Saturday, February 16, 2008

Book Review: Star Trek Double-Shot

Mirror Universe: Glass Empires
Mirror Universe: Obsidian Alliances

As I mentioned when I reviewed "Dark Passions", my interest in the Star Trek Mirror Universe outlasted my stay in that fandom - partly because I'm generally interested in parallel universes and doppelgangers, but also because I've always found the MU so much more engaging and dynamic than the mainstream Trekverse, where the status quo always found a way to reassert itself even after supposedly major astropolitical upheavals (ie: the Klingons are at war with the Federation! Oh, wait, they're over it. Never mind). With the MU, you have the Terran Empire overthrown by the Klingon-Cardassian Alliance, providing two major "phases" in galactic history. Characters die all the time, or pop up in the most unexpected places.

So I'm always on the lookout for Mirror Universe fiction, and I was quite pleased to pick up "Glass Empires" and "Obsidian Alliances", a pair of anthologies collecting three novellas each, all set exclusively in the Mirror Universe. The six stories are based on six incarnations of "Star Trek": "Enterprise", the Original Series, "The Next Generation", "Deep Space Nine", "Voyager" and Peter David's "New Frontier" novels.

Before moving into specific reviews, I should note one potential flaw that might deter readers: both collections require more-than-casual knowledge of Mirror Universe history and Star Trek canon. This isn't totally unexpected, I know - any doppelganger story requires you to understand the difference between characters and their dark reflections - but accessibility becomes an issue in some places. On the flip-side, these two books are to be commended for the amount of internal continuity they share: stories from "Obsidian Alliances" reference "Glass Empires", and those stories set during the Alliance's reign indicate a growing schism between the Klingons and the Cardassians (which, if the Mirror Universe timeline ever continues forward, should provide an exciting backdrop for future upheavals). And while this duology contradicts "Dark Passions" and William Shatner's work in the Mirror Universe, I find the story they provide so cohesive that I'm comfortable granting it personal-canon status.

Glass Empires

Age of the Empress: And to demonstrate the accessibility problem, we have this "Enterprise" story by Mike Sussman, Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore. Now, I've never watched "Enterprise", I had no idea who these characters were. As we'll see with a later example, though, this doesn't necessarily exclude me from enjoying the story. Except that "Age of the Empress" also seems to directly follow up on an episode of "Enterprise" in which a ship from the future and from a parallel universe is flying about, and... well, I was just totally lost. There was no effort made to reintroduce these characters and the situation for those unfamiliar readers, which left me outside the story for its duration. There's really no way I can give it a proper review, so let's move on.

David Mack's The Sorrows of Empire works much better, detailing Spock's rise to power and the eventual downfall of the Terran Empire. Despite a few plot clunkers (Spock's ultimate plan seems a bit on the iffy side, and the Insta-True-Love bit with Marlena isn't very convincing), Mack puts together a convincing tapestry of events only alluded to in the DS9 Mirror episodes, and his depiction of Spock as a logical - sometimes terrifyingly logical - entity makes his ascension all the more unnerving because it makes you wonder whether the "real" Spock, confronted with the circumstances of the Mirror Universe, would've acted the same way.

The Worst of Both Worlds by Greg Cox jumps about a century forward, into the time of Alliance rule. Jean-Luc Picard is an archaeologist modeled after Indiana Jones, scouring the galaxy for alien artifacts on behalf of his Cardassian patron. His routine is interrupted by his ex-girlfriend Vash, now a member of the Terran Resistance, who has uncovered evidence of a new alien race approaching the Alpha Quadrant: the Borg. As the title suggests, this is basically an inversion of "The Best of Both Worlds", in which the Borg target the Klingons, someone else becomes Locutus, and Picard - a lowly Terran slave - is the only one who can save the day. I liked this story mainly because, unlike "The Sorrows of Empire", the Picard featured here is very different from his mainstream counterpart. He's not at all noble, or interested in doing the right thing for freedom's sake, and he's only motivated to fight back when the situation affect him personally. But once he's goaded into action, we can see a glimmer of the Picard we know. Also, kudos for finding a way around the Borg problem (namely, that there's no way the Alliance could have beaten them) that doesn't seem like a cop-out.

Obsidian Alliances

Keith DeCandido takes on "Voyager" with The Mirror-Scaled Serpent, quite possibly the raunchiest story in the series. It's also, in my opinion, the most accessible: I knew next to nothing about "Voyager" but that didn't stop me from really enjoying the novella and getting a feel for practically every character. DeCandido adds some clever twists here following a common theme of inversion - the premise of "Voyager" is turned upside-down, and along relationship lines, friends in the main universe are lovers here, lovers are enemies, and the sexual restraint so enforced in the "Star Trek" franchise is totally evaporated. Overall, this was my favorite of the six stories, combining action, manipulation and sex into a fun ride.

I skipped over Peter David's Cutting Ties: like "Age of the Empress", it seemed primarily aimed at people familiar with the characters from the "main universe", and having never read "New Frontier", I thought it best to leave it be.

And finally, we have Saturn's Children by Sarah Shaw. Shaw's "About The Authors" segment reveals that she has a background in fan-fiction, which a) got me curious as to what work she's done in other fandoms, under which pseudonyms, and b) justifies my long-standing defense of fan-fiction as valid storytelling. "Saturn's Children" takes the Mirror Universe to the next logical place after its last DS9 appearance: the Resistance has grown to the point where leadership is splintered (Shaw opens the story with a quote from the French Revolution, neatly aligning the situation with human historical precedents), while Kira schemes to regain power and overthrow the new (yet familiar) Intendant of Bajor. Shaw arguably had the most challenging job here, because the DS9 mirror characters had a lot of screen-time and she's really the only writer who had to stick to pre-established parameters when writing her story (Mack's story goes so far beyond the Original Series that aligning his Mirror Spock with Jerome Bixby's Mirror Spock isn't an issue). Fortunately, Shaw rises to the occasion: Kira is every bit the manipulative seductress, Bashir the impulsive jerk, O'Brien the weary but determined leader looking for a better life. Like DeCandido, Shaw also doesn't shy away from using sex in an almost-explicit way, which is - in my opinion - thematically relevant to the setting.

"Saturn's Children" provides an excellent conclusion to the duology, though I'm hoping we'll see some of the loose ends (ie: Memory Omega, the growing discontent between the leading factions of the Alliance) picked up in later collections; apparently a third anthology will be published later this year. I'll be looking forward to it.