19 May 2021

Star Trek: The Destiny Era: Peaceable Kingdoms

Published: 2014
Acquired: October 2020
Read: November 2020

Star Trek: The Fall: Peaceable Kingdoms
by Dayton Ward

October 13-27, 2385
I've been trying to decide what I wanted out of this book. In some ways, The Fall is a loose mini-series; it's not like, say, Destiny, where you could publish the whole thing as one big book. But it is also not Typhon Pact; it's not just a set of books about a common situation, there's a sequence of plot developments that carry from book to book. The events of Revelation and Dust spark the events of The Crimson Shadow and A Ceremony of Losses; A Ceremony of Losses directly leads into The Poisoned Chalice; The Poisoned Chalice directly leads into Peaceable Kingdoms. At the end of The Poisoned Chalice, it's known that Ishan's chief of staff was responsible for the assassination of President Bacco, and Riker has reached out to Picard to try to stop it...

It feels to me this book thus needs to escalate from the previous books. Ceremony of Losses featured Starfleet ships firing on each other; Poisoned Chalice made you think enemies could be anywhere and everywhere across the galaxy. But Peaceable Kingdoms seems to deescalate the tension of the two previous books. It doesn't just do the same things over again, but does them less interestingly. While in Poisoned Chalice we met and got to know Ishan adherents, here they're all distant figures wearing black hats. While those stories went all over the galaxy, in this one, it's mostly about Crusher scrambling around on a desert planet, and the Enterprise investigating a freighter. It feels small when we need big. If this is a test of values... one never actually feels that Picard and the Enterprise crew are doing anything other than an ordinary mission. Give me Picard on the run or something.

It's also, well, boring. I never felt any tension during the bits where Crusher and (Tom) Riker were trying to stay out of the way of the people trying to stop them from uncovering Ishan's identity, and the Enterprise seemed to aimlessly meander. I struggled a lot with the flashbacks, too. The way Ishan's big secret plays out is too easy; we learn it early on, and from then, the only tension-- such that there is any-- isn't anything about Ishan, but just if Crusher can deliver the information. It was so easy to learn Ishan's secret, I expected some kind of further twist, but it never came.

It doesn't help that the bad guys are just not very good. In one part, La Forge gets a tip from Sonya Gomez that the da Vinci transported a special operations team pretending to be engineers from one civilian transport to another, and it was obvious to her that they weren't engineers. If you are in special operations and so bad at pretending to be engineers, why use a Starfleet Corps of Engineers vessel as your transportation for no readily apparent reason?

The big weakness at the heart of the novel, and thus The Fall, is Ishan himself. As I highlighted in my review of Crimson Shadow, it's weird reading The Fall in 2020, because it so clearly reads as a commentary on movements like Trumpism and Brexit in some ways, even though it was published 2013-14. The revelation that Ishan is actually a Bajoran collaborator who killed the real Ishan and took his place during the latter days of the Occupation... it reads like wishful thinking about Trump. I feel like there was a school of thought out there that Trump was some kind of Russian plant, and if we could just unmask him, this would all be over. But the scary thing about Trump wan't that he has some kind of secret (though admittedly he has pretty bad secrets), the scary thing about Trump is that he was exactly who he said he was. That Ishan should have this secret dark past is wish fulfillment and an easy out. Oh, you don't like this guy's policies? Well, conveniently for you, he's actually a murderer and a liar. But what if Ishan had been above board? Or at least clean enough not to get caught? What would our heroes have done then? I feel like that would have made for a much more interesting (if difficult) novel than the one we got.

Stephanie Chaves-Jacobsen as Kadohata
(photomanip by Columbia clipper, I think)
Continuity Notes:

