Wed
Mar 5 2014 2:00pm

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Romulan Warbird: Diane Duane’s My Enemy, My Ally

Star Trek My Enemy My Ally Diane DuaneDiane Duane writes the most alien aliens in the Star Trek universe. She’s written the Horta, a race of glass spiders, and a second species of talking rock. She questions the relationships between these species and humanity, the Federation, and the fabric of space and time. She writes about them in incredible detail. By the time she’s done, you know how they think of themselves, what they think of you, and what they regard as tasty snacks.

In her 1984 novel, My Enemy, My Ally, Duane took on the Romulans. And although it’s really not unlike a lot of Duane’s other work on other alien races, it’s a stunning demonstration of what she can do.

In the original Star Trek television series, the Klingons and Romulans were both allegorically Soviet. The Klingons were brute-force totalitarians, while the Romulans were mysterious covert operatives. Both were convenient to keeping the show’s vision for humanity’s unified future relevant in an era of Cold War anxiety. Duane doesn’t wipe out this vision of the Romulans—she complicates it until we understand how to connect with it again.

Duane’s version tackles the question, why would Romulans call themselves Romulans? The name is a reference to Terran mythology and whatever you may believe about the shared origins of humanoid species in the universe, Romulans aren’t Terrans. So while they may agree that Romulus is a cool guy, and that being raised by a wolf to found a city that builds a continent-spanning Empire makes a cool story, they must have had a name for themselves well before they heard about Rome. They call themselves the Rihannsu, after their planet, ch’Rihan. And the Rihannsu aren’t just like us with funny ears—they’re dramatically different from us despite significant phenotypical similarities.

One of those differences is language; the Rihannsu do not speak English. When they talk to Federation officers, they speak Federation Standard. Once they get transdermal universal translators, everyone understands them, but until then, they speak Rihannsu. “Great!” you’re thinking, “I’ll bust out my Rihannsu dictionary from my collection of vintage Trek stuff and follow along!” Think again, because there is no official Rihannsu dictionary. This appears to have something to do with the Powers That Were regarding Trek-related licensed properties. Having to guess what the Rihannsu are talking about is vital to getting your head into this book; this is a book about aliens, and you don’t understand them.

What you understand instead is the major symbolic motif in the piece. Duane’s Trek novels usually have a play within a play. Doctor’s Orders takes you to Switzerland, and then to space, where you rediscover Switzerland. Spock’s World has nested layers of symbolism with bonus sand whales. My Enemy, My Ally has four-dimensional chess. It’s a game, it’s a personality test, and it’s the plot. In four-dimensional chess, pieces can be timed out of the 3D cube to reappear later. It’s of a piece with Duane’s strategic use of Rihannsu—your understanding of what the characters are talking about is periodically timed out so it can be dropped on you later if Duane feels like it. Everything is a piece on the chessboard.

The Rihannsu dialogue does appear, to my completely untrained eye, to be internally consistent with itself. You will likely pick up a key phrase or two by the end of the book. If you’re the kind of reader who wants to do some frequency analysis and some careful comparisons of Rihannsu dialogue to characters’ thoughts, it might be really thrilling. But for a lot of readers, the dialogue will be mostly gibberish. However, this is the first in a series of books in which Duane explains Rihannsu culture (like Mike Ford explained Klingon culture) in stunning detail, and in a way that was later excluded from the official Star Trek canon despite the affection with which it is regarded by fans. It’s worth muddling through a mostly-untranslatable alien language.

My Enemy, My Ally reveals Rihannsu culture by bringing the Rihannsu protagonist, Ael t’Rllaillieu on board the Enterprise on a mission to undermine a conspiracy that involves several crews of Vulcans captured by nefarious Rihannsu involved in an unscrupulous biological research program intended to give Rihannsu psychic powers that rival those of their Vulcan cousins. To facilitate this conspiracy, the Rihannsu have developed a way to control the space weather. This seems to me like a cooler power than reading minds while touching people like Vulcans do, or even than reading minds from a distance, like the Rihannsu conspirators are planning to do. But evidently, the edge that indiscriminate, ethically unchecked use of psychic powers would give individuals in Rihannsu internal politics is more important and useful than the ability to create apparently natural ion storms that disrupt warp travel and interspace communications. And so the Rihannsu are moving in to the neutral zone to capture passing Vulcans and use their enhanced neural tissue to stomp out telepathic illiteracy among their political elites. They have to be stopped.

