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Star Trek: Mirror Universe – The Sorrows of Empire by David Mack (Review)

The first Star Trek pilot, The Cage, was produced in 1964. To celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, this December we are reviewing the second season of the original Star Trek show. You can check out our first season reviews here. Check back daily for the latest review.

There is a fairly significant lacuna in the internal chronology of the Star Trek universe, between the opening scene of Star Trek: Generations and Encounter at Farpoint. It is a fairly significant void that has only fleetingly been explored in various novels and comic books – most notably in Pocket Books’ intriguing Lost Era series. However, the lack of interest in this period is understandable. Not too much had changed between the end of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and the start of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Starfleet was still Starfleet, the Enterprise was still a ship of exploration.

In contrast, much more happened between the last act of Mirror, Mirror and the teaser of Crossover. The Terran Empire had collapsed in on itself, replaced by a hostile alliance of Klingons and Cardassians. Humans were no longer masters of their domain, instead forced to exist as slaves or mercenaries or rebels. The universe of Mirror, Mirror had been brutal, but ordered; the world of Crossover was brutal and chaotic. Everything had changed in a rather fundamental way. An empire had died, the enemy had stormed the gates. Everything was wrong.

With The Sorrows of Empire, author David Mack begins a project to impose a clear structure on the mirror universe. Mack’s objective is essentially to stitch together a host of divergent (and perhaps even contradictory) continuity into a singular unifying narrative. The Sorrows of Empire was first published as a novella in the Glass Empires collection. However, his attempt to knit together the mirror universe as featured on the original show, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Enterprise was quickly expanded into its own full-length novel.

Indeed, having tied those various threads together, Mack would then try to resolve them all, writing Rise Like Lions to help stitch The Soul Key into his tapestry while resolving a long-dangling piece of Star Trek continuity. The Sorrows of Empire is a fascinating read, and Herculean effort. Mack shares the same knack for blending continuity with narrative as writers like Keith R.A. DeCandido or Christopher L. Bennett. However, The Sorrow of Empires struggles to get around the fact that it is trying desperately to put together a jigsaw from mismatched pieces that were never meant to be combined.

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In many respects, Star Trek continuity as much a construct of fans as it is of the writers working on the television shows or movies. The franchise existed long before serialisation became an expected feature of prime-time drama. Enterprise and Deep Space Nine (and, to a lesser extent, The Next Generation and Voyager) would experiment with long-form storytelling, but the vast majority of Star Trek is built around the individual story being told. The status quo might have changed in the background, but most of Star Trek comprises of definite done-in-one-two-or-three-parters.

Even in the midst of heavily serialised arcs like the Dominion War or the Xindi threat, there are a lot of done-in-one stories like Take Me Out to the Holosuite, Field of Fire, Extinction, or Chosen Realm. There are exceptions, of course. The Klingon-centric episodes across The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine tell an epic story of the decay of a once-great empire, even if that story is told in clearly-defined chunks. The Temporal Cold War on Enterprise worked very hard to convince viewers that it was going somewhere, even if nobody seemed sure of where that somewhere might be.

So, while the mirror universe episodes were all linked by the common thread of unfolding in the same alternate reality, they were never intended to tell a single long-form story. In a Mirror, Darkly does not build towards any of the plot points of Mirror, Mirror – instead it serves primarily as an excuse to break out some classic Star Trek uniforms and sets in a gigantic homage. Similarly, the later Deep Space Nine mirror universe episodes seem to have as little to do with Mirror, Mirror as they do with each other. They cannot seem to remember if the Alliance has cloaking technology from one episode to the next.

There is no clear direction to these stories, no obvious objective. The first two mirror universe stories do seem to have some purpose; some hint of a significant ending. At the end of Mirror, Mirror, it seems that Kirk has convinced mirror!Spock to stand up to the Terran Empire. In Crossover, it seems like Kira and Bashir accidentally inspire a rebellion against the Alliance. However, it gets hazy from there. In Through the Looking Glass, Smiley convinces Sisko to help convert mirror!Jennifer. In Shattered Mirror, Sisko builds a mirror!Defiant. In Resurrection, the Intendent plans to steal an orb.

Things happen, of course. The individual episodes have plots. However, there is no clear sense of movement. It is apparent that the rebels wish to defeat the Alliance, but these episodes offer no real glimpse of the campaign. The rebels seize Terok Nor between Through the Looking Glass and Shattered Mirror, but otherwise we have no real sense of how the fight progresses. Can the Alliance be defeated? Are the rebels fighting for the freedom of Earth? What do they have to do to accomplish these goals? It requires a great deal of squinting to discern (or even imply) any answers to these questions.

There is a reason for this, of course. The mirror universe episodes were never written as installments in a larger mythology. Crossover was the only episode written explicitly to follow on from the logical implications of an earlier episode. The mirror universe existed to give the cast and crew a chance to have some fun, to play with the toys in a new and exciting way – to indulge in campy space opera and epic nonsense. Actors got to ham stuff up, and the writers got to cut loose without worrying about what they would do next week. On Deep Space Nine, the mirror universe was a once-a-season diversion for everybody.

So The Sorrows of Empires finds David Mack trying to fashion all of these disparate elements into a coherent narrative arc. It seems an impossible task, and David Mack works very hard to stitch it all together. However, there is a sense that Mack is attempting something impossible; that constructing a single narrative out of all these disparate elements is an impossible task. Indeed, The Sorrows of Empire strains under the weight of its central conceit, as Mack tries to pull everything back to that final scene in Mirror, Mirror – revealing that everything that happened since was part of mirror!Spock’s plan.

