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Old November 19 2012, 01:22 AM   #154
Paper Moon
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Re: TP: Brinkmanship by Una McCormack Review Thread (Spoilers!)

Spoilers for Brinkmanship abound ahead, though I haven’t gotten Persistence of Memory yet so please don’t spoil that for me!!!!!! (Also, I got excited about this novel, and when I get excited, I have a hard time curbing my enthusiasm. My apologies ahead of time.)

tl;dr: An excellent read, with some of the best worldbuilding I’ve seen and an exquisite, wheels-within-wheels plot that is executed with perfection. The only flaws are the ham-handed exclusions of the rest of the Enterprise crew, and some inconsistent characterizations (some of which are implicitly explained [Akaar], some of which are explainable [Bowers], and one of which, Picard, is a glaring failure). 4 stars out of 5.

Long form: Brinkmanship was really, really great. There is a definite separation of TrekLit writers occurring at the moment: writers who can consistently deliver and hit it home (Mack, DRGIII, Bennett, etc.) and those who cannot. McCormack has secured her place among the former.

Things I liked (in no particular order):
-McCormack's style of occasional out-of-character narrations, including when she address the reader ("Picture this..."), is unique among TrekLit, and she uses it to great effect here.
-Though others have complained, I really liked the status reports from the freighters, as well as the parallel reports from Dax once they started coming. Felt very proud of myself once I realized what they were, and they definitely added to the Cuban Missile Crisis feel for me.
-Paralleling that, I liked the progression of syndic reports; the final one, about fear, provided a very striking image that really drove home the environment created by the brinkmanship being engaged in by the Federation and the Typhon Pact.
-Playing to her strengths, McCormack used an excellent "wheels-within-wheels" plot, with lots and lots of loose ends scattered throughout the story, almost all of which were tied up at the end. (For example, Akaar's brusqueness is explained as being part of the plan, which implicitly explains away his out-of-character behavior.) The ones that aren't tied up (Who planted the bomb? What were the freighters carrying?) were clearly deliberately left so, as part of the point of the story.
-Dax was likable! Was very surprised. She didn't come off as strident or arrogant. She finally seems fit to be in the captain's chair of one of the UFP's most powerful ships. Kudos to Una for making me enjoy reading my least favorite character!
-The Cardassians were well-done. Garak's single scene was masterful.
-Dygan is great. I hope he is given his proper due in Mack's trilogy. Loved his "we're the next generation, we're not gonna eff it up the way that Dukat and Damar did" attitude. Soooooo much potential for Western social commentary. Great stuff.
-Though I don't know if it was intentional, the commentary about lying politicians, and about facts becoming just as relevant as lies in political debate (during the conference on Venette) really resonated with me as the 2012 presidential campaign drew to a close here in the States.
-The resolution of the Efheny storyline was perfect in every way, including in Gardner's death.
-The overtones of North Korea on Ab-Tzenketh ("In the name of our most beloved and exalted Autarch Korzenten Rej Tov-AA, and in defense of the perfection of his borders, we serve and salute you!")
-The Royal Moon (I know it wasn't McCormack's idea, but she executes it very well)
-Picard's speech at Venette was perfectly written, and very true to his character

Things that I liked that require more than bullets:

The Tzenkethi were so fracking fascinating. This truly was science fiction at its best. I was surprised to realize that Corazame Ret Ata-E reminded me of those whom political analysts in the States call "low information voters;" McCormack contrasted her with the Mak-B's who go looking for the runaways, who talk like the highly-educated crew of the Enterprise. The Tzenkethi have developed a such a system through manipulated nature; we, in real life, have developed such a system through nurture. Yet the results are depressingly similar.

Also along those lines: it's a common trope in sci-fi that the "underdogs" are unwillingly oppressed, either with or without their knowledge, and that they are capable of much more than their position affords them. We got overtones of this in Zero Sum Game and in The Struggle Within. We also see this here, particularly in the character of Cory, but there is much more nuance, and ambiguity. While there is evidence that some Tzenkethi wish to elevate their position in society, there is also evidence that many Tzenkethi are perfectly happy being oppressed, and would, in fact, be unhappy if the order of their lives were disrupted.

