There Is No Federation
Since its introduction during the Deep Space Nine episode "Inquisition," Section 31 -- the top-secret division of Starfleet committed to protecting the Federation at any cost -- has been controversial among fans. The development of an outside-the-law secret section offers rich opportunities for storytelling, not just in terms of cloak-and-dagger intrigue but the possibility of introducing characters not bound by Starfleet's code of ethics. Yet the very idea of an organization that wields vast power while answering to no one cuts deeply through a Star Trek mythology founded on collaboration, trust and the peaceful resolution of problems. Thus it's no surprise that the first two Section 31 novels from Pocket Books, The Next Generation's Rogue and Voyager's Shadow, waver between ambivalence and hostility towards the organization.
It's difficult to integrate Section 31 retroactively into Trek canon because the apparent inaction of the organization during critical moments in history cannot easily be rationalized. Given the extremity of some of their DS9-era actions, why haven't the agents used their resources to rewrite certain timelines, wiping out various races before they become a threat? Moreover, it's not easy to portray Starfleet captains being duped by Section 31 without making those captains look foolish. Fans who prefer to read about the heroic aspects of Starfleet may not find much to like in these books, which, while well-constructed, have a darker tone than most Next Gen and Voyager episodes and offer few regular characters a chance to shine.
Andy Mangels and Michael A. Martin at least try to make Section 31's operatives complex and interesting, and their book offers many other rewards besides. Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch create an agent so despicable that one wonders what appealed to them about writing a Section 31 novel; they use the character to make the Voyager crew look weak and fractious as they haven't since the Maquis were first integrated, which may anger some fans. Since viewers received relatively little proof on TV of Section 31's real scope -- Sloan and his cronies might have exaggerated both their numbers and their value to Starfleet -- some readers might prefer to skip these books on the belief that the events of these novels would never happen in canonical Trek anyway. I read them as an alternate, depressing parallel universe in which, as one character says, "the universe is even more dangerous than any adversary even the most paranoid Section 31 agent could ever imagine."
Rogue, the more complex and enjoyable of the novels, has many levels of political intrigue and scientific secrets. These complicate two coming-of-age stories -- a career turning point for Lieutenant Sean Hawk from First Contact, and a reunion of youthful friends from Jean-Luc Picard's "Tapestry." Starfleet dispatches the Enterprise to learn about the disappearance of another starship in the vicinity of Chiaros IV -- a planet in the Geminus Gulf sought for membership by both the Federation and the Romulan Empire. Admiral Marta Batanides comes aboard to help search for her friend Corey Zweller and to accompany her lover Ambassador Tabor in his quest to negotiate peace between warring Chiarosan factions. Unfortunately, neither Batanides nor Picard knows that both men are members of Section 31, with a secret agenda concerning the Romulans and classified information about the rulers of Chiaros.
As both agents work to recruit Lieutenant Hawk, the comfortable and confident young officer must weigh his responsibilities and decide whether to betray Section 31 to protect the Federation itself. For despite the covert organization's vast intelligence network, neither Tabor nor Zweller understand the real reasons for the Romulans' interest in Chiaros -- and by the time Picard has uncovered the scientific enigma at the heart of the crisis, the Federation is no longer welcome in the Geminus Gulf. The writers produce an admirable balance of action, character development and political intrigue over the course of the novel's 350+ pages; although the scientific mystery remains shrouded in technobabble throughout, it's not really crucial to the story except as a catalyst for the unfolding drama.
Mangels and Martin do an admirable job depicting the negative consequences of Section 31 while making its members complex people with accessible personal agendas. Unfortunately, it's difficult to make any character sound intelligent while parroting Sloan's explanations of the reasons for the group's existence -- basically, the argument runs that the Federation can't maintain its existence under its own peaceful charter, so it needs a top-secret division to break all its rules in the name of saving it, even if that division's actions (ranging from assassinations to stopping proto-warp civilizations from traveling into space) violate everything the Federation represents. As Riker and Picard demonstrate in Rogue while dealing with an asylum request, it is possible to bend the rules -- even the Prime Directive -- without requiring a shadow government accountable to no one that makes the entire hierarchy of Starfleet and the diplomatic corps look like fools.
It's also frustrating that the legitimate representative of Starfleet Intelligence, Batanides, can't seem to separate her roles as an outraged admiral, a betrayed friend and a grieving lover. Her fury against Section 31 has as much to do with personal losses as principle, which weakens her as a character and an advocate for the Federation. I'm delighted that Mangels and Martin have developed Hawk as a gay character whose sex life doesn't interfere with his duties, but I'm sorry the female characters in Rogue, even the Chiarosan planetary leader, seem so caught up in emotional issues rather than demonstrating the clear-headed thinking of Picard and Data. The captain and Riker are superbly characterized, with warmth and wit as well as lots of fun cultural references (Picard remembering War of the Worlds, Riker and Hawk joking about Martian colonization). One wishes the confident, clever Troi of First Contact played a larger role in this story set mere months beforehand.
