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Star Trek: Myriad Universes – Shattered Light: The Embrace of Cold Architects 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.

It’s amazing to think what happens if you shift events just a little to the left or a little to the right. Part of what’s most fascinating about David R. George III’s The Embrace of Cold Architects is that the alternate universe isn’t created by altering the outcome of any major event. Instead, the alternate universe is created by shifting a single date slightly forward in time. Moving one event out of its original context – in this case the conference from The Offspring – and transposing it later into the third season of the show has any number of radically unforeseen side effects.

Of course, this all feels like very clever meta-commentary by author David R. George III. As much as The Embrace of Cold Architects is about shifting around the order of events inside the narrative, it’s also about shifting around the framing structure itself. The Embrace of Cold Architects doesn’t just offer a glimpse of what might have happened had certain events within the framework of Star Trek: The Next Generation occurred out of their previously-established context, it is also about reimagining The Next Generation itself.

Quite a lot of The Embrace of Cold Architects feels like glimpse of an alternate version of The Next Generation, one where the show itself has been shifted so that it might be written in the context of the War on the Terror.

st-shatteredlight

The Shattered Light anthology was published in 2010. This was around the time that the United States was being publicly criticised for the use of drone warfare in the War on Terror – the use of unmanned weapons of war to attack enemy bases and forces without directly endangering American lives or welfare. The previous year, the United Nations had become openly critical of the practice, questioning the legality of the policy.

This feels like the context in which The Embrace of Cold Architects was written. George imagines a more paranoid and militarised version of Starfleet than we ever saw on the show. This version is ready for perpetual warfare with all manner of enemies. George takes many of the tropes of storytelling from The Next Generation – Starfleet’s occasional totalitarian leanings, the jerkishness and untrustworthiness of so many senior staff – and frames them all in the context of contemporary American politics.

After all, the Federation has always been a mirror to the United States. The Next Generation largely took place in the lull after the Cold War, where the United States had vanquished their main competitor and had secured their place on the world stage. A prosperous, influential and successful nation, that nineties American optimism and idealism was reflected in Picard’s utopianism. As such, it makes sense that The Embrace of Cold Architects makes a point to kill Picard off as quickly as possible. This is not his world; not anymore.

So what had been presented – in the nineties – as Starfleet’s ineffectiveness and occasionally blind self-interest becomes something all the more sinister in the wake of the War on Terror. Admiral Haftel appears here, for example, but he’s spared the moment of humanity he received at the end of The Offspring. The Admiral never admits to being wrong or misguided in his attitudes toward Data and Lal. Moving the story out of its original context, Haftel is no longer a man blinded by his own ignorance. Instead, Haftel is a man driven by his ideology above all else.

There’s something very clever about all this. George’s alternate universe doesn’t rely on characters making different decisions. It doesn’t require somebody to turn right where they had once turned left. Instead, all it takes is a little nudge to knock absolutely everything out of joint – change the context of actions and you change the consequences of action; changing the context within the narrative and outside it, and you end up with a very different world.

In a way, this is somewhat typical of George’s writing style. The author has a wonderful knack for looking at context when trying to fashion episodic Star Trek adventures into a grand sweeping mythos. For example, Provenance of Shadows ties together The City on the Edge of Forever and Operation — Annihilate! to explain that Kirk had a pretty draining climax to the first season. In The Fire and the Rose, the author astutely observes that Spock only became Kirk’s best friend (and possibly his first officer) following the death of Gary Mitchell in Where No Man Has Gone Before.

George is a writer who doesn’t believe that anything takes place in a vacuum, even when writing for a franchise that spent most of its life as episodic adventures. Little pieces fit together and hint at a larger whole, something that might even be obscured. Here, George fashions together alternate versions of The Offspring, The Best of Both Worlds, Brothers and The Wounded to offer an idea of how things might easily have gone completely differently.

At the same time, George is wryly self-aware. Reflecting on the creation of Lal, postponed by freak weather occurrence, Picard himself searches for a context. He wonders whether Data’s abduction by Kivas Fajo in The Most Toys could have led the android to consider his mortality and unique nature. This isn’t a bad supposition – in fact, it’s quite ingenious – but it’s also self-evidently wrong. After all, both the reader and George know that Data would have created Lal even before his abduction.

As such, George appears to be having a bit of a laugh at his own expense, conceding that it’s possible to look too hard for patterns and sequences – that fashioning a thematic arc is not the most foolproof of endeavours, and it is sometimes entirely possible to make the wrong connection. Perhaps – like Picard – George is simply connecting dots that don’t exist, that he’s making various logical leaps that might seem clever but are ultimately irrelevant.

Of course, given these are fictional characters, it’s hard to discount any connection as explicitly and indisputably “wrong.” Still, there’s a sense that George is acknowledging his approach has limitations and is opportunistic as much as logical. The episodes aired in that order because they were written in that order, and they reflect the attitudes and anxieties of the nineties because they are a product of the nineties.

As such, this Myriad Universes story affords George the opportunity to play with both of those assumptions. What if they weren’t written in that order? What if they were written today? It’s an absolutely fascinating question, and George’s wry self-awareness adds a great deal of weight to a short “what if?” story. It’s a very clever application of the core concept, much more satisfying than something like The Last Generation.

The Embrace of Cold Architects is a fascinating novella written by one of the best Star Trek tie-in writers in the business. It occasionally feels a little light, covering a bit too much ground too quickly, but it remains absolutely engrossing.

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

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