As such, this creates a clear cause-and-effect that can be traced through the various mirror universe episodes, as mirror!Spock essentially plots the destruction of the Terran Empire and the ascent of the Alliance as part of his scheme to ultimately ensure peace and prosperity in the universe. It is an approach that reduces most of the Deep Space Nine episodes to meaningless diversions, recognising that there’s no real throughline that could support a central narrative. Instead, those are all just stories that happen between Mirror, Mirror and mirror!Spock’s end game. Mood pieces, rather than plot points.

In order to do this, David Mack essentially converts mirror!Spock into a version of Hari Seldon, a man playing games with history – hoping to build a secret infrastructure that might endure a galactic dark age to ensure a brighter future. The Sorrows of Empire plays like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, albeit with a Star Trek twist. This makes a certain amount of sense on a number of different levels. Asimov had first published Foundation in 1951, and the novel would become massively influential on American science-fiction. The series won a special Hugo for Best All-Time Series in 1996.

However, the Foundation novels had a very clear influence on Star Trek, as well. Asimov was precisely the sort of golden age science-fiction writer that Roddenberry had wanted to work on Star Trek, and – though initially critical of the show’s scientific inaccuracies – Asimov had enjoyed friendly correspondence with Roddenberry about the show. This lasted through to the production of the movies, when Asimov earned his only official Star Trek credit as an advisor on Star Trek: The Motion Picture and supported Gene Roddenberry in his objections concerning Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

At the same time, it is worth noting that the central ideas of Foundation seem inherently at odds with the narrative logic of the Star Trek universe. Indeed, Deep Space Nine – arguably the most cynical of the Star Trek spin-offs – had seemed bitterly critical of Asimov’s concept of “psychohistory” in Statistical Probabilities. There, carefully analysing current data and trends, Bashir had suggested that the Federation should surrender to the Dominion so that they might rise up against their oppressors after “five generations of Dominion rule.” Sisko rejects the idea; even Bashir comes to his senses.

Statistical Probabilities adheres to the basic morality of the Star Trek universe, where the greater good cannot be off-set against innocent lives. There are exceptions, of course. Sisko brushes against one in In the Pale Moonlight, and Archer also makes an ambiguous decision in Damage. However, Star Trek has never been a franchise that would justify the decision to consign billions to lives of slavery and suffering to save even more in the longer term. Even at its most cynical, Star Trek is not a franchise that lends itself to this narrative logic.

Of course, The Sorrows of Empire does not unfold in the Star Trek universe that readers know and love. It takes place in the mirror universe; an alternate plane of existence where sadism has become the norm and where brutality is the common language. This a universe that is more violent, more blood-thirsty, more ruthless than people expect from Star Trek. It would be the perfect setting for something as subversive and cynical as Game of Thrones. However, The Sorrows of Empire never commits to this brutality and horror, often feeling like it is trying to have its cake and eat it too. After all, everyone likes cake.

As a result, we get clinical and detached descriptions of the genocide of the Trill perpetrated by mirror!Spock. Our protagonist’s goals are presented as idealistic, even if his means are less than ethical. To be fair, mirror!Spock acknowledges as much. “History must never glorify me,” he reflects. “Do not applaud me because I claimed to have noble motives. Do not venerate me if one day my plan should come to fruition.” At the same time, it seems like The Sorrows of Empire never really engages with the morality of mirror!Spock’s decisions, nor the risk that he might fail.

Can utopia be built upon a scheme that enables and facilitates the deaths of countless people? There is a sense that The Sorrows of Empire wants to paint mirror!Spock as something of a tragic figure – a character who gives up any hope of a happy life or a family or peace in his time in pursuit of some nobler purpose. It never stops to question how mirror!Spock determines the greater good, and whether he has the moral authority to impose his own vision of morality upon the universe.

Crossover was a bold episode of television because it dared to suggest that Kirk was wrong to assume he could change the course of an entire universe after a brief visit, and The Sorrows of Empire undermines all that. Not only was Kirk unequivocally right in convincing mirror!Spock to overthrow the Terran Empire based on the Federation, mirror!Spock was a dozen steps ahead of his enemies all along. mirror!Spock’s uncanny logic is almost prescient, allowing him to foresee not only his own death and the decline of the Terran Empire, but also the rise and fall of the Alliance beyond that.

The Sorrows of Empire may be the best way to create a story out of the disparate continuity elements, but it undercuts a lot of what was interesting about Mirror, Mirror and Crossover. There is the faintest trace of ambiguity around the actions committed by mirror!Spock, the novel seems too detached from the consequences of his decisions to properly resonate. It is an impressively vast piece of work, with Mack drawing up alternate versions of Journey to Babel, Whom the Gods Destroy… and even The Undiscovered Country. However, it feels more like a cold checklist than a compelling story.

Mack even draws from the continuity of the novels, offering his own mirror universe account of the events of Unjoined or introducing counterparts for the characters featured in the Vanguard series. Expanding The Sorrows of Empire from a novella to a full-length novel allows for Mack to craft a more nuanced and developed universe, but it also feels a little indulgent in places. The novel never quite manages to ground all this galactic scheming in the lives of individual characters; it never feels like anything more than characters having long conversations about the future of this alternate universe.

Much like Greg Cox’s Eugenics Wars duology, Mack spends too much time winking and nodding towards continuity, spending more energy connecting small details than with sketching the characters or the world they inhabit. The Sorrows of Empire is an ambitious novel, trying to do an almost impossible task. The mirror universe is a mess, and it seems like Mack spends most of the novel trying to impose some sense of continuity upon it, leaving little room for anything else.

You might be interested in our other reviews from the second season of the classic Star Trek:

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