Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Reread — A Stitch in Time

A Stitch in Time
Written by Andrew J. Robinson
Publication Date: May 2000
Timeline: 2376 is the novel’s “main” present, but given that it’s a memoir connecting the past to that present, numerous other years are visited: 2349, 2352, 2356, 2360, 2364, 2368, late 2374, and much of 2375

Progress: As was pointed out by Keith R. A. DeCandido in the comments section of my discussion of Avatar, Book One, this entire 400-page narrative is the “letter” sent by Garak to Doctor Bashir in that other novel. Though originally published as the twenty-seventh and final standalone title in the numbered Ds9 novel series, A Stitch in Time was later incorporated into the Relaunch line, and with good reason. Though much of the book focuses on Garak’s upbringing on Cardassia Prime and his career as an operative of the Obsidian Order, the novel also chronicles his experiences on the planet after its decimation at the hands of the Dominion, thereby offering a post-finale glimpse into a world trying to rebuild itself and find a new path forward.

The plot developments are numerous, and at times byzantine. Because this is a memoir-styled epistolary narrative, which jumps around in time and is linked as much thematically and by incident as it is by plot, I don’t think it would be wise to expend several thousand words recounting everything that happens. Our focus is Garak and the world which fashioned him. With that in mind, here is a brief, high-level summation…

The opening “Prologue”, in which Garak provides an evocative description of a devastated Cardassia, eloquently sets both the book’s tone and stage. Next follow three Parts, divided respectively into 23, 20 and 6 chapters, with a closing “Epilogue.”.

Part I kicks off with Garak aboard DS9, about to join the Battle for the Chin’toka System. We then switch from this point of the timeline to Garak as a child, being mysteriously sponsored to attend the Bamarren Institute for State Intelligence. Then we see him back on Cardassia, attending the memorial service for Legate Corate Damar. After that we jump back to his first year at the Institute, during which he is designated “Ten Lubak,” in accordance with the school’s practices, and is bullied while running an errand in the stockroom. Then, in Chapter 5, we’re back on Ds9, with Garak discussing potential Cardassian perimeter vulnerabilities with Sisko, and we can elucidate the narrative structure of Part I: a sequence of alternating chapters that rotate us through three different times—one in the ruined Cardassia, which is conveyed through short, poetic sections, one which fills us in on Garak’s early years, and grows in detail as it advances chronologically, and the one on the station leading up to the conflict shown in the series finale. The sections concerning Garak’s past show his initial despair and difficulty in adjusting to the harshness of his training, his intelligence and willingness to break the rules—his illegal adoption of a remarkable camouflaging pet enables a metaphysical breakthrough, unlocking tremendous inner abilities—in order to advance through the ranks. Key relationships are established. Garak encounters a girl named Palandine (“One Ketay”) towards whom he is immediately drawn. He navigates jealousies and alliances with the other nine members of his Lubak unit under the instruction of their docent, Calyx, while coming to understand that his parents have a more distant relationship than he’d previously thought, and that Enabran Tain has a special interest in his fate. Garak undergoes all sorts of mental and physical trials, from Wilderness capture attempts to a bloody Competition which costs his mate Three one of his eyes. And yet, despite his proven skills, Garak is not advanced to the next level of training when his performance is evaluated, but rather re-assigned to a different school. Whatever pleasure he may have found in this somewhat mysterious placement, though, is offset by the sting of personal betrayals: One Charaban, whom he considered a friend, was merely using him for his own purposes, as it turns out was Palandine, who is to be enjoined with Charaban. The final chapter of Part I ends with Garak bidding them farewell with unmistakable bitterness. Meanwhile, in the station-bound strand of the story, Garak befriends a Bajoran named Tir Remara, whom he suspects is more than she appears to be (a dabo girl and part-time counselor). Finally, the billion-high casualty count inflicted by the Dominion and the true extent of Cardassia’s social and cultural wounds take their toll on “present” Garak.

