Publication Date: December 2014
Timeline: November 2385; after the Fall miniseries
Progress: Dr. Katherine Pulaski, passionate in her pursuit of a multi-cultural scientific enterprise that will not only yield valuable insights but also achieve what diplomacy by itself cannot, is allocated the Olympic-class starship Athene Donald. Its delightfully multi-species crew sets out on an explicit mission of exploration. Joined Trill Maurita Tanj is the ship’s commanding officer, and other crew members include Klingons, Cardassians, Romulans, a Ferengi, and even a representative of the Tzenkethi Coalition named Metiger Ter Yai-A.
Familiar faces pop up on Deep Space 9. Dr. Beverly Crusher is on temporary medical assignment there, filling in for Bashir, and Odo has returned on a mission to help an old friend, the Cardassian Mhevita Pa’Dan. Pa’Dan’s son Terek, an artist forcibly conscripted during the Dominion War (by a heinous draft instituted by Gul Dukat, partially as a means of retaliation against those, like Mhevita, who opposed or displeased him), was captured by the Romulans about a decade ago.
Six years later, Mhevita stopped receiving communications from Terek, and she has asked Odo to help find out what has happened to him, along with other Cardassian prisoners of war taken in by the Romulans who, like Terek, have not been heard from in years. Odo and Commander Ro take up the matter with the new Cardassian castellan, Garak, and also attempt, with little success, to get answers from the Romulan Major Varis, part of the Romulan Repatriation Committee.
While these efforts are underway, Commander Peter Alden of Starfleet Intelligence, and another Tzenkethi, named Corazame, under his supervision (the backstory here may be found in Una McCormack’s Star Trek: Typhon Pact novel Brinkmanship), arrive at the station in anticipation of the Athene Donald’s stocking run, as Alden wishes for him and Corazame to join its crew. Alden wants to gather information on Metiger.
A double first contact situation soon arises. On the station, the crew meets the People of the Open Sky, a carefree, relatively low-tech, perpetually peripatetic group of diverse aliens with many children in tow. Shortly after embarking on her mission, the Athene Donald encounters an extremely advanced ship carrying protocol-bound, aloof aliens who identify themselves simply as the Chain. Despite Pulaski’s outspoken objections, Tanj authorizes Alden to join the crew of the Athene Donald. Corazame was supposed to accompany him on this journey, but she missed the boarding call, preferring to spend some time in relative seclusion and then falling in with the People of the Open Sky, who welcome her into their fold.
Crusher becomes concerned when she notices that some of the People’s children show signs of past malnutrition. At least the People welcome her offer of medical assistance. The relationship between the Chain and the crew of the Athene Donald, meanwhile, is off to a much gloomier start, with the Chain referring to them as inferior, and tersely exploring their vessel without any reciprocal invitation for their own ship to be toured. Both first contact situations are then complicated by acts of aggression; on the ship, Metiger is attacked, while on the station, first Crusher’s office is broken into, and then one of the People’s leaders is killed.
Crusher and Pulaski work in tandem on their respective fronts, along with local security, to try and solve the mystery of the aggressors’ identities. Genetic sleuthing reveals that despite their notable differences in demeanor and to some extent appearance, the leaders of the Chain and the leaders of the People in fact belong to the same species. When the Chain leader Aoi learns of the People’s presence at the station, he demands that they be returned to the Chain and accuses them of having kidnapped the children in their company. Oioli of the People denies this, claiming the children were refugees and orphans who freely joined the band on various war-torn worlds.
Eventually Crusher and Pulaski discover that there was a single culprit behind all crimes, a member of the Chain’s crew named Ailoi who was actually working for a rogue intel organization and had joined the People with a cover story. Ailoi used a risky transwarp transport to seemingly be in two places at once, but was eventually killed by its usage. After these revelations, peace is brokered between the People and the Chain, who drop their charges.
Parallel to this investigation and revelation, after tensions on the station stemming from Varis’ roadblocking of the Cardassian’s desire for truth regarding their prisoners of war, Odo and Ro ascertain that these POWs, including Terek, are thankfully alive, but have started families with their former war adversaries. These families have led to mixed Cardassian-Romulan offspring, and so Varis has been trying to keep the situation hush-hush. Garak formally invites those families who wish to leave Romulan territory back to Cardassia, and Terek is reunited with Mhevita.
