The Madonna and the Starship by James Morrow
I’ve been glued to my iPad for so long reading the first several books in the Deep Space Nine relaunch that my hands and eyeballs rebelled, demanding the sensory experience of an honest to goodness book.
So I gave them a treat, this novella by James Morrow, one of my absolute favorite authors. The Madonna and the Starship is set in the Golden Age of live television, where Kurt Jastrow — Science Fiction author and head writer on the NBC kiddie serial Brock Barton and His Rocket Rangers — is contacted by a pair of honest-to-goodness aliens that look like 7-foot-tall blue lobsters. They award Kurt for his program and its logical positivist message, then casually tell him about their plan to turn TVs into death rays that will kill anyone who watches irrational, metaphysical drivel — ie, religious shows. Now Kurt has to scramble to figure out how to save millions of Sunday morning viewers.
As is his wont, James uses The Madonna and the Starship to turn his keen satiric eye on science, religion, and the uneasy intersection of the two. There’s a hearty mix of philosophy and gags — something only Morrow can pull off — and I can’t wait to see how Kurt saves the world.
2017 So Far…
Star Trek Deep Space Nine: Twist of Faith (Omnibus Edition) (* * *)
Having finished The Lives of Dax and Stitch in Time (see below) I was finally able to begin reading the DS9 relaunch series in earnest. And I was happy to learn that the first batch of books set after the series finale had been collected in this omnibus edition. It includes four novels and one novella:
Avatar (Book 1) by S.D. Perry
Avatar (Book 2) by S.D. Perry
Section 31: Abyss by David Weddle and Jeffrey Lang
Demons of Air and Darkness by Keith R.A. DeCandido
Horn and Ivory by Keith R.A. DeCandido
Avatar Book 1 / Avatar Book 2 / Abyss / Demons of Air and Darkness
Not only is it terrific to be back with old characters and meet some compelling new ones, it’s great to see varying interpretations of them by different authors. Just like episodes of DS9, I liked some of the books in the collection better than others, but each has something to recommend.
Avatar parts one and two has to do the most heavy lifting, because it has the unenviable task of getting the ball rolling once again. Bringing readers up to speed with Kira, Nog, Quark, Jake, Cassidy, Julian and Ezri post- “What You Leave Behind” is hard enough; on top of that it introduces a host of new characters, including Ro Laren as the station’s new security chief.
Avatar goes big, making the Next Gen cast an integral part of the story. Yet that more popular crew never overshadows DS9’s main players. The story is a little bit heavy on Bajoran religion and politics for my tastes, but then again so was DS9. So I guess they’re in the zone. In all, Avatar feels like a solid, meaty episode of the show and makes for a good beginning.
Which makes it a shame that Abyss is something of a sophomore stumble. It has a great premise: Bashir is recruited by Section 31 to go on a secret mission in the Badlands to stop a genetically enhanced scientist bent on plunging the Alpha Quadrant into war and becoming the absolute ruler of the decimated powers.
Unfortunately Abyss falls down in the writing. The characterization is fairly thin, the villain two-dimensional and the constant allusions to Khan heavy-handed and annoying. There are some neat parts — especially in the beginning — but not enough to save it.
But Demons of Air and Darkness more than makes up for it. Keith R.A. DeCandido has been writing Star Trek forever, and it shows. This book fires on all thrusters. The story, plotting, pacing and characterizations are all excellent. Keith has a deep knowledge of all things Trek, and effortlessly weaves elements from all of the Trek series into a sprawling, enjoyable tale.
Capping off Twist of Faith is DeCandido’s novella Horn and Ivory, which resolves Demons’ cliffhanger ending. And while it’s a bit too deus ex machina for my liking, it makes sense in the context of the story.
All in all, the DS9 relaunch gets off to a good start.
Life Class by Pat Barker (* *)
When I read Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy a number of years ago, I was so moved that I was sure I had found a new mainstream author to add to my list. For me, this is a rare occasion. So I was happy to discover that she had since written three new books set in the WWI era, like Regeneration, titled Life Class, Toby’s Room and Noonday.
Life Class is about three artists — Paul Tarrant, Elinor Brooke and Kit Neville — in London’s Slade Art School just before the outbreak of The Great War. It mainly centers on Paul, his competitive relationship with Kit, and his complicated feelings for Elinor. When the war breaks out, Paul and Kit leave to become ambulance drivers on the front lines, while Elinor begins leading an ironically liberated life in wartime London.
