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Star Trek: Terok Nor – Day of the Vipers by James Swallow (Review)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is twenty years old this year. To celebrate, I’m taking a look at the first season. Check back daily for the latest review or retrospective.

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

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine comes with back story. A lot of back story. In fact, the opening scene of Emissary establishes the show in the context of The Best of Both Worlds, Part II, introducing a lead character whose tragic origin is rooted in an encounter that we had only fleetingly glimpse in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Due to the setting and nature of the show, history and continuity were major parts of Deep Space Nine‘s identity, and a large part of what set the show apart from its predecessors. (And successors, for that matter.)

Although the Klingons would dominate the show’s fourth season and remain a presence throughout the show’s run, and the Romulans might occasionally be glimpsed lurking in the back ground, the series largely focused on two alien races that had been introduced in The Next Generation. The Cardassians had been introduced in the show’s fourth season, in The Wounded, and the Bajorans first appeared during the fifth season in Ensign Ro.

Officially part of The Lost Era series of novels designed to flesh out the history of the shared Star Trek universe, the Terok Nor trilogy exists as a bridge into Emissary, something of an extended history lesson that contextualises the events of Deep Space Nine by providing an account of the Occupation of Bajor, an atrocity that only ended shortly before Emissary actually began.

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To be fair, there is a legitimate argument to be made about whether any of this is really necessary. After all, Deep Space Nine was a show about consequences and reactions. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know how the Cardassians came to occupy Bajor, or where the Federation was when this atrocity occurred. All we need to know is that this is an on-going story that Sisko and his crew are joining mid-stream, much as Quark and Odo are only crossing paths with Sisko late in his own personal journey.

Unlike the world presented in Encounter at Farpoint, which may as well have just come into existence five minutes before the opening scene, all that matters is that we get a sense of continuing history in Deep Space Nine. The opening episode features Sisko explaining linear time to the show’s god-like beings, and it is strangely appropriate for the show. Time keeps marching forward, but to know where you are, you need to understand where you’ve been – where you’re coming from.

The show itself does a nice job contextualising the Occupation of Bajor. The details are hazy. We get snippets when the plot demands it. There were collaborators. There was slavery. There was brutality, torture and murder, supported by the moral authority of superior firepower. We might not be able to rhyme of the big moments, but the show show gave us a sense of mood through stories like Necessary Evil or Things Past.

And the specifics of the event are somewhat flexible. The franchise is notoriously ambiguous about the exact length of the Occupation, for example. However, the mood is clear enough. It haunts Deep Space Nine, seeping into just about ever pour of the show. It’s an event that ended before the opening credits finished on the very first episode, but it casts an almost impossible shadow over the rest of the series.

The Terok Nor trilogy exists to join the dots. It serves to provide an account of the Occupation from the arrival of the Cardassians on Bajor to their strategic withdrawal mere hours before Emissary. These types of stories have an understandable appeal to Star Trek fans. It’s fun to connect the dots. Part of what is really fascinating about the best of Star Trek is that it suggests there’s a living and breathing universe tucked away inside, a place inhabited with real characters and organisations with their own motivations and histories.

Star Trek is a science-fiction franchise that has produced thirty seasons of television over nearly half a century, covering two centuries worth of time within the same fictional universe. Even before you factor in spin-off media, that’s a huge tapestry of stories. Even if the show had never devoted any considerable effort to world-building, the show would still have enough scope and scale that joining the dots to document off-screen events involving various parties would seem a pleasant diversion for an idle fan.

We might only cover a seven-year window in the lives of the characters on Deep Space Nine, but we trust that those fictional lives extend and ripple through a franchise that fashioned its own (reasonably) internally consistent universe. It’s hard to think of anything outside the two major American comic book companies that can claim a fictional universe with that level of intricacy and interconnectedness. You could argue about Star Wars, but I’d suggest that this is more an example about how secondary and supplemental materials (strictly regulated by a heirarchy of canonicity”) can expand from a relatively small source (six movies).

Anyway, Terok Nor exists to fill in the blanks, providing a back story for the Cardassians and the Bajorans leading up to the start of Emissary. I’ll confess that I am normally wary of projects like this. I’d rather think that a story should be interesting and compelling in its own right, rather than justifying its importance or its legitimacy with reference to the grand web of Star Trek mythology. There have been truly great world-building tie-in novels set within the Star Trek universe (I’m thinking of The Final Reflection or My Enemy, My Ally), but those tended to focus on compelling stories rather than developing aliens for the sake of developing aliens.

