As I talked about in my informal primer for this trilogy, these three books by Dayton Ward, James Swallow and David Mack represent the culmination of decades of interconnected storylines across a hundred plus volumes in multiple series.
Now that the whole shebang is out in the wild, and you’ve hopefully had the chance to read it, I’d like to share some thoughts on this massive litverse finale, as well as invite you to share your own thoughts and reactions to what is undeniably an emotionally charged trilogy.
As readers have probably surmised, these three books—and particularly the final one, Oblivion’s Gate—come bundled with an unusual sense of finality. Because they are the last in this particular literary continuity, there’s no hope that future books will undo specific choices, change course in character arcs, or shed new light on existing plot developments. What happens here happens in the most definitive way possible: For this iteration of these characters, there is no literary tomorrow. That, in and of itself, adds a bittersweet quality to this adventure. Even the happiest, most hope-filled ending would have possessed an undertone of sadness in that regard.
The ending we have takes things one step farther, by literalizing the concept of there being no in-universe tomorrow for all litverse characters.
Spoilers abound in what follows
This includes Plot Twists!
And Character Deaths!
You’ve Been Warned!!
Trying to summarize the increasingly byzantine, time-traveling, timeline-crossing, Mirror-universe-jaunting plot of this trilogy would be an exercise in futility, so instead let me give you a capsule description. The Devidians are back. In a major, major way. Far from having been vanquished, as we might have reasonably inferred, following “Time’s Arrow,” they continue their experiments in temporal manipulation and neural energy drainage and redouble them, exponentially. They’re still working with the Ophidians, but also deploy much larger, relentless creatures, here dubbed Nagas, in their attacks—any contact with these ages you to death in seconds, sort of like a Thanos snap turning you to ash. Ultimately, the Devidians find a way to exploit natural time-disrupting elements in a given timeline to destabilize it completely, annihilating its billions upon billions of denizens so as to harvest their neural energy. Initially, they’re only strong enough to attack timelines already riddled with instabilities. But as they perfect their techniques, all timelines—including the one in which the litverse unfolds—become increasingly susceptible to their ravenous tendencies.
By the time our characters figure all this out, they realize that they cannot both preserve their timeline and stop the Devidians, because it is their very timeline that sparked the Devidian’s plan. Only by unraveling their timeline altogether can they hope to muzzle the Devidian threat. That means analyzing where their timeline originally bifurcated from the previous one, which leads to the stunning discovery that they are not in the “prime” timeline, but rather in a First Splinter timeline, as a result of the Borg’s attempted incursion into Earth’s past. The only way for our heroes to undo their timeline is to synchronize a master plan across three realities: Defiant must travel to the past in the alternate 2373 Borg-infested timeline, Enterprise must travel from the Mirror Universe to our universe, and Vedek Kira, in possession of the Orb of Time, must enter the wormhole inside the Mirror Universe. The mission also entails massive singularities. Oh, and there’s the pesky matter of the Devidian Temporal Collider, which exists in a timestream outside of all these, called Intertime.
This trilogy totals over 1,000 pages, so rather than try to approach anything comprehensively, I’m going to provide a few words on each book and then wrap up with some all-encompassing considerations.
In Moments Asunder, the combined efforts of Wesley “Traveler” Crusher, the crew of the Enterprise-E, the crew of Relativity, and the Department of Temporal Investigations apprehend the basics of the Devidian threat.
Things I loved:
- How René and Beverly initially feel Wesley’s presence in different ways.
- The destruction of the Guardian of Forever communicates the stakes of this story loud and clear. It’s well executed.
- Early on there’s a great call-back to Picard’s first meeting with Riker, and Robert’s reaction to Picard’s captaincy. The latter pays off beautifully in Oblivion’s Gate, helping to bring Picard’s story full circle between books 1 and 3.
- The reflections by Picard at Starbase 11, on Planet Yko, provide much-needed quiet beats and help deepen the texture of the overall story.
- The Omnichron is a fantastic creation and I loved Ward’s descriptions of it.
