I cannot count the number of STAR TREK novels I have read over the years. Not as many recently as I used to, in fact, no new ones in a few years. It’s the old story, when you’re young you have all the time but limited money. When you’re older, you have the money to pursue your old hobbies like a demon but limited time.
In the library, I stumbled across this Next Generation novel entitled Available Light and decided to give it a whirl. I’ve not read any new ST novels in a long time, so based on the back blurb, this one seemed like a great piece to dive back in with. I also needed a book for the local library’s summer reading program. You know, finding a new novel in a beloved series is like reuniting with old friends. Like all books, it’s neither all good nor all bad.
- Dayton Ward writes a nice space adventure novel, and that is the top criteria for a book—it must entertain the reader. It’s good to see old friends again, and it’s obvious fairly quickly that Mr. Ward is an avid Trekkie (though not as much as Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens. To be fair, they are more avid Trekkies than Roddenberry). Instead of being a simple, stand alone novel with no ties to the series except the characters, Mr. Ward carefully weaves in elements from the television series. For example, Philippa Louvois (the JAG officer from “Measure of a Man”) appears, having moved up to Attorney General as a civilian.
- The novel deals with fallout from the exposure of Section 31. I used to really like the idea of Section 31. The Federation having a rogue element that made the Tal Shair and Obsidian Order look like boy scouts appealed. These days, I’m not fond of them, so this book being part of bringing them down appealed. While I understand a government having a group that “just gets the job done,” it certainly isn’t ethical. I can understand why DS9 sought to break them. If the job can’t be done within the Federation principles, it shouldn’t be done by members of the Federation.
- Related to 31, the bureau had an AI program running simulations on actions and hypothetical futures. Section 31 was constantly working from those simulations to bring about circumstances they found most favorable to the Federation. From large to small ways, every action and mission in the Federation had been touched by the program. This fact led to several discussions by the characters as to how much their actions meaning if they were all unwilling puppets of Section 31.
- Because of the time that has passed, crew members have moved on to other assignments. The Next Gen crew that most of us know and love are not there. Serving on the Enterprise-E, we see Picard, Worf, Geordi, and Beverly. Only Picard and Worf are on the bridge. Admiral Riker makes a small appearance in Louvois’ office. Now, the series characters are written well, very much in character. The problem is so much of the plot is driven by characters I don’t know. This problem is partly my fault because this book–turns out–does not mention anywhere that it is part of an ongoing series or sage. There is no series name, no part 3 of 4 in the Odyssean Pass Series, nothing. When Deep Space 9 did something similar with “Season 8,” at least the books said so. Then you were forewarned before jumping into the middle. After digging around in Memory Alpha and Memory Beta, I’m still not sure when the Odyssean Pass series begins or how long it will go!
- I did not like how several of the top brass of Starfleet were Section 31 operatives. Admirals William Ross (DS9), Owen Paris (VOY), Edward Jellico (TNG), and Alynna Nechayev (TNG) were all part of the rogue organization. Just from reading this book, I’m not sure that Paris and Jellico were that deep into it. Jellico himself was presented here (in memory of an operation) as not being completely onboard with the necessity of the action. That surprised me as much as the next point.
- As more of Section 31’s operations were uncovered, they found that Admiral Ross had been very deep in the organization, one of its best operatives, and had his hand in many of their operations. It saddened me to see that a hero of the Dominion War being done this way. In a way, I’m not terribly surprised with the way the modern world handles heroes. They can’t be great but flawed, they must be torn down! It isn’t enough for them to be flawed (Picard and Riker both have weaknesses and flaws. Sisko and Kirk, very much so, but they are all heroes.). I suppose one might argue that Ross being so deep in 31 made a great plot twist, but with all the heroes being torn down the past few years, it comes across as much more cynical than anything else.
- The plot was driven by new characters. While intriguing on the surface, Trys and Taurik just have the spark that Data and Geordi did on away teams.
- One of the antagonists switches sides after merely hearing the glories of how the Federation works together. Really?
- I’m not sure which Star Trek cultures Mr. Ward is referring to when Trys states that she has seen so many planets where the cultures have blended together in the big cities. I can’t recall any! Klingons are Klingons who have one culture. Romulans are Romulans with one culture. Vulcans, Andorians, Tellarites. A Ferengi who isn’t greedy? I don’t recall hearing something along the lines of a Klingon saying, “Turn off the bellowing opera! I want to hear something light and airy!”
- A very restrictive view of the Prime Directive.
- Being overly aggressive with the Prime Directive has always raised at least one eyebrow for me. It states that the Federation may not interfere with another culture’s natural development. This is used as a foil for the plot. For example in this book, when another culture, which was aware of alien life forms and had warp drive, stated they had trouble with their ship, the Federation could not render assistance—unless the other ship asked for it. I found that very convenient. They couldn’t offer help, it had to be asked for (this inconvenience lasted about two pages until the aliens deciphered the thinly-veiled hints amounting to please ask us). Let me be more specific. The aliens had not only been aware of the Enterprise crew being on their (warp-capable) ship, they had established contact with one of the crew and explained to her that they were hoping the E could help theirs. They said all of that, but the non-interference directive ruled over them until they specifically asked? That’s just poor writing. The officer specifically contradicted the rule established in TNG that ward drive meant contact could happen. (Not interfering in the internal affairs of another culture, such as the Klingon council makes perfect sense.)
- It has always seemed to me that this strict a reading would necessitate total nonintervention from the Federation. And what really struck me in Available Light is that a first contact specialist was the one being so restrictive. If strict non interference is the sacrament of the Federation, why have a first contact officer? The Federation should be complete isolationists to the point of seeming xenophobic.
- That the Federation will not interfere in the natural development of another culture is a rule handled unevenly at best. The strictness varies by plot necessity. I’ve mentioned Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens in this post. I found the way they handled the Prime Directive in their novel Prime Directive very nice. They set up rules and stuck to them. They explained up to what point in a civilization’s development noninterference mattered. Once a culture had contact with a space-faring race, their natural development was seen to have ended, and the Federation could contact them and offer to render needed aid. Likewise, an episode of TNG (“First Contact”) established that first contact could be made once the other culture had warp drive—a fine standard with a hard line. It’s common to make this error, so I consider it more of a general problem than a specific error. That’s why I rated it a meh instead of a bad.
I will say that after all these years, I’ve still got it. I called all but one of the plot twists at least a chapter ahead of the reveal. The only one I missed was the reason for a death. I expected [redacted] to be killed to prevent him from talking too much about Section 31. Instead, it was a revenge killing.
Overall, I’d give this book 3/5 stars. I’m not too interested in finding the next one in the series, but am interested in the one a couple of books prior, HEADLONG FLIGHT.
If you like space adventure, keep your eyes open for my HIGH FRONTIER books!