In contrast, there have been books (The Eugenics Wars) that seem to exist merely so the author can join various strands of Star Trek continuity together, with the story itself almost serving as window dressing – something overshadowed by in-jokes and references. The art of the tie-in can be quite tough, and I’m not sure that many readers appreciate how tough it is to balance the demands of continuity with the demands of a story. Day of the Vipers can’t just be the book where the Cardassians occupy Bajor. It has to be a compelling story in its own right.

Author James Swallow does a decent enough job, but the problem is that the narrative is much less interesting and well-constructed than the world-building or character-development he’s putting into the novel. In order to tell a suitably sweeping epic about inter-galactic politics, Swallow splits the focus of the narrative across several characters. In many ways, the focus of Day of the Vipers feels too broad and too diffused to ever really grip and engage the reader.

Is Day of the Vipers the story about the collapse of Darrah Mace’s world, both metaphorically and then literally? Is the book the story of ambitious Skrain Dukat completely failing to come to terms with a deep personal loss and over-compensating? Is it the story of Jas Holza, a politician without the necessary strength of character to do what is right? Or is it even the tale of Bennek’s attempt to keep his religion alive despite increasingly desperate circumstances?

These characters are all reasonably well-developed, but none of the narrative strands ever really gathers enough momentum to seem truly compelling. Arguably the Bajoran constable Darrah Mace serves as the book’s centre, but he’s not strong enough to support the role. Swallow places him strategically so that he spends much of the story close to the heart of the action, but he also gives him a fairly generic family back story that feels like it is done by rote, rather than out of any sort of inspiration.

So the story hops around quite frequently, and it feels disjointed. Characters come and go. The focus shifts. The narrative skips five years. Then it skips another five years. To be fair to Swallow, he does a sterling job building momentum during the final third of the book, but it feels like we’re really just getting the broadest possible sketch of this incredibly large story, and so justice can’t possibly be done to every character or idea featured in the adventure.

It’s not a bad narrative framework, it’s just not a strong one. It lacks the intimacy and the power of the personal stories that drove the best of Star Trek tie-ins. The Final Reflection might have been a story about averting a war between the Federation and the Klingons, but it had a moral centre in the character of Krenn. Diane Duane made the honourable Romulan Ael the driving force of My Enemy, My Ally, to great effect. Even the stronger of The Lost Era novels are those willing to ground the world-building by centring the narrative.

John Harriman was the central character of Serpents Among the Ruins, a book comparable in scope to Day of the Vipers, and that entry in the series was much stronger for anchoring itself in one particular perspective, instead of attempting to cover all angles relatively thoroughly. Day of the Vipers would have been much stronger had it decided to focus on Dukat, Darrah or even Bennek as its central character, instead of constantly hopping around, feeling more like a list of events than a strong central narrative.

Which is, I’ll admit, a bit of a shame. Because Swallow’ world-building is pretty fantastic. Unlike the Romulans or Klingons when they were developed by Diane Duane or John M. Ford, Swallow is working with two aliens that have become well defined over the course of Deep Space Nine. However, Swallow does an excellent job both extrapolating from what we know and contextualising both alien races. He draws upon themes and ideas that the television show hinted at, and fashions them into intriguing and compelling motivations that provide an in-depth understanding of how the relationship between the Cardassians and the Bajorans must have worked.

Fascinatingly, Swallow actually draws quite heavily from Chain of Command, the two-part episode of The Next Generation that aired quite shortly before Deep Space Nine went on the air. It makes sense. After all, that two-part episode was the first really expansive exploration of Cardassian culture, with Picard spending a significant portion of that adventure tied up and tortured by the the aliens. It is a fairly logical and rational idea, as Chain of Command is really our first in-depth look at Cardassian culture before the start of Deep Space Nine.

In Chain of Command, Picard is brutally tortured by Gul Madred, with David Warner giving one of the best Star Trek guest performances in the history of the franchise. Later on, the pair talk briefly, and Madred recalls his childhood on the streets of Cardassia:

I remember the first time I ate a live taspar. I was six years old and living on the streets of Lakat. There was a band of children, four, five, six years old, some even smaller, desperately trying to survive. We were thin, scrawny little animals, constantly hungry, always cold. We slept together in doorways, like packs of wild gettles, for warmth. Once, I found a nest. Taspars had mated and built a nest in the eave of a burnt-out building and I found three eggs in it. It was like finding treasure. I cracked one open on the spot and ate it, very much as you just did. I planned to save the other two. They would keep me alive for another week. But of course, an older boy saw them and wanted them, and he got them. But he had to break my arm to do it.

