Sunday, December 31, 2017

YEAR OF GARAK, part 12: Enigma Tales by Una McCormack

We're here. It's not the end, exactly, but it is an end. Of the year, at the very least. On this last day of 2017 I think I can fairly's been hard. On almost every level. It's been hard. But I think this series has made my year at least a little brighter. I hope it's brought you a little brightness in the dark as well.

We've reached the twelfth chapter in the Year of Garak, and are looking at the most recent major Garak project, Enigma Tales by Una McCormack. After everything, I think it's a fitting way to close out the year. With hope. With triumph. With the prospect of healing. But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. Please, if you haven't, go and check out the posts so far, including a lot of discussions about everyone's favorite plain, simple tailor. You can find all the posts here: January | February | March | April | May | June | July | August | September | October | November.

To the review!

A Crime is Committed

There’s so much going on in this novel that I just love. It finds Garak in power as Castellan of Cardassia, overseeing a number of rather tricky situations and doing it with style. This is Garak doing his thing, thriving while steering clear of the shadows that have before this defined him. He’s surrounded himself with good people, as Bashir had suggested at the end of The Crimson Shadow. And Cardassia is starting to thrive again. For all that it has lost, for all the great minds that were snuffed out by everything, the youth of Cardassia are out to redeem themselves and their planet. And Garak is doing his best to give them room to do just that while keeping the wolves of the past from the door. Unfortunately, that’s not nearly so easy a task as it could be, not with the shadows waiting there, the Occupation looming largest of all. And I love that finally, finally we are seeing Cardassia taking steps to deal with what happened, even if it comes a bit late, even if it’s still a very fraught endeavor. But really, so much of the novel comes down to this movement to revisit the Occupation and hold people accountable for the crimes committed then. It’s about old crimes and about redemption and about trust and about transparency. It’s about the weight of Old Cardassia and how fragile progress can be.

And I love that this book takes on the idea of Enigma Tales, pulpy popular fiction that Cardassia produced where everyone is guilty, and the book is about figuring out what they’re guilty of. I also love that the novel does make a lot of nice points about the nature of popular literature that complicates the idea that, say, licensed Star Trek books are not of literary merit. Indeed, the novel argues that any piece of popular literature is valuable for what it exposes in the guiding ethos of the population. And there’s a lot of actual literary theory in the book, which is great, the way that everyone has an opinion on the value of Enigma Tales, and how they all relate to each other and to their culture in some ways by how they consider their works of popular fiction. But yeah, the use of the enigma tale within the book is a subtle touch, because it gets to the heart of Cardassia, that basically no one who lived through the Occupation did so clean. No one was innocent. And so there is this feeling that everyone is guilty, even when they don’t know what they’re guilty of. The book follows the implication that Natima Lang was a party to experiments on Bajoran/Cardassian children. It comes at a time when the previous dean of Cardassia’s premiere university is retiring, and Lang is considered a favorite to replace him. The scandal and the resulting drama is enough to threaten to push the fledgling democracy of Cardassia back into some darker times. For Garak specifically, it tests the new way he’s chosen to live, even as he can’t escape his past.

And dealing with a past like Cardassia, it’s easy to see parallels to the human past as well. Garak says as much directly, but I think this is a huge thing, especially in how we draw this idea from the book and into our current cultural moment, of which this popular novel is an artifact. That idea that the wounds of imperialism need to be revisited. That nothing can be done until it’s done right. That there is this lingering problem that is our Western past, one that remains today because the wounds were never treated, because the first impulse is to maybe admit that wrongs were done but then to say there’s no one to punish. That it was too long ago. That it’s not the same government. That it’s not the same situation. No reparations. No trials. No making people and families and nations who have profited from horrible crimes pay for that, and try to make things right. In the novel, it’s this push to revisit the sins of the past that brings everything crashing into the future, where Garak has to live by his word and his hope, even if he hangs himself by doing so. Because there can be no real progress until this has been settled.


A few notes on this book. I have a strong dislike of Pulaski, who shoves her way into a delicate situation and just completely cluelessly judges everyone based on her very limited view. She comes into a place like Cardassia with nothing but the vaguest of idea of the situation and she pretends she’s an expert, without concern for what she says or how she’s being used. She does manage to do some good but plops, the Pulaski stuff was frustrating for me, because of how she sees Cardassians and how easily she believes the worst. She thinks Garak is a tyrant because he’s in charge and because there’s something going on she doesn’t like, but she assumes the worst. And that, really, is where all of the issues in the book come from—in assuming the worst.

