Hiding Behind Purity of Purpose
S.D. Perry impressed many readers with the two volumes of Avatar, her first major contribution to the Star Trek universe, which relaunched Deep Space Nine in the wake of "What You Leave Behind." Section 31: Cloak ought to make her one of Pocket Books' most popular writers. This original series novel demonstrates her mastery of the classic characters and a passion for the most popular themes of Star Trek. It's superbly written, highly readable and a lot of fun.
The most philosophical of the Section 31 novels, Cloak delves into the workings of Starfleet in Kirk's era, asking questions about how the Federation balances its expansive goals with the best interests of its citizens. The novel opens with the destruction of the starship Sphinx at the hands of an anonymous agent whom readers rightly assume must be connected to Section 31. But that's just the beginning of the intrigue, which Spock suspects may involve both the cloaking device Kirk stole from the Romulans and the theoretical super-particle known as Omega.
As with the Voyager Section 31 novel Shadow, the time frame helps to explain some of the captain's erratic behavior during the waning episodes of the series. The discovery of a rogue division of Starfleet engaged in theft and murder might drive any captain to distraction, as Cloak effectively demonstrates. Both Kirk and Spock come in for some heavy scrutiny and criticism, yet this novel also celebrates all their best qualities.
During the early crisis with the Sphinx as Kirk tries to save the ship, we see his ability to think as a scientist as well as a tactician. He knows his senior staff's skills and exactly how to use them, so in a crunch he can decide on a course of action without needing to hold a round-robin for suggestions. Though he's initially reluctant to believe there could be a conspiracy within Starfleet -- even after one of his best friends confirms his worst fears -- he never loses sight of the need for truth, not even when he realizes that the woman to whom he has just opened his heart has some frightening ideas about moral responsibility.
Kirk's acceptance of his own limitations and past mistakes proves to be his greatest asset. Usually he's credited with being a man of action in comparison to the more introspective Picard, but Perry obviously believes in the earlier captain's intellect and depth. "Purity of purpose is an illusion...a cloak," Kirk's new girlfriend tells him, and the captain spends the rest of the novel pondering the extent to which this may be true -- of Starfleet, of the Federation and of himself. The thematically clever gimmick of paralleling the cloaking device with Section 31's cloak-and-dagger tactics gains a deeper level when the captain recognizes the extent to which Starfleet officers too sometimes stretch the rules in the name of protecting them.
All the senior officers shine in this story, even the oft-neglected Uhura, Sulu and Chekov. The former cracks a tough code while the latter takes quite a bit of ribbing for his nationalistic Russian attitudes, yet Chekov's unofficial research provides the information Spock needs to figure out the connection between the stolen cloak and the doomed Sphinx. After getting some leads at a scientific conference, Spock pays a visit to the Romulan Commander that makes him face some disturbing revelations of his own about his illicit behavior and traitorous emotions, which aren't nearly as controlled at times as he likes to believe. Spock is paradoxically at his best when he's identifying his own weaknesses, something he has in common with his captain; this self-awareness serves both men well, and creates character depth out of actions that might otherwise seem contradictory, even hypocritical.
Most interesting, the principal Section 31 agent isn't really a villain in this novel. Rogue and Shadow evince little sympathy for the agents who use cynicism about the Federation to justify their illicit actions, but in Cloak, the morally dubious character comes across as engaging and reasonable until the very end. Her final, fanatical performance of duty almost seems like a letdown, because until that point she has made few power plays and we've spent quite a bit of time inside her head, sharing her feelings, without suspecting the twists in her views of the balance of power.
Lest I'm giving the impression that this novel is mostly cerebral, let me add that there are lot of original series devices like space chases, warp drive failure, an evil commodore, a crazy scientist, a mysterious babe in a slinky catsuit and a really hot mind meld. One of the most intriguing characters, the Sphinx captain who dies on the book's third page, gets a postmortem reconstruction and redemption. Plus we get a new angle on one of the most interesting women ever to appear on Star Trek -- the Romulan Commander, who has appeared in numerous different Pocket Books, paired with Spock in assorted relationship permutations. As follow-ups to "The Enterprise Incident" go, this is one of the finest. (Some fans may take issue with the scope of the Romulan cloak's powers and with how easily Kirk tracks it down, based on things we learned in The Next Generation about the development of cloaking technology, but I don't remember the technobabble well enough to comment, and it's not important to the drama.)
Perry does a good job capturing the humor of the original series, though Dr. McCoy is rather subdued; because Cloak is set shortly before the events of "For the World Is Hollow And I Have Touched the Sky," he has just discovered that he is dying of a blood disorder, and is frantic to track down a woman he knew at Starfleet Medical who may be able to cure him. However, his personal sorrows don't stop him from comparing Spock to a computer or rolling his eyes at Kirk's refusal to take a day off. Scotty gets in all his usual worrying about his engines, Spock gets in all his usual worrying about the engineer's overly emotional attachment to the ship...everyone reacts with great affection to one another even when they're getting on each other's nerves. The novel does a good job capturing the feel of a great Classic Trek episode, which is particularly praiseworthy given that Section 31 didn't exist in Roddenberry's original universe and seems the antithesis of his vision of Starfleet.
Reading Kirk's dilemma here alongside The Eugenics Wars, in which he also has a problem with a group acting outside Starfleet restrictions, one is struck anew by what a great leader he was and what an extraordinary human being. For those who have not yet read Rogue and Shadow, I recommend reading Cloak first; though it may make the others seem a bit of a letdown, it also underlines the importance of pondering what an organization like Section 31 would mean for the Federation. For those who have read the previous novels, I suspect this one will become a favorite even for people who don't consider themselves big fans of the original series. It's a great month for Classic Trek fans.
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