- Wesley’s belief that he has been drawing the alien assailants towards him through time hits home. It also foreshadows, in a general “we’re the ones responsible” way, the eventual revelation that the entire First Splinter timeline is at the root of the problem.
- René’s being hit by a glancing Naga blow, and thereby ageing so that he’s a young man outwardly but only six years old mentally, creates a memorable science-fictional conundrum.
- The whole sequence in which we travel to the future with the Aventine–728 light years from the Devidian system, 4000 years into the future–thanks to Wesley and quantum slipstream technology is pretty heady.
- The Devidian’s dialogue is supposed to be menacing. They are implacable and cannot be reasoned with. They say things like, “You have nothing,” “You know nothing,” “You are… nothing.” I found this approach a bit repetitive and not particularly unnerving.
- We get a throwaway line from Picard that he doesn’t know where Guinan is, which I think strains credibility a bit. I understand that Ward, Swallow, and Mack were probably asked to lay off Q and Guinan, but I wanted a slightly more creative excuse for their non-involvement.
This novel is a quick read. Perhaps my favorite element is the depiction of various alternate Traveler versions of Wesley, all served by excellent character development. Wesley is a unifying element across all three books, and he’s consistently engaging. There’s also a sense of possibility and transition in the first part of this book, the type that characterizes the best of the litverse, which at least temporarily gives us hope, if only to soon have it snuffed out. Tamala Harstad is dating Geordi, for instance, who receives an offer from Starfleet to design the next generation of deep-space exploration vessels. Later, Picard tells Worf about a command opportunity on Prometheus, designed to explore the Odyssean Pass. These moments provided glimpses into future stories we won’t see anymore, but which are nevertheless fun to dream about.
There are plenty of neat moments for secondary characters as well, like Doctor Tropp, Taurik, T’Ryssa Chen, Admiral Leonard James Akaar, and even Commanders Tom Paris and B’Elanna Torres. The scene in which Chen mourns Dina, Taurik, and Rennan is moving. Chen’s own demise is even more so, but it’s Dax’s death that really proves gut-wrenching. On the other hand, I could have probably done with less of Captain Juel Ducane and Commander Ailur on Relativity, since investing in those characters didn’t deliver much payoff.
Moments Asunder ends on a note of indecision, and in the final analysis I felt it was a little too inward-looking, overpowered by Trek tropes and continuity. A few times I asked myself, What is the classic Trek ethical dilemma here? That said, it sets up a lot of groundwork for what’s to come, does so smoothly, and might almost work as a gripping standalone story.
The Ashes of Tomorrow
Our second volume in the trilogy is largely about uniting disparate crews, including just about all the legacy DS9 characters, as well as bringing Spock, Data and Lal back into the fold, and upping the action a hundredfold.
Things I loved:
- The Prophet visions were well realized, and provide an important linking element with the history of DS9 Ditto for Kira’s Orb experiences.
- Bashir being roused out of his catatonic state by Garak’s delivery of the news of Dax’s death was tasteful and poignant. It definitely left me wanting more.
- The dinner sequence at Chateau Picard was rousing. The horrific looming threat of total cosmic devastation notwithstanding, this felt like a much-needed interlude of affirmation and hope. La Forge’s arrival, for instance, also had beautiful echoes to the alternate timeline of “All Good Things.” This evocation doubles as nifty foreshadowing, since the tripartite structure of the next book in some ways parallels that of TNG’s finale.
- Cameos like Polanski, Admiral Batanides, Klag, Martok, and Saavik.
- Name-checking the Nexus.
- Sisko’s visit with Jake and his wife: intimate and reassuring.
- The Star Trek III: The Search for Spock “stealing the Enterprise” homage sequence. It made sense and was thoroughly diverting and clever.
- Spock helping Worf understand that the mental “shadows” he’s been struggling with are other versions of him seeking to live. Worf’s whole journey was satisfying. This line gets to the heart of it: “Worf, son of Mogh, did not fear death; he feared failing his friends and comrades” (p. 170).
- An abundance of literary in-jokes. A small sampling: Garak’s referencing The Russia House (p. 94), Jake’s new novel being titled Rising Son (p. 148), or something as silly as the “Doctor Bashir, I presume?” (p. 287) moment.
