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Old June 11 2009, 03:38 AM   #269
Trent Roman
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Re: Star Trek: Destiny Book 2: Mere Mortals - (SPOILERS)

I finished Mere Mortals about a week back, but was too otherwise occupied to write a review until now. Hopefully I’ve not forgotten everything. After really enjoying the first book in this series, this book felt like a sizeable step down from those heights, although it wouldn’t be fair to call it a bad book either (I voted ‘Average’ in the poll, whereas I’d classed the previous one ‘Excellent’). My main problem with this novel is that, while taken individually scene by scene and chapter by chapter, the writing is quite good (and sometimes truly gripping), the pieces don’t fit well together when you look at them as part of the greater narrative of a novel, and a trilogy. It’s like looking canvas where individual figures are vividly detailed, but the overall painting has flawed perspective or is otherwise visually disunified; it lacks composition. The battle with the Hirogen is a good example of this: taken alone, it’s a thoroughly engrossing sequence, and if I had presented with just this—as a short story in an anthology, say—I would have called it a success. Within the context of the book and the trilogy thus far, however, it feels like a pointless aside, as though there was a sudden realization that the novel lacked a climax but the overall plot arc did not permit it to be something tied more closely to the metanarrative of the Borg invasion, or else that the book desperately needed motion, even if it was just running in place. Looking at the book in retrospect creates an odd sense of dissonance, like looking at a trompe l’oeil, between constituent parts and overall effect; and if it seems like I’m harping on this point, it’s only because I want to point out that this review will probably come off feeling more negative than was the actual experience of reading the book, because of that lacuna between ‘in the moment’ and ‘retrospective’, and a review like this (particularly a week later) naturally tends to evaluate the work as a whole rather than a series of individual instances of writing.

Related to this, my second big complaint about the book was the overall sense of stagnation one gets as one reads through, functional and thematic; stemming, in part, from the previously mentioned sense that individual events aren’t engaging with the overall narrative, that what motion there is in the book tends to be running in place, if that, and much of what does take place is subsequently rendered futile by the end of the novel. I think this novel suffers from classic middle-book syndrome (can I say that without having read the third yet?); too much filler; too little plot movement. Thematically, it may be appropriate for the sequences about Hernandez’ sojourn amongst the Caeliar, where it reflects the characters’ physical imprisonment and varied reactions to it, but outside of those chapters this listlessness feels at odds with the supposed urgency of the incipient disaster that the Borg invasion entails. These are characters who are supposed to be in conflict, but most of them just stand around, spin their wheels, and wait for the hammer to fall—ironically, it’s the prisoners’ tale that has the most engaging conflict, albeit psychological rather than physical. Major storylines aren’t being advanced—we’re still no closer to understanding the Borg’s abrupt change in behavior, how to counter the threat… heck, the Borg are barely in it at all (what if they held an invasion and no one showed up, I kept asking myself). And then there’s the fact that large swaths of the book are rendered irrelevant at the finale, making even some of the most dynamic scenes look like futile filler in retrospect, and leaving many of the theatres almost exactly as they were when the book began. And pacing is just destroyed; if I stopped reading in the middle of a chapter I would be keen to return, but stopping at the chapter mark, I wouldn’t be enthused to get back to the book, largely because of this sense that the story, overall, just wasn’t going anywhere, and was taking it’s sweet time doing so, too. It’s a shame, because pacing was a strong point of Book 1, and where this book has almost as many settings in which to tell the story, I would have appreciated greater difference in the ‘atmosphere’ of the respective story threads the way Book 1 had created a diversity of moods, rather than just having the occasional Palais/Bacco scene be the lone energetic theatre of operation.

The Enterprise was my least favourite plot thread last time around, and there’s no real improvement here, despondent and inert outside of the opening and closing scenes. Indeed, I find myself struggling to remember what they even did for most of the book, other than effectuate repairs, call for reinforcements and then ineffectually bob in and out of subspace corridors, looking for the Borg. There’s a brief scene where the Enterprise journeys to the sealed galaxy of the ancient Caeliar, but nothing comes of it. On the frontlines of the conflict, I really feel like there should have been more happening. Even the lone tactical debate—on whether or not to collapse the tunnels, before the impossibility of doing so became apparent—felt dry and obvious. They just watched a billion people die but are so unaffected that a bunch of them want to keep the passages open and risk another attack—risk more worlds aflame? There will always be more to explore, close by or far away; but that’s a pointless concern if there are no explorers left, only Borg. I will say that at least we start getting a better sense of Elfiki since there are challenges that engage her scientific specialties, and so far I like what I’m seeing of this character. She doesn’t demand as much attention as other characters, but there’s a quiet power to that kind of reserve at the same time. The rest of the characters… well, as elsewhere, nothing much is happening. Picard seems a bit flinty, but understandably so given the circumstances. Worf hooks up with Choudhury as had been hinted at going back to Greater Than the Sum, and LaForge might be getting some eventually, Kadohata gets her family to run… overall, it still feels like this crew is in a rut, which is rather startling considering how new some of the characters and interactions ought to be.

