13 November 2023

Star Trek: The Destiny Era: Titan: Sight Unseen

Star Trek: Titan: Sight Unseen
by James Swallow

early 2386 (a few months after The Fall)
I remember enthusing to Marco Palmieri about Titan at Shore Leave 2008, calling it my favorite original Star Trek fiction concept. There was a scene in the first or second book (I forget exactly which) that brought it all to life for me: a conversation between a bunch of Titan junior officers at the "Blue Table," where we saw this delightful array of perspectives and ideologies all in play together, all working toward the same goal. Subsequent novels tapped into that too; my particular favorite was Geoff Thorne's Sword of Damocles, but many were good.

Published: 2015
Acquired: February 2022
Read: July 2023

The last few Titan novels, though, have foundered. Seize the Fire was dreadful and Fallen Gods was even worse. The Poisoned Chalice was a good read, but its events promised a big change to the Titan format: the promotion of Will Riker to admiral. What would Titan look like with its lead assuming new responsibilities?

Sight Unseen only kind of answers that question. I don't think it's impossible for a Star Trek series to have an admiral as its lead, but it would have be different from what we are used to. Sight Unseen kind of plays lip service to that, and it informs the character details of the novel in important ways, but not the overall plot. Admiral Akaar pulls Titan off its mission of exploration to serve as Admiral Riker's flag in handling a sector on the Federation frontier... but Riker doesn't do any of the kind of things you might do as an admiral; the ship goes to answer a distress call and does some investigating. Not to complain about what this book isn't and probably isn't even trying to be, but I kept thinking about C. S. Forester's Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies, which really effectively took a captain character and gave him the new problems of admiralcy.

So I am of two minds because in sort of ignoring Riker's promotion, the book sticks closer to the core of what makes Titan appealing, but also it undermines the integrity of the series as it's developing because it is clearly shying away from its own status quo changes. This isn't exactly an "exploration novel" like many Titan books have been, but it does hew closer to the strengths of the Titan series than we've seen since James Swallow's last contribution, 2009's Synthesis. We have mysteries in space, daring rescues, clever problem-solving, good teamwork, and meaningful character conflict all in a fairly slick, well-written package.

Titan goes to rescue another Starfleet vessel that itself was assisting a recently contacted alien race with their new warp drive technology... only it discovers that both have fallen victim to the "Solanae," the mysterious aliens responsible for the events of the TNG episode "Schisms" (one I've never seen, fact fans). The creepy aliens begin preying on Titan's crew, and for Will Riker and Sariel Rager in particular, it brings back some bad memories. Soon, though, things get ever more complicated.

It's one of those books that's filled with little bits that work and all add up to make it fairly effective. Like I said, it doesn't feel like Riker is really doing admirally things... but the book does make good use of his and Captain Vale's new sets of responsibilities as well as Riker's previous experience with the Solanae. Riker is untrusting and paranoid, Vale is more open-minded and idealistic. It's not what we usually expect, but it makes sense for both characters, and it leads to some good conflict and moments between them. Riker getting to meet his own torturer (and what that torturer does) was good, too.

I also liked new characters Ethan Kyzak, a Skagaran rancher, and Sarai, the new executive officer. Kyzak is fun, and gives us a few good moments in the book, and Sarai brings some useful tension to the perhaps overly cozy Titan crew without crossing the line into villainy.

We also get good moments for lots of other Titan characters: Ra-Havreii and Pazlar and Torvig and WhiteBlue and especially Zurin Dakal. Some long-running threads are paid off; I have felt like the minor Titan characters have kind of been in stasis since Synthesis, so it's good to see them in motion again.

There are also lots of great sequences: the away team drifting in space, the creepy action on the Titan against the Solanae replicators, the Titan's purposeful creation of a wormhole, the way the transporter is used as a weapon, the rescue operation from the Solanae prison. Lots of clever, interesting stuff; the book was... well, fun isn't the right word given how grim it could be, but it balances the darkness well with punch-the-air moments.

There's an implacable enemy here, but the book also reaffirms in post–The Fall fashion the return to optimistic Federation values at the same time. This isn't going to be my favorite Titan novel, but it is a solid one, and despite my misgivings about its premise and the series's change of concept, proves that my favorite original Star Trek fiction concept still has legs on it. (I also have a bad feeling it may be the last Titan novel to do that, but I'll try to stay open-minded.)

screencap from "Schisms" courtesy TrekCore
Continuity Notes:
  • I feel like, some small mentions aside, you could go straight from The Poisoned Chalice to Sight Unseen. The scenes in the beginning about Riker becoming an admiral and Vale becoming a captain feel like they pick up right from Swallow's previous book, without the events of Absent Enemies and Takedown; it doesn't feel like Riker has done any admiralling or had any meaningful interactions with Vale.
  • The book is right to point out that Seasons 4-6 was a pretty creepy time on TNG: Rager mentions "Schisms" and "Night Terrors," but you could add "Violations" and others I'm sure I'm forgetting. (Despite Rager saying "that year," though, "Schisms" and "Night Terrors" are set in 2367 and '69 if you believe the Okuda Chronology, or 2366 and '68 if you believe me.)
  • There's a reference to the TNG Dominion War novels by John Vornholt, which surprised me... but I actually feel like I read a different one of those recently. In one of David George's DS9 books? Am I imagining this?
  • Despite a mention of Vale fighting Remans in Absent Enemies being acknowledged as a mistake (and even deleted from the text, thanks to the magic of ebooks), this book reiterates that she was on the Enterprise-E during Nemesis, despite what we actually saw in A Time for War, A Time for Peace.
Other Notes:
  • It was cute to see Starship Spotter established as an in-universe text.
  • I guess I will never get my dream of a Ravel Dygan / Zurin Dakal team-up, alas.
  • This is the third Riker story in a row, after Absent Enemies and Takedown, to be a direct sequel to a TNG episode. It's beginning to make the world of Titan feel a bit insular.

I read Destiny-era Star Trek books in batches of five every few months. Next up in sequence: Deep Space Nine: The Long Mirage by David R. George III

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