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Star Trek: The Next Generation – Q-Squared by Peter David (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.

Q-Squared is probably Peter David’s most ambitious Star Trek: The Next Generation novel. “Q-Squared is almost my challenge to the reader to keep up with me,” he boasted in Voyages of the Imagination. Essentially a meditation on reality and free will within that construct, Q-Squared is a breathtakingly confident endeavour. It’s an interesting reflection on the potentiality embraced by The Next Generation, the broadening of the franchise’s perspective to embrace the best of all possible worlds.

Q-Squared hit stands in early July 1994, just over a month after All Good Things… brought the curtain down on The Next Generation for one last time. It’s tempting to look at the two stories as companion pieces. All Good Things… is an exploration of the time that the crew spent together – jumping backwards and forwards to trace our heroes over the course of their lives. In contrast, Q-Squared jumps sideways – looking at what might have been, or what could have been.

tng-q-squared

Indeed, Q-Squared would almost work as a series finalé to The Next Generation, with the crew navigating collapsing realities. The book seems acutely aware of this, having the same vaguely funereal vibe as All Good Things… Whereas that story took us back to the start and way past the end, Q-Squared instead teases us with an alternative where the show simply never happened in the first place – a look at a world without The Next Generation as we knew it.

David repeatedly draws attention to this. When the captive William T. Riker is released from torture at the hands of the Cardassians and Romulans, some wonder how long the officer has been in captivity. “Six actually. Almost seven.” That is the length that The Next Generation was on the air, immediately establishing that this is set in a universe where The Next Generation simply never happened.

In this grim alternate universe, Picard is not Captain of the Enterprise. As the narration sourly notes, “He had seemed a man of destiny, but it now appeared that the destiny was to have a torrid affair with the soon-to-be-ex-wife of his very likely soon-to-be-former-friend.” The Enterprise is finally on its way to Farpoint, albeit several years too late. However, even after assembling the ensemble, fate seems to be against there. The Enterprise is not even allowed a delayed version of Encounter at Farpoint.

The mission, long delayed and postponed, is eventually just cancelled. “Starfleet rerouted us to Terminus,” Jack Crusher reveals. If Farpoint was always the launching ground of The Next Generation, Terminus has a decidedly fatalistic sound to it. If Farpoint is the beginning of the final frontier, the last mapped point on the grip, it’s telling that Terminus is presented as “the edge of the Frontier.” This is a version of the Enterprise and of The Next Generation where the mission never started.

Here, David touches on one of the more interesting differences between The Next Generation and classic Star Trek. It’s something the author also touched on in Imzadi. In classic Star Trek, there was a sense that there was one correct timeline. Any alternative timeline was inherently “wrong” and inferior. In The City on the Edge of Forever, McCoy’s alteration to the timeline essentially destroys reality. In Mirror, Mirror, the alternate universe is portrayed as inherently corrupt and morally inferior.

In contrast, The Next Generation seemed to embrace the idea that alternatives could co-exist with one another – that it wasn’t as simple as “right” and “wrong.” Timelines could reverberate into one another. They could echo across the time streams. Building off Yesterday’s Enterprise, an alternate universe where Tasha Yar did not die winds up creating Sela in the mainstream continuity. In Parallels, Worf finds himself skipping across alternate dimensions that are no more or no less valid than his own.

Q-Squared builds off this idea. To be fair to David, the novel is easier to follow than he lets on. The sections are generally well labelled and the characters are easy enough to follow. The fact that two of the three universes are vaguely familiar – one being the mainstream Star Trek universe and another being a variant of Yesterday’s Enterprise – helps a great deal. Even then, there’s something very playful about the way he shunts alternate universes off alternate universes.

I particularly like the idea that Yesterday’s Enterprise shunted every version of Guinan slightly to the left in the time stream. Each version of Guinan found themselves standing on a very different Enterprise. In a lovely nod that that Guinan’s problems with Tasha, the Guinan shunted from a universe very much like the one shown in the episode objects, “Worf… Worf shouldn’t be there…”

Of course, what’s most interesting about Q-Squared is how Peter David plays with this idea. The prospect of alternate universes is terrifying, particularly if one subscribes to the idea that there is an alternate universe for every possibility. An infinite number of universes reflecting an infinite number of possibilities is a great story hook. It just has some unsettling subtext, if you stop to think about it too much.

On a purely pragmatic level, there’s a headaching-inducing aspect to all this. As Jack Crusher notes when conversing with Trelane:

It seems preposterous to me. When you take into account the number of beings that populate our galaxy alone, the notion that any one of them can be individually responsible for creating an entirely separate universe. It’s ridiculous. Whether I get up in the morning at 0700 or decide to sleep in for a couple more hours because I have a head cold hardly seems the stuff of which universes are sculpted.

It does tend to rob events of their urgency when you know that there must be some other universe out there were things went differently. You just had the good or bad fortune to get stuck in this one.

However, there’s also a more unsettling aspect to all this. The idea that every decision branches the cosmos raises some troubling questions about an individual’s agency. As Trelane points out:

It trivializes everything you say and do, because to some degree it doesn’t matter. Somewhere there’s an equivalent version of you who is handling things differently, so it eliminates the need for decision making.

