07 February 2010

Book review: Star Trek: My Enemy, My Ally

Star Trek: My Enemy, My Ally
By Diane Duane (1984)

After reading and enjoying Vulcan’s Glory, D. C. Fontana’s sole Star Trek novel, decided to go further into the world of Trek books. However, just any Trek novel wouldn’t do; I wanted an interesting topic and an author I trusted. So I set course for Diane Duane’s “Rihannsu” books, the first three of which are collected in the omnibus Rihannsu: The Bloodwing Voyages.

My Enemy, My Ally is the first of this series, which centers on the Romulans. (According the books, Romulans refer to themselves in their own language as Rihannsu, a sensible idea for the author to explore since it is unlikely that an alien would name themselves after an an historical myth from ancient Earth history.) Duane’s name is a huge draw, since I’m a fan of her YA series “The Young Wizards,” and she has a strong reputation among Trek readers as one of the finest authors to play in Gene Roddenberry’s universe. But the Romulans sealed the deal for me: they are my favorite of all Star Trek alien races, the other great “villain” species along with the Klingons. The Romulans are a semi-Roman style race of “dignified schemers,” and my love of Roman history and the Latin language gives them immense appeal for me personally. Plus, they were the stars of two of my favorite episodes of ‘60s Star Trek: “Balance of Terror” and “The Enterprise Incident.”

The story takes place in 2270, putting it at the end of the original five-year mission of the USS Enterprise under Captain James T. Kirk. The Federation and the Romulans maintain an uneasy truce on either side of the famous Neutral Zone. The Romulans have an alliance with the Klingons, and have purchased and re-fit a number of Klingon vessels (this per a budget-saving move in “The Enterprise Incident”), but both sides are looking for an excuse to buck the other—and preferably causing grief to the Federation. (The Klingons play almost no role in the story, despite these hints, and I’m fine with that; Klingons are so damned overexposed.)

The plot calls to mind an episode from the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “The Defector,” where a high-level Romulan comes to the side of the Federation because he believes his people have violated their code of conduct and may destroy their civilization with their actions. The Romulan “defector” in this early story is Commander Ael t’Rllaillieu, aunt of the female Romulan Commander in “The Enterprise Incident.” Ael has apparently crossed swords with James T. Kirk in her ship Bloodwing before. But when she crosses the Neutral Zone in Bloodwing after a gathering a ships on both sides of the Zone, she comes an ally. According to Ael, the Romulans are testing a genetic method of learning the mind techniques of the Vulcans, their distant ancestors. The technology requires the large-scale kidnapping and dissection of Vulcans. Ael believes that the standards of the Empire are compromised, and the results of the mind-technology will threaten the Romulans, Klingons, and Federation. She wants the Enterprise’s help in destroying Levaeri V, the source of the experiment. Kirk is understandably hesitant about Ael’s plan to fake a seizure of the Enterprise, but when the Romulans make a frightening display of their mental weapons, the captain has to accept the plan and the daring attempt on Levaeri V.

Duane’s focus on the Romulans and the development of their culture is the book’s principle attraction. In the opening chapters, Duane provides extensive amounts of the Romulan’s language (she had originally asked Pocket Books if she could develop the language in a book, the way that Klingon had), and the book maintains an even balance of POV between Federation characters and Ael. Although Duane uses Romulan heroes, she doesn’t spoil the race’s repute for treachery and plotting and their general adversarial position. As the story unfolds, readers will never feel certain exactly which Romulans to trust, and will feel Kirk’s anxiety over what Ael might actually be planning. No one is ever sure what a Romulan might try—one of the reasons they make fascinating opponents and quirky allies.

When My Enemy, My Ally deals with the classic Enterprise crew, it’s less effective. Perhaps this is why I haven’t felt much pull toward Trek novels before, and that the first one I chose to read featured lesser-known characters. The standard Kirk–Spock–Bones repartee feels tired on the page; I’ve seen so much of it that reading it isn’t that interesting. Duane has the style of the characters down perfectly, especially McCoy, and that might be part of the trouble. I simply know what to expect from these people, and I receive exactly that. This isn’t so much a distraction in the second half of the book, where the Enterprise is working with Romulans and the crews of other Federation ships. There’s also so much action that the characters’ dialogue can deal with that and almost nothing else.

Yeah, action… Duane brings on a lot of it. Escapes, surface raids, shoot-outs, a clash to clear out an invasion of the Enterprise, and a corker of a space-battle. Readers who want plenty of excitement in their Trek novels will get what they want here, and Duane never fails to hatch up a clever—and foreshadowed—solution to the many tight spots our heroes get into. Considering how philosophic many of Duane’s novels are, I was surprised with this fast-pace. I sometimes wearied of the technobabble-heavy suspense and wished the book would spend more time with Ael and her relationship with Kirk (although with fewer 4-D chess references). Perhaps the later Rihannsu novels, which follow Ael as she faces the consequences of her actions here, will dig even deeper into Romulan culture.

Duane brings onto the stage a huge number of non-humanoid races, such as the Denebrians, and the big alien zoo gets distracting. The cast of My Enemy, My Ally is filled with too many supernumerary figures fitted with bizarre physical descriptions. Prose lets Star Trek stretch out where a TV show budget would hold it back, but most of these aliens don’t feel proper in the Trek universe. The exception is the delightful character of Ensign Naraht, a Horta. Yes, a Horta… the rock-creature from the classic episode “Devil in the Dark.” Apparently, the new generation of Horta have grown up fast, and Star Fleet has welcomed living rocks as crewmembers. Groovy.

Honestly, My Enemy, My Ally is an uneven start for a series: not enough Romulan culture, too many minor characters, and an action-heavy plot. It never lacks for excitement, but there’s a lot more characterization to mine from the lead species. I hope I’ll see more of that in The Romulan Way (co-written with Duane’s husband Peter Morwood) and Swordhunt, the next two books in the volume. The newest Rihannsu book, The Empty Chair, is currently available separately.

Weirdest moment: a strange cameo by Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor. Apparently, in the Star Trek universe, Doctor Who is also a popular show.