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Star Trek: The Lost Era – Serpents Among the Ruins by David R. George III (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. This is actually supplementary to the first season of the Next Generation, specifically the episode The Neutral Zone.

The first year of Star Trek: The Next Generation was a little rocky when it came to continuity. Skipping roughly a century on from the adventures of James T. Kirk, there were times when it seemed like the writers weren’t entirely sure what had happened during that gap. Early on, for example, it was suggested that the Klingons had joined the Federation, a decision reversed by the show’s third season. Even within the first year of the show, it seemed like the writers hadn’t quite cemented the wider Star Trek universe. In Angel One, we discover that the Romulans are threatening war, only to hear in The Neutral Zone that they’ve actually been absent from galactic affairs for quite some time.

Serpents Among the Ruins is an attempt to explain that absence established in 1988, and contextualise it against the eighteen years of Romulan stories that would follow from the early appearances in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country through to the end of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and beyond.

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Ah Star Trek continuity. The difficulty of connecting the version of the future seen on the original Star Trek with that realised on Star Trek: The Next Generation and reconciling both with the earlier future of Star Trek: Enterprise. Of course, there are any number of reasons for those differences. For one thing, these are television shows produced at different points in time. Star Trek is a decidedly sixties version of the future, while The Next Generation is a product of the sterile eighties. Science marches on, so it’s a lovely little irony that Enterprise actually looks more advanced than Star Trek.

In many ways, the time gaps between the settings of the series were designed to allow the creators a clear break. Enterprise is set before Star Trek because the producers wanted to break free from the baggage of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. The Next Generation unfolded a century after Star Trek because that meant the writers didn’t have to worry about the particulars lining up. If anything didn’t make sense, the script writers could argue that some big incident had occurred in the massive gap between the two shows.

Inevitably, of course, people want to fill those gaps. I mean, the gaps are allow the writers a great deal of freedom, but they also hint at untold stories. Some of these stories have been told on film and television. Encounter at Farpoint, released in 1987, put a Klingon on the bridge of the Enterprise. In 1991, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country explained how that could be possible. Some time between The Day of the Dove and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Klingons developed forehead ridges. Although a trifle unnecessary, Enterprise would devote a two-parter in its final season (Affliction and Divergence) to explaining how they got there.

The Lost Era is a collection of Star Trek novels designed to plug various holes in continuity. Sometimes that is character continuity, explaining where a particular character was before or after a particular point. The Buried Age, for example, features a prologue to Captain Picard’s time on the Enterprise. Catalyst of Sorrows offers an epilogue to Uhura’s career. However, stories also exist to explain various parts of the mythology and the fictional history of the Star Trek universe, explaining how things got from Star Trek: Generations to Encounter at Farpoint.

The Art of the Impossible, for instance, is an entire novel prompted by a few lines of dialogue in the superb The Way of the Warrior. Serpents Among the Ruins is routed in a bunch of small references that recur throughout The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine, trying to contextualise them and construct a narrative crafted from these barely referenced pieces of continuity. It reveals something about Star Trek as a franchise that a throwaway line from Riker in The Neutral Zone in 1988 (“there’s been no direct contact with the Romulans since the Tomed Incident”) could prompt a full-length novel in 2002.

You’d imagine that Serpents Among the Ruins is a mess of references and allusions, a bunch of Star Trek in-jokes fashioned into a novel. It is to the credit of writer David George III that it actually does an excellent job of standing on its own two feet. Indeed, I’d argue that it is less continuity-intensive than the final season of Star Trek: Enterprise. George does feature characters established in the canon, and makes references to other stories or novels, but none are distracting and all are handled and introduced with enough skill that the novel remains accessible.

Continuity is something of a hot-button issue for me, given my fondness for geeky pieces of pop culture. Having spent a great deal of time exploring various iconic series and characters, I’ve grown wary of stories that exist merely to connect the dots. The best stories in these iconic universe tend to be accessible, and easy to engage with. The best of Star Trek is something that can be shared with anybody, regardless of how much or how little they know about Star Trek. The Measure of a Man and even In the Pale Moonlight are episodes that can be watched an enjoyed with only a casual awareness of the show.

And David George III does an excellent job fashioning a story that stands on its own two feet. Of course, George relies on characters who appeared on the television show. Future Senator Vreenak from In the Pale Moonlight makes a small appearance. The Klingon Empire is governed by Azetbur, as it was at the end of The Undiscovered Country. The main character is Captain John Harriman, who popped up memorably played by Alan Ruck in Star Trek: Generations, just long enough for his incompetence to get Kirk killed.

However, George doesn’t overload the novel with references and in-jokes. A large number of original characters appear here, and Serpents Among the Ruins doesn’t exist sorely so that various characters and plot points can bump into one another – the biggest problem with Greg Cox’s Eugenics Wars books, for example. Indeed, those characters who do appear are so minor in the scheme of the Star Trek universe that George has a great deal of freedom in how he uses them.

