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Old April 26 2012, 04:06 PM   #156
Deranged Nasat
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Re: Vanguard: Storming Heaven by David Mack Review Thread (Spoilers!)

This is really long; sorry!

I’d been wondering how the conclusion to this series would work. There couldn't really be a pull-out-the-stops definitive ending to the interconnected “politics” arcs that made it so engrossing, because the series has to fold back smoothly into established canonical events, and those arcs continue on for decades after Project Vanguard (to say nothing of the fact that definitive endings isn’t really something you get with that sort of “big-picture” story). Those aspects of the series that can't be smoothly incorporated can have an ending – but have to buried and rubbed out of recorded history, limiting the degree to which we can leave the series with a sense of satisfying resolution. So I was curious how this would be handled. The answer, of course, is to bring it back to the characters and give them resolutions of a sort, while acknowledging that history and the recorded details will never really be satisfying in their own right.

Throughout the series, one of its greatest strengths was the way in which it coiled around the Original Series timeline and smoothly linked itself to multiple episodes, enhancing the backdrop of established events and stringing them together even as it told a new story. In the final book, this becomes for the first time a bit problematic - we want a big, epic finale (and David Mack is writing it, so we're almost taking one for granted given his previous works), but we can't have any really earth-shattering events, because anything that happens needs to slip back into the established fabric of the time period. This isn't post-Nemesis or set in the Mirror Universe, where there's total freedom to smash the status quo into little pieces. I think Storming Heaven tries - and largely succeeds in - turning this restriction to a strength, in that any discomfort that results from having the explosive finale being “muffled” supports the idea of an uneasy and uncomfortable cover-up and the frustrations of having important or life-changing events struck off the record. The end of Vanguard Station is exciting and engaging, but also oddly self-contained, in that once it’s gone that’s it, this little slice of Trek is done away with and the series is over. For having the series tie so effectively into the wider picture of Trek, not just canonical 23rd century events but other book series set in the 24th, it’s interesting how the titular station seems to take a whole self-contained world with it, leaving plenty of survivors, yes, but also closing a book quite definitively. I felt like I’d just seen a black hole swallow the station up, removing it from Trek lit history in-universe and –out. In that sense, then, the ending was successful; it manages to give us an explosive world shattering, status-quo smashing feel while also having the series meld effortlessly back into established history - and while giving the sense that something had been left behind or removed as the price to pay for that integration. Most appropriate. At first I was a little surprised when I realized that the book was basically over as soon as Vanguard went boom, but then I realized it felt "right". I hope my explanation above made sense.

The very last pages were effective – I liked the quick explanations of where everyone was (again, the idea that important motives, actions or struggles are unknown or unappreciated comes up; Jetanien living on Nimbus III for no reason anyone can fathom, Quinn gone without a trace, even Terrell and Khatami are distanced from the reader, in that we’re not given any insight into how they’ve changed). It’s also interesting that we don’t get much insight into Desai. What is she thinking? Where does she stand? We have no clue. All that matters is that she and Reyes are now having an evening together, and Pennington doesn’t feel the need to do anything but walk off and leave them. To have a journalist conclude the series with “I’ll remember and that’s what matters; does it matter if no-one else knows?” is itself rather ambiguous and potentially unsettling while also leaving a warm, contented feeling. Has Pennington indeed grown as a person or has he himself lost interest in something important (or both?). Lots of complexity and a degree of unease in that, while it’s also serving as a satisfying and uplifting conclusion to the series. I should clarify that my major emotional response was contentment, but the rest was in there somewhere. I liked it.

The arguments between Carol Marcus and Ming Xiong were a highlight, helping define the series’ themes while staying on the right side of the “here we discuss the series’ themes” line. Which is to say, it felt natural for the characters given where they’d ended up, and not at all artificial. Marcus’ later defence of Starfleet during The Wrath of Khan looks a little odd now, though I guess David’s attitude in that film suggests Carol was giving off far more contempt for Starfleet the whole time than she might have thought. Children pick up on these things very well, of course. I guess Marcus was playing devil’s advocate with herself, or trying not to give in to her cynicism (her line to Xiong about disappointed idealists presumably being important here). On that note, as someone who believes he’s both incredibly idealistic and amazingly cynical all at once, I liked the complexity of the characters’ positions and arguments. Overall, I also liked the way Starfleet (or those members of it getting themselves caught up in questionable obsessions) were presented. The sense of danger and moral crisis came through without the plot devolving into straightforward “evil admiral” territory. In general, so many of the book’s characters find themselves in difficult positions that are in many ways alien to me – and I don’t just mean because I’ve never been part of a military, etc, but because I don’t identify powerfully with organizations or nations or political groups – yet their internal conflicts and struggles and self-doubts were still completely sympathetic and familiar. Also: so much better to have understandable and someway sympathetic motives for that which I find ethically disagreeable (and which is presented as such) than straightforward antagonism. I guess that’s why the Shedai end up overshadowed by the arguments on how to deal with them. Nogura in particular was a character for whom I felt a lot of respectful appreciation; he isn’t just trying to balance the scientists’ concerns with his role coordinating the protection and prosperity of the Federation – he truly has personal concerns on both “sides” of the divide.

