30 April 2019

Star Trek: The Destiny Era: Indistinguishable from Magic

Mass market paperback, 483 pages
Published 2011

Acquired September 2012
Read January 2019
Star Trek: The Next Generation: Indistinguishable from Magic
by David A. McIntee

Stardate 60074.2-60214.1 (early 2383)
This is the first novel branded "The Next Generation" that I've reached in my marathon, but though it might be so de jure it has much less claim to that label de facto than several other novels I've read that don't have "The Next Generation" printed on the title page. Events begin on the Enterprise-E with the whole Destiny-era gang-- Picard, Worf, Choudhury, La Forge-- but soon La Forge has joined the crew of the USS Challenger on detachment.

Instead of being a TNG installment, the book feels like the pilot for a slightly retooled S.C.E./Corps of Engineers series (with the exception of how it ties up; I'll get to that later). Scotty, still heading the Starfleet Corps of Engineers, captains the USS Challenger, a Galaxy-class testbed for experimental technologies. The ship is crewed by a bevy of familiar engineers from across Star Trek: in addition to Scotty and La Forge, Reg Barclay and Dr. Leah Brahms are the major ones, plus Nog is chief of security. On top of that, you have some familiar guest characters like Berlinghoff Rasmussen and Guinan, and some new characters, including the Challenger's delightful chief engineer and a very enthusiastic Klingon woman pilot. It reminds one of set-ups for new ongoing series like New Frontier or Titan. It's the kind of thing that could be overly fannish, but McIntee keeps it on the successful side. We would never ever see Barclay, Nog, and Brahms work together on screen, but this is what tie-in fiction is for.

The main plot of the novel begins with the Challenger investigating the mysterious reappearance of the NX-07 Intrepid, fresh out of the era of Enterprise, but with a dead crew far from its last known position. This part has a pleasing technical mystery to it: of course, a lot of it is bafflegab, but as in some Golden Age sf, it's fun to watch a team of highly competent professionals do their thing. Berlinghoff Rasmussen, as a native of the 22nd century himself, is brought on as a consultant, but soon things are disrupted by an it's-so-crazy-it-just-might-work plan from an old villain, and La Forge and Barclay have to save the day while prisoners. It's good, if generic Star Trek fun. Like I said, this is what tie-in fiction is for. Then, as the Challenger investigates the phenomenon that caused the displacement of Intrepid, things get bigger and crazier, and unfortunately, somewhat rushed. There are a lot of cool concepts in the second half of the novel, but I often felt like the characters were rocketing through them. (Though what happens to Scotty, plus his memorial service, are quite nice.)

Characters rocketing through things is actually the big fault of the novel. La Forge goes through a whole lot here, and it's curiously understated; we get very little sense of how La Forge feels about this all, what's at stake for him personally and emotionally. La Forge becomes captain of the Challenger halfway through, in a nice piece of continuity with Voyager's "Timeless," but surprisingly there's no coherent subplot about him adjusting to command or what captaincy means to him or how he has to act differently than he was. Similarly, he gets together with Leah Brahms, but I'm not really sure why: it's like they see each other again, and huzzah, they're back together.

What comes after the climax is disappointing. Indistinguishable from Magic is not the pilot for a new S.C.E. spin-off, because the book ends with the destruction of the Challenger and the return of La Forge to his old post on the Enterprise. It's a little annoying, because it seals that the events of this novel don't actually matter to La Forge. He gets two months of captaincy, and then he's back to doing the same thing he's been doing for the past eighteen years. Sure, he's "captain of engineering" now, but he doesn't really seem happy or sad or anything to lose a ship so quickly. The end kind of confirms all these characters will get rolled back to where they were; Barclay will go to the Voyager fleet again, and I'm very willing to predict Nog will be back on Deep Space 9 (if we ever get to see the station again, that is).

I kind of liked this book, but in the end, it just feels hollow.

Continuity Notes:
  • Among the Challenger crew is Alyssa Ogawa, last seen as head nurse on Titan, now a doctor and chief medical officer on the Challenger... just two months after Fallen Gods! That novel, despite being written later, did nothing to set this up. Indistinguishable from Magic tries to paper over how a nurse becomes a doctor in literally moments, but I didn't buy it, and she pretty much could be any doctor character, so I'm not sure why McIntee bothered. Also the Challenger crew spends a lot of time being amazed at gigantic space life-forms, but Ogawa never mentions the time Titan spent exploring the ecosystem of gigantic space life-forms.
  • On the other hand, Nog gets a good couple scenes; I really enjoyed it when he flushes information out of a Ferengi underling by implying Grand Nagus Rom (his father) bought the Challenger from Starfleet. But like Ogawa's, Nog's presence doesn't quite line up. Not for timeline reasons (I don't think we've seen Nog for six years, in universe, though Memory Beta tells me he was mentioned as being on DS9 in Rough Beasts of Empire), but career ones. He's obviously there as part of the novel's engineering all-star team set-up, but he's the Challenger's chief of security because that was the only position available. Okay, I buy that, because Nog was interim chief of security on DS9 between Odo and Ro. However, later in the novel, La Forge considers Nog for first officer, but then passes him up so he's not denied the opportunity to be a chief engineer one day, because he'll be a great one. But Nog already was a chief engineer! If that's what he wanted, he could have just stayed on DS9.
  • I spent a lot of time wondering why Leah was willing to romance La Forge, given that she's married. It turns out that her husband died in The Genesis Wave novels. But if McIntee mentioned this fact for those of us who remember "Galaxy's Child" but do not remember The Genesis Wave, I did not notice, so I was very disconcerted until I read her Memory Beta entry halfway through.
  • You can't expect every thing to reference every thing, but it also jarred me that, when discussing if the Challenger can breach the galactic barrier, no one mentions the attempt of the Enterprise-E to do so in The Q Continuum trilogy.
  • Sonya Gomez puts in a couple brief appearances, which is nice given this book's pseudo-S.C.E. status. I don't think any other member of the da Vinci crew rates a mention, though; Mor glasch Tev is seen, but La Forge doesn't know his name, so he's just "a Tellarite."
  • Scotty may seem to be dead by the end, but we know from Engines of Destiny that he's still around in 2422, so he must get back somehow. Plus, he needs to invent transwarp beaming and give Spock the equations prior to 2387. Maybe his experience here is how he figures it out...?

Other Notes:
  • In the acknowledgements, McIntee praises the cover artist. I can't imagine why, because it is the most generic uninspired thing I can imagine. A Galaxy-class ship with some motion blur, and a swirl. The book has much more interesting imagery that could have made a much better cover.
  • McIntee has a weird tendency to let dialogue scenes go on too long. Like, characters keep talking two or three or four lines after the point which the reader has gotten the point, either to just restate something yet again, or to squeeze in an ultimately irrelevant continuity reference.
  • According to the novel The Return, the captain of the Challenger in 2371 was a Vulcan named Simm. By the time of Indistinguishable from Magic, the first officer of the Challenger is Tyler Hunt, a man obviously named after the characters Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt from Life on Mars. The actor who played Sam Tyler: John Simm. Spooky.
  • There's a joke about how quitting Starfleet was the biggest mistake Scotty ever made aside from bleaching his hair, a reference to how he appeared in early issues of the Gold Key comics. I actually suggested this joke to Dave McIntee, but by the time I read the book, I had forgotten all about that discussion, so I was pretty delighted to discover it.

