Had We But World Enough and Time: Christopher L. Bennett’s Star Trek novel Watching the Clock

My choices about which Star Trek novels to review are usually simple. I look for books with girls on the cover, and books with awesome Boris Vallejo cover art. I like my sci-fi with a major case of girl cooties, which the Star Trek novels of the 80s and early 90s were happy to provide, which helps explain why so many of them sold so well. My Boris Vallejo fetish is sometimes embarrassing. I want to hang the cover painting from Time for Yesterday on my bedroom wall and gently lick the corners until I die of cadmium poisoning.

Anyway, the day has finally come (not the day I die of cadmium poisoning): I am reviewing a Star Trek novel that acknowledges the existence of all of the extant television series. It seems most fitting and appropriate that that novel should be Christopher L. Bennett’s Department of Temporal Investigations: Watching the Clock, originally published in 2011.

This is not the kind of Star Trek novel I would usually read, because there aren’t any girls on the cover. To be fair, the only person on the cover at all is Christopher L. Bennett (who IS NOT the same Christopher Bennett who published a spiritual guide titled Hangin’ With God in 2005, it turns out. Because I clicked the wrong button, I have the Kindle edition of this book). I usually buy my Trek novels in paperback because the cover images are higher quality in person than on screens. This cover art is kind of an abstract image that might be a clock and might be a space station. Anyway, it looks exciting and flame-y, though mangled by electronic reproduction, and I love a time travel story. I adore vintage, but I’m willing to embrace the new, if somewhat concerned that it won’t be sufficiently girly for my tastes. But there are some great cases of girl-cooties in the time travel canon. I am totally committed to being excited about the enterprise of reading a Star Trek novel without any girls on the cover. On my Kindle, but still. Time travel!

I got into Star Trek because of the cool, fun, optimistic vision for the future of humanity and girls. In the early stages, Bennett’s interpretation of cool, fun, and optimistic focuses on the trials and tribulations of the men who work to bring science and bureaucracy together, in this case, Agents Dulmer and Lucsley. There are girls. Female characters in the early chapters include a girl hostage, a girl pilot from an alien cat race, and an archaeology grad student who knows a lot about warp engines (HE MAKES A CASE FOR IT—IT’S PLAUSIBLE). She gets beat up. Bennett assures me that the future has the technology to partially heal black eyes. We partially heal black eyes in the present, too, using an ancient invention known as the cold compress. I’m relieved to know that in the bright and unified Star Trek future, a humble doctor or med tech has rediscovered this use for raw meat.

The aspiring archaeologist is here to stay—accidentally travelling 15 years forward in time has saved her life, but ruined her plans (and her funding) for graduate school. Teresa Garcia provides a nice contrast to the grey-suited punctuality of Agents Dulmer and Lucsley, and after a few chapters of strenuous training at the Department of Temporal Investigations, she embarks on a heroic quest to save the universe and herself by not having sex with a Deltan.

And of this, some words must be said.

Deltans are like cans of spray paint—not safe in poorly-ventilated spaces. Their sexual pheromones overpower those in their immediate vicinity, because the Federation that can slap a steak on a black eye has not yet worked out some kind of miniaturized air filter. It’s completely unsurprising that Garcia becomes infatuated with a Deltan, because all humans who spend time with Deltans become infatuated. And it makes sense for her to decide that the risks of psychically-enhanced sex with someone she only likes because he smells good are not worth taking (EDWARD AND BELLA: PLEASE TAKE NOTE). What makes no sense at all is for her superiors to decide that she needs to work with this guy so that she gets over her infatuation. Garcia is not confronting some sort of spiritual flaw—she’s having an uncontrollable hormonal reaction to his pheromones. The DTI is horribly short-handed, so their decision to pair Garcia with the object of her schoolgirl crush could have been painted as an unfortunate necessity. I resent Bennett’s decision to present it as an opportunity for spiritual growth.

Despite my resentment, I appreciate the care Bennett took in dealing with the rest of Garcia’s sex life. With the encouragement of Deanna Troi, Garcia enjoys casual relationships with other characters. This prevents the novel from being the story of the girl who saved the world through maidenly virtue.

Outside of Garcia’s story, Bennett’s science jargon crowds out compelling characterization. The real protagonists of this story are ethics and temporal physics. They’re careening around the universe having encounters with people that reveal their true nature. After many encounters, their true nature remains incomprehensible. I like hard science fiction as much as the next girl, but this thing desperately needs an injection of Captain Kirk. The end result of all this celibacy and paperwork is an effort at defending history, to be carried out by the most boring civil servants available. This is a creative idea, and I wish Bennett had made it more interesting.

 

Watching the Clock is available now from Pocket Books


Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

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