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Monthly Archives: October 2014

Star Trek: Vanguard: Too Little, Too Late

It is difficult to overstate how much of a Trekkie I was as a kid. For kids these days, they start with Harry Potter and work their way through Percy Jackson and the others. For me, as soon as I was done with Redwall I made a beeline for Star Trek novels.

The Star Trek television series has spun off into a vast range of novels and comics, telling further adventures of the various crews, telling new stories in the same universe, and in a few cases performing crazy inter-fandom crossovers, including with Doctor Who and X-Men. Really, I couldn’t make this up…

Unlike the Star Wars Expanded Universe, however, Star Trek licensed materials aren’t integrated into one enormous canon – thank heavens – so one can read any of them and not have to worry overmuch about some key detail that was in some other book you know nothing about.

But I’d gone off them years ago. Indeed, as I’ve said before, the current state of Trek has often left me feeling that the whole franchise has had its day and should be laid to rest.

That said, my curiosity was piqued when this article regarding a particular recent Trek novel series happened by, in which the writer, David Mack, eloquently defended his inclusion of a lesbian relationship in the text.

Star Trek made its mark in large part from social commentary, especially in the Original Series. But as popular sensibilities progressed, Trek did an inconsistent job of keeping pace. By the time that LGBT rights arose as the next important social cause the franchise seemed to lose its nerve, and only a halfhearted handful of episodes addressed it, and there were no gay main characters in any series.

So I was intrigued to investigate this work that might have outdone the shows.

The first book in the series

Star Trek: Vanguard is a hexology taking place in the Taurus Reach – or the Gonmog Sector or the Shedai Sector depending on who you’re talking to – an unexplored region of space bordered by the Federation, the Klingon Empire and the Tholian Assembly. The Federation and the Klingons are in a tense race to claim as many new planets as possible. The Tholians, meanwhile, are getting leery at both but also don’t seem to want to claim the region themselves. They fear something in the Taurus Reach, an ancient power from their earliest history, which explorations by the Klingons and the Federation threatens to unleash.

One of the things that originally put me off Star Trek novels was the matter of voice: I’ve read few that, to my taste, convincingly capture the mode of speech of the characters. A lot of the time, all of the characters ‘sound’ the same, and just dispense exposition to each other.

The Vanguard series takes place, mostly, on Starbase 47, or Vanguard Station, the space station that is Starfleet’s main post in the Taurus Reach. The crew of the Enterprise only appears briefly to ‘hand off’ the story to a new crop of characters, giving the authors freedom to invent new voices.

Vanguard is duly populated by a huge cast: Commodore Reyes, the conflicted and secretive commander, his girlfriend and local Starfleet legal eagle, the genially cantakerous Doctor Fisher and his colleague Dr. M’Benga (a one-off character in the Original Series) and the eccentric but sagely Federation ambassador, an alien named Jetanien. There’s also the cold but deeply conflicted Vulcan intelligence officer, Lieutenant Commander T’Prynn, and the assets she runs in the Taurus Reach: Tim Pennington, the hapless journalist, crusty old smuggler Cervantes Quinn, and Lurqal, known to most as diplomatic attache Anna Sandesjo, a deep cover Klingon spy, who is T’Prynn’s double agent, and her lover. There’s also an Orion crimelord, the ambassadors of the Klingons and the Tholians, a Starfleet archaeologist in charge of chasing down the the mystery of the Reach, and the crews of the starships stationed at Vanguard, and the local Klingon and Tholian commanders who they tangle with out in space. Oh, and the Romulan ship which got a couple of chapters spent on it and then went away again…

The book format allows for a much greater variety of aliens than the shoestring budget of the Original Star Trek. Ambassador Jetanien is the most alien of the main characters, described as somewhat birdlike. While the lack of an EU canon means that every writer has a different way of doing this, the books do a respectable job of lending some nuance to the traditionally somewhat one-note races like the Klingons. They also seem to go out of their way to make the human crew as diverse as possible. The range of starships is also more diverse.

The fact that the action has as much to do with negotiation and investigation as with blowing stuff up is very Star Trek. At times it almost reads like procedural fiction. The story of peril on the frontiers of discovery is classic Trek, and the hidden danger somewhat Lovecraftian.

The character drama is what it’s mostly about. The overriding theme that jumps out at me is the impact of responsibility on one’s personal health and morals: it threatens to break some characters, like Reyes and T’Prynn, but elevates others, like Quinn and Pennington. Their suffering, their thought processes, all make the story go.

