Tuesday 5 September 2017

Professional Fan Fiction #1: Star Trek: DS9: Enigma Tales

[SPOILERS for the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel Enigma Tales and also for Star Trek: The Fall: The Crimson Shadow.]
For those unaware, “professional fan fiction” is a term coined by Doctor Who author Lawrence Miles for the stacks of officially published anciliary material genre shows tend to produce as a matter of course these days. In fairness to Miles, he came up with this name having created a fair amount of it himself and these days runs a small cottage industry editing novels and short story collections featuring his most prominent addition to the Doctor Who extended universe, the time travelling voodoo cult Faction Paradox.

So, as pejorative as it sounds, basically it isn't really. Its just an ackowledgement of the fact that in many ways these tie-ins don't matter as much as the source material which... well, ask any pre-Episode VII Star Wars fan about the Star Wars EU they grew up with for objective evidence of that.

Also, I've never been one to find fan fiction lesser artistically. Yeah, there's a lot of crap out there due to the unedited and amateur nature of it but equally there a hell of a lot more heartfelt, moving and spectacularly well-crafted stuff that will blow you away than you'd ever assume from the form's reputation. And its not as if officially licensed tie-ins haven't produced their share of crap over the years... I'm looking at you, Doctor Who Unbound: Exile!

Anyway, I just finished a Deep Space Nine novel called Enigma Tales by Una McCormack, the latest in a loose series of books she's written about Elim Garak and the post-war reconstruction of Cardassia. This has sort of become McCormack's personal corner of the Star Trek universe over the years and I'm happy for that to continue. Over the course of her several novels she's fleshed out the culture of Cardassia's fledgling democracy and the geography of the (still, sadly, unnamed) capital city, peppering her narrative with welcome little bits of worldbuilding that add so much context to events.

She also writes a fantastic Garak. Garak may be my favourite Deep Space Nine character, perhaps even my favourite character in the whole of Star Trek, and McCormack clearly relishes writing from his morally flexible but utterly stubborn point of view. In particular, Enigma Tales has a fantastic aside where he considers the war of manners and vieled insults he's been waging against the Federation diplomatic corps for more than a decade and the ways they've been trying to bait and/or frustrate him.

Anyway, I warned you of spoilers and here's the big one: Garak is Castellan of the Cardassian Union, its head of state. On reflection its a nice redemption for him, a late in life convert to the principles of democracy, and McCormack makes sure an absolutely central part of Garak's political ambitions is to stop anything like the Obsidian Order or the Dukat dictatorship from happening again. This novel, in particular, presents him with the tricky political subject of a war crimes report about the Bajoran Occupation and the question of how to prosecute offenders (especially given that, as a former spy, torturer and killer, he's absolutely guilty and everyone knows it).

Its an interesting debate... that sadly, the book sidesteps a little by concluding that Garak has probably hidden the bodies well enough that no actual evidence of his own crimes will ever be brought to light. There's a lot to love about the book's treatment of the debate as it casts the shadow of war crimes over another character, one essentially sympathetic and innocent in the eyes of the fan, Professor Natima Lang (a one-off TV character and member of the old Cardassian dissident movement). All of this is juxtaposed with descriptions of the Cardassian literary form of the enigma tale, essentially a form of mystery in which every character shares some form of guilt, which Lang describes as a quintessentially Cardassian state of affairs.

Then there's the pleasure of Garak encountering the only character in Star Trek canon more sarcastic than he is: Doctor Katherine Pulaski (who much be about a hundred by this point in the canon, twelve years after the Dominion War). McCormack uses her intelligently, as well, as our point of view on post-war Cardassia. In particular, I enjoy how Cardassians keep mentioning the parts of human culture they adopted whilst the Federation were helping with the reconstruction effort: a police officer is addicted to human coffee, a shopkeeper learnt to play soccer from Starfleet aid workers, another who remembers having a human teacher at school.

Its the nature of prose that you have more time for asides and that's where I think the real benefit of the professional fan fiction comes in. For instance, in the series we never know who leads the civilian administration in power on Cardassia between War of the Warrior and By Inferno's Light. To all intents and purposes, Gul Dukat is still the face of Cardassia all that time, even when he's living in exile on his Bird Of Prey. This novel (and perhaps others in the past, I don't know who came up with this one) credits the leader of the Detapa Council in that time as Meya Rejal, a pretty weak leader by reputation whose reign was characterised by an ongoing humanitarian crisis that lead to the Union joining the Dominion just to feed its people.

Obviously, there's no reason this should have been mentioned on screen. The Detapa Council appears once as a gaggle of extras in Cardassian make-up during Way of the Warrior with Dukat (then their military advisor) getting the only non-rhubard lines in the scene and they never appear again. There wasn't a practical need for anything more but a novel has more leeway, as does fan fiction.

So in Enigma Tales, either as its own invention or following the innovations of others, we have Cardassian capital with distinct named districts like Paldar and East Torr, each with its own cultural and polticcal history; the University of the Union has internal politics and underground corridors connecting its buildings so students don't have to walk through the summer dust storms; Damar has a statue; wherever Garak makes his workspace he hangs a picture Ziyal drew for him where he can see it as both warning and inspiration; there's a particular flower whose petals are used in Cardassian funerals, a detail that then gets used to lend symbolism to a later scene.

I love that the breathing room of the professional fan fiction allows for these little details to get filled in.

Just so long as they don't clone Emperor Palpatine at me as they do it, that is. 

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