Saturday, January 1, 2005

January 2005: "Ex Machina"


In the aftermath of the astonishing events of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the captain and officers of the U.S.S. Enterprise remain haunted by their encounter with the vast artificial intelligence of V'Ger...and by the sacrifice and ascension of their friend and shipmate, Willard Decker.

As James T. Kirk, Spock, and Leonard McCoy attempt to cope with the personal fallout of that ordeal, a chapter from their mutual past is reopened, raising troubling new questions about the relationship among God, Man, and AI. On the recently settled world of Daran IV, the former refugees of the Fabrini worldship Yonada are being divided by conflicting ideologies, as those clinging to their theocratic past vie with visionaries of a future governed by reason alone.

Now, echoes of the V'Ger encounter reverberate among the Enterprise officers who years ago overthrew the Oracle, the machine-god that controlled Yonada. Confronting the consequences of those actions, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy also face choices that will decide the fate of a civilization, and which may change them forever.

by Christopher L. Bennett
Mass Market Paperback - 384 pages
Pocket Books - January 2005 - $7.99

This review originally appeared at the StellarCross website in 2005. The review itself is printed here as it was there, together with some brief added commentary.

It has been some time since a Star Trek novel came out that was set in that great lost era that lies between the events of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn. In "Ex Machina", author Christopher L. Bennett takes us into a tale that he's "wanted to tell since the days when writing Star Trek fiction was only a remote fantasy." Bennett's first novel-length contribution to the Star Trek universe certainly bespeaks of an imagination filled with a depth of imagery that isn't often seen in media tie-in fiction.

Joining the ranks of David Mack, Keith R.A. DeCandido, David R. George, III, and many other talented writers in Pocket's fold, Christopher Bennett's tale unfolds in the aftermath of the V'Ger incident aboard a starship Enterprise that is still recovering from a premature launch, the loss of Captain Decker, and what can only be described as a crisis of confidence in the senior leadership of the Enterprise crew.

Of all the elements in this book, it was precisely this crisis of confidence that detracted from my experience the most. I appreciate that Bennett had a very different understanding and interpretation of the events surrounding the V'Ger incident than I do, but for me, two particular situations served to really give me difficulty with the characterizations of Captain Kirk and Commander Spock.

Early in the novel, Kirk gives Scotty something of a dressing down for, of all things, being too interested in getting the ship, not simply into working order, but into perfect order. While I can accept Kirk questioning himself, I cannot see him faulting Scott for his relentless pursuit for keeping the Enterprise in top shape.

"Ex Machina" feels, at times, like it should
have taken place after 'The Great Katra Switchup'.

Later in the novel, Spock, still coming to terms with his experiences in Kohlinar and with V'Ger, begins openly speaking with Dr. McCoy and Mr. Scott about his situation and feelings. I found this to be quite difficult to accept, preferring to view McCoy's hosting of Spock's katra (Star Trek III and IV) as the means by which McCoy and Spock drew closer (Star Trek V not withstanding). To place such an openness with McCoy in Spock's nature at this point in Trek history serves to, for me, undermine the deep experiences we know to be coming later in Star Trek III-V. I also have an extremely difficult time seeing Spock ever confiding in Scotty.

While these issues did diminish my enjoyment of this novel somewhat, I have to say that even the parts I disagree with are written with a deft hand and deep skill. One of the reasons that I find the sequences mentioned above so jarring is that they were written so very well.

Enough of my negative viewpoints - now to dwell on the positives (of which there are a substantial number!)

The Oracle is one of the elements of
the original episode that is effectively used.
"Ex Machina" takes an often-maligned episode of The Original Series (For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky from the third season) and used it as the foundation for a very intricate story. The story combines history, religion, science, conflict, and terrorism and weaves it into a tight fabric that engenders thought and contemplation beyond the usual scope of a sci-fi media tie-in novel.

So many elements from the TOS episode are effectively used (The Oracle, McCoy and Natria's relationship, the Yonada asteroid itself) and built upon with other skillful uses of TOS and Motion Picture material (especially `guest stars' like Lt. Commander Lindstrom, Janice Rand, Chief DiFalco, and the many background characters from the Motion Pictures, brought to life by Bennett). There are so many excellent items in this novel, it's tough to keep this review at a reasonable length. In the interests of brevity, I will cite two.

Yonada's history is fascinating and compelling.
In the ninth chapter, Spock is forced to confront Commissioner Soreth, the Federation representative on Daran IV, as he attempts to investigate the history of the Oracle and the Fabrini. Their discussion is a perfect interaction between the old-guard Vulcan attitudes (so deftly portrayed on Star Trek: Enterprise) and Spock's emotionally-touched interaction with V'Ger. This particular interchange stands out for me because of the absolute perfection of its execution on the page. I left the chapter cheering for Spock, who has never really been my favorite character of the original crew.

The second notable highlight is chapter eighteen. Bennett helps bring the novel to a conclusion with a narrative of the early history of Yonada that is simply stirring in its manner of delivery and precision of language. While I won't spoil what is discussed, I can tell you it is by far the strongest part of the book.

Other strengths are too numerous to name, but by way of honorable mention, the character of Spring Rain on Still Water brings a noble quality to the story, one of reflective beauty. While I am no poet, I found myself deeply appreciative of Spring Rain's well-crafted contributions to the story. These are so different for the Star Trek universe that they may catch you off guard as you read.

In the end, however, I still have my difficulties with Kirk and Spock's portrayal in the story. These weigh down based on my preconceived notions, and you may not have the same problem. Regardless, this novel is well worth your time to read, and I commend it to you without reservation. 


Time and age has softened most of my criticisms of "Ex Machina", and it remains a novel that I highly recommend. At the same time, I am often saddened to think of this book, because I was looking forward to further novels building upon the good start that "Ex Machina" made. Bennett has continued to evolve and grow as a writer, and sadly, while his subsequent stories have been full of amazing content, only the eBook "The Darkness Drops Again" (collected in print form in the Mere Anarchy omnibus) revisits the post-TMP era. Here's to hoping that, some day, when Rise of the Federation is done, and perhaps after another DTI book or two, we get some more post-TMP goodness on the refitted starship Enterprise.

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