29 April 2019

Review: Black Bolt: Home Free by Saladin Ahmed, Christian Ward, et al.

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2018 (contents: 2018)

Borrowed from the library
Read November 2018
Black Bolt: Home Free

Writer: Saladin Ahmed
Artists: Christian Ward & Frazer Irving with Stephanie Hans
Letterer: Clayton Cowles

This is the sequel to Black Bolt: Hard Time, which I expected to hate but ended up ranking first when I voted in the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story. Home Free is worth reading, but not as good; with Black Bolt back on Earth and interacting with other Inhumans, and "Crusher" Creel dead, a lot of what made the first volume so good doesn't apply. I still don't care about the Inhumans. Still, the stuff with Black Bolt trying to help out Creel's widow is solid, especially the way the funeral ends up going down, and the art is very nice; Christian Ward will hopefully go on to do great things. The story is a little slow (the six issues probably could have been handled in four), but Ahmed is a perceptive writer, and even though I don't care about Black Bolt's childhood, the parts where he interacts with his wife were actually kind of nice. So, not great, but better than any comic book about an Inhuman has a right to be.

26 April 2019

Summer Driving, Summer Reading

One of Hayley's and my concerns about parenting has been screen time. I try to not judge, as someone who has only been a parent for nine months; you can entertain our kid just by dumping him on the floor with some plastic cups. I am sure this gets harder as your kid gets older. But I do judge. Recently we ate out and the two eight-year-olds at the table next to us needed tablets the whole time to make it through the meal. Is that a grim vision of my own future? Or can I forestall that if we follow the WHO guidelines? I would say we've been pretty good about it so far. Sometimes he wakes up when we're watching tv, and so ends up seeing a little bit of it, and sometimes he's been so upset in the middle of the night that Hayley has shown him a couple episodes of My Little Pony when we've been at wit's end.

But you have to occupy the kiddo somehow, right? Especially in situations where your kids are doing boring things for long stretches. Back in the day my parents needed to do this because of the Mollmann propensity for long road trips. We didn't stop places overnight, but trucked on through, my parents just switching off. Infamously, we once drove from Cincinnati, Ohio to Pike's Peak, Colorado, only stopping for gas and bathroom breaks; it took twenty-four hours. It takes a lot of keep a bunch of kids occupied for twenty-four hours, and there were no tablets to be had.

From coast to coast (well, not really) in this!
For the Mollmanns, the answer was books. In fact, books were what kept us occupied all summer. There was a summer reading program at the library, sure, but my mom ran her own. For every ten (I think) books you read, she would buy you one for the trip. We kept track with lists on the fridge. (Maybe this is the seed of my own exhaustive reading tracking? I never thought about that before.) Things got even better, though-- if you were willing to get your books at a used bookstore, since they were half-price, you got twice as many! So I would read library books furiously to get as many books as possible.

I still have plenty of books that must have come from those shopping sprees, because I have plenty of Asimov and Star Trek books with the stamp of the Book Rack on Colerain Ave. in them. The reading of the books was as exciting as the getting of the books.

I didn't have summer reading for a long time after growing up, but I actually have it again now, thanks to my commitment to voting in the Hugos. As the summer kicks off, I know I have six novels, six novellas, six novelettes, six short stories, six graphic novels, six nonfiction books, and six young adult books to read. Plus my new yearly goal of reading a Charles Dickens novel!

I look to see if our local public library had a summer reading program, but apparently you have to be 5 years old! So it will be some time before our little one can participate.

#583: What's on your summer reading list?

24 April 2019

Review: Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C. S. Forester

Hardcover, 310 pages
Published 1950 (contents: 1948-50)

Previously read July 2006
Acquired October 2008
Reread February 2019
Mr. Midshipman Hornblower by C. S. Forester

1794-99
Jumping backward and writing a prequel saved the Hornblower series, I reckon. It's not just that Forester was almost out of plausible career to cover; it's that showing Hornblower at the beginning of his career plays to the strengths of the series premise in a way that Commodore and Lord Hornblower did not. Hornblower works best as an underdog. A midshipman in the British Navy is about as underdog as it gets, no one is rooting for Hornblower, seemingly not even Hornblower. It also returns the focus to individual ships, which is much more interesting to read about than fleet actions or political machinations. Mr. Midshipman even manages to turn some previous weaknesses of the series into virtues: some previous books (such as Ship of the Line and Lord Hornblower) were frustratingly episodic; Mr. Midshipman is a collection of short stories, not a novel, so it ought to be episodic!

Like any collection of short stories, there are good ones and less good ones. Favorites of mine included "Hornblower and the Even Chance" (where Hornblower realizes he's so bad at duelling he's better off just flipping a coin), "Hornblower and the Cargo of Rice" (where Hornblower's first command ends dismally), "Hornblower and the Penalty of Failure" (where we see what a man of honor he is), "Hornblower and the Examination for Lieutenant" (where we discover how awful the Royal Navy promotion system is, with hilarious consequences), and the longest one, "Hornblower, the Duchess, and the Devil" (where Hornblower manages to sail into the middle of an enemy fleet and not know it thanks to the fog, but also proves his honor to its utmost). Like any good prequel, it's neat to see the seeds sown of what we've already read. I didn't bother to keep track if every old Indefatigable shipmate from the previous five books actually turned up on the Inde, but I did enjoy seeing the infamous seasickness incident, as well as Hornblower's captivity by the Spanish (cited in Beat to Quarters to explain why he knew the language).

This was a reread for me, and a highly enjoyable one. In retrospect, I think it's an odd place to begin the series (it worked for me the first time around, but I suspect that's because I'd already watched the tv show), but as a palate cleanser after an underwhelming shift in direction, it hits the spot.

23 April 2019

Star Trek: The Destiny Era: The Struggle Within

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2011

Acquired September 2012
Read December 2018
Star Trek: Typhon Pact: The Struggle Within
by Christopher L. Bennett

Stardate 59881.2-59927.6 (November/December 2382)
After its initial four-book run, there were a number of what I guess you might call "supplemental" books in the Typhon Pact series, beginning with this, the series's only eBook novella. Given my reaction to the original set of books, and this book's short size, I wasn't expecting much out of it, but to my surprise, it's the best Typhon Pact story thus far, the first to really deliver on the concept's storytelling potential, even if in a limited way.

Like most of the Typhon Pact series, it falls squarely into one ongoing series despite lacking one on its title page; in this case, it's a Next Generation novella, focusing on the Enterprise-E dealing with some of the political fallout of the formation of the Typhon Pact. In classic Next Generation style, we have A- and B-plots focusing on different characters. Picard, Worf, and Crusher on the Enterprise work to bring the Talarians (from TNG's "Suddenly Human," an episode I've actually never seen) into the expanded Khitomer Accords (the NATO to Typhon's Warsaw Pact), while Jasminder Choudhury and T'Ryssa Chen travel to Janalwa, the capital planet of the Kinshaya, where there's democratic political unrest against the theocratic government of the Pact's most reclusive member.

Each story on its own is interesting, and explores the repercussions of the Typhon Pact in a nuanced way. On Talar, negotiations are disrupted when women begin to demand more rights than the patriarchal government will allow them, which puts Captain Picard in an awkward position: the Federation promotes democratic ideals, but it also needs the Talarian government onside as a signatory to the Khitomer Accords, and so can't be seen to be supporting the rebels, even philosophically. It's a classic TNG-style moral dilemma, that only increases in complexity when Doctor Crusher is kidnapped by the female rebels.

