The first Star Trek: Discovery novel is a mixed bag. The good bits include interaction between the Shenzhou (the starship in the pilot episode of Discovery) and the Enterprise (commanded by Captain Pike), interaction between Michael Burnham (star of the new show) and Spock, and an intriguing alien mystery. The bad bits include a very much by-the-numbers separatist-colony subplot and the underdevelopment of the alien-mystery plot.
The major motivator of the plot is Michael Burnham's candidacy for First Officer of the Shenzhou. The author, David Mack, does a good job (most of the time) of keeping our eyes on this target, and the resolution of it is satisfying. It also works as a focus for character interactions, because the dynamics between Burnham, her nemesis Saru, and Captain Georgiou get some space to play here. Although the book was written before the show premiered and by now we've only seen a little bit of how Burnham interacts with others, there's been enough established that at least this one novel can play out some of these threads.
It's unfortunate that this novel suffers from the all-too-common Trek malady known as the Subplot. Now, I do not hold the Subplot per se in disfavor. But I recognize that it is not a thing to be taken lightly and that it is difficult to make satisfactory. There is a subplot in this novel involving a separatist colony. Why exactly they want to separate was a mystery at the beginning of the novel, and the causes and potential effects of separation are almost completely abandoned by the end of the book. In a word, this subplot was pointless. As far as I'm concerned, the only good that came of it is that it gave an excuse for the chief medical officers of the Shenzhou and Enterprise to meet and exchange banter for about one and a half pages.
That said, I was usually entertained by the story. Many elements of it are time-honored Star Trek story elements, and the sense of discovery is palpable... at least if you can remember to be excited by the alien mystery amid the fiery distractions of numerous firefights.
One more thing I enjoyed about Desperate Hours is that the oldest Star Trek (Pike's Enterprise) meets the newest. At this point, I think it's always going to be a challenge for Trekkies to reconcile these iterations produced 50 years apart from one another and yet supposedly occupying the same canonical space. But I applaud David Mack for giving it a genuine effort. On the page, at least (where visual effects are... less visible), it's fun to throw them together.
UP NEXT: Well, I was going to continue Strahan's Year's Best vol. 11, but while I was at the bookstore, I picked up the Sept/Oct issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, just on a whim. It's been years since I've read a sci-fi magazine and the urge overcame me. So, I think I'll read that next, then jump back into Strahan's anthology.
Stories about Cardassia and Garak have easily become my favourite part of TrekLit nowadays, so it was time to reread this excellent "autobiography".
Divided into 3 parts, A Stitch in Time sheds light on Garak's history, the way others always made decisions for him, the way loss and betrayal shaped his life more than loyalty and friendship. And it all starts at school where he meets life-long friends and equally life-long enemies, and the love of his life, Palandine, who indirectly causes his fall from power and exile on DS9.
This part is a fascinating glimpse into Garak's history with various characters (such as Dukat, the story behind "The Wire", Tain), Cardassian society as a whole, but also into the microverse of Garak and his family. Tolan Garak, the man he believed to be his father and who turned out to be his uncle, ultimately perhaps influenced his life more than Tain and his mother Mila. Because while Tolan only belonged to the frowned-upon service class he nevertheless was more independent from outside influence than upper-class men, including who Garak comes to be. It takes years for Garak to see that.
The second part are diary entries between "In the Pale Moonlight" and his departure for Cardassia which relay Garak's conflict (culminating in the panic attacks) between betraying Cardassia and ultimately saving it from the Dominion together with the Federation. It highlights the growing distance between Julian and him, and the anxiety just what Cardassia he'll be able to return to. What will be left? As a side story, he meets a friend of Ziyal's who turns out to be an agent of the Khon-Ma, assigned to kill him - a woman who survived the destruction of the shuttle back on Bajor that cost her family their lives and for which she holds Garak responsible (again see "The Wire").
Finally, the third part is set on post-war Cardassia. Garak has returned home, a world in perpetual twilight after the Dominion tried to exterminate the population, leaving over a billion dead, a world in ruins. He turns Tain's home into a memorial, a place where people can mourn and slowly move on. And for the first time in his life he finds himself able to choose his own path, meeting old friends and enemies and determining Cardassia's future.
In the end, Garak comes full circle, open to new ideas because he's learned to adapt due to his ever changing surroundings. And I think Tain would turn in his grave if he saw Tolan's influence prevail over his own, resulting in Garak's interest in the Oralian Way (even if also as a means to find his love Palandine after the war - BTW, curious how the later novels don't mention her but emphasize Garak's friendships with Bashir and Parmak)... but it's gratifying to see that all of Tain's machinations, his power and loyalty plays, his treating people like pawns on a giant chess board ultimately fail.
A highly recommendable book - and together with "The Never-Ending Sacrifice" maybe the key to understanding the Cardassian mindset.
