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Star Trek: Myriad Universes – Echoes and Refractions: Brave New World by Chris Roberson (Review)

This January and February, we’ll be finishing up our look at the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and moving on to the third year of the show, both recently and lovingly remastered for high definition. Check back daily for the latest review.

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

Quite a few of the Myriad Universe stories feel like “for want of a nail” stories. Changing one little detail of Star Trek history and the entire universe comes apart at the seams. In the Echoes and Refractions collection alone, The Chimes at Midnight offers a nightmare glimpse of a universe where Spock died in childhood, while A Gutted World explores what might have happened if the Cardassians had never left Bajor. Neither alternate universe represented a sustainable alternative to the Star Trek we know and love. The subtitles might as well have been “… and then things got worse.”

With the final story in the collection, Chris Roberson takes another tack. Brave New World isn’t a story about how removing one vital thread of the Star Trek tapestry causes the whole thing to unravel. Instead, it’s something quite a bit bolder. It’s a genuine alternate universe, one boldly different – not inherently better or worse, but just an example how things might have unfolded if just one little thing had been different.

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Of course, this puts a significant burden on Roberson. His fellow authors are just riffing off established events, and can use fan-friendly short-hand in order to cover the maximum possible ground. Things are different, but only slightly. We know what the writers are referencing, and that allows them to establish set-up quicker, in order to capitalise on the somewhat restrictive word count that is necessary if you’re going to cram three novellas into one (admittedly quite large) paperback.

Roberson isn’t doing quite the same thing. There are cues borrowed from other episodes. The characters are familiar. In particular, Roberson leans rather heavily on The Schizoid Man, Contagion and The Offspring. He makes passing references to how the new status quo affected the outcome of The Best of Both Worlds or even Redemption. However, that said, a lot of this story takes place in a world more radically different than that of A Gutted World or The Chimes at Midnight. There isn’t the same clear logical progression, perhaps because the change is more fundamental.

However, it’s that ambition which makes Brave New World such a fascinating read, even if it does feel a little too tightly packed for its own good. It feels like Roberson is writing an episode of some vastly different version of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a show that wobbled into its eighth or ninth year without Brent Spiner’s Data and also without spin-offs like Star Trek: Deep Space Nine or Star Trek: Voyager. There’s no Cardassian Occupation of Bajor, no Dominion War, no Maquis.

It’s a fairly bold reimagining, one that Roberson dares to complicate by keeping things close enough to the status quo we know that the changes are startling. We know most of the characters, but they have been shuffled around. There’s Wesley Crusher and Ro Laren and Sito Jaxa. Geordi has been bumped up to the ship’s Executive Officer, and Jean-Luc Picard is still presiding over affairs on the Federation flagship.

However, things are also radically different. Brave New World does something fascinating. It removes the idea that Data is unique. Supposing that a vacation spared Noonien Soong from the Crystalline Entity, the scientist has time to perfect (and mass-produce) his design. Androids are readily available and serving as part of the fleet. As a knock-on from this, continuing the trend of opening a cybernetic pandora’s box, Ira Graves also perfects a method of transferring brain waves from human bodies to robots.

All Roberson really does is to take two relatively unique aspects of the Star Trek universe and render them easily and consistently reproducible. It is not, as the author concedes, that radical a thought. He repeatedly references the events of What Are Little Girls Made Of?, an episode of the classic Star Trek were both processes were applied with relative ease. Naturally, Kirk killed the androids and asserted his own humanity over them, but Roberson raises an interesting question.

The Next Generation is often a more sterile show than the original Star Trek. You can see it reflected in a number of ways, from the sleek grey production design and the preference for pastels over primary colours, to the relative blandness of the crew, to the fact that Picard is every bit as logical as Spock. Even Riker outgrew his “young Kirk” phase, as the show seemed to realise that its more clinical mood didn’t lend itself to the same kind of sexy that the original Star Trek did effortlessly. Unfortunately, we had to suffer though The Naked Now, Justice and Angel One before anybody figured that out.

So, Roberson seems to tease, if Roger Korby showed up in the era of The Next Generation and offered the same deal, would he be rejected so readily? Given how much cleaner living was in the twenty-fourth century, it’s not too difficult to believe the Federation might be more willing to embrace technology, rather than rejecting it as inherently abhorrent. Roberson suggests as much, observing that this set-up is only possible in the context of The Next Generation rather than its parent series:

Only a few generations ago, in the days that Doctor Roger Corby had met his tragic end, the idea had been anathema. But after a few early adopters underwent the new procedure, and emerged on the other side no less human and in fact all but identical to their earlier selves-only younger, stronger, and healthier-public opinion had gradually shifted.