The Janalwa plotline is also interesting. Freedom of movement has increased between Typhon Pact signatories, and Spock's Vulcan/Romulan reunification movement has been legalized on Romulus, meaning a contingent of Romulan reunificationists are travelling to Janalwa in solidarity with suppressed Kinshaya dissidents; the Kinshaya cannot act against these citizens of an ally they way they might against their own citizens, providing something of a shield for the Kinshaya. Choudhury and Chen in disguise join the Romulans, and the story explores some of the complexities of nonviolent resistance with fairly explicit references to both Gandhi and the Arab Spring, in a way that also ties into Choudhury and Chen's emotional development.

I enjoyed this plotline for how it extrapolated some of the political ramifications that might come from the establishment of the Typhon Pact. In creating an "anti-Federation," the Federation's enemies inadvertently enabled some of the Federation's ideals to flourish. In most of the Typhon Pact novels (Rough Beasts of Empire excepted), the Typhon Pact has mostly been evil antagonists without much complexity, so it's nice to see that reversed here.

If there's a complaint that I have, it's that I'm not convinced a novella should have both an A- and B-plot. Either plotline could have been expanded more: I can imagine another version of the Talar plotline where Picard did more, instead of fretting about what to do. And while I appreciate finally getting some insight into the Kinshaya here, we just scratched the surface on them; the set-up of the plot means that it felt like most of the friendly characters we met on Janalwa were Chen and Choudhury's fellow "Romulans." Seeing more of Kinshaya society would be nice-- as would be probing the limits of political resistance more. Bennett specifically cites Egypt as his primary inspiration, but the Arab Spring in Libya, for example, was wantonly violent at times. (Admittedly, the death of Gaddafi happened the same month the book came out, so Bennett couldn't exactly take it into account!) I could also imagine a version of this story where making the choice to be nonviolent is personally harder for Choudhury, as well.

But a novella doesn't give you the space for this, of course; I think The Struggle Within would have been even stronger as a short novel, or as a novella focused on a single plotline. But despite that, it's the best Typhon Pact story to date.

Continuity Notes:
  • Choudhury shaves her hair and adopts mourning tattoos when she disguises herself as a Romulan, in the style of Nero and company from Star Trek (2009), picking up on a retcon first established in, I believe, the Countdown miniseries.
Other Notes:
  • The scenes of the Kinshaya leaders using Breen troops to fire on their own citizens were very effective.
  • Maybe I'm something of a prude, but Picard/Crusher sex jokes just don't sit right with me.

22 April 2019

Review: The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

Hardcover, 458 pages
Published 2018
Acquired October 2018
Read November 2018
The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

It took its time getting here, but at least we have the sequel to 2015's The Traitor Baru Cormorant, the second of four installments in the Masquerade series. It's much less focused than the first installment, for two reasons. The first followed Baru from girlhood as she attempted to obtain a position of power in the Masquerade; in this one her goal is much more amorphous (something something destroy the Masquerade). Additionally, the first book told one complete story despite implying follow-ups; Monster is very obviously the first part of a larger story.

Both of these things made it harder for me to like Monster as much as I did Traitor. It took a considerable time for the direction of the book to come into focus, though the more it did, the more interested in it I was.

I also thought that Baru and her fellow cryptarch, Apparitor, didn't always impress as being the powerful manipulators they ought to. Baru is weirdly naïve at times; Apparirtor weirdly cowardly. I expected Baru to be more proactive, but she's actually more reactive than in book 1, despite possessing more power than before.

Still, I think I liked it. If the story begun in this volume finishes in book 3, it will probably take that book for me to know for sure. Dickinson writes strong characters, great prose, and I especially like his worldbuilding. It's a trend I'm noticing in more sf of late: attention to the particularities of culture and the interactions between them (it's also a key feature of Ancillary Justice and its sequels). Little details and big ideas-- no society is just one way, and the way the societies affect and absorb each other is as important as their existence in the "pure" states. Dickinson has built up a complex, living world, and I look forward to seeing it evolve, and to discovering Baru's place in it.

19 April 2019

No No

My son weighs in on if I'm allowed to blog this week.
Last week, I failed to post a Friday blog. this would be the first time I have failed to do* so since I began my current posting pattern in July 2015. that's 192 weeks of regular posting! to be honest, I'm amazed I'd never failed before, but if I was going to fail, now is clearly the time to do so.

My parents came a few weeks ago. When I was driving my dad back to the airport, he asked if I liked being a dad. I said I liked my son, but that being a parent was stressful; I feel like I have half as much time to do twice as much stuff. And it's true. My slack time where I'd catch up (evenings and weekends) has been taken up; my responsibilities have increased beyond lesson planning, grading, mowing the lawn, and blogging.

And my responsibilities are always changing. He's eight months old now, almost nine. Which is pretty crazy to think about. things we used to be able to do to occupy him don't work anymore; we've got baby gates up because that little guy (not so little anymore-- 25 pounds!) sure can scoot everywhere. As soon as he sees one is open, he just takes off on a tear across the kitchen, screaming to himself in delight that he's gotten away with it as he crawls for the cat food bowl or the guest bathroom as fast as he can. He has preferences now, and likes and dislikes and joys in a way that just wasn't true even a couple months ago.

On top of this I have to teach four classes (how do high school teachers do what they do? we may never know), and, somewhat optimistically, maintain a research agenda. I wanted to send out a book proposal months ago, and I am way behind schedule! My dream would be to go back on the job market in the fall and see if I can land a tenure-track job somewhere. But to do that I need a slightly better profile than the one I've got.

And add on top on top of all this that we're coming up on two full weeks without a working fridge or air conditioner. Yes, they both failed the same weekend. the joys of home ownership. I know there are places in the country still buried in snow, but try living in Florida in April sans AC. My son has been spending a lot of time just running around in his diaper, and we've been eating a lot of takeout and fast food.

Back when he was born, I wrote that changes kind of sneak up on me. this one still is. I suspect that if you caught me off guard and asked me if I was a dad, I would say "no." Like, it still feels like parenting, even though it's a thing I do, it's not a thing I am. And I know there are ways in which I could be a better father and a better husband, and it will take some time to keep navigating that. So yes I do like being a dad, and in classic Steve fashion I don't like how it has disrupted my routines, but I do know as I read to him and watch him play in the bathtub for over an hour (he is a water-baby) and cuddle his mother that it is worth it.

We'll see if I change my mind once we try to train him to sleep in the crib, though.

* With the exception of holidays, but that's intentional.

17 April 2019

Review: Lord Hornblower by C. S. Forester

Trade paperback, 322 pages
Published 1981 (originally 1946)

Acquired June 2008
Read February 2019
Lord Hornblower by C. S. Forester

1813-15
I kind of think that Forester noted about Commodore Hornblower the same thing that I did in my review: that it all seemed too easy. Lord Hornblower starts with a big challenge for Horatio, to bring back a group of mutineers without compromising discipline or just slaughtering them all. It's a sticky problem; Hornblower thinks they have a point, but can't give them clemency. But if he fights them, they'll just flee into the arms of the French. What's a captain to do? As always, it's enjoyable to see Hornblower's mind work over the problem and come up with one of his typically clever solutions.

