Monday, 15 September 2014

DataLal: Jeffrey Lang Explores The Light Fantastic

Cold Equations was the first novel series I read when getting back into the non-canon Star Trek universe.

And I loved it. All three volumes were excellent and I was hooked. Since then I haven't missed a novel and there have been some of varying quality which hasn't put me off. Eyes down and get ready for SPOILERS as we take a trip...

Thing is, I saw the cover of The Light Fantastic and I went a bit cold. Could Lang pull off a sequel to the Resurrection of Data Trilogy? It was inevitable that it would arrive and since closing the final page of The Body Electric I've been waiting.

I didn't want to enjoy it or even like it a little after all, David Mack was responsible for that trilogy and did a sterling job and after his recent homophobe-bashing I have even more respect for him so Lang has a hard job ahead.

The initial foray into The Light Fantastic had me uneasy. This is after all a very different Data to the one we saw unload a phaser into the tharlaron weapon core in Nemesis (not a bad thing then...) and one who is as near-as-dammit human as he ever will be but this whole body-shifting ability didn't wash and I couldn't see Data being a chef in some restaurant. But anyway, I misjudged the novel based on those experiences and quite rightfully reprimanded myself by about page 50.

Casting aside 80% of The Next Generation cast for a The Next Generation sub-headed novel is a gamble because you expect Picard and co to turn up and happily,  they don't,  leaving Data and La Forge to spearhead operations. Why it needed to be classed as a The Next Generation book is puzzling when Cold Equations wasn't and had a lot more of the classic Picard crew committed to the narrative. In a nutshell The Light Fantastic places Data firmly in the father role, risking everything to secure the safety of his daughter while running into some familiar faces - and not just Moriarty - along the way. Speaking of Moriarty he's not exactly in the best of moods since we last saw him on board a shuttle in his mini-holodeck and is looking for an in-body experience.

Happily, Jeffrey Lang has taken a few hints from David Mack, placing the main thread of the story around flashbacks to events during The Next Generation as well as side-shifting between locations to keep the story at a decent pace. There's certainly a few continuity nods we all recognise and not only are we tipping the hat to televised and movie Star Trek but events from the recent literary universe as well. We get to meet up with infamous super-collector Kivas Fajo, revisit Exo III from What Are Little Girls Made Of? ion search of some android-making technology and take a quick trip out to a certain circular space station as we piece together the clues and formulate the answer that Data's holographic nemesis is hunting for. Lang's descriptions aren't the most detailed but there's just enough to give you a good impression of what's going on and the later events certainly make up for it when we arrive at Mudd's World. I think you can guess who resides there.

The characters are very varied, snatching at elements of both The Next Generation and The Original Series to fulfil its promise. While there are moments where it does appear to go around the houses to get to the point in a similar way to how Greg Cox had Seven of Nine and Captain Kirk running all over the galaxy in No Time Like the Past there's a more theatrical quality to The Light Fantastic which I think is more down to the sections which tend to encircle both Moriarty and the Countess Bartholomew. Their Victorian tendencies and style punches further than their scenes and lifts  the story from just being another chase novel as with the Greg Cox example. The strength of the characters here places this story well above that recent publication and relies less on gimmick. Their environment is not too dissimilar to the Matrix - it's white, non-descriptive, a Placeless Place in fact where items appear and disappear as required. You just know it's all part of an illusion but here Moriarty is the master magician, the man holding all the cards who acts with a flourish in this environment of his making.

There's a wonderful sense of fanciful adventure and romanticism about this novel as it strikes out and you can almost hear a Jerry Goldsmith theme rising from the pages as events weave through the story. Lang manages to bring a lot of easily recognisable elements together with very little effort and although there are segments of planet-hopping it's a very memorable narrative overall. At the core there is the father/daughter dynamic but not just confined to the obvious Data/Lal relationship which allows a much broader appreciation of both that and the larger theme of family. Data is very much on the back foot here and we see elements of illogical actions creeping in as the importance of his daughter outweighs the legal standpoint he would have once maintained.

This new Data certainly has a lot more to offer and is more driven than the first generation model and his disinterest in Starfleet is both continually puzzling and uncomfortable as these changes also affect the dynamic of his relationship with Geordi who seems to get dragged around a lot here whether he likes it or not. This Data is a lot more emotional than the emotion chip upgraded Generations - Nemesis android and a lot more driven. Logic is a player but in The Light Fantastic his motivation is clearly driven by the "heart". Lang has a lot of flexibility with Data because while we saw him evolve a little in Cold Equations a lot can has happened in the in-universe time since that story-line concluded. Lang is effectively setting the ground rules for anyone who chooses to explore this path in the future.

Assisted by the ever faithful Watson Geordi, the pair are a great double-act with La Forge acting as Data's conscience and reining him back not too dissimilar to Dax's relationship with Worf in Deep Space Nine. Rather than being the one to explain the fact, Geordi fits much more into a side-kick role here and is still having all the women issues we knew him for aboard the Enterprise-D although he does fit in some time for Leah Brahms here and there.

Lal meanwhile has changed too, more a disgruntled and confused teenager under the guidance of yet another android, the Alice model as seen in The Original Series' I, Mudd. Whether a nanny or a guardian for Data's daughter is a question you find yourself asking throughout the story and the conclusion is a lot darker than I was expecting. She's not the stilted, basic android child of The Offspring rather a drastic evolution that provides a challenge for both father and chosen companion.

The character of Alice, that companion, is very well written and I found myself feeling fairly edgy when she appeared on the scene. Her interactions are mainly with Moriarty and while not as dynamic a foil as Data was in Elementary Dear Data they make for entertaining reading, sparring and provoking while also evoking a playful mood. This Moriarty is not evil, he's not the uber-nemesis and nor does this book have a distinct "good vs evil" concept rather a view of right and wrong and a further exploration of sentience. Moriarty is exactly as Daniel Davis portrayed him and this story does feel like his story is satisfied through The Light Fantastic. The problem is that I fear of revealing too much but I reckon I can trust you all just a little?! I'm not sure.

Lang has done an excellent job of capturing not only the characters but the very feel of the universe, telling a more classic style than we might have expected, relying more on the interaction than gimmicky actions. Yes there's crossovers here but they work within the fabric of the plot and tell a great story - it all makes sense. That addition of Moriarty adds class to the book and in turn makes it much more satisfying and relaxing a read. The author has produced a piece of the Star Trek universe I didn't expect to like nor planned to read in depth but in the end succeeded on both counts. There's no big sense of danger or peril, we know it'll work out in the end but this is about the learnings and experiences that lead to the conclusion; desperate fathers, powerful emotions and more mudd than you could ever wish to see.

The Light Fantastic is available now from Simon and Schuster priced £6.99 ISBN 9781476750514

Have you read this book? What did you think? Was it up to par and a suitable sequel to David Mack's Cold Equations? Let us know below!

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