Part II swells with intricate spycraft, as Garak is formally introduced to the Obsidian Order and begins his training as a junior intelligence probe under the instruction of the inscrutable Limor Prang. As before, the narrative moves forward in the triad of alternating timelines. The chapters showing Garak’s increasing skills, and the rising stakes of his missions—which eventually see him graduating to assassin while playing gardener—are the core of this part of the book. I want to highlight Chapter 8, in particular, which has Garak adopting a fabricated identity in a mission to destabilize peace talks with the Federation—his first contact with humans—for its excellence. Truth and fiction become surprisingly intertwined, and even though the mission is ultimately a success, Garak becomes partially responsible for someone’s suicide, again tainting the spoils with a sense of loss. Another key moment occurs when Garak visits his ailing father in Chapter 10, only to learn, in an anti-Empire-Strikes-Back confession, that this man isn’t in fact his father, but rather Enabran Tain is. As one of the “sons of Tain,” Garak’s responsibilities rise, as does the body count left in his wake. (In the episode “For The Cause” Ziyal accused Garak of having had her grandfather, that is to say, Gul Dukat’s father, “tortured and killed,” and Garak acknowledged that it was true. This book gives us the play-by-play with Procal Dukat). He excels at his profession, is an accomplished cultivator of the difficult Edosian orchids to boot, but his private life is all misery: loneliness and regrets, which manifest through his increasing obsession with Palandine, now the mother of Kel by way of Charaban, whose real name is Barkan Lokar. This eventually culminates in an affair with Palandine, and when Tain discovers it, he not only demotes Garak back to a basic operative, but makes it clear he is no longer part of his succession plan. Garak goes after Lokar a little too publicly, and is exiled for his troubles. Back on the station, Garak’s decryption activities suggest a Resistance is forming on Cardassia, and the plot with Tir Remara eventually resolves itself in an ingenious and emotionally satisfying manner. On the post-finale Cardassia, different factions, generally speaking divided into two main camps—those willing to give democracy a shot, and those who wish to return to the old days—begin to vie for power.

In Part III, the “past” timeline takes us through Garak’s uncomfortable first days on Terok Nor, and finally closes the gap with the DS9-centric timeline, which in turn connects up with Garak’s involvement with the nascent new governmental structure on Cardassia Prime.

What you don’t leave behind: This entire novel is a splendid exercise in thoughtfully-woven continuity, integrating essentially everything we knew about Garak from the series and threading it with many other Cardassian characters, and other elements of broader lore, from the Trek universe. Perhaps my favorite unexpected inclusion was that of Gul Madred. The way Robinson shows his decline through Garak’s eyes was believable and, in a way, moving: “Madred had indeed changed since I last saw him; he was more neurasthenic, given to sudden emotional outbursts.” Later Garak talks about Madred’s “mask,” and how the man is terrified of change. This doubles up wonderfully with Picard’s view into his character.

It’s not linear: Garak’s early observations about Sisko around the time of “In the Pale Moonlight” are priceless. For example, “…why Captain Sisko is so upset with me because I accomplished the goal (which he established!) of getting Romulus into the war against the Dominion baffles me. And it’s not because of the few lives that were sacrificed.” Says you! Sisko does his thing, but this is not an Emissary-centric novel.

Don’t tell me you’re getting sentimental: Kira plays an active role in the subplot involving Tir Remara, and her lines and behavior ring absolutely true. The way this subplot involves a realization by Remara that Kira’s mother was a “comfort woman” for Cardassians, and Dukat’s mistress specifically, is artfully handled. But perhaps my favorite moment involving Kira in this novel comes during one of Garak’s more despairing, introspective interludes (Part II, Chapter 17). He recalls that when the Colonel told him how many Bajorans died during the Cardassian Occupation his mind simply rejected the figure and sought justification in the service of the state. “But now,” he goes on, “I understand why she hated me. More important, I now understand that constant burning, almost insane look in her eyes.” What better way to describe Kira’s fire?