After that (about the first third or so), though, the book flounders, as Hornblower convinces a French town to come over to the side of the French Royalists. Like Commodore, it doesn't feel like it matters. How will the war or Hornblower suffer if this plan fails? And land-bound politics just aren't what one reads a Hornblower novel for. Bush is killed. It's a typically understated moment, but I understand it; it doesn't seem right that all these military men could live through a war, and so someone's gotta die, even if it's just before the close. Feels unfair that a born sailor should die on land, though.

The final third picks up, chronicling what Hornblower gets up to when Napoleon escapes while he's vacationing in France, and thus suddenly becomes a wanted man. It's harsh and bleak and well-written but I just don't think it's where I would go with this series. Again, it just doesn't feel like what one reads Hornblower for. A well-executed version of an ill-conceived plan, I guess. The climax to the whole thing is pretty great, though.

Anyway, the next Hornblower book is our first jump backward, and I can see why; the two post-trilogy books have largely lost what made the first book work so well, and maybe by going back to the roots of the character, Forester can also get back to the roots of the series's appeal.

16 April 2019

Star Trek: The Destiny Era: Fallen Gods

Mass market paperback, 358 pages
Published 2012

Acquired October 2012
Read December 2018
Star Trek: Titan: Fallen Gods
by Michael A. Martin

November 2382 ("roughly Stardate 59833.8"*)
This is a hard book to say much about, because it's just boring. Like, little happens, so what is there to discuss? There's two main strands, so I'll take them in turn.

The first is a by-now-typical Titan exploration story. Continuing its mission into the Gum Nebula, Titan has come across a huge pulsar, but despite the lethal radiation it spills out, it has a life-supporting planet in orbit. You might think this could be exciting, but it is far from so. First off, the beginning of the book alternates what's happening on Titan with what the aliens on the planet are doing, and the planetside chapters read like a parody of bad science fiction. Nonsense words just piled on top of each other interminably, lots of names with apostrophes, an alien race that is divided into two factions, one literally devoted to destroying things and the other to not destroying things. There's no nuance or worldbuilding here. The entire planet is a two-dimensional cipher.

Meanwhile on Titan... not much is happening, either. Like in Seize the Fire, there are an inordinate amount of meetings. It feels like these characters are never doing things, they're just being told things. There's a fifteen-page chapter where Melora Pazlar tells Captain Riker that there's life on the planet, something that we already know, and something that doesn't require this level of justification. When Titan sends a shuttle to the planet, it's hard to care about what it's trying to accomplish, because Michael Martin has done no work to make this planet or species interesting enough to be worth saving. In light of the Titan series's original mission of bringing a sense of wonder back to Star Trek, this book is a dismal failure.

The other plot line continues a thread begun in my previous read, the Typhon Pact novel Paths of Disharmony. Now than Andor has left the Federation, Starfleet has decided it doesn't trust the Andorians still serving, and wants them out of sensitive positions, moved into positions where they can't do any harm. Titan has seven Andorians serving aboard, and so a starship is coming to pick them up and take them back to Federation space. This paranoia is unbecoming the Federation, and hard to believe in. The Federation isn't even in a state of hostility with Andor! These particular Andorians haven't even given up their Federation citizenship! In Deep Space Nine, Worf was never treated in such a way and the Federation was at war with his people. The book tries to justify it with the statement that "during the months since Typhon Pact–allied Breen agents made off with Federation slipstream technology, Starfleet Command has been more concerned about internal security than at any time since the parasite infestation eighteen years ago." But in Martin's eagerness to cram in a gratuitous reference to "Conspiracy," he seems to have missed that surely Starfleet was much more concerned about internal security during the time it carried on a two-year war with shapeshifters! Compared to that, Andorexit is nothing.

This thread develops when an Andorian vessel appears to lay claim to Titan's Andorians itself. The commander of this ship is a cackling, evil caricature. Andor leaving the Federation didn't convince me in Paths of Disharmony, and if this is the kind of stories the writers are telling about it, it's still not convincing me. A lot of this story is dependent on you caring about what happens to Titan's most prominent Andorian crewmember, Pava Ek'noor sh'Aqabaa. I don't, because Martin does little to make me, and I even read the old Starfleet Academy comics from which she derives. (I did find the last chapter with her in it very existentially spooky, though; that was well done.)

The legalistic manner the forced transfer plotline resolved in felt very contrived. And then Riker and another captain smirk about how two of their officers are going to get some. Lol sexy Deltans, amirite?

Also what's weird is that the two halves of the story feel like they were written by different people, because they barely even interact. Warp drive, even warp-capable ships, are a big threat to the planet by the pulsar, but no one even mentions this when the Andorian ships comes warping in.

The big problem is that Michael Martin can't write characters as far as I can tell. No one here has a personality, each has a job and a species, and that's their entirety. They exist to deliver exposition and do whatever it is their species does. But how can I care about such poorly written characters? And thus, how can I care about anything in this book? Thankfully, this seems to be Michael Martin's last contribution to Destiny-era fiction.

Continuity Notes:
  • There's an unresolved thread that the Tholian-allied Andorians created transporter duplicates of Andorian Starfleet officers who refused to come over. I've no doubt this will be of huge significance to the Typhon Pact story going forward. Certainly, something like no one ever mentioning this ever again would never happen.
Other Notes:
  • The novel analogizes the Federation attitude toward its Andorian citizens to the United States's attitude toward Japanese-Americans during World War II. Alyssa Ogawa tells Pava about it. Yet for some reason, we don't get this scene; instead we get this painful scene where Pava tells Tuvok about the Japanese internment, so each character is constantly explaining American history to the other, smothering what could be a potent analogy.
  • A prime example of Martin's over-explaining: after two paragraphs about turbulence the shuttle is going through, we're told, "Bralik and Eviku sat in grave silence. The Ferengi geologist and Arkenite xenobiologist both seemed to have turned slightly green, no doubt because of the turbulence the shuttlecraft's approach pattern was generating." Like, why is everything after that comma even there? If it's so obvious you have to work "no doubt" into the narration, maybe you don't need to say it at all!
  • It's official, I'm totally over the novels' style of Andorian name. Take a look at the load of nonsense letters on p. 212 when the full names of all seven Andorians on Titan are given. It's unreadable. The way Martin uses them doesn't even make sense; the retcon that established this naming practice in Avatar makes it clear that Andorians went by the abbreviated version of their forenames even in formal situations: Shras, Erib, and so on. No one on screen calls Shran "Commander th'Zoarhi." Yet in this book, it's a profusion of apostrophes as Andorians are always calling each other by their surnames... something they literally never do in the canon!
  • There's also this really dumb bit where Pava can't remember that she saw Tholians on the Andorian ship because she has memory loss, until she sees Ogawa, who is wearing a scarf of Tholian silk, which triggers her memory. This makes no sense, because as the novel points out, it's a uniform code violation. It's also an improbably enormous coincidence: Ogawa just happens to wear her Tholian silk scarf for the first time on the day where Pava meets Tholians and loses her memory of them? It's also completely unnecessary, as there's no plot function for Pava's memory loss to begin with, given it lasts all of two pages.
  • I feel like Martin has completely squandered WhiteBlue's potential as a member of the Titan crew. Poor guy. :(
  • The trade dress on this installment is subpar. The spine and back cover don't match the previous books, even though they have the same designer, Alan Dingman! Couldn't he just open up his old Photoshop template and reuse it? The "A VOYAGE OF THE STARSHIP TITAN" on the back cover, which I always liked, is gone. The vertical "TITAN" on the front cover, which used to be done with a very subtle embossing, is now just part of the image. Plus the cover image itself is dead boring, beginning what will be a trend (at least Riker makes it onto this one, I guess, given all of the future installments are just ship images), after the first several books had excellent covers. Bring back Cliff Nielsen! And worst of all, we've gone from matte finish to glossy!

