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Star Trek: Myriad Universes – Echoes and Refractions: A Gutted World by Keith R. A. DeCandido (Review)

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is twenty years old this year. To celebrate, I’m taking a look at the first and second seasons. 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.

“What if” stories are inherently fascinating. Naturally, they are predicated on investment in the original story, but it’s always fascinating to imagine the branching possibilities, the ripples in the stream. Sometimes, these are used to explore the grand philosophical questions of Star Trek in a new light; to imagine how, were you to change one variable in a complex formula, the answer might be radically different.

However, Keith R. A. DeCandido’s A Gutted World feels different. It is a massive story, spanning a huge amount of time and space, drawing in a massive ensemble cast and gently probing the politics of five or six different Star Trek culture, as DeCandido explores what might have happened if the Cardassians never withdrew from Bajor, if Terok Nor never became Deep Space Nine.

To put it more succinctly, if the show never happened, but its central storyline still did.

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While it’s often only a fleeting glimpse, given the limited page count, A Gutted World feels absolutely massive in scale. However, it isn’t quite a solemn meditation on theme or philosophy. Instead, it feels like DeCandido is inviting us to watch a story trying to form, as if to demonstrate the sheer inevitability of the “proper” version of events. “What happened happened and couldn’t have happened any other way,” Morpheus pretentiously offers at one point in The Matrix Reloaded, but he’s right; in a linear narrative there is only one way that events can unfold; the way that they unfolded.

By definition then, any branching story off that will be inherently inferior. Not necessarily in terms of quality – DeCandido is a damn fine storyteller here – but in terms of its role within the mythos. It exists as theoretical “woulda shoulda coulda”, but ultimately as a “didn’t.” While it is possible to use the Myriad Universes formula constructive to reimagine several conventional Star Trek storytelling devices and tell a fairly new story with them (as Chris Roberson does in the next story in the book, Brave New World), in most cases it’s about exploring a narrative cul de sac, a story that never was, never could be and never should be.

While the seven-year run of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine tells a moving and satisfying epic story exploring the recesses of the Star Trek universe, A Gutted World feels like a tragedy on a grand scale of a story that never quite plays out properly, a hallow echo of what must be. Although it certainly has scale, DeCandido doesn’t pitch it as an epic. Although it’s always clear what’s going on, DeCandido presents the unfolding events as an unstructured and disjointed sequence. Although it’s not feeding into a sequel, DeCandido even offers an ending which denies any meaningful closure.

In short, A Gutted World isn’t just a tale of a universe that shouldn’t exist, it’s also a story that doesn’t work. There are no clear character arcs, no grand sweeping philosophical statements. There’s no theme underlying it all save the suggestion that removing a few vital players at a few vital intervals causes the whole damn tapestry to unravel. There is no happy ending, there is no tragic ending; there is no ending. And A Gutted World is the stronger for it, suggesting that Deep Space Nine really played out the Dominion War in the only way that it really could be played out.

I am, to be honest, a bit surprised that DeCandido never explicitly draws in any of the “timey wimey” philosophical ideas of Deep Space Nine here, particularly concerning ideas of fate and destiny. The show had a curiously unique approach to the concept of time, at least compared to the other Star Trek shows. While the series set on ships suggested that time was a straight line and a trajectory that the cast could plot.

Although both Endgame and All Good Things… did involve time travel, with the past and future overlapping, both stories ultimately suggested that the crews of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager could at least change their futures, Deep Space Nine suggested a more intricate system. Time loops around itself. The series begins with Bajor in ruins following enemy occupation, and ends with Cardassia suffering the same fate.

I normally don’t care too much for continuity, especially if ignoring or overlooking minutiae allows the author to tell a stronger story. Continuity can be a tool, but should not be a straitjacket. That said, it is interesting that Benjamin Sisko exists in this alternate universe. Shadows and Symbols suggested that Sisko’s life was something of a loop. His mother was one of the Prophets, who was sent out to create him after he established contact with the wormhole aliens.