I had hoped joining up with the Aventine would give this storyline the latter’s impetus, but instead Aventine gets bogged down in Enterprise’s quagmire, right down to a jaunt through subspace and encounter with an alien species, the Orphans of the Storm, that ultimately amounts to nothing (well, I suppose they might come back in Book 3, but with the tunnels collapsed it seems unlikely). Having lost the mystery animating the storyline in the previous book, we also wind up getting much less of the characters overall; granted, Book 1 was the introduction and had, as goal, of introducing one to the Aventine crew, but they’re still so new that a more sustained effort would have been appreciated. Instead we get mostly Dax, a bit of Bowers and Leishman, some Kedair towards the end. On the Dax front, I’m glad that the question of her role as captain is brought up since I was asking myself similar questions back in Book 1, but Bowers’ answer to her self-doubts is pretty unsatisfying considering that it references unknown events. I get why the book doesn’t want to step on the DS9R’s toes, but why not show us how Dax actually took command of the Aventine instead of simply referencing it? It might sell me better on the idea, which I’m still not convinced by; she seems to be doing an adequate job, but there’s little there that one might call remarkable, that makes her worthy of attention beyond any other guest captain. Arguing with Picard over the tunnels doesn’t help either; her sense of priorities is rather off.

Titan is a good example of how little gets accomplished over the course of the book: it begins with the ship prisoner in orbit and the away team prisoner on the surface, and ends essentially the same way, only in the last pages suggesting that Titan might actually break free. On the other hand, the divided crew and the challenges they try to overcome means almost everybody gets engaged and most of the major characters get a goodly amount of screen time, so to speak. It was interesting to see the away team react to the Caeliar—we’d seen it before, with the Columbia crew, but what caught my interest here was the ways in which the more advanced and multifarious Titan team reacted and evaluated differently from their predecessors. Along the same lines, it was interesting to contrast their escape plan to the MACO’s, being more technological and ethical. Although it too ultimately proves futile, it does show off the character’s cleverness. Elsewhere, Troi’s questionable judgment explodes into full-blown psychosis at the end of the book—technically her own fault for being so pig-headed, but one wishes Vale, Ree or Tuvok had had the balls to confront her before it came down to this. Ignoring a problem never solves it, and they’re not being very good friends or fellow officers by allowing her to keep endangering herself like this. I was mildly surprised by the end of that storyline—Ree biting Troi—but soon supposed that Ree’s species must secrete some kind of sedative along their fangs like some Terran reptiles do—and having since started Book 3, I see I was pretty close to the mark. Because they’re stuck on the ship, and their plan very esoteric, we don’t get the same sense of activity from the rest of the characters. I thought Huilan was being something of a prick towards Pazlar—there’s little point in suffering through physical pain if a virtual avatar performs all the same tasks and interactions just as well—until the reveal at the end of the scene that she’s losing her sense of location. That’s a real shame, because it seemed like such a good solution (and the holoemitters will also make the whole ship accessible to the EMH, I presume), although I hope Huilan’s other suggestion gets taken up on (knows a lot about physics for a counselor, doesn’t he?). It does raise the question, though: if you could have a personal holodeck, who needs quarters? A storage locker for personal affects aside, and you could tailor your space into whatever one needs, living space, work place or whatever. Might be a power drain on the ship if everybody had that, though.

Once again, the best part of the book was the Columbia storyline (minus the Columbia, now). This is where the overall feel of the book matched the storyline to create a sense of unity between content and atmosphere, and where the plot truly imposed inertia on the characters instead of stalling until the Borg invasion could be rolled out. A number of things make these sequences stand-out, and probably the best amongst these is the ease of empathy that this reader built up not only with Hernandez but with all the characters imprisoned in Axion, such that even though the characters wound up taking very different paths—psychological breakdown, suicide, constant passive resistance and the two-way inveigling between Hernandez and Inyx—I could not only understand why such ‘choices’ are made but sympathize, to the point that it becomes indeed challenging to say which is better. That’s the other thing I really liked about this part of the book: the even-handedness of all possible responses, the lack of judgment from the narrative itself, doesn’t give the reader any easy answers, while the ongoing debate (particularly between Hernandez and Fletcher) really makes you wonder what you would do if you were in their situation. It’s a testament to the moral complexity of the situation that I really have no idea what I, personally, would choose to do; even given what eventually happens to Valerian, it’s hard to say that the prospect of watching a friend die—and facing the twilight of one’s own life alone—wouldn’t compel one to act exactly as Hernandez did, to cling to whatever life and possibility the Caeliar’s draconian edicts permit. So they pass, one by one, and the reader mourns, until Hernandez, alone, makes the choice we all knew she was going to make but is no less affecting, thanks in large part because of the emotional maelstrom raised by Valerian’s fate and Fletcher’s disapproval. Conflict, obviously, tapers at this point, as does sympathy from watching Hernandez play jailer to the Titan crew, but I still enjoyed watching Hernandez’ running battles between her newfound abilities and growing insight into Caeliar technology versus the Caeliar’s supercilious panopticon of limitations. Glad she kept the rebel flame burning, and I’m looking forward to see what happens now that she finally looks to have escaped the Caeliar’s yoke, physical and psychological.

