Thursday, October 25, 2018

Surak's Soul

Surak's Soul by J.M. Dillard
Published March 2003
Read July 10th 2018

Previous book (Enterprise): What Price Honor?

Next book (Enterprise): The Expanse

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Spoilers ahead for Surak's Soul

From the back cover:
You are alone, in the dark reaches of space, surrounded by aliens who do not understand who you are and what you are, and who will not accept your beliefs. Under such circumstances, an emotional Human would feel lost, cut off, adrift, but Sub-Commander T'Pol is a Vulcan, and Vulcans control their emotions. However, no other Vulcan has served for longer that a few weeks aboard a Human ship. Has she, as others imply, simply lost her way? 
Pulled, once again, into one of Captain Archer's dangerously impulsive attempts to make first contact, the sub-commander finds her life threatened. T'Pol reacts, draws her phase-pistol and kills. It was a simple act of self-defense. But is killing ever simple? Has she forsaken the teachings of Surak? 
Determined to be true to her heritage, T'Pol forswears violence. She tells Captain Archer that never again will she kill – even if ordered. Is she, as Archer suggests, endangering the entire ship?

My thoughts:

Surak's Soul hits a lot of the right buttons for me upon first glance: the exploration of Vulcan ideology, what it means to be a Vulcan among humans, and what happens when that ideology is threatened. I tend to really enjoy novels that explore these ideas, such as Spock's World by Diane Duane and The Vulcan Academy Murders by Jean Lorrah. So to me, bringing these ideas into the lit-verse of Enterprise and the character of T'Pol seems like a no-brainer.

On the surface of the planet Oan where most of the population has been killed, an Enterprise landing party discovers one lone survivor: the last of his species, the Oani. However, he is in rough shape, and when he attacks Hoshi, T'Pol fires her phase pistol in an attempt to stun him. Due to his weakened condition, the stun beam kills him, leading T'Pol to eschew violence completely. She believes that any kind of violence, even in self-defense or defense of another, is antithetical to Surak's teachings. There is some great exploration of this issue at the beginning of this novel, including flashbacks to T'Pol's youth when she first learns of Surak's teachings from her parents, as well as her adolescence, when those teachings are put to the test.

T'Pol's involvement in a fatal phase pistol shooting leads her to abstain from violence of any kind.

Surak's Soul is a very short novel. At only 240 pages, it is quite a thin spine on my bookshelf. One would expect that it is a short, intimate character study, delving into T'Pol's personal journey rather than getting deep into a plot-driven story. Unfortunately, it turns out that the T'Pol part of the story that is hinted at in the back-cover blurb is quite thin. While the novel starts out exploring that issue, the bulk of the novel drops it almost entirely, only revisiting it briefly right at the very end of story.

Strangely enough, many of the issues that Surak's Soul raises are very similar to issues T'Pol deals with in the second season episode "The Seventh." In that episode, T'Pol begins to experience memories that were previously hidden regarding her shooting and killing of a Vulcan fugitive named Jossen. Curious, I looked up when that episode aired relative to the writing and release of this novel. "The Seventh" aired in November of 2002, near the beginning of Enterprise's second season, while this novel was released in March of 2003. Additionally, we know that the acknowledgements in this novel were written in late July 2002, as the date is mentioned in them. Interestingly, Surak's Soul references the events of that episode in a somewhat offhanded way, so the author was aware of the episode at some point in the writing process. I suspect that the novel was in fact quite similar to that episode in the way that it handled these issues, and that may be why it is so thin and why T'Pol's struggle makes up such a small part of the novel. Could some of the story have been excised when it was learned that "The Seventh" would tread much of the same ground? Alas, this is mere speculation on my part, but it would not surprise me.

The plot of Surak's Soul that takes center stage involves a mysterious, gaseous creature called "The Wanderer." We learn that it was this creature who was responsible for the deaths of the Oani, as well as the ailment afflicting the crew of Enterprise. At one point, the crew must hole up in engineering to get away from the creature, in a plot development reminiscent of the second season episode "The Crossing," in which the crew hides from the "whisps" in the nacelle catwalk, where shielding prevents their entry.

The Wanderer reminded me of the Companion from TOS's "Metamorphosis."

Additionally, the Wanderer itself reminded me of The Original Series, where different sorts of lifeforms like this one regularly made an appearance. I was particularly reminded of the Companion from the second season TOS episode "Metamorphosis." However, the Wanderer is much more malevolent than the Companion proved to be. I found the fact that the Wanderer didn't see humans as "sentient" to be an interesting concept, and the fact that it saw Vulcans as worthy of the respect given to sentient creatures made for a fascinating tale.

All in all, I would have preferred a deeper exploration of T'Pol's dilemma rather that the fairly routine plot we get when Surak's Soul concludes. Still, it was an interesting adventure, but I definitely felt that it didn't go as deeply as it could have. In the end, it becomes a familiar story of the crew coming together to oppose the alien and overcoming the threat that it posed. Worth a read, but not really something I intend to revisit anytime soon.

Final thoughts:

Not entirely what I expected, Surak's Soul doesn't exactly deliver on what the back-cover blurb says it is about. There is some interesting examination of T'Pol's philosophy and the choices it leads her to make, but that exploration is dropped rather quickly for a fairly routine alien threat story. Still, not all bad; there are some interesting elements that remind me a lot of classic Star Trek. 3/5.

More about Surak's Soul:

Also by J.M. Dillard:

My next read:

Book four in the A Time To series: A Time to Harvest by Dayton Ward & Kevin Dilmore.

1 comment:

  1. Wait - that's it?! I listened to the Literary Treks podcast episode before reading this so I was forewarned that the book had an abrupt ending, but I was still caught off guard by how quickly things were wrapped up. At first I didn't even realize that it had ended. I had to go back and read the last couple of pages.


    1) You have an alien race that is so pacifistic that it is willing to succumb to extinction instead of killing a microbe. Kind of odd that the last living member of this species tries to knife Hoshi to death as soon as he sets eyes on her isn't it?

    2) So a brightly glowing cloud being called the Wanderer wiped out an entire planet full of aliens at a time? And nobody caught on? Instead of suspecting the swirling electric cloud monster they just take the word of a random stranger (who provides zero scientific evidence!) that the culprit is a microbe and they collectively decide to consign their entire civilization to oblivion. Pretty silly.

    3) Archer and the gang are pretty blasé about meeting a non-corporeal space entity aren't they? I mean they were in awe of a comet a few months earlier and now they don't blink an eye when a giant alien cloud transforms itself into a humanoid form and decides to crash on the couch in the Enterprise's science lab for a while.

    4) So the Wanderer doesn't realize that non psychic aliens are sentient even though it knows that humans are capable of communicating with one another and have highly developed scientific abilities? I mean the Wanderer can commune with the ship's computer which is loaded with data about humanity and it still doesn't realize that the people who invented the computer aren't just dumb animals?

    5) The creature was defeated because T'Pol was able to convince it that humans were sentient, right? I think that's what happened but it was so rushed I'm not sure. If that's the case it's a good thing the critter didn't turn out to