Given the superiority complex that humanity demonstrated in episodes like The Last Outpost and Lonely Among Us, it makes sense that this version of humanity would be interested in eternal life. While the original Star Trek was the story of life on a harsh frontier packed with horrors, The Next Generation is the utopian story of a post-scarcity economy. Given that humanity has eradicated greed and hunger (presumably at the cost of private enterprise), it makes sense they would seek to tackle mortality.

The original Star Trek was always wary of utopianism, as Nancy Reagin argues in Star Trek and History. There was always a catch waiting for anybody foolish enough to embrace utopia. It often came at the cost of the subjects’ free will – not for nothing was it often imposed and enforced by machines. In The Return of the Archons, Kirk relished introducing anarchy to a perfectly ordered planet. The Next Generation was always a lot more willing to embrace the idea that humanity cold live in paradise.

And yet, at the same time, Star Trek never quite lost its fear of transhumanism. Genetic engineering remained an unequivocal evil, as did the suggestion of cyborg enhancements. These were characteristics used to identify the primary foes of Deep Space Nine and Voyager, with the Dominion engineering compassion out of the Jem’Hadar and Vorta, while the Borg had left their humanity behind in search of perfection. And that’s before we talk about Khan Noonien Singh.

So the prospect of android life raises an interesting issue in the context of Star Trek, because it represents a threat to the human-centric narrative. If Star Trek presents humanity as the pinnacle of everything, the most special species in the cosmos, what of the machines we make better? Indeed, Roberson picks up on an undercurrent which runs through a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes: androids are second-class citizens who seem to generate considerable discomfort because they inhabit the uncanny valley.

It’s something the franchise acknowledged a couple of times. The Measure of a Man stands as the most obvious example, but Starfleet’s conduct in The Offspring is clearly intended to demonstrate that Starfleet doesn’t consider androids to be “alive.” More subtly, several episodes of The Next Generation suggests that even the open-minded Picard has some difficulty seeing Data as entirely equal.

In Datalore, for example, he seems to second-guess the android’s loyalty, and even informs the bridge crew that it’s completely okay to question the officer’s loyalty in this situation. On the other hand, he doesn’t have nearly as much skepticism when Worf bonds with some Klingons in Heart of Glory, despite the fact that Worf seems a lot more conflicted about his allegiances than Data ever was.

At the start of The Measure of a Man, Picard seemed to suggest that Data should consent to undergo Maddox’s experiment, an eagerness implied in the broadcast episode and aired in the extended cut. Similarly, in The Offspring, Picard seems perplexed that Data didn’t inform him of his desire to procreate. It’s only when Data points out that he would never ask the same of any organic member of his crew that Picard acknowledges he might have been out of line.

If Picard is one of the most evolved and reasonable humans to ever appear on Star Trek, and we extrapolate the prejudice Data confronts from Starfleet officers in The Offspring and even Redemption as something common across the organisation, it makes sense that Starfleet would react in a rather close-minded fashion to mass-produced androids. After all, if you remove Data’s uniqueness, it’s a lot harder to see him as an individual, and a lot easier to write off androids as factory-produced automatons.

Roberson builds on this, speculating that the abundance of Soong-type androids would only expose more of that systemic prejudice. We are informed that Data has made some small progress. “It was just after the androids were declared fully sentient and granted citizenship in the Federation,” Sito remarks at one point. Naturally, she has to add, “With conditions and qualifications, of course.”

Those conditions are barbaric, with androids granted no reproductive rights. It is perfectly in keeping with the Federation’s attitude towards androids, but Roberson extrapolates from that to ask some quite uncomfortable questions about the way Star Trek has traditionally treated non-organic lifeforms. For a show which claims to celebrate diversity, the way that cybernetic organisms are so frequently treated casts a pretty significant shadow.

Lore’s description of the Romulans as “organic slavers” doesn’t seem too far removed from the future projected by Picard in The Measure of a Man, should Data become readily reproducible. The idea of using artificial minds to pilot starships and the ethical implications of that (as well as Starfleet’s response to the Borg threat in this universe) raise pretty compelling questions about how society would really respond to these possibilities.

