31 March 2013

Book Review | Star Trek: Voyager - The Eternal Tide by Kirsten Beyer

The Eternal Tide is the most divisive Star Trek: Voyager novel published to date; it’s also probably the finest. Where you stand on its merits will probably depend more on your attitude towards the fate of the television series’ focal character and your views on death within the Star Trek canon generally than it will the intrinsic quality of the work, but for the purposes of an introductory soundbite, suffice it to say that Kirsten Beyer’s hottest novel is the literary equivalent of a season finale, drawing together two threads that have hung loose ever since Kathryn Janeway met her end amidst the pages of Peter David’s almighty Before Dishonor. Love it or loathe it, this book is an event.

Conceptually, The Eternal Tide is larger than even the most of inventive of us could have imagined, toying with ideas of predetermination and providence as the most creative and most destructive forces in creation collide ahead of schedule, forcing the multiverse to turn to two former Voyager captains to bring them back into balance, and in doing so seal their respective fates. It’s dazzlingly ambitious and scintillatingly written, showcasing the author’s remarkable talent for fusing hard science with soap opera as her plot turns as much on budding romantic endeavours and the wonders and terrors of parenthood as it does fixed points in time and the end of all things.

As the Voyager fleet continues to explore former Borg space, its fleet commander, Captain Afsarah Eden, continues to investigate her mysterious and unique lineage, leading her to a discovery that forces Starfleet to take stock of its understanding of the universe, and face up to a threat greater than anything that it’s ever faced before. And that’s not stock blurb hyperbole – it literally is the greatest threat ever faced by the Federation, the Alpha Quadrant, or the Milky Way for that matter; even the Q Continuum is running blind and scared. “Meanwhile”, Q – and by Q, I don’t mean the Q made famous by actor John de Lancie; I mean his son, as played by de Lancie’s son – has stumbled upon only a void where his future should be. Terrified to his omnipotent core, he probes the multiverse for evidence of what could have erased his future, and discovers that the multiverse seems to want Vice-Admiral Janeway dead. When his “Aunt Kathy” died at the hands of the Borg in Before Dishonor, she died in every single possible timeline, and that couldn’t possibly be. Drawing a link between his godmother’s unequivocal death across creation and his own omnipotent oblivion, Q posits that that the multiverse is trying to put something right – something that went wrong when the future Admiral Janeway travelled back in time to alter history to bring Voyager home early in the television series’ finale, Endgame. To find out what that something might be, and with a view to correcting it, he does what no Q should ever do; what is given away not only by the book’s mission statement of a cover, but its earliest passages too – he conspires to bring Janeway back from the dead.

Perhaps anticipating a backlash, Beyer offered her would-be critics justification for her actions in an introductory note, opining that this story “required telling”. I was unconvinced for one inescapable reason: whenever a long-running series brings a character back from the dead, particularly one as central to it as Janeway was to Voyager, it not only debases the significance of that death in the first instance, but takes weight away from any subsequent deaths as readers know that the apparently-deceased character could feasibly reappear at any point. Of course, Janeway isn’t the first big Star Trek character to receive such treatment in print – Enterprise’s winker, Trip, and Deep Space Nine’s Prophet-walker, Sisko, are probably the most prominent examples – but she is the only one that I can think of who met her doom in this medium, and did so quite decisively. There were no clear celestial cop-outs or hang-on-a-minute winks waiting in the wings to undo what Peter David did, and for me that made Janeway’s “cop-out comeback” even harder to swallow.

The novel also draws upon countless Voyager stories beyond its immediate predecessors, utilising Riley Frazier and the Borg Co-operative encountered in Unity; the eponymous Omega particle of The Omega Directive; and, most importantly, the Q Continuum. Were The Eternal Tide a Doctor Who novel, such a confluence would be summarily dismissed by many potential readers as “fanwank” – a term generally reserved for the most indulgent and self-referential of tales, written by the fans and for the fans. I think that anyone who has ever read any of Beyer’s Voyager works would attest that her love for the characters and the subject matter rivals that of any regular fan, and certainly her knowledge of previous novels and episodes must border on encyclopaedic, but her preceding novels all managed to strike an acceptable – no, a pleasing – balance between forging for the future and looking back over the shoulder. The Eternal Tide shows no such restraint, and it lives and dies as such.