* If this is the rough stardate, how many digits does the precise one have?

15 April 2019

Review: The Complete Poems by Anne Sexton

Trade paperback, 322 pages
Published 1999 (contents: 1960-81)

Acquired c. 2005/06
Read May 2017
The Complete Poems by Anne Sexton

There was a period of my life where I was like, "OOH NO POETRY!", convinced I didn't like the stuff at all. Very slowly I emerged from this state of mind, and one of the poems that got me out of it was Anne Sexton's "The Truth the Dead Know," which I read in a 20th-century American literature survey class as an undergraduate. A semester later, when I had to read a poem aloud in an English education class, it was the one I picked, and my professor praised me for the feeling of my reading. It continues to be in my top five favorite poems, a great poem about grief and human isolation. So sometime around then I went out and bought a copy of Sexton's Complete Poems, but it wasn't until over ten years later that I finally read through the whole thing. Sexton's poetry is still top-notch (my habit when I read a book of poetry is to fold over the corner of pages of poems I particularly like, and there are dozens of such folds in my book now). It was interesting to see her transformation; without knowing much about her actual life, you can see a lot of youthful poems about romance and sex, which give way to ones that feel less overtly personal, religious poems and transformations of fairy tales, before circling back around to the personal again, but in a more retrospective way. I could probably write lots about this book, but to focus myself, I'll pick three of my favorites at random (excerpting from each), and then conclude with my second-favorite.

"The Gold Key" from Transformations (1971)
He turns the key.
Presto!
It opens this book of odd tales
which transform the Brothers Grimm.
Transform?
As if an enlarged paper clip
could be a piece of sculpture.
(And it could.)
Transformations is Sexton's book of fairy tale adaptations, and there's a lot to like in it: her takes on Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella, "One-Eye, Two-Eyes, and Three-Eyes," Hansel and Gretel, and Sleeping Beauty were all highlights for me. I was also really struck, though, by the last few lines of the book's opening poem, which sets up the book's whole project of twisting fairy tales. There's something really captivating in that final image of adaptation as taking a large paper clip and claiming it's a sculpture, which the poem simultaneously disparages ("As if") and affirms ("it could") the truth of.

"Rats Live on No Evil Star" from The Death Notebooks (1974)
Thus Eve gave birth.
In this unnatural act
she gave birth to a rat.
It slid from her like a pearl.
It was ugly, of course,
but Eve did not know that
and when it died before its time
she placed its tiny body
on that piece of kindergarten called STAR.
To be honest, I don't entirely know what to make of this one, which fuses Garden of Eden imagery with ideas inspired by a "palindrome seen on the side of a barn in Ireland." What is Sexton saying about the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge here, about humanity, about human happiness? I'm not sure, but I'm on the edges of understanding, something about the ugliness of humanity and our need to overlook it (as in the poem below, I guess) if we're ever going to be happy. But who knows what kindergarten has got to do with it.

"After Auschwitz" from The Awful Rowing Toward God (1975)
Let man never again raise his teacup.
Let man never again write a book.
Let man never again put on his shoe.
Let man never again raise his eyes,
on a soft July night.
Never. Never. Never. Never. Never.
I say these things aloud.

I beg the Lord not to hear.
There's something about how the speaker confronts the enormity of the Holocaust in this poem that I found very striking. The Holocaust is, of course, indefensible. But Sexton finds the whole human race indefensible after the Holocaust, even in great actions like writing a book or in minor actions like putting on a shoe, and the poem ends (as I've excerpted) essentially without resolution. There is no and can be no defense of humankind, and so the most the speaker can do is ask God not pass judgment, for if He did we would all be found guilty.

"The Boat" from The Book of Folly (1972)
Suddenly
a wave that we go under.
Under. Under. Under.
We are daring the sea.
We have parted it.
We are scissors.
Here in the green room
the dead are very close.
Here in the pitiless green
where there are no keepsakes
or cathedrals an angel spoke:
You have no business.
No business here.
Give me a sign,
cries Father,
and the sky breaks over us.
This is from a cycle of six poems called "The Death of the Fathers," and it's about a speaker riding in her father's speedboat with her mother off the coast of Maine. On one level it's always resonated with me because around the time I first read it was when my own father was becoming obsessed with boating, and I can see something of his pride in the way the speaker describes her own father: "Father / (he calls himself / 'old sea dog'), / in his yachting cap..." My father would never wear a yachting cap or call himself a "sea dog," but the sentiment is similar, the idea that when you drive a boat you command the world.

But pride leads to humbling, and that's the bit I really like (even though this bears no resemblance to any of my boating experiences): the Go Too III plunges beneath the waves and enters another world entirely hostile to humanity, one full of "the dead" and "pitiless" and without monuments built by humans. The ocean is inimical to human life, and will forever remain so on some level-- the poem reminds us that no matter what we might think we command, there are some things in nature that will always hold dominion over us, and if we survive them, it is only a temporary reprieve.

10 April 2019

Review: Commodore Hornblower by C. S. Forester

Mass market paperback, 315 pages
Published 1981 (originally 1945)

Acquired June 2008
Read January 2019
Commodore Hornblower: Number Eight in the Hornblower Saga, The greatest naval adventures of all time!
by C. S. Forester

1812
(Yes, that is exactly what it says on the title page of my 1981 Pinnacle Books edition.)

This is the first book in my reread of the Hornblower series that is not, in fact a reread. Unfortunately, it is clearly the worst of the Hornblower novels, confirming my suspicion that Forester made a mistake at the end of Flying Colours when he gave Hornblower everything he ever wanted: recognition, wealth, and love. Hornblower with recognition, wealth, and love is just not Hornblower, even if he does yearn to go to sea. Commodore Hornblower is the worst installment in the entire series. Unlike in the first three books, where Hornblower is cleverly making the best out of a bad situation, in this book, he commands a squadron and respect. His situation is actually quite nice! You could do a book about how commanding a squadron brings new challenges, but Forester doesn't; Hornblower seems to settle in quickly, without a problem.

Which is really symptomatic of the whole book. It never feels like anything's at stake. In Beat to Quarters, Forester made you feel like this one ship-to-ship battle was of the utmost importance. In Commodore Hornblower, we're constantly told that the war in the Baltic, and thus the whole war with Napoleon, depends on what Hornblower does. But one never really feels that anything significant depends on Hornblower cruising around lobbing bombs from safety and discovering hors d'oeuvres.

It is interesting to note how Forester pulls back from some of the elements of Flying Colours that were intended to wrap things up. In that book, Bush is promoted to captain, but we're told he'll work in a naval yard on account of his wooden leg. Here, he assumes command of an active-duty ship because, well, what's a Hornblower novel without Bush?