Regrettably, while it has much thematic and storytelling merit, it also suffers from a number of drawbacks. A lot of them are fairly normal Star Trek ones. The starship du jour in Trek is always the only one in the area. You’d think that Vanguard, given what a hot potato it is, would have more starships on hand. I think it wouldn’t have killed them to sit down and some up with some numbers to explain why Starfleet is always this stretched.

Given the fact that canon isn’t all that big a deal, I also found it faintly annoying that they felt the need (taking their cue, I believe, from a late episode of Enterprise) to spend any length of time contriving an in-Universe explanation for the change in appearance of the Klingons between the Original Series and the rest of the franchise. Don’t bother. We fans know it was just because of how little money the show had, and the limits in the technology. Just pick which look you want to use. It’s fine, we’ll go with it…

The other specifically Star Trek problem it has is being subject to many hands. The first and third books are written by David Mack, but the second was written by Dayton Ward and Kevin Dilmore. Mack’s writing style, while prone to purple prose at times (‘the sting of love’ and similar phrasing), is much clearer. I can barely remember anything about the middle book, Summon the Thunder, because the prose was so thick. Similarly, I sometimes had to cast odd looks at the editing. One remark is made about not being ‘oblivious of peril’ whereas I usually see it as ‘oblivious to peril.’ You also usually type a ship’s name in italics, as in starship Enterprise, but in these books they persist in writing it Starship Enterprise, as if that were the full name. You wouldn’t write Aircraft Carrier Lexington or Battleship Potemkin. Okay, bad example…

Having gotten halfway through the series though, most of all it seems too dense. There’s actually too many characters, and in a few cases some are introduced, given backgrounds and relationships and then have nothing done with them, as in the case of the Romulan crew who show up for a few chapters and then evaporate again. In a lot more cases, they needed to try harder to pick distinctive, punchy names so I don’t lose track of who’s who. Some of them are way more interesting than others for me, but whichever ones you favour, it’s difficult to get enough of those ones, and when some of them don’t seem to go anywhere, it stretches one’s patience. Say what you want about David Weber or Jim Butcher, they may bang on a bit but stuff can usually be counted on to happen.

As far as the character drama goes, my gripes with that might be partly my own fault. The publicity arising from including a same-sex couple led me to think it would be a main part of the story, and I probably got myself excited about it.

No, not like that! Still, it is hard not to get cynical about the fact that if a male sci-fi writer – and I do not except myself in this – is going to break with the herd and put in a same-sex relationship, he chooses a lesbian one. It might be thought safer, or maybe writing attraction to a woman, even in another woman character, is easier for a hetero male writer. Then again, arguably Star Trek’s greatest weakness was that it could never reconcile its mandate of social commentary with its fondness for cleavage.
Part of T’Prynn’s background is a condition, rooted in a sort of telepathic injury, that denies her the “release of Pon Farr,” the Vulcan mating cycle, and the resulting emotional turmoil (Vulcans are all cool and logical, of course, but it is something they have to work at) is part of what drives her shared passion with Lurqal. When it was first introduced in the TOS episode Amok Time, Pon Farr happened to male Vulcans, but that gradually got retconned in the name of sexy fanservice.

For what it’s worth though, it isn’t belaboured for titillation. The story cuts tastefully away when things are about to get steamy. There’s some pillow talk and commitment angst between T’Prynn and Lurqal, but the story isn’t littered with explicit love scenes.

But for my money, the relationship isn’t explored much either. We don’t learn how they met, or how their relationship evolved, or what it is exactly that they see in each other. Call me crazy, but I was hoping for an actual love story. I was particularly looking forward to a study in the interplay between love and logic in the Vulcan psyche. I freely admit that I would have been drawn to the sexy aspects, but even that would have been better for being portrayed respectfully between well-written and interesting characters.

The worst of it is, just as their personal and professional relationships reach a crisis, out of the blue, a SPOILER happens: Lurqal is killed off.

It was disappointing because the character development they’d had until then seemed suddenly for nought. But it also played into a dynamic that it disappointed me to see the writers succumb to: Tropers call it the ‘Bury Your Gays’ cliche. The way gay couples, for whatever reason, are seldom allowed happy endings, or indeed lives: Silhouette and her girlfriend in Watchmen, Tara and Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrrell in Game of Thrones, or the lesbian couple in that one episode of House, where they had to sacrifice one newborn baby to save the other, and of course the hetero couple’s baby is the one that lives, the pattern is alarmingly consistent.