All I do all day long is give, give, give: “Any interaction with Quark was always a quid pro quo exchange,” Garak accurately observes, and that certainly applies to his entanglements with our beloved barkeep throughout the novel. It’s fun to learn about Garak’s first meeting with Quark during his Terok Nor days, but the Quark bit I found most amusing occurs right after Quark asks Garak why he’s so interested in Remara. Garak replies sardonically—but, as is his style, hiding a little truth in plain sight—that he’s solitary and is looking for a mate with whom to share “his humble existence.” That’s when Quark’s mind strikes latinum: “I could broker pairings, Garak. I’d have dabo girls who were looking for mates and match them with clients here on the station who agreed to pay me upon a successful pairing.” Wait until Kira hears about this…

A chance to enjoy paradise again: Bashir, of course, plays a significant role in the novel, both as the addressee of Garak’s overall memoir and as an active participant in the more contemporary entries. The changing nature of their relationship over time is deftly depicted, highlighting Garak’s emotional sensitivity throughout. Bashir’s discomfort, for instance, when he invites Garak to lunch in his office to talk about the importance of Garak helping the situation by helping himself, is palpable. The Obsidian Order features heavily in this book, of course; and the Romulan outfit Tal Shiar (“an intelligence organization led by the implacable Koval and sponsored by Merrok”) plays a role as well. No Section 31, though. I wondered if Garak’s spying might have somehow made him aware of Bashir’s involvement with the shadowy agency, but I’m glad that wasn’t the case. There was already enough underhandedness afoot, and it would have removed the spotlight from where it needed to be.

There’s a first time for everything: Bashir tries to sell Garak on the idea of some quality counseling with Ezri, but Garak’s not buying. He does ponder Trillhood in general terms after Jadzia is killed, initially reflecting that “Trills are such a unique race” but then wondering if that’s really so—for aren’t we all in some sense connected to those who preceded us?

My people need me: Odo makes several well-timed appearances, and the richness of his character is consistently shown, as for example in an early scene in which he expresses his condolences to Garak about the death of Ziyal. In several sterling passages Robinson demonstrates his skill at developing ideas and character simultaneously. Part of the plot device connecting Odo and Garak is that Odo’s newfound relationship with Kira has made him want to “branch out sartorially,” which is a cute notion, but of course Odo is merely looking for design ideas, and not actual clothes—since he doesn’t wear them, but rather shape-shifts a part of himself into whatever attire he desires. Fair enough.

I enjoyed the implied sense of kinship between Garak and Odo: two outsiders, two characters at odds with their homeworlds, who nevertheless have their own strict codes of justice. In Part II, Chapter 1 Garak asks Odo whether he feels any sense of betrayal at being at war with his own people, and Odo plausibly tells him that “the Founders conducting this war are betraying everything the Great Link stands for, and therefore they must be defeated.” I found this telling not so much for Odo’s response as for Garak’s probing the subject in the first place, which in this context can be read as a subtle way of Garak expressing self-doubt regarding his own role in the war and, more generally, his conflicted relationship with certain Cardassian values. Garak describes Odo as “discovering a new mode of existence, a new link [italics mine]” with Kira, an apposite word choice. A comment like that can be given a second reading in terms of Garak’s relationship with Palandine; a similarly intense personal link fraught with potential political tensions. The parallel isn’t perfect, but, regardless, Garak’s elevated language describing Odo’s bond reflects his own tendency towards romanticism. In this way I think Robinson cleverly uses Odo to draw out aspects of Garak’s inner landscape without explicitly revealing them.

Have you ever considered Minsk?: No real Worf action in this one, though there is a reference to his mourning Jadzia by spending a lot of time at Vic’s, which baffles our simple tailor. But as befits Garak, he uses his own lack of understanding to wax philosophical: “The doctor has reminded me that these are personal choices, and it’s not for us to judge how one chooses to mourn. Quite so. Who can even begin to understand another’s grief? [italics mine]” Lovely words.

Try re-aligning the induction coils: In Part I, Chapter 9, Garak is musing with some frustration about how his friendship with Bashir seems to have run its course, and thinks about all the activities Bashir and O’Brien undertake together with a note of jealousy. I thought this might be all the O’Brien we got in this novel, but was happily proven wrong. The Chief himself makes a brief appearance in which he helpfully points Garak the right way (“go left […] and take the third opening on your right!”) when Garak is being chased by a giant Klingon and decides to use a Jeffries tube. It’s nice to see our friendly neighborhood engineer in action.

