Spoilers TP: Brinkmanship by Una McCormack Review Thread

Discussion in 'Trek Literature' started by Sho, Sep 16, 2012.

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Rate Brinkmanship.

  1. Outstanding

    25 vote(s)
    26.3%
  2. Above Average

    47 vote(s)
    49.5%
  3. Average

    17 vote(s)
    17.9%
  4. Below Average

    4 vote(s)
    4.2%
  5. Poor

    2 vote(s)
    2.1%
  1. shanejayell

    shanejayell Captain Captain

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    Finished, giving it a Above Average. Good story & characterization, interesting aliens and character moments.
     
  2. Ronald Held

    Ronald Held Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    I just finished. Nothing really appealed to me or stood out.
     
  3. Sci

    Sci Admiral Admiral

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    I loved it. It very much reminded me of one of my favorite movies, Thirteen Days, which was about the Cuban Missile Crisis (and starred Bruce Greenwood, the future Captain Pike, as President Kennedy). I find these sorts of "international Mexican stand-off" stories, about nations that unintentionally find themselves on the brink of war and can't figure out how to defuse the situation, absolutely fascinating.

    I also appreciate the moral ambiguity of it. McCormack has often cited John le Carré as an influence, and it shows. She seems to have a consistent thematic concern with the idea of institutional or national guilt, with the idea of morally compromised institutions and persons acting to protect--or to serve, at least--empires or hegemons that find themselves less powerful than they one were. Usually, she's done this through Cardassia -- but here, the hegemon is the Federation.

    To be fair, the Federation's moral compromise in Brinksmanship is less extreme than we tend to find in real life democracies; however shabbily the Akaar and Bacco treated the Venettans, the fact remains that they chose to turn their backs on the UFP and to allow a hostile power to place technology that could be used as a bioweapon on the UFP border. The Venettans truly did start it, and while we may admire their extreme openness, their utter refusal to accept the common realities of espionage and manipulation in international relations stands out as a form of ethnocentrism to me (especially when they condemn the Federation for espionage and refuse to acknowledge the possibility that the Tzenkethi do the same or worse). They did take threatening action towards the Federation, and there's no way around that.
     
  4. Deranged Nasat

    Deranged Nasat Vice Admiral Admiral

    I've returned to find the novel waiting for me, and will be starting tonight. I'll have a review in a day or two. Very much lookinh forward to this. :)
     
  5. Deranged Nasat

    Deranged Nasat Vice Admiral Admiral

    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:

    Brinkmanship 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.

    Other notes:

    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.
     
    Last edited: Oct 3, 2012
  6. MatthiasRussell

    MatthiasRussell Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    My review:
    I went into Brinkmanship with high expectations. Looking at the cover, I was reminded of our last Picard/Dax tale- Destiny. Perhaps in giving the book this cover, the publisher made an error in leading readers like me to expect a dynamic Picard and Dax story. In retrospect, if I were to put 2 characters on the cover of this book it would be Crusher and a Cardassian disguised as a Tzenkethi as these were the characters that the book centered around.

    That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing except neither of these characters really gripped me. Whenever I generated a mental picture of events, Crusher always seemed out of character. Sure she was out of her element, but the words she spoke just didn’t seem like the words or manner that I expect from the character. The disguised Cardassian spy didn’t strike me either, I can’t even remember her name! That is the difficulty with Star Trek writers spending a lot of time in an alien culture with new characters, they really have to make them stand out and be memorable. Although the Tzenkethi society is original, I found it to basically be another cliché xenophobic totalitarian society who I found far more interesting in DRG III’s Rough Beasts of Empire.

    My chief problem with the book was the pace. The status reports about the Tzenkethi freighter fleet began as an interesting countdown but they quickly become tedious, a seemingly needless break in the narrative. Throughout the book, I found the read to be dry and completely devoid of interesting tension or action. I kept anticipating something to peak and hold my interests but instead, the lack of real developments railroaded my attention span like the Tzenkethi railroading diplomatic progress. Though interesting characters are active in the narrative, their lack of useful interaction and progressive action made their roles dry. The first real moment of tension in the book, where a character really stood out, was nearly 70% through when Picard faced down Alizome in the Venetan council chambers.

