Having both Crusher and Dax voice this same concern felt right to me, like the characters themselves have noticed and want to take action to change things.
I liked that aspect of the novel, too. I felt like it neatly acknowledged both that the post-Destiny
galaxy leaves the Federation more precarious, having to spend much of its time stabilizing things politically and otherwise - so that it isn't truly acting as it would like to yet honestly can't
at present, and
hinted at the dangers of changing and becoming too comfortable with how things are, losing track of the ideal. It did this while also ensuring that the characters are written as being aware of that danger and concerned by it, though not to the extent that there's a "doom and gloom" feel. It felt reassuring, both by seeming to remind us that the clean-up from Destiny
hasn't been swept under the rug and by promising that our heroes are indeed committed to getting back to the Federation As It Can And Should Be, once reality allows. And that they know they can't take that for granted and need to work at it.
And that leads me nicely into one of my observations about the themes of the novel!
My review is below. It is a short and not at all rambling piece and who I am kidding, it's the usual mass of speech, almost Dukatian in its weight and breadth:
was a far “lighter” novel than I was expecting. It wasn’t a heavy-hitter with a particularly wide scope, for all that it involved high-stakes politics between four major powers; it was more intimate and tightly focused. It explored the new status quo, did a lot of interesting things with the established pieces, and did it without transitioning into a new
new status quo by forcing further Big Developments. That was a welcome relief in one sense, given all the changes and surprises that the other Typhon Pact books have featured. Don't get the wrong idea, I like
that we had those changes and surprises – I’m eager to push the boundaries at the bleeding edge of the Trek timeline. But this once it was more rewarding to explore what we’ve got rather than changing the shape of the board.
It was wise to explore the expanded Khitomer Accords, showing how the upgraded relationships committed to in preceding novels are going to function. The Federation’s new “complication of Cardassians” trick hits just the right note between cynical and genuinely uplifting. This alliance is going to work, even if it’s as much about steering your friend into the path of someone pushy while having to grudgingly go along with their occasional demands to keep them happy as it is enjoying each other’s company. The story also built further on the Tzenkethi, who continue to be a worthy addition to the alien societies of Trek lit and were handled well here.
Thematically, the story appealed to me. One of the reasons I love Trek lit is the variety of stories it tells regarding individuality and membership; tales of individuals, races and organizations dancing around each other, seeking a balance between self-determination and inclusion/subsumption. Finding their comfort zones with one another, looking for a level of contact or exchange they feel safe with, and also searching for a balance between their own conflicting desires. Issues of acceptance, belonging, responsibility; all resonate with me greatly. This is a novel about conformity and the search for belonging, but more specifically about the price of full self-awareness and moral agency, the appeal of having none of that, and the uncertainty that comes with having to second-guess everything. Most of all, it seems specifically to be about the luxury, or the trap, or the sympathetic desire, or the terrible selfish urge, of seeking a life free
from self-responsibility. Without ever really stressing that this is the issue up for discussion (save a strong opinion piece from Alden near the end, but he's already established as a character with definitive viewpoints on certain subjects and a hard time keeping an objective distance from his impulses) the novel explores the range of potential ways in which we could relate to this state of affairs – a life where our tolerances, comfort zone, moral duty and sense of place were mapped out so completely we don’t have to worry about them. Subsuming oneself into a system of absolute trust and freeing oneself from the strain and mental anguish of full self-awareness.
A peace that comes from a certainty of position and an absence of self-analysis is a most appealing one, especially for those caught between conflicting truths or identities. Efhany finally seeks this state, even knowing that in her case it’s a form of oblivion, because it’s the easiest way out and (so it’s hinted) because her Cardassian social instincts leave her vulnerable to its lure. Alden could probably do with being a bit closer to that state than he is, but thinks it’s a terrible, unconscionable thing that he’d never inflict on anyone. That wistful appeal of saying “do my thinking for me, nurture me and know what’s best” is very powerful, and was captured very well here, for the most part.
In a sense, the Venetans too have arrived at this blissful state and have genuinely prospered in it, while remaining relatable. However, it’s a false bliss in some regards because their peace is crippling to their development, a fact which becomes apparent when they finally decide to step out into the wider galaxy and can’t handle the complexities and harshness of it; indeed their leading citizen is rendered physically ill by the stress of what she has to confront. Something I was very much sympathetic to, by the way. In all, the Venetans were an interesting addition to the Trek universe. I enjoyed their blend of patient wisdom and stroppish child-like attachment to their own comfort (and they are stroppish, for all their patience and gentle understanding. When people won’t play nice and do things in their carefully-mannered way they become judgemental and, by their standards, harsh. They were amateurs in the field of alien contact and it showed). A fascinating picture of a mature and rightly self-assured people who yet have no real capacity for understanding the world around them; it was an intriguing set-up that could use further development.
