TOS: Ex Machina by Christopher L. Bennett Review Thread (spoilers)

Discussion in 'Trek Literature' started by Defcon, Nov 15, 2013.

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Rate Ex Machina

  1. Outstanding

    25 vote(s)
    50.0%
  2. Above Average

    20 vote(s)
    40.0%
  3. Average

    1 vote(s)
    2.0%
  4. Below Average

    3 vote(s)
    6.0%
  5. Poor

    1 vote(s)
    2.0%
  1. Defcon

    Defcon Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    During a recent discussion in the thread about Sho's ranking based on the polls in TrekBBS review threads it occured to me that we never did "classic review threads" as we planned in the beginning to eventually have most of the novels in the ranking.

    So I figured I will at least give it a start with a review thread about an older novel, and what's better than to do so with a novel by the man who spurred this:

    Ex Machina by Christopher L. Bennett

    [​IMG]

    Blurb:
    n the aftermath of the astonishing events of Star Trek®: The Motion Picture, the captain and officers of the U.S.S. Enterprise remain haunted by their encounter with the vast artificial intelligence of V'Ger...and by the sacrifice and ascension of their friend and shipmate, Willard Decker.
    As James T. Kirk, Spock, and Leonard McCoy attempt to cope with the personal fallout of that ordeal, a chapter from their mutual past is reopened, raising troubling new questions about the relationship among God, Man, and AI. On the recently settled world of Daran IV, the former refugees of the Fabrini worldship Yonada are being divided by conflicting ideologies, as those clinging to their theocratic past vie with visionaries of a future governed by reason alone.
    Now, echoes of the V'Ger encounter reverberate among the Enterprise officers who years ago overthrew the Oracle, the machine-god that controlled Yonada. Confronting the consequences of those actions, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy also face choices that will decide the fate of a civilization, and which may change them forever.

    Excerpt


    My review from 2005, when the book was new:

    First things first : If you are searching for an action packed story, filled with one space fight or hand to hand combat after the other, you’re definitely wrong here. But if you’re searching for a well thought through story with a lot of content “Ex Machina” could be what you’re searching for.

    Christopher L. Bennett has written an excellent and – even more important – balanced analogy to the continuing crisis in the middle east. He shows the different point of views of both the secular government, led by Natira and the various factions of the religious community, which vary from moderate (Rishala’s group) to extreme (Dovraku’s group), without demonize or favor one over the other, although Dovraku is undoubtedly the bad guy. He also explains how a supposedly minor group can dictate politics with a dangerous mix of creating fear, deceiving the people – especially the youth – and having a charismatic leader. And although the imminent crisis is solved in the end and the major opponent of peace, Dovraku, is out of the picture, Christopher L. Bennett doesn’t pretend that that would solve the whole problem at once, but is only the beginning of a long process, which needs trust and concessions coming from both sides.

    The real masterpiece of the novel are the characterizations and the development of the new characters. The author was able to show the weaknesses and self doubts of the Enterprise Crew – especially the Big Three – without letting them appear weak. He shows them as normal people with shortcomings and doesn’t glorify them like some of the TOS novelist tended to do in the past. He presents us a Kirk who is unsure, if he did the right thing, when he retook the command of the Enterprise and unsure if “Decker’s Crew” would accept him as the man in the center seat , a Spock dealing with the aftermath of his mind meld with V’Ger, just beginning to embrace his emotions instead of suppress them and a McCoy who has to deal with faults of the past and his inability to deal with the multi-species crew Decker and Uhura have assembled. In the end all three are stronger and wiser than at the beginning and have gone through a change of their self awareness. But although the three play the major roles in the novel, the other get their scenes, too. Add the interesting new characters, who absolutely should get some more time in the spotlight, to that and you definitely have a crew worth to be revisited in the foreseeable future.

    One other thing I like about the novel, is how Christopher L. Bennett was able to balance the different takes on the Star Trek universe which we had over the years, especially the difference between the Vulcans of Archer’s areas and those of the other series.

    Overall “Ex Machina” is a very good novel. It belongs to my favorite three TOS novels of all times and is undoubtedly the best TOS story of the last ten years I’ve read.
     
  2. Thrawn

    Thrawn Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    LOVED this book. Christopher almost singlehandedly got me back into TrekLit after many years away with The Buried Age and then this.
     
  3. Therin of Andor

    Therin of Andor Admiral Admiral

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    "Ex Machina": Reading it - even though I hadn't thought of doing a sequel to "For the World is Hollow..." myself - this novel felt so much like the style of post-TMP story that I'd always wanted to tell, or imagined seeing at the cinema in the months following TMP's run.

