Wednesday 6 February 2013

Cold Equations Book One: The Persistence of Memory

They say honesty is the best policy - so here it goes. I haven't read a Star Trek novel for a long, long, long time. Even then that might not be enough to cover it.

The last Trek novel I read was probably something from Voyager while it was still on TV so that gives you an indication of how long it's been. Now, to be fair I've been much more of a fan of the background material such as Action!, Where No One Has Gone Before, numerous companions, technical manuals and the like but I felt now was the time to start getting back into something meatier; I was starting to have withdrawals for new Star Trek stories.

So that's brought me to this point and just to be a bit different, here's how it all began a week or so ago....

Admittedly I don't think Spielberg is quaking in his boots after that, but hey, it's the first attempt and something a bit different - oh yes, and that is me; no stunt double or pre-recorded audio I can assure you.

I have the perhaps enviable benefit of a bus journey to work and back five days a week which gives me ample opportunity for a good read and in the case of this book I was not disappointed. What I would add here is a SPOILER ALERT - it is very, very likely I am going to mention plot details in here so if you haven't read it, skip to the final paragraph for my overall opinion!

Set over a time period of 16 years, numerous planets and including several major races, there is one thing I can say without doubt after just the first few chapters of The Persistence of Memory - David Mack knows his material and of that fact alone he should be very proud. The time period of 2367 to 2384 covers events from the last few minutes of The Next Generation's "Brothers" to a point a few years after the credits rolled on Star Trek Nemesis but not in a linear manner.

Mack has split this trilogy opener into three sections with the first and last set in the "present" of 2384 while the central - and perhaps more substantial third - is an autobiographical account of events from one of the novel's main protagonists. Let's first summarise the plot here before we get into the meat of this story.

The Enterprise is called to the Starfleet Annex of the Daystrom Institute on Galor IV by Captain Bruce Maddox but upon arriving discovers that the facility has been attacked and the Soong-type androids under the cybernetics expert's care have been stolen including Lore, Data's daughter Lal and B-4. Worf, now first officer of the Enterprise leads search teams across the planet to locate the missing androids before they can be secreted from the surface...

As an opening section and probably due to the fact that it's been a while since I last read a Trek novel I was wow-ed and at some points confused.  Mack does an excellent job of introducing us to the story.  The first chapter or so is a nice mini-potted history of both Maddox ("The Measure of a Man") and the various droids that were in his care. Fans will no doubt remember Lore, Lal, B-4 and Juliana Tainer but I admit it took a few moments to recall the three early non-functioning prototypes mentioned back in "Inheritance". Now it's been a while since we last actually saw this crew on the screen so there have been a few changes in the faces; no more Troi, Riker or Data (of course), instead we have a Cardassian exchange officer Glinn Dygan at Ops and Jasminder Choudhury at Tactical. Worf now takes his place as Number One next to Captain Jean-Luc Picard. I think David Mack has done an excellent job of recreating the Enterprise crew and adding his own flavourings including the fact a certain captain and doctor are now married with a son. Significantly, and it's something that is evident throughout the expanded Trek universe is that continuity is a massive factor and cross-referencing is vitally important - kind of unusual when you consider that TNG was probably one of the series less concerned with having ongoing narrative threads unlike its shadowy relation, Deep Space Nine.

Sadly I can't compare it to his earlier Destiny trilogy so I can't say if these are details carried across and that's one of my niggles from early on. There are occasionally bits which are inaccessible to newer readers, namely the crew alterations and also the peppering of references to the "recent" Borg attack. It can make you stop and think about whether you've missed something but for those of you who have followed the author's earlier works I don't think you'll have a problem joining the dots. In truth while it did confuse me it has made me inquisitive over the earlier novels so they might get added to the reading list (after the next two in this series) just to fill in these gaps in my post Nemesis knowledge. Anyway, Mack does a good job of recreating our regulars and introducing his own assorted group of cast members. While Geordi, Picard and the blink-and-you'll-miss-her Doctor Crusher receive accurate portrayals which meant I could concretely envisage them in my mind I do have reservations to some degree with the character of Worf. As probably the most documented Star Trek character of all time I'm not convinced that some of his dialogue works or that some of his character motivations, particularly in reference to personal relationships, are totally believable considering what this Klingon has been through since Farpoint Station. This is not levelled at Worf as a character for the whole of the novel mind, only one or two occasions but they do take a bit to adjust to and seem out of alignment with my understanding of the character.

As the chase for the missing androids continues we are privy to Mack's extensive Trek standing with name drop/guest appearances from Admiral Nechayev, Captain Sisko and Lieutenant Barclay among others (two of whom appear within about the same number of pages) but that's not where this is heading.  What is evident from section one is that this story would have cost an absolute fortune to film what with Starfleet security squads, planet-hopping, cityscapes and even a wink to a lost Generations scene with an orbital skydive are all within a matter of pages and packed tightly into the story. The pace is break-neck at times but progresses in a very logical and easy to follow manner up to its conclusion and the identity of one of the main protagonists is revealed.  Interestingly this is essentially a massive set-up piece for the second and third portions of The Persistence of Memory and while I thought this was a really good intro I never expected what came next.

