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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Fearful Symmetry by Olivia Woods (Review)

The September and October, we’re taking a look at the jam-packed 1994 to 1995 season of Star Trek, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. Check back daily for the latest review.

Fearful Symmetry had a long and painful history. The novel was originally scheduled for release April 2007. This would have seen the novel published about a year after the release of the previous Star Trek: Deep Space Nine relaunch novel, Warpath. The plan had been for new author Leanna Morrow to write the novel. When that proved impossible, Olivia Wood stepped in to rescue the assignment. Fearful Symmetry was eventually published in June 2008, over a year behind the initial schedule.

It’s interesting to speculate how that delay affected the Deep Space Nine relaunch. The next novel in the series, The Soul Key, would be the last published before the print Star Trek universe realigned as part of the Typhon Pact and The Fall, very much “event” books that served to relaunch the fictional universe. It is interesting to speculate whether the year between Warpath and Fearful Symmetry contributed to the decision to discontinue that particular iteration of the Deep Space Nine relaunch.

Still, whatever the reason, Fearful Symmetry is more interesting than successful. It is a book written with a number of great ideas, but some very flawed execution. It adopts a very “comic book” approach towards the Star Trek universe – featuring high concepts and crossovers and character who have been exaggerated slightly and distorted so as to fit the general perception of them rather than any consistent internal characterisation.

Fearful Symmetry is a bold and ambitious piece of work, particularly from a first time novelist. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work quite as well as it needs to.

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The defining feature of Fearful Symmetry is that it is a novel in two halves. In print, the reader finishes the first story, only to flip the book over and read the other half. The two stories meet roughly in the middle. There is no back; instead there are two front covers. One cover depicts the face of Kira Nerys. The other depicts the face of Iliana Ghemor, the Cardassian doppelgänger featured who served as a launching pad for Second Skin.

Bringing Iliana back cannot help but feel like a bit of a gimmick. After all, she is more compelling as a mystery. What happened to her? Is she still alive? How did she go missing? If the Obsidian Order could have replaced Kira, why didn’t they? These are all big questions left open by Second Skin. Although the final draft is fairly explicit, writer Robert Hewitt Wolfe has suggested that he wanted to leave open the possibility that Kira was actually Iliana; that who you were doesn’t necessarily define who you are.

The closest that Fearful Symmetry comes to justifying reviving Iliana Ghemor comes when it suggests that Kira might actually be facing a version of herself frozen in the amber; an iteration of Kira Nerys who hasn’t gone through seven years of character development and growth, who doesn’t see the difference between the Federation and the Cardassians:

How could her fellow Bajorans have traded one group of overseers for another? How could her people have allowed themselves to be duped into believing one of those new taskmasters was Touched by the Prophets?

How could everything I’ve gone through have been for nothing?

This is a powerful character beat, and one that feels like it could play into the key themes of identity and character that are woven through Second Skin. Even if Iliana Ghemor is a version of Kira Nerys who never lived through the seven-year run of Deep Space Nine, is she really the same person as Captain Kira? Sadly, Fearful Symmetry brushes these ideas aside.

Fearful Symmetry features all manner of absurd and off-the-wall concepts. It goes for broke with concepts that feel more like they came from a particularly excited comic book crossover than from a Star Trek novel. The story opens with “a gathering of men named Benjamin Sisko” – effectively featuring a multiversal team of Emissaries. It is a great hook for a short story collection. Deep Space Nine is a show that often meditated on fate and identity, so providing Sisko with a glimpse of lives not lived is fascinating.

However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Fearful Symmetry quickly reaches escape velocity and refuses to fall back to Earth. Not only is Iliana Ghemor alive, she has replaced the Intendent in the mirror universe! Not only did Dukat actually know where Iliana was in Ties of Blood and Water, he was keeping her prisoner in a top secret military prison that answered only to him! Not only does Iliana seek vengeance against Kira Nerys, she “plans to keep going-eliminate every Kira Nerys in every universe she can reach”!

To be fair, the novel does at least acknowledge this level of convolution and absurdity at points that seem almost self-aware:

Ghemor exhaled heavily. “It’s complicated.”

“You’re the double of a woman who was surgically altered to replace me, but who has instead replaced my double in an alternate universe. How simple do you think I expect it to be?”

Sadly, this wry sense of humour is the exception rather than the rule, with Fearful Symmetry playing too much of its plot with po-faced seriousness.

Fearful Symmetry is not a novel that does subtle or understated. Everyhting feels so heightened and so exaggerated that it is hard to get any frame of reference. To be fair, some of this insanity is inherited from earlier parts of the relaunch; the decision to resurrect Sisko feels like it undermines a lot of What You Leave Behind, the idea of a brainwashed Jem’Hadar responding to a doppelgänger of Kira Nerys feels like something from a trash fifties b-movie.

As with a lot of these sorts of novels, it feels like continuity is thrown in simply for the sake of it – that characters make references and trade stories based not on the demands of the plot, but simply to demonstrate that the author has done their research. It makes the universe seem a lot smaller than it might otherwise, suggesting that the terrorist attack in The Darkness and the Light was the most important attack of Kira’s terrorist career, rather than one of a series of such incidents.

And yet, despite that, there are some very interesting ideas here. In particular, it’s interesting to think about how the mirror universe fits within the context of the rest of the series. Even the show’s Ferengi episodes felt like they touched on themes vitally important to Deep Space Nine, but the mirror universe often felt weirdly disconnected from whatever was going on around it. So it is interesting to approach the mirror universe in light of the legacy of the Dominion War or Bajoran spirituality.