We’re given more than one angle on it thanks to the comparison/contrast with Dax, who also exhibits a blend of youth and settled wisdom, only far more functional. The equivalency between Dax and the Venetans is alluded to several times, of course, – interestingly usually in the form of Dax reflecting on the knowing, directed-for-her-alone looks the Venetans are giving her (that’s another thing the Venetans do that I’m not sure they realize they’re doing; they divide and target just as well as any of the more political races. They're not as totally non-hierarchial as they might seem). In all, a paradoxical lack of maturity defines the inhabitants of the old and comfortably prosperous Venette Convention. Perhaps because they’ve developed in isolation, with little in the way of challenging perspectives to encourage growth? Unlike Dax, who by Trill nature must balance and integrate a range of strong and difficult perspectives and experiences. But like the lower Tzenkethi grades, who know only what makes them comfortable because it's when comfortable, happy and ignorant that they best perform their function for the whole.
As for Dax herself, while her friendly relationship with Alden was a little underdeveloped for my tastes, it did give us the “I am Dax” speech, which I agree was a great moment. No lengthy fretting over something she must have long ago become fully comfortable with, but acknowledging her journey and the conclusions she had to reach over the course of it. Nicely played. Between her non-relationship with Bashir in the earlier Typhon Pact books and that scene here, I feel like Captain Ezri Dax has finally finished establishing herself as a character distinct enough from Still Not Really Sure Who I Am Ezri Dax of old. Nice too that the answer to her queries on identity is now firmly “I am Dax” - but this isn't her surrendering to the symbiont or subsuming herself to previous identities, but full acceptance of her status as a worthy host. It’s Ezri saying “I am Dax”, not Dax saying it, if that makes sense. And that’s pleasing. I liked too that Dax and Bowers were written as trusting friends within the limits imposed by their professional relationship. They’ve known each other for 7 years, and been Captain and First Officer on the Aventine
for almost 3. They should
be at ease with each other by now.
On the subject of characters, Ilka also contributes to what I've decided is the central theme – as a modern Ferengi female, she has (in this case eagerly) moved out of that situation I’ve been talking about, where everything she needs to know is determined for her and “growing up” is discouraged (in this case, until recently prohibited) and has embraced (been able to embrace) a position where she has the capacity to function as a fully responsible being. But there are always drawbacks, for here she must wrestle with multiple conflicting wrongs, betray an ideal here
to do what must be done there
, face the knowledge of the self-doubts and compromises that come with full self-awareness and the social space given to exhibit it in. Notably, Ilka is more comfortable with it than people like Alden or Crusher – understandable given that, for a Ferengi female seeking a role in the wider galaxy, self-responsibility - warts and all - is something to strive for and a goal eagerly pursued against much resistance. Another example of how different characters suggest different means of relating to this theme, and an example of how these perspectives make sense in the context of the character.
I liked seeing the Federation strengthen its ties with the Ferengi and Cardassians. And I was so, so pleased that Dygan has integrated easily into the Enterprise
crew as a friend, rather than being their “problematic Cardassian”.
It was actually fascinating to consider the Tzenkethi in comparison to the Breen. One society is about hiding your biology, consigning your genetic heritage to the shadows while your random talents define who you are, accepting a sea of variants behind an outward conformity, celebrating diversity but morally opposed to exhibiting it openly, and its people are all walking around in identical full-body suits. Yet this society is difficult to infiltrate. The other society is ordered and structured entirely on the basis of biology, where your genetic heritage determines who you are, where a form of diversity is celebrated precisely because all the myriad variants know their function and place, and where they advertise that function - and thus their biology - openly through visual cues. Yet this society is relatively easy to insert operatives into. Akaar even explicitly says that Tzenkethi counterintelligence isn’t the best.
It's interesting to have a book featuring Enterprise
and Picard in which Picard is not the focus or a POV character. I liked what we saw of his relationship with Dygan. The idea of Picard as a respectable leader of Cardassians is interesting and not, I find, too unexpected. I hope we see more of this relationship in The Cold Equations
Alizome’s back! I hoped she would be at some point. I’ve expressed interest in seeing her become a recurring trouble-maker and she’s in a position to make that plausible. I was glad to see her.
Finally: the urge to write a “Garak and Bacco” book must be strong indeed; I commend McCormack for having just the one scene rather than littering the novel with them, which would have been awesome but probably counter-productive.