This is one of the best parts of the end of Voyager, and – subsequently – Enterprise. With no more televised Star Trek, it became possible for the tie-ins to exist independently and tell their own stories. By the time Serpents Among the Ruins had been published, Voyager had ended. With Enterprise on the air, it seemed unlikely that anything George wrote might be overruled or contradicted by the live action canon. The series was unlikely to devote an episode to the rule of Azetbur, so George is free to plot the Klingon Empire as he will. Similarly, Harriman is unlikely to appear on Star Trek again, so he can do whatever he wants with the character.

Cynics would argue that this freedom is really just an excuse for cheap suspense. Without the live action television shows or movies, the novels are free to kill of iconic characters. In fact, since Enterprise went off the air, the spin-off novels have established that anybody can die. It’s an effective hook, but it isn’t the appeal of the freedom given to authors like George. Serpents Among the Ruins isn’t a fantastic read because he can kill Harriman, although that makes it more suspenseful. It’s a fantastic read because he can pretty much do whatever he wants.

That’s a massive amount of freedom for the author of a tie-in. However, George doesn’t have to worry about the television show proving him wrong or making the novel outdated. He can provide a justification for “the Treaty of Algeron” that is entirely his own creation. Similarly, he can write “the Tomed Incident” in whatever manner he pleases. Unlike a tie-in author writing a book set during any of the shows, he doesn’t have to worry about putting the pieces back where he found them. All that matters is that the book ends with fifty years of isolation from the Romulans. The rest is pretty much up in the air.

Anyway, enough about the big freedoms that George has in telling Serpents Among the Ruins. After all, this stuff is purely theoretical. What matters is what George does with that freedom. And he manages to craft an account of these pieces of Star Trek lore that fits with established lore while also working as a narrative on their own terms. While George shrewdly avoids littering the pages with cameos and guest appearances, he does an excellent job capturing that transition between the political situation at the end of The Undiscovered Country and that seen throughout The Next Generation.

George cleverly foreshadows the developments of Star Trek politics, contextualising those shifts in what we know about the Star Trek universe at the end of the movie series. For example, George explicitly connects the necessary peace between the Federation and the Klingons in The Undiscovered Country with the clear unrest and instability in the Klingon Empire seen in The Way of the Warrior, and hinted at as early as Heart of Glory.

Although The Undiscovered Country tries to over a “happily ever after” ending to the relations between the Klingons and the Federation, George shrewdly acknowledges that Klingon cultural norms make that agreement a contentious and divisive political issue, with the Empire feeling a bit suffocated by the new status quo, as much as it might please the Federation. We’re told, “Despite nearly eighteen years of peace between the two powers— Or maybe  because  of it,  Harriman thought—the allegiance of the Klingons could only be characterized as uncertain.”

Indeed, George suggests that the internal instability in Klingon culture that is developed over the course of The Next Generation might be rooted in the Khitomer Accords:

She knew that Chancellor Azetbur, leader of the Klingon High Council for nearly two decades now, had faced increasing opposition at home of late, and Kamemor fully expected that opposition to be represented here. As much as Azetbur had designed and driven the rebuilding of her civilization’s infrastructure after the accidental destruction of their primary energy-production facility, she’d done so both by promoting peace and by accepting charity from the Federation, and neither policy had been particularly palatable to the Klingon military.

While the Klingons are kept very much in the background of Serpents Among the Ruins, it’s clear that George has a great deal of fun extrapolating early 24th century politics based on what the franchise establishes about the past and the future.

Also quite shrewd is George’s characterisation of the conflict between the Romulans and the Federation. In keeping with the depiction of the Romulan Empire across the franchise, George suggests a bitter cold war raging between the two most powerful organisations in the galaxy. With the Klingons incapacitated, both sides seem to be preparing for an inevitable war. Star Trek never really managed this sort of atmosphere on television, in part due to the rules of televised drama.

On Deep Space Nine, the conflict between the Federation and the Dominion only brewed for three years before erupting into open warfare. George suggests that this Romulan and Federation feud was on the cards for quite some time, like a far more intense version of the Romulan plotting and machinations seen on The Next Generation. The novel opens with the effective and brutal invasion of a planet hosting the Enterprise, but with the Romulans showing the maximum amount of force while refusing to harm the Federation envoys, wary of  “the political implications of an assault on Starfleet personnel or Federation citizens.”

And George, again, demonstrates a wonderful grasp of Star Trek‘s characterisation of one of the iconic alien species. The Romulans here use the same rhetoric and justifications that they claim in The Neutral Zone. With the Klingon Empire weakened and accepting Federation aid, the Romulans position themselves against what they perceive to be Federation imperialism – even if the Federation doesn’t necessarily conquer or invade with armies or space ships.

“We do not bargain for peace,” Vokar declared calmly. “We fight to retain our manifest right to live without constraint, and to deny the encroaching imperialism of the Federation. Imperialism, of which your presence on this planet is an example.”