Indeed, an earlier conversation between Picard and Madred seems to have served as a major influence on Day of the Vipers and its portrayal of Cardassian culture:

What do you know of Cardassian history?

I know that once you were a peaceful people with a rich spiritual life.

And what did peace and spirituality get us? People starved by the millions. Bodies went unburied. Disease was rampant. Suffering was unimaginable.

Since the military took over hundreds of thousands more have died.

But we are feeding the people. We acquired territory during the wars. We developed new resources. We initiated a rebuilding programme. We have mandated agricultural programmes. That is what the military has done for Cardassia. And because of that, my daughter will never worry about going hungry.

Swallow’s characterisation and motivation for his Cardassian characters draws heavily from those scenes, presenting Cardassia as a society that is hungry, both literally and metaphorically.

Dukat is motivated by the memory of his own hunger, which haunts him:

For an instant, Dukat felt the ghost of an empty stomach, the memory of tightness in his gut from malnutrition. Even now, with two full meals a day at his command as a serving Union officer, the echo of the hungry child he had been still shadowed him there at the edges of his thoughts. He shook the moment away.

It’s worth noting that – even with the security of a military life style, Dukat can still only manages two meals a day.

While not quite as nuanced as the development of Klingon culture in The Final Reflection or of Romulan culture in My Enemy, My Ally, Swallow still provides a fascinating explanation for the Cardassian mindset. As Kell explains, this scarcity of resources explains a lot of the race’s expansionist philosophy. “Cardassia is lean and hungry, and it must remain that way. A fat, content animal is a slow one, a victim in waiting. A hungry animal is a predator, feared by the herd.”

There is an implicit commentary on the Federation contained in this characterisation. As portrayed throughout the franchise, the Federation has never had to contend with this sort of scarcity. It’s easy to create utopia and believe in peaceful co-existence if famine and poverty don’t exist within your border. Day of the Vipers is less than flattering towards the Federation. It’s suggested that the Federation was never too interested in Bajor because of its opinions about the caste system.

The Federation is typically characterised as being open-minded and non-judgemental, but Deep Space Nine has generally been somewhat sceptical of this view. Here, it’s implied that the Cardassian Occupation was only possible because the Federation had pre-judged Bajor as a classist society and was not involced diplomatically. Courting the Bajorans, Ico observes, “How like the humans to be so judgemental. It is clear to me that your culture functions perfectly well in a stratified arrangement. Cardassia would never be so bold as to think we could tell you how to run your world.”

Indeed, Swallow presents the Occupation as a failure on the part of Starfleet and the Federation, perhaps explaining why the Federation took such an interest in Bajor immediately following the end of the Occupation. there’s the suggestion that some measure of a guilty conscience is at play here for standing by and watching the atrocity take place. Deep Space Nine frequently compared the Occupation to the Holocaust, and that implies a fair amount of guilt for any society that simply stood around and watched that happen.

Swallow lightly develops that theme here. The Occupation is explicitly linked with a religious purge, the extinction of the religious culture mentioned by Picard above. The Cardassian mindset, and the justification offered for these atrocities, calls to mind the infamous Nuremberg defence – acknowledging no higher morality than the orders and directives from superiors. “The morality of a Cardassian can only be understood by a Cardassian. The morality of a soldier of the Union is that which serves the Union best.”

Indeed, one of the more interesting thematic links that Swallow establishes between Cardassia and Bajor comes in the form of the religions of both cultures. I’m not talking about the Oralian Way, but of Cardassia’s nearly religious attitudes towards the State. There’s a wonderful piece of irony as Dukat confronts a member of the religious order:

“You think you are a good man. Perhaps you are right. It’s misguided beliefs that allow good men like you to do terrible things. That’s where the blame lies.”

It’s a moment that works on quite a few levels. Most obviously, there’s an irony that Dukat himself would end up a religious extremist by the time Deep Space Nine came to an end. However, on a more basic and immediate level, it underscores the fact that the Cardassian State is itself a religion, one that counts of the devote faith of its followers to justify countless atrocities. The State is just as much a religious icon as the Prophets are to the Bajorans.

Swallow does an excellent job of explaining why Bajor was so ripe for Occupation, drawn from the facts established in Deep Space Nine. The use of green imagery and forests during the show’s run suggest a climate that is markedly different from that established for Cardassia. As Pa’Dar explains, “Our reports on their climate show it’s less arid than Cardassia, likely with an extended growing season.” Much like Cardassia’s constant hunger explains the expansive attitudes of the species, Bajor’s wealth explains their isolation. “There’s a reason these aliens have never ventured far from home, Gul,” Ico reports. “They have everything they need close by.”