After all, if there’s always an alternative where you made a different choice, it becomes hard to argue that the choice that led you here matters.

David alluded to this in Imzadi, describing it as “the Niven Doctrine” in a shout-out to famous science-fiction author Larry Niven. Niven wrote a metaphysical detective short story, All the Myriad Ways, that tackled this topic – a wave of suicides that were prompted by the discovery of an infinite multiverse. As a result of an infinite number of alternatives, people felt they no longer had agency. As a result they sought to assert their own agency in the only way remaining.

Q-Squared is never quite that bleak, but it does meditate on that idea. The novel sees Trelane trying to bend time to destroy the lives of the Enterprise crew. One of the alternate universes is created due to a timing mismatch in the events of Yesterday’s Enterprise, rather than through any different decision made by the characters. “To come two decades through time, and then die because we were one Earth day late,” Picard reflects, bitterly.

However, it seems like Trelane’s games can only affect the universe at large – he can’t quite bend people to his will or change them to suit his vision. Indeed, the novel opens on this idea, focusing on an alternate version of Riker who has been tortured and brutalised for years; however, his fundamental humanity remains. The novel’s opening sequence and its climax depend on the idea that Riker is fundamentally and inexorably Riker, even when the universe has tried to strip everything from him.

Of course, realities do shape people. The version of Picard from the reality based on Yesterday’s Enterprise is staggeringly racist after years of perpetual warfare with the Klingons. Without his friends and family to help shape him, an alternate Worf grows into a paranoid lunatic obsessed with revenge against the Romulans. Still, the characters retain their own agency. Their decisions and their choices still matter.

“We matter!” Picard asserts at one point. “All of us! Every human life, every Enterprise, whether there be one or one hundred thousand. Everything has value! Everything has meaning!” Even if there are an infinite number of alternate universes, choices still mean something. The universe is not some grim nihilistic wasteland where everything happens so nothing has any weight; instead, it’s a chaotic system that is defined by the choices made by the people within that system.

Indeed, for all Trelane’s attempts to undermine the Enterprise crew in this alternate universe, the family still come together. He might save Jack Crusher’s life, have Riker tortured by Cardassians and Romulans, get Picard demoted, keep Worf away from the Federation… but the indication is that this crew will always be drawn together. These people will always be pulled towards one another despite the universal forces at work around them. In this respect, it makes an effective conclusion to The Next Generation. All Good Things… closes on a similar sentiment.

It’s a thoughtful, introspective book – and it helps that it’s crafted with considerable skill from David. Timing the transitions between the different universes with a practiced ease, David creates a narrative that easily allows the reader to keep pace with everything going on. Indeed, David is as playful as usual when it comes to recurring motifs. Although we might be tempted to imagine the “tracks” helpfully identifying the various universes as analogous to different train tracks, the book instead constructs a charming musical metaphor.

After all, these alternate universes are not entirely scientific in nature – they aren’t infinitely branching on every possible outcome. The fact that Jack Crusher is alone in the multiverse puts paid to that idea. Instead, these universes represent variations on a theme. As such, Trelane becomes “a master musician standing on his podium, attentive to the completion of his latest, greatest masterpiece”, while Trelane assures Jack that the music itself means something much more than raw scientific possibilities. “The music, Captain Crusher, was an expression of your soul.”

David isn’t the first writer to use music as a metaphor for the metaphysical properties of the shared Star Trek universe. Margaret Wonder Bonanno’s fascinating Music of the Spheres hit on the same idea. It’s an effective metaphor that underscores just how magical and mystical the Star Trek universe can be, despite attempts to couch it in scientific terms. It’s more about mood and ambiance and themes than in cold hard possibilities.

Indeed, David suggests that navigating the multiverse doesn’t require a transporter or any techno-babble; apparent simple mirrors are “the closest thing to keys to the multiverse that anyone had.” There’s a charm to all this, a sense that David is acknowledging that the Star Trek universe is a magical place – even if some writers and fans would steadfastly insist that it is more serious than all that. David’s Star Trek universe isn’t driven by protons or neutrinos, but by mirrors and music. And it’s quite wonderful.

David himself draws attention to how wonderful and absurd the original Star Trek had been. After encountering Trelane, Jack Crusher and Jean-Luc Picard research the events depicted in The Squire of Gothos. Jack observes, “That fact is supported by the log of Science Officer Spock, in which Trelane is classified as… so help me… a small, naughty boy.” This prompts Picard to wryly respond, “That’s one of the truly amazing things about Kirk’s Enterprise. They seemed incapable of having a normal day.”

David’s vision of Star Trek is one where wonder and mysticism are driving forces themselves. Featuring the return of a guest character from the classic television show, multiple timestreams, and bleak versions of familiar characters, along with traces of outright magic and mysticism, David seems to be embracing the possibilities of Star Trek tie-in fiction following the departure of Richard Arnold from Paramount.

Q-Squared is one of David’s finest Star Trek novels. Given the author’s pedigree, that’s quite an assertion – but it’s also entirely correct.

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

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