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Old July 5 2009, 04:52 AM   #559
Trent Roman
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Re: Star Trek: Destiny Book 3: Lost Souls - (SPOILERS)

I wasn’t sure whether to write this, since it isn’t going to be the glowing review most people have given the book. But I figure since I wrote reviews for the first two, I might as well type out why I was ultimately disappointed with the finale, and the trilogy as a whole. Maybe a dissenting perspective can be useful; I don’t know. I finished the book a while ago, but I needed to know why I reacted (or rather, failed to react) the way that I did to the book. Having thought about it, my principle objections to the book are twofold: one, the excessive amount of death and destruction and the permanent damage done to the setting and its philosophy; second, the messianic resolution which renders most of the trilogy immaterial because the characters contribute nothing to it; as we say here, they just stand on the side of the road, waving their dicks at the traffic. There’s a kind of irony here: typing all these reviews into the same document, I can go back and check what I disliked about previous entries, and there’s sad amusement to be found that my biggest problem about the first book (which I otherwise liked)—to wit, the fact that the E-E characters were spinning their wheels, not acting but reaction—not only infects all the other storylines in book two but becomes the essential theme of the book’s resolution, which appears to celebrate impotence, passivity, and yes, failure.

Reading the book is an experience of ups and downs. At first one gets excited, because after all the meanderings and doldrums of Mere Mortals, the pacing finally picks up again, conveying the sense of urgency that had been missing from the invasion so far; plus, we get to see what happened to the survivors of Mantillis, which I had not been expecting and was thus a pleasant surprise. Then there’s a down bit as urgency of the situation proves to have been too urgent: not content with the devastation as the Azure Nebula, now we’re ‘treated’ to the Borg invasion fleet wreaking slaughter across swathes of Federation and Klingon space, at which point the heroes have essentially lost, and the rest of the book is essentially going to be about whether their abject failure will be complete or mitigated. Then there’s an up bit when the characters, belatedly, finally start fighting back (although even there it proves too late); the middle of the book is probably my favourite part of the trilogy, other than Hernandez’ saga over the three books. Then finally we end on a down bit as we get to a resolution that has next to nothing to do with what’s come before and next to no involvement from the characters whose civilization is getting its assed kicked. The ending is just so depressing as this higher power swoops in to rescue the incapable, so-called heroes then departs, leaving the Federation a burning ruin.

It should be said, in the interests of fairness, that I don’t think this is a poorly written book. As with Mere Mortals, most individual scenes accomplish what they set out to do; it’s in the totality of effect that it falls apart—and by the third book, it’s impossible to ignore the baggage of what had come previously, as was still possible to enjoy isolated scenes like the Hirogen attack. That’s my one, major technical gripe: the disconnect between plot and resolution. For the rest of it, I admit my distaste stems from conflicting ideology: I have always considered Star Trek’s optimism and humanism to be at the core of the universe, to be what sets Trek apart, uniquely, from every other space opera and near-dystopian future out there; and this book skirts if not outright contradicts both. So before I start my bitching in earnest, I’ll go over what I did like.

Like I said, I was very glad to see Graylock’s people again after thinking that their fates had already occurred ‘off-screen’ in Mere Mortals. Ironically, just before reading this book I read through a non-fiction study of a 19th-century ship (the H.M.S. Enterprise, as coincidence would have it) and its unsuccessful search for the lost Franklin expedition, so I was fresh off a scientifically-research account of survival in Arctic climes and was impressed by how realistic and accurately detailed the experience of the Columbia survivors was (for an alien planet with wendigo-like predators, that is). Despite the fact that these were all characters one was inclined to dislike, to varying degrees, for their participation in Foyle’s genocidal escape attempt, the battle they must wage against their ruthless environment actually endears them to the reader, as does the psychological tensions in the group, keeping everything—including Thayer’s very real trepidation at living with those who maimed her—suppressed to maintain to cohesion of the group, even as they start dropping off one by one to the various perils they’re now subjected too. Previously I had compared the Hirogen attack to ‘Alien’; these sequences were, in their own way, like watching a well-crafted thriller. So, too, was watching the doomed native expedition; despite the short amount of space devoted to them, and the foregone outcome, you actually feel that these are real people from a multifaceted culture in the brief period of time one knows them.

The origin of the Borg… well, I felt like something of a dunce in that I had missed it up until then. I had speculated about a connection between the Borg and the Caeliar back after Gods of Night, but my chronology was completely off. And yet, in retrospect, it’s possible to see all the clues woven into the overall narrative, and I appreciate a complex, interwoven mystery like this. And ultimately, one can’t help but feel sorry for Thayer, Graylock and even Pembleton—to have endured so much, only to, finally, tragically, suffer a fate worse than death. It’s even hard to feel much antagonism for Sedín, who distinguishes herself amongst the Caeliar as someone who actually wants to live, which, however unfortunate the consequences, is still welcome in such an otherwise atrophied, stagnant species. Although her attitude of callous pragmatism bordered on the cruel, at the time she enslaved the humans she was little more than a collection of instincts, much like the ghost aboard Columbia, driven only by the animal urge to survive, capable of gaining knowledge but never capable of once again finding true consciousness. It is, surely, a terrible existence for all concerned, and it’s nice that, in the end, the Caeliar are able to give Sedín peace before she must die.

