didn't actually want to publish stories written by a Negro? Or what if...
     What if...
     And here, there was a part of him that had to laugh. After all, wasn't science fiction the game of "what if"? Wasn't that one of the three primary postulates which motivated the entire field? They were, in order, "what if," "if only," and "if this goes on." [...]
     And ultimately, he was able to turn the same tools back on his fear:
     What if Douglas Pabst only cares about the quality of a story, not about the color of its writer?
     If only you could find one ally, one man in this world willing to take a chance on you, maybe some of those dreams storming between your ears since that summer [of 1940] would have a chance to reach the wider world.
     If this goes on, you'll be too afraid to take any chances at all. This is the time to go for it!
These three "primary postulates" actually come from Isaac Asimov's typology of science fiction, which I covered here a month or so ago. It doesn't really have any implication for the scene to know this, I don't think (after all, Benny's Stage Three-C rumination is hardly dystopian!), but I felt smart that I did. They get reprised near the end of the novel, as Benny goes into the Incredible Tales office for the meeting that will be the breaking of him.

Next Week: Season Six draws to a close with more tough times for Sisko in Hollow Men!

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