The Fate of Evolution
I'll admit that before they came out, I wasn't particularly looking forward to reading the Section 31 books. The rogue organization seemed tolerable on Deep Space Nine only because it turned up in a few scant episodes; one could easily believe that Sloan had exaggerated Section 31's scope. Still, I thought it weakened Sisko, Picard and the rest of Starfleet to appear helpless against a secret society of agents who violate everything the Federation stands for in the name of protecting it. So I didn't understand how books introducing the concept retroactively to the original series and The Next Generation could fail to show either the crews or the agents in an unflattering light...and in either case, why would fans want to read about it? But having finished Abyss, the Deep Space Nine novel of the series (and the last released), I must admit that Section 31 has opened intriguing possibilities for explaining some of the inconsistencies and erratic choices of the television shows.
Cloak and Shadow, the Kirk and Janeway novels, offered plausible explanations for the growing cynicism both captains displayed as their shows wore on -- and frankly it's more pleasant to believe Section 31 got to them than to assume the captains got erratic because their writers had burned out. Rogue, the Next Gen novel, delves more deeply into the philosophy behind the organization itself as agents try to recruit a sympathetic character. Abyss, ironically, focuses on two people who rejected Section 31 -- Bashir, and another genetically enhanced doctor, Ethan Locken. Regrettably Locken's role model is someone even worse than Sloan -- namely, Khan Noonien Singh, the ruthless autocrat from "Space Seed" and The Wrath of Khan."
Abyss picks up where the Deep Space Nine relaunch duology Avatar left off and does a superb job both carrying on the new storylines and making it possible for someone who didn't read those novels to follow the story. There's also a tie-in with Insurrection that enhances the film by explaining the actions of a Starfleet character who made little sense onscreen. A few events might jar new readers -- for instance, I'm not sure why Jake Sisko's disappearance gets mentioned here, since there's no attempt at furthering that storyline. But for the most part, the necessary developments following "What You Leave Behind" weave smoothly into the story, including Kira's fall from grace with the Vedek Assembly and Taran'atar's chaotic arrival on the station.
At the start of the Abyss, Nog has just managed to tow Empok Nor within range of Bajor so the engineers can transfer the station core to its sister station, formerly known as Terok Nor. Bashir and Ezri have reached a comfortable point in their relationship. Aside from the total chaos of trying to repair the station, keep the Bajoran government calm and get the crew used to the new officers, things are running about as smoothly as they ever do on Deep Space Nine. Then Bashir gets a nocturnal visit from Cole, a colleague of Sloan's. The agent tells the doctor that Section 31 recruited Ethan Locken to help reprogram a group of Jem'Hadar to be loyal to the Federation instead of the Founders, but Locken betrayed Section 31 and is now raising a genetically enhanced army so he can take over the galaxy himself. It sounds just like something Section 31 would do, and the results are just like what the agency deserves, but Locken is clearly a more immediate danger to galactic peace than the undercover Starfleet organization.
The timing of Abyss couldn't be better, for there are nice parallels with the events of Greg Cox's Eugenics Wars as well as the previous Section 31 novels. It's one thing for Kirk to consider the ramifications of genetic engineering while evaluating a group of enhanced humans for membership in the Federation, but when the Bashir must discuss the potential benefits as well as the drawbacks of tampering with the human genome, the subject becomes deeply personal. For awhile it's not entirely clear which side he's on. The issue is further complicated by the presence of Taran'atar, who may have exceeded his own genetic capabilities or who may perfectly epitomize his species, as Bashir points out to Kira. Though he comes to question the perfection of his gods, this servant of the Founders has no tolerance for Locken's variety of Jem'Hadar -- who lack discipline and skills, yet reveal surprising self-knowledge.
The philosophical question at the core of Abyss concerns whether genes or environment create individuals. But it becomes complicated when Bashir discovers that the traumatic event responsible for making Locken into a monster may have been engineered just as carefully as his super-human intelligence. And how much influence do a person's friendships and relationships have to counteract both environment and childhood development? Locken seems damaged beyond repair, which is unfortunate for the story because he would make a more interesting villain if one really believed he could evolve. He's not a tragic figure, he's worse than Khan -- his atrocities compare with those of Nazi doctors -- and as a result, it's hard to believe that Bashir ever might consider taking seriously his suggestions about the obligations of the enhanced to the rest of the human race. When Bashir eventually warns Locken that he sounds like a crazed comic super-villain, one giggles but wonders why it took him so long to notice.
