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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Never-Ending Sacrifice by Una McCormack (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.

More than any of the other Star Trek spin-offs, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine lends itself to narratives running in parallel to the main plot. Part of this is due to the conscious world-building the show engaged in, creating an expansive supporting cast populated by citizens of countless different worlds that were developed into more than just “planets of the week.”

There’s also the rather epic scale of events depicted in the show, with only The Best of Both Worlds offering a glimpse of events on a scale similar to those of Deep Space Nine. The show’s setting helps as well; even with the Defiant and occasional trips to other worlds, most of the show was focused on life on the station, suggesting a maelstrom of activity in the wider universe.

The Never-Ending Sacrifice takes advantage of these factors to offer a compelling narrative running in parallel to the events of Deep Space Nine, spanning from Cardassians through to the Pocket Books relaunch. It’s a rich and expansive tale which feels like a genuine epic, taking the opportunity to glimpse events of the season through a set of alien eyes.

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Of course, the idea of a Star Trek tie-in novel focusing on one of the franchise’s alien cultures is not a new one. However, The Never-Ending Sacrifice is interesting because it’s not constructed of whole cloth. Even the most casual of fans will be able to pinpoint roughly where particular chapters fall in Deep Space Nine‘s broadcast schedule. One chapter is a companion to The Die is Cast. Another makes reference to the politics of The Way of the Warrior. By Inferno’s Light radically changes the lead character’s status quo.

In contrast, when John M. Ford and Diane Duane drafted their explorations of Klingon and Romulan culture, they created their own stories. Duane included the crew of the Enterprise in supporting roles in a story quite similar to Ronald D. Moore’s later Star Trek: The Next Generation script, The Defector. Ford reduced familiar faces to cameos in a prequel covering events not alluded to over the course of the show.

It’s to author Una McCormack’s credit that this connection never feels forced. While references to the television show are frequent, and the novel runs in parallel to events featured therein, it never feels completely dependent. McCormack isn’t writing this novel to plug perceived holes in continuity. There’s no need for footnotes, no sense that the reader should be googling in order to identify supporting characters who have been expanded from walk-on cameos in broadcast episodes to major players in a spin-off novel looking to validate itself.

Instead, McCormack has the confidence to allow The Never-Ending Sacrifice to stand on its own two feet, populated with interesting characters. Familiar guest stars and even regular characters do pop into the narrative at certain points, but they don’t generally intrude. Dukat is a major presence, even if he only appears a handful of times. (“The man was inescapable,” we’re told, which fits with the show’s depiction of his influence on Cardassian culture.) There’s no sense – as in far too many of these expanded universe novels – that the story is going to lean on familiar characters to lend it a sense of legitimacy.

And it’s much stronger for it. Without the distraction of spotting all the familiar names and supporting characters, and trying to work out each character’s “path” through the novel and the television show, McCormack concentrates on telling a story. The main character of the novel was a one-shot guest star from a mediocre episode, but the choice to use Rugal Pa’Dar is inspired. (McCormack attributes the idea to Marco Palmieri.) He provides a glimpse into Cardassian culture from an outsider’s perspective, while still having his own (very clear) narrative arc.

At the same time, she uses continuity quite well, fashioning clever and logical connections between loosely-related episodes. The decision to expel Dukat following the events of Indiscretion is rooted in Cardassian culture’s response to the Klingon War from The Way of the Warrior. “A moralistic mood gripped the Union,” we’re told, which seems a sound observation in times of social crisis. “Family values were back in fashion.”

McCormack’s world-building here is also interesting because she isn’t quite working with the same blank canvas afforded those authors who tried to expand and develop Star Trek‘s other supporting races during the 1980’s. Part of this is due to the fact that spin-offs have devoted more time and effort to world-building and developing alien races into multi-dimensional cultures, but part of this is also down to fact that Cardassian culture has already been explored by a great deal of the spin-off media.

Both Andrew Robinson’s A Stitch in Time and McCormack’s own The Lotus Flower both explore Cardassia in the wake of the events of What You Leave Behind. A Stitch in Time also reaches backwards and serves as a prologue to the show, along with the Terok Nor trilogy which seemed to exist solely to stitch together various off-hand references and flashbacks from the series into a form resembling a coherent chronology.

What makes The Never-Ending Sacrifice so fascinating is that it isn’t situated before or after. It overlaps. More than just viewing one of the franchise’s alien cultures through a prism, it offers a new perspective of events happening in the back ground throughout the show. Deep Space Nine did more to build a sense of galactic politics than any other Star Trek show. There’s a reason why the second “season” of the post-finalé tie-in books opened with three “Worlds of Deep Space Nine” anthologies.