It’s something that is brought viscerally home with the inclusion in the novel of Bashir, in a catatonic state and unresponsive. He’s in Garak’s care and yet Garak can’t really bring himself to face Bashir, to face the way that he’s changed, and why he’s changed. Garak, too, assumes the worst, that Bashir will never recover, that there’s nothing of his friend and love behind those blank eyes. And so he avoids. And he argues with Parmack, the third doctor in the novel, and his current partner, because of this. Because there’s still a part of both of them that can’t trust. Parmak because of who Garak was, despite what he’s been since. And Garak for the same reason, because he doesn’t trust himself, even after everything. Which to me is such a great thing to show, that Garak is hampered here in some ways because he doesn’t trust himself, because he, too, assumes the worst of his own intentions, even as he pushes himself to go forward, to help heal his home.

But doctors once again dominate Garak’s life. The one making his life hell because of her meddling, the one making his life stable because of his love and presence, and the one whose shadow darkens everything, and makes it hard to be hopeful. Doctors, who are supposed to be so good at healing, and who do indeed find themselves in the position of helping to heal a people, and an old and festered wound.

Never the Same Lie Twice

It’s a strange thing when innocence isn’t enough. And yet for so long, innocence was not something that was safe on Cardassia. The rule of law was not innocent until proven guilty. That’s a point that DS9 makes time and again, and it sets up a lot of what defines Cardassia during the show. In the novel, due process is guaranteed, and yet the past cannot be wholly ignored. When things start to go south, when events start to unfold, it’s literally the shadows of the past that cause the most issue. People are too quick to lose faith in their systems. To lose faith in their friends. To believe the most extreme lie. Because for so long that’s what they were told to do. And because for a people who were made so guilty by the past, many don’t want to believe that someone like Natima Lang could have gotten through clean. Even as she’s this pillar of hope for people, that not all Cardassians were a party to the abuses of the past, there is also a not-so-hidden desire to see her revealed to be a fraud. A hypocrite. Because maybe then it would make it more okay for everyone else. That they had no other choice.

People fall back into patterns. Lang is convinced she is being set up and must flee because it’s happened to her before. Pulaski is convinced that Garak is behind everything because it’s happened with Cardassia before. And Garak is worried he will fail because he’s failed before, and done terrible things for what he thought was best for Cardassia. They all know that innocence is not always enough, not when a system is corrupt, and all of them have a hard time remembering that what Cardassia has built is greater than that, both remembers the past and seeks to do better. It’s something of a surprise for all of them when they stop and think and...can solve their problems by trusting each other and each other’s intentions. Indeed, what the story reveals is that it’s not only Cardassia that needs to own up to its past. That for all its shine and rhetoric, the Federation has its own demons, and huge ones (as Bashir himself risked everything to prove).

What I love so much about this story, then, is that it’s about a system working not because of the strength of only a few people, but because the system is built to be just. And with that foundation, with those institutions in place, it’s actually harder for corruption to spread and flourish. What Cardassia has built might indeed be fragile under the weight of the past, but it’s not actually as fragile as people think or fear. What’s a joy about this book is that it shows the system working. Garak cannot fall back into his old patterns. Neither can Cardassia. Whereas in The Crimson Shadow the institutions were still harboring corruption and needing to be straightened out, Enigma Tales shows the fruit of that work. It’s still tense, and still shows how the media is perhaps a problem that needs to be addressed, but in many ways for me it’s a book with slightly lower stakes. At least societally, there are no huge riots, no sense that everything is going to fall apart. Even as the fear remains that it might all be taken away, there’s the feeling that maybe it is possible to succeed, to see justice done. Not without struggle, but by having good people in key positions and by valuing transparency and justice, what blooms is beautiful. For Garak, whose first love was flowers, it’s apt that he’s been able to help see Cardassia bloom, even as he knows he might not be the right person to see Cardassia into its next stage.

Our Man Bashir

Holy shit, though, that ending. That ending. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s just a devastating and amazing read. Because through it all we’ve seen that Garak comes to terms with his place in the current situation, and in history, and in his own life. Flawed but trying. And, ultimately, much more interested in moving forward than living in the past. He’s come through the fire a different person, and it seems he might finally be able to believe that, to trust that, when he returns to Bashir, when he decides to trust again, even when it makes him vulnerable. Because he knows that without that trust, without that vulnerability, there can be no healing, and there can be no progress. And it’s just this beautiful moment and okay yes I’m a little teary but yeah, fuck. It’s a poignant and powerful ending to a triumphant novel, and I want so much more. So. Much. More.

For now, though, that wraps up this Year of Garak. I don’t think I’m completely done with the series, but this marks my running out of major works of Garak (I think). If I find more, I’ll do more. For now, please raise a glass of kanar and toast an end, and a beginning. Cheers!


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