Swallow does a nice job characterising Dukat, who remains perhaps the most well-developed antagonist in the history of the Star Trek franchise. He’s motivated here by the loss of his son, which Swallow implicitly links to his attitudes about the Bajorans. Dukat’s paternalistic attitude towards the Bajoran people has been well-established by the show, but Swallow very shrewdly tries to anchor it in the death of a son he never knew. He never explicitly states it, but it is suggested that Dukat isn’t dealing with the loss particularly well.

Of course, one of the nicer ironies in a story laced with dramatic irony is the possibility that Dukat’s son might have died in a “false flag” operation, similar to the ones that Dukat himself orchestrated on Bajor. If the State had deliberately provoked the Oralian unrest that ultimately killed his son in the hopes of justifying a crack-down, there’s a delicious and brutal irony to all of Dukat’s actions here. The fact that Dukat never even considers the possibility (despite his own actions to ferment unrest on Bajor) is perfectly in-character. This is, after all, a character who can’t understand how Bajor could love Sisko and hate him.

Instead, Dukat’s grief is transferred into both resent of the Bajorans and a desire to serve as a stern patriarch to an entire world. “What right do these aliens have to live so well when my people must fight for every mouthful?” Dukat wonders early on, at the point when he realises that Cardassia must claim Bajor. At the same time, Swallow perfectly understands Dukat’s gift for self-denial, as he tries to justify his anger and resentment:

The Bajorans were wayward, insular children, with dogmatic habits and a limited perspective on the greater universe around them. What they required was clear: the guiding hand of a stern parent to turn them toward a more productive life. All the luxuries they squander, heedless of how other worlds suffer. If Cardassia had such riches, my people… my family would be safe and secure. These aliens need our supervision.

As he commits another atrocity, he assures himself, “What I have done today was as much for Bajor as it was for Cardassia.”

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It’s very clear that Swallow has put a lot of though into Day of the Vipers. It’s full of nice touches and thoughtful insights about the portrayal of the Bajorans and the Cardassians throughout the Star Trek franchise. I love, for example, the fact that Swallow has noticed the difference between Bajoran and Cardassian architecture, and has made some insightful psychological and culture observations about the differences.

However, Day of the Vipers doesn’t work as well as a story. It might have been better had it chosen one central character or point of view. Instead, it just leaps too erratically around, and so the reader barely has time to find their footing before the narrative jumps again. It’s a fascinating and insightful read, but it’s not a compelling narrative. Which is a bit of a shame, given how much care and thought Swallow clearly put into his work here.

You might be interested in our reviews of the first season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine:

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4 Responses

  1. This book sounds pretty good.

    I like your reviews of tie-in novels, because I’m interested in the backstory and mythology of the Trek universe, but I don’t want to waste time reading books that are only of interest to super-fans salivating over continuity. I don’t really want to know about the iconic characters’ families and personal lives too much; it takes away the mystery, makes them less iconic. I think Sisko is particularly at risk for being ruined by too much fan continuity.

    I’ve only read one tie-in so far, a novel about Kirk and Spock when they were training together at Starfleet Academy. I gave the book away after I read it, and instead of its title, I only remember that “WILLIAM SHATNER” covered three-fourths of the paperback’s cover.

    • Thanks.

      Being hoenst, the novel-verse is large enough that there are – to quote a character from the franchise – “treasures to satiate desires, both subtle and gross.” If you want it, there’s a novel. What was Picard up to before Encounter at Farpoint? What are the Klingons like? What’s the career of that bloke from Spin City turn out to be?

      It’s a matter of preference. I tend to hate the connect-the-dots fiction myself, the fill-in-the-blanks stuff to connect all the strands. (I’m not a huge fan of Greg Cox.) I prefer the sort of “let’s take something that happened in the show and think about it too much” school of writing, like David R. George III’s approach or arguably Margaret Wander Bonanno.

      That said, I have a fondness for the off the wall “I’m writing what I want to write” approach of the authors in the eighties, where they could pretty much get away with what they want. The results weren’t always great (although they occasionally were – Klingon musical!) but they were never dull.

      And I’m not a fan of Shatner’s writing. It’s Mary Sue fiction with the advantage that the Mary Sue in question was the lead character of the show. Although, it’s an interesting insight into Shatner’s relationship with Kirk, who seems to be a vehicle for Shatner’s own middle-age issues, at least in the early books.

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