Thursday, October 15, 2009

Troublesome Minds by Dave Galanter

Though it may not seem to be the case upon a cursory glance, the academic writing I have been practicing as a graduate student has influenced the content here quite a bit. The obvious would be the attention given to topics such as the distribution of comics on the iPhone or reviews of works like Henry Jenkins’s Convergence Culture. But the less obvious is in the way I approach pieces that I review, for an effective way to generate content is to disagree with a portion of a work and then present the reasoning behind it.

I have been highly critical of the Star Trek line Pocket Books has been producing recently, which has drawn the ire of some. While I stand by everything I have written, it
gets old to be constantly criticizing, so where I didn’t feel I had a lot to say about Dave Galanter’s Troublesome Minds, I wanted to write about it to maybe help a copy find its way into a reader’s hands as well as to demonstrate that I have no axe to grind.

With a line seemingly consumed with continuity and having every book tie into three others in direct a
nd indirect ways, Troublesome Minds is a refreshing change. Set within the original five-year mission, the Enterprise attempts to make first contact with Isitri only to wind up responding to a distress call and preventing the death of one Isitri by an assemblage of others. This man, Berlis, claims not to know why those from his homeworld wish him dead, and by intervening Kirk is placed into a bad position: return him to his colony and protect him, or turn him over to be killed.

However, Berlis is what is known as a troublesome mind in his telepathic community. The Isitri do not have vocal cords and virtually all are deaf; they communicate through their thoughts. People like Berlis arise from time to time and subject the world to inadvertent slavery for their minds are so strong that all other Isitri bend to their will and they become despotic. As Berlis makes his way back to his homeworld, Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise must try and prevent him from taking over the world and thus plunging them into war with a rival power who fears the innovations possible when a troublesome mind takes over.

While the novel has been praised in the deaf community due to its use of hand signals to communicate between the non-telepathic humans and the Isitri, I found the ethical quandaries our heroes were faced with to be the driving force of this book. Before he has a chance to think twice, Kirk violates the Prime Directive and intervenes, but rather than becoming focused on a rule that loses all sense when examined, Galanter proceeds by exploring how Kirk and Spock will face the tough decisions that their intervention has brought about. Obviously mind control is bad, but to what extent will they go to prevent it? By intervening against Berlis as he controls a planet, does Kirk side with a rival alien power bent on his extermination?

Where I thought Galanter could have improved was the consideration of what was to be done with Berlis assuming he could be captured and prevented from influencing his people. The idea of banishment was addressed, but in such a scenario I found it a little difficult to believe that no one would recommend the obvious, no matter how distasteful: maybe killing him is the only answer. Yet as the novel played out, Galanter placed characters in even more morally ambiguous situations and kept any resolution from being a pat one.

With such a simple story, it was also interesting to see how Galanter went about assembling a story in which so many obvious solutions weren’t possible. For example, as soon as I thought about just beaming up Berlis and warping away, and explanation was given for why that wasn’t possible. Galanter also problematized the idea of an assassination, demonstrating that Berlis’s hold over his people would not dissipate immediately following his death but diminish over time. None of this is a criticism; instead, by being able to tease out the seams in his narrative, it was possible to see and appreciate how Galanter went about assembling it. The dialogue literally sounded like it was straight out of an episode from the 1960s, something that I think few authors are able to replicate.

Troublesome Minds isn’t a great novel, but it is a solid one. And it also feels like an important story, where problems aren’t black and white and solutions leave the reader pondering rather than having everything go back to normal at the end.


Dave Galanter said...

Thanks for the kind words. :)

Ailora Blue said...

I enjoyed this novel too. It's the first time I've read a Star Trek novel.

My complaint though is that the female crew members are so inconsequential in this book that they seem little more than background props given no more consideration than the phasers or other inanimate objects.

Nurse Chapel as we know, was in love with Spock and yet, she is present only as an annoyance to be shooed away so the men folk can get down to business. Her unique perspective would have been interesting in the arena of this story.

Dave Galanter said...

I will admit I am very much a "Kirk/Spock/McCoy" kind of Classic Trek guy, and it's really not a sexist thing as much as it is wanting to focus on those characters. Meshu, for example, is a woman (and deaf) and a fairly prime mover in the story.

But I surely see your specific point about Chapel, and admit it now feels like a bit of a missed opportunity not to get at least some insight into her given the circumstances. Thanks for pointing it out!