By the time that I’d purchased it, I’d resigned myself to the fact that Janeway was coming back; I’d even convinced myself that the evident indestructibility of Spock and his Trek heredity weren’t so much fan-appeasing slams down on the reset button as they were endorsements of Gene Roddenberry’s unblemishable vision of the future. Then I remembered that Simon & Schuster had used the Borg to kill off sixty-three billion Federation citizens and bring Starfleet to its knees. Then I wondered how Janeway must feel about that, as it was her destruction of the Borg’s transwarp hub that set in motion the sequence of events that brought the Borg back to the Alpha Quadrant, hell-bent on vengeance. Then I started to get it.

Whilst ostensibly The Eternal Tide is an evasion of the ultimate consequence, it’s actually a discourse on consequences; a study of cause and effect on both a personal and a multiversal scale. Beyer’s story takes something as colossal as a sixty-three billion death toll, and looks at what effect it would have on an individual conscience. She studies loss and grief, and then turns to what might happen were that loss to be undone more than a year after the event. She even breaks the fourth wall as meta-fictional debates rage over a single death and mooted resurrection. Most movingly of all though, she looks at the bonds between parents and their children in its many forms – Tom, B’Elanna and Miral; Riley’s people and their offspring; Jobin, Teller and Afsarah; Janeway and her erstwhile Voyager crew; all the way up to the transcendent Q, Q and Q – and how it defines who we are, what we do, and what we’re capable of under duress. There is a moment in this story when a man is prepared to let the multiverse end aeons earlier than it otherwise would have, all so that he may avert his child having to sacrifice her life. It’s powerful, enchanting material hidden beneath a veil of fanwank – the ultimate guilty pleasure for any open-minded and forgiving Trekker.

29 March 2013

Book Review | Star Trek: Typhon Pact - Zero Sum Game by David Mack

The literary, and I would imagine also the commercial, success of David Mack’s Star Trek: Destiny trilogy was such that Pocket Books would have been missing a trick had they not commissioned another crossover miniseries to follow in its wake. This time around though, the multi-series arc would be longer in length; broader in scope; utilise a number of different authors; and showcase a whole host of different sci-fi subgenres instead of just plain ‘epic’. Star Trek: Typhon Pact’s opening novel, Zero Sum Game, may still come from the pen of Destiny’s author, and may still be almost as fast and as furious a read, but it has far more in common with a Bond movie than it does a Borg one - just substitute our man Bashir for 007, the eponymous Typhon Pact for the USSR and the United Federation of Planets for the Western world. And fortunately for Mack, nobody does it better.

But for its “Typhon Pact” subtitle, Zero Sum Game would otherwise have been billed as a Deep Space Nine novel. Not only does its cover bear the images of two of its star-crossed alumni, but its plot and its tone are both firmly rooted in the DS9 house style. After a relatively short reintroduction to the station’s chief medical officer, Dr Julian Bashir - who is now as lonely and as lovelorn as ever he was on television, if not even more so -, Mack turns to the series’ ‘Jack Pack’ of genetically-engineered misfits (from the episodes “Statistical Probabilities” and “Chrysalis”) to brief Bashir on his secret mission for Starfleet Intelligence, and, more importantly, to introduce him to his partner in the field: his fellow superhuman, former patient and long-lost love, Sarina Douglas. Together they must infiltrate a Breen enclave and sabotage the Typhon Pact’s development of a quantum slipstream starship, the specs for which have been stolen from Utopia Planitia Fleet Yards. The only trouble is, Starfleet Intelligence knows little more about the Breen than most Star Trek viewers do - and most of that is conflicting.

