Musings of a fandom geek

Sometimes, you’ve just got to say “The laws of time and space? Who gives a smeg?”

Review – “What if you could travel to parallel worlds? The same year, the same Earth…”

Posted by Michael Warren on August 6, 2008

Imagine a world where the Roman Empire never fell.

Or one where Lenin never made it back to Russia to lead the Revolution.

Even a history where the Cuban Missile Crisis sparked a nuclear exchange that wiped out eight-tenths of Earth’s population.

Alternate history stories have been a part of literature for over a century, and they have been a part of Star Trek fan fiction for some time as well. Now, Pocket Books has begun exploring those “strange new times”, with the launch of the Myriad Universes series. The first volume, Infinity’s Prism, is out now.

This review contains spoilers.

I’ve been a fan of alternate history for many years – a number of novels, essay collections, and short story collections dealing with the subject can be found on my bookshelves. Some of my favourite Star Trek episodes deal with alternate histories – “Yesterday’s Enterprise” being the quintessential example. So, when this series was first announced, I eagerly anticipated exploring new timelines and altered counterparts of familiar characters. And this first volume doesn’t disappoint.

Each of the three novels contained within this hefty trade paperback take a different perspective on the historical nature of the “point of divergence” – the moment when history shifts away from what we know it to be. William Leisner’s A Less Perfect Union places it within living memory, Christopher L. Bennett’s Places of Exile starts straight from the PoD, whilst James Swallow’s Seeds of Dissent shows a world several centuries removed from the change in the timeline.

A Less Perfect Union

100 years after Terra Prime successfully kept Earth from forming a union with its neighbouring galactic powers, key players within an isolated United Earth feel the time is right to approach the Interstellar Coalition and apply for membership. Help is sought from the only person from that disasterous event still alive – but animosity is in the air, and sinister forces are working to undermine the efforts of Earth’s negotiating team…

This novel, by William Leisner, was the one I had most concerns about when the jacket copy was revealed – simply because I hadn’t seen the episodes of Enterprise from which this timeline diverges (I only saw as far as “In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II”). Fortunately, Leisner does a good job of outlining the basic events that resulted in this changed world. By setting the story in the TOS era, Leisner can use characters we are familiar with in roles that look almost like the ones we know them in: Christopher Pike commands the United Earth Starship Enterprise, with a haunted and bitter James Kirk – whose wife, Carol, and son were killed in suspicious circumstances connected to the Coalition – as first officer; Sarek represents the Vulcan delegation to the Interstellar Coalition (or does he?), whilst the conference is populated by guest characters and familiar faces.

For me, the story revolves around the challenging of perceptions and prejudices. As Earth seeks to cast off its isolation, Kirk’s hatred of the Vulcans, T’Pol’s view of humans, and the ISC’s view of Earth are all brought into sharp relief. Whilst not all are resolved or changed, Leisner shows that even small steps can ultimately lead to resolution, as illustrated in the epilogue. A strong story, and a good start to the volume.

Places of Exile

With war between Species 8472 and the Borg Collective setting the Delta Quadrant ablaze, a message of caution from Chakotay leads to a crippled Voyager, a scattered crew, and the forging of a new alliance.

Christopher L. Bennett’s tale of an alternate Voyager takes an interesting view of the point of divergence concept. Whereas normally, people writing alternate histories change an event, Bennett changes a character’s words, and thus leads history down a different path.

Going back to the original aims behind the series – a crew exploring the unknown, without a specific goal of reaching home – Bennett tries not to show that events in this universe are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than what unfolded in the timeline we know, just different. With the Voyager crew largely stationary, he takes a look at something that the series, with its breakneck, ‘get back to Earth’ mentality, rarely explored – consequences. With the starship constantly getting further and further away from their starting point – via various spatial anomalies, alien technologies, and Borg encounters – the characters never had to deal with the effect their presence had on the people and planets they encountered. In Places of Exile, some of those encounters come back to haunt the crew.

The ‘timeline duplicates’ aspect of the plot involving Species 8472 fell short for me. Whilst the science does make sense, and the concept itself is an intriguing idea, I felt it introduced slightly too much complexity into an already heavily detailed story. I enjoyed the alternate look at Seven of Nine – or, rather, Annika Hansen (the reason behind her different personality is well-constructed, and makes use of established Voyager continuity) – the acknowledgement of “Before and After”, the exploration of the Doctor’s artificiality, and the antagonistic role played by the Voth.

Seeds of Dissent

Three hundred years after the victory of the Great Khan, Princeps Julian Bashir of the warship Defiance patrols the Bajor Sector, dealing with an incipid rebel group. When a relic from the past is uncovered, loyalties and long-established beliefs are brought into question, as secrets long forgotten come to the fore. What mystery does the Botany Bay contain?

James Swallow, coming off the success of the Terok Nor novel, Day of the Vipers, pens this tale of a genetically-enhanced empire being confronted with the brutal truth of its past. His world-building credentials are in no doubt after Vipers, and Swallow details the history of this Great Khanate well. His concept of the “counsel chamber”, allowing Bashir to speak directly to Khan Noonien Singh, gives us an opportunity to directly contrast the image of Khan built by his followers with the one we know. It also gives us an insight as to how the history of this universe has, as is all too frequently the case, been rewritten by the victors.

Of course, the problem arises – as it all too frequently does with alternate histories – of how these characters can even exist, where history has evolved in a way completely contrary to the timeline we know. Benjamin and Jake Sisko, O’Brien, even Bashir himself aren’t likely to have been born at all. It’s a necessary conceit that these analogs are present, for us to have familiar characters to contrast with, but it does strike out against the logic of the timeline – not enough to ruin the story, of course. 

Swallow pulls in some other familiar characters too: Ethan Locken (the deranged Augment from Abyss), Sarina Douglas (the savant seen in “Statistical Probabilities” and “Chrysalis”), even Jean-Luc Picard get brief appearances or mentions. And the time-displaced “Basics” are largely known to us to as well – tying in with Greg Cox’s history of the Eugenics Wars, The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh – Shannon O’Donnell, Rain Robinson, and Shaun Christopher are the exiles who fled Earth as Khan’s victory drew near.

As to be expected in a universe built on military dominance and conquest, double-crosses and subterfuge play a major role in the story. Ezri Dax’s role in the story is probably the most crucial, behind Bashir. Her true nature is intriguing, and the depth to which she has insinuated herself into her role is fascinating. Bashir’s transformation from confident leader to desperate doubter is extremely powerful, and Swallow portrays the anguish felt by the character well.

[As an aside, I did find it interesting, and a little amusing, to have a story about history being rewritten in a history that is rewritten anyway…]

Conclusion

Infinity’s Prism has met every expectation I had – thought-provoking stories, strong characterisation, intriguing new timelines. The second volume is on its way to me as we speak – and with a third already announced for 2009, the Myriad Universes line looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. And I, for one, am very pleased about that. There are… well, a myriad ideas to explore, so long as there are authors with interesting new spins to place on the history we know…

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