    Christopher even ensured that all the wonderful new alien UFP races of TMP were in supporting roles. It still feels as if he'd written "Ex Machina" just for me. (Well, apart from what he did - so well - with one character, LOL, whom I'd already appropriated into my fanfics in the early 1980s.) And, of course, naming an Andorian "Shantherin th'Clane".

    There's a great old thread on this novel here:
    http://www.trekbbs.com/showthread.php?t=182237

    My original review is here:

    "Ex Machina" is a Star Trek novel that finally salutes TMP's alien races with gusto. In fact, this novel is the "TMP Episode #2" I've been waiting for... for 25 years.

    Christopher L Bennett 's excellent, fast-paced novel is a highly effective sequel to TMP (and its novelization), and also the poetically-titled episode "For the World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky". Christopher continues numerous character arcs from TMP (Kirk's guilt and self-doubt; Spock's epiphany about emotions; McCoy's future in Starfleet; even Decker and Ilia's sacrifice) and cleverly links them to important, unfinished business about Natira and the Fabrini (TOS). In addition, the author affectionately continues storylines for Chapel, Uhura, Sulu, Scott, Chekov and Rand, whose aspirations are all barely touched upon in TMP, in ways that are "spot on" and highly logical. Then we learn a little more about Chief DiFalco (TMP), the late Lori Ciana (TMP novelization and "The Lost Years" saga), and even excitable Mr Lindstrom, whom we last saw cleaning up the mess on Landru's planet (TOS). Rounding out the "Ex Machina" cast, we meet almost all of TMP's aliens through individual members recruited to the refitted USS Enterprise by Uhura (just as her counterpart Nichelle Nichols did for NASA) and the late Captain Willard Decker.

    "Ex Machina" is a page-turner of a novel. Now, maybe I'm biased, but every time Christopher started to do several entertaining paragraphs about the Rhaandarites, or the Saurians, the Megarites, the Betelgeusians, or the Zaranites (based, often, on a single, sometimes-bizarre line or two of descriptive text originally written by the movie's costume designer for TMP's publicity and production notes), I was well and truly hooked, and happy to be reeled in. Various ST comic book lines over the years have sometimes paid visual homage to the odd TMP alien, but they've constantly been overlooked by the ST novels, barring the occasional mention of a Saurian. But Christopher is most generous in the time he spends developing each race, creating some memorable lower decks and bridge characters to populate the Enterprise. *Spring Rain Upon Still Water* the Megarite is a beautiful character, even if she is perhaps TMPs "ugliest" rubber-faced alien. (Doesn't sound very IDIC of me, does it?) Christopher even utilizes Worene, the unique wolfish alien created by actress and stuntwoman Paula Crist (who was barely visible in the rec deck scene of TMP), and he does so to great effectiveness. (Finally, Worene's species has a name; she's an Aulacri!)

    While I often found myself thinking that "Ex Machina" was a novel I should have written myself, I also acknowledge that Christopher is masterfully efficient in his worldbuilding, particularly his explanations for the whys and wherefores of Rhaandarites, Megarites, Betelgeusians and Zaranites. I'm so very pleased with the ideas he has extrapolated about these aliens. Surely, hopefully, Christopher's worldbuilding in this novel will inspire other Pocket ST authors to make full use of Rhaandarites, Saurians, Megarites, 'Geusians, Zaranites, Aulacri, Arcturians, K'normians and turtle-like Rigellians in other ST novels.

    I never spent a lot of time pondering the background and themes of "For the World is Hollow and I have Touched the Sky", but Christopher expertly unpeels so many layers from the Fabrini story, developing a believable alien race who went on an incredible journey. He reminds us most vividly how history is written by the victors, and that all written history is open to multiple interpretations. Several senseless terrorist acts in the novel also ring too close to the bone for comfort, due to recent world events in the 21st century.

    Christopher hasn't forgotten the science aspect of this science fiction novel, either. I was reminded very much of David Gerrold's body of SF work. No doubt Gerrold was an inspiration, especially since a character in "Ex Machina" is clearly based on the "character" played as a fan extra in TMP.

    Now that we finally have Episode #2 of "Star Trek Phase II: Beyond TMP", dare I ask how long we have to wait for Episode #3? And can Christopher write it please?
     
    Last edited: Nov 16, 2013
  4. Stoek

    Stoek Commander Red Shirt

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    Crazy timing man. I am right now re-re-re-reading this and was going to look up the review thread.

    This one goes right next to Spock's World for me. It gives such incredible insight not only into the characters but also the larger world of Trek.

    I love Chris using the story to address something that has always bugged a lot of Trek fans, namely the seemingly cavalier way that Starfleet often seems to operate, especially Kirk during the original five year mission. It's nice to see a more openly introspective Kirk.