So the question then becomes: is this willingness to accept their position without question a function of their culturally-induced nurture (ie. Tzenkethi society is structured in a way that makes them happy) or their genetically-engineered nature (ie. They have been engineered to be happy, and as such, have no free will regarding the matter, and in fact lack the capacity to have free will on the matter)? Do all Tzenkethi even have free will? Though we have very limited information, from what we know, the EE's seem to lack freewill, as do the 0's.

Crusher was written very well, I thought. To be fair, she is a bit of tabula rasa, being very underdeveloped during the show. But what we see of her here is definitely consistent with the Crusher we see in "Remember Me" and "Suspicions," some of her best “character episodes” on the show. (It is a bit of a shame that she sounds rather "Gee willikers!" a lot of the time. But still.) She presents an interesting perspective on being extremely competent in one field (medicine), but much less so in another (diplomacy). Really liked her friendship with Ilka, whom I hope we see again.

(I really want to see what’s happening on Ferenginar nowadays.)

So a few things I didn’t like:
-the way the other “main characters,” particularly the Lit-only characters, were so obviously put aside. Akaar basically says outright at the beginning that we won’t see T’Ryssa Chen. (In fact, I don’t think we see her once.) Choudhury gets barely a mention, a token piece of dialogue, I believe; Hegol is mentioned maybe once? I haven’t been happy with some of the “Trys overdoses” it’s felt like we’ve been getting lately, but this was too far in the other direction. (Fwiw, PoN had a very good balance with her, I thought.)
-I missed La Forge and Worf in this outing as well. All of the supporting characters on the Enterprise felt very thin, very functional. Less noticeably so on the Aventine, partly because we don’t know them as well.
-I felt that McCormack erred rather strongly in how she wrote the briefly seen interaction between Worf and Picard: Picard addresses him as “Commander Worf” during the battle. He would never do that. He would either say “Number One,” or less likely, just “Worf.” In “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” the writers had Picard call Riker “Commander Riker” to signify the distance between the two of them there, but from all we have seen of them, Picard and Worf have a great relationship. So that really stuck out for me, and unfortunately knocked me out of the narrative while I was reading that scene.
-Tying all of that together Brinkmanship was like a good old episode of TNG that focused on a small part of the ensemble cast (in this case, Crusher, Dygan and Picard, in that order), to the point of excluding the other characers, or at best reducing them to a token scene or single piece of dialogue. That style worked on-air in one-part episodes, but you’d almost never see it in a two-parter. Brinkmanship probably translates to a two or three episode arc, though you obviously could stretch it out much farther. It just felt unbalanced.

Finally, the Big Thing that cost the book about half of a star: the characterization of Picard.

Disclaimer: Jean-Luc Picard is tied with Data and Garak for my favorite Star Trek character. When I read TNG TrekLit, I care about him most of all. So a mess-up with his character bothers me more than, say, an inconsistency with Bowers. (Whatever happened to the stickler for protocol we saw in ASD? Is this “trustworthy vibe” we’re supposed to get from him consistent with that? Ehn. I dunno, but it’s not a huge deal for me.)

From the outset: “Cardassian problems.” At some point during the TV show, 15 years before this story, Picard might have said something like this. He actually does say something not too unlike it about the Ferengi in “Ménage à Troi”. But in any case, when it comes down to it, it’s racist. (Imagine if a 21st-century Picard had said, “We have an Asian problem,” or “an Indian problem.”) You could maybe argue that he’s referring to Cardassian politics or government, but I’m not buying it. He doesn’t specify enough for us to do the same.

And then again later: he quips about the Ferengi being all that stand between them and war. What is his basis for this assertion? Has Ilka demonstrated diplomatic incompetence that makes him worry? (A clue: no, she hasn’t.) Are the Ferengi likely to have a secret, anti-Federation agenda? Probably not; Rom agreed to join the Khitomer Accords right away, and again, we’ve seen nothing from Ilka to indicate that she or her government want war.

In both cases, Picard stereotypes about entire species, and I simply don’t believe he would do that in 2383.

I would be very interested, Una, in hearing what your thought process was in constructing that characterization, but from where I’m sitting, it was the biggest drawback of the book.

Still, even bearing all of that in mind, this was a bloody excellent book, and I so very much enjoyed reading it. I hope we get more from Una McCormack, and very soon!

4 stars out of 5
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