It’s a structure which requires suspension of the concept of cause and effect. If he wasn’t born until after his mother gave birth to him, how could he make contact with the Prophets so that they could send his mother out to give birth to him? A linear understanding of time can’t quite explain the logic of this closed time loop. Given that A Gutted World takes place in a universe where the Prophets have never established contact with any of the Alpha Quadrant races, presumably because Sisko never ventured into the wormhole, it does raise the question of how Sisko can exist in this alternate world.

However, it ties into the theme of DeCandido’s short story. The world without Deep Space Nine is broken. We never linger too closely on any of the events here. There is simply too much ground to cover, and only so much space that can be afforded it. So the story moves along rather quickly, with no time to dwell. A Gutted World feels more like snapshots of a broken universe than a grand epic. It’s to the credit of DeCandido that it works so well and that the chaos remains so clear.

It’s no coincidence, of course. In a way, DeCandido is a stronger writer of Star Trek‘s alien cultures than he is of its primary casts. This is an author who has written a chain of novels about Klingon politics, and even expanded a throwaway line from The Way of the Warrior into a surprisingly satisfying read. DeCandido knows his stuff, and that knowledge drips through the short story, with nice astute references which reinforce the idea that he knows what’s he’s talking about.

In particular, I like the way that DeCandido effortlessly and gracefully connects the Klingon continuity of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country to the conspiracy in Sins of the Father, revealing that the Romulans secured a foothold in Klingon politics by “buying influence with Klingon noble Houses that were destitute after Praxis.” It’s a clever and non-intrusive observation that is effortlessly dropped into a story about something else entirely, proof that the author has put considerable thought into how this shared universe must work.

As with a lot of Star Trek parallel universes, there’s a sense that the universe might be trying to force itself back into a familiar shape. Of course, not all the right pieces are in play here. Although Sisko exists, he’s still an angry and bitter man working at Utopia Planitia. By the time we meet him in A Gutted World, five years into what would have been the run of Deep Space Nine, he is still broken by the loss of his wife. His first conversation with Picard here mirrors his first conversation with Picard in Emissary.

Of course, Sisko has lived five more years here, but without any of the growth he went through on Deep Space Nine. (Indeed, his development is so arrested that he winds up serving as first officer to Captain Worf.) He’s not the only character. O’Brien is still a racist – as Picard muses when he hears his Chief Engineer refer to the Cardassians as “Cardies.” Damar dies as Dukat’s glorified personal assistant. Odo never gets to make peace with the Great Link.

And, naturally, history conspires to fill the gap – playing into the idea established as early as the first season of Star Trek that time isn’t just a linear connection of cause-and-effect, but “like a river, with currents, eddies, backwash.” With Deep Space Nine ceasing to exist, other characters have to step up to the plate. Picard finds himself pushed to the fore in a massive intergalatic war. While Sisko didn’t find it a cakewalk, Picard suffers immensely from his involvement.

It’s one of DeCandido’s recurring themes across his work on Star Trek, the idea that Picard was a explorer and philosopher, and not a character cut out for extended periods of warfare.

But Jean-Luc Picard still thought of himself primarily as an explorer, and the Enterprise-E was still designed for that purpose. Being sent to lead troops in a war wasn’t the mission Picard had signed on for.

Or, to lean on the fourth wall a bit, Picard was an extension of his television show, just as Sisko was of his own. Both Picard and The Next Generation were vehicles for episodic adventures about diplomacy and exploration, completely unsuitable for an extended long-term conflict. You can’t force them to be something they are not.

Indeed, DeCandido teases the reader with the suggestion that the story has been broken. Early on, he introduces a supporting cast full of character who were revealed to be Changeling impersonators over the course of Deep Space Nine. Tal’Shiar commander Lovok, General Martok (with DeCandido at one point drawing attention to the fact that this version has two eyes) and even Ambassador Krajenski playing major roles early in the story. However, he constantly subverts expectations, as it’s revealed the branching timeline has led events to play out differently.

