Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Myriad Universes: Echoes and Refractions

Echoes and Refractions is the second collection of three short novels focusing on some aspect of an alternate Star Trek universe. As with most collections, it’s a mixed bag, but I did enjoy it more than the first one.

The first entry is The Chimes at Midnight by Geoff Trowbridge, whose work is fairly unfamiliar to me. I believe that he had a nice story about Picard delivering the letter Admiral Jarok wrote to his family at the end of ‘The Defect
or.’ Anyway, the premise here is pretty straightforward. The TAS episode ‘Yesteryear’ depicted a timeline in which Spock died as a boy and was replaced on the Enterprise by an Andorian commander named Thelin. Trowbridge follows this universe from the end of The Wrath of Khan along through the rest of the movie timelines.

While it is certainly an interesting premise, I think it was flawed. Rather than reading the story and j
udging it on its own merits, it felt like Trowbridge just wanted to show how fucked up the Federation might become because Spock wasn’t there; Thelin was. Kind of like It’s a Wonderful Life, where the reader sees how fucked up the universe would be had Spock not reached adulthood.

There is some nice character work done, especially with David Marcus, who survives his encounter with Klingons on Genesis, and Saavik. Their burgeoning relationship in The Search for Spock is now able to be explored in more depth, and I found this Saavik, as depicted within the relationship, to be much more interesting than the ‘actual’ Saavik. Sarek’s grief for his own lost son is truly moving, yet this subtle work is not apparent at the novel’s conclusion, when the standard noble sacrifice proved to be more laughable than affecting.

One final note, on the title cribbed from Shakespeare. It has been a while since I read Henry IV, Part II, but I didn’t find the situation presented in this novel, nor the scene near the end with characters parrying each other by quoting the Bard, to have any greater relevance to the play. It’s an allusion that didn’t work for me b/c I immediately thought of the play and could rationalize what the author was expecting me to see. I’ll admit that I could be compl
etely wrong about this and totally have missed the point, but it has been bothering me ever since I finished the story.

Keith R.A. DeCandido provides a refreshing change of pace with A Gutted World. At first it appeared that there was no single divergent point, but as my friend Steve Mollmann pointed out, everything before the Cardassian withdrawal from Bajor is pretty much the same. Though not much attention is called to it, this must be the turning point. Kira Nerys is forced to escape from her labor camp to bring vital information to the Federation. A war concerning the large Alpha Quadrant powers in unleashed within the opening chapters, and as always DeCandido presents scenes from all sides of the conflict, be they Romulan, Human, or Klingon. I hesitate to reveal anymore of the plot lest I spoil it, but the story moves in an entertaining if predictable manner. DeCandido as always has competent prose and nails the characterizations, but the novel didn’t resonate with me, didn’t say anything broader about the Star Trek universe, merely provided an hour and a half of diversion. Not bad, but at least entries like Leisner’s made me question how well I actually knew characters as prominent as Kirk.

In a story like this it seems like a requirement to squeeze as many alternate versions of people into the narrative just to remark on how different they are, so perhaps I shouldn’t chastise DeCandido for indulging. But most of these cameos were unnecessary and distracting for me. And with the more obscure characters comes explanations about why they are relevant to be seen here. Plus, I can’t keep Romulan politics straight, so dropping in Narviat and Charv
anek just confused the hell out of me. I’d like to see the ‘less is more’ approach taken in the future.

Chris Roberson finishes the collection with Brave New World, a novel revolving around how different the universe would have been if Soong had created many more androids than merely Data. Many of these androids were conscripted into Starfleet, where they had little rights. After being granted second-class citizenship, Data and man
y other androids just disappear and aren’t heard from until ten years later, where our story begins. Also, Ira Graves in this universe was able to successfully upload his consciousness into a positronic brain, and now it is commonplace for Federation citizens to do the same as they near death.

The plot of Brave New World is nothing spectacular, and ends with an unbelievable call for brinksmanship between the various empires. But where Roberson excels is in the presentation of the ethical quandaries artificial life would have in these circumstances. One character is an incredibly old man who uploaded himself into a positronic body, but mourns the loss of his wife of many years, for she passed away just before the technology was introduced. The restrictions placed on the citizenship of androids have their roots in good intentions; it is easy to see why Starfleet wouldn’t want to lose control of the production of further artificial life. And the way other civilizations use their less advanced android life as slavery makes for easy ethical critique.

What we have here is what science fiction can sometimes do best: have an easier conversation about something of primal importance by making the conversation metaphorical. Brave New World allows us to explore the ethics of creating artificial sentient life in our own universe by telling a story set in a completely fictional one. Easily the most satisfying of the six short novels.

I look forward to the next collection in the series, currently set for November of next year.

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