Corazame, now sure that she wishes to continue her exploration of life beyond the Tzenkethi homeworld alongside the People, advises Alden that he should reconsider his position for Starfleet Intelligence, as it is weighing him down in a way similar to Corazame’s own former slave-status. Alden takes her counsel seriously and resigns from Starfleet Intelligence, but requests to stay on Athene Donald, which Tanj approves.
With all of these loose ends neatly wrapped up, Crusher realizes that she is at a crossroads, and elects to leave DS9 and return to a shared life with Picard and their son René aboard the Enterprise.
Behind the lines: Kudos to Una McCormack for taking a TNG character I wasn’t particularly fond of (“ugh, have to get through the Pulaski episodes” was not an uncommon thought during various rewatches) and making me respect her in new ways. McCormack does a splendid job depicting Pulaski’s self-awareness of her own uncompromising nature—she will let nothing get in the way of her work, and she is always vocal—as well as how she has reconciled herself to being perceived as brusque by others.
One of the novel’s many rewarding emotional arcs is that created by the changes in the dynamic between Crusher and Pulaski. At the start of the book, Crusher is far from a fan, still holding a grudge for Pulaski’s poor treatment of Data, and in general is put off by Pulaski’s approach, but by the end of their collaborative efforts she has a new-found appreciation for her. McCormack balances Pulaski’s acerbic wit with just the right amount of ethical and humanistic drive, and she manages to make Pulaski’s attitudinal retrograde-ness endearing and quirky.
The novel itself, from a stylistic standpoint, turns out to be a quirky affair. It is, at least in this regard, quite different from the other McCormack novels I’ve reviewed in this space (Cardassia: The Lotus Flower, The Never-Ending Sacrifice, Picard: The Last Best Hope). Within the first few pages we are greeted by an unusually high number of parenthetical observations and asides. At first I thought this might have been a way of narratively embedding Pulaski’s stream of consciousness, since we were seeing things from her perspective, but the profligate parentheses continue in later scenes observed from other characters’ points of view, so that isn’t it.
Another odd touch was the presence of direct authorial intrusion, like this one: “Corazame—but let us call her Cory, the name she has been using since coming to the Federation, and as we are prying into her private thoughts, we should at least show her the courtesy of using the name she is using…” This almost reads like something by Dickens, or possibly a fairy tale.
At times McCormack also lapses into the present tense to provide some bit of cultural information, as for example here: “Ordinary Tzenkethi do not like open spaces, not even on their homeworld, which has plenty of outstanding natural features that, as a result of the claustrophobia of the lower echelons, can remain the playgrounds of the elite.” I found this toggling of tenses from past to present and back again distracting. In general, the mechanics of scenes sometimes felt abrupt. Consider, for instance, Crusher’s discovery of the break-in of her office, which is a major plot event: “She entered her private office. It was in disarray. She tapped her combadge.” That single interstitial line of description, lacking in specifics, doesn’t quite carry the weight needed to make us feel the heft of the situation.
I’m of two minds regarding Picard’s chapter-opening logs. On the one hand, they are well written, capture his voice nicely, and provide apposite thematic lead-ins to the chapters they introduce. On the other hand, there doesn’t appear to be any in-story justification for their inclusion, like, for instance, Beverly or Ro reading them. So they’re dramatically interesting, but also un-integrated.
The narrative can feel choppy at times because it’s plot-dense, and McCormack’s natural strengths as a storyteller appear to lie with character development and interior rather than exterior description. We have at least three main storylines proceeding simultaneously, and while McCormack maintains a nice alternating rhythm between them, some events happen quickly or in compressed ways that tend to weaken their emotional impact. There are also certain plot points that feel haphazard or contrived, or aren’t ever adequately explained. (What exactly, for example, was Ailoi’s purpose breaking into Crusher’s quarters and leaving the place in disarray? If Ailoi wanted to pre-empt a DNA analysis or contaminate samples, wouldn’t there be more subtle ways of achieving this? The Chain has transwarp transportation and other advanced tech; Aoi is a stealth secret agent; the trail she leaves doesn’t seem to track with her background, nor does it feel commensurate with the means at her disposal.) The various ways in which the plotlines intersect are interesting, and suspense is never lacking, but it’s best not too scrutinize the details.
