Thursday, 11 October 2012

Admiral Who? - Luke Sky Wachter


Humans love having someone to blame for their problems. Admiral Battenberg of the Riyal Navy was hounded from office for having a German name in 1914. Stalin lopped off the heads of officers he blamed for disasters suffered by the Red Army during World War Two, as did Saddam. The whole idea of a scapegoat in times of trouble is as old as humanity itself. Someone has to be the fall guy.

In the universe of Admiral Who, the Montagne family launched an attempted coup against the government – and lost. Naturally, everyone on the wrong side (the one that lost) who managed to survive was treated as a pariah from that moment onwards. Jason Montagne grew up knowing that his sole role in life was to serve as Parliament commanded, with execution waiting in the wings if he showed any signs of political ambition. (Not too unlike a British Royal, only we hound them with reporters instead.) His latest position – which is supposed to be purely honorary – is nominal commander of a fleet in deep space. Real power is firmly in the hands of the Imperial Admiral in command...

...Until the Imperials withdraw, taking with them the best and brightest of the fleet – and leaving Jason in command. Jason, who knows nothing about deep space operations, let alone combat. Jason, who will be executed for returning home with a fleet, even one that seems on the verge of mutiny. Jason, who seems thoroughly screwed.

Jason is far from a perfect hero, which is part of his charm. He blunders from crisis to crisis – mutinous crews, an invading enemy – somehow managing to stay ahead of absolute disaster. His ignorance is both his strength and weakness; at one point, he gives a very famous sword to a girl he rescued, only to discover that she was furious with him. It turns out that giving a girl a sword, in her culture, is a proposal of marriage. And to add to the problem, there was more than a hint of accidental coercion in his actions...which makes Jason look like a dishonourable prat rather than someone who made a honest mistake.

He is helped by an Engineer who may be more than a little insane (and utterly devoted to the Lucky Clover, the ship Jason commands) and a crew that seems rather split on the issue of following him. Some just want to go home, others fear what he could do with an entire starship and plot to kill him.

As the story progresses, Jason finds himself growing into his role – even if everyone does keep asking the same question. “Admiral WHO?”

Overall, this book is a wonderful blend of comedy and space opera, very much like the early pulp science-fiction stories. If you liked the Stainless Steel Rat books, you’ll like this one. It is well worth a read.

Admiral Who can be downloaded from Amazon Kindle.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Dark Mirror (Star Trek: The Next Generation)


-Dianne Dune

“It is easier for the civilised man to play the barbarian than vice versa.”

Star Trek has often been a hit-or-miss show for me. Some episodes had great ideas, some were corny and often puerile. But one of the most interesting shows was Mirror, Mirror, when Captain Kirk and three of his crew were tossed into an alternate universe where the Federation had been replaced by an Empire (and Spock had a goatee). Sadly, Captain Picard’s crew never visited the original alternate universe and when Deep Space Nine came around, the evil counterpart to the Federation had been destroyed. Tedious and boring, said I.

Dark Mirror is one of the few STING novels I have bothered to reread; it is also one of the best. While on very deep space patrol, the USS Enterprise is kidnapped into an alternate universe as the final step before the Empire jumps across the universal barriers and invades the Federation. The crew of the Enterprise find themselves unable, at first, to understand what is going on, until they discover that they have been covertly boarded by a counterpart from the ISS Enterprise. They have to board the Imperial Starship to learn how to build their own ‘inversion device’ that will allow them to return home, all the while avoiding the evil machinations of Mirror Troi.

The Next Generation was known for its rather...pollyanish view of the universe, where Captain Picard can give a speech and convince old hatreds to magically fade away into the ether. Where Dark Mirror shines is in its portrayal of an alternate crew, one that rose to high-ranking positions in an empire of stunning brutality and ruthlessness. Mirror Riker is a backstabbing cunning loon looking out for his chance to off his Captain and take command of the Enterprise for himself. Mirror Troi is a mind-raping security officer who prowls through unwary thoughts for any hint of betrayal (makes you wonder how the people she talked to in OTL felt about the empathy.) Mirror Worf, his homeworld crushed beneath the Empire’s boot, is a broken shadow of the honourable warrior we know. Mirror Beverly Crusher is Mirror Picard’s ‘Captain’s Woman.’

