Sunday 24 February 2013

Cold Equations Book Two: Silent Weapons

Silent Weapons picks up a short time after the events of Book One, The Persistence of Memory and from the off this is a very different beast to its predecessor.

Now before we go any further - SPOILER ALERT. If you haven't read the first book, be warned as I WILL be referring to it during this review!

While The Persistence of Memory skipped through time to provide the autobiographical narrative of Doctor Noonien Soong, this is a much more linear affair but much more complicated in the nature of the plot. It does require a bit more concentration to keep track of events right from chapter one - yep, David Mack kicks this sequel off with a lot of balls in the air and the art here is very much in the catching.

I was hesitant as to where this was going to go as Book One really left things open for interpretation. After getting into the heart of the book at about 150 pages I realised that it's as close as Star Trek could come to a taut political thriller. While the Vaslovik plot is carried over from the first novel in the trilogy, it spends a considerable amount of time on the proverbial backburner in favour of political machinations which I found to be more interesting but we'll come to that in turn. Book Two focuses more on the discovery of the android factory from the concluding section of The Persistence of Memory and the way in which the Breen are utilising this find for their own devices. There are numerous locations for the action, namely the Breen homeworld, a control centre for their acquired androids, a secret conference on Orion and then the Enterprise itself. Now you know that at some point they will all come together, the fun is in working out just how Mack will achieve this by the last page. I can assure you it does and - well, I'm not going to ruin it! I will say that it's a "thinker" and you need to be on your toes to keep up with who is doing what, where, when and how otherwise you might be in a big narrative mess by about page 160. 

My interest in this novel was piqued more than with the first not just for the multi-faceted thriller but also thanks in no small part to its supporting cast. The Gorn, one of my favourite alien races in the franchise (kudos for that, Mr Mack), are heavily featured and we get name-checks for the Tholians and the Tzenkethi too as part of the shadowy Typhon Pact. Even the Romulans manage an appearance to remind us that they're still a power to be reckoned with in this quadrant. I hope that Mack utilises the Gorn again in the future and that we get to see the Tholians in action and not just as a technology reference.

Reading this purely on my journey back and forth to work could have been a nightmare due to the strands that Mack lays out but I kept up with a couple of flick-backs to earlier chapters and previous pages so it was well worth it. Occasionally there are plot reminders from the cast which helps keep you in the picture. Everything has a purpose (as we know!) and no action is there for the sake of filling a page. As with my first review I don;t want to give too much away as it would ruin the experience that I was lucky to have upon opening chapter one - needless to say the Breen are up to no good here and Data gets implicated very early on, bringing the Enterprise to the Orion homeworld. Some of the initial chapters might seem irrelevant in some of the details described and you are left wondering - but persevere and you will not be disappointed. If there's one thing I'm learning from David Mack is that everything has a purpose!

One thing that I do enjoy within Mack's work is that he just loves playing with known Star Trek concepts. It happened in The Persistence of Memory and it's in action once again here. We're reintroduced to Captain Morgan Bateson, formerly of the USS Bozeman and it was impossible NOT to think of him as anyone other than Kelsey Grammer in "Cause and Effect" from The Next GenerationOrion was never visited in the multiple TV series but Mack builds on his visual impressions littered into Book One and fleshes them out further, even to the point of taking us deep into their slums and teaching the reader about the nature of their society. Fascinating stuff but my hat truly has to come off for his insights into the Gorn who have only managed two story appearance across the five series and ten films.  In particular their view of art is intriguing and I was quite envious of how Mack has established their culture, hierarchy and motivations within this story. While you would think it would be enough to focus on providing an insight into just the one race as part of the narrative, don't be deceived as the Breen get their own fair amount of page time in which we learn much more about the structure and taboos of their society while we watch them unfold their plans section by section.

Twisting thriller into mystery into action, Mack weaves the after-effects of The Persistence of Memory into this new story with deadly androids doing their masters' bidding, secretive Breen and even the UFP President thrown into the soup for good measure - one gripe; why did the President's bodyguards have to verge on the cliched CIA-style agent with dark glasses and a suit? Minor point but it's the 24th Century....! 

This new Data is something of an oddment and whenever I was reading this character I felt about as uneasy as Geordi - it's Data but it's not. The memories are there but this is Data version two and while you can see the character is there, if only through the absence of contractions in his speech, he feels different just in the way he carries himself through the narrative and on more than one occasion I made myself question who this character was. David, if this is part of the plan, I applaud you because it worked. The "new" Data is centre-stage for a good portion of this novel as are Picard, Geordi and Worf and all four characters are well defined and seem to work better within this story than they did in Book One. While the latter three characters are familiar the resurrected Data really is intriguing and slightly eerie. Indeed  it is his predicament which drives the story initially and the trail of crumbs and events from that which power the story along.  The pacing is great as we move from one set piece into investigation, to diplomacy, to private moments and then back into action once again - there's no let up so if you have to put this book down beware of what point you take a break - what you've just read may be very relevant in a few pages time or you might need to recall it in a few chapters!

Anyway, a lot of this book as you will have gathered, is focused on androids and Soong-type androids to be precise. They instill a great deal of paranoia into the story because you just don't know where or when they will turn up, what will happen when they do and whether or not they will succeed in their actions. Some of the descriptions of their actions are brutal and we can see that they are focused solely on their mission's goal. The androids are expendable but there is definitely more to them than you first think considering what they are capable of doing and who is in control of their minds. Manipulation is the name of the game.

Alongside the main story is a sub-plot revolving around Picard and Crusher which does link into the main thread at one point later on. I felt this was a particularly effective thread as it dealt with the nature of their relationship as a family and as shipmates. Mack drops in a note about the age difference between La Forge and Smrhova at one point - because these guys aren't getting any younger and it does waft up scents of nostalgia because of the length of service we have seen the main characters over. 

The Jean-Luc/Beverly plot reminds us that they are human and that at some point things have to change, especially as the captain is no longer single and there are important matters to consider for their future and the safety of his son. I'll be interested to see if this transitions into the final book, The Body Electric. I'm also fascinated to know how the Vaslovik plot is going to be continued in the finale as we have effectively skipped over it from the first few chapters of Silent Weapons. It was the reason for Data's presence on Orion but other things got in the way!

Overall I probably enjoyed this story much more than I did with The Persistence of Memory, possibly because I understood a bit more about the expanded Trek universe and also because the first book had "broken" me back into the TNG universe. Looking back, the first novel is very much a set up piece which lays a lot of seeds and possibilities for the second book and doubtless the third will bring all the threads together neatly (I say that now!). Not a book to pick up on its own but if you've pounded through the first book this is certain to satisfy your curiosity and leave enough questions unanswered (again) to ensure that the concluding book is an essential purchase.

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Cold Equations Book Two: Silent Weapons is now available  from Simon and Schuster ISBN 9781451650730 priced £6.99

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