Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Greater than the Sum by Christopher L. Bennett

I didn’t have high hopes for Christopher L. Bennett’s new novel, Greater than the Sum. I’ve written earlier about his seeming inability to generate genuine characterization and emotion, and Margaret Clark’s attempt to carry on with Enterprise adventures post-Nemesis has been, quite frankly, a debacle. Unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised by what I found when I sat down a couple of days ago to read the book.

That’s not to say that no good ideas were present. For one, the idea of a Vulcan/human hybrid being raised away from the Vulcan culture is interesting, as is the explanation that with her intense emotions she might very well be prone to uncontrolled outbursts. A crystalline multi-planet organism is another concept that one can easily identify as Bennett’s: his conceptions of an even odder alien universe than we are used to in ST is a huge strength, evidenced by his cosmozoan lifeforms in Orion’s Hounds. But it’s not so much the conceptions that fail, it is the execution.

Once again, the biggest flaw is the completely unbelievable emotions characters go through. As my friend Brendan Moody has said, Character A has an issue that Character B quickly identifies and informs Character A about, then with that knowledge in hand, Character A is instantly better and adapted. I’m not sure who said this first, but identifying a problem is the first step to solving it, not the only one.

For example, as newlyweds Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher talk about conceiving a child, the issue of his lifetime as Kamin, granted by a probe where he experienced 50 years in about twenty minutes, is raised. He quickly breaks down realizing for the first time in fifteen years that he has never dealt with the loss of his children from that timeline, and that has been what has been affecting him up to this point in the novel. Over the course of literally two sentences, he is able to process all these emotions and move on.

Let’s get past the fact that Starfleet never made him go to counseling sessions after such a traumatic event. Something like this would take years to fully understand and incorporate into one’s life. Not minutes or hours or days. Years. But we get two sentences. Not only is it unbelievable, it is just one of many such conversations that happen throughout the novel.

I know this was planned as a lead-in to David Mack’s Destiny trilogy, which promises to be earth-shattering (maybe literally) and set the course for most of the ST fiction for the next few years. Therefore, I think it is safe to assume that Bennett had a certain endpoint that he had reach at the end of his manuscript.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Bennett’s work this afternoon, trying to understand how someone who could write a brilliant novel like Ex Machina could go downhill with each later project, and now I think it is this endpoint scenario. What makes for a good story doesn’t start with a plot, it starts with a situation. Writing is the process of watching what happens in that situation and writing it down. But with a fixed endpoint, writing becomes getting from Point A to B, ad that doesn’t leave a lot of room for real development.

Ex Machina was a novel that put the Enterprise into a crisis involving Yonada, and was set in a time that was largely unexplored by others. Obviously killing Captain Kirk wasn’t an option, but there was sufficient latitude to allow the situation to develop pretty much on its own. But with Orion’s Hounds and Greater than the Sum, the stories take place in a much more restricted time and are constrained by later novels that are being written simultaneously by others. Therefore, the situation isn’t really allowed to develop, but forced to follow a certain path that gets it where outside forces say it needs to go. And the problem here is the forced path, disingenuous by nature, is unbelievable to a reader.

How much of this is Bennett’s fault? He’s obviously not being given assignments that are suited to his talents, though I am unsure if the novels produced by his talents would be all that marketable. He also could do some modeling, reading fiction that has genuine characterization and learning from it. But I think the overall problem may be much broader, and may be a problem for every ST book equally, though of course some authors adapt better to the situation than others.

We aren’t seeing individual novels anymore. Each book is set in the aftermath of some other book, to one degree or another. And quite often, the editorial staff is looking several books ahead. Therefore, just about everything has a fixed endpoint now, and that makes the authors begin their outlines with plotting a story rather than starting with a situation and developing it. And bending everything in a work to fit the plot makes for weak narratives.

As a mature reader, I think plot should always come second to good narrative and strong characters. The opposite is true in current ST fiction. Rather than reading about bold characters like Jean-Luc Picard, we get flaccid cardboard figures with the same name. Perhaps this has always been the case to some degree, maybe my tastes have matured along with me. Regardless, I think I’m done with the line for now. I’m sure I’ll read something every now and then, but ST fiction seems to be appealing to the lowest common denominator, and I’m really not interested in that.

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