The middle part of the book—from Hernandez formulating her plan to become a duplicate queen to their narrow escape from the Borg scout ship--is very entertaining, my favourite part of the trilogy other than Hernadez’ biography. As I’ll get to afterwards, much of the preceding 24th-century portions of the book had made me shut off, but as this plan coalesced and was implemented, I found myself getting excited again, quite likely the most engaged I had been since I finished the first book. THIS is what I had been looking forward to ever since the announcement that there would be a Borg invasion: the characters, old and new (well, mostly new—more on that later, too), using their brains, their creativity, their strength and their willpower to effectively combat the apparently insurmountable foe. It has action and drama, courage and tragedy, sacrifice and victory; it’s a hundred pages or so that manages to capture the full spectrum of human(oid) experience by putting it under incredible pressure yet demonstrating that, however dearly tested, they will overcome, without for that matter ignoring the bloodier consequences. It’s a very rousing sequence; even when you hit the hard patches like the friendly fire incident and the scene in sickbay afterwards, it is still uplifting: they might take their hits, they might go down, but they go down hard, they fight to the bitter end, and they rage against that dying light (unlike certain, more submissive characters one could mention). It was nice to see Bateson and the Prometheus in action again; and when they deployed the Hirogen power dampeners, I actually thought that the story was starting to come together, that all the stuff that had seemed besides the point in Mere Mortals would prove valuable after all. There is a fly in the ointment, of course, in that they’re too late—not just too late to spare the Federation the Borg invasion, as many worlds already lie in ruins, but too late even to prevent the attacks on Vulcan & Co., only to alleviate them. But then, this isn’t a book about people who win but people who lose, so I suppose it’s thematically appropriate that even at their most victorious the characters still only manage a mitigated failure. Still, I don’t want to end on a down note, so I want to single out the firefights aboard the Borg ship and Hernadez’ psychic battle against the Collective as sequences particularly worthwhile—the first, for the tension and cinematic quality, the second because it was something unexpected yet made perfect sense within the context of a mental struggle, the Borg turning her own memories against her, burning ‘ground’ to deny her refuge.

It’s unfortunate that the rest of the book, and indeed the trilogy as a whole, wasn’t more like this: pursuing the setting and characters’ potentials instead of reveling in their faults. The whole destruction thing is a fad I have gotten quite thoroughly sick of, so I’m distinctly displeased to see it happen to the Trek universe (and I should perhaps say ‘again’, although there certainly was no way for the author to anticipate that the latest film would go in the same direction of destruction and failure), which is, after all, supposed to be a cheery, sometimes nigh-utopian vision of the future, a literary fulfillment about the promise of progress in technological and societal development. I fail to see any reason why that society needed to be torn down, destroyed for the sake of an arbitrary, fashionable notion of what constitutes drama—the Trek books we had been reading in years past had been amongst the best in the line, balancing the ability to tell consequential stories without losing sight of the basic premise underlying the fictional universe. Devastation at this scale is unnecessary and unwarranted, and winds up being so extreme that it has the opposite effect of becoming flat and devoid of feeling. I recognize the various attempts to make the tragedy ‘humane’ in scenes such as the death of Tuvok’s son, and I suppose I should be grateful since this is something I felt was missing from the devastated worlds in the first book, or the off-screen non-battle at the Azure Nebula, but the truth of the matter is that I was unmoved because by that point I had just shut down, emotionally speaking. I was reading the text, but not feeling it. The idea that scenes like this were being played out not just across the entire planet but indeed across huge swathes of Federation (and allied states) is just overwhelming in its negativity; even with individual instances, the scope of the devastation is impossible to engage with, and instead of feeling sad or aggrieved, I was just benumbed, as the sheer hopelessness of it all made it impossible to care. I think there is certainly room to explore dark patches in Star Trek--well-written stories about the Occupation or Mirror-Universe have fulfilled these roles—but it was always exploring the shadows in a universe of light, with the knowledge that the better society of the Federation was proximate even if it wasn’t present. But now that universe of light has been replaced by one of shadows. I expect—or hope, anyway—that there will be oases of light, but the whole tone of the franchise has just taken a change in tone for the dark.