As an aside, the “kicked upstairs” joke at the end is particularly amusing given that Nogura does the same thing to Kirk, according to “Ex Machina”.

Speaking of even greater appreciation for other books now that Vanguard is over, the emotional impulse behind the Tholians’ bitter grudge is of course clarified now (that’s another “understandable and sympathetic” motive for what is still portrayed as the wrong attitude/behaviour).

The finale also helped clarify my sense that T'Prynn is my favourite character. Vulcans are the most commonly used species after Human, and it seems to me that writing them must be difficult because of it. They're used so frequently that you can no longer rely on their "Vulcan-ness" to be interesting in and of itself. Their individuality has to be evident, without the sense of who they are as a person being hidden behind their cultural/racial quirks or alien perspectives. (Not to say I'm accusing writers of being lazy in characterization, but I imagine it must be easier to write an alien character as representative of a culture than as a unique individual within that culture). At the same time, Vulcans have such a rich and interesting culture and strongly defined cultural worldview that you can't downplay it either. Basically, you need to make them clearly Vulcan without it devolving into bland observations on emotion and overuse of the word "logical". T’Prynn was successful in this regard, as her species came to mean very little in regards to how I related to her, while her behaviour remained defined by Vulcan ideals. Her role in Intelligence obviously gave us another framework for interesting plots to branch off from, alongside her being Vulcan, but that’s her professional role, not her character; I’m glad that T’Prynn-the-person was the real focus, not T’Prynn-the-Intelligence-Officer. It was in the second half of the series that she became my favourite. I really enjoyed the original possessed-by-katra plot, but (and this didn't reduce my enjoyment of it, so this isn't a complaint), it was centred on an aspect of Vulcan culture and physiology/psychology/spiritualism/whatever, which did make it a “plot with Vulcans” at least as much as a “plot with this character”. T'Prynn in the latter part of the series, though, was free from the oh-so-Vulcan objective reality of the problem and we could focus fully on her emotional and intellectual efforts to make peace with herself. (Again, I’m not saying I had a problem with the first half or her plot; it was both interesting and important to set up the rest of her trials, and I like exploration of non-human worlds, including familiar ones). On a personal note, T’Prynn’s arc was engaging, in part (and this is one reason I appreciate T’Prynn being clearly Vulcan although she rises above having it as a defining characteristic) because Vulcans are a race for which I have sympathy. I've never been possessed by obsessive former lovers, of course, but I've long struggled with extremely powerful emotions and emotionally-charged memories, which I try to keep contained within a framework of more rational understanding, or at least less emotionally-charged observations. Having this basic racial set-up used to inform but not define a character is engaging for me. So I really appreciated T'Prynn, and after the "Vulcan" aspect of her story was resolved and the "personal" came to the fore, she was even better.

Small note: I also liked Jetanien better in the second half of the series. He was a bit bland in the first half (running gag about his food and dry wit aside), but after he left for Nimbus he became very enjoyable. It was also a good sign of how the writers of Vanguard weren’t afraid of introducing change; when I realized that Jetanien wouldn’t be returning to the station, I was quite impressed. The same goes for Reyes being removed from command, never to get it back.

More specific to this book and not the series as a whole: I liked how House Duras was undone through the, er, tactical brilliance of its enemies; using the devious scheme of collecting evidence of the House’s wrongdoings and putting it in the papers and saying “look everyone, the House of Duras is up to no good”. That’s the problem with being sneaky all the time, isn’t it? You forget about little tricks like that. While we’re on the subject of Klingons, I loved the scene where Gorkon meditates on his quiet concerns about Chang, while trying to put them out of mind. Even if a reader wasn’t familiar with The Undiscovered Country, the scene would work effectively as both a conclusion to Gorkon’s role in the series and as loaded foreboding for the future.

Overall, a good conclusion to a strong series. Not the top of the Trek lit pile, but I can't think of any complaints.
We are all the sum of our tears. Too little and the ground is not fertile and nothing can grow there; too much, the best of us is washed away.
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