Much of this novel’s success is attributable to Mack’s depiction of the Breen culture, which until now has had an alluring question mark hovering above it. On the rare instances that they were seen in Deep Space Nine, usually as part of the Dominion, the Breen looked like less-weathered versions of Return of the Jedi’s Princess Leia in her Boushh disguise, and their unintelligible mechanical shrieks only added to their utterly alien an unerringly uniform mystique. Zero Sum Game lifts the veil on ‘Breen’, but each reveal only begs further questions and deepens the intrigue. Once those porcine masks are lifted, Mack introduces us to complex characters ranging from dissidents living in underground warrens to an overworked slipstream engineer who has to worry as much about politics as he does quantum equations, and whom the reader comes to care for and sympathise with almost as much as Bashir and Sarina. Behind them, he paints in a society predicated on anonymity and fairness, where anti-nepotism and equality are championed above revealing one’s face to a neighbour or colleague. Indeed, what begins the novel as an unequivocally-antagonistic confederacy ends it as a fascinating, layered and above all else grey civilisation; as fate urges the patriotic Bashir to reluctantly exercise his Federation-sanctioned licence to kill against Breen civilians (as well as militia), Mack forces us to look at the good doctor’s “murders” through Breen eyes. In this respect, Zero Sum Game is more than just another chapter in Deep Space 9’s ‘Bashir plays Bond’ storyline – it’s a cold look at cold war, Hippocratic Oaths in tatters and the paving on the road to Hell. It’s a case study of two diametrically-opposed planetary unions – one whose citizens wear metallic masks, one whose citizens wear ethical ones.

Which brings me to Sarina, this novel’s genetically-enhanced Bond girl. The sweet butterfly that Bashir coaxed out of her cocoon on television is now an über-capable femme fatale with a surprising hair trigger, lack of compassion and newfound penchant for promiscuity. Despite Mack’s omniscient prose offering us occasional windows into her thoughts, she remains as inscrutable as the Breen that she’s sent to infiltrate, and I dare say a little colder. Having watched Alexander Siddig take Bashir from the wet-behind-the-ears pompous lieutenant of “Emissary” to the stiff-upper-lipped, lonely old backbone of a space station at war, I would’ve thought that I’d like nothing more than to read about him finally get the girl of his dreams – particularly if he was able to win her heart amidst the perils of undercover intelligence work, which would have really played to his sense of romance. When it happens though, it feels too easy; too flat; too hollow. Lost in the pages, I found myself waiting for a catastrophe to come and crush the Doctor’s fleeting happiness, but it seems that Mack has something altogether more interesting in store for the couple – a long game that is only just beginning in this book.

While for the most part, Mack’s narrative sticks with Bashir and Sarina, it occasionally breaks away to follow Captain Ezri Dax and the crew of the Aventine, who have been charged with extracting the two smitten spies should their mission succeed. However, before they can even formulate a rescue plan, let alone implement one, they need to shake off the cloaked Romulan warbird on their tail and evade a Breen fleet. Reading these parts of the story, I was put in mind of the structure of the Star Trek: The Next Generation two-parter “Unification”, except here little happens involving the Aventine to further the fundamental storyline or even significantly heighten the tension; I found myself constantly willing Mack to cut the padding and return to the two protagonists. This is a pity, really, as I feel that Mack could have done more with Dax than just show what a damned effective captain she’s become – the novel’s cover artwork hinted at an exploration of the failed romantic relationship between Bashir and Dax, which of course becomes even more strained with Sarina’s return, but this is broached only through a quick meal and a row at the novel’s start. I had at least expected a little more insight into Dax’s thoughts as she sought to recover the spy who once loved her.

Taken as a whole though, Zero Sum Game is a real page-turner of a tome; one that took me far less time to tear through than most Star Trek novels, laden as it is with love, lure and good old-fashioned adventure. Mack’s sense of pace is perfect, his action-packed prose is every bit as vivid as a movie screen and his portrait of the Typhon Pact-founding Breen sets the bar so high that I fear for the authors who must follow him as they seek to flesh out the hitherto-uncharted Tzenkethi Coalition, Gorn Hegemony, Tholian Assembly and Holy Order of the Kinshaya in subsequent volumes. With the Borg threat apparently put paid to once and for all, and the United Federation of Planets a mere shadow of its former self, for the first time since the Dominion War, 24th century-Trek feels fresh and exciting. The Typhon Pact might be built around the well-trodden Romulan Star Empire, but its Alpha Quadrant allies are as untapped as the races that Captain Eden’s Voyager fleet is seeking out on the other side of the galaxy. The franchise continues to go boldly where none have gone before; the fact that such places lurk just around the cosmic corner only adds to its appeal, rather than detracts from it.