Bashir's decisions are balanced by Dax playing devil's advocate, which is a good way both to make a philosophical debate seem immediate and to develop the characters and their relationship. David Weddle and Jeffrey Lang do a superb job with Ezri, giving her Jadzia's sarcasm and smarts plus a sense of the theatrical that's all her own. She does a hilarious bit playing bad cop to Bashir's good cop, using her background as a counselor plus her own wicked humor and refusal to rein in strongly-felt opinions. Ezri's not as nice a girl as Jadzia, which I mean in the best sense; she doesn't make the men around her feel good about themselves, she makes them stop and think. This is epitomized by the moment when she sweetly warns Julian that he's overly susceptible to charming men like Locken and Garak.
Because Bashir is purportedly working with Locken, Ezri must struggle by herself for much of the story, and it really allows her to shine. This joined Trill has become far greater than the sum of her parts. So has Taran'atar, who works with Ro from the outside while the two scientists are trapped within Locken's compound. Taran'atar and Ro make a fantastic pair, for the Jem'Hadar is one of the few who can appreciate her Maquis background as an unquestionable asset, and who can relate to her skepticism about following Starfleet's by-the-book regulations concerning weapons and strategy. He's one of the few people she can really trust because she knows exactly where he's coming from and what his limitations are likely to be.
Of the main figures in this story, we learn the least about Ro, who acts predictably as an ex-Maquis discovering the atrocities of Section 31 -- as Kira wisely points out, Ro is the sort of person who takes it for granted that there are secret societies pulling people's strings everywhere. There's a very nice moment when Ro considers exploring the culture of an alien species, then realizes she's thinking like a colonialist. One wishes other Starfleet officers would be so cautious during first-contact situations, and stop assuming that the mandate to explore automatically grants the right to delve into the secrets of other cultures. Although the events are personally traumatic for Bashir, Ro seems most disturbed by the implications for the rest of the galaxy. Obviously Picard has rubbed off on her in a good way.
The only character who grates a bit is Vaughn. I think we're supposed to perceive him as a Kirk-like figure, an older guy who has made some questionable decisions in the past, breaking Starfleet rules in the name of doing the right thing. This has prevented him from turning into one of the Evil Admirals that so many of his generation have become. But he's still coming across as a superficially enigmatic know-it-all -- someone who's not going to share his wisdom except with his chosen disciples, even though Kira's his commanding officer and arguably has a right to know everything he's up to even when it's Starfleet instead of station business, just because it's better for the drama to withhold information. It feels contrived, and as a result the character seems phony even when he's being sincere. Abyss does contain a bombshell revelation about Vaughn's family background, but it's not developed, so one wonders why it's in this story rather than a later Deep Space Nine novel.
I do have one semi-substantial gripe, though it involves very few pages in the book. It's bemusing that after a half-dozen lifetimes among humans, Ezri doesn't recognize a line from the Bible, but it's downright annoying that her curiosity gives Bashir a chance to extrapolate and quote more extensively. A later image of innocent beings crucified on trees makes one wonder what message the writers are trying to shove down our throats. I'm with Roddenberry in that Christianity should stay out of Star Trek; these details seem jarring and misplaced here, considering that Bashir doesn't quote ancient literature regularly and doesn't show any evidence of traditional religious background that would enable a reader to assume it's his past talking. Moreover, there is no such thing as the "Judeo-Christian" Bible, as Abyss claims; Jewish scripture is markedly different in language and interpretation from the Christian Testaments, and the "Judeo-" gets erased in such elisions.
Overall, though, both Abyss and the Section 31 series in general are superbly done -- certainly one of Pocket Books' better Trek miniseries. My recommendation would be to read them closer to the order in which the events in the books occurred -- Cloak first, then Rogue, then Shadow which isn't terribly substantial, and finally Abyss.
Click here to buy Section 31: Abyss from amazon.com.
Trek Book Reviews