The characters, however, are fully realized. Besides the expansive take on Pulaski, I specially enjoyed getting to know Peter Alden, Corazame, and Tanj, all memorable in different ways. Odo and Ro get a good amount of time, and Garak is—perhaps unsurprisingly given McCormack’s resume—sharply written. Quark, too, is another standout—he has come to represent, in a way, the heart of the station, providing welcome continuity between the original and this newer version. His dialogue sparkles. When Odo and Quark are watching Garak’s speech, for instance, he casually and brilliantly observes, “I hired him to assassinate me once.” O’Brien’s cameo felt slight, I’ll admit, but everyone else in the various ensembles shines. Noteworthy too is the unobtrusive foregrounding of female characters, none of them reduced to standard categories or tropes, but each smartly, individually rendered, and in possession of agency.
Another one of McCormack’s skills lies in thematic exploration. This novel is unusually thematically rich, even for a relaunch series that has consistently engaged with an impressive amount of thought-provoking subjects. One of the book’s central preoccupations is whether the Prime Directive really works as intended, and the difference between its theoretical designs and practical implementation. The following observation by Picard, for instance, strikes me as highly astute: “I increasingly come to believe that in certain circumstances lofty disinterest can be, in its own way, a form of self-aggrandizement, implying, as it does, that we are in some way superior to the civilizations we meet and must remain aloof.” Further discussions of the topic by Ro and company, in the face of actual first contact scenarios, add plenty of meat to the debate.
The idea of exploration itself, and how it may simultaneously reflect a worthy striving after new experiences while also reflecting a fundamental discontent with one’s own provenance, is also investigated. Pulaski’s thoughts, amplified by the contrast between the philosophies animating the People vs. the Chain, as well as Crusher’s attempts to balance her life situation, all speak to this subject. The “missing” of the title, in effect, ends up referring to many characters and things besides the Cardassian POWs: Picard from Beverly, the People from the Chain, the People’s children from their own races, Odo from the Founders, Corazame from the Tzenkethi, exploration from Starfleet, truth and honesty from spycraft, and so on.
McCormack’s hand with Trek continuity throughout is deft, and she manages to slyly insert many other allusions along the way, as well. Besides nods to Star Wars (“Many men died to bring this information,”), Casablanca (“I know, I know,” said Blackmer gloomily. ‘Round up the usual suspects’”) and Douglas Adams (“Alden, brushing past her, muttered under his breath, ‘Mostly harmless’”) we also have, among others, references to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series and to Ursula K. Le Guin’s story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It’s nice to think that this work will be remembered in the 24th century! I’m glad that, even though it happens quite late in the novel, McCormack does finally reference the events of the TNG two-part episode “Birthright,” which immediately came to mind when Odo described the situation with Terek. Other moments are simply enhanced by the context of prior stories. When, early on, Ro asks Crusher if she anticipates problems with Pulaski because Pulaski helped Bashir with the meta-genome, we become privy to a layer of irony, as she is unaware of the fact that Crusher herself played a key role in Bashir’s plan.
All considered, this is a thoughtful amalgam of heady notions with more conventional murder and intrigue. It mostly works as a standalone book, and in a sense returns us to a more traditional DS9 episodic framework, despite the key role of several TNG characters. From what I can see, the Athene Donald hasn’t had any additional forays into the unknown chronicled in the Trek literary universe. A shame. I wouldn’t hesitate to follow it on more adventures.
Memorable beats: Odo: “No true friendship takes account of credit and debt. It gives freely, without thought of compensation or reward.”
Picard: “A careful student of other worlds and cultures quickly learns to look beyond the formal face presented to discover what he or she can about the ordinary people—or, even more wisely, the marginal. One learns the true nature of a civilization from the way it treats its sick, weak, and poor. The extent to which elites wish to deflect you from such a goal can also be illuminating.”
Odo: “In truth, when I think of family, I think of the time I spent here on DS9.”
Tanj: “…what happens if the push for technological advancement displaces social progress? What’s the point of toys if they don’t alleviate suffering?”
Corazame: “Be brave. Be bold. Don’t wait for change. Seize your own life and make it.”
Orb factor: Strong character work and compelling philosophical questions in a slightly crimped package; 8 orbs.
In our next installment: We’ll be back in this space on Wednesday October 14th with David R. George III’s Sacraments of Fire!
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.