This one’s from the heart: Garak is not a fan. At one point he refers to “the insipid ‘lounge’ music at Vic Fontaine’s,” and in case that wasn’t clear enough, later he derides “that ludicrous holosuite program with Vic and his incomprehensible human gibberish… those maudlin songs….” Ease up there, paly, or someone’s feelings might get hurt.

For Cardassia!: The entire world-building thrust of this story concerns itself with a complex, layered depiction of Cardassian society both pre- and post-Dominion. On a societal level, I found the revelations about the historical figure of Oralius (“a presence, a spiritual entity that guided people toward the higher ideals they were encouraged to live by”) fascinating, along with everything we learn about the Hebitians, the civilization that occupied Cardassia Prime before the Cardassians arrived. These are interesting ideas in their own right, but they become very personal for Garak because of his relationship with his uncle/ “father” Tolan and with Palandine. Also on a personal level, the ways in which Enabran Tain grooms Garak is absorbing, and the lessons he tries to impart are equally well wrought.  At one point Garak complains that perhaps Damar’s only weakness was his “propensity for long-winded speeches” (ouch), but Tain is unbeatable in this category. An excerpt from one of his many moments of edification to Garak:

“It [our work] requires sacrifice. And each stage of the work requires a renewal of that sacrifice. We have to give up our lives, bit by bit, to these secrets so that people will feel the security to go on with theirs—and do their work. If we tell them everything, if we give them all the information about the threats and dangers that surround us, they’ll hate us for disturbing their peace and their ability to function. This requires great strength of character on the part of the operative—to be able to hold these secrets and not let them overwhelm us.”

Dramatis personae: A number of new characters are introduced throughout, but I’m just going to pick four that are sure to stay with me: Palandine, Barkan Lokar (“One Charaban”), Tir Remara, and Pythas Lok. Not all of these make it out alive…

In absentia: Jake, Nog.

Behind the lines: Given its scope and depth, it’s not surprising Bashir was re-reading this piece of correspondence in Avatar, Book One! With his genetic enhancements he can probably read and assimilate information at a pretty good clip, but still, what a doozy of a “letter”…

In short, this is a brilliant book.

In not-so-short:

One of my biggest fears going into this was the use of the first person. Sure, I knew that Andrew J. Robinson had a firm grasp on Garak’s voice, but I was concerned that first-person narration over the course of 400 pages could end up feeling like we were trapped inside the consciousness of a rather unpleasant individual. Yet Garak does contain multitudes, and I was never bored or stifled. One of this novel’s strengths is the way it beautifully illustrates the seemingly contradictory elements of Garak’s multi-faceted character: his pragmatism vs. his tendency towards romanticism, his devotion to the state vs. his flouting of the rules, his cultivation of secrecy vs. his longing for candor, his discipline vs. his sentimentality, his clinical, dispassionate eye vs. his love of poetry, and so on.

These inner conflicts infuse the novel with dramatic heft. Dualities abound. As noted, Garak represents many of them. But the Cardassian people as a whole, too, embody a conflicted nature of sorts. According to Tolan: “The ones [Hebitians] who were left surrendered to the invaders, who brought their organization based on military conquest and expansion and blended with them. We come from both these peoples.” Even their future appears clearly bifurcate, for they are “faced with a choice between two distinct political and social philosophies. The crucial question is how we are going to make this choice. Is a consensus achieved by peaceful means? Or do we now go to war with each other?”

