Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Reread — Enigma Tales

Enigma Tales
Una McCormack
Publication Date: June 2017
Timeline: Late 2386, one year after The Missing, which was set in November 2385 (though internal references may place it somewhat later)

Progress: Doctor Pulaski is invited to Cardassia Prime to receive the Distinguished Impact Medal from the University of the Union for her work on the Andorian reproductive crisis, and she invites Peter Alden to join her on the trip. Once there they are greeted by Metok Efheny, who shows them around.

Meanwhile, trouble is stirring for Castellan Garak. Assemblyperson Chenet has co-authored a war crimes report that could lead to prosecutions, if the full brunt of Cardassian’s new legal apparatus is brought to bear, for certain Legates and Guls (such as Legate Renel and Gul Telek). Naturally, the military is—pun intended—up in arms about this, but Garak is determined to fully bring to justice anyone found guilty of crimes during the Occupation. On a separate front, Doctor Elima Antok, who is one quarter Bajoran, and professionally an expert on how the Occupation affected life in the Cardassian Union, discovers evidence pertaining to something named Project Enigma, which strongly suggests that a dozen Cardassian-Bajoran children of Bajoran sex slaves underwent forcible gene therapy by Cardassian scientists to remove traces of their Bajoran heritage.

It gets worse: Natima Lang, a revered public figure with a notable and storied dissident past, seems to be implicated in Project Enigma. The University of the Union’s Chief Academician Enek Therok is about to retire, and the general public believes Lang would be a perfect choice to take over Therok’s duties. Garak, however, favors Tret Vetrek for the position of Chief Academician, and the newly uncovered evidence revealing Lang’s apparent complicity in Enigma makes it look like Garak could be orchestrating events to get her discredited.

Even worse: After Therok goes to the authorities with her findings on Enigma, she is kidnapped, as is Pulaski, who in a public forum had opined that Garak himself should not be exempt from lawful prosecution during the war crimes investigation (an event with diplomatic ramifications, thus involving T’Rena, the ambassador from the Federation to the Cardassian Union). More circumstantial evidence against Garak, then.

Arati Mhevet, chief of the city constabulary, does the proper thing and, despite her closeness to Garak, begins an investigation. Pulaski actually manages to free herself from her captivity, and begins to suspect Garak. Her relationship with Garak got off on the wrong foot, when he brushed her off, and ignored her request to visit a catatonic Julian Bashir. Working with Mhevet and Alden, Pulaski manages to locate and save Therok. Lang’s aide is found murdered, and the kidnapper confesses to falsely implicating Lang in Enigma, though Enigma itself appears to be real.

With all fingers pointing to Garak, even Garak’s close friend and intimate confidante Kelas Parmak begins to doubt him.

Alden, however, reveals that the murderer was actually a Starfleet Intelligence operative who suffered a mental breakdown, with no involvement from Garak. In addition, Garak reveals that the real motive he had for not wanting Lang to take the academic position was so that she could succeed him as castellan.

Behind the lines: “Saved by pulp literature.” There are numerous comments throughout McCormack’s engaging novel about storytelling in general and Cardassian enigma tales specifically; the previous phrase strikes me as the most dramatic summation of those sentiments. Populist narratives like that, Lang and others observe, tease us, but they also provide critiques of the worlds generating them, and get at subjects otherwise outside the ambit of polite society. It’s easy to read these observations on a meta level—as the author winking at us while plunging us into the very kind of melodramatic murder mystery that obsesses the fictional culture in which she’s immersing us, thereby making her own comments about our current world and some of its darker, perhaps not always openly examined, preoccupations. Fortunately, McCormack’s writing skill enables her to pull off both of these dimensions very successfully.

The theme of merging and acceptance—“truth and reconciliation,” to use Lang’s phrase when she describes what she wants to write about—recurs in these pages, and shows up most visibly in a twofold way: the past’s spillage into the present, and two once-antagonistic cultures seeding the promise of a commingled future. The latter, arguably, could be considered a subcategory of the former, since the genetic tampering of mixed Bajoran-Cardassian children is a crime from Cardassia’s past that needs to be addressed in its present, but I’m teasing it out as a separate manifestation of McCormack’s theme because it reminded me of the plotline involving Cardassian-Romulan offspring in The Missing. The weight of the past is well captured in the following near-despairing lines by Lang: “Our crimes, thought Lang, our terrible crimes. Will we ever be free of them? Will we always find yet another unburied body?

In terms of this overarching idea of blending, it’s wonderful to see the legacy of Tora Ziyal honored in the story, and this moment by Garak does so beautifully: “He was particularly drawn to a tapestry banner using threads spun from both Cardassian and Bajoran natural fibers, combining bold Cardassian colors with more pastel Bajoran shades.”

While the scope of this novel is more limited than McCormack’s Cardassian masterpiece, The Never-Ending Sacrifice, there’s greater intimacy and poignancy to this older, elder statesman version of Garak than any we’ve seen before. Right from the get-go, his voice is sharply captured in his unsent first-person letters to Bashir, and that pitch-perfect verbal rendering continues throughout. Like the Bashir for whom he mournfully pines, Garak has come a long way indeed since the early days of his exile on the first DS9, and his life now, though more innocent in a literal sense—he’s no longer plotting deaths, etc.—is also beleaguered by accumulated of losses, and is, as a result, tinged with melancholy. Consider:

The absences seemed very strong tonight: Ziyal, Damar, Ghemor. He [Garak] had found that he could not remember the sound of Ziyal’s voice. She was slipping away. Would this happen with Bashir, he wondered? Would he slip away, too, like everyone else?