Sometimes, this can be quite striking. Captain Picard and Mirror Picard seem to be opposite personalities, but there are moments when it is clear that they are the same person. They share an abiding love for the Enterprise that overpowers all other loves, as Mirror Beverly points out to Captain Picard (while convinced that he is her Captain.) Mirror Picard is also responsible, it seems, for murdering Beverly’s husband to get his hands on her, and her son. (Who seems to want to kill him.) Other characters are more pronounced inversions; Barclay, a semi-coherent engineering officer in Captain Picard’s crew, is the head of Mirror Picard’s security detail.

Service to the Empire is no bed of roses. Senior officers know that they could be assassinated at any moment, or replaced by security for no reason. Junior officers and crewmen are at the mercy of their superiors. All of them carry agonise devices for immediate punishment if they screw up, longer punishments involve sessions in the Agony Booth. It is not a safe place to live or work.

Dark Mirror also takes a look at the history of the Mirror Universe, one that differs from the Deep Space Nine version and is considerably better. There, there was no Khan – and therefore no Eugenics Wars. Instead, there was a bitter Third World War which ended with the Empire determined never to run close to the brink of extinction again. The human race roared out into the galaxy, making common cause with the Vulcans (themselves different from their original universe versions) and exterminating or enslaving everyone else. Mirror Picard’s early career is a dark inversion of the first season of TNG, with mass slaughter and outright genocide instead of noble speeches and high ideals.

Captain Picard claims, towards the end of the book, that the Empire is simply expanding too far, too fast, and that it will eventually collapse like a house of cards. His counterpart seems aware of it too, hence the plan to invade the Federation and escape the coming chaos.

On the downside, there are odd moments in this book. The most jarring is Riker and Worf going to the holodeck to enjoy some opera in the midst of crisis. This isn't exactly badly written, with some amusing comments on the long-term effects of opera fighting in the Klingon Empire, but it is odd.

Overall, however, this is one of the best characters-meet-evil counterparts stories out there, something that rarely happens in TV. It is certainly a better version of the trope than the Deep Space Nine series and those written by Captain Kirk.

The Story of Martha (Doctor Who)

One of the persistent jokes from British radio plays in the 1960s was ‘let’s see them do this on television,’ after describing an impossible feat like one person standing on a second person’s shoulders and then pulling the first person up beside him. A problem with any SF show from that era, like Doctor Who, was that special effects were very limited. It was often impossible to perform the acts that the plot needed.

This does not really apply to books, of course. The Doctor Who New Adventures could be set anywhere, in any time period, without having to worry about the high cost of special effects – or, for that matter, the availability of specific actors. The Eighth Doctor could visit all seven previous Doctors, despite some of the actors being dead or significantly different from their Who-form. For that matter, a massive army of Daleks could fight it out in a civil war without breaking the BBC’s entire budget. The only real limits were the writer’s imagination.

And that, I think sums up why The Story of Martha is such a disappointment.

I never warmed up to Martha, mainly because she acted more like a lovesick puppy following the Doctor rather than as a person in her own right. (Mind you, this worked out fairly well in some episodes.) However, it is often difficult to create a complex character on a TV screen, so I hoped she would do better in a novel. There are some good points in her story, I will happily admit, but the whole idea is basically wasted.

The background is simple; The Master has wrapped the whole Earth in a paradox field, creating an alternate timeline where he has crushed the human race and is now planning to build a fleet of warships to invade the rest of the universe. Martha is travelling from place to place, trying to organise resistance and telling everyone about the Doctor, for reasons that are explained in the last episode. In the course of her travels, she tells three different stories of her life with the Doctor and escapes the Master’s goons, as well as encountering other aliens on Earth.

So why is this a wasted opportunity?

Let’s be clear on this; the Doctor has been visiting Earth for centuries. He has a network of friends and allies scattered across the planet, including Sarah Jane Smith (who guest-starred in an early Tenth Doctor Adventure.) Even if we limit the scope of the Doctor’s friends to the adventures of the Ninth Doctor onwards, there are still plenty of potential guest stars, ranging from Donna Noble to Jack’s Torchwood institute. Martha’s brother? What about Harriet Jones?

Actually, Harriet Jones might have been the best possible person to introduce. An interview with RTD made it clear that the Tenth Doctor’s decision to arrange for her dismissal as PM opened the gap for the Master to jump in and take over the world. Dealing with the consequences of that decision would have made a fitting plot for the story.

If I had written it, I would have brought back all the guest stars who are no longer with us, because no one really dies in a TV world. The Brigadier could have led resistance against the Master, along with UNIT; just imagine Martha fleeing while the remains of UNIT make a final stand against the Master’s flying servants. Or the hidden aliens on Earth who might have joined the fight. There was so much potential in this idea. Instead, we get three stories that really don’t blend together.

A fan should have written this book.