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Book Review: Star Trek: Forgotten History

Star Trek: Department of Temporal Investigations – Forgotten History

by Christopher L. Bennett

Pocket Books, 2012

Agents Dulmur and Lucsly, the dour and humorless DTI (Department of Temporal Investigations) agents who confront Captain Benjamin Sisko in the great “Trials and Tribble-ations” episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, aren’t happy about time travel just in general, but they reserve a special antipathy for their arch-nemesis, the all-time Starfleet record-holder for unauthorized time travel: Captain James T. Kirk (the agents, glowering: “the man was a menace”; Sisko, beaming, “the one and only!”). Something of Kirk’s time-travel record will be known even to the casual observer of Star Trek, since the original TV show’s funniest single episode, “Tomorrow is Yesterday,” is a time-travel episode, the show’s finest single episode, “City of the Edge of Forever,” is a time-travel episode, the only good episode of the Star Trek cartoon TV series, “Yesteryear,” is a time-travel episode, and the most popular of the original cast’s big-screen movies, “The Voyage Home,” is a time-travel movie. For a show about the future, Star Trek has throughout its history been rather obsessively interested in the past (giving rise to a wryly amusing aside by Captain Janeway in the “Future’s End” episode of Star Trek:Voyager – a time-travel episode, naturally).

The prosaic origins of all this time-jumping (having little to do with science fiction and quite a bit to do with the fact that Paramount had far more ready-made 20th Century stage-sets available for filming than it had Rigellian space-colony sets) don’t matter now, sixty years later – fans will have their answers, and they will go through the canon with callipers, retro-fitting every last detail to configure with a smooth and updated continuity. How do all these various journeys into the past (and the future) fit together, and what does the resulting tapestry mean to the Star Trek universe? Who would dare to attempt the construction of a Unified Field Theory for time-travel in the “Star Trek” universe?

Intrepid young freelancer and sci fi hack of the first water, Christopher L. Bennett, has been attempting just that in several of his “Star Trek” novels, and never more imaginatively or comprehensively than in his latest, Forgotten History. In this lively and improbably page-turning novel (printed in a pleasantly lightweight and flexible mass market paperback by Pocket), the appearance of a time-vessel that appears to be from the very earliest days of the DTI confounds our agents, who know DTI history (you’ll pardon the expression) backwards and forwards and don’t recognize the ship. “History means stories,” one character informs Captain Kirk in the novel’s early pages. “It’s about constructing a narrative of the past” – and that’s exactly what Lucsly and Dulmur set out to do.

Their story involves Meijan Gray and Starfleet admiral Antonio Delgado, both instrumental in getting the Federation to explore the time-stream, both determined to prevent hostile alien races from using time-travel technology to attack the Federation. But although Bennett does some good work deepening these characters (especially Delgado, who manages to be devious without being unsympathetic), the real star of the show is Kirk’s Enterprise, the only Starfleet vessel to survive repeated trips into the past. Bennett is what science fiction taxonomists classify as an uber-geek, and scattered throughout Forgotten History are passages like this one:

His team’s extensive study of the former Enterprise engines had largely confirmed the theory they’d devised in their earlier analyses: that the energy released in the controlled-implosion restart at Psi 2000 had transmuted a quantity of the hafnium in the interior lining of the matter/antimatter reactor chamber into a transuranic element provisionally called taranium; that the presence of this element, combined with the modified magnetic constriction and injector phase configurations Spock and Scott had put in place, altered the composition of the plasma stream sent to the nacelles; and that some idiosyncrasy of the warp coils’ construction enabled them, when energized by that modified plasma stream, to generate a rare type of exotic particle as a side effect of warp field generation. These particles had sufficiently high mass and angular momentum to produce a gravitomagnetic field – a distortion of spacetime arising from a rotating mass analogously to the way a magnetic field arose from a spinning charge.

If that quote left you wondering – in pained, flailing despair – if you even understand the English language anymore, take heart: that same passage, I assure you, has prompted any number of virginal bat-squeaks of pure orgasmic interest from basement-dwelling nacho-eating Trek fans the world over. Forgotten History – like our author’s extremely enjoyable 2005 Star Trek novel Ex Machina, for instance (his Star Trek: Titan novels are also quite good) – brims with exactly the kind of techno-babble and incunabula genetically designed to please Star Trek fans right in their hyperactive eight-chambered hearts. This book, like all of Bennett’s books, is positively loaded with Trek lore and trivia, which makes it a pure chewy gift for the initiated.

The amazing thing is that Bennett manages somehow to make it all good as well, a technicality often overlooked by Star Trek fans. There’s plenty of action and drama in Forgotten History, and all the main characters of the original series – Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Chekhov, Sulu, Uhura, etc. (including an alternate-timeline version of T’Pring that significantly defrosts Star Trek‘s reigning ice queen) – are portrayed with spot-on enthusiasm. And best of all, the plot of a mysterious time-ship from the past provides the perfect excuse for Bennett to re-visit many of those original series time-travel adventures – a process our author never fails to make fun (although the unconscionable brush-off given to The Voyage Home leads to wonder if beneath Bennett’s innocent, boyish exterior there lurks that darkest of all “Trek” phenomenon: a IV-hater).

Lucsly and Dulmur learn some uncomfortable things about the founding of the DTI, and Kirk & Co. save the day again, and die-hard fans get the most ambitious attempt yet at their Unified Theory. It’s all a great deal of insider fun, from one of the best Star Trek writers working today. If Bennett ever takes that crucial ideological step back from the mole-tunnels of fandom and uses his vast knowledge of the show and his sure grasp of narrative to write a Star Trek novel for non-fans, my bet is that it gets nominated for a Hugo. It might even win.

 

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