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Star Trek: The Eugenics Wars – The Rise & Fall of Khan Noonien Singh, Volumes I & II, by Greg Cox (Review)

To celebrate the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness this month, we’ll be running through the first season of the classic Star Trek all this month. Check back daily to get ready to boldly go. It’s only logical.

We’ll be supplementing our coverage of the episodes with some additional materials – mainly novels and comics and films. This is one such entry.

In 1967, the 1990s must have seemed so very far away. At the height of the Cold War, the prospect that mankind would have made it into twenty-first century without one catastrophic global conflict must have seemed improbable at best. Indeed, the odds that anybody would still be talking about (let alone watching) a kitsch piece of sixties television science-fiction would have appeared remote. So Star Trek seemed perfectly justified sticking a reference to a major war towards the end of the twentieth century into an episode towards the end of the first season.

However, if there’s one thing that Star Trek fans cannot abide, it’s a possible continuity problem. So, when genetically engineered supermen didn’t almost conquer the world during the last decade of the twentieth century, it was only a matter of time before we got a two-volume set dedicated to resolving this particular problem.

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Of course, there are a number of sane resolutions to this problem. The first is to accept that Space Seed was made in the 1960s and probably shouldn’t be held to account for inaccuracies about events thirty years in the future. The second is to suggest that perhaps Star Trek takes place in an alternate universe where there were genocidal wars waged by genetic augments in the 1990s. Of course, Star Trek: Voyager would seem to dismiss that, with Future’s End set in a version of 1996 that looks very like our own.

You could even allow a little lee-way, and build upon Ronald Moore’s continuity gaffe in Doctor Bashir, I Presume?, and allow the Star Trek timeline to drift a little bit so these wars didn’t take place in the twentieth century, but the twenty-second. If you wanted to get really outside the box about it, you could suggest that it’s one big temporal paradox and all the mucking around with time travel (in episodes like Little Green Men and Tomorrow is Yesterday) re-wrote the Star Trek canon.

Personally, I don’t much care. The fact that the Eugenics Wars happened in the Star Trek universe and not in our own bothers me about as much as the way that Star Trek somehow appears less advanced than Star Trek: Enterprise. I care about as much as I care about how Klingons suddenly developed ridges between The Day of the Dove and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. That is to say, I don’t really care too much. I enjoy it anyway, and I don’t feel I need an answer or an account.

Of course, Star Trek fans tend to be the sort of people who like everything to fit together like some epic jigsaw puzzle, with the pieces sculpted to perfectly slot into place. So Enterprise feels the need to explain the whole ridges dilemma with the actually quite decent Affliction and Divergence. And Greg Cox writes this two-volume set offering a historical account of a conflict that never really happened, but is imagined with just enough verisimilitude that it could have.

Greg Cox is a great tie-in author. He really is. If you look at his list of credits, you’ll see any number of major adaptations and spin-offs. Contrary to popular belief, it takes a very particular skill-set to write a tie-in novel, almost entirely unique from the qualities that might make a prize-winning literary author. It is an art and a craft that is subtly (but distinctively) different from that of telling an original story, and Greg Cox is – to be frank – very good at adapting tales from one medium to another.

And Cox has a great idea at the heart of The Eugenics Wars: The Rise & Fall of Khan Noonien Singh, Vol. I & II. Instead of providing an alternate history, he dares to provide an account of events that could be reconciled with our own history. He manages to accomplish the best of both world. The 1990s exist simultaneously as the decade we lived through (and featured in Future’s End), and as the theatre of conflict for a potentially massive ideological war.

Indeed, the central idea is a very clever one, allowing Cox to have his cake and eat it too. At one point, Khan boasts, “Although none of your governments have, as yet, officially recognized my regime, my influence already stretches much farther than the borders of my homeland.” It’s a very shrewd way of constructing the story, and one that makes for a pretty compelling gimmick in its own right. It is a fantastic hook.

