11 April 2015

Book Review | Star Trek: The Next Generation - Cold Equations, Book I: The Persistence of Memory by David Mack

It’s difficult to die in Star Trek

Unless you’re wearing a red shirt and nobody knows your name, you can be irradiated or ascended or assimilated or even detonated and, the odds are, sooner or later someone will concoct a way to bring you back to life. It’s Roddenberry’s snare - his perfect future’s refusal to be wounded so ultimately. Yet Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Lieutenant Commander Data managed to remain deactivated for a real-life decade following the moving, on-screen sacrifice depicted in Star Trek: Nemesis – and despite being the only major Star Trek character to have the mechanism for his return so explicitly set up prior to his noble end, too.

But, just like all the heavy-hitters from Spock to Janeway, Data had to come back eventually. And, despite my early reservations, I’m very glad that he has, first and foremost because it has given us The Persistence of Memory - the first instalment in David Mack’s Cold Equations trilogy and one of the most exceptional science fiction novels that I’ve read in a long while. It’s so good, in fact, that I’d put it up there with the often-lauded “Measure of a Man” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, to which it serves as a thematic sequel.

Unlike his seminal Star Trek: Destiny series, which completely reinvigorated the literary Star Trek universe,  The Persistence of Memory is a story that’s capable of standing alone despite its catalysing effect on ensuing TNG arcs. What begins with the Enterprise-E’s investigation into a high-tech heist very quickly collapses into the life – and, indeed, afterlife - story of the Federation’s most controversial cyberneticist, Dr Noonien Soong.

“What if this isn’t a transfer of consciousness but just a duplication? What if the true me dies on this table and the me that gets up inside that android body is just a clever copy? Will I really have cheated death – or merely created a new being that thinks it’s me?”

Picking up just prior to Soong’s apparent death in the TNG episode “Brothers”, through gripping first-person prose Mack guides us through Good Old Often-Wrong’s conveyance into the most perfect android body that he’s ever created. As Soong knows that he’s killing his mortal self when he locks himself into his synaptic scanner, Mack is able to tackle head-on the issues that the television series swerved when we encountered the oblivious android Juliana, Soong’s ex-human ex-wife, in “Inheritance”. There’s an astounding passage in which Soong describes, blow by blow, exactly what it’s like to feel his consciousness seeping out of his fragile remains and slowly filling an artificial vessel. The author fascinatingly pushes Soong’s expected worries over his unique form of suicide to their natural limit before appeasing them somewhat with a fascinating sequence in which Soong experiences being in both bodies simultaneously. This clever continuity of consciousness convinces, if not confirms, that the android Soong is just as much Soong as the decrepit old scientist was, and it’s upon this conceit that the Cold Equations trilogy, and indeed Data’s second coming, is built.

Mack’s handle on Soong is dazzling; he captures perfectly both the dry humour and penchant for melodrama that Brent Spiner vested the character with on screen, while at the same time bringing to the fore the character’s love for his “sons” and ex-wife, as well as an unbridled ambition that I don’t think TNG ever really explored. The central section of the book utterly immerses us in Soong’s new life, building a bridge between “Brothers” (2367) and the book’s start (2384). Much of the story delves into the intricacies of Soong’s business empire-building, which makes for extraordinary reading given the unusually long game that the now-immortal Soong is playing. In these chapters, reading about him assuming and maintaining myriad personalities across the quadrant, out-negotiating Ferengi and standing up to the Orion Syndicate, it’s difficult not to build up a healthy respect, if not admiration, for the once-cloistered genius. However, when it comes to “family matters”, it’s difficult not to condemn him. The human Soong’s abandoning of Data, his forsaking of B-4 and Lore, and his stealing of Juliana’s consciousness away from her dying body pale in contrast to the sprees of “creative destruction” that the android Soong unleashes here. Yet these atrocities are carried out in the hope of saving his one surviving son and reactivating another, as well as reanimating and rejuvenating the deactivated android body of Juliana. And so even without approval there’s understanding; the reader can see the method in the madness.

Having caught back up to the novel’s opening section, Mack then teams up Soong with the Enterprise-E’s covert away team to infiltrate a Breen factory that’s producing blank-slate Soong-type androids and attempt to destroy it.  The Breen involvement here is an exciting development, particularly on the larger canvas of Deep Space 9’s recent destruction and escalating Typhon Pact hostilities, and Mack does everything possible to build upon their already well-established wickedness.

The novel’s dénouement proves to be as sickening as it is sweet as, to my shock, it isn’t ready-made-spare-body B-4 but the Enterprise crew, and Worf in particular, who are made to pay the highest possible price for return of their fallen comrade. And the bittersweet agony doesn’t stop there - the joy of Data’s reappearance is blighted further by the android himself who, in his new form, finds himself struggling with the same questions that once troubled his father, only with a disturbing and potentially even schizoid edge. Is he really Data? Or “the contents of an old computer transferred to a new one?” Or is he someone new?

Well, that’s where book two comes in.

Cold Equations Book 1: The Persistence of Memory is available to download from iTunes for £4.99 or from Amazon’s Kindle Store for £3.99. The cheapest online retailer for the paperback edition is currently Amazon, where you can order a copy for £6.99 plus postage and packaging.