Monday, July 6, 2009

Resistance and Thoughts on Tie-In Fiction

She had been sitting at the helm of the Enterprise when the Borg ship had first loomed close on the viewscreen. Hanging dark and ominous against an incandescent moon, it reminded Nave oddly of images from old stories, of haunted Gothic mansions peopled by white, soulless ghosts of the ancient dead.

I love Star Trek. I never even abandoned it during its Dark Ages, that dismal period when Enterprise was on the air and Insurrection and Nemesis where in theaters. I've been a fan since sixth grade, when Star Trek: First Contact was released. I watched it so many times on video that I still to this day have all of the Borg Queen's lines memorized.

I consider the bulk of my reading to be relatively high-brow (not to brag - a lot of book bloggers read great stuff). But just like a health food nut will occasionally indulge in ice cream and cookies, so too do I enjoy reading Star Trek books.

Most of the Trek books I own are by Peter David, a.k.a. the Master of All Tie-In Fiction, whose works - which include such Trek classics as Vendetta and Q-Squared - actually approach something like real literature. Sadly, as most literary snobs likely suspect, David is the exception rather than the rule. I certainly wouldn't go as far as to say that Star Trek books are generally bad. They're just not something non-fans are ever going to want to read. Basically, they're sustenance for those of us who miss getting new episodes of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager every week.

In other words, tie-in fiction is more or less glorified fan fiction. There are actual, published novels written for fandoms whose adherents you'd think never actually read. My brother, for instance, owns an entire Halo book trilogy that came in its own box like it was some special edition of The Divine Comedy. I was just at Barnes & Noble the other day and saw some Resident Evil volumes parked near the Star Trek section. Now I have never read video game novels so I will not speculate as to their literary value. But who knows: maybe their readers will move on to real sci-fi, like William Gibson or Philip K. Dick or even Ghost in the Shell. I think most gamers would love Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash.

Yes, you can have truly excellent Dr. Who or Stargate SG-1 novels, but tie-in fiction is pretty much just for fun. At the same time, however, that doesn't mean there aren't any standards beyond "ZOMG! MOAR STAR WARS!". Someone like me who reads Star Trek books, or another franchise's books, does it because we love the characters and their universe. We're emotionally invested in it, if that's not too melodramatic. While most of the creating has already been done - that is, the setting and the characters' histories and personalities have already been established - the printed word is a vastly different medium than the screen, big or small. Alan Moore contrasted the visual experience of comic books with that of movies and television, noting that reading is a strongly individualistic experience. While film drag their viewers along at dozens of frames per second, comics allow each reader to go at their own pace and linger on the images, absorbing the details or simply appreciating the art itself. The same is true with prose works - the reader has the opportunity to pause, re-read, and reflect. Great acting can certainly give powerful insight into a character's motivations and inner workings; however, writing can go deeper and uncover internal realms that movies and TV just usually can't, at least not without some metafictional fourth wall-breaking monologues or cheesy voice-overs.

Not only that, but because it is such a different medium, the novel (or short fan fiction work) can add another dimension to a TV-and-movies franchise. It's one thing to see and quite another to read. Picard's kidnapping and hideous transformation into the mindless Borg drone Locutus was a pivotal moment in the Star Trek universe. I was too young to catch "The Best of Both Worlds" two-part season finale cliffhanger when it first aired, but seeing the captain of the Enterprise turned into a brain-dead cyborg, and his knowledge tapped into and used to destroy an entire fleet, was doubtlessly a nail-biting experience for many a Trekkie.

Peter David, in Vendetta, describes the similar trauma experienced by another liberated Borg, a woman irrevocably damaged by what David calls "cybernetic rape":
She darted down the corridor [of the Enterprise] and saw a familiar symbol near one door. She knew she'd been in the room before, although she couldn't remember why or what it was. Everything was a fog to her with a few beams of light passing through, and those lights were pulsing and black and evil. Living horror was eating away at her brain. . .

For a moment she didn't connect anything, and then her mind painted a picture for her. It was a picture of soulless, mechanized creatures that were living prisons, committing unspeakable and heartless acts throughout the cosmos. And she had been one of them, and she had murdered, and destroyed, and she had not cared, and she wanted that life back, a life that horrified her and soiled her, that was like a stench to her -
Oh, how I love the Borg. Even after Voyager turned their Queen into just another Evil Space Villain à la Emperor Palpatine. ("Fools! You think you can escape? I shall destroy you!" Cue clichéd jackass laugh.) Seriously: don't watch any of the Voyager Borg episodes that came after "Dark Frontier." Although, ironically, I believe "Regeneration" may be the only watchable Enterprise episode ever made.

But anyway, my point is that David's words offer another perspective that you just don't get from simply watching actors act.