    The religion stuff is perfect. Personally I am a Pagan. I have no patience for the mindless extremism and zealotry of many, but at the same time I also have no use for the materialist reductionists who want to assume that those of us who believe in "God" or Gods or paranormal phenomenon etc must either a: be stupid or b: just haven't had it explained to us properly. Because surely if they just explain for the one billionth time why their views are the only "logical" ones we will smack our collective forehead go, "Oh of course. Now I get it." and march in lock step with them.

    Ultimately a brilliant novel about a very complex subject. Frankly it makes me wish that he'd write something set during the tv run of DS9.
     
  5. Odona Kirk

    Odona Kirk Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    The first Trek novel I ever read, and still my favorite.
     
  6. jpv2000

    jpv2000 Captain Captain

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    Outstanding! :techman::techman:

    I just read this around 6 weeks ago and loved every page. This story a fantastic sequel to ST:TMP.

    I hope to get more stories from Christopher set in this era.
     
  7. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    ^So far I've managed to revisit the post-TMP era in Mere Anarchy: The Darkness Drops Again and in more depth in Department of Temporal Investigations: Forgotten History.
     
  8. A J

    A J Ensign Red Shirt

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    This is an outstanding read, and it is the book that got me back into reading Trek Lit after being away for a good while.

    Highly recommended.
     
  9. Captain Clark Terrell

    Captain Clark Terrell Commodore Commodore

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    I read Ex Machina in 2009. It remains one of my favorites because it's so well-written. I agree it's not for those who prefer more action-packed novels. But if one appreciates stories focused on character building, Ex Machina's a great read.

    What I like most about the novel is that it establishes Will Decker was captain of the Enterprise and not merely a place-holder for Kirk. Most of the crew was hand-picked by either Decker or Uhura- an element that fits nicely with the rest of the story as the crew had expected to serve under Decker rather than Kirk- during the refit and had to adjust to the sudden return of the old guard.

    There are also interesting challenges for the Big Three. Kirk has to face whether he made the right choice by taking the ship back, as he grapples with whether Decker could have accomplished the mission in his absence. Kirk's situation manifests in several awkward exchanges with Scotty. The latter seems to be on a perfectionist jag due to his uncertainty about Kirk's ability to command a vessel with which he's not familiar. Spock copes with the repercussions of his mind meld with V'Ger. McCoy and Natira try to get reacquainted.

    --Sran
     
  10. borgboy

    borgboy Commodore Commodore

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    Ex-Machina is one of my favorite Trek books (and I have a bookcase full of them). It really sets the bar high with strong characterization and prose.
     
  11. Reanok

    Reanok Commodore Commodore

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    This is a Tos novel I've been wanting to get I really like stories that take place after the different Star trek Tos era movies.
     
  12. Therin of Andor

    Therin of Andor Admiral Admiral

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    Ha. I tried to add this important info to my post yesterday and everything weeeeeent slooooooooow, and I gave up. :techman:

    Agreed. There are some really polarized reviews on Amazon. People either love it or hate it. (And I recall editor Marco Palmieri once saying that that was a very good goal for a novel. Better to polarize the audience than achieve a uniform "meh".)
     
  13. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    Which makes me feel better about the response to Only Superhuman, except what's weird is that the positive and negative repsonses seem to be split between different sites. And there have been surprisingly few reviews, period, on Amazon and B&N.
     
  14. Paris

    Paris Commodore Commodore

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    I'm in agreement with just about everyone here. Loved this book and have loved Christopher's foray's into the post-TMP landscape since. Maybe one day Pocket will finally get him to write more post-TMP/pre-TWOK TOS novels as a regular ongoing thing. Enterprise will just have to keep him busy until then :techman:
     
  15. Maurice

    Maurice Vice Admiral Admiral

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    I'm going to have to be the first dissenting opinion here. For my tastes the book didn't deliver.

    It's been years since I read it so I'm operating from long-term memory here—with all the pitfalls that implies. I went in eager, but quickly found the book a bore. I'd have put it down except that a friend loaned it to me and wanted to discuss it with me.

    There's a great idea for a story in here, with Kirk's reputation as a computer-God killer coming back to haunt him in the aftermath of the V'ger incident, but the execution doesn't serve it well and it doesn't go anywhere interesting or memorable. In fact, Kirk was effectively a non-presence, not driving the story. The rest of the crew struck me as self-absorbed, with too much introspection, too many lengthy internal monologues.

    I found myself wanting to skip all the lower decks character stuff and get on with the main plot, but even that wasn't engaging.

    The ultimate resolution that
    the antagonist has daddy issues
    is an utter anticlimax.

    The book also suffers from the same things I find objectionable in most fan productions: too much dot-connecting, pointless continuity and numerous explanations of things that only a subset of hardcore fans care about, and nudge nudge wink winks that kept pulling me out of the story.