The Enterprise is inserted into the climax of The Sacrifice of Angels, with a few choice modifications – Rom’s role in the original story is played by another recurring guest star, the station’s shields rather than the weapons are disabled, and the mission does not hinge on the captain making contact with the Prophets. It doesn’t end well. Similarly, Worf and the Defiant find themselves playing out a plan which seems eerily similar to the Changelings’ scheme at the end of By Inferno’s Light.

In a way, it calls to mind the way that Star Trek: Into Darkness defines itself by reference to Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. You change a few of the details, but the events still echo. They might play out slightly differently, the roles may change, but some that grand drama echoes and reverberates across the void. Except here there’s no way to focus it – the story has been so fundamentally broken that these important moments are nothing but sounds bouncing through the darkness.

And so it’s interesting to note the things that DeCandido considers to be constant across the universes. For example, apparently Worf’s relationship with Deanna from the final year of The Next Generation was never going to last – she would always marry William Riker, it seems. Gowron will always be a political opportunist, apparently. (“You’re thinking he’s trying to make Martok look bad so he can swoop in and save the war,” Haden suggests to Picard, who clearly doesn’t have the stomach for what Sisko ordered Worf to do in Tacking into the Wind.)

In a way, it’s almost touching – amid all this – that Kira and Odo will end up together, albeit they also wind up separated. And, surprisingly, Quark’s basic (quite well hidden) decency seems to be a universal constant. I guess you never can tell. In a delightfully cruel bit of humour, in a paragraph it’s hard to imagine DeCandido wasn’t sinisterly giggling as he wrote, it appears that Harry Kim will always be an ensign.

DeCandido also seems to be staying true to the spirit of Ira Steven Behr when it comes to his portrayal of the Ferengi. In this universe, it seems the Ferengi were also the race to make first contact with the Dominion. In this reality, it’s a fact that is overlooked as often as it is in the main Deep Space Nine continuity. I like that the Ferengi are bought out here, rather than being invaded or occupied – a demonstration of how insidious the Dominion can be when they want and suggesting that force is not the first recourse.

It’s also interesting to see a different chain of events unfolding – how the Founders would have acted had they not been uncovered in The Search. I like the idea of the Cardassians keeping the wormhole as their dirty little secret, with Quark pointedly asking, “If you found a stable wormhole, would you advertise it to the galaxy?” As the events of the short story unfold, we get a sense of how the Dominion would liked to have operated, had their hand not been forced into open warfare.

After all, the Dominion are not just another convenient bad guy, as Kira argues, “Because they don’t come in with guns blazing to conquer worlds like the Cardassians or the Klingons do.” Deep Space Nine established them as a dark counterpart to the Federation, a conglomeration of different worlds working to the same purpose. The Vorta make handy counterparts to the Vulcans, with their pointy ears and down-played mental abilities. The shapeshifters at the head of the Dominion perhaps acknowledge the fact that humans are presented as highly adaptable in the shared Star Trek universe.

That said, despite these great hooks, it is strange that the Federation can’t deal with the Klingon Changeling in a more efficient manner. The Romulans are at war with the Klingons and the Federation, so it makes sense that the Federation would have take extreme measures to remove their imposter, but surely it should be easier to get close to Gowron with proof? Just hold a war conference with him, activate the doo-hickey and – if no one in the room is a shapeshifter – offer the proof you’ve gathered. Still, it’s a minor problem in the grand scheme of things.

A Gutted World is a fascinating piece of Star Trek conjecture, suggesting that Deep Space Nine was the only version of Star Trek capable of telling a story like the Dominion War. The lack of any real sense of closure is particularly unsatisfying, but I can see that it is sort of what DeCandido is going for. It’s bleak, thoughtful, powerful stuff, and well worth a read.

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

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