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Star Trek: The Motion Picture / Book Review "Ex Machina"

The STTMP Viewing Party at kirkspock today got me thinking about "Ex Machina" by Christopher L. Bennett, which is one of my favorite pro Trek novels. I reviewed this book for a Yahoo group years ago, and thought I’d dust off the review and post it here.

"Ex Machina” is a direct sequel to both "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" and "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched The Sky".

When “Ex Machina” came out I hadn’t read a pro Trek novel in at least ten years; I was completely burned out by too many boring pro forma books. But when someone posted the following excerpt on a K/S Yahoo group I just had to pay attention:

**********
McCoy grimaced. "Ahh, you're no fun anymore." He leaned back, thinking. "Well, there's always family. Sometimes they'll listen when nobody else will." Spock just stared. "Oh. Yeah, right. If Sarek practically disowned you for choosing your own career, I can just imagine how he reacted to your coming out of the closet."

"'Closet,' Doctor?"

"Never mind."
*********

OK, so it’s not what you think.

It’s about Spock decision to explore emotion post Vger – coming out of the “emotional closet” as it were. But remember when Pocket Books ran screaming at even the slightest hint of slash?

Here’s a short list of things I liked about this book. Then I got into detail (and include some spoilers.)

This book is a really good examination of how Spock deals with his epiphany in STTMP regarding emotion.

I love the way the author handles the friendship between Spock and McCoy.

This book, like the best of classic Trek is *about* big political issues, perfectly woven in to a good SF plot.

And, the book picks up on one of my favorite plot bunnies. Vulcan prejudice against Spock because he’s willing to mindmeld with *anything* (whether human, horta or machine.)

Now for more detail.

It’s established in STTMP that there are now other Vulcans on board the Enterprise. In “Ex Machina”, these Vulcans are highly prejudiced against Spock’s decision to explore emotion. One of them transfers off the Enterprise because she doesn't want to serve with him. Another Vulcan expresses disgust because Spock is a "melder" – that Spock is willing to merge minds with *anything*. This Vulcan goes on to blame "melders" for the "breakdown of morality" in Vulcan society. He feels the only proper place for a mindmeld is with your spouse, and then this sort of behavior shouldn't be indulged in too often, because it involves direct contact with the emotions of another being, and appeals to the emotional, rather than the rational, side of beings.

The key theme for the 'big three' – Kirk, Spock and McCoy - is competence. Both Kirk and McCoy need to regain lost competence.

Kirk discovers that many of his crew don't trust him. They view him as a reckless, out-of-touch-admiral who took the Enterprise from her rightful captain (Will Decker).

Spock has to develop a new competence - emotional intelligence.

There are some nice scenes between Spock and McCoy. I particularly liked the one where Spock goes to McCoy, admits that McCoy was right about the need for emotion in a person's life, and adds that he's confused about how it works, particularly when it comes to negative emotions like anger. (On more than one occasion the other Vulcans attempt to provoke into a display of destructive emotion (or, as McCoy says, they try to “get his goat”), as their way of proving the Vulcan way is the correct one, and that Spock is heading down the wrong road.)

But he finds McCoy at a really low point. The prospect of seeing Natira has forced McCoy to confront the fact that he's screwed up every relationship in his life. When they return to Yonada McCoy is feeling too gunshy to face Natira again, so he sends Chapel on the mission instead.

Then there's a medical emergency with one of the new alien crewmembers; he knows nothing about her species, so he gets the treatment wrong and she nearly dies. Other crewmembers, who know Chapel could have handled the emergency, feel McCoy is an out-of-touch xenophobic bigot.

So when Spock comes to ask him how emotions work, McCoy is forced to admit Spock has called his bluff. And Spock actually helps McCoy deal with some of what he is feeling.

Another thing I like about this book is that it's absolutely true to the Classic Trek theme of telling a story about current politics by cloaking the plotline in the imagery of the future.

"For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky" is one of several TOS epsiodes where Kirk kills the god-computer and frees the people (Landru, Vaal, etc.). It's pretty amazing how many of those episodes were in the original series; this was clearly one of Gene Roddenberry's obsessions.

This book deals with the consequences of this sort of cultural destruction. In the show, Kirk always assumes the people are going to be a lot better off without their god-computer. Once he destroys it, he flies off in the Enterprise, and we never learn what happens to the people next. Which, in this instance, turns out to be a great big mess. (To be fair, in “Return of the Archons” Kirk leaves behind a team of professionals to help the people out; one of these people is a main character in this novel).

The Yonadans are on their new planet, and the asteroid-ship is orbiting above. The Yonadans now know that their "god", the Oracle, was a computer, and that they were worshipping a computer. Now, in Kirk's POV, and that of one of the main original characters, a Vulcan Federation assistant to Natira, they should have realized, "oh, silly us, we were worshipping a *computer*." But the conclusion many of the Yonadans reach is, the Oracle is a computer - the Oracle is a god - therefore all computers are gods. Some of them hang out at the Federation installation to worship the computer there.