    A disappointment for me, but I'm glad some of you enjoyed it.
     
    Last edited: Nov 18, 2013
  16. Ryan Thomas Riddle

    Ryan Thomas Riddle Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    I'm that friend. ;)

    Now onto my thoughts (and I too suffer from long-term memory, having not read the book in years). I was excited for this book, followed the thread leading up to its release. I devoured the book on first reading. I really liked some of the ideas within the pages. The more and more I dwelled on the book, however, I found that it didn't quite live up to those ideas. And on second reading, shortly before I loaned it to Maurice, I found the book rather flat.

    The elements were there — well-thought out world building, serviceable prose and an attempt at continuing the themes of TMP by elevating a rather mediocre episode of TOS. Yet they didn't quite work well together. Far too much time was spent connecting the dots from ENT to TMP, fetishizing fannish obsessions.

    The biggest problem I had with the book, other than the antagonist's motivations, was that Kirk was just as ineffectual as he was in TMP. He does nothing to drive the plot or resolve the problem of the novel. He is placed almost by happenstance into the climax of the novel. And, like with V'Ger, he doesn't initiate the final action that resolves the story. He just shows up.

    Nor is the conflict among the lower decks crew — whether Kirk is right for the job — doesn't really come to a head. It's just there, treated like nothing more than crew gossip and then just resolves itself seemingly on its own. Kirk does nothing to really earn their trust again and he's not really given a chance to fully address their concerns.

    Kirk's inaction in this book is its most egregious misstep.
     
  17. Captain Clark Terrell

    Captain Clark Terrell Commodore Commodore

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    The aspect of Kirk's situation that stands out most to me is his seemingly inability to define himself by his own actions rather than those of the people closest to him (Spock & McCoy). Kirk in isolation spends most of his time comparing himself to Decker, continuing the competition from TMP he repeatedly insisted wasn't an issue.

    One can certainly understand Kirk's desire to be accepted by Decker's crew- and make no mistake, the Enterprise of TMP was much more Decker's ship than it was Kirk's regardless of who was sitting in the center seat. But Kirk would have been better served by just being himself instead of trying to measure up to a man whom he incorrectly assumed held the same goals and aspirations as he did.

    Kirk eventually realized how erroneous his perception of who Decker had been. It's a wonder he didn't know it before. If the Enterprise meant as much to Kirk as we've been led to believe, would he not have taken the time to learn Will Decker inside and out? The exact circumstances of how the two men met and what they're exact relationship was aren't clear, but it would seem that if Kirk thought enough of Decker to recommend him as his replacement that he'd have also learned something of who Decker was beyond what his service record indicated.

    --Sran
     
  18. Christopher

    Christopher Writer Admiral

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    I'll agree that I was too heavy on the gratuitous continuity porn in this one, since it was my first novel and I hadn't learned to dial it back. There are a few things I would've left out if I'd known I'd get the chance to cover them in later books where they were more relevant.

    As for Kirk, I don't see him as passive in the climax, since his example is a catalyst for what the members of his crew achieve. Which is the role he played in TMP as well; he assembled the team and served as its anchor. Leadership isn't about hogging the spotlight, it's about bringing out the best in those you lead. Also, the climax was more than one event. Spock brought down the bad guy, but Kirk played a critical role in the larger diplomatic resolution, bringing the factions to the table and reasoning with them. What I was trying to show here, IIRC, was Kirk's maturation as a leader, growing beyond the youthful man of action into more of a statesman and diplomat.
     
  19. Kertrats47

    Kertrats47 Commodore Commodore

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    Bah! Bring on the continuity porn! As long as it ultimately serves the plot (which I feel it does here), I'm all for it.

    I loved the exploration of the issues that came out of The Motion Picture. If you watch the film, the attitude seems to be, "Hey! Kirk pushed Decker aside! Sweet, we're all happy now." The only dissenting opinion is one quick line from Ensign alien nobody (Ensign Zaand, who was properly fleshed out by Christopher), which was just as quickly dismissed.

    I'm firmly in the "above average" camp on this one.

    Here's my full review: http://treklit.blogspot.com/2012/07/ex-machina.html
     
  20. Captain Clark Terrell

    Captain Clark Terrell Commodore Commodore

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    I agree and am glad someone brought to life characters who didn't agree with the old guard taking over again. As you said, the movie seemed to gloss over the crew's feelings (save for the senior staff, all of whom supported Kirk being in command again) and ignored that most of the people serving aboard the Enterprise by 2273 weren't members of Kirk's old crew but people Decker hand-picked to work under him. They expected Decker to be their captain. Suddenly, he wasn't, and just as quickly, he was gone. Exploring the situation in greater detail makes characters seem much more like real people as opposed to mere elements in a story.

    --Sran