Saturday, January 14, 2012

Synthesis

Star Trek: Titan - Synthesis by James Swallow
Published October 2009
Read January 13th, 2012

Previous book (Titan): Over a Torrent Sea
Next book (Titan): Fallen Gods

Spoilers ahead for Synthesis and other books in the Star Trek: Titan series, as well as spoilers for the post-Nemesis and post-Destiny period of Trek Lit!


From the back cover:


The Starship Titan continues her outward voyage of discovery.  Ranging farther and farther from Federation space, Captain William Riker and the crew look forward to living Starfleet's mission: seeking out new life, discovering new civilizations.
Striking a "sandbank" -- a spatial distortion -- the Titan is knocked out of warp, her crew shaken up but uninjured.  Titan has stumbled across a battlefield, and floating in it, shattered and in pieces, are the remains of a ship.  Searching for survivors, they discover the ship never had a crew.  The away team removes the computer core, looking for answers.  Once the device is restored, it becomes clear this is not just a computer, but a thinking, reasoning artificial intelligence.
It identifies itself as SecondGen White-Blue, it comes from a civilization composed entirely of sentient computers.  Eons ago these artificial intelligences were charged to be the first line of defense against The Null -- a destructive force so all-consuming that generation upon generation have waged unending war trying to find a way to beat back this terror.  Captain Riker offers to assist them, but years of war have left the AIs distrustful and suspicious, especially of organics.
The tide of the battle is turning, The Null is winning.  Set free, it will destroy everything in this system and then, unchecked, spread its mindless destruction into the heart of the Federation.

About the Novel:

An investigation of a destroyed alien spacecraft leads the crew of the Titan to discover an alien civilization based completely on artificial technology.  Calling themselves the "Sentries," these alien robots are tasked with defending their system from an invading force from another dimension called "The Null."  While one of these robotic life-forms, named SecondGen White-Blue, insists on helping the crew of the Titan and opening diplomatic relations with the Federation, most of the others are divided on the issue, and see the starfleet crew as a dangerous threat and a distraction from their true task.


Meanwhile, when the Titan's computer comes into contact with the consciousness of SecondGen White-Blue, it begins to develop a consciousness of its own.  Using an avatar appearing as a memory out of Captain Riker's past, the main computer begins to assert itself, becoming nothing less than a living, sentient being.


My Thoughts:

The Star Trek: Titan series follows the exploits of Captain William T. Riker and his extremely diverse crew aboard the U.S.S. Titan.  Riker took command of the Titan at the end of the feature film Star Trek Nemesis, if you recall.  With a lot of the darkness and destruction featured in the current line of Star Trek novels, Titan is a refreshing taste of what Star Trek should be about: seeking new life and new civilizations and exploring the galaxy.  Titan is on an extended mission of exploration out beyond the borders of the Federation, following Starfleet's edict "to boldly go where no one has gone before."


Synthesis is an interesting story that examines the question "what is life?"  This issue has, of course, been explored in other Trek incarnations, most notably in the Next Generation episode "The Measure of a Man" and Voyager's "Author, Author."  Added to the mix is the recent Borg-apocalypse in the Alpha Quadrant, which has left the Starfleet crew jumpy about mechanized life-forms, or anything that reminds them about the cybernetic horde.  This contributes to a certain amount of distrust of Sentries, complicating matters when some of their actions seem to be provocative or malicious.  
The Sentries themselves are an interesting race in and of themselves.  While one would expect a race of robotic life to be completely logical and single-minded, the Sentries are instead individualistic and emotional.

The story itself is interesting, if a little paint-by-numbers.  Complicating the plot is the emergence of an intelligent computer program within Titan's main computer, raising a lot of questions about what Starfleet computers are capable of, and the ethical implications of limiting their abilities.  The questions raised by this development are fascinating, but of course, in true Star Trek tradition, this is a problem that we will not have to deal with outside the confines of this one adventure!


Final Thoughts:

An interesting story, but a little plodding in some places.  Interesting ethical questions are raised, and while they should be universe-shattering in implication, the effects are confined to this one story and don't seem likely to be explored in a wider forum.  Interesting world-building and a new, unique life-form are the saving graces of the story.

Final score: 6/10.