Saturday, June 9, 2012

Abyss:Note To Weddle And Lang: If You're Going To Rip-off Other Works, Don't Use The Classics!

The Good: Generally decent characters and development, Generally good writing, Good pace
The Bad: Plot is very predictable and recognizable!
The Basics: The more objectively I approached Abyss, the less I enjoyed this derivative "thriller" in the Star Trek universe.

I love Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and when I learned the series was essentially being continued in the novels, I decided it was my duty as a fan to give them a fair shake. So, I prepared myself by picking up the two Avatar books (reviewed here! And here!) which introduce the new cast of characters for the station-bound Star Trek. Considering the concept and the people working on the project, I decided to give the novel series the benefit of the doubt and pick up a bunch of the books and read them in order, as they were intended to be read.

As a result, the next book in the series is Abyss, part of a group of Star Trek novels released proximate to one another that focused on the mysterious organization Section 31. Because it is so referenced - and, in fact, the book depends on knowing something about the nature of it - it is worthwhile for those considering reading Abyss to pick up the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episodes "Doctor Bashir, I Presume" (reviewed here!), "Inquisition" (reviewed here!) and “Extreme Measures” (reviewed here!) for a viewing before attempting to read this book. Otherwise, the important character traits of Julian Bashir and the nature of Section 31 are not nearly as comprehensible.

With Nog and his engineering crews hauling Empok Nor to Deep Space Nine to salvage the station's reactor, Colonel Kira is ordering all nonessential personnel to get lost for a little while. This includes the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Julian Bashir and the station's counselor Lieutenant Ezri Dax, who has now transferred to the command track. Eager to take a trip to Earth together, Bashir is frustrated when moments before his departure from the station he is intercepted by a Section 31 operative named Cole. Cole explains that the Federation's most covert organization needs Bashir's assistance. It seems in the Badlands there is a world called Sindorin where a genetically enhanced human - Dr. Ethan Locken - has taken over an abandoned Jem'Hadar production facility. Utilizing his medical training, Locken is breeding a new strain of Jem'Hadar soldiers who are loyal to him and will help him to take over the Alpha Quadrant for the genetically enhanced as the new Khan.

Eager to stop Locken from bringing his army to a truly menacing strength - whatwith the fragile peace between the Klingons and Romulans to maintain - Bashir agrees to attempt to stop Locken and thwart his ambitions on Sindorin. To accomplish his mission, Bashir and Ezri take Ro and the new Jem'Hadar attache, Taran'atar, to Sindorin. En route, they discover Locken's handiwork in the form of a derelict Romulan ship complete with corpses showing evidence of torture and when approaching Sindorin, the runabout is shot down. As a result, Taran'atar and Ro find themselves meeting with a diminutive race Ro recognizes to raise and army to attack Locken's facility. And inside the facility, Bashir becomes tempted by his madman "brother" in his quest to take over the galaxy.

Fundamentally, the problem with Abyss is that the plot is easily recognizable to anyone who would be predisposed to pick the novel up in the first place. Authors David Weddle and Jeffrey Lang use Abyss and the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine platform to create their own version of . . . Return Of The Jedi (reviewed here!). Seriously. Abyss is Return Of The Jedi for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Ro's contact with the Ingavi is the exact niche of Princess Leia with the Ewoks, Bashir and Locken have a whole Anakin and Darth Vader dance they do with Locken being both Vader and the Emperor. Locken tries to get Bashir to come over to the Dark Side and the only fundamental difference is that Taran'atar is captured by the Jem'Hadar, which would be most analogous to Han converting the stormtroopers on Endor to the Rebel cause (otherwise, it's a pretty direct rewrite of Lucas's science fiction film).

This is not that Abyss isn't good: it is, but the moment the Ingavi showed up, I simply groaned, though. The novel is tight, tense and wonderful up until that point. But after that point, it's all the second half of Return Of The Jedi. This is especially disappointing to those of us who thought the novel started off with a certain ambitious quality that was enviable. Abyss actually begins at its most compelling and intriguing.

