Monday, August 31, 2009

The Never-Ending Sacrifice

GARAK I can't believe I'm eating lunch with a man who thinks The Never-Ending Sacrifice is dull.

BASHIR I just thought it got a little redundant after a while. I mean... the author is supposed to be chronicling seven generations of a single family... but he tells the same story over and over again... All the characters live lives of selfless duty to the state... get old... and die. And then the next generation comes along and does it all over again.

GARAK That's the whole point, Doctor. The repetitive epic is the most elegant form of Cardassian literature, and The Never-Ending Sacrifice is its greatest achievement.

BASHIR But the characters never really come alive. I mean, there's more to life than serving the state.

GARAK A Federation viewpoint if ever I heard one.
Fortunately, Julian Bashir is not describing this book. Una McCormack's The Never-Ending Sacrifice is a great DS9 novel.

There's two ways to explore a society in a novel: from an insider's perspective, or from an outsider's perspective. In Andrew J. Robinson's A Stitch in Time, we see Cardassia from the perspective of insider (if occasional exile) Elim Garak. Here, we see Cardassia from a very different perspective, that of Rugal, a young man born and raised on Bajor until his Cardassian father discovers he's still alive and risks his career and his position in Cardassian society to bring his son home (as seen in the episode "Cardassians"). Not that Rugal appreciates that at all; he sees himself as more Bajoran than Cardassian, and he distances himself from his newfound family and homeworld.

Basically, Una McCormack's Never-Ending Sacrifice is a classic coming of age novel. Rugal finds himself in a very different place from the one in which he grew up, he has a lot to learn about culture and politics, and he goes through a lot of changes before he finds his place in the world. It's a common story type, used often in mainstream fiction. It's also often used in science fiction, because the coming of age in a strange land story allows a lot of opportunity for worldbuilding. We learn about the character's world as he or she does, so exposition is built into the structure.

Rugal's story spans several years, from the second season of DS9 to the time of the relaunch novels. On Cardassia, he rejects the status that could be his as the son of an important man and leads us through parts of Cardassian society we never saw onscreen. Even though we know in broad strokes what happens to Cardassia -- Klingon invasion, the military and Obsidian order loss of power folowing their failed attack on the Founders, the brief rule of the Detapa Council, Dukat's deal with the Dominion, the war, Damar's resistance, the devastation of Cardassia -- Rugal allows us to see all of it from a different perspective, and a growing, maturing perspective at that.

A coming of age story needs a believable and believably maturing protagonist, and McCormack fleshes Rugal out, from (understandably) petulant teenager to thoughtful young man. Unlike the characters Bashir describes, the characters in this book do come alive. The supporting cast, some new to the book (e.g., Penelya), some from episodes on TV (Kotan Pa'dar, Gul Dukat, Alon Ghemor, Tora Ziyal, and more), are also well drawn. Through his exploration of Cardassian society, from the ranks of the political elite to the garrets of revolutionary students to the slums of the underclass, Rugal experiences Cardassia and grows accordingly. Sometimes he's able to make his own way, at other times, he's at the mercy of the plots and schemes that pervade Cardassia. By the end of the book he's able to find his own direction, one that might have surprised his younger self.

McCormack's Never-Ending Sacrifice is not much like the Cardassian repetitive epic of the same name (a book Rugal doesn't care for), but it does seem like a tale of never-ending sacrifice. Rugal loses his Bajoran adoptive parents and much more, and his parents, both adoptive and Cardassian, have plenty of sacrifices to make as well. Duty to the state is on everyone's mind -- not always by choice, but because the state expects it. Rugal's father Kodan finds his ways of serving the state, while Rugal balances service to the state with rejection of it.

As a story, it's an intelligent and emotionally affecting work, with political suspense, romance, action, tragedy, and occasionally a little humour. It's proof, as if any more were needed, that a damn good Star Trek novel can be told about a character who appeared in only one episode. You don't have to be a DS9 fan to like it, though you'll get more out of it if you are. Whether you like stories with an epic sweep or intimate character studies, there's something here for you.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The poetry of Leonard Nimoy

Let's hope this strikes the right balance between fair use of copyrighted material and the curiosity of fandom. I believe Leonard Nimoy's books of poetry are out of print, but used copies can be found fairly easily. These are the two I have: We Are All Children Searching for Love (Blue Mountain Press, 1977) and Come Be With Me (Blue Mountain Press, 1978).

I am convinced

I am convinced
That if all mankind
Could only gather together
In one circle
Arms on each other's shoulders
And dance, laugh and cry
   Then much
     of the tension and burden
       of life
     Would fall away
In the knowledge that
We are all children
Needing and wanting
Each other's
Comfort and
We are all children
Searching for love

You stepped deep into the waters

You stepped
 Deep into
  The waters
   Of my soul

Patiently you searched
 For the precious

You found it
 Warmed it
  Caressed it
And gave it
  To me
  As a gift

And now
  It is ours
    And we call it

I may not be

I may not be the fastest
I may not be the tallest
     Or the strongest

I may not be the best
Or the brightest

    But one thing I can do better
     Than anyone else...