There are some awkward questions that need to be asked, though. Cox crafts a secret history of the 20th century, re-writing various events as examples of the Eugenics War unfolding behind the scene, with the suggestion that public is not ready to know. However, most of the events he re-writes as part of this conspiracy theory are outside the American sphere. There’s the detonation of several nuclear weapons in India and the Pacific, and the 1993 Latur earthquake which killed 20,000 people, for example.

However, when it comes to the Atlantic, Cox is less willing to tie particular events to Khan’s conflict. Indeed, he explicitly makes some of the genetically engineered supermen into cult leaders and militia men, both groups very much on the cusp of the American consciousness. While Cox is willing to explicitly blame an earthquake that killed 20,000 people on a fictional character, he isn’t willing to do the same with an American tragedy like Heaven’s Gate, which sounds suspiciously similar to the cult suicides mentioned, but isn’t explicitly named.

There are a few nods to historical events involving the UK and the USA, but they are a lot broader than the exact instances cited in India and Asia. Apparently the “tabloid sensationalism” in June 1994 surrounding a case of a flesh-eating virus in London is linked to Khan, as is a single IRA bomb. Cox doesn’t like this conspiracy to any real Western European or American atrocities, and it hints that perhaps there’s a double standard at play. A fictional character can be responsible for the death of 20,000 people on the opposite side of the world, but not the suicide of 39 Americans.

Still, the premise is clever. It is unfortunate, then, that the rest of The Eugenics Wars isn’t quite as clever. I mentioned above that Cox is great tie-in writer, and he is. He has a knack for tying things up and connecting them, which works well when he’s adapting other media into book form – he puts a lot of thought into how things work and fashions a cleverly constructed account of the plot with well-considered mechanics at work in the background.

Unfortunately, this approach is exactly what The Eugenics Wars doesn’t need. The concept is very sharp, but Cox has an absurd need to tie everything together into a neat little bow, so that absolutely everything is somehow connected to (and perhaps legitimised by) the Star Trek mythos. “Forget Kevin Bacon,” Roberta Lincoln thinks at one point. “We’re all just six degrees of separation from Mr. Spock!” It feels that way at times, and it is almost suffocating.

Part of this is the way that Cox insists on tying The Eugenics Wars back to the mythos repeatedly. We get an awkward framing story featuring Kirk, Spock and McCoy. It also features Koloth, because continuity references are fun and there are apparently only like five Klingon captains in the universe. This framing narrative is pretty dull and underdeveloped, and it keeps intruding into the text at the worst possible moments. Just when the twentieth century narrative is gaining momentum, we cut back to the 23rd century.

It feels like the awkward framing sequences in The Final Reflection, only more intrusive and less compelling – you get the sense that we’re actually supposed to be engaged with this story, rather than treating it as mere padding that exists merely to confirm that yes, this is still a Star Trek book. Not that the copious and unnecessary references littered throughout the text don’t do that for you frequently enough.

Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln make frequent reference to Star Trek staples and races. Gary Seven thinks about the Borg a lot. He compares cold conditions to the Bajoran icecaps. His legs feel like Klingon gagh. The pair chase a Ferengi profiteer out of Wall Street at one point. It seems weird that these references are made so casually, and that they seem to exist purely to point back to Star Trek. There’s no real reason to specify the alien was Ferengi save to connect the story to Star Trek.

Similarly, it seems weird that Gary Seven would have so much experience on Bajor. These references are mostly completely and unnecessarily out of context, making it all feel like a bunch of exclusive and inaccessible in-jokes. I get it, and most Star Trek fans will get it. While I could hand My Enemy, My Ally or The Final Reflection to any fan of science-fiction, The Eugenics Wars feels strangely insular, almost like it prides itself on being almost exclusively for hardcore Star Trek fans.