It was something similar that came over me when I got to the end of the book and its apparent resolution. I was reading the text, and I could note the various techniques being used to make it seem uplifting—the raw emotivity; the grand, epic scale at which the transformation was being worked, encompassing billions; the Manichean imagery of light and dark, shoehorned dichotomies of good and evil; the scurrilous religious allusions—but I was insensate to it all. At first I wondered if it was the same numbness as before, but no—that middle portion had managed to get me geared up, so why did this portion feel so terribly remote. Then Picard solves it for me: “We did it,” says Riker, to which Picard replies: “No, Erika did it. We just lived through it.” Precisely: one feels detached from the resolution because it has little to nothing to do with what came before it, no input from any of the characters save Hernandez, and thus ultimately no point of entry, no mediating figure through which one can identify with what’s happening. If it seems remote, then it’s exactly because it’s occurring at such a remove; I, as a reader, don’t really have anything invested here. If some characters, whether original or old-guard, had been assimilated previously, and we could have experienced the liberation of the Collective from their perspective, I think it would have been of benefit. Of course, there were no assimilated characters because the Borg weren’t doing that anymore, and now we know why: if the Borg invasion had followed traditional Borg tactics, then the resolution would have restored most of the conquered Federation worlds; there would have been a great deal of lingering trauma from the experience itself, but there would not have been worlds aflame and species extinguished, and since the point of this trilogy was to trash the setting, that wouldn’t do. Incidentally, I don’t think we ever did get an in-universe explanation for why the Borg turned into the Snidely Whiplash Collective; there’s a bit about the most recent Borg queen emerging from with a direction to destroy the Federation but no explanation for what spawned the EVIL! command. I suppose one could speculate that the semi-aware spirit of Sedín lurking beneath the hive mind had something to do with it; perhaps the destruction of the transwarp hub by Voyager was of such a scale that it was able to stir corrupted memories of the Caeliar Cataclysm and hatred towards humanity.

I feel that this lack of participation in the resolution not only makes for an unsatisfying ending, it also retroactively undermines much of the trilogy. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the Caeliar serve as a deus ex machina, because they’ve been there from the beginning… but a deus in machina, perhaps. I have to ask: why were most of these characters even in these books, when they’re presence, collectively, amounts to nothing, is largely incidental? Picard and Co. needn’t always be the ones to save the day—in many ways, this was Hernandez moment to shine—but I also expect that they’ll make some contribution, help build towards the solution even if they are not the ones to finally enact it. Basically, only Hernadez’s storyline is important to solving the crisis, and the rest becomes reduced to the status of sideshow—entertaining sideshow, perhaps, but still broadly irrelevant to the greater story. I remember criticizing Mere Mortals for lacking such integrity of plot, and here it’s even worse, because plot threads you assumed would eventually lead somewhere fizzle and end. For all that most of the books actually have to do with the story, one could have written Destiny as a single novel, detailing Hernadez’ biographic epic, and stuck the rest into a Tales of the Borg Invasion-esque anthology… indeed, it might have been preferable to do so; Hernandez’ story is a strong one and would have benefitted from not being dragged down by the doldrums of the 24th-century bits, while the other storylines in their anthology wouldn’t be ‘saddled’, so to speak, with expectations of relevance—perhaps even enjoyed as short character pieces, instead of the long, despondent and ultimately futile drifting they undergo here.

In many ways, I can’t help but think that this is a consequence of the type of story being told, generically. It isn’t a quest story, or a mystery, or an epic, where characters are expected to solve the problems that confront them; no, this, to my disgust, is a story of deliverance. It’s more than the idea that Picard, Riker and so on don’t actively contribute to solving the problem: it’s that the problem is so huge that these mere mortals cannot possibly be expected to solve it in the first place, and must instead make recourse to a higher power, those gods of night, whose technological acumen borders on the divine, thanks to a half-human, half-‘divine’ messiah who sacrifices herself to the enemy (who has a five-letter name that begins with an ‘S’ and ends with an ‘n’) in order to assure the salvation of the lost souls trapped in that inferno, but then gets to live on in fully ‘divine’ form. A hell, incidentally, which exists because a handful of humans decided to try and attain a higher level of being (through merging with the Caeliar) in the recent prehistoric past (a scant few centuries away from the start of the Ussher chronology). Quite honestly, if I wanted to read a story like this, I’d just reread the New Testament, or Paradise Lost, or turn to something like the Lord of the Rings where magical destiny actually fits the premise. I strongly feel that these sort of fables do not belong in Star Trek. This is a universe based on humanistic values, on the conviction that human reason, intelligence and creativity is sufficient, and indeed the best-placed, to overcome the obstacles that lie in our way. Hernandez’ story, by itself, is strong enough to resist devolution into a saviour figure no matter what her archetypal function in the resolution: having been witness to her life thus far, she’s too complex to be reduced to anything as inane as a messiah. The Caeliar and the Borg, however, lack such permanence, and fall too easily into trite Manichean patterns despite the fact that they really don’t fit the roles. The Borg, until the TNG-R decided to make them EVIL! in the mistaken belief that might equaled fright, represented pure amorality; you’ll say that VOY had defanged them, and that’s true enough, but it also portrayed a culture more complex than one might suspect, which gets swept aside for the sake of juvenile malevolence. And then there’s the Caeliar, nominal redeemers yet complete assholes—if they’re the opposite force, then they’re Miltonic deities at best (which would go some way towards explaining why I took such an instant and intense dislike to them), interceding only because Hernandez’s Christ-figure outflanks their stodgy natures. I was, admittedly, mildly amused to find many of the criticisms I’d directed at the Caeliar, re: their stagnancy, echoed in Hernandez’s jeremiad to them.
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