Saturday, January 13, 2007

Book Review: Star Trek - Dark Passions (Vol. 1)

During my brief introduction to Star Trek (courtesy of Tom, my Trekkie then-boyfriend), one concept that piqued my interest was the Mirror Universe. It's a theme I'm quite partial to in fiction, the notion of characters facing negative images of themselves. It's why "Future Imperfect" is one of my favorite Hulk stories. Even after I lost interest in Star Trek proper (sci-fi, in general, isn't my cup of tea), I'd tune in whenever "Deep Space Nine" aired a Mirror Universe episode. It all went spectacularly off the rails towards the end, but those first few episodes were quite good.

Over a decade later, I've stumbled across a pair of novels by Susan Wright, set in the Mirror Universe and focusing specifically on female characters, politics and intrigue. The tagline promises four powerful women vying for control of the universe; sounds good enough for a casual read, doesn't it?

Wright starts off nicely, going behind the scenes to depict the internal structures and hierarchies of the Alliance. This is something we never got to see before, as the bulk of Mirror Universe episodes tended to focus more on how characters interacted with their counterparts. "Dark Passions", by contrast, isolates the MU from any other context and asks us to interpret these characters on their own merits.

Which would be just fine, except Wright offers little in the way of exploring her cast. It's one thing to skimp on fleshing out Worf and Kira, who'd already been well-established in the TV series, but most of the story revolves around characters we'd never seen, such as Annika Hansen (better known to Voyager fans, if any exist, as Seven of Nine). And without any in-depth characterization, the novel falls flat rather quickly; after all, any novel about political manipulation requires some sort of anchor, a character who serves as the focal point. Wright offers several possibilities, but none of them are especially compelling: Kira is her usual hedonistic (to the point of idiocy, really) self, Deanna Troi's position as consort to the Alliance Regent doesn't seem to grant her much in the way of real power, B'Elanna Torres (Intendant of Sol) is built up as this huge force to be reckoned with only to fizzle out, and so on and so forth. Wright fails to take full advantage of these women, of the fact that she has carte blanche to remake popular Trek characters as she sees fit.

In fact, the novels' tagline is rather misleading: the four primary protagonists of "Dark Passions" aren't fighting each other for control of the Alliance at all. Kira's the only one with tangible ambitions; Troi just wants to build a Club Med on her homeworld, B'Elanna would like everyone to forget she's half-human, and Annika's a pawn taking orders from whichever master she's stuck with. There are so many possibilities, and Wright chooses the least interesting option each time.

Part of the problem lies with the author's tendency to describe key scenes and interactions in retrospective summary, after the events have already taken place. A character will abruptly start an internal monologue and deliver a huge chunk of exposition about events that occurred between the pages of the novel. Not only is it distracting, it shatters the pace. I'd hazard a guess that Wright was under some sort of length constraint, though neither book is much more than 200 pages. Besides, there are ways around that sort of thing, none of which manifest here.

Then there's the innuendo. The DS9 episodes were infamous for its lesbian subtexts (specifically with regards to Kira), but Wright pretty much makes all of her female leads lesbians. It's a bit monotonous by the end of the first book, especially when all these supposedly-powerful women end up using the same techniques of sapphic seduction to get what they want. I get the sense that Wright may have written "Dark Passions" as a female-centric response to that trope of "Star Trek" where the captain has to shag some alien bint in order to save the galaxy; here, women use that same power against other women for the same purpose. But it seems to be the only method of political maneuvering Wright can conceive of, and she wears it out fairly quickly.

Ultimately, the first volume doesn't live up to its potential at all; I didn't even bother with the second book.