These references are occasionally frustrating for long-term fans as well. It feels like Cox has made a bet about how many separate strands of continuity he could connect, which makes it distracting. It almost seems like the primary purpose of any given character or reference is to provide a continuity-related shout-out. A fight at a book store includes copies of Far Beyond the Stars and Chicago Mobs of the Twenties. The wine on offer at a celebration is Château Picard.

These are just continuity references for their own sake, serving no greater purpose. While I find it fun to spot in-jokes on film, it is more awkward in prose when the answer is always right in front of you. It isn’t as if you have to be an eagle-eyed reader to spot the references. They are very much thrown in your face, and it gets a little distracting and unnerving. It just feels like the energy would be better spent telling and developing this story.

There’s also the fact that it seems like there are maybe fifty people living on twenty-first century Earth, and most of them are either historical figures or have appeared on Star Trek in some way shape or form. It doesn’t matter how awkward the reference is. Greg Cox manages to work in a reference to each of the three sleepers found in The Neutral Zone. He never seems to stop to ask if there’s a point to all this. Indeed, given how generally reviled those three characters are, including them for the sake of including them seems an error in judgement.

It might be different if Cox did something with the characters, if he cast them in a new light or revealed a new facet of their personalities. Hell, those characters were so shallow that Cox can pretty much do whatever he wants with them. However, that isn’t how Cox writes. He doesn’t expand or develop or extrapolate. Instead, he simply enlarges and exposits. It’s a skill that makes him a great choice for an adaptation of something like The Dark Knight Rises or Man of Steel, but doesn’t lend itself to a book like this.

Consider his characterisation of Ralph Offenhouse, the yuppie from The Neutral Zone. In keeping with the nuance and subtlety of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, he was cast as a self-centred yuppie who lacked any form of tact or patience, or any other skill you’d need to make that sort of money. Now, it might be interesting to see another angle to Offenhouse, or to cast him as the hero of his own story, or even to make him seem more three-dimensional than the version who appeared on screen, sort of like Jean Lorrah did with Tasha Yar in Survivors.Instead, Cox plays up those sorts of clichés, presenting Offenhouse as the sort of shallow yuppie monster that would make Gordon Gekko hang his head in shame:

Subsequent biographical research had revealed that Offenhouse was a self-made entrepreneur with a history of faintly shady dealings. Marketing thalidomide in the Third World, for instance, long after the mutagenic tranquilizer had been discredited in the more advanced industrial nations, and investing in primitive cryogenics projects that sold a dubious promise of prolonged existence to the desperate, the fearful, and the terminally ill.

Great, he’s not only a selfish capitalist, but he’s also responsible for untold suffering and harm to an entire generation of children – selling thalidomide while knowing what it does. It’s hard to argue that the portrayal doesn’t fit with the character as presented in The Neutral Zone, but the problem is that the Offenhouse seen in The Neutral Zone wasn’t a character so much as a cringeworthy attempt at a moral tale, an awkward and self-righteous excuse for the show to demonstrate how pious the cast of The Next Generation could be.

Similarly, when Cox gets a chance to write for the immortal protagonist of Requiem for Methuselah, he doesn’t add any real depth or sophistication to an ageless wanderer who has endured impossible hardships. Instead he offers awkward foreshadowing and a cheesy pun that hints at his future name:

“The longer I live, though, the more I sometimes want to withdraw from history altogether, sequester myself away on some remote island or planetoid, far away from the ceaseless Sturm und Drang of mortal men and women.” He chuckled bleakly. “I suppose, after all I’ve seen and experienced, that it’s something of a miracle that I haven’t completely transformed into some flinty old misanthrope.”

Things get especially awkward when Cox has to stretch to include characters who apparently inspired the holodeck adventure seen in Our Man Bashir. Really? Would it really have been any tougher to use a completely original character for that sequence, instead of pretending that Nana Visitor’s sultry Russian “col-en-al” was somehow based on a character who just happened to cross paths with two other characters who just happened to cross paths with each other?

