Tuesday, January 1, 2013

January 2013: "The Body Electric"

At the center of the Galaxy, a planet-sized Machine of terrifying power and unfathomable purpose hurls entire star systems into a supermassive black hole. Wesley Crusher, now a full-fledged Traveler, knows the Machine must be stopped... but he has no idea how. He enlists the help of Captain Picard and the Enterprise crew, who also fail to halt the unstoppable alien juggernaut's destructive labors. But they soon divine the Machine's true purpose, which threatens to exterminate all life in the Milky Way Galaxy. With time running out, Picard realizes he knows of only one person who might be able to stop the Machine in time to avert a galactic catastrophe–but he has no idea how to find him.

by David Mack
Mass Market Paperback – 336 pages
Pocket Books – January 2013 - $7.99

Wesley's back.
The universe is never a dull place, as Wesley Crusher knows so very well. In his exploits as a Traveler, it is a lesson he has learned by observing the very fabric of the cosmos. And yet, nothing in his experiences is able to prepare him for the sight he glimpses as a massive machine sends one solar system after another into the heart of a super-massive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. There is nothing that Crusher can do on his own, and the fellowship of Travelers are unwilling to do anything either, electing to get out of Dodge before the Dodge gets snapped out from under them. Bereft of choices, Wesley takes some third-party advice and heads for the starship Enterprise… where, of course, the story really gets going.

With Wesley wielding his amazing Traveler powers and the intrepid crew of Starfleet’s finest on the case, there must be something that can be done to prevent the destruction of so many worlds, but it quickly becomes apparent that the only sentience that the Machine at galaxy’s center is interested in conversing with is another machine.

As the Enterprise crew sets out to find one particular machine, the recently revived Data, trouble, predictably follows. Data is not alone – he is surrounded by machines with a far different set if ideas and ideals than he; and, in a moment of grave crisis, the new Data so much like and yet so different from his earlier incarnation, will face one of the gravest decisions of his nascent life.

Lal's use in "The Body Electric" is superb.
Author David Mack’s story is ambitious. In the first two books of the series, he does an outstanding job at engaging and entertaining throughout. As we enter into the prologue of “The Body Electric”, Mack is once again on course for a true KO of a story. His recounting, in retrospect, of the death of Lal, from her point of view, is nothing short of breathtaking. His epilogue, which serves to fill in further detail concerning Lal, is equally moving. These two elements of the book are some of the most meaningful prose ever penned surrounding android life in the Star Trek universe.

And, unfortunately, that’s pretty much where my praise for “The Body Electric” ends.

“Silent Weapons” and “The Persistence of Memory” were both, for different reasons, stellar reads that truly grasped and grappled with amazingly tense and complex situations in enticing ways. “The Body Electric”, instead, opens with what feels to be an utterly contrived mega-threat that, aside from a specifically interesting TOS tie-in, is completely dis-interesting. A machine with a plan is tossing an indefinitely large number of planetary systems – some of them inhabited – into a super-massive black hole. The scale of the threat is simply too large to be embraced, especially since, unlike the Borg, we have no way of truly gauging the level of threat that the Machine represents.

Mack’s work does Wesley Crusher’s image essentially zero favors… while, eventually, he exhibits a modicum of humility and personal growth, he feels very much the stereotypical Wesley, with an extra dash of self-righteousness tossed in for good measure. It seems his abilities as a Traveler to examine and manipulate space-time are ineffective when turned towards personal growth and introspection. To put it frankly, Wesley comes off as a pest for most of the book… and that’s being generous.

Of course, this review can’t wrap up (or even move on to my strongest concern) without faulting Picard’s logic in the lead-up to the Enterprise’s traverse to galaxy center. Wesley shows up in the middle of a conference, lays out his concerns, and Picard is moved to contact Starfleet. All’s good… until, in the span of six pages, we go from ‘due to the size of the Machine, Starfleet wants to make sure we have help’ to ‘well, we’re going alone and everything is done, so send us on our way, Wes’. Picard comes across more like Kirk in his thinking and in his reliance on sketchy information, and feels completely out of sorts for at least this portion of the story.

Other notable subplots include relationship angst between Chen and Taurik, and Worf’s continued issues in the wake of his paramour’s death. Neither are particularly compelling, though the human interactions that they generated felt far more genuine and in-character than did the vast majority of the novel.

"He once was found, but now he is lost..."
And so now we reach the real center of gravity of the story – Data… or whatever/whomever he is now. In the closing pages of “The Persistence of Memory” and throughout “Silent Weapons” the alterations in his world view have been there, perceptible, but without taking anything away from the decency and goodness that fans of The Next Generation have come to love about Data. The Data of “The Body Electric”, however, well… I question if he is Data at all.

This new Data is stubborn, selfish, and ruthless. His moral and ethical subroutines are certainly redefined, as one observes in his interactions with Akharin (aka Flint, the immortal) and his daughter, Rhea. Far from acting as Data would have in his preceding incarnation, he is acting far more like his creator, Dr. Noonien Soong, whose consciousness once made use of the shell which is now Data’s home. The reincarnated Data is, in “The Body Electric” a totally unsympathetic character – not because he is stubborn, selfish, and ruthless… but because his is played in a manner so totally opposite to his previous self.

The previous Data, who would have given his all for his shipmates, now refuses to lift a finger to help the entire galaxy! Entire solar systems of sentient life… billions of individuals… are being offered up on the Machine’s altar of intention, but such drastic stakes don’t begin to faze Data… because all he’s in it for is the possibility of Lal’s rejuvenation. Is this Data? Not to me.

Stop the starship... I might want to get off.
“The Body Electric” suffers from an incomprehensible ‘enemy’, a pedantic man-child, and a misidentified android, and leaves a very empty, hollow feeling in the stomach upon completion. Mack’s development of Data 2.0 goes too far opposite of all we came to know about Data in the collective TNG experience of him, and leaves me very fearful for the future direction of this beloved member of the Next Generation family.

I hope that Data is the only thing I have to be concerned about with the future of the TNG run, because the hints are all over the place of late that other major changes are coming to the Starship Enterprise… and for the first time, I have to say, I am not so sure that I am all that interested in much more drastic change.

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