Because they now have information about the Federation, they have learned that Kirk has quite a reputation as a "godkiller", having destroyed several other god-computers on other planets. So Kirk is demonized among many of the Yonadans.

One particular sect is obsessed with Vger, and the fact that Kirk didn't succeed in destroying it, but rather that it ascended to a higher plane. They feel this ascension was triggered by Spock mindmelding with it, so they kidnap Spock in order to force him to meld with the Oracle in order to trigger another "ascension".

The author does a great job examining the role of religion in a society. There are terrorist attacks, suicide bombings, rivalries between religious sects, conflicts between moderates, liberals and conservatives, conflicts between rationality and emotion; agnosticism and theism. There is the role of the personal in the political.

The author included dozens of references to TOS episodes, and did it in such a way that it was both organic to the storyline, invisible to people who wouldn't remember details from the episodes, and intrinisic to the lives of the characters. He really created a wonderful mosaic with all these details, so you are left with the impression of people who have lived full and complicated lives; that all of the "episodic" TV shows actually formed a complete arc. He even included details that the audience wouldn't have "known" at the time of STTMP, but the characters would. There is a specific reference to Kirk's son David Marcus; there is an oblique reference to Sybok.

I particularly liked the authors in-joke re Babylon 5. There's one scene where someone suggests the idea of an all-telepath security squad to Chekov, but he's creeped out by the idea. Koenig, of course, played the head of the Psi Corps in B5.

And the author included one thing that always attracts me - fictional archeological quests and objects. I love that sort of thing. Part of the resolution of the book is exploring the archeology of Yonada. I usually get bored by technobabble, but in this instance, exploring how the asteroid-ship was originally constructed was crucial to the plot. They find lost informational troves which describe how the ship was originally conceived and built, they find concealed artifacts which add understanding to how the Yonadan religion was originally developed, and how various revolutions during the 10,000 years the ship spent travelling to its new world utterly changed the original intent of the ship builders, and how religion accreted around technology.

The author put one hell of a lot of thought into every aspect of this novel.

A quote from the first chapter of the book as posted on Amazon:

************
"I do not see how that could be," Spock said, furrowing his brow. "Lately I have made a point of confronting ideas and issues I have avoided in the past. I have been in the process of reevaluating all of my beliefs."

"All while I've been doing my level best not to gloat too much," McCoy interposed.

Spock's look showed what he thought of that. "You may wish to reserve your gloating, Doctor. I have not yet reached my conclusions. There is still much of merit in the body of Vulcan thought. And even if I have chosen to accept my emotions, they are still Vulcan emotions, not human. I cannot assume that the human path is valid for me."

McCoy quirked one of his own brows. "Then maybe you should be talking to Dr. Onami. She's the new xenopsychologist. If anyone understands anything about Vulcan emotions," and he shook his head at the phrase, "it's more likely to be her than me."

Spock frowned. "I am...uneasy with that suggestion. As you know, I am a private man. Even though Dr. Onami is no doubt quite skilled, I would prefer not to share these matters with a stranger."

Spock could see in McCoy's eyes what it meant to him to be counted among those Spock trusted enough to confide in. Still, evidently he couldn't resist teasing. "Turning down the help of the most qualified person? That's not very logical, is it?"

"No...it is not."

McCoy grimaced. "Ahh, you're no fun anymore." He leaned back, thinking. "Well, there's always family. Sometimes they'll listen when nobody else will." Spock just stared. "Oh. Yeah, right. If Sarek practically disowned you for choosing your own career, I can just imagine how he reacted to your coming out of the closet."

"'Closet,' Doctor?"

"Never mind."

"In any case, I have not yet told Sarek or Amanda of my...recent insights."

************
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Comments

Coincidentally, out of nowhere I watched the Vger film the other day and since then it has come up in several posts from completely different people on my flist.
I just love these sorts of coincidences.
Your review reminded me of enjoying that book, the complex and engaging plot and the interplay between characters. It will certinly remain as one of my favourite in my stash of Trek books!
It's definitely one of my favorites as well - glad you enjoyed me review. :-)
Thanks for taking the time to write this. For a long while, I bought every Trek book out there (partly because of limited access to fanfic), and then just stopped when I'd read too many mediocre ones. (Also, I became friends with John M. Ford, and heard too much about the politics of how they were written and authors were chosen. Law and sausages, indeed.)

I still have a number of favorites, but I don't think I've read this one -- or if I have, it's time for a reread.
They were mostly mediocre - like you I read them because of the limited amount of fanfic, but that's definitely not been a problem for quite some time now. I stopped reading them in the 90s - if a friend recced one, I'd check it out, but otherwise, no.

I've heard some things about the politics of how they were written - it certainly shows in the mediocre plotlines and boring characterization of so many of them.

That's why it was such a surprise to me that this one was so good. How'd it slip through? :-)
Fascinating plot.