BOOK REVIEW: Synthesis, by James Swallow

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Synthesis_cover.jpg

Era: Post-Nemesis

Series: Titan (#6)

Publisher: Pocket Books

Genre: Social SF

Pages: 391

Publication Date: 2009

Verdict: 4/5

 

The USS Titan is pledged to seek out new life and new civilisations. But what of cultures that are not alive? When a salvage mission brings Titan into contact with a civilisation comprised wholly of computers, Captain Riker and his crew must face prejudices they were not aware of holding . . .

If you asked to to make a list of all the Star Trek characters I expected to see again, Minuet would be somewhere near the bottom of that list. She appeared in all of two episodes, in both occasions being a hologram used to manipulate Riker. Yet here she is now, standing beside the Titan‘s captain on the cover of the book. That’s quite a legacy for a character who isn’t even real within the context of the fictional universe in which she dwells. Again, her image is used as a front for another entity, but whether that entity is as benevolent as it claims, or if it hides a darker motive, is what so much of this book hinges on.

Star Trek has a solid track record when it comes to the rights of sentient artificial beings. The obvious examples would be Data, and Voyager‘s EMH, who each had seven seasons to delve into their place in the Federation. Episodes like ‘The Measure of a Man’ are considered classics for a reason. But there have also been one-off appearances. Think of the Exocomps, or ‘Prototype.’ Artificial intelligence is an idea that has been percolating in the Trek collective for decades, and with Synthesis James Swallow goes all-in on the theme. Some of the examples listed above are cited in this very book, and to good effect. With Starfleet’s rocky history with artificial life forms, is it any wonder they are so suspicious? But if you can’t move past those suspicions, how are we to grow as a society?

Synthesis also brings to light an aspect of Star Trekthat often goes unappreciated, and that is the idea of the ship as a character. Each Enterprise has its own quirks, and the loss of the Defiant in Deep Space Nine hits as hard as any character death. There is a reason three of these shows are named after the vessel on which they take place. Put the characters on another starship, and it would have a very different feeling. Titan is, six books in, just as much a character as the biological members of crew, and Synthesis forces the crew to confront this. As is noted in the book itself, starship computers have long had the ability to become sentient (as too many episodes to count reveal) so do organics have the right to prevent that growth? It’s deep questions like this that make Synthesis such a compelling read.

Morality plays aside, Synthesis also brings the action. The civilisation of the Sentinels is as alien as any I’ve read. So far removed from human thinking, in fact, that sometimes I had to read a page twice to follow how the machines were thinking. It’s a fine line to tread between creating the truly alien, and acknowledging that your readers are merely human beings. Aside from the occasionally confusing machine politics, we also have a deadly threat in the form of the Null. Somewhere between a malevolent being and a natural disaster, the Null is a great monster-of-the-week, but the nature of it means there’s little to develop once you have the first round of answers. None of this detracts from the book in any major way, but in this one aspect lacks the nuance that the rest of the book handles so well.

All told, Synthesis is the most Star Trek that the Titan series has yet been. Two thirds of the way through this series, and the trajectory is looking good.

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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