It’s to the credit of Roberson that he doesn’t offer any real easy answers, refusing to reduce Brave New World to a simple “good” or “bad” outcome. The whole story is incredibly morally ambiguous, inviting the reader to reach their own conclusion about the morality of Data’s actions. At one point, he’s revealed to be using androids to steer the policy of space-faring governments. It’s blatant interference, but Data makes the case that it has improved the standard of living in the quadrant. The Cardassians withdrew peacefully from Bajor. There’s no Dominion threat.

At the same time, Roberson doesn’t stray too far from the inherent optimism of The Next Generation. The story’s climax hinges on a belief that people are inherently decent and will not act against their own self-interest, as Picard struggles to resolve a crisis including a rogue colony of androids and an aggressive Romulan Empire in a way that will prevent full-scale war. It’s a sign that Roberson knows he’s writing Star Trek.

However, Roberson doesn’t shy away from the fact that this sort of order inevitably comes at a price. There’s something very Orwellian about the way that Data can just reprogram Lore for having a particular opinion. Letting Lore act on that opinion is obviously not a desirable outcome, but Roberson doesn’t sugar-coat the fact that this even-more idyllic utopia comes at a much higher cost than the Federation status quo.

He even suggests that the move towards eternal lives in android shells also brings a shift in Federation values or ideals, as if the Federation is moving beyond human values. At one point, towards the end, reflecting on a life spanning eternity, Data considers how the Federation outlook has changed:

Tell me, Jean-Luc, do you ever think back to the Prime Directive? Think of the years Starfleet spent, its actions limited by the first contact protocols. Do you ever wonder how many of the new lives and new civilizations that we encountered in our journeys might have benefited from Federation medicine or technology, or from concepts like individual freedom and liberty?

The Prime Directive has always been something of a defining feature of Federation morality – but not necessarily one the franchise completely endorsed. (After all, it is a highly debatable principle of any foreign policy.) To suggests such a complete rejection of that principle offers an indication that cultural norms have shifted so far that they are hardly recognisable.

The real skill of Roberson comes in following this premise through to its logical conclusion. Unlike A Gutted World or The Chimes at Midnight, Brave New World doesn’t offer a version of reality inherently inferior to that presented in the mainstream version of Star Trek. Instead, it offers one so radically different that it invites debate and comparison. There are many measures by which it represents a significant improvement, but also a cost to those changes. Roberson smartly (and bravely) leaves it to the reader to judge.

Brave New World lags a bit in the middle, as Roberson seems to want to tell a single adventure featuring these characters in the new status quo between setting up the differences and paying them off. It’s a nice idea, but it feels a little too tightly stuffed within the framework of a 50,000 word story. Still, Brave New World is a never less than fascinating glimpse sideways, and a fitting addition to the Myriad Universes anthology collection.

Read our reviews of the second season of Star Trek: The Next Generation:

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7 Responses

  1. I’ve only gotten into the whole Star Trek Expanded Universe recently, using it as an excuse to read more books. I’ve even read some of the comic books, and I’m not someone who’s a fan of comic books generally. This story honestly sounds like it’d make an interesting episode or film “what if”, I really need to read this.

    • It’s good. I also like the Star Trek III one with the Genesis Device that basically runs with the idea of the Genesis Device as an analogy for nuclear weapons.

      • Oh? Who is it used on? What story is this? I mean it kinda already was an analogy for nuclear weapons, and I think one of the few more nuanced ones in fiction.

      • It’s The Chimes at Midnight from the second volume. And it really just runs with what’s already there in terms of the Genesis Device as an allegory, following it to its logical conclusions.

      • Sounds good. I always did wonder why the Genesis Device was never even brought up again, outside a single Voyager episode IIRC, especially during stuff like the Dominion War. Imagine a DS9 arc about whether to use the Genesis Device on Cardassia.

      • Part of me suspects that Berman would have vetoed it as being too tied to TOS. After all, the production team weren’t even allowed Andorians on the show. But it would have been a fascinating direction to take the conflict, and the series. Particularly given that it would have been around (well, a few years after) the fiftieth anniversary of dropping the nuclear bomb on Japan.

      • Exactly. Star trek is supposed to be fascinating like that, and it’s a nerdy nitpick but I just find it funny whenever Trek did some grim war story, no ones like “well, I know we won’t like it, but we kinda have this device that can easily just wipe out a planet…”. Like it’s never considered.

        Why the hate for Andorians? Aren’t they one of the most popular races in the franchise?

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