    Then, after all that waiting, I felt let down by the climax. The solution to the crisis, the Tzenkethi manipulating Cardassian embassy staff, came in abruptly and I was unconvinced that this piece of information would resolve the situation. I’ll admit, maybe this wasn’t the writer, it may have been my limited understanding of diplomacy and affairs of state. But, with all the time spent building to that resolution, I felt the resolution needed to be better developed and explained instead of the crisis being put behind so quickly and characters moving on like the ending of a Voyager episode. The Cardassian spy’s ending also made no sense to me. The Tzenkethi and Cardassian biologies are so different. She can made to look like a Tzenkethi but the type of examination that probably comes with a reconditioning would probably reveal the different biology. Then the Tzenkethi lower echelons would know they have been contaminated with a Cardassian spy. No doubt an autopsy of the dead human would reveal the same thing. So I anticipate the bitter sweet ending the writer was going for would actually end with the spy being tortured to death.

    So after another Typhon Pact book about the UFP teetering on the verge of war instead of about explorers making peace with strange new worlds, Dax’s words pretty much summarize my feelings on where the Typhon Pact series continuing theme. “Rushing from crisis to crisis, we’re changing. And what will we become? Will there be any room for those of us who want to understand other civilizations? Am I overreacting?”
     
    Last edited: Oct 4, 2012
  7. NotLKH

    NotLKH Lieutenant Red Shirt

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    lol. I just finished the book the other day, and I missed her climactic dietary query. Did she actually say that?
     
  8. Rush Limborg

    Rush Limborg Vice Admiral Admiral

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    ^If she did, I certainly missed it.

    Agreed, my friend! :) However...I must also add, despite Ezri at last appearing to achieve "equilibrium" in this book--still, her personality is still Ezri. That is, everything we liked about her in the series is on full display, here--blended seamlessly with her clear command capability.

    Her lack of "sureness" of who she was in the series has been supplanted nicely with a self-awareness that makes her think about the right things, and "just do" about the right things. In previous Destiny/Pact books, we sometimes saw her leaping before she looked--sometimes mission-wise (i.e. her setting course for Earth before being stopped by Picard), sometimes personally (i.e. her clash with Bashir).

    Here, we see her...well, almost afraid to make that kind of mistake. And anyone can sympathize--as she is forced to tread a fine line between diplomacy and security. She is no appeaser--again, she has the same suspicions Alden does, and brings them to Picard and Akaar--but she does not want to ignite, either.

    As for her not submitting to previous hosts--that is a very important level of growth for her. For much of the relaunch--and indeed, at times in Destiny or the Typhon books--she seems to be falling prey to some Jadzia nostalgia--or worse, Curzon. We see none of that, here. (Unless the colorful metaphors are from those two?)
     
  9. MatthiasRussell

    MatthiasRussell Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    Yes, Dax made that statement. It struck me when I read it. I did a search in my Kindle; that quote is from chapter 12 during a discussion with Picard.
     
  10. Rush Limborg

    Rush Limborg Vice Admiral Admiral

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    Well, then--a nice "that's-the-Ezri-we-know-and-love" moment, right there! :)
     
  11. Una McCormack

    Una McCormack Writer Red Shirt

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    Is that really in the Kindle edition? Crumbs. Not what I wrote and not in my paperback. And yet I kind of like it...

    Thank you to everyone who has taken time to post their thoughts about the book: I've been really enjoying reading all the interesting discussion. I wish I had time at the moment to respond in depth, but term has just started and I'm run off my feet.
     
  12. MatthiasRussell

    MatthiasRussell Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    Soooo . . . Ezri didn't ask Picard, "Am I overreacting?" in the print edition and McCormack didn't write it that way? How did that line get into the kindle edition!?!
     
  13. Una McCormack

    Una McCormack Writer Red Shirt

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    I wrote "overreacting". :)
     
  14. MatthiasRussell

    MatthiasRussell Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    HAHAHA, my bad. I guess spell check didn't catch that one when I was typing. Perhaps it was a Freudian slip.