Like I once said about the ‘Women in Refrigerators‘ dynamic, it isn’t that this one instance is objectionable (although I think it is) so much as that the regularity with which it happens is…really quite creepy. You were doing so well there for a while, Mr. Mack.

I suspect that I won’t be seeking out the rest of the series. They have so much going on, but it all turns into white noise. If they’d streamlined the subplots, and maybe got one writer committed to the whole thing, it would have been much more accessible and engaging. In the end, it’s trying to be a political thriller, a military sci-fi, a buddy comedy and a star-crossed romance all at once and doesn’t do any of them justice. The dialogue is pretty decent, the mystery intriguing, the characters well-written, but they’re crowded in too tight, and the one thing that set the story apart in terms of pushing old boundaries ends up fizzling out.

Star Trek, it was nice to meet up for old time’s sake, but the fire’s just gone out…

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Posted by on October 7, 2014 in Book

 

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Saturday Supplemental: Soul Searching and Social Justice in Fiction

I originally wrote this post after entitled gun-wielding maniac Elliott Rodger went on a misogyny-fueled rampage, reinforced by this article, positing that privelige in geek culture – traditionally very male-dominated – allows violation and objectification of women to be normalized and even played for comedy.

It also creates the image of the singular protagonist – ourselves, for aren’t we all the heroes of our own stories – for whom certain things are expected to be achieved: primacy, victory, romance, the usual trappings.

I lost my nerve at the time, but it has regained some notability with Emma Watson’s stirring UN address, the leaking of racy celebrity photos by hackers and the attacks on women in gaming culture that have been making the headlines.

What struck me is that Elliott Rodger, the redditors who attack commentators like Anita Sarkeesian and other publicly outspoken women and others of their ilk have a narrative in common: they generally seem to see themselves as being on a mission of revenge against some enemy, the Lone Underdog Hero against the Big Bad whatever – politicians, authority, women, what have you. It needn’t even be a very specific thing. A sense of helplessness, or of not getting everything you expect is, for those priveliged by gender and race puts a gleam on the ‘wronged man out for payback’ narrative.

And here’s why that freaks me out: when I remarked in my review of 12 Years a Slave that it started me having revenge fantasies, I wasn’t kidding. Confronted in news and history with the horrific misdeeds humans inflict on one another, I often find the only catharsis is to indulge a daydream of confronting the evildoers in battle, or similar. I’ve ingested similar narratives to these guys.

I appreciate that this sounds like I’m playing the old moral-panic card that people are somehow driven to violence by the fiction of which they partake. Mental illness and cultures surrounding guns, masculinity and privelige are clearly the dominating factors. And violence in fiction is highly functional: it’s cathartic, a powerful metaphor, and, done artfully, both creates truly engaging stakes and is terribly exciting.

We in geek culture immerse ourselves in fiction wilfully, and when we climb out we should look around and see whether the stories are doing good service by the people to whom it speaks. Racial and gender diversity in popular fiction has made progress under critical gazes for many years. So I’m wondering likewise about the different shades of being a hero and heroic violence in fiction as a corollary of that.

I ask myself: what kinds of narratives do these people seem to reflect? For the nerdier streak, as the article above discusses, people like Sheldon of the Big Bang Theory or Eric from That 70’s Show spring to mind. But for the violence aspect, the archetype I tend to think of is what I call the Rambo – oddly since I’ve never watched a Rambo film in my life: isolated from others (as guys like this seem to be) but tough, violent and who always get the girl. This is the thing that the awkward, lonely nerd has oftentimes traditionally looked up to.

This is just about the oldest hero type out there. He comes in many shades (metaphorically, he’s almost always white): James Bond, Richard Sharpe, Scarface, Marcus Fenix, Master Chief, almost every superhero under the sun and lots of the characters played by people like Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Seagal and wow I am dating myself hideously over here…

And aspects of this basic entitled-to-being-the-hero archetype run right through fiction of all media. A single hero with tons of guns, or at best, a small squad of macho men with tons of guns, is the aspect these have in common. And there are certainly worthy tales to be told in this construct – the better class of war movie, for exmaple.