In a tour-de-force passage in Chapter 4 of Part III, beginning with the line “I looked around the table, from face to face, mask to mask,” Garak sees through the various “masks” of the so-called leaders trying “to fill a power vacuum and end up deeper in the dust and rubble.” His psychological descriptions are enthralling, but also chilly; he relentlessly strips down every character to his essence, and what emerges isn’t very pretty. The concept of the mask is embedded in the narrative in a functional way, too; it’s part of the Oralius rituals in which Garak himself partakes. Cardassian society attempts to cement totalitarian order and absolute obeisance to the state over deep-seated impulses towards passion and revelry. In a way, and consistent with the mask motif, we have an implied Apollonian/Dionysian split. Robinson, an amazingly gifted actor whose own profession in a sense consists of donning psychological disguises, was surely uniquely qualified to employ masks and explore dyads so convincingly.

Understanding everything that Garak has endured, it becomes easy to sympathize with the unrelenting nature of his gaze. George Carlin famously quipped that “Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist.” Exhibit A, Elim Garak. Exhibit B, Enabran Tain.

Contrasting this is Garak’s kindness and his willingness to learn from the mistakes of the past, to accept his own culpability not only for his personal misdeeds, but for the Cardassian Occupation as a whole. The scholar and mystic Rumi wrote: “Grief can be the garden of compassion.” What an apt sentiment, given Garak’s predicament on the broken Cardassia Prime—and his horticultural talents.

As it turns out, Garak is deeply spiritual and philosophical:

“We exist on many levels at the same time, Doctor. This level….” I gestured to the room and its objects. “…the space/time continuum, I believe you call it, is perhaps the narrowest and least dimensional of all. But it’s the one in which we choose to relate to each other as corporeal beings in a defined material space measured by units of time. It serves a purpose, yes, but it’s a purpose that’s been determined by our interaction on other levels, deeper and more complex than this one.”

Robinson also doesn’t shy away from Garak’s omnisexuality (“I had planned Garak not as homosexual or heterosexual but omnisexual, and the first episode I had with Bashir played that way gave people fits,” he once said in an interview). As seen in this book, Garak is attracted to the male gender (“Five was an athlete who also did well in class. I could see that he was attracted to Eight. As indeed I was”; or later, “He returned my look, and in the next few moments a bond grew between us that I had never thought possible”) as well as the female, and he’s not species-specific.

Also praiseworthy in Robinson’s elaboration of Garak are the subtle but consistent reminders of his “plain, simple” alien-ness. Consider, for example, his distaste for Shakespeare: he’s “surprised that for once the author of the politically misguided Julius Caesar made sense.” Or his initial impression of humans as simplistic and hypocritical: “These people reduced all political complexity to pious platitudes, while they constructed the greatest empire in the history of the Alpha Quadrant.” Nevertheless, it’s a deep appreciation of irony—a twisted version of the sense of humor that Palandine urged him to keep about him as a child in order to survive—that stays with Garak through the course of his life as we see it here, and which I now deeply associate with Cardassian affairs. Irony, and tragedy.

Speaking of which, much of the language bandied about by the post-finale Cardassian would-be leaders is the kind of rhetoric that is, unfortunately, always relevant and seemingly prescient. Whatever his other extracurricular interests are, it certainly seems that Robinson is a student of history. Case in point:

“…a man by the name of Korbath Mondrig is attempting to take political control by appealing to our fears. He maintains in public speeches that a return to our former glory is the only way we will be able to protect ourselves from our ancient enemies, who now see us as easy pickings. But what pickings? We have nothing left. However, people are believing his idiocy, and his organization is growing.”

Yes, this novel was published in the year 2000. Faulkner’s dictum “The past is never dead. It’s not even past…” comes to mind as another way to suggest the novel’s weightiness, and how it grapples with the immensity of history and the consequences of our actions.

Part of Garak’s professed reason for writing to Bashir is his belief that in a way Bashir is “more Cardassian than human.” In this incredibly intimate novel, Robinson reveals the soul of a Cardassian who is in a sense more human than he would ever care to admit.

Orb factor: A truly memorable read, and certainly a standout Star Trek novel. Exquisitely written, thoroughly imagined, by turns disturbing, moving, melancholy and hopeful, I think it deserves an orb factor of 10.

Alvaro is a Hugo- and Locus-award finalist who has published some forty stories in professional magazines and anthologies, as well as over a hundred essays, reviews, and interviews. Nag him @AZinosAmaro.

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