To give you an example of how awkward it all is, I actually guessed the last guest star about half way through the second volume. I pretty much figured out who would be turning up at the end based on the fact that a certain time-travel episode guest-star had yet to make an appearance, and that that guest star’s episode was quite clearly a very heavy influence on Cox’s take on The Eugenics Wars as a concept. So when the final twentieth-century guest star appeared, I knew exactly who it was. And that’s incredibly frustrating.

To be fair, it isn’t only the references to Star Trek lore that feel a bit clunky. Setting the story across the latter half of the twenty-first century, Cox allows Roberta to make all manner of ill-advised pop culture references to remind the audience that yes, this really is [insert decade here]. For example, here are some remarks, and try to place them to the decade:

  • Time to make like Secretariat.
  • A few deft moves and— voilà —Khan’s high-tech hardware was more exposed than Sharon Stone.
  • Well, as surprises go, it wasn’t exactly up there with The Crying Game.

It really is occasionally awkward. Although I will admit – perhaps hypocritically – that some of the more subtle references were quite fun to spot. I do like, for example, the implication that The Wicker Man actually took place in the Star Trek time line, if only because it’s actually deliciously gonzo, and so far outside the rigid continuity framework that Greg Cox works so hard to establish across both books in the set. Apparently, in 1973, Gary Seven investigated “the mysterious disappearance of a Scottish policeman on a nearby island, which had proved to be home to a bloodthirsty pagan cult.”

The result of all these in-jokes and references is that there’s really no room to develop Khan as a character. And, let’s face it, that’s why we’re all here. Khan is a truly monolithic Star Trek presence. In terms of individual Star Trek bad guys, only Gul Dukat can come close to matching Khan’s presence – and nobody outside of fandom knows who Dukat is. If you ask anybody who Khan is, they’ll likely re-enact William Shatner’s enraged curse to the heavens.

So Khan should be the focus here. He should be an interesting character, and he should drive the plot. Cox hints at some nice ideas about Khan. In particular, he recognises Khan’s fondness for Milton and tries to plot a fittingly tragic character arc. The problem is that – even across two books – the arc doesn’t get enough space. It isn’t a single trajectory that can be easily traced. Instead, it seems like a series of disjointed and disconnected stops and starts.

We never get to see Khan as a charismatic leader who can convince regular low-blooded humans to follow him. We jump straight from his rejection of Gary Seven as a teenager to his plans for world domination. It feels like he goes from well-intentioned extremist to out-and-out villain far too quickly, because there’s so much space devoted to referencing obscure one-shot guest characters that most people have forgotten, and jumping back to yet another confrontation between Kirk and the Klingons.

There’s a wealth of interesting stuff that is touched upon, but never really explored. For example, Gary Seven spends so much time whining about genetic engineering, but never really questions his own heritage. “Perhaps Earth could still escape the sort of eugenic madness that had corrupted so many other civilizations,” he muses, somehow overlooking the fact that he was the result of “selective breeding.”

The book acknowledges he might be hypocritical once or twice, but never with any real nuance or conviction. Kirk concedes it in the final chapter. “But what about Gary Seven, who stands as a compelling example of an enhanced human being who accomplished a great deal of good?” However, that point is never really addressed. This is a book about genetic enhancement, which is a powerful medical and ethical issue.

Cox isn’t really too bothered with engaging of the ethics of it, something that makes the framing story even more frustrating. Kirk reads the history to find some answers, but there’s no real philosophical questions. There are bland good guys and bland bad guys, and no real hint of nuance between them. The book never lets Khan make a convincing argument, as it is always clear that he is blinded by his arrogance and ego.

Cox just moves on to the next point and never deals with the fact that Gary is just as much a genetically-engineered superman directing Earth’s affairs as Khan is. The book never questions Seven’s decision to hold back various technologies from the human race. While I can understand the refusal to share weapons, the book doesn’t question his refusal to repair the o-zone layer or refusal to allow scientists to play with peaceful future technology like communicators or tricorders.