    So the Kindle is correct, I just need better editorial control for myself.

    Now I'm laughing imaging Ezri ranting to Picard and then asking, "Am I over-eating!?!"
     
  15. Una McCormack

    Una McCormack Writer Red Shirt

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    I'm convinced spell check is in the hands of some particularly mischievous gremlins. Rivalled only by the autocorrect pixies. :)
     
  16. timothy

    timothy Rear Admiral Rear Admiral

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    I just finished brinkmanship on my nook color fantastic read and no errors the nook rules e readers :) 5 out of 5 great conclusion to the typhon pact.
     
  17. Misco

    Misco Commander Red Shirt

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    I was very much looking forward to this book having enjoyed all of Una McCormack's other contributions to Trek Lit, and I wasn't disappointed!

    I thought the whole story was very well executed; especially the part involving the undercover operatives on Ab-Tzenketh. Efheny and Alex were both interesting characters, moving in their own ways; her quiet desperation to submerge herself within Tzenkethi society contrasted with his obvious fear and disgust with the world he had found himself trapped on. Plus the complicating factor of Cory who found herself mixed up in a situation she had no hope of comprehending and yet still daring to betray the fact that she had imagined there was something more out there than her lowly position in society would ever naturally reveal. Efheny and Alex both came across as unlikeable at times and yet I found myself feeling extremely sympathetic toward them and could understand why they acted the way they did. The numb relief Efheny felt at the end as she submitted herself to her fate was palpable; as if she was the embodiment of the weariness everyone in the Federation, the Pact and other involved worlds must feel after years of assorted conflicts, wars, subterfuge and uncertainty for the future.

    Meanwhile on the Aventine... I wasn't sure what to make of Peter Alden at first; he could quite easily have become just a random character from Ezri's past, there to provide a little Tzenkethi flavoured intrigue before disappearing off into the night. But he definitely grew on me the further I read; his impending (ongoing?) mental breakdown was disconcerting especially the way Starfleet seemed quite content to allow him to actively serve regardless of whether this was any good for him or not, and the way his initially affable manner disguised a very much changed man from the person Ezri was expecting to work with on the mission. As I got to the final pages of the book I realised that I knew almost nothing more about Peter than when he was introduced at the beginning of the story, which didn't really bother me although I would like him to show up again at some point in the future. Not least because I'm interested about what will happen to Cory now and how Peter will go about helping her to adjust to the new world she has found herself in.

    As for the Venette Convention; they puzzled me a little. I struggled to understand how such an old civilisation has managed to remain isolated from interstellar politics to the extent that they seemed to have done. I enjoyed them for what they were and I thought it was an unusual take on an alien race but I'm not quite sure whether I can buy the fact that the lead diplomats of their world were so shocked and appalled at the way the rest of the galaxy conducts itself. But I admit that as we only got a small glimpse of their society there may be much more to them than meets the eye and I'd be very happy to see the Convention featured again so that we can learn more about them. Having said that, I did enjoy the fact that 'high level' meetings were held quite openly in public spaces and it made me wonder as to whether that sort of thing could be made to work in the real world. So from that perspective the Venetans were a success. :)

    I was glad Picard took something of a backseat for this novel and was happy that Crusher moved to the fore of the story from time to time; she rarely seems to get enough focus in the novels. Her tentative friendship with Ilka was very nicely drawn and I thought there was an interesting and rather sad parallel between their respective positions within the hierarchies they belonged to; Crusher's realisation that Ilka was prevented from acting freely in her profession because there was always more at stake for her than just the negotiations at hand and then the revelation of Beverley's own relative lack of self-determination, the horrible feeling of having been used by something far more powerful than herself. I think it was important that she cut Picard off and didn't let him offer meaningless platitudes because in truth there was nothing that could be said that would make it better.

