Book Review: The Romulan War
by Michael A. Martin
Pocket Books, 2011
The main problem faced by Michael Martin in his two new Star Trek Enterprise novels, The Romulan War: Under the Raptor’s Wing and The Romulan War: To Brave the Storm isn’t the fact that they continue the action (if that’s the right word) of his earlier novel Kobayashi Maru, although that novel didn’t fare so well here at Stevereads. Martin – here writing without his former collaborator Andy Mangels – does a good job catching his new readers up on the events of that earlier novel (in which Enterprise‘s Captain Archer leaves the eponymous stricken vessel to its fate rather than risk the destruction of his own ship). And the main problem isn’t that big chunks of the book’s plot stem from some of the final episodes of a TV series that was cancelled years ago – again, Martin works hard to put his new book in its own bigger context.
No, the main problem with these two new novels – which purport to tell the story of Earth’s first war with the Romulan Star Empire – happened in 1966, and it’s all writer Paul Schneider’s fault. In his script for the original “Star Trek” episode “Balance of Terror,” Schneider hinges the dramatic payoff on the fact that since humans and Romulans fought their war in the early days of interstellar space-flight, they never actually saw each other. It’s only in the ‘modern’ era of Kirk’s Enterprise, with its big bright view-screens, that each side can finally see what the other looks like (the payoff being that – gasp! – Romulans look just like Vulcans, which prompts certain members of Kirk’s crew to give the hairy eyeball to Mr. Spock).
It all works extremely effectively in “Balance of Terror” itself, so you might be asking, what’s the problem? And oh, “Star Trek” fans will be happy to tell you!
The problem, you see, is that decades after “Balance of Terror,” Paramount decided to create a “Star Trek” TV series called “Star Trek Enterprise” that was actually set in those early days of space-flight – and obviously, they weren’t going to have our brave new crew groping around the solar systems blind. No, these ‘earlier’ ships of course had their own big bright view-screens.
So when Michael Martin decided to write a two-part novel sequence narrating Earth’s first war with the Romulans, he had to come up with a reason why the two sides couldn’t see each other. And if he could connect that reason to the reason why poor Captain Archer was forced to abandon the Kobayashi Maru in the first place, so much the better. Martin is an adept plotter, so he manages to string everything together without missing anything.
Unfortunately, he’s still an efficient plodder too, as was the problem with Kobayashi Maru three years ago. He writes in an intensely recursive moebius-strip of perpetual unnecessary clarification, guaranteed to slow virtually any scene to an impulse-engine crawl. This, for instance (and believe it or not) is Captain Archer’s ship encountering a menacing Romulan bird of prey:
Perched on the edge of his command chair, Archer watched the hostile vessel gradually swell in the bridge viewer until it filled nearly the entire image area. Because of the arthropod character of the dozen or so weapons tubes that bristled from its green battle-scarred ventral hull, Archer thought the small but powerful ship more closely resembled some crablike ancient sea predator than a bird.
“Have they noticed us yes, Malcolm?” Archer asked, his gaze still riveted to the screen.
“They’ve shown no sign of it so far, Captain,” the tactical officer said in his clipped, businesslike Leicester accent. “They’ve obviously seen some action recently. Maybe their sensors are damaged and they haven’t yet had the opportunity to make repairs.”
Archer nodded, acknowledging the possibility, though he wasn’t convinced. “And they might be playing possum – trying to draw us away from our convoy to give other ships we haven’t detected yet a chance to get close enough to pounce.”
Arthropod! Who, except perhaps Stephen Sondheim, has such crappy dramatic sense as to shoe-horn in such a word at such a moment, merely because it’s taxonomically correct? Who feels he needs to tell his readers that a nod acknowledges the possibility of what’s just been said? Who would think that the captain and the tactical officer of a warship would have a colloquy like this ever, let alone at such a moment?
Still, it’s possible that Martin’s shed writing partner Mangels was responsible for some of the bloat that blighted Kobayashi Maru, because there are scenes and even whole chapters in “The Romulan War” that show no sign of that moebius strip, like this winning moment between Archer and his good-natured ship’s doctor, Phlox:
“It’s never easy to make a decision like that, Phlox. I’d rather chew one of my own arms off than have to repeat what I did that day.”
Phlox offered an encouraging smile. “If those decisions were easy to make, then ship’s captains would be a fairly inexpensive commodity.”
And we’re certainly anything but that, Archer thought as he considered just how expensive even a single wrong decision could turn out to be in the long run.
Aloud, he said, “I’m lucky you’ve agreed to stay on, Phlox. Even after you’ve seen how hard it is to do this sort of simple moral math in my head.”
“Jonathan, ‘simple’ is not the same as ‘easy.'” Phlox said, his good-natured smile succumbing to a gravity he displayed only rarely. “I would seriously consider leaving only if and when those ‘simple’ moral equations become too easy for you to solve.”
And there are other lures to “The Romulan Wars” – mainly what the kids these days call “easter eggs”: little hints and allusions to the vast history of “Star Trek” that only fans will catch … that every “Star Trek” fan will gobble up like literal Easter eggs. Martin clearly had a good time seeding his two novels with dozens and dozens of these allusions – enough to satisfy even his geekiest readers. When those readers see, for instance, that a Starfleet Lieutenant Richard Stiles, while observing the dragons of Beregnaria VII, expects to get a message from the nearby Vulcan outpost’s Chief Scientist T’Kumbra, they’ll emit a mugato-like shriek of delighted recognition over each and every one of those proper nouns.
There’s also a sentimental, entirely ex cathedra ending, written for the very large number of fans who deeply disliked one particular detail from the final aired episode of “Star Trek Enterprise.” That Martin himself was clearly one of those fans is the saving grace of all his “Star Trek” fiction.
And the central gimmick that solves that big problem, you’re wondering? The reason why the Romulans and the fledgling Star Fleet couldn’t see each other during that early conflict? Well, that would be telling – but here’s a hint: you’ve seen it before, by the gods of Kobol!