Rogue and Shadow both do a fine job illustrating the demoralizing dangers of Section 31. One wonders why the group hasn't assassinated Picard in order to prevent him from being a magnet for the Borg in his role as Locutus, particularly after reading Shadow, in which an unknown assailant tries to kill Seven of Nine in order to stop the ex-Borg from reviving her link to the Collective. Smith and Rusch set their novel shortly before the events of "Equinox," perhaps to explain why Janeway acted like such a paranoid lunatic in that episode, although her illegal, abusive treatment of crewman Noah Lessing makes even less sense in the wake of the discovery of a covert division of Starfleet that she abhors. Since Shadow is a Section 31 novel, it doesn't take much insight on the reader's part to guess the career path of Seven's would-be assassin; thus it's a bit annoying to watch the crew fumble in the dark without a clue. Still, Janeway ends up sympathetic at the end as she uncovers the logs of her onboard spy and discovers what an idiot this agent believes her to be.
The novel starts with Voyager cliches -- the captain wants to divert from the all-important voyage home to examine a spatial phenomenon, and Torres is a bit miffed that Janeway has insisted on calling Seven away from her regeneration cycle because she wants another pair of eyes besides those of her chief engineer. Within moments, the cargo bay is rocked by an explosion, followed within hours by repeated attempts on the former Borg's life. While Tuvok attempts to find the saboteur, the rest of the crew concentrates on saving the lives of millions of aliens on a ship from Rhawn, a planet that once orbited one of two stars on the verge of a stellar collision. Without stronger shields, the pre-warp vessel Traveler won't survive and its population will become extinct. Janeway decides there's really no Prime Directive conflict because these people have obviously come looking for advanced civilizations -- an assessment with which one suspects Starfleet Intelligence as well as Section 31 might disagree, but no one on Voyager's crew really tries. Voyager commits resources to helping the alien ship before the crew discovers discovering that their own computer has been compromised by whoever initiated the attacks on Seven.
The most entertaining parts of Shadow concern the monarch and people of Traveler, who despite their desperate situation seem better able to work together than Voyager's Starfleet-trained crew. This isn't a problem with Smith and Rusch's story but with Voyager itself -- the novel seems consistent with its late-fifth-season setting in terms of the characters' lack of resourcefulness and passion. Tuvok comes across the most strongly, since he's given a rare chance to perform his function on the ship and disable a threat to security (though Seven of Nine of course resents the fact that she isn't in on the investigation, which she assumes she could conduct far more competently). Shadow doesn't reflect any love for the Voyager crew, for Torres and Paris act like unprofessional brats holding hands in the briefing room, Janeway wonders whether irritation is the default setting for Seven's face, Chakotay contributes nothing beyond acting as a sounding board for the captain. It's more interesting to read about the immature but determined Rhawnian leader Aetayn and Travelers Lypsa and her daughter Andra, who have a bit in common with Voyager's Samantha and Naomi Wildman.
At 250 pages, Shadow offers a lot less substance than Rogue in terms of both complexity and interest. It doesn't help the drama when the identity of the Section 31 agent on Voyager gets revealed; I didn't even remember the character, who appeared only once on the series. The survival of an entire civilization may be at stake but the fate of the Federation seems very far away, and it's hard to worry too much about all the attempts to bump off Seven of Nine considering that on the series her wonder-nanoprobes have brought people back from the dead. The nanoprobes also make Voyager's resident know-it-all the obvious person to explain the existence of Section 31 to Janeway, since Seven's Borg database of assimilated intel makes her the only person on board with pre-existing information about the organization. Seven states that the Rhawnians have a Borg designation despite the fact that they never ventured off their planet until their sun began to die; is there anything she doesn't know more about or can't do better than everyone else? Maybe that's why a jealous Torres spends so much time giving orders to examine a sabotaged panel before she gets around to having an unconscious Seven beamed to sickbay.
Perversely, as I read Shadow and came to understand Section 31's reasons for wanting to assassinate Seven, they made more and more sense. This doesn't make the organization any less despicable nor any more logical -- it's purely a reflection of my own frustration with Janeway's inconsistency and Seven's outrageous authority on her ship. Yet such mean, petty thoughts point out as well as anything just how dangerous Section 31 really is. An organization that stands for anarchy, sabotage and genocide cannot possibly contribute anything positive to its universe. The mere suggestion of its existence undermines everything that's progressive and optimistic about Star Trek. Armed with the personal prejudices and private resentments of which all human beings are capable, one unscrupulous individual like Sloan could bring down the entire Federation.
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