And so: with all this in mind, I review J.M. Dillard's Resistance, in which, having been dealt a serious blow in the Voyager series finale "Endgame," the Borg stranded in the Alpha Quadrant (where Earth and most of the United Federation of Planets are located) set out to create a new Queen and launch yet another attack on humanity. But this time, they are, quite frankly, seriously pissed off. Starfleet just . . . keeps . . . BEATING THEM! (No really, Voyager ended up defeating them just about every other week.) This time, their goal is not assimilation, but total annihilation. Only Captain Picard can stop them . . . by becoming Locutus again.

I had enjoyed Dillard's novelization of Star Trek: First Contact, which gave me high hopes for Resistance. I had already read its sequel Before Dishonor, by Peter David himself, and was horribly, horribly disappointed. I don't know if David was kidnapped and replaced by a doppelgänger hack, or if he procrastinated and wrote the whole thing in four hours, or what happened. It was like a David parody: purple prose, blatant theme, overly inflated epic scale, flat humor, awkward dialogue, rushed plot with too many strings to tie together. (Although I did appreciate how he addressed some plot holes and continuity errors within the Star Trek universe with regard to the Borg.) Christopher L. Bennett's Greater Than the Sum, sequel to Before Dishonor, wasn't much of an improvement. That one was just all Star Trek, no actual literary value.

Resistance had its flaws, but still felt like an improvement over its two successors.

The great thing about tie-in fiction, again, is that the bulk of the creating has already been done. Sometimes that lends of feeling of having started in media res, which essentially all tie-in fic does. Resistance begins smoothly, however, neatly tying the events of Nemesis and Insurrection (Will and Deanna's marriage and departure, Data's death) with some wicked Borg foreshadowing reminiscent of the opening sequence of First Contact. From there, we meet the Enterprise's replacement crew members, whose personalities and backgrounds Dillard does a decent job of laying out. If only I didn't already know what ended up happening in Before Dishonor, I would have thought that the new Vulcan counselor T'Lana seemed like a great addition. She is well-drawn and contrasts sharply with the brooding Worf, who is currently suffering a wrenching internal conflict over accepting the First Officer position after his questionable decisions in the Deep Space Nine episode "Change of Heart." He is also mourning the death of his wife Jadzia Dax. Overall, Dillard's character portrayals start out as very strong.

Plus, the creation of the new Borg Queen is downright nightmarish, which fits very well with her generally creepy persona. (Actually, I've always wondered if the Borg Queen was a ex-Cenobite. She certainly looks and acts the part. "Dammit Jim, this is Star Trek, not Hellraisers!")

After that, unfortunately, Resistance begins to feel very rushed. Most Star Trek novels read like Star Trek episodes in print form: moving swiftly with plenty of action. Nothing wrong with that: it's just the nature of the genre. But here it felt like the narrative was full of holes. For example, after Picard is reintegrated into the Borg Collective, Dillard abruptly abandons him and focuses on the remaining crew. Given the intense trauma Picard had suffered the first time he was Locutus, the absence of his POV is glaring. Then we are supposed to accept that Lio Battaglia (Red Shirt #1) and Sara Nave (Red Shirt #2) fell so madly in love that Nave is subsequently willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for him. I just don't feel that Dillard developed that storyline very well. Finally, there is the rushed deus ex machina ending in which Dr. Crusher is just able to miraculously take out the Borg Queen herself, which is followed by almost no description of Picard's emotional state following his rescue from his second stint as Locutus. It makes for a very sudden ending.

Of course, as I've said, tie-in fiction is never meant to be great literature, although that doesn't mean you can't have genuinely awesome books written for a TV/movie franchise. By general fiction standards, Resistance is "mehhhh." In essence: it's readable and I'm sure there is some urban fantasy and paranormal romance out there that is much, much worse. As far Star Trek books go, attempts to do what tie-in fiction does best: getting inside our favorite characters' heads and addressing issues unresolved onscreen. But Dillard's failure to focus on Picard and a lackluster love story make for an incomplete narrative that tries too hard to be dramatic. Resistance is a decent read that nevertheless left me wondering how much better it could have been.

(Just curious - is there a Peter David equivalent among Star Wars authors?)


Wolf said...

"(Just curious - is there a Peter David equivalent among Star Wars authors?)"

That would be Timothy Zahn. The whole glut of star wars novels and comics that exist today, would not be there if not for his "thrawn trilogy" which sold out everywhere and jump started intrest in novels and comics again back in 1991. Its arguable that the Prequels would not have been made if not for his books.

To a lesser extent, Michael A Stackpole has a Peter David style sense of humor and gift for witty banter, he just gets undone by his Gary Stu archetypes just being more awesome than anyone else.

Related Posts with Thumbnails