At least, though, he has learned from his past: “Garak had isolated himself before, and he knew where that led. Into the echo chamber of his own mind, where he was always able to find a justification for the most terrible actions.”

Garak’s growth manifests not only in the open pain he feels for the catatonic Bashir, but also through the warmth of his scenes with Parmak. Some of the novel’s best moments occur when Garak uses his typical strategies of evasion and prevarication to hold Parmak at bay, and Parmak calls him on it, demanding greater vulnerability. The scene near the novel’s end, in which Garak deduces Gul Telek’s horrible childhood experience— “‘It didn’t hurt very much,’ Telek said. ‘I was only sick for a year, maybe a little more. My father would say, all the time, how much I was wanted. How much he had wanted me’”—is moving, highlighting not only Garak’s remarkable acuity, but his compassion. The phrasing of the genetic therapy descriptions, like the above snippet, also suggested to me a metaphorical reading for real-world conversion therapy.

The above said, I don’t want to give the impression that this Garak is morose. He wields his power ably and derives satisfaction from its exercise; he also remains thoroughly charming and ironic. McCormack sells this well with the understatement of her word choices, as for instance in this moment: “…should he [Garak] ever find himself in need of a new job, he could probably write novel reviews for a living. He pondered that possible future. He discovered he was rather taken with it.” There are also other more explicit beats of caustic humor, such as: “Garak had asked for the sofa’s dimensions to be just slightly too small to comfortably seat two adult males. His cruel streak always found expression somehow.”

Also lightening the mood is Pulaski, with her brashness and directness. I enjoyed her more than I expected to in The Missing, and that trend continues here. The banter with Alden works well too, and I wouldn’t mind seeing where that storyline goes in some future Trek outing.

As we’ve come to expect, McCormack does a smooth job with continuity and lore, but enjoying this book doesn’t require a three-week course in relaunch events (as some tomes, say, by David R. George III seem to do). Sure, there are references to Section 31, Uraei and other post-Nemesis litverse developments, but it’s not necessary to have firsthand familiarity with those. At the time of writing this review, for example, I haven’t read David Mack’s Section 31: Disavowed or Section 31: Control novels, but I had no trouble following along. It is helpful to have read The Missing, particularly for the Pulaski/Alden backstory, but even that is less essential than knowledge of Cardassian affairs, broadly speaking, and Garak’s arc.

In terms of the plot, my only slight reservation is Servek. Her manipulation of Lang is heavy-handed from the start, making the later revelation that she tampered with Lang’s archive so that it contained information about Project Enigma anticlimactic. Also, because she barely has a presence on the page, her off-scene murder, while perhaps appropriate for a true enigma tale vibe, seems rote, and lacks impact. Other secondary characters are better served by the story. Doctor Elima Antok is a memorable creation, and my favorite from the supporting cast (details like her relationship with her partner Mikor, or the fact that she celebrates Ha’mara, effectively add depth and context); Natima Lang is a standout voice; Arati Mhevet is also strong; Peter Alden is given interesting, humanizing material; even the minor T’Rena makes an impression. If the intersection of storylines isn’t as seamless as one might hope for, it’s still clear that everyone has agency and drives the story forward. As Lang herself observes: “…[Y]ou are too good a historian to suggest that one person can change events. Collectively, we change events.”

It may be tempting to feel that leaving the rogue intelligent agent’s motivation essentially unexplained during the finale is an unsatisfying choice on McCormack’s part, but it turns out to be a canny move. This story is not about that character, who remains unnamed (“our man”), but rather about the consequences of this disordered mind upsetting an already-delicate balance of political forces and the tugging of history on the future. Furthermore, it’s realistic that our central characters here, namely Pulaski and Garak, wouldn’t have direct line of sight into the agent’s behavior (the indirect understanding we glean stems from Alden’s empathetic portrayal). That’s the nature of spycraft and covert ops—sometimes the mystery inside the enigma isn’t completely resolved.

I also appreciate that it’s bungling by Starfleet Intelligence that leads to this messy state of affairs. The “good guys,” already depicted as morally grey in previous DS9 stories, are far from perfect, and the events of this novel illustrate fallout from one their missions. This element enhances the feeling of realpolitik that McCormack excels at when she sets her mind to it. “Art encodes into itself, despite all attempts at extirpation, critiques of the world in which it is created,” Lang reflects. With Enigma Tales, an exceptional Star Trek writer leverages her deep knowledge of histories real and imagined to produce a riveting tale that doubles as precisely that kind of art.

Memorable beats: Garak: “Ah, the tyranny of the tight schedule! May we all one day be released from its grip!”

Lang: “To the ideal. Elusive, and perhaps ultimately unattainable. But always worth the effort.”

Garak: “‘I remember Julian Bashir when I first saw him on Deep Space 9.’ He smiled in fond memory. ‘You would’ve laughed! He was hopelessly out of his depth. So young. So awkward. Always said the wrong thing. But so full of hope. And some of that… some of that transferred itself to me. I would not have survived my exile without Julian Bashir.’”

Pulaski: “‘I’m a doctor,’ said Pulaski with a shrug, ‘not a diplomat.’”

Orb factor: One of our best Trek authors, and top DS9 writers in particular, delivers a compelling intrigue with plenty of pathos; 9 orbs.

In our next installment: We’ll be back in this space on Wednesday February 10th with I, The Constable by Paula M. Block and Terry J. Erdmann!

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.


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