How do you stop an evil plan of this magnitude? There’s a complex scheme involving a clever ruse to make it look like the Enterprise has been captured by Rihannsu. For verisimilitude, a crew of Rihannsu moves over to the Enterprise and does jujitsu on the Recreation Deck. They do other things too, but these moments are the most important. If the disappearing-reappearing chess pieces of your understanding bother you, ignore the plot and read for these beautiful moments of cross-cultural interaction. These are the moments the story exists to serve—Ael laughing hysterically at Kirk’s given name, the comparisons between the conditions on the Enterprise and those in the Rihannsu fleet, Ael’s reminiscences about her father’s lessons in honor, and the deeply tragic moment when Kirk becomes the only person who knows Ael’s fourth name.


Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.

16 comments
vanye
1. vanye
These books, the ones in the Rhihannsu sequence, and her Wounded Sky, are the only Trek books I kept when I divested myself of my collection (though I did later repurchase HOW MUCH FOR JUST THE PLANET).
Ael t’Rllaillieu is a fantastic character, as are the rest of her crew, and I find Ms. Duane did a fantastic job with ALL the characters, both her new ones and our old favorites. It's a huge shame on Paramount that they abandoned all this fantastic work...
vanye
2. James2
The Rihannsu Saga is one of the great accomplishments of the Trek EU. Such a fascinating culture and take on one of my favorite Trek advesaries.

And that's the tragedy of the on-screen Romulans. They predate the Klingons by several episodes, thus making them the franchise's oldest villains.

Yet, they're the least explored of the major powers.
vanye
3. tigeraid
I'm the exact opposite of the other commentators here.

I have nothing but respect for the books and the mythos she created here. But much like the Klingons in "The Final Reflection," I'm trekkie-ness makes me COMPLETELY incapable of accepting the differences with long-time, established canon.

Which is funny--I'm kind of the opposite when it comes to newly-created canon, in that I have trouble accepting new changes in the movies that conteract the old novels! :/
Christopher Bennett
4. ChristopherLBennett
"In the original Star Trek television series, the Klingons and Romulans were both allegorically Soviet."

To an extent, but not entirely. The Romulans debuted in "Balance of Terror," which was a pastiche of WWII submarine movies, so they were sort of filling the role of the Germans while also being Space Romans. The Cold War elements came later in "The Enterprise Incident," which was inspired by the real-life Pueblo incident.

The Klingons, sadly, started out as basically an Asian stereotype, "Space Mongols" with swarthy skin and Fu Manchu mustaches. So they may have been intended to represent "Red China" as much as the USSR.

Really, TOS aliens were often just thinly veiled remixes of stock '60s-TV stereotypes of exotic ethnic cultures -- when they didn't just settle for copying them directly with things like a Roman planet and a Nazi planet and an Indian-tribe planet. Which is why writers like Duane and Ford deserve so much credit for fleshing them out as genuinely alien and original cultures. I think the makers of the modern shows owed something to that precedent even if they didn't use their ideas directly. (Although the TNG-era Klingons ended up being basically Samurai Vikings, so still kind of a remix.)

It really did frustrate me when they introduced the Romulans on Enterprise and Hoshi said "They're called Rommelans" and T'Pol corrected her, "It's pronounced 'Romulan'." I can understand why they didn't use "Rihannsu," but it should've been obvious that "Romulan" was meant to be a name given them by humans as a reference to the figure from Roman mythology. At the very least, it should've been the mispronunciation rather than the correct one.

While there's a lot to admire in ME,MA, I'm not crazy about the whole "space weather" aspect of the plot. Granted, there is an interstellar medium with its own currents and density concentrations, so one could validly say it has "weather," but its "fronts" propagate and shift on the timeframe of tens of thousands of years if not millions.
vanye
5. Dan Blum
I like this book a lot. The Romulan Way I don't enjoy as much, but it's good. Unfortunately while I was very much looking forward to the trilogy which followed those, I was pretty disappointed by it; the first two books are fine but I thought the third went off the rails.
vanye
6. peachy
Final Frontier - starring Kirk's daddy - also does interesting stuff with the Rihannsu, though I don't know how consistent it is with Duane's books.
John C. Bunnell
7. JohnCBunnell
There is a Rihannsu glossary in the back of The Romulan Way, and there are a handful of Rihannsu-related language resources online; this is one. (Duane's own discussion on developing the language seems to be available only via the Wayback Machine.)