And yet, don’t these reflect an entitlement to violence? Some of them, especially the soldiers, have the justification of some bigger cause. But somehow I’ve seldom found that persuasive. The Rambo, the Lone Ranger, or whatever, have the conflict reduced to themselves, given a kind of ‘it’s personal’ element. The bad guy has attacked them, or killed their buddy, or kidnapped ‘their’ woman, let’s say. And the only solution is guns and/or fisticuffs. Their treatment gives them a personal right to do violence to others, that takes primacy over any bigger picture.

And it is partly for that reason that I tend to be indifferent to stories like this. Some dude getting his own back, and getting the girl because that’s what’s supposed to happen just isn’t very fulfilling to me. It can be fun – Bond or Batman or (arguably) Captain Kirk all fall within this trend, and I’ve been playing Arkham City for the past few weeks.

Obviously, a personal stake is important to a compelling story. But it strikes me that the kind of stories I’m drawn to have a very specific way of doing that.

Take Mass Effect for example: yes, Commander Shepard’s got the Universe on her shoulders, and yes, her story and character are the centre of your attention. But around her is an ensemble of diverse characters for whom she has responsibility, and who have responsibility for each other. This makes the abstraction of the safety of the galaxy at large into perspective, and Shepard’s genuine emotional connection – romantic and friendship, female and male – mean that the stakes are more important than her personal investment.

Another example: Flashpoint, the Canadian cop show. While superficially the all-boys’-club tons-of-guns setup, the sense of genuine family amongst the characters, and the priority to save people, not just ‘get the bad guy,’ gives it a sense of cause and common purpose. It’s right there in the team’s motto: Connect, Respect, Protect.

And for a third example, the Lord of the Rings. It’s a weaker example than the above because interpersonal relationships aren’t the core theme. All the same, all races of Middle Earth join forces, and at every turn, Aragorn and Frodo in particular make their decisions based on the betterment of those around them – not abandoning Merry and Pippin, sparing Gollum, or the comradeship between Legolas and Gimli.

Ensemble casts, I believe, lend a sense of substance to any abstract duty a la ‘save the world.’ A diverse ensemble – by class, lifestyle, gender or race, (or, if nothing else, metaphors thereof) gives a sense of a microcosm, and good characterization and interpersonal bonds make for protagonists who have to earn their authority from those around them, because they have a responsibility to protect, lead, back up and care about them, whatever they look like or wherever they come from. Yahtzee Croshaw hit near the mark with his article marking the distinction between ‘manly’ and ‘macho’ characters.

Captain Picard, Malcolm Reynolds, John Crichton, Commander Vimes, Avatar Aang or Buffy Summers fit this model quite handily. Leaders, yes, willing to do what it takes, but for the sake of other people, not themselves or some abstraction like their country. Able to show gentleness or grief for the people around them, and to whom members of the opposite sex are people, not trophies. And when violence takes place, is clearly in self-defense or with clear context against someone whose threat is to one’s comrades, and to the safety of people in general, or when no choice is available.

See, prone as I am to revenge fantasies, they look more like this: groups of allies taking a stand against cruelty, bigotry and injustice and knocking it out of the park.

I’m not suggesting that this is a fantasy to be indulged in irresponsibly. You still have to keep the line drawn between them and real life. And I’m not suggesting that the works of fiction are responsible. Nor am I saying that fiction alone shapes my worldview. My parents, who instilled in me (with admittedly incomplete success, no fault of theirs) a dislike of violence, a sense of responsibility and ethics had something to do with it. What I am positing is this: our culture, in a thousand ways, sculpts our insecurities, the things that anger us and the impulses that offer an outlet for that anger. And fiction echoes those things back, and reinforces and perpetuates them. But it can also distort them and send us back the inverse. Star Trek did that when it created a multi racial band of brothers and sisters in the age of Civil Rights. That’s what the Bechdel Test and the criticism of whitewash casting are meant to change.

I would never expect fiction to kowtow to special interests or prejudices. That’s one of things that angers me. But we, as critical audiences, could call on fiction to take a stand against selfishness and entitlement, and send more positive echoes back at us. If the hero is to slay the monster with his mighty sword, let it be for good and positive reasons, and the hero be a woman, or a person of colour, and have comrades, friends and family at their sides.

“‘Cause I’ve got people with me. People who help each other, who do for each other and ain’t always looking for the advantage.”

-Capt. Malcolm Reynolds, “Firefly”

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2014 in Saturday Supplemental

 

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