Synopsis: The Enterprise is called to Sherman's Planet, where agricultural scientist Jean Czerny is adapting a new quadrotriticale seed (The Trouble with Tribbles, anyone?). However, by the time they arrive, Jean has been taken captive by Commander Kang, a ruthless Klingon who will do anything to get the new seed to his starving worlds, including using force on the scientist. But Jean is not all that she seems and the situation is not a simple case of kidnapping. Jean is forced to live among the Klingons, working to end the famine that threatens their empire. But even as she adapts to her brutal new surroundings, new dangers and intrigues threaten to overwhelm her and her newly adopted mission of mercy. Will she ever see the Federation again?
Pawns and Symbols is... frankly, a weird entry in the series. It reads more like a historical romance book than a Star Trek episode: an intelligent young woman is captured by a powerful, but still attractive half-savage and uses both her brains and her body to survive the encounter, learning, as she does, that the man and the culture are not quite as bad as she first thought. It reminded me a lot of the 1919 novel The Sheik, and that's no compliment. The Sheik, the story a man who captures and brutalizes a woman who eventually falls in love with him, was a sensation in it's time, spawning a popular movie and sequel. In Pawns, after his attempt to rape Jean is interrupted, Kang forces her into a sort of concubine role and she is used and abused throughout the rest of the book, beaten quite severely at times. I may be oversensitive, but I found this to be an uncomfortable read. Abusive characters like the Sheik and Kang are next to impossible to redeem and encouraging fantasies about them and excusing their behavior is a dangerous game to play.
Anyhoo, preaching aside, Kirk and crew are hardly in the book at all, though they are well written when they appear (there's an odd episode with them in the middle book that seems more like a short story than a necessary part of the novel). The author goes into great detail about the Klingon Empire, but while she spends a lot of time on Jean and Kang, she leaves her other new characters short on personality and backstory. In sum, the book feels more like better-than-most fan-fiction written by a woman who had a lot of fantasies about Klingons (in particular, the commander from Day of the Dove) and probably should talk to someone about that.
Not recommended: skip this and go see next week's theater showings of Wrath of Khan instead.
Bashir and Sarina learn of a secret programme that pervades systems throughout the Federation (and beyond) and has been in place for centuries. Nominally it registers threats and brings them to the attention of the authorities - but it has long since developed a mind of its own, acting on its own... and creating Section 31, calling itself Control. Bashir engages Data's help in finally bringing down this machine.
First of all, the idea of the machine Uraei reminded me awfully of Person of Interest. A machine that listens to everything and monitors everyone to evaluate threats and prevent them. Here, Uraei develops a mind of its own because it sees that the normal channels are too slow, too bogged down by bureaucracy to work efficiently. And so it creates its own hierarchy, its own agency that operates without oversight, and Section 31 is born (just like Samaritan back in PoI). And of course, shutting it down means infecting all copies and preventing the machine from downloading a saved original copy from a secure place. Again, like PoI. So, this part did not really seem very original, and didn't actually engage me all that much.
The only thing here that held my interest are the implications, like the machine allowing the Xindi attack for the higher purpose of trying to strengthen security and eventually form the UFP pretty much earth-dominated etc. So there are canon events orchestrated by Uraei, and that of course, puts Federation history as we know it in a new perspective.
So, Bashir, Sarina and Data try to put an end to a machine code that pervades everything, every computer, every system on starships, every local law enforcement - but how to actually expose and remove that all-powerful surveillance and indepently acting force without actually throwing the UFP into chaos? And what if that all-knowing machine that has planned events for centuries now, that has built layers upon layers of security around itself, is actually aware of what's going on... and just uses people for its purpose? Doesn't that put a new, and rather bleak spin on fate, how much is predestined and how much one can control and change his own fate?
I think that's where "Control" gets really interesting, not so much in the premise that is, after all, not really new, but in those far-reaching ramifications. It feels as though Bashir, Sarina and Data just play unknowingly in a giant holo-programme, a holo-programme that encompasses the whole universe, and only the machine knows what's really going on. A nightmare-ish scenario... but is it if you're not really aware of it? If you don't know anything about the machine or Section 31 (unlike Bashir, Sarina, Data and some other select people)?
Bashir and Sarina unknowingly fulfill their part in Control's machinations, fight a fight that they can't win, and suffer the consequences when Control pits them against each other. I have to admit that I haven't really cared all that much about Sarina, but her fate, and consequently Bashir's actually put a lump in my throat. Catatonic, Bashir ends up in Garak's care on Cardassia where "Enigma Tales" picks up the tale.
Actually, Garak's role is pretty small. He's one of the 3 persons (other than Sarina) who Bashir trusts in this situation, and his feelings towards Bashir become ever more overt. I'm wondering where this is going to lead. Other than that, Mack continues with Data's tale and Lal's development; and most importantly, some of the questionable missions of recent TrekLit years come to the light while fighting Control, such as Zife's removal from office and subsequent execution (and Picard's involvement), Section 31 trying to commit genocide against the Founders etc. It's going to be interesting to see the repercussions here.
Overall, a quite disturbing novel that takes a bit to gain steam. But once it does, Mack doesn't pull any punches, makes his usual twists and turns and puts his characters through the wringer. And the outlook on Federation politics may never be the same again - because who's really in charge?