Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Zero Sum Game review

 *warning - long-winded review ahead*
    Star Trek: Typhon Pact: Zero Sum Game is a spy novel.

    A very unusual spy novel.

    The premise is something which, adjusted to an Earth setting, could be the basis of a James Bond movie. The Typhon Pact (Soviets) have stolen the secrets of the Slipstream Drive (submarine plans) and are assembling their own prototype in a secret shipyards (unchanged). Julian Bashir (Bond) is recruited by Starfleet Intelligence (SIS/MI6) to sabotage this project.

    Furthermore, because the Typhon Pact killed Federation citizens in their theft, Bashir (Bond) has carte blanche to use lethal force in the process. Bashir is even allied with a beautiful female agent for the duration of his mission. About the only thing which doesn't happen during this mission is Bashir sleeping with the beautiful silver-haired dissident.

    One of the early misapprehensions of the Typhon Pact was that it was going to be the Legion of Doom or a kind of Reagan-era view of the Soviet Union. The Tholians, Tzenkethi, and Breen have been portrayed as nearly universally evil while the Gorn and Romulans have had some pretty solid roles as Federation antagonists. Given Star Trek Online's transformation of the Klingon Empire into an Axis of Evil (including the Orions, Nausicans, and Gorn), you will forgive me if I assumed there would be some nod towards this. Can you do write about an alliance of totalitarian dictatorships, murderers, and terrorists without making them villains?

    Yes, yes you can. Because, that's where things get interesting. David Mack takes the stereotypical "us vs. them" spy story with all its moral certainties about its immoral activities necessity and turns them on their head. Star Trek has played around this before using Section 31 but, arguably, failed since so many fans embraced the evil organization as antiheroes as opposed to well-realized villains. Zero Sum Game, by contrast, takes a seemingly binary situation to illustrate why the Federation way is better.

    Zero Sum Game is an interesting story about humanizing, for lack of a better term, the alien races gathered together in opposition to the Federation. What I liked about the book is it managed to keep the fact the Breen and Romulan governments are lead by vile people whose ideal world includes a boot on the face of humanity forever but more or less rebuttals a lot of the inherent xenophobia in spy fiction.

    The Breen are a federation, themselves, consisting of many races formed together into a single body. Unlike the Federation,  however, they enforce a mono-culture which attempts to stamp out diversity and dissent. They could have very easily been cast a communist parable but are, instead, depicted as the most capitalist group outside of the Ferengi.

    The thing is, the Breen aren't a singular entity. We get a nice look at Breen civilians and they're more or less identical to the ones you'd find anywhere on Earth. The most powerful moment in the book for me is, unexpectedly, a scene where Bashir just sits down and listens to the Breen wandering around a marketplace. They talk about their jobs, kids, supervisors, and spouses. It's a powerful moment, reinforcing what Star Trek is all about.

    Given I'd been thinking of the Breen as walking experience points from my time fighting them in Star Trek: Online, I was momentarily ashamed. Of course, even Star Trek: Online had a Breen officer disgusted by the actions of his crewmates. So, really, my treating them as walking experience points was my failure rather than the games' own.

    Meeting Breen dissidents who don't want to necessarily overthrow their governments but, simply, want more freedom was another way of showing the Star Trek Novelverse's races aren't necessarily like Dungeons and Dragons species. There's no such thing as, "Always Chaotic Evil."

    The Typhon Pact is everything I wanted out of the series when I heard it was first announced. A rip-roaring Cold War adventure between a twisted country which hates freedom, a heroic nation which loves it, dashing super spies, and a narrative which rips to shreds the binary dualism that usually underlines such stories.

    The Breen and Romulan governments may be evil but their citizens are not, leading to the serious question as to who war would benefit should the Typhon Pact go to war with the Federation. The answer? Absolutely no one. Zero Sum Game is a ruthless deconstruction of the spy genre while remaining entirely a part of it. The best approximation I can think of is The Prisoner, by Patrick McGoohan, who wrote one of the seminal works of espionage by taking an utter **** on the Cold War's values. By recognizing the fundamental value of "our" enemies, we may defeat them more conclusively than through force.

    This is one of the reasons David Mack remains my favorite Star Trek author alongside Christopher Bennett. While I don't always agree with their decisions in their books, I believe they have a strong grasp on at least one element of Star Trek that makes their books resonate with me. In David Mack's case, he manages to insert the fact peace and understanding are the forefront of all of the Federation's conflicts as a desired goal. This is not the case in Babylon Five, Star Wars, or other rival franchises. Victory is. Trek has peace being more desirable than victory, even if it means not getting everything you wanted.

    Julian Bashir's characterization in this book is great and I would love to see David Mack do further spycraft adventures with him. I, honestly, prefer Secret Agent Julian Bashir over Doctor Julian Bashir. Still, both sides are always in play during this book. Seeing the conflict inside him over the necessity of killing is great and we get "necessary casualties" examined when the aftermath of his actions are examined by a Breen engineer.

    Captain Ezri Dax was kind of underwhelming in this book because I am more invested in her relationship with Julian Bashir than her role as a badass starship Captain. She's become the Kirk-lite of the post-Destiny world and that's great for her but awesome starship tactics as well as radical plans just didn't really move me here. I suppose it's because I was one of Ezri's fans when DS9 was on the air and would have preferred more attention paid to the vulnerable side of her Julian brought out.

    Another character from DS9 makes a surprise return this book, surprising me as a reader. I won't spoil their identity but their role in this story makes an excellent contrast to Julian. This character attempts to portray the "ends justify the means" spy role "straight" while Julian subverts it at every turn. The book was so effective at this characterization, a latter revelation made perfect sense.

    I'm not sure if the Novelverse will use the ending of the book to its full effect but if they back off from it, I'll be disappointed. Thematically, David Mack has created Julian's ultimate nemesis who I would love to see him face in life-and-death struggle. This may be a contrast to my earlier praise of peace and understanding, but just because Captain Kirk made peace with the Gorn doesn't mean I don't like seeing him blow the reptile Captain up.

     In conclusion, kudos to David Mack for creating this novel and his role in developing the Typhon Pact. You should definitely read this novel.


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