- Riker’s turn and essential function as internal threat. For me, this was stretched too long. It seemed fairly clear he would eventually be healed from the temporal multiple-personality disorder, particularly in light of Worf’s recovery, and it increasingly makes Titan’s crew seem indulgent or incompetent.
- Odo’s return. His shape-shifting provided a nice plot twist, but I wanted to spend more time exploring his psyche and reactions to everything going on, particularly regarding Kira.
Given my coverage of the entire DS9 relaunch here on the site, my affection towards the DS9 sector of this storytelling galaxy should come as no surprise. These are my favorite characters, and they inform many of my favorite Trek stories, on screen and on page. James Swallow nails their individual voices, and in between the pulse-pounding action sequences, finds plenty of room for his tale to breathe with reunions and introductions. I cheered upon the return of Nog, Quark, Ro and so many others. There were plenty of touches, like the believers of Talnot’s Prophecy, that rang flawlessly true and consistent with preceding DS9 novels. Characters like Sam Bowers had sizable roles.
Swallow has a gift for quotable lines. In context, for instance, this was a great utterance by Riker: “There’s a cosmos of unknowns out there” (p. 51). Or later, these words spoken by Sisko: “Something I’ve come to accept is that we all have our roles to play. What we do with them is up to us, but the universe has its intention. We can only decide if we will follow along with it, or go off the page” (p. 294).
I mentioned an absence of a core Trek ethical dilemma in Moments Asunder, and The Ashes of Tomorrow corrects this. Does Picard and his crew have the right to make a decision the consequences of which will wipe out their entire quantum reality? Add to that: Do these characters have enough evidence on hand to justify killing the Bajoran gods? There are no easy answers here, which makes these situations absorbing and stimulating.
I also enjoyed Starfleet not heeding Picard’s warning, which sort of echoes the reality of the new canonical timeline in which he is denied the resources he requests to aid with the Romulan evacuation.
One ongoing issue I had in the first two books was the Nagas’ lack of individual personalities and ability to communicate. It makes them dull villains. Also, the brief attempts at negotiation with the Devidians in the first book failed, sure, but are we supposed to believe in a monolithic Devidian culture and system of governance? Wouldn’t there be renegades, defectors, and so on? I’ve come to expect greater complexity from Trek antagonists, alien or not.
There is much, much to enjoy in The Ashes of Tomorrow, and in a certain way it may be my personal favorite of the three books, because our heroes go on the offensive, and all is not yet lost. But make no mistake: I mourn for Miles O’Brien, Ro Laren, Quark, Nog, and Martok.
This novel is by far the longest and most structurally complex of the three. It also contains the biggest set pieces, including an incredibly upscaled return of the Borg, and a striking amount of mayhem and death. I’m going to spend the least amount of time on it only because I don’t want to divulge many of its richly affecting moments.
Things I loved:
- Innovative use of the Mirror Universe, as allies without whom the grand plan won’t come to fruition.
- Great use of secondary characters like Melora Pazlar and Prime Minister Eddington.
- An incredibly sensitive, multi-reality, multi-decade take on Picard. Probably the most rounded take ever on this character.
- Kira’s arc and final role as the Hand of the Prophets. Of the countless character sacrifices, this one felt by far the most well-earned, and really in sync with the preceding DS9 relaunch.
- The nightmarish alternate Earth that’s been assimilated by the Borg.
- Dozens of lovable moments, like the Wesley-and-Crusher “Shut up”-to-René beat.
- Incredibly wide-ranging character references, from Mack’s own Destiny trilogy to the New Frontier books to newer fare like Star Trek: Lower Decks.
- Memorable blaze-of-glory send-offs for almost all legacy characters.
- Effectively utilizing, and then calling out, technobabble.
- The use of a character and, more importantly, a metaphysical idea from Star Trek: Insurrection that I always wished to see leveraged in these books.
- The concluding in-story allusion to Star Trek: Picard: The Last Best Hope.
- Sisko’s end. Can’t quite get behind the specifics of this one.
- Some of the goriness. After a while, it came across as morbid.
