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Star Trek Typhon Pact: Zero Sum Game

November 19th, 2010

David Mack is one of the best of the group of extraordinarily talented, reliable writers who have been writing new Star Trek novels for Pocket Books for the past several years.  It’s the compelling work of these core writers that has kept me engaged with the novels’ expansion and continuation of the Star Trek saga.  So when Amazon delivered me his latest novel, Star Trek Typhon Pact: Zero Sum Game, it immediately jumped to the top of my lengthy to-read stack.

Mr. Mack’s stories have been among my favorite Trek novels from the past few years: his terrific, tense DS9 novel Warpath (click here for my review); his Mirror Universe story The Sorrows of Empire (click here for my review); and his game-changing three-part Star Trek Destiny series (click here for my review).  (I have his novel-length expansion of The Sorrows of Empire sitting on my book-shelf.  I’m really looking forward to reading that, since I enjoyed the novella so much — this might be the next book I read.)

But despite my enjoyment of Mr. Mack’s previous work, I must admit that I had some concerns about this novel, going in.  Primarily this is based on my disappointment with the way that the Deep Space Nine series of novels has floundered.  It was the post-finale continuation of DS9 novels that got me back into Star Trek fiction, nearly a decade ago, and for the first several years I thought that Pocket Books’ DS9 series was unimpeachable.  The novels came out in fairly regular installments, and together they formed a terrifically well-made story that continued the stories of all of the beloved characters, and extended the canvas of the DS9 saga.  But after David Mack’s really fantastic novel Warpath, which ended on an excruciating cliffhanger, the series hit rough waters.  In the years since that novel’s publication (in 2006), only three post-finale-set DS9 novels have been published: two short, mediocre books, and a third novel (The Never-Ending Sacrifice) that was terrific but which told a pretty separate, distinct story that didn’t connect in any strong way to the continuing post-finale story readers have been following (click here for my review of that great book).  Whereas other novels have moved forward the stories of the other 24th-century-set Star Trek shows (we’ve seen several novels continuing the story of the crew of the Enterprise-E following the last movie, Nemesis, and there has even been a new series continuing the Voyager story), the DS9 saga has felt, to me, to have been left behind.

In his universe-spanning cross-over series, Destiny, Mr. Mack made the decision to jump ahead in the chronology and include several DS9 characters in his story, which was set several years after where the DS9 novels had left off.  That was probably a good decision, as it allowed for several DS9 characters to be included in his story — but as a fan of the DS9 series, it’s been frustrating to have so many story-arcs left hanging.  I’ve been waiting for some novels to go back and finish the story, but this latest book, Zero Sum Game, is set in the post-Destiny time-line, and Pocket Books’ 2011 schedule doesn’t seem to include ANY new DS9 books.

All of this is a long-winded way of trying to explain that, as a Deep Space Nine fan, I felt that Zero Sum Game had a lot riding on it, as it had to carry the DS9 story forward in a satisfactory way even though a whole hunk of the story is missing and as-yet-untold.  At the same time, this is the first novel in a post-Destiny inter-connected new series of novels, and so it also needed to service that story — getting this new series off to an exciting start, and moving forward all of those story-lines.

Zero Sum Game succeeds splendidly in the latter goal, but only moderately so in the former.

As the novel begins, the newly-emerged Typhon Pact — an interstellar alliance of many of the Federation’s enemies, including the Romulans, the Breen, and the Tholians — wastes little time in moving against Starfleet.  An operative breaks into the Utopia Planitia shipyards and steals the plans for Starfleet’s latest technological breakthrough: the faster-than-warp slipstream drive.  If the Typhon Pact worlds are able to equip their warships with this new drive, it would pose a significant tactical threat to Starfleet.  To prevent this from happening, Dr. Bashir and his genetically-enhanced former flame Sarina Douglas are sent undercover into Breen territory.  Their mission: locate and destroy the new prototype slipstream vessel the Breen are developing, based on the stolen plans, by any means necessary.

I enjoyed the return of Sarina.  She was featured on a handful of DS9 episodes, most notably a seventh-season installment in which, with Dr. Bashir’s help, she was able to emerge from the near-catatonia which was the result of the illegal genetic-manipulation she underwent as a child.  In that episode, the good doctor fell in love with his patient, and that emotional baggage of course comes immediately to the fore when the two are thrust together again, six years later, in this novel.  The banter between the two characters is engaging, and their relationship feels honest and real.  Mr. Mack has a great handle on Dr. Bashir, and writes him well.  It’s fun to see Bashir get the spotlight in this story.  Mr. Mack makes us feel his loneliness at the start of the tale — it’s sad to see this character at such a low place, but that makes a compelling start to the book.

I also enjoyed Mr. Mack’s work in this novel to shed some light on the nature of the mysterious Breen.  He comes up with a really ingenious hook, explained by the brilliant-but-nutty Jack early in the novel, to explain the somewhat contradictory information that previous Star Trek stories have given us about the Breen.  It’s a really clever idea that I won’t spoil here.  But after my initial excitement over that idea, once Bashir and Sarina (and we readers) finally get to spend some time immersed in Breen society, I was disappointed a bit in what we found.  Their culture seemed quite similar to that of many other alien races we’ve seen in Star Trek — particularly the Cardassians, with the small groups of dissidents fighting against their society’s militaristic, hierarchy-based authority structure.  Somehow this peek into the Breen didn’t live up to my expectations, built up by the years of mystery.

I did enjoy the glimpses we got into how the worlds of the Typhon Pact are — or are-not — working together, and Mr. Mack does a great job at building up a sense of credible danger to the Federation.  I look forward to seeing where this all goes.  I also loved seeing President Nanietta Bacco, and several other familiar faces from Keith R.A. DeCandido’s wonderful novel Articles of the Federation, return.  I hope to see more of those characters soon.

It’s in the romantic story of Bashir and Sarina where the novel was at its weakest, for me.  I can’t blame Mr. Mack for my unhappiness with the set-up, but I’m bummed that the recent DS9 novels have chosen to walk away from the Bashir-Ezri Dax romance that was established in the final hours of the DS9 TV show.  As I fan, I really loved that conclusion to the long-simmering Bashir-Dax relationship, and I thought it was a great pairing.  So I was irked to see that duo broken up, and frankly as much as I like the Sarina character she hardly seems like a suitable romantic replacement.  Mr. Mack does an admirable job at developing her character, but there’s just no way that this character who appeared in just three episodes of the TV show could possibly rival the character of Dax.  Bashir’s infatuation with Dax was a storyline that ran throughout the seven years of the show, and even Ezri we got to know over the entire final season.  So as a fan I was very invested in that character-pairing, and I’m just not won over by the Sarina-Bashir relationship.

This was hindered further by my confusion over whether Mr. Mack even WANTED us to root for the Sarina-Bashir relationship.  She takes some actions over the course of the novel that might cause us to doubt whether this is indeed the woman for Dr. Bashir.  The final chapter of the novel is phenomenal — and possibly my favorite scene in the whole book — but that even further muddies the waters.  Now, one could argue that complexity is good, and that the Trek writers need to be sure not to make things too simple for the characters or for we the readers.  That’s a good point, but as I’ve stated, as a fan who was very attached to the Bashir-Dax relationship, I need to be won over by this new pairing, and I’m not nearly there yet.

As for the concerns that I brought up at the start of this review, as to how Zero Sum Game does at moving forward the DS9 story-lines, my verdict is so-so.  The novel very carefully dances around addressing what has gone down on DS9 during the missing years.  We get hints — certain characters are no longer on the station, and a new (but familiar) figure has taken command.  The hints are intriguing, and I guess that Mr. Mack has done the best that he can, but as a DS9 fan I’m aching for more.  With no new DS9 books on the horizon, this felt like not nearly enough to me.  (Here’s just one example — it’s great to see that Prynn Tenmei is still on the station, but what’s happening with her relationship with the Andorian Shar???  I’ve been waiting for an answer to that burning question ever since the first Worlds of Deep Space Nine novel was published back in 2004!!)

I was encouraged that, rather than ending the novel with an exhortation to buy the next Typhon Pact novel (which I surely will), the last page tells us that “the saga of Deep Space Nine will continue.”

Sooner rather than later, I hope!!

Previous Star Trek novel reviews:

Star Trek: Titan — Book 1: Taking Wing, Book 2: The Red King, Book 3: Orion’s Hounds, Book 4: Sword of Damocles, Book 5: Under a Torrent Sea, Book 6: Synthesis

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine — DS9 relaunch overview, The Soul Key, The Never-Ending Sacrifice,

Star Trek: The Next Generation — The Sky’s The Limit, Destiny trilogy, A Singular Destiny, Losing the Peace,

Star Trek: The Lost Era — Book 1: The Sundered

Star Trek: Voyager — Full Circle

Star Trek: Mirror Universe (Books 1 & 2)Star Trek: Mirror Universe: Shards & ShadowsStar Trek: Myriad Universes (Books 1 & 2)

Beyond the Final Frontier — Josh’s favorite Star Trek novels

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