    Overall, I thought Brinkmanship was a great addition to the Typhon Pact run of novels. It's a book that spoke to me of 'the little people', the cogs in the machine that keep the whole going despite having no true control of their ultimate destiny, also those who do have a modicum of power but are tempered by the society or organisation they find themselves operating in whether because of internal or external reasons, and finally how the different systems we put in place to try and stop things from spiralling apart can never work perfectly in an imperfect galaxy filled with imperfect people all trying to unsuccessfully control their fears.

    tl;dr - Thanks for the excellent book Una, I'll look forward to your next one. ;)
     
    Last edited: Oct 4, 2012
  18. Deranged Nasat

    Deranged Nasat Vice Admiral Admiral

    If the Venetans are serious about interacting with other spacefaring nations in the long-term, it would be interesting to see them realize how their fully open society could in itself be a means of destabilizing foreign representatives. Undermining the nerve of political opponents would be quite easy, if they learned to understand themselves in that way, to see their remarkably honest and inclusive ways as a "weapon". It might allow them to reconcile their current and long-standing sense of identity with the shocking realization (that surely must now be dawning on them) that they can't trust most outsiders to act like Venetans. Perhaps they can regain a sense of stability if they learn to find security and comfort in the fact that they're playing by different rules than everyone else, and that this gives them the advantage - on their home turf at least - if they can just learn to grasp the shape of the board and see things in terms of advantage and disadvantage. It would be a difficult transition, I'd imagine, but perhaps a more acceptable one than the alternatives, e.g. becoming more manipulative themselves. They don't have to surrender who they are, they can continue playing by different rules, so long as they come to understand the shape of the game. They might realize they already have the means to play this game of politics and prosper in it, without having to become something distasteful to their sensibilities.

    After all, through no intention of the Venetans, the Federation, Ferengi and Cardassian delegations were reduced to a game of "where's my chair?" as soon as they entered the meeting space, causing quiet uncertainty and minor distress :lol:. (That was rather amusing to me, by the way - the Venetans being set up as an "elevated" society of noble, cultured beings with a highly orderly society, only for our first look at them to be something that throws the protagonists - and the reader - off balance by suggesting the sort of cheerful chaos that doesn't seem to befit noble statesmen and "space elf" societies). If the Venetans ever realize that they throw people off balance simply be being who they are, then they might come to see that they have choices other than "stick your head in the sand" or "betray yourselves by acting distastefully". Hmmm. I hope we do see the Venetans again. They're slow to change and insular, and might as likely just fold back in and become isolationist than actually work through their recent upsets toward a new set of assumptions, but I think there's great potential in them....

    PS: Crusher's friend with the bag of sweets was another nice touch. :lol:
     
  19. MatthiasRussell

    MatthiasRussell Fleet Captain Fleet Captain

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    Conclusion to the Typhon pact!?!


    Another thing came to mind that has stuck with me from this novel. When the Enterprise is dispached to pick up the Cardassian negotiator, Akaar says something like. "She's a democrat, our kind of Cardassian."

    This rubbed me the wrong way. The UFP is a democracy (more accurately a Republic) but it has allies that are not democracies. For example, the Klingons have been allies for a long time and they have a type of Oligarchy government. Akaar himself comes from a planet that, last we saw, was not a democracy. Then you have the Romulans, which have a Republican goverment but are historically at odds with the UFP. So should the negotiator being a democrat matter? Was this a statement of partiality?
     
  20. Deranged Nasat

    Deranged Nasat Vice Admiral Admiral

    I think it was more an acknowledgement that Cardassians have, politically, been trouble for much of the time the Federation has known them, and that the political movement on Cardassia that finally put an end to that and accepted the Federation's friendship was the democrat movement. Akaar was, as I read it, simply saying "yes, I know Cardassians can be trouble, but this Cardassian's record is of involvement with the social/ideological/political platform that's compatible with our methods and our way of doing things, and so you can be reassured a little, in that she probably doesn't have an agenda that might work against us, or that she'll be resentful of us". I don't think any sweeping judgement was being made regarding how the Federation interacts with alien powers in general; I think it was tailored quite specifically to the situation in the Union.

    That said, the Federation may have a non-interference policy, but of course they still have preferences and outcomes they're rooting for. A sense that the Reunion Party and its ilk are the "good Cardassians" and the Directorate, etc, the "bad ones" is indeed going to be present, I'd expect. The Federation wants the democrats in power on Cardassia, not the militarists. :)