Now, for those of you who kept reading after I said that there were likely to be spoilers, this is your second and final warning. There are DEFINITELY things here that will ruin your enjoyment of the book so turn away now.

Whether I agree with the revelation that Noonien Soong isn't dead is neither here nor there as sci-fi always requires something of a leap of disbelief and it's actually an essential part of the experience that anything can happen.  If I thought Mack was in his element in the preceding 85 pages then I sorely misjudged him as the fast pace is set aside and we get a marvellous and intimate narrative from the perspective of the cybernetics genius.

So he didn't die at the hands of Lore and we get to follow him across the galaxy, setting up a complex web of businesses to support him for the future as he explores, settles, evades and spies on a number of people and planets. David Mack does a great job here of creating a character we have previously only seen as a dying old man, a hologram and as part of a dream program. I can see the nuances that were part of the character here but I found myself far more fascinated with the story of the doctor himself and the tragic past that is interwoven with his androids and Juliana Tainer; his one true love. 

At first I was a little tepid over where this section was heading - was it going to be a "What Dr Soong Did Next" or was there a bigger point to it all?  Of course there's a point! Moreover I suspect that the introduction (or is that re-introduction?) of another canon character will be a key move that will echo through all three volumes of the Cold Equations trilogy. I ended up thoroughly enjoying this section as Mack provides extensive detail to the doctor's actions while reminding us of how it fits in with events in Data's life through the final seasons of TNG and into the subsequent movie series. Very cleverly done - I even felt that Soong became overly obsessive with his creations as even in death he follows them everywhere, never completely moving on with his life, searching for the answer to keep them alive forever more. For the doctor it's all set up and preparation, back up plans and out-thinking his opponents although ultimately there is one person he can't outwit who manages to do for one of his androids the very thing he has been hoping to master himself. What I didn't get was any real emotional resonance around Soong even as each of his sons is declared dead and then he realises that Juliana too has passed away. 

Now the clever bit through all this is the relationship we are witness to only by proxy that existed between Ira Graves, Soong and Emil Vaslovik. This is key to the book and Mack weaves it within the narrative almost unnoticed and natural while it will evidently become key to everything that is happening in relation to one individual in particular. As viewers we know all three of these characters to some extent but once more Mack has pretty much free reign to develop Vaslovik if only, at this point, from a distance and from one perspective.  Let's not forget that, for a good portion of The Persistence of Memory we are getting one person's viewpoint and subsequently one person's viewpoint.  I'll be interested to see how this has potentially jaded our view of Vaslovik by the time we will no doubt meet him again.

While I won't give anything away about the final section of the book I have to say the conclusion left me a bit uneasy and I wasn't as satisfied as I thought I might have been. It is most certainly action-packed and to a much greater degree than the first section however the scenarios that play out left me a little cold and I felt that David Mack wanted me to have a much more emotional response than I did on a couple of occasions however because these events were not involving more familiar characters it perhaps didn't catch me in the right place. 

There are unanswered questions too; lots of threads left for us to follow into Book Two and this is a good thing. It certainly worked in my case because I wanted to pick up the following volume immediately. In fact, I did because I had it with me on the bus in preparation for finishing Book One!

Mack has done a first class job here and although, as admitted, I've been a bit out of the loop for a few years in terms of Star Trek novels this was a great reintroduction to the series (and I've now got an understanding on the Typhon Pact - cool idea and more in Book Two please!). The difference in pace over the course of nearly 400 pages works well to balance the character and temperament of Soong against the action and adventure that he ultimately finds himself in during 2384. While not a central character at the beginning, Soong is very much the cornerstone of the final section and the showdown which takes place in a most unusual setting. His legacy appears to be the thing that will drive the narrative in Book Two, Silent Weapons, and probably beyond that into the final novel too.

I must congratulate the author here once more referencing the extensive TNG back catalogue while still making many of the characters, situations and settings very much his own at the same time - which no doubt will add weight to the sequel, Silent Weapons. I can only hope that the remaining two books live up to the hype and the buildup that David Mack has moulded here. It's controversially something of a new beginning that could well ignite a good round of heated debate amongst TNG fans. I never thought you could play with canon as much as is here and get away with it however the author does and to some extent, begrudgingly, I must admit it makes The Persistence of Memory a damn good page turner.

Good work there, Mr Mack; let's see what Book 2 has to offer.

Star Trek: The Next Generation "Cold Equations Book 1: The Persistence of Memory" is available now from Simon and Schuster priced £6.99. ISBN 9781451650723

You can read my review for Book Two: Silent Weapons now!

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