The interesting thing about the Rihannsu novels is that while the specifics of Duane's Rihannsu were never canonized, the Powers That Be did essentially adopt the core premises of her concept: specifically, that the Romulans were in fact originally from ancient Vulcan, and that they emigrated during Surak's lifetime. This is reflected in the TNG two parter "Reunification", the threads of which the Trek novel program picked up with relish when the movies lapsed and the novels were allowed to drive "official" continuity. (See particularly the "Vulcan's Soul" trilogy by Josepha Sherman and Susan Shwartz, which retells and expands on the history Duane introduces in The Romulan Way.)
vanye
8. AwesomeAud
Yes, this is my favourite Trek novel! Diane rocks!
Christopher Bennett
9. ChristopherLBennett
@7: Duane didn't originate the premise that Romulans were a Vulcan offshoot -- that's from "Balance of Terror." "Vulcan, like Earth, had its aggressive colonizing period. Savage, even by Earth standards. And if Romulans retain this martial philosophy, then weakness is something we dare not show." So it was established from the start that Romulans probably began as Vulcan colonists.

Granted, though, I can't think of any pre-Duane works which tied the Romulan exodus in with the life of Surak, or delved into Romulan origins at all.
vanye
10. jnemesh
If you see a book with Diane Duane's name on the cover, do yourself a favor...just BUY IT! I have not read a single book from her that was less than excellent! She is my all time favorite author.
John C. Bunnell
11. JohnCBunnell
@9: Clearly it's been too long since I've rewatched "Balance of Terror".

OTOH, colonization is one thing, and what Duane proposes is something else. Colonization suggests that the colonists continue to respect the primacy -- at least in a cultural context, if not a political one -- of their homeworld. Duane's Rihannsu, per The Romulan Way, are explicitly attempting to build a completely new culture, which I'd argue is a different proposition.

Now that you mention them, though, it's worth observing that the matter of genuine Vulcan colony worlds is an area of the Star Trek universe that's received astonishingly scant attention over the lifespan of the franchise. Of the TV series, I believe only Enterprise touches on Vulcan colonization (and that in relatively scant detail), and as for the feature films, I think only Abrams' initial feature brings them up (so that there are still a few Vulcans left after their homeworld is destroyed). Nor can I think of any Trek novels, early or modern, that make significant use of Vulcan colonies -- certainly none outside the Enterprise continuity.

That would seem to me like an opportunity....
Christopher Bennett
12. ChristopherLBennett
@11: I think you're defining "colonizing" too narrowly. The word can be used to refer to a species moving into a new environment it did not formally occupy, like, say, vertebrates colonizing the land. If a beehive splits off a colony, nobody assumes the bees owe political allegiance to their ancestral hive. Spock just meant that the Vulcans spread as a species to other star systems. If we assume they did so without warp drive (as "Balance" seems to imply and as Duane assumed), then political continuity between the homeworld and the settlement would be impossible on the face of it.
vanye
13. WCityMike
Factual error: The Horta are a rock-like species from the Original Series episode "The Devil in the Dark". Duane has one serving on the crew (Ensign Naraht). The glass spiders are the Hamalki.
Christopher Bennett
14. ChristopherLBennett
@13: You're misreading it. The sentence is, "She’s written the Horta, a race of glass spiders, and a second species of talking rock." She's not saying that the Horta are a race of glass spiders, she's saying that Duane has written the Horta and a race of glass spiders and a second species of talking rock (from Doctor's Orders).
vanye
15. ProfMel
Diane Duane is the best of the Star Trek novelists. For many years, I was much more of Star Trek book fan than TV fan. The quality was uneven, but if Diane or A.C. Crispin wrote it, it was good.
vanye
16. TheMadLibrarian
Ms. Duane has written what I consider to be canonical works about the Vulcan and Rihannsu/Romulan cultures. She has a deft hand dealing with aliens, but Spock's World and the Rihannsu multi-volume arc are the best representations of these familiar but other civilizations. It is a pity that her vision didn't receive further play in the movies; Donatra, the Rihannsu captain who allies with Kirk against the renegade Shinzon, is probably the best representation of Duane's Romulans: trapped by politics and duty, but honorable. Star Trek Online, the MMORPG, does more with the culture of the Rihannsu as Ms. Duane portrays it, with the Romulan language and the various faction intrigues.

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