  • One reason I thought the Ishan story was fishy and too easy was that I felt like the novel was working so hard to convince that Ilona Daret was an old friend of Crusher's. There's this chapter where Picard and Crusher think about three different previously unseen adventures where they encountered Daret (pp. 26-7). My feeling was then whenever a Star Trek story tries to convince you a previously unseen character is such a pal, they're being set up for a betrayal (e.g., The Stuff of Dreams just a few books ago). Imagine my surprise when I looked something up on Memory Beta halfway through the novel and it turned out that Daret was in fact a preestablished character, from an insignificant anthology called The Sky's the Limit. No traitor at all, and not previously unseen, either. Except Dayton Ward spelled Daret's first name wrong. I bet the guy who wrote the original story was pissed.
  • One of the flashbacks to Crusher and Daret is set on the Enterprise-D and includes Miranda Kadohata. Kadohata first appeared in the TNG relaunch novel Q & A, but it established that she had served about the Enterprise-D as well. Despite that, no work of fiction I am aware of had actually shown her on the Enterprise-D until now, some six years after she was introduced-- and some four years after she was written out!
  • On p. 370, zh'Tarash says she will be serving out the remainder of Bacco's term... but A Time for War, A Time for Peace and Articles of the Federation seemed to establish that the new president after a special election serves out a complete four-year term, resetting the cycle. But in general there are a number of inconsistencies with the way presidential terms have worked in Destiny-era fiction.
Other Notes:
  • People complain about Dayton Ward's tendency to recap too much; I didn't notice anything here, except in ch. 14, where Picard repeatedly thinks about things we know already from ch. 11. "In truth, the cargo run to the colony world was but one part of the ruse Admiral Riker had engineered as a means of giving Picard maneuvering room while the captain carried out a different, clandestine mission" (122). Yes, I know, because I read about it not even 25 pages ago! Later in ch. 14, there's a page-long recap of things the reader already knows about Bacco's assassination if they've been reading this very book.
  • I said the bad guys were not very good... but on the other hand Velk has to be a Palpatine-esque master manipulator for this plan to work. How did he know that if Bacco was killed, he could persuade enough people on the Council to select Ishan as president pro tem?
  • I have come around to the idea that Andorian readmittance would be fast-tracked... I am less persuaded by the idea that an Andorian could become president so quickly. It seems like pretty presumptive to begin campaigning for an office before you are even eligible for it!
  • I might have missed something so I am hesitant to call this out... but is it a coincidence that Daret discovers incriminating information on Ishan at this exact moment in time?
  • "Peaceable kingdom" is apparently a theological term, but I am shocked, shocked I tell you, to find out that it is also the title of a song by Rush.

The Fall Overall:
This five-book series contained one excellent novel, one highly enjoyable novel, and three novels that did little for me. It doesn't seem to be a coincidence, either, that the best of the five has the least connection to the main premise of the series; the idea of an increasingly authoritarian Federation coming into conflict with Starfleet idealism seems like an interesting one, but the series did little to make this plausible or compelling. But if it had done this, and had made Ishan less of a black hat, then that might have been too much politics for what is fundamentally an action-adventure series. I guess this is why I'm not very into the political turn of Star Trek fiction: the politics take over the story to the exclusion of what I enjoy about Star Trek... but the politics aren't complicated and realistic enough to convince, because then the books would be something totally different. They're sort of in the uncanny valley.

Weirdly, though The Crimson Shadow has little to do with the plot of The Fall, it probably is the only novel with something interesting to say about the themes of The Fall. None of the other novels really did much with the ideas of how institutions succeed and fail that Crimson Shadow spoke so eloquently to... but they should have. Based on the way real world politics have gone since these books were published, it seems like we could have had a series about a rising tide of nationalism across local space, tying them together more clearly and thematically.

I did like the dominoes thing-- the last three books each hand off to each other, but focus on largely completely different casts of characters. I think really the issue is Peaceable Kingdoms doesn't do anything that the two previous books don't do. It's the same domino we've already seen fall! (to stretch this metaphor to its breaking point)

Peaceable Kingdoms
ends with President zh'Tarash stating the Federation is going to get back to exploring things, and there's an interview with James Swallow that describes this as an out-of-universe goal of The Fall as well: "I think we’re going to go back to some of the more traditional mode of what Star Trek is, which is about going to the strange new worlds and exploring all the cool stuff out there." But, you know, if you think Star Trek fiction should be telling more stories about exploring space, you could just commission stories about exploring space. I would have just opened the next TNG book with Bacco sending Picard an e-mail: "Dear Jean-Luc, everything the Borg wrecked has been sorted out, the Typhon Pact is all smiles, go out there and find some weird squid aliens and get into a moral dilemma or something." I'm not persuaded you needed to do a five-book political series to set up that there won't be more big political series! (Clearly this is why my Star Trek tie-in career went so well.)

I read Destiny-era Star Trek books in batches of five every few months. Next up in sequence: Prometheus: Fire with Fire by Bernd Perplies and Christian Humberg

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