In the opening sequence, Sisko finds himself confronted by these sorts of questions, taking the reader all the way back to the first encounter with the mirror universe in Crossover:

But your Kira and Bashir’s runabout went through the wormhole to get there and back that first time, and you never stopped to consider the possibility that it wasn’t a random event, or that your two universes seemed unusually permeable in the Bajoran system after that first event. You never wondered why no one in that universe ever opened their Temple Gates, despite the presence of a Sisko in that continuum. Not even after you learned the truth about your origins…that Benjamin Sisko does not exist by accident, in any universe.

The question of whether mirror!Sisko is the mirror!Emissary is an interesting metaphysical quandary, particularly when considered in light of the revelations made in Signs and Symbols and Images in the Sand.

It’s a nice twist, suggesting that the show’s failure to integrate the mirror universe with its own larger arcs and themes leads to very serious problems. “But because I never considered our crossovers within the context of my own evolving understanding of my role as Emissary, a madwoman now has an opportunity to pull the whole structure down,” Sisko reflects. It is a ridiculous sentence, but one bristling with storytelling opportunities.

That said, a lot of the first half of Fearful Symmetry feels like an attempt at stalling. It is really just teasing events to be depicted in The Soul Key, keeping the book in a holding pattern so that Iliana Ghemor’s back story can be revealed before anything actually happens. The first half of Fearful Symmetry feels rather light and insubstantial. There’s no sense of material progress. The ground covered her could be dealt with in the opening chapter of The Soul Key.

However, the second half of Fearful Symmetry is much more interesting… for the most part. Focusing on the life and times of Iliana Ghemor, it seems to foreshadow Una McCormack’s The Never-Ending Sacrifice. McCormack’s exploration of life on Cardassia would be published after The Soul Key, but it covers similar ground. The idea of exploring the society and culture of Cardassia, at seeing the Star Trek universe from an unusual perspective, is particularly interesting and compelling.

One of the more interesting – and perhaps controversial – aspects of the Deep Space Nine relaunch has been the way that the mythos has been adapted to reflect contemporary concerns. Broadcast in the mid-nineties, Deep Space Nine was a show ahead of its time. Not only did it hark forward towards the serialisation and arc structure that modern television takes for granted, but it also touched on themes and ideas that seem more relevant in the wake of the War on Terror than they ever did before.

In particular, the implied connection between the United States’ involvement in Iraq and the Cardassian Occupation of Bajor is particularly provocative. Discussing the situation with Iliana, Ataan couches “the Bajoran question” in terms that feel eerily familiar:

“I don’t think there’s any question that the annexation has catalyzed a deepening schism here at home. It’s as if those on all sides of the argument believe that how the Bajoran question is ultimately answered will define Cardassia, for better or worse, now and in the future. We’re up to our necks in a quagmire.” He looked up at her once more. “But what’s the alternative? To let Bajoran extremism win? That would hurt them as well as us. We can’t simply sit back and not take a stand against terrorism. However some of us may feel about Cardassia’s present direction, imagine how much worse we would be not to oppose evil when confronted by it, Iliana.”

These are the same arguments that are typically used to justify foreign intervention in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.The justifications provided by the Cardassian government do fit with some of the standard rhetoric of contemporary foreign affairs.

This certainly seems like an unfair and exaggerated comparison, to be sure. That said, it does offer an example of the relaunch appropriating an updating the iconography of Deep Space Nine and challenging the audience’s preconceived notions and values. The comparison between Cardassian involvement on Bajor and foreign involvement in Iraq may be faulty and not entirely convincing, but it does represent a clear desire to engage with contemporary issues – demonstrating that Deep Space Nine is still relevant years later.

The Iliana sections of the novel do run into trouble when it comes to the portrayal of Gul Dukat. It is revealed that Iliana disappeared because Dukat kidnapped her a placed her in a secret dungeon where he raped and beat her for years upon years. Somehow, Dukat was able to hold on to that dungeon despite his constantly-shifting fortunes. Even when he became a lowly freighter pilot after Indiscretion and a rebel in a Klingon Bird of Prey in Return to Grace, Dukat still had a secret rape dungeon.

The portrayal of Dukat borders on that of a comic book super villain, with a hidden layer and gratuitous violence against a female character. It fits rather comfortably with the portrayal of Dukat in the wake of Waltz and into the seventh season, where the character seemed like he was missing a moustache to twirl. However, it seems rather out-of-character for the supporting player who appeared in all the episodes leading up to Sacrifice of Angels.

This isn’t to suggest that Dukat was a nice person. He was not. He was selfish, vain, abusive, arrogant, vindictive and petty. He had overseen the Bajoran Occupation, and was responsible for millions of deaths. The difference is that Dukat lost any real semblance of self-image after Waltz. He turned into a two-dimensional cackling scenery-chewing villain. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but Dukat was a different character before he reached that point.

Dukat was always an evil person, but the character was much better at rationalising his evil acts. So it seems strange to imagine the character indulging in gleefully two-dimensionally evil acts while acknowledging how evil they are. We’re told that “each prayer was answered with another rape, another beating, another string of whispers in her ear, vowing that he would continue doing to Bajor what he was doing to her.” It’s not that Dukat wasn’t raping Bajor, it seems out of character for him to admit that he was.

Fearful Symmetry is a a book that has a number of interesting ideas, but never really does anything with them. It feels like Deep Space Nine as a comic book – a pulpy and twist narrative full of exaggerated archetypes rather than compelling fully-formed characters.

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

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