09 April 2019

Star Trek: The Destiny Era: Paths of Disharmony

Mass market paperback, 459 pages
Published 2011

Acquired September 2012
Read January 2018
Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Paths of Disharmony
by Dayton Ward

2382
Paths of Disharmony is the last of the original run of Typhon Pact novels, both in terms of internal chronology and in publication order. Despite being marketed as a Destiny-like "event," this miniseries hasn't had an overarching story, so it can't exactly bring things to a climax... it does, however, end the sequence on a down note by providing the Typhon Pact with an unequivocal victory, as Andor votes to secede from the Federation.

I remember a lot of hand-wringing when this book came out about whether it was improbably for a Federation founder to turn around like this; after Brexit (and with attempts at "Unexit"), however, it seems all too plausible. Andor has been through much worse than the United Kingdom, after all. What seems less plausible are the glimpses of the movement we get: faceless terrorists who sabotage science conferences and Federation starships. I get that a Star Trek novel has got to be exciting and dramatic, and so shuttlecraft plastered with "We send the UFP 350 million credits a week; let's fund our Imperial Health Service instead. Vote Leave" are unlikely to form the crux of Paths of Disharmony, but it was a little disappointing that we never saw any non-extremist voices in favor of "Andorexit," and I feel like part of the reaction to this book boils down to that it's hard to understand how a reasonable Andor could vote for this when we in fact never see a reasonable Andorian in favor of it. (Imagine if we saw Shar vote for Andorexit, for example!)

Despite the banner title, though, the Typhon Pact plays almost no role in the novel. A Tholian starship shows up very briefly (on page 311 out of 455) to deliver some information damning the Federation at a key point (information that's accepted sort of implausibly easily), but that's it. I complained that we didn't learn as much about Breen culture as I'd hoped from Zero Sum Game, but compared to this, Zero Sum Game was a cornucopia of Breen historiography and sociology. Paths of Disharmony works just fine as a Destiny follow-up on its own terms, but it has more in common with A Singular Destiny and Losing the Peace than it does the other Typhon Pact novels.

The book is sort of weirdly paced. I get that in novels you don't need to have the Enterprise arriving at the planet of its mission in the opening scene, unlike in episodes, but here it doesn't arrive at Andor until page 147 out of 455, and even once it's there, not a whole lot happens: Andorian terrorists do something, crew reacts, and repeat a few times until the climax. It would be nice to see the Enterprise crew being proactive, investigating the terrorists and/or discovering their plans, instead of just biding time until the terrorists opt to reveal all themselves. The focus of those first 146 pages is on the characters, but like with other Destiny-era Star Trek novels, it would be better if the character was more integrated with action. As it is, we get a lot of personal-life stuff (Geordi and T'Ryssa's love lives are both focused on, for example), then all that is paused for the action, then the last couple chapters tell us how the personal-life stuff wound down.

Like two of the other three Typhon Pact novels, this one takes a Deep Space Nine character and puts them front and center (I guess because there are currently no such thing as DS9 novels): after Rough Beasts of Empire's focus on Sisko and Zero Sum Game's on Bashir, Paths of Disharmony gives a guest-star turn to Thirishar ch'Thane, former science officer of Deep Space 9. To be honest, I'm not sure why he's in the book. I mean, to a degree he has to be: Shar was our way into the Andorian reproductive crisis in the DS9 novels, and so he continues in that role here. But he kind of doesn't matter outside of that, and despite the extra tragedies that have been dumped on him since we last saw him (his whole bondgroup died!), he seems pretty chill. The beginning of the novel has a scene where he wonders why he's been afraid to contact Prynn Tenmei... this never comes up again. He's just kind of there, which is a shame, because he was probably my favorite of the Deep Space Nine relaunch's original characters, but he's just this guy in this novel.

Still, it reads quick, and Ward is pretty good with character voices. But like a lot of components in comic book crossovers (which really seem to be the model for the storytelling style of the Destiny era), Paths of Disharmony mostly seems noteworthy for what happens, not how.

Continuity Notes:
  • Always happy to see a Stavos Keniculus shout-out. My favorite dumb episode of the cartoon. (As opposed to a favorite good one, like, um... does "Yesteryear" just win by default?)

Other Notes:
  • It's weird to me that the TNG novels and their closely-linked spin-off, Titan, are at the same time doing the thing of a captain married to one of his crew, and they're raising a child. I was meh on the Picard-Crusher marriage to begin with, and even more meh on the Picard-Crusher child, but reading Seize the Fire and Paths of Disharmony moves me over into thinking this was definitely a mistake for The Next Generation. Each of these series should have its own distinct identity, and having two series with captains who fret about toddlers robs them of that.
  • I find it strange that T'Ryssa Chen, the Enterprise's "contact specialist," hasn't had much work to do since Losing the Peace because the Enterprise hasn't been on first contact missions. It hasn't been on first contact missions, but its humanitarian work would certainly count as contact missions. It seems like Chen would have been quite busy during the past year, doing a lot of sociocultural legwork for Picard on all the various planets where the Enterprise has been doing troubleshooting.

Typhon Pact Overall:
I have two touchstones for considering Typhon Pact as a series. The first was the e-mail I got from Marco Palmieri inviting me to participate. It was originally supposed to be six novels, one for each member of the Pact, and also to incorporate the Starfleet Corps of Engineers and the IKS Gorkon. Though losing the da Vinci and the Gorkon is sad from a I-like-those-series perspective, the way that the Tzenkethi and the Kinshaya are basically nonentities in this series is even more disappointing. (Though there were another four more Typhon Pact novels, so it's possible we'll get more to come on these guys.)

The original series premise also promises in-depth exploration and worldbuilding in little-traveled civilizations, and I don't think the series lived up to that with the civilizations it did cover. Zero Sum Game is probably the best at this, showing us a potentially very interesting Breen society even if it doesn't do enough with it. And Rough Beasts of Empire has a good grasp on the Romulans; David George doesn't do anything new with them, but he captures their virtues and their flaws very well, I think. But Seize the Fire rendered the Gorn mostly as caricatures, and Paths of Disharmony tells us literally nothing about the Tholians.

My other touchstone is a presentation I saw series editor Margaret Clark give at Shore Leave (in, I guess, 2009?). Basically, as I remember her telling it, Marketing and/or booksellers came to her and said, "Destiny sold amazingly; do you have anything else like that?" and she replied with, "Yes, but instead of three books, I'll give you four." But Typhon Pact is a very different kind of crossover to Destiny, and even leaving aside that it's four stories with four authors instead of one big story with one author, there's just not a lot to look back at and say "wow" about. And I say this as someone who wasn't much into Destiny to begin with!

08 April 2019

Review: Star Trek: Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor by John Byrne

Comic trade paperback, n.pag.
Published 2010 (contents: 2010)
Acquired September 2012
Read November 2018
Star Trek: Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor

Written and Illustrated by John Byrne
Colored by Lovern Kindzierski
Lettered by Neil Uyetake

John Byrne writing and drawing Star Trek is probably the best thing to come out of IDW's sometimes mediocre Star Trek comics. Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor shows what McCoy was up to as a civilian between the original series and The Motion Picture, after he left Starfleet, and also ties into Byrne's earlier minis Crew and Assignment: Earth.

from Star Trek: Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor #1

It's okay. Byrne knows how to draw a great story and tell a good one, but sf medical mysteries have a trap, and Byrne falls straight into it in most of the stories here, which is technononsense overriding the human or sfnal element, which happens a little too often. Still, he captures the voices of the established characters well (in addition to McCoy, Scotty, Kirk, Number One, Gary Seven, and Roberta Lincoln all appear), and I enjoyed the new ones, particularly Theela, the Andorian stowaway who joins McCoy's medical mission, and he draws great Star Trek and sf imagery. Not perfect, I guess, but I enjoyed reading it a lot.

