Thursday 14 April 2022

TREK REVIEW: "Living Memory" by Christopher L. Bennett

Bennett's ongoing mission to plug the gaps in Star Trek continuity and reopen forgotten storylines reaches what might be its ultimate expression in Living Memory, as he takes on two unrelated elements from Trek's early history that have been largely ignored.

Firstly is one of the original Star Trek's most idiotic plot points. In season two's “The Changeling,” the Nomad probe wipes Uhura's memory as it tries to understand her illogical human mind, leaving her with only her basic functional and linguistic skills. The viewer is then expected to accept that Uhura is able to relearn her entire education, skills, training and presumably every event in her life so far. You can't help but feel sorry for Nichelle Nichols as she has to play the now childlike Uhura with a straight face, and the full knowledge that this time next week she'll be all back to normal.

In an otherwise excellent episode, it's a moment that destroys all suspension of disbelief, so it's unsurprising that we never hear of it again onscreen. Bennett, however, takes it as the starting point of a moving character journey, as well as a vital missing piece to the puzzle at the heart of the novel's major threat. Unforeseen phenomena dubbed “vacuum flares” have begun appearing in space, threatening ships and eventually inhabited planets, and the only clue as to their origin is that they appear to be following the route of the USS Enterprise, specifically those planet's where Uhura made planetfall. Her past actions are somehow linked to this new danger, which is a bit of a problem now that she can't remember anything earlier than season two.

Exploring the “in-between” era that links The Motion Picture and The Wrath of Khan, Bennett has provided a great deal of depth to the familiar characters in the past, and this book is no exception. While Uhura's quest to recover her lost memories is essential to solving the plot, but more importantly it's a heartfelt personal mission for her. We have a rare opportunity to learn more about Uhura's life, as she struggles to reconnect with her family, and abandoned friends and lovers, who she no longer remembered and couldn't bear to see before, reminded as she was only of her loss. It's a brilliant way of taking a very silly sci-fi plot point and exploring the actual long-term effect the trauma would have one someone suffering it, something that didn't happen much in the very episodic series itself.

Within this storyline we also have more exploration of Uhura's close relationship with her Enterprise colleagues, who become her replacement family after the memory wipe. She is particularly close to Scotty – who has his own traumatic memories of the Nomad encounter – and to Spock, her commanding officer and something of a mentor in this novel. We also see that she has remained close friends with Sulu and Chekov, although they're both called away on their own work for much of the book. For Chekov, this is investigating the vacuum flares, while Sulu becomes involved with Starfleet security. Admittedly, this does seem like it's the wrong way round.

The second major storyline deals with the Arcturians, an only briefly seen alien species that was created for The Motion Picture and described in background materials as running a clone army. This is, of course, pretty hard to reconcile with the Federation's ethical code, but since it was never mentioned on screen most writers have ignored it altogether. Bennett, instead, tries to rationalise it as a misunderstanding of the Arcturians' elite soldiers, the Warborn, who were genetically engineered centuries earlier and have been kept in stasis since. Now, with the stasis failing, they're being thawed out, and a handful of them are admitted to Starfleet Academy to see if they can integrate and find a new purpose in life.

It's an interesting addition to the wider Trek universe and examines the Federation's supposedly all-inclusive nature. The Warborn's introduction to Starfleet raises a lot of tensions, from peace protesters already concerned with the apparent militarisation of Starfleet, to those in Starfleet itself who worry that the Warborn would be used again in a war setting – or even lead to war by inflaming tensions with the Klingons or Romulans.

The Warborn cadets get their own distinct characters, as do several other new recruits from various Federation races. None of them really stood out for me in the same way as the established Trek characters, although I was taken with Ashley Janith-Lau, a highly intelligent peace activist who forms a relationship with Dr. McCoy. The good doctor and Admiral Kirk are largely confine to Earth in this story, as Kirk is essentially the Warborn's sponsor in the Academy. The tensions rise to the point where a murder is committed and one of the Warborn are suspected. This brings a murder mystery element to the latter part of the book, although it's a little underdone.

The two storylines run in parallel but there's little to link them, although one nice touch is that “Arcturian rapid learning techniques” that are used on Warborn soldiers were also used to help Uhura get back up to speed after the Nomad encounter. There's a lot going on in both storylines at the end of the book, but ultimately it's a little anticlimactic. However, I adored the eventual explanation for the phenomenon that's threatening local space, and Uhura's link to it. Without spoiling it here, I can say that it's ingeniously thought out, and hinges on a truly fascinating science fiction concept that brought some of the greats, like Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter to mind. Altogether, not the strongest of Bennett's books but still with a great deal to recommend it.

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