      That is

        To be me

If love can be

If love can be withdrawn
It never was

My love for you is not a gift
    To you
      It is a gift
        To me

Without others

Without others
   I am

Without you
   I am

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Unreality SF on the new Star Trek movie and Star Trek books

Unreality SF, the website specializing in coverage of SF media tie-ins, just published Jens Deffner's article Trek XI: Did the books miss the bandwagon?. Deffner poses a number of questions about the shortage of tie-in books for the new movie at present and Pocket's plans for the future, getting opinions from published Trek writers/longtime fans Keith R.A. DeCandido, Geoffrey Thorne and Allyn Gibson and from one unpublished blogging fan, me. As pleasantly surprised as I was to be asked to participate, I expected there'd be just bits and pieces from me and a lot of other people, so it was a bit of a surprise to see how much I'm quoted. So I won't repeat myself here.

There's an Unreality facebook group now, too. Unreality is building up a considerable mass of interesting interviews and reviews. If you're reading this you probably already know about it, but if not, check it out.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Music of the Spheres

Another one I downloaded years ago and only just read. Margaret Wander Bonanno's Music of the Spheres (email her for a copy) has become almost legendary among Star Trek books fans. She wrote the book during the Richard Arnold era, and her "Probed" article about the writing of the book blames Arnold and then-editor Dave Stern (I believe; she refers to him as RockStar and Arnold as Trelane) for what happened. The proposal was approved, she wrote the novel, and then everything went haywire. She was pulled from her own book and replaced by J.M. Dillard, who did the rewriting on the published version of Brad Ferguson's A Flag Full of Stars, and then Dillard herself was replaced by Gene DeWeese. Bonanno calculates 7% of her book is in the finished product.

So, that's the backstory. The story itself is a double sequel, following up on the Probe from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and characters from Bonanno's 1985 Trek novel Dwellers in the Crucible. The Enterprise is invoted to participate in an archeological dig as part of a diplomatic effort by the new Romulan leader; meanwhile, the Probe is returning to its homeworld. Naturally, the storylines intersect.

I can see why some people really like Music of the Spheres. Bonanno has a strong and distinctive voice, and really uses it, writing in a poetic prose style for the scenes from the perspective of the Probe and its creators, writing formal, almost archaic prose for the Romulan characters, and writing casual, slangy prose for the Enterprise regulars and human guest stars. The book has a strong focus on relationships, real, potential, and fading, as well as on music, which turns out to be the language of the Probe. Good thing that diplomatic mission just happened to involve some prominent musicians as well as archeologists, given that it's the musicians and archeologists who do the most to solve the mystery of the Probe.

Which leads me to my point: I didn't really like this book very much. I found it self-indulgent, as though Bonanno mainly wanted to write about the characters she created and about music, while it was apparently the editor's suggestion to write about the Probe. I didn't care for her prose stylings, either, Repeatedly referring to the Probe with the phrase "Messenger, Wanderer, Gatherer -- more prosaically: Probe" was just one of the annoyances. The narration sometimes has odd flights of fancy; sure, it's from characters' POV, but little interjections like "Eerie!" just come off feeling a little odd.

The dialogue didn't work for me, either; when she wrote for familiar characters, the dialogue rarely rang true. Likewise for some less familiar characters -- a (male) Starfleet Admiral calling Kirk "Jim baby"? Also, for a book with a lot of guest characters (Cleante, T'Shael, Jandra, Dajan, Rihan, Lord Harbinger (sounds like a video game villain), Tiam, Kittay, Ryan, Anneke, Harper, etc), few get much development or distinctive voices. It might have worked better if the book focused more on a smaller cast.

Ironically, for a book with a huge guest cast and major supporting roles for certain TV supporting cast (Uhura and Sulu, the latter in an unconvincing role as a part-time secret agent), this is possibly the only Trek novel written by a pro in which characters consciously think about Kirk, Spock, and McCoy the way some people do in real life: as the "legendary triumvirate", Spock as superego and guardian angel, McCoy as id and devil's advocate, Kirk at the centre. That's a bit too meta for me. Kirk should be aware of his friends' roles in his decision-making, certainly, but he shouldn't necessarily think about it in the same terms as people writing about him as a fictional character.

Then there's the attempts to pay tribute to Diane Duane's work with the Romulans by sneaking things in with the subtlety of a flying mallet -- Captain Rihan of the ship Hannsu. If it was already known that Paramount (i.e., Arnold) had issues with Duane's Rihannsu, why expect something so unsubtle to get through? If it wasn't yet known that they were problematic, why not just call the Romulans Rihannsu and give them names in line with Duane's Romulan character names?

At any rate, it's not hard to see why an editor and Paramount Licensing might have issues, even if the latter took the form of the notorious Arnold, who reportedly blocked a Trek comics plot involving time travel on the grounds that time travel was too complicated for Star Trek fans. The book is in love with its multitude of guest stars; the "legendary triumvirate" doesn't actually have much to do; there's not a lot of plot; the musical solution involves a lot of handwaving (possibly even literally once Anneke the dancer gets involved).

This time around I haven't skimmed through the published version, because it appears that the changes are much more significant and extensive than was the case with A Flag Full of Stars. I don't remember much about Probe, having read it back in 1992; that usually means I found it neither terribly good nor terribly bad, because I tend to remember the extremes.

So... I didn't care for this one, but as I said above I can see why others might; it's a singular, idiosyncratic work, anything but generic. I've liked Bonanno's other books considerably more than I liked this, and I'm looking forward to her next one with no little anticipation (there should be a lot more Saavik novels than there are, dammit!).