It’s challenging to think of this book as a single entity, given how well it’s woven together with Swallow’s preceding entry. I will say, though, that I think David Mack’s writing sets it apart. Mack excels at description, and there’s such an abundance of it here, on every imaginable scale—from the most grandiose cosmic phenomena to the most ephemeral instant of inner consciousness—that it’s almost an embarrassment of riches. Of the three books, this is probably the one with the most real-world science in it, and the one that most explicitly states its themes of sacrifice and an existential celebration of life in the face of insurmountable odds. Oblivion’s Gate also does a notable job, specially when you consider its length and scope, of driving events with relentless forward momentum. The Prelude from the Second Splinter timeline is devastating, but the Grace Note, a short chapter following the deletion of the First Splinter provides some light. In short, Mack’s control of prose is at its finest here. Given his nearly thirty Trek novels, that’s saying something.
Chapter 10 of Moments Asunder contains a convenient broad-strokes summary of much of the litverse:
War with the Dominion followed by an attempted coup of the Romulan government and a thwarted attack on Earth by the renegade Shinzon had been enough to rattle Starfleet and the Federation. The final Borg Invasion just two years later had nearly brought the Alpha Quadrant to its knees, and the effects of that brutal assault were still being felt today. In the midst of that recovery had come the rise of the Typhon Pact and Andor’s brief yet tumultuous secession from the Federation. The loss of a founding member—one of humanity’s earliest and steadfast allies—had tested relationships dating back more than two centuries. Add to that scandals which had brought about the removal of two Federation presidents and the assassination of a third, and it would be easy for any reasonable person to be lost in a pit of despair. (p. 81)
Indeed it would, and if by some miraculous chance that reasonable person managed to retain optimism anyway, the Coda trilogy would assuredly test it further.
The moral quandary at the core of the Coda books was, in a way, presaged by the DS9 episode “Children of Time.” There, the crew had to decide if they were willing to un-exist their descendants. In these books, our heroes, across the regular and Mirror Universes, decide to un-exist themselves, and all other sentient beings in their timelines, in order to protect an infinity of other potential timelines, and a specific one where they themselves exist a decade-plus in the past… Grim, to say the least.
There’s an un-missable meta-element at work here: just as the crew decides to willingly erase their own timeline from existence, the writers willingly erase the litverse from canon-supporting tie-ins.
Understandable. But how narratively satisfying is this on its own terms?
Here’s an interesting thought experiment: if none of us were aware of the context for these authors deciding to wrap up the litverse, OR if Star Trek: Picard and so on didn’t exist, obviating the need for a sudden litverse conclusion, and Ward, Swallow and Mack had published this same trilogy, exactly as it, as the conclusion that the litverse had been building to from its inception, would we find it an apt choice?
Imagine twenty years of storytelling leading up to the entire universe having to be brutally Kobayashi Maru’d to save another version of itself.
Imagine that the last two seasons of Star Trek: Voyager had been “Year of Hell,” all in the service of preserving the first five.
Imagine, for that matter, that the finale of Voyager had been “Course: Oblivion,” and everyone we’d followed along with and rooted for ended up being not prime in some fashion, but alternates, and had to endure intense suffering before finally perishing in order to save their originals.
Or, to choose a different epic, imagine if Odysseus didn’t make it back to Ithaca at the end of The Odyssey, because the only way for his wife and son to live was for him to sacrifice himself and every one of his shipmates at sea.
For me, the death and ultimate dissolution via nobly sacrificial timeline-suicide of the litverse casts a retroactive shadow on earlier adventures. I can’t jettison the knowledge that all of that leads to this. The best possible outcome was, in a word, the nothingness of fourteen in-story years of a timeline. Every action taken by our beloved characters over those fourteen years was ultimately necessary to provide its own negation, so as to prop up the existence of an alternate version of them coinciding roughly through the events of First Contact.
I wish it weren’t so. I wish I didn’t have this information in my brain when going back to revisit favorite litverse moments. But I will learn to live with it.
Because I can live with it.
I can live with it.
Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this final trilogy and the Trek Litverse in general in the comments below.
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.