05 April 2019

The Earth Is Our Mother, We Must Take Care of Her: Black Orchid

Neil Gaiman's three-issue Black Orchid miniseries has been collected more than once, I believe. The 23-issue ongoing series it spawned, however, has never been collected at all. But I was curious, and so as I do, I tracked it down to read it.

Black Orchid is one of those many Vertigo titles that reads as though the writer wants to be Neil Gaiman. Sprawling, full of mythical and mystical side creatures and side stories. But trying to be Gaiman means you can never be Gaiman, because the one thing Gaiman is, is distinctive.

Dick Foreman's best issue is his first, where a reporter tries to track down Black Orchid years after the events of the miniseries. He has a cluster of information, but he's not sure if it really all goes together. Could this prostitute and this superhero and this campaign volunteer all be the same person? The story is told from his perspective, and glimpsing Black Orchid from the outside is intriguing and often horrifying, especially in the story's climax. It's jumpy but never confusing, probably thanks in part to Jill Thompson's expressive artwork. You always know what these people are thinking.

After that, though, it feels like Foreman never quite knows what he wants to do. First Black Orchid travels south with her new human friend, to a refuge in Tennessee. On the way, she fights an alien fungal infection. Not exactly what I thought the remit of this series was but okay. Then she learns of a Greek immigrant's love affair with a dryad. More mythological than I imagined (the myth of the original mini was more vague "Earth mother" stuff) but it's all plants, so that's okay.

But then she goes back to South America and it all goes a bit wonky, what with dream quests and whatnot, the series drifting further and further away from the ecological roots of its premise. I found this stuff so incredibly uninteresting. It's also around this time that Rebecca Guay takes over as penciller. Guay gets better, but her stuff always looks stiff compared to Thompson's.

There's a brief uptick when Black Orchid marries a capitalist overlord, forcing an examination of her morality, but then it's a trip to England in what really feels like a Sandman rip-off, and the worst part of Sandman, Faerie. And then all of a sudden the series is hurtling toward a conclusion it feels like it didn't properly set up. Instead of a vision quest, couldn't we have spent time moving the pieces into position for Black Orchid's "turn"?

I like the idea of the climax, but it feels too sudden, and too obvious. In the early issues, Black Orchid was broadly sympathetic but occasionally dark, but then she all of a sudden becomes manically evil... even though it really seems like she has a point about humanity on the Earth, even moreso in 2019 than 1995.

On the whole, the trajectory of the comic feels like a weird choice. It ought to be about environmentalism and gaiaism. Instead it moves into more Sandman-style magic; there are whole issues, for example, about the little Black Orchid, Suzy, journeying through strange fantasy realms. These realms might fit into The Sandman or Lucifer or The Books of Magic, but they pull the book away from its own unique selling point. The book ought to be about the magic of flowers, of the environment, of our relationship with the Earth, but instead it's about all this other stuff, and I don't know why.

03 April 2019

Review: Hornblower: Flying Colours by C. S. Forester

Trade paperback, 294 pages
Published 1966 (originally 1938-39)

Acquired May 2007 
Previously read May 2008 
Reread January 2019
Flying Colours by C. S. Forester

1810-11
What is my third Hornblower book in this readthrough was in my original read of the series my final one. Back in 2008 I wrote:
This is the last of the Hornblower books that I own-- obviously it's time to make another trip to the used bookstore. Overall, this one was honestly something of a disappointment. Hornblower doesn't really succeed in this one because of his natural brilliance; he succeeds mostly because of a series of unlikely coincidences. The house he takes refuge in in France just happens to host someone sympathetic to his cause, the harbor he visits just happens to have a captured English ship there, the harbor also just happens to have a passing group of prisoners he can liberate and enlist [...], and his wife and Lady Barbara's husband just happen to die in time for a marriage. Hornblower's various marital indiscretions, though probably realistic, make him less than sympathetic, and I just don't like Lady Barbara. (God, the scene where his learning that she's taken his son in makes him feel a rush of affection aggravated me to no end. His wife taking care of the kids never seemed to do much for his feelings for her!) Still, the seafaring bits (rare though they are in this volume) never fail to disappoint as always. My least favorite book in the series so far.
This time I liked it more, and I would definitely rate it above some of the books Forester wrote later, like Hornblower and the Atropos. Yes, a lot of things go in Hornblower's favor, but the thing that makes Hornblower succeed isn't those opportunities, it's the way he seizes hold of them. He's lucky with what happens to his carriage in the snow, but taking hold of that opportunity and getting Bush and Brown out of there requires genius and determination. It's a harrowing, thrilling sequence. Though one wants some good naval adventures in a Hornblower novel, I actually felt the contrast between this book and the previous ones worked very well. It's a tragic notion that Hornblower, Bush, and Brown actually have the best time of their life while hiding in Napoleonic France-- it's a much less hard life than that in the Royal Navy. I like the different side to all three characters we get here. Brown was in the previous book, but not up to much of note; here he pops. I always like Bush's stolidness; here he puts up with an awful lot!

As always, I have thoughts on Hornblower's relationships. Here my theory that Laby Barbara is meant to show how duty constrains his personal life as much as his professional one breaks down because here Hornblower totally has an affair with Marie, which means he's cheating on Maria and on Lady Barbara! He has neither respect for the commitment he's made to Maria, nor for the torch he supposedly carries for Barbara. What is up with you, dude, except that you will take sex and affection where you can get it? (The novel carefully makes him not an initiator... it just kind of "happens.") It's weird that a man who twists himself into knots with self-control in other aspects of his life has none here, and I just don't quite know how to reconcile it with my mental image of Hornblower.

Well, I kind of do. The main thing we know about Hornblower is that Hornblower Must Suffer. He accomplishes much, but he never quite succeeds. His battle in Beat to Quarters was an amazing success that went relatively unheralded due to circumstances. So keeping him apart from Lady Barbara adds to his suffering. Though then at the end of the book, Hornblower gets everything he ever wanted, including Lady Barbara. I wasn't really into this, because I think Hornblower works best when he's scrapping, trying to make the best of a bad situation. Making him successful, rich, renowned, and loved undermines what makes Hornblower Hornblower (as we'll see in Commodore Hornblower). But Forester thought this would be his last Hornblower novel, so I can forgive a happy ending; the issue isn't really with Flying Colours, then, but with the fact that three more novels followed it chronologically.

02 April 2019

Star Trek: The Destiny Era: Seize the Fire

Mass market paperback, 499 pages
Published 2010

Acquired September 2012
Read January 2018
Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Seize the Fire
by Michael A. Martin

Early 2381 - August 2382
The previous Typhon Pact novels thus far haven't been moored to an ongoing series; each featured a Deep Space Nine character, but neither was really a Deep Space Nine novel. Seize the Fire is, however, a Titan novel, despite the lack of subtitle, as well as a Typhon Pact novel, so I'll be considering it from both angles.