Abyss starts out by asking all of the smart, on-the-money questions: the ethical dilemmas about genetic engineering are not skirted. The concept Section 31 has is a brilliant one: resequence the Jem'Hadar for themselves. In fact, it works brilliantly for the idea of their goals. That Section 31 would want to create a standing army to protect Federation citizens to so people within the Federation would no longer have to give their lives to defend it fits well within their twisted sense of morality.

But even more important, it becomes a credible threat that Bashir would want to stop them for that. It is so antithetical to Bashir's concepts of right and wrong that it is immediately obvious that he would want to step in to thwart such an agenda. As a result, from the outset there is a strong sense that this will be a character-driven conflict, like the very best episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine were. Alas, though, there's none of that to be had.

And it all comes down to the villain. Locken is appropriately menacing from a distance. Like Cole, who appears to be working several steps ahead of Bashir, Locken is a clear villain with a concrete agenda. When Bashir, Taran'atar and Ezri are aboard the derelict Romulan ship, Locken is painted as a complete and disgusting psychopath whose motives never matter from that point on. The execution of Locken's goals become unforgivable when such things as the Romulan Captain's body fused into a bulkhead to watch the torment and killing of his crew is described. Locken's a villain.

Unfortunately, he's also an idiot. If acts of heroism are best defined by the level of villainy of the villain, then Abyss is a pretty sad story indeed. Bashir is remarkably able to overcome Locken and his forces and the sad thing is, I got it from the beginning. And here, it's easy to blame the writers. Weddle and Lang telegraph far too much of the story. So, for example, when the book opens two weeks after the events in Avatar and the crew of Deep Space Nine is nervously watching something massive coming out of warp, well before the writers state that it is Empok Nor, I knew it. The writing is that simple and direct; the new first officer Vaughn mentions that Nog is bringing something back, it's massive, Weddle and Lang do what the television show never did, which is to bring Empok Nor to the station as opposed to send a crew from one station to the other (which was in the series). Readers who are fans will get it, so trying to play it off as a menace for as long as they do ultimately feels forced.

Similarly, readers know pretty fast what Bashir and his associates are up to. That Locken doesn't is absolutely troubling. Here is the thing: Dr. Julian Bashir is genetically engineered to be smarter than most of us normal humans. So is Dr. Locken. Ezri Dax is a reasonable intellectual equal for either of them because she has nine lifetimes worth of knowledge and experience to draw upon. But as the book progresses, Dax falls behind on the plans whereas I "get" everything Bashir is doing and accurately saw where he was going with his plans. As a result, it offends my intelligence that Locken didn't. If I'm smart enough to see what Bashir is doing, why doesn't the evil genius supervillain?

And that's the problem with Abyss; it spends so much time on the hype and painting Locken out as a villain by what he does before Bashir reaches him that Lang and Weddle shot their intellectual wad and when Bashir and his team arrive on Sindorin, the result is pathetically simplistic. We deserve better.

It's strange because when I began the review, I think I liked the book more than I do now that I've thought about it more. The interludes with Vaughn becoming acquainted with Deep Space Nine, for example, worked as does Kira dealing with being Attainted (which basically puts her in the exact outsiders niche that Worf, Garak and Odo once occupied at various points in the television series). But the more I consider this, Abyss is average at best. It's all strength in the set-up, leading to a surprisingly disappointing resolution. Having (inadvertently) skipped ahead on the saga, I can safely say that the repercussions of the mission in this novel are repeated well enough that those who want to skip this book may do so safely.

Ultimately, what one imagines Locken was like is probably going to leave one more satisfied than the fairly lame resolution to this book ultimately allows.

This book also appears in the Twist Of Faith omnibus, reviewed here!


For other book reviews, be sure to check out my Book Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the books I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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