It’s a nice piece of characterisation – acknowledging some measure of cultural relativism when it comes to the perception of the Federation. One of the most fascinating aspects of shrewder Star Trek stories is the way that they poke and prod at the Federation’s somewhat insidious expansion – that the Federation has turned “winning the peace” into something of a hobby. The Federation is all about understanding and respect, but it champions its own values and seeks to convert others to its philosophy.

Indeed, Serpents Among the Ruins is quite sceptical about the Federation, in some ways directly foreshadowing In the Pale Moonlight – another story where Romulan xenophobia is somewhat justified as the Federation takes complete advantage of them. George has the luxury of not writing for a television show here, and doesn’t have to conform to the standard tropes of the franchise. In fact, he acknowledges that the Enterprise-B is the least developed of the ships to carry the name, as Serpents Among the Ruins concedes that Starfleet’s mission of exploration has come to a bit of a halt.

For all the Federation’s grand claims about charting the universe, George suggests that much of the gap between Generations and Encounter at Farpoint was spent doing dirty and grubby political work, living in the shadow of conflict. Doing all the tidying and the scheming necessary for Picard to embark on a legitimate mission of peaceful exploration. George characterises Harriman remarkably well, painting Harriman as an individual who really found himself in a bit of a crap position, earning the best job in Starfleet at the worst possible time.

Part of Serpents Among the Ruins deals with Starfleet’s development of a new advanced propulsion device. In any other context, it would seem to be the future of exploration. It might be like Kosinski’s research in Where No One Has Gone Before, offering the potential for even more exploration and even strange life forms and civilisation. However, in the context of the time, it seems far more likely that Starfleet is looking for a tactical advantage.

Indeed, the novel points out that Starfleet would be quite uncomfortable with the Klingons or the Romulans developing similar technology, and would assume the worst. How can the Federation hold enough moral authority to dispel concerns about the application of this new technology in warfare?

“Captain,” Sulu said, standing up, “if either the Romulans or the Klingons are able to perfect hyperwarp drive before we do, then they’ll have what they’ve accused us of trying to develop: a first-strike potential.” She moved out from behind her desk and started across the cabin. “And unlike the Federation,” she said, “both the Romulans and the Klingons would be willing to commit a first strike.”

….

“You didn’t…Starfleet wasn’t  trying  to develop a first-strike potential, was it?” she asked, her voice dropping low. The notion of Starfleet designing a technology for the purpose of launching an unprovoked attack against anybody seemed completely antithetical to everything for which the Federation stood.

Under a bit of pressure, even Harriman concedes that the Federation is not above such temptations and can’t honestly argue that the only use for this technology would be peaceful:

“I said exploration was Starfleet’s  primary  purpose,” Harriman said, “not its only one. I don’t deny the defensive imperative of Starfleet. But I am telling you that hyperwarp was not developed as a weapon or a defense, but strictly as a tool of discovery.”

George very cleverly presents a more ambiguous version of the Federation, a version on the cusp of a potentially catastrophic war. In many ways, Serpents Among the Ruins serves to contextualise Deep Space Nine and make a compelling argument that these sorts of compromises and ambiguities must have been bubbling away in the organisations past.

It’s worth noting that George actually does a pretty great job characterising John Harriman, who serves as the centre of this book. Harriman is a character who really didn’t make a great impression when he appeared in Generations, stuttering and hesitating and stammering. While George doesn’t completely avoid that version of the character, he develops Harriman. Serpents Among the Ruins takes place many years later, building off the characterisation of Harriman in stories like Peter David’s The Captain’s Daughter.

Harriman becomes something of a tragic figure. He’s a decent man, and one who is easy to relate to. He lacks the swagger of Kirk or the gravitas of Picard, but he is a nice guy with honest ambitions. However, George makes it clear that Harriman finds himself at a very unfortunate place in history. He doesn’t even get publicly recognised as a hero, like Captain Rachel Garrett of the Enterprise-C. He’s a man who would have been happy to explore the cosmos, and to do the kind of thing that Kirk and Picard too for granted. Unfortunately, because of his position in the mythos, he doesn’t get that luxury.

George uses a nice metaphor, as a member of Harriman’s crew undergoes what might be described as a second puberty – “the Shift.” The crew member’s personality and appearance radically alters, and there’s no idea how the process will turn out. With Serpents Among the Ruins, George suggests that the Star Trek universe went through such a shift. The last few chapters make it clear it that the political map of the universe has radically changed, and Serpents Among the Ruins presents itself as the sort of massive fundamental change necessary to get between Generations and Encounter at Farpoint.

It’s also a very well-written book. Some of the plot twists in the last third rely on a few awkward contrivances, and trust existing against all logical odds, but these aren’t big problems in the grand scheme of things. David George III does a wonderful job with a tie-in novel that could easily have been a nightmare. Instead of allowing continuity to confine him, George finds a way to make it work for him.

There is a subtle and under-appreciated art to writing a solid tie-in novel. It’s hard to balance the demands of continuity with the demands of storytelling, let alone to fashion a story that works on its own terms while still anchoring itself in its parent. Luckily, Serpents Among the Ruins seems to have figured out the art of the tie-in, making for a wonderful addition to the Star Trek mythos.

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

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