The Typhon Pact was promoted as giving readers insight into underseen Star Trek aliens, and thus Seize the Fire promises us insight into the Gorn. Well, unfortunately, anything interesting or insightful is a long time coming. Michael A. Martin focuses on the Gorn caste system, and it basically comes out to a monotonous tech caste good, military caste bad. There are two different military caste leaders, and both are depicted as barbaric belligerents without subtlety, even though they're on a mission to save their people from extinction. The Gorn captain in "Arena" was way more canny and principled than these guys even though he was primarily committing war crimes. Like, there's a basis for sympathy here that goes completely unused. We gain no real insight into the Gorn.

Occasionally the novel raises sort of interesting ideas, but it tramples over them. The Gorn scientist who spends a lot of time on Titan is a very adept mimic, imitating Riker's voice enough to get into the shuttlebay; Martin here is picking up on how the Gorn in "Arena" sent multiple messages to the Enterprise to bait it to Cestus III, including mimicking the base commander's voice. You could do something with this, presenting the Gorn as canny and adaptive but in Seize the Fire it's really jarring with how they're otherwise characterized. S'syrixx can't even get Federation names right in his internal dialogue, calling them things like "Rry'kurr" and "Troi-mammal" and "Tie-tan," but you're telling me he can imitate Riker's voice enough to fool his crew? The idea of genetic castes also seems interesting (and potentially ethically dubious; at the novel's end the "good" Gorn are just going to re-engineer the warrior caste to be more pliable!), but trust me, by the end of this novel you'll hope no one ever says "caste" ever again.

What really dampens any potential insight into the Gorn is that the Gorn-only scenes are just painful to read, not only because of the sledgehammer characterization, but because the poor characterization means all you have to hang onto are these terrible space names. When discussing the two Gorn commanders, Riker says at one point, "Krassrr isn't Gog'ressh," and I was like, He isn't? because I literally could not tell those guys apart the whole book. Plus there's some dopey space religion stuff, which flattens the Gorn, not expands them.

As a Titan novel, it's not much cop either. Riker and Titan are curiously inactive, spending much of the book just watching the Gorn while the reptiles prepare to "ecosculpt" an inhabited planet. When done right, Titan is my favorite novel series, back-to-basic Star Trek with a modern update, but the characters have no life here. There are so many ineffectual staff meetings it's like you're reading a caricature of The Next Generation. Which is weird, because it was a scene in a novel co-written by Martin that made Titan come alive to me, and that scene was about a meeting! (The Blue Table just chatting away in Taking Wing or The Red King, I forget which.) None of the characters pop, and they don't really have any kind of character threads, except that Vale goes from prejudiced against Gorn to still prejudiced against Gorn.

There are also times the book is just clunkily written, such as times a character does a thing that obviously indicates an emotion, and then the narration tells us that this emotion is obviously indicated. There are also a few times where it seems like the interesting things happen "off-screen" while we follow less interesting things, and then someone gets filled in on the interesting things. Why? Martin tries to cram exposition into dialogue, too, which weird given that this is not a tv show, such as this mellifluous exchange:
PAZLAR: Eviku and Chamish were the first to notice the pattern [...]
VALE: If anybody aboard Titan was going to find that sort of pattern, it would be our resident xenobiology and ecology experts.
PAZLAR: Apparently. Unfortunately, my expertise in those fields doesn't overlap all that much with that of the biospheric scientists. My specialties are cosmology and big-bore physics.
Like, there had to be a less clunky way of getting everyone's science specialties into the book. Surely Vale knows this! Though I'm not sure why it matters at all.

Between these factors, Seize the Fire makes for a dull read, and the weakest Typhon Pact novel yet. A poor exploration of the Gorn, and a dull novel otherwise.

Continuity Notes:
  • Seize the Fire reconciles the different appearance of the Gorn in "Arena" and "In a Mirror Darkly" by indicating that the "Arena" Gorn was warrior caste, while the "In a Mirror Darkly" one was technological caste. Though this is compared to the various Xindi species, which doesn't really seem analogous at all.
  • Riker thinks about a story that he heard that O'Herlihy and Lang, the two tactical officers who weren't Kelowitz that went to Cestus III with Kirk, weren't killed by the Gorn, but were tortured for years or decades for information. This is not mentioned again. I can only assume it's a reference to something, because it's totally irrelevant, and Michael Martin novels reference irrelevant things like it's his job, but if so, I don't know to what.
  • A number of characters are skeptical that the ancient ecosculptor can be sentient. This makes little sense given the whole previous Titan novel was about artificial intelligence... and one of those artificial intelligences is standing right with the characters while they argue about this!
  • Titan, since the events of Destiny, Over a Torrent Sea, and Synthesis, has returned to the Vela OB2 Association, the star cluster in the Gum Nebula that was the setting for the earlier Titan novel Orion's Hounds, though none of that novel's worldbuilding seemed to be in play here.
  • Vale mentions that she learned to be an XO by watching Riker on two different Enterprises. This is wrong, as Vale came aboard the E-E after the Dominion War, replacing Daniels as chief of security. She did not serve on the E-D.
  • The Prime Directive is said to explicitly invoke warp drive as a criterion for first contact-- thus causing a difficulty for Titan when the crew discovers a planet where the inhabitants have warp technology but not warp propulsion. This jarred me, as I never had the impression that warp qua warp was mentioned in the Prime Directive. We've seen Starfleet interact openly with pre-warp societies, and also the Prime Directive applies to species with warp technology (even the Klingons!). My personal impression of the Prime Directive is that it's probably a relative short rule with two centuries of accumulated judicial rulings because the idea of "natural development" is impossibly complicated. Warp drive is definitely an important criterion, but I never had the impression from the show that it was written into the actual Directive as the criterion.
  • Also there's a joke about how even in-universe, "These Are the Voyages" is considered to be terrible. (Did Riker tell Troi that was how he felt about it?)

Other Notes:
  • This one is a little long, and a little personal, but I feel it's worth mentioning in case it's influencing my judgement here. In Fall 2008, following a conversation at Shore Leave, Michael Schuster and I sent a couple pitches to editor Marco Palmieri at S&S. One of them was eventually accepted, and became the Myriad Universes story The Tears of Eridanus. The other was for a Titan novel where (in a subplot) the ship ran into a Gorn exploratory vessel charting the same planet as it. Marco responded that this fortuitously aligned with his plans for the Typhon Pact series. He said that fitting Titan in was a challenge, but our proposal showed a way with its depiction of Gorn exploration, which could be tweaked to incorporate the Typhon Pact. (He also said it wasn't very good!) On December 1 he e-mailed us to say some Destiny reading materials were coming to us to give us the background we needed; on December 4 we heard that he was fired, and his editorial replacement on the Typhon Pact project never answered any of our e-mails about it... and then the next year a Gorn/Titan novel by a completely different person was announced! So it goes. At the time I was upset, I think, but finally reading the book almost a whole ten years later it's like it's from another life.
  • Deanna has really powerful empathy in this novel, reading the emotional intentions of distant fleets of Gorn in precise detail!
  • I guess it's a thing that Typhon Pact novels will include extended irrelevant flashbacks; this one has a gratuitous chapter about mission from Tuvok's Excelsior days to do with the Genesis Project.
  • A couple threads are set up (Tuvok's ecosculpting knowledge, something bad with White-Blue) which I guess will be picked up in future Titan novels; I see the next one is by Michael Martin again.