I sound like I’m being quite harsh on The Eugenics Wars. I was disappointed with it, but there were elements I quite liked, as well, even if they were mostly superficial. One of the smarter things that Cox does is to reimagine The Eugenics Wars as a sort of cheesy spy caper or Bond homage. In fact, I can imagine Gary Seven’s supervisors meeting him in 2012 to confiscate his cool pen gizmo thingie. “We don’t really go in for that any more.”

All joking aside, the concept works quite well. “Or should that be Mr. Double-Oh-Seven?” one villain inquires at one point. There’s a November 5th set piece in London, involving Roberta jumping off a roof and landing next to a Guy Fawkes dummy. “Sorry to drop in unannounced,” Lincoln quips in the style of Roger Moore. “But don’t think this means I’m falling for you.” I can see her raising her eyebrow as she says that. Seven himself even gets a nice cheesy one liner when he stops the release of Sarin nerve gas hidden in apple juice containers. “This was one time, he mused, when an apple a day wasn’t in anyone’s best interests.”

Indeed, even Khan himself works well in this context, partially because it’s easy to imagine Ricardo Montalban slipping into the role and partially because any secret world-conquering scheme seems worthy of a Bond villain. Sneaking into the project that created Khan, Roberta notes, “somebody had taken the trouble to make the secluded lair attractive as well as functional.” I’m thinking of the base from You Only Live Twice.

The character plays the Bond villain tropes relatively well. They might undermine his character development, if he had any, but they actually wind up being the most fun part of the books. “Ah, Ms. Lincoln,” he greets Roberta at one point. “How good of you to rejoin us!” He organises a large, showy meeting to issue his demands to Asian leaders and offer a demonstration of his weaponised satellite. In keeping with the genre tropes, his primary henchman executes one of the officials who speak up against him.

Again, this suffers because Cox seems to try every other page to remind you that this is a Star Trek book. The Eugenics Wars is at its strongest when it’s  a really weird genre cocktail. Indeed, at one point, Khan comes under attack from a bunch of rivals that are very clearly modelled on Wonder Woman. “Amazons, attack!” It is surreal, it is absurd, and it is brilliant – like The Wicker Man reference above. It works because it is very relaxed and playful and casual in a way that the rest of The Eugenics Wars quite simply isn’t.

There’s also the fact that Cox’s prose is occasionally clunky. For example:

“The inky streaks across her corneas were, Roberta knew, twin legacies of the disastrous chemical disaster in Bhopal, India, many years ago, created when the other woman had squinted to see her way through the clouds of poisonous gas.”

“The disastrous chemical disaster” seems a little redundant.

Still, The Eugenics Wars is more disappointing than anything else. Khan is a compelling character. The issue of genetic enhancement is the kind of moral scientific issue that Star Trek does so well. Gary Seven provides a compelling flip side of the coin to Khan. Unfortunately, The Eugenics Wars is far too interested in connecting or tying up strands of continuity than in doing anything particularly compelling or exciting.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the first season of the classic Star Trek:

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4 Responses

  1. Couldn’t agree more.
    To be honest, I quit halfway through the first novel. I found the constant connections, as you say, just a bit suffocating. It reads more like a fake history book than a novel, and that’s not something I really have the time for. If this book would have been released when I was a teenager I think it would have a place in my life.

    • I just found it infuriating that the net was cast so wide to draw all of these characters in. I’m a sucker for a good “villain story” and getting inside the head of Ricardo Montalban’s Khan is something that I thought would be immensely fascinating – sort of like the way Dukat casts himself as a hero on Deep Space Nine. It just devolves into name-dropping. Then again, it might be I’m not a fan of Greg Cox’s fairly mechanical prose. I prefer the sort of long-windedness of writers like Margaret Wander Bonanno or David R. George III. Different strokes, perhaps.

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