McCormack understands Cardassian psychology, as elaborated and expanded upon in the show and the various tie-in media. It is – as she observes – “a world of contradictions”, driven outwards by an incredible hunger. After all, it seems paradoxical (or, at the very least, cynical) for those loving in the shadow of starvation to produce such large families. “The size of Cardassian families bewildered Rugal: if the world was so poor that famine had been commonplace in living memory why did they have so many children?” (The answer, of course, is the calculated observation that “children die so easily, it makes no sense to pin all your hopes on one.”)

Cardassia is defined, as it was in the Terok Nor prequel trilogy, as a world defined by its hunger. As Rugal’s grandmother attempts to justify her actions, she contextualises it:

I say that, but it all comes down in the end to need. Needing to have more than anyone else. Perhaps now that you’ve seen one of our droughts, you understand why. Gather all you can to you, because as sure as the hot sun rises in the morning, the rain will stop and the food will run out. Gather up everything you can from wherever you can. How else can you be certain to survive?

It’s survival-at-any-price which defines the Cardassian character, a pragmatic ruthlessness and desire to endure no matter the cost, which is at the root of so many of the culture’s actions. The Occupation of Bajor is driven by famine. The unwillingness to encourage actual meaningful change in the wake of the Obsidian Order is rooted in the desire by those in power to remain in power.

McCormack hits on and develops a recurring theme throughout the show, first developed in Duet, but present throughout the show’s seven-season run. If the Occupation of Bajor is compared with the Holocaust (with Gallitep standing in for Auschwitz), the Cardassians never faced their Nuremberg. They just retreated back into the darkness, continuing their policy of colonial expansion. There was no closure, and no justice.

This means that Cardassia never learned from its mistakes, because it never admitted that it made any. Use of phrases like “the Advancement of Bajor” call to mind the arguments of Holocaust deniers, and the policies undertaken by the Nazis to obscure the brutality of their actions:

In order to hide the killing operation as much as possible from the uninitiated, Hitler ordered that the killings not be spoken of directly in German documentation or in public statements. Instead, the Germans used codenames and neutral-sounding terms for the killing process. In Nazi parlance, for example, “action” (Aktion) referred to a violent operation against Jewish (or other) civilians by German security forces; “resettlement to the East” (Umsiedlung nach dem Osten) referred to the forced deportation of Jewish civilians to killing centers in German-occupied Poland; and “special treatment” (Sonderbehandlung) meant killing.

McCormack suggests that this fact plays a pretty important role in defining the Cardassian character over Deep Space Nine‘s run, with an inability to recognise the brutality of their own actions preventing Cardassian culture from making necessary changes. As Rugal argues, “If they don’t hear the truth they’ll think that nothing wrong happened! Tret thinks that nothing about Cardassia is wrong! He, his friends – they’ll make the same mistakes over and over again.”

With a genuinely epic scale, providing a view of the various shifts to Cardassian culture over the show’s run (and there were a lot of them), The Never-Ending Sacrifice allows us to see that play itself out over time. It throws a lot of the suggestions and implications that Deep Space Nine made about Cardassia overt, while offering a healthy dose of the franchise’s cultural relativism. Much like The Final Reflection or My Enemy, My Ally developed alien cultures by exploring the way they see the universe, The Never-Ending Sacrifice does something similar.

Its Cardassian characters are not monsters. Even Rugal’s cruel grandmother is rendered sympathetic and complex over the course of the book. McCormack even affords Dukat some benefit of the doubt, suggesting that his conversion in Covenant was not the only time Dukat allowed himself to be convinced by his own lies. “Dukat always believes what he says,” Kotan Pa’Dar suggests at one point. “At least for the moment he’s saying it.”

If The Never-Ending Sacrifice has a problem, it’s the way that it brushes over the show’s final two-and-a-half seasons. The Dominion arrival on Cardassia is covered, and Rugal serves in the war, but there’s no real sense of the changes made to Cardassian society, the implications of the Dominion arrival, or even the capture of Dukat in The Sacrifice of Angels (or his insanity and religious conversion).

These are areas of Cardassian culture that would work well with Rugal’s suggestions about Cardassia’s inability to learn from its past, and possibly also provide some measure of closure. McCormack devotes considerable space to the attempted genocide in What You Leave Behind, but there’s never any real handling of what must have been a creeping sense of dread for the Cardassians between A Call to Arms and the Breen entry into the war in Strange Bedfellows.

Of course, it’s understandable. The book covers a lot of ground, and it’s probably best to focus on the stuff that was completely in the background. It’s interesting, for example, to see the consequences of the War, both in immediate terms (the holding of prisoners by the Romulans) and the longer term (difficulties along the Demilitarised Zone border). This is an area that is interesting (and one it’s a shame that Deep Space Nine never tackled), so it’s nice that McCormack gives it some focus.

The Never-Ending Sacrifice is a modern Star Trek classic, and a celebration of some of the more fascinating and engaging properties of Deep Space Nine.

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

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