21 March 2013

The One-Listen Lowdown #1 | Bloodsports by Suede

After an absence of more than a decade, Suede returned to the music scene this Monday with their sixth studio album, Bloodsports. Thanks to a couple of cash-in collections and a short-lived but fruitful Anderson / Butler reconciliation that brought us the Tears, it doesn’t feel like eleven years have passed since the band’s last substantial offering, and, happily, it doesn’t sound like it either. Bloodsports quite intentionally lurks in the lacuna between the cinematic grandeur of Dog Man Star and the colourful kitsch of Coming Up, offering listeners a fat-free and apparently effortless resurrection of Suede at the height of their powers – radio-friendly, yes, but not at the expense of the deep and carnal themes that underpin almost every track.

Its opening song, “Barriers”, typifies this euphonious synthesis perhaps as well as any other. Brett Anderson’s still-soaring vocals (“Aniseed kisses and lipstick traces…”) are complemented by a mounting rock sound that, by the track’s end, has risen to the level of Steinman-esque grandeur that one would expect to find on a Killers album. It’s little wonder that the band gave this track away as a taster single, such is its lure. “Snowblind” maintains the momentum, not to mention the aniseed fixation, presenting a crisp, commercial – if a little anodyne, compared to the rest of the LP –sound that I would imagine will see it appear as a single before too long.

The album’s third track sets things spinning faster, as “It Starts and Ends with You” reminds us why Suede were one of the biggest singles bands of the 1990s. A delectable blend of lyrical inventiveness (“Like a hairline crack on a radiator, leaking life…”) and glorious cliché (“And I fall to the floor like my strings are cut…”) sit atop one of Richard Oakes’ finest guitar melodies, perhaps making Bloodsports’ first commercial single the group’s most memorable since 1996’s instantly-recognisable “Beautiful Ones”. It is followed by “Sabotage” – an edgy and experimental track that’s been built like a B-side, which in Suede’s case is more of a compliment that a criticism, particularly in an era where digital technology has effectively put paid to such outmoded pleasures. There was a time when the release of a new Suede single would amount to almost an album’s worth of new material if one purchased all its cross-media releases, and it was material that stood up against – and in a few cases, surpassed – the better-known A-sides and album tracks. “For the Strangers” is cut from similarly eerie cloth, and with all its talk of aerosol, “gutters and drains and bins” is every bit as redolent of Suede’s popular mid-’90s stuff. “Hit Me” is the imperative chosen to name Bloodsports’ sixth track, but in truth it’s the song that does all the hitting, setting itself up as a sure-fire future single with its guitar-driven aggression and lyrical spite.

However, it’s the album’s final four tracks that offer the listener the greatest reward, as is immediately evident from the opening refrain of “Sometimes I Feel I’ll Float Away”, which evokes the feel of A New Morning’s most beautiful and indulgent ballads, but with the raw hunger of “Animal Nitrate” instead of the extravagant metaphor of “Astrogirl”. “All the plans were made in the wooded glade,” Anderson sings. “Where your body was split wide open, and I count to ten as the race begins round your hairpin bends.” Brutal and honest.

“What Are You Not Telling Me?” continues the record’s rapid descent into off-kilter love song, as telephones’ “brittle sighs” and “blown-away dandelion clocks” segue into poetic musings on the mysteries of love – not the romantic, abstract mysteries of which the masses sing, but the day-to-day “little things that are tearing us up”. With a few more listens, this one has the potential to rival REM’s “The One I Love” as one of my favourite twisted love songs.

The penultimate offering, “Always”, is another prominent example of vintage Suede, and it’s one to which every single member of the current ensemble contributed something in the writing. Magnificently capturing the disturbing nature of unrequited love, Anderson’s string of similes is laced with sweet menace. “Like a sniper in the wings,” the lovelorn protagonist wails, “I will always be near.” Cue restraining order. Bloodsports’ final song then shifts its focus back to reciprocal love, albeit in a world gone to the dogs. Whereas the two proceeding tracks dwell on distrustful relationships and unwanted attachment, “Faultlines” is a much more idealistic piece about two lovers whose mutual affection brings light into a world of “wreckage” where car alarms drown out birdsong. It’s hauntingly apposite in 2013.

“A return to form” seems to be the music world’s collective reception to Bloodsports, but – save for their mostly-flat Singles-era offerings – I don’t think that that Suede ever went off the boil; they just got lost in TV and aberrant positivity. This record, though, sees the band lost to the bloody ravages of love once more, their songs capturing all the anger, alienation and untied amour of a world happy to push light BDSM in its chick lit. Wipe away those Tears; Suede are back and better than ever.