Unfortunately, Life Class is an unfocused misfire. Paul and Kit have a rivalry going for Elinor’s affections, but Elinor is so detached and reticent to get close to either of them, that that story thread never really comes off. The second half of the book picks up a bit, with the immediacy of Paul’s experiences on the front lines; but in the end, I never cared much for any of the characters. I got about half way through Toby’s Room and just gave up out of boredom. Your mileage may vary, but if you’re new to Barker, start with the Regeneration trilogy — Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road.
A Stitch in Time by Andrew J. Robinson (* * *)
My Deep Space Nine Relaunch continues with this, the second book in the established reading list.
Like The Lives of Dax (see below), A Stitch in Time has been retroactively added to the DS9 Relaunch series, as it chronicles the life of Elim Garak — the enigmatic Cardassian spy-turned-tailor. Unlike The Lives of Dax, however, I’m really looking forward to reading this one because Garak is one of my favorite DS9 characters.
Another bonus: the book is written by Andrew Robinson, the actor who played Garak. Who better to tell the character’s story than the person who brought him to life so compellingly on the screen for years?
I forgot how fun it is to be an unabashed Trek nerd.
VERDICT: I really, really, REALLY enjoyed this book. Oftentimes when you flesh out a mysterious figure like Garak, half their appeal disappears. The mystery is integral to the intrigue. But learning Garak’s backstory only enhances my enjoyment of the character. A Stitch in Time leaves all the things I love about Garak intact, and adds a layer of complexity and sympathy that I didn’t realize was missing. Robinson really does a phenomenal job. Not only do I look forward to reading the rest of the DS9 relaunch series with this new knowledge of the character; I also plan to retroactively apply it when I watch DS9 reruns. I call that a win-win!
Archie Vol. 1 by Mark Waid and Fiona Staples (* * ½)
I needed a quick read on a train ride back from the city, and this was just the thing.
I’ve been really curious about Mark Waid’s Archie reboot. I grew up reading Archie, and “rediscovered” the character through Afterlife with Archie a couple of years ago. I’ve also read a bunch of Waid’s DC stuff, so I know he’s a good writer. So I wanted to see how he went about the considerable task of making the corny Archie gang relevant for teens today.
And I think Waid took the exact right approach. His guiding principle: First Do No Harm. As he wrote in the Afterword to this volume, it would have been the height of hackery to kowtow to irony-starved hipsters and have the story open with Juggy in his meth lab. Instead he tried to distill and capture the elements that have made these characters endure for the last 70 years and recast them for a 21st Century audience. He does so very well, for the most part. The read is breezy and fun.
Pair that with Fiona Staples’ terrific art — which gives the gang a much more realistic, contemporary look — and you have a real winner on your hands.
That being said, the book is a touch too heavy on the teen angst, and a little too light on the comedy. Once the novelty and nostalgia wore off, I kinda had to force my way to the end — which is exactly as it should be. I’m not the intended audience here. But I recognize the achievement of the creators, and applaud it with an extra half-star.
The Lives of Dax edited by Marco Palmieri (* * ½)
I had so much fun binging on Robin Hobb last year (see What I Read in 2016 link below), that I decided to embark on a similar reading adventure for 2017.
Ever since a recent rewatch of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, I’ve been eager to dive into the DS9 “Relaunch” novels, which carry the story forward after the series finale. This serialized approach is a departure for Trek novels, which are mostly stand-alone entries. But breaking Trek convention was what DS9 was all about, so it’s fitting that the novels go their own way. And the established reading list says to begin with The Lives of Dax. The collection — featuring contributions from various Trek writers — contains a story for each of the hosts that the Dax symbiont has inhabited. In Trek continuity, they reach all the way back to the 2060s and Vulcan’s first contact with Earth.
To be honest, I expected this to be the literary equivalent of eating my vegetables. While I enjoyed Jadzia on the show, she was never my favorite. And I never formed much of an opinion on Ezri either way. But authors of future DS9 Relaunch books have drawn from this one to inform some of their stories. So I marched forth like a good soldier and began reading. And I want to personally thank Marco Palmieri for his approach to the collection. I guess he realized that many readers would have the same reticence about investing reading time in a bunch of Daxes that amount to little more than ancillary dialog in the context of the TV series. So he wove these lives of Dax around events and characters that he knew Trek fans would geek out on. The book features appearances by T’Pau, Chris Pike, Spock’s grandfather Skon, a 19-year-old Leonard McCoy, the pompous Captain Styles from Search for Spock, and young Ensign Benjamin Sisko.
It has been a long time since I’ve read a Star Trek novel. I consider this a happy reunion. Lives of Dax isn’t as good as some of the really terrific Trek books that live in my memory. But it’s a fine primer for my DS9 Relaunch.