Incidentally, there was some debate in the last thread regarding the Caeliar… after regarding this book, I have to say: I still think the Caeliar are assholes. Just standing by as Valerian and the others degenerate, their lives wasted in captivity—I can’t imagine any species with true compassion rather than desiccated dogmas allowing this to happen. They claim to never want to inflict harm, but when a person goes insane, catatonic or suicidal as a result of their action, they clearly have far too narrow a definition of harm, one that makes no accounting for mental health; they make a big song and dance about not doing anything to someone without their permission, but this solicitude is irrelevant when one considers it ends the moment it is an inconvenience to them and their Great Plan. A Great Plan they are still pursuing after their previous, millennia-long effort resulted in cataclysm, which only adds to my sense that whatever scientific and artistic skills the Caeliar lay claim to, they’ve lost any real creativity, as individuals and a civilizations, simply pursuing the same imitative goal as before (and the Caeliar that got sent far back in time apparently just did the same thing, enclosing planets and worlds until they turned their whole galaxy into a hermitage). I was only briefly surprised when Inyx revealed that the super-advanced civilization that destroyed Erigol were Caeliar; I recall mentioning last time I felt this hyper-advanced civilization had treated the Caeliar as the Caeliar had treated others, and I was bemused to find there was a lot more truth there than I had expected.

However, it does raise some confusion. As I thought about the book, one of things I was going to mention was that I was bummed that we didn’t see what had happened to Graylock and his people after they had gone back in time. Having since started the third book, I see that it was just something that had been delayed until now, but I’m not quite sure if I understand what happened at the end of Book 1 now. The Caeliar allowed themselves to violate their temporal edict for the sake of the humans amongst them… but if Graylock and his people were aboard a city that ‘only’ went back a few thousand years, and not the one that harnessed the galaxy as I had assumed… why did that city go back in time rather than be destroyed if there were no humans aboard it to save? Is it that the gestalt nature of the Caeliar meant that all cities were connected, that they couldn’t move singularly but only as a collective?

The second-favourite part(s) of the book for me were those scenes at the Palais and assorted other glimpses into the bigger picture. The story has to be focused through the characters, of course, but I think it is very useful to have these moments that communicate what’s happening elsewhere, beyond our familiar ships… particularly given that not much is actually happening there, and all the wheeling, dealing and organizing in these sequences add a much needed sense of dynamism to the metanarrative. I adored the political tidbits of Bacco trying to cobble together an alliance of all the local powers, by hook or crook (although I’m not sure about the Talarians being a major power… I had to look them up, and it doesn’t seem they’ve really had more than the one episode). We get a more humane view of Jellico and Nechayev that actually makes them look like people instead of a comedic duo. Garak is wonderfully creepy as always (I’m not sure if this was intentional, but I really like that a point is made of Garak saying ‘indubitably’… then, later, Ordemo says it too—there’s a parallel to be made there, how a veneer of courtesy and refinement hides something sinister…). I’m not sure about Shelby here not realizing that the Borg learn from even destruction—wasn’t she an expert on the Borg when first brought in? Even if she hasn’t been keeping up, it seems like a rookie mistake. And Shostakova getting all up in a tizzy about thalaron weaponry seems like another case of misaligned priorities. First of all, technology has no intrinsic morality, only its application, and it’s not as if you could actually use it to wipe the Borg out—even if they’ve never run into thalaron weapons before, Starfleet probably wouldn’t get more than a few shots in before they adapt. Second, it’s rather pointless to be worried about the political repercussions of something when facing a foe that will leave no polities of any sort in its wake. Not that Seven’s plans are altogether that useful. Thalaron weapons, like I mentioned, are unlikely to work more than a few times, and evacuating a civilization of hundreds of billions like the Federation is entirely unfeasible.

However awesome these scenes are, though, they lose some of their luster in retrospect because of how futile they prove. Which leads into my biggest, specific complaint about the book: the battle in the Azure Nebula, or rather, the lack thereof. The book spends sizeable chunks of time putting together and organizing the allied expeditionary force, of keeping watch until they can be deployed, and I, as a reader, was expecting that something would come of all this buildup rather than meekly fizzling out in a dud of an ending, as the ultimate fate of the fleet occurs offscreen—not, apparently, that there was much of anything to show. I was expecting a Battle of Pelennor Fields type of event (didn’t think it was going to happen until the third book, really), serried ranks of disparate vessels standing together against the implacable foe, a scene both inspiring and terrible… and instead, we get road kill. To me, this is the gun on the mantle that never fired, a major disappointment that unceremoniously snuffs one of the few plotlines I was enthusiastic about as I was reading, and reinforces the sense that a lot of the book is squandered or otherwise simply acts as filler. (Not too sure about Chakotay having a hate-on for the Borg, either; that worked in “Nemesis”, but largely because it was so unusual for Chakotay. Not sure how often one wants to go to that well, or can do so without endangering what few qualities that character actually has left. I guess I’ll see what gives in Full Circle.)
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