Sunday, October 26, 2008

Greater Than the Sum (A Review)

I had high hopes for this one. I was pretty brutally let down by Peter David's Before Dishonor, which I had eagerly awaited. David is an absolutely PHENOMENAL writer and his Next Generation novel Vendetta ranks as one of my most favorite books of all time, right up there with Dante, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Austerlitz, Women in Love, various Greek tragedies, and the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. Here's a sample:
". . . Within that great vessel you see hanging there in space are the hearts, minds, and souls of a once-great race. A race that once strode across the galaxy the way you would step across a brook. A race that believed in peace – in the spreading of life – with every fiber of its collective being. A race that was in tune completely with itself and the rest of the galaxy. And when they were confronted by the soulless ones – by the Borg – they tried to reason with them, to understand the Borg. To love the Borg as they loved all life. They did not comprehend that the Borg are the incarnation of anti-life, and their compassion was the end of them. By the time they tried to fight, it was far too late, but they fought nevertheless. And as they fought, there were some who created the great war machines. As you surmised, the doomsday machine was one such device. A model, really, for the more magnificent and deadly one that was to follow.

"[. . . ] The souls of the damned inhabit that ship, my beloved Guinan. My sweet Picard.The damned reside there. And I am their guardian angel."

"The guardian angel of the damned," said Picard icily, "was Satan."

Before Dishonor was actually the second sequel to Vendetta, the first being Resistance by J.M. Dillard (who also wrote the novelization for Star Trek: First Contact). This one I actually haven't read yet, but Before Dishonor featured the return of the planet-killer (the "doomsday machine") and I didn't think I'd have the patience to sit through Resistance. Tragically, however,'s one-star review for Before Dishonor was well-deserved, leaving me to wonder if the real author was the same imposter who butchered Blood Canticle, a mockery of the Vampire Chronicles supposedly written by Anne Rice.

Its sequel, Greater Than the Sum, is the first book I've ever read by Christopher L. Bennett. It picks up right where Before Dishonor left off, and preludes the Star Trek: Destiny series, which promises the mother of all Borg invasions. In other words, Greater Than the Sum is, I think, intended to bridge the gap between two great trilogies, if Vendetta-Resistance-Before Dishonor may be considered one. Now there's really only so much one can do with a filler, so I'm not sure the ambivalence I felt upon finishing it is really all Bennett's fault.

Bennett did have a lot of great material to work with, including a reintroduction of Hugh, which truly was needed since Star Trek just sort of abandoned him and his fellow rogue Borg at the end of the Next Generation episode "Descent". According to a book I used to have called Star Trek's Greatest Guest Stars, the fate of those Borg was supposed to be the subject of a Deep Space Nine episode, which for some reason never happened. (Although considering how overused the Borg were on Voyager, maybe that's a good thing.) Greater Than the Sum actually clarifies many loose ends from the Trek canon, such as, for example, Q's assertion that Borg drones are neither male nor female, which Seven of Nine later abundantly proved otherwise. But it was great seeing Hugh again, especially since he was such a beloved recurring character. My only complaint, which extends to the rest of the novel, is that Bennett didn't flesh him out as much as he could have. Despite Hugh's martyrdom in the end, he comes across as rather flat.

I mean, Bennett's writing here bothered me. I don't want to judge him based on only one book (if Before Dishonor was the only Peter David novel I ever read, I wouldn't be too impressed with him either). But honestly, I've literally encountered better writing in fan fiction (like this, this, and this; for Star Wars, look here, here, and here). For one thing, the storyline itself didn't flow well, jumping awkwardly from one scene to another and generally feeling very choppy. And then there was the characterization. Bennett does well with his own original people, such as the quirky half-Vulcan T'Ryssa and Buddhist Indian security chief Jasminder Choudhury, but everyone else just feels . . . wooden. I don't know, maybe it was the bumpy plot? For one, I would've liked to have learned more about Hugh and his breakaway "good guy" Borg, particularly his girlfriend Rebekah Grabowski. There was so much more Bennett could have done with them, but he doesn’t even describe what Rebekah looks like! They have a ship called the Liberator, which Bennett doesn't talk much about either, other than that it's a ship and it has a mess hall.

Yet at the same time, Greater Than the Sum wasn't absolutely awful: it had its moments of light humor and really picks up towards end with Hugh's sacrifice and Picard's attempts to communicate with an alien life-form. One Amazon reviewer accused Bennett of beating the reader over the head with his "children are the future" theme, but I disagree. The one who went overboard on theme was Peter David in Before Dishonor, when he made absolutely sure that the reader was aware of the inherent conflict between fate and free will in determining the course of human destiny. I thought Bennett, by contrast, handled his subject with very well, expertly weaving in a discourse on the propagation of life with speculation on cybernetic evolution and the strength of the singular individual versus the collective juggernaut that is the Borg.
"That is procreation. It is the fundamental process of life itself – always growing, always changing. Always giving birth to something new that the universe has never seen before. You yourself were born of processes that, so far as we know, have never created life before. But life always expands, always grows. Its very nature is the process of becoming. Of going beyond previous limits and fulfilling new potentials. That is life.

"And that is why the Borg are not life. The Collective does not procreate. It does not spawn new life or new possibilities. All it does is absorb other lives in a stagnant, uniform mass. It strips away everything that makes them unique. And it takes away their ability to give birth to new life, new uniqueness.

The Borg are anti-life, Qing Long. They are anathema to everything you and I believe in. If they win, there will be no more birth. No more parents. No more families."

There's quite a lot of thought and philosophy going on there, and it's really a pity Bennett didn't follow through as much as he could have.

Overall, I would have to say that Greater Than the Sum is, well, an okay book. Not great, but not bad either. I would only recommend it to real Star Trek fans who enjoy Trek novels and are interested in following the series. Anyone else should really check out Vendetta.


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