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Star Trek: Section 31: Control

Late in the run of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the show revealed the existence of a covert group that had been operating secretly with the Federation for over 200 years called Section 31.  This black ops agency was tasked with doing whatever was necessary to protect the Federation’s interest, but operated without oversight and without any restrictions.  The idea that the Federation, the utopian society created by Gene Roddenberry, might have been supported by such an immoral, whatever-it-takes organization was seen as controversial by some Star Trek fans.  Personally, I loved the idea.  It was just one way in which DS9, in my mind the greatest of the Trek series, confronted the realities of the civilization Gene Roddenberry had originated, and forced its characters to make tough moral choices in a difficult, grey universe.  “It’s easy to be a saint in Paradise,” DS9′s main character, Benjamin Sisko, stated at one point.  It is much harder to be a saint in the real world, and part of DS9′s greatness was that it repeatedly confronted its heroic characters with difficult moral dilemmas.

Section 31 became a major story-point in the series’ last year and a half.  After discovering the existence of the organization, Doctor Julian Bashir and Chief of Operations Miles O’Brien worked to defeat 31 and drag the organization into the light.  In the series’ antipenultimate episode, “Extreme Measures'” Bashir and O’Brien finally strike a major victory against 31 and find the secret to saving Odo from the morphogenic virus that 31 had created to destroy the Founders.  I think DS9′s final run of episodes is the best sustained run of Star Trek episodes ever, though actually I think “Extreme Measures” is something of a weak link.  Section 31 had been built up as such a powerful organization, with its tendrils throughout the Federation, that it felt too easy how Bashir and OBrien were able to outwit them.

And so I have been pleased that Pocket Books’ Star Trek novels have picked up the thread of Section 31, re-establishing them as a major adversary for our heroes.  These post-finale novels have suggested that Bashir and O’Brien’s actions in “Extreme Measures” did mot defeat 31, that it was just a minor setback for the still-powerful organization.  Over the course of the last decade-plus of Trek novels, we have followed Dr. Bashir’s continuing efforts to defeat the insidious Section 31.  Author David Mack seems to have taken chief charge of this story-line in his recent novels A Ceremony of Losses and Section 31: Disavowed.  Forced out of Starfleet following the events of The Fall crossover series, Dr. Bashir and Sarina Douglas have together attempted to infiltrate Section 31 as double-agents, working to destroy the agency from within.  Section 31: Disavowed, published in 2014, ended on a cliffhanger, with the revelation that the leadership of 31 had been aware of Bashir and Sarina’s efforts all along, and the discovery of the mysterious “Control” who was the never-before-seen head of 31.

It has been a long three years since Disavowed was published.  But at last Mr. Mack’s follow-up novel, Control, has been released.  As the novel opens, reporter Ozla Graniv (who was first created by author Keith R. A. DeCandido may years ago, and who has subsequently appeared in several other Trek novels) has discovered a secret surveillance system that might be the key to the way Section 31 is able to secretly keep track of events happening all over the galaxy.  She brings this knowledge to Bashir, who sees in it a way to at last get the upper hand over 31.  On the outs from Starfleet and fearful of attracting 31’s attention, Bashir and Sarina track down the recently-resurrected (in Mr. Mack’s previous Cold Equations trilogy) android Data and his daughter Lal.  But 31 is ahead of Bashir and his friends at every step, and rather than being able to make a move against 31, Bashir and his small group of allies soon find themselves alone and on the run.

I have mixed feelings about Section 31: Control.  It is, without question, a very entertaining, fast-paced read.  Mr. Mack excels at writing exciting, suspenseful Trek stories, and Section 31: Control is in many ways a great example of this type of work that Mr. Mack does best.  Mr. Mack has been writing novels focusing on Bashir and Sarina for years now, and so it is exciting to see him continue to develop those characters and their stories.

Control is notable in that, after many years of following these continuing stories, it provides a definite conclusion to both Bashir and Sarina’s efforts to destroy 31 as well as the story of their love affair.  It is very exciting to see these long-running stories reach their climax.

But the book has two down-sides, in my opinion.  The first is that the novel suffers somewhat from the same problem that “Extreme Measures” did (as I had noted above).  Section 31 has been so well-developed as such as powerful enemy — and so much of this novel is designed to show us even more than we already knew about just how powerful 31 has become, over the centuries of its existence — that it is hard for any ending to not feel anticlimactic.  I feel like there are plenty of holes I could poke in the book’s climax.  Why wasn’t Bashir’s small pod identified and shot down before it landed on Memory Alpha?  Why didn’t any of the facility’s guards see the ship come down, or the enormous gouge in the landscape that we read the ship’s landing left?  Why did 31 send only the brainwashed Sarina to stop Bashir?  Where was L’Haan?  Why wouldn’t she and a squadron of other 31 fighters been there along with Sarina to ensure Bashir could not complete his mission?  I did like the suggestion, at the very end, that perhaps Control had wanted Bashir to succeed all along — something I started to suspect early in the novel when Control resisted L’Haan’s reasonable requests to have Bashir and Sarina killed — but still, it gives the book’s climax a somewhat anticlimactic feel.  (Also: why did we never see L’Haan again after she discovered Control’s secret??  I was sure she would factor into the finale, and was stunned that she did not.)

The book’s other problem, in my mind, concerns the parallel story that is told throughout the novel, charting the history of Section 31 from the moment of its inception.  I actually really enjoyed these aspects of the novel, and I thought it was a very clever idea to tell the story of 31’s beginning at the same time as we were following the story of its end.  But while these chapters were great, they felt too superficial to me.  This story cried out for a more detailed telling, in my opinion.  I felt both halves of the book needed twice as much space as they had, in order to have truly given these two stories their due.

More importantly, while I am NOT someone who has ever objected to the creation of Section 31 in DS9, I must admit to have been troubled by the suggestion in this novel that 31, and specifically Control, have secretly guided all of Star Trek history.  It’s one thing to suggest that, behind the scenes, the agents of 31 had been doing some dark deeds to keep Federation citizens safe.  But Mr. Mack’s story goes far beyond that, suggesting, for instance, that it was Control and 31 — not Jonathan Archer — who shaped the events that led to the founding of the Federation; that Control and 31 instigated the Romulan War, that Control and 31 caused the events that led other planets and civilizations to join the Federation, rather than the strength of the Federation’s society and values being the primary appeal, and on and on.  While perhaps this is a more realistic view of Star Trek’s future-history, it feels to me that it completely darkens and corrupts Star Trek’s idealistic vision of the future.  This is not the way I want to think that Star Trek history unfolded.  There is a big part of me that just wants to ignore this entire section of the novel.

There is a lot more to enjoy in Section 31: Control.  I loved seeing Data and Lal again.  I had no idea those characters would be involved in this story, but it makes perfect sense that they would be.  I like the way that Mr. Mack fleshed out the organization and structure of Section 31.  In an ideal world, I wish that the entity called Control had been fleshed out across several novels, rather than being introduced and defeated all in the course of this one book.  But that being said, I liked the idea of Control as the power behind 31.  This idea made sense, and Control was well-developed in this book as a true threat to our heroes and the galaxy as a whole.

I loved the way Mr. Mack brought Garak back into the story.  It was, as always, magical seeing Bashir and Garak paired up again. Although Garak has appeared in several previous post-finale DS9 novels, I don’t believe we have ever before seen Garak and Bashir reunited (following their last scene together in the DS9 finale), so it was a thrill for that to happen here.  Though even with this aspect of the book, I do have a criticism, and that is the suggestion, made several times in the book, that Garak was jealous of Bashir’s romantic partner Sarina. Recent Trek novels by Una McCormack, specifically The Crimson Shadow, seem to have made explicit the long under-the-surface idea that Garak was gay.  I was happy to see that.  But I was bothered by the suggestion here in this book that Garak would be jealous of Bashir’s being with a woman.  That seems insulting to the idea of Garak as a gay man.  I suppose it could be argued that Garak has always been possessive of his relationship with his friend Bashir, and that’s all that Mr. Mack meant with that here, but that’s not how it read to me.  I was also surprised that Garak’s partner Parmak, as established in Ms. McCormack’s novesl, was not present here.  (That absence was particularly notable to me at the end of the novel, when Garak agrees to take custody over you-know-who, an event you’d think he might want to discuss with the person sharing his life.)

Speaking of the end of the book: wow.  I was happy to see that Bashir’s ultimate victory over 31 was not without terrible cost.  I saw one aspect of that cost coming a mile away, but the other part of it really blew my mind.  If this is the last we ever see of Bashir, it is a perfect, heartbreaking end to his story.  But it also could be the fruit for many further stories, assuming that Bashir will be seen again.  I can’t wait to see were his story goes from here.

While I clearly have some issues with Section 31: Control, I am thrilled to see the cliffhanger left by the end of Disavowed be resolved in such dramatic fashion.  Mr. Mack is a great writer, and once again he has created a rip-roaring Trek adventure, filled with high-stake threats and nearly insurmountable odds for our heroes to attempt to overcome.  It is always a pleasure when Mr. Mack is writing in the Trek sandbox, and I eagerly await his next book.

Previous Star Trek novel reviews:

Star Trek – Unspoken Truth , Troublesome MindsCast No ShadowExcelsior: Forged in FireAllegiance in Exile, Legacies Book 1: Captain to CaptainLegacies Book 2: Best DefenseLegacies Book 3: Purgatory’s Key, The Face of the Unknown

Star Trek: The Next Generation – The Sky’s The LimitResistance and Q & ABefore Dishonor and Greater than the SumDestiny trilogyA Singular DestinyLosing the Peace, Immortal CoilCold Equations Book 1: The Persistence of MemoryCold Equations Book 2: Silent WeaponsCold Equations Book 3: The Body ElectricThe Light Fantastic, Takedown, Armageddon’s Arrow, Prey Book 1: Hell’s Heart, Prey Book 2: The Jackal’s Trick, Prey Book 3: The Hall of Heroes, Headlong Flight

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – DS9 relaunch overviewThe Soul KeyThe Never-Ending SacrificePlagues of Night and Raise the Dawn, Section 31: Disavowed, The Missing, Sacraments of Fire, Ascendance, Force and Motion, The Long Mirage

Star Trek: Voyager – Full CircleUnworthyChildren of the StormThe Eternal TideProtectors

Star Trek: Enterprise — Kobayashi MaruThe Romulan War: Beneath the Raptor’s WingThe Romulan War: To Brave the StormRise of the Federation: A Choice of FuturesRise of the Federation: Tower of Babel

Star Trek: Titan – Book 1: Taking WingBook 2: The Red KingBook 3: Orion’s HoundsBook 4: Sword of DamoclesUnder a Torrent SeaSynthesisFallen Gods, Absent Enemies (e-book), Sight Unseen

Star Trek: Typhon Pact – Book 1: Zero-Sum GameBook 2: Seize the FireBook 3: Rough Beasts of EmpireBook 4: Paths of Disharmony, The Struggle Within (e-book), Plagues of Night and Raise the DawnBrinkmanship

Star Trek: The Fall — Book 1: Revelation and DustBook 2: The Crimson ShadowBook 3: A Ceremony of LossesBook 4: The Poisoned ChaliceBook 5: Peaceable Kingdoms

Star Trek: New Frontier – Series overviewStone & Anvil, After the Fall, and Missing in ActionTreason and Blind Man’s Bluff

Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations – Watching the ClockForgotten History

Star Trek: The Lost Era – Book 1: The Sundered (2298)Book 2: Serpents Among the Ruins (2311)Book 3: The Art of the Impossible (2328-2346)The Buried Age (2355-2364)One Constant Star (2319)

Star Trek: Mirror Universe (Books 1 & 2) – Star Trek: Mirror Universe: Shards & Shadows – Star Trek: Mirror Universe: The Sorrows of Empire — Star Trek: Mirror Universe: Rise Like Lions –  Star Trek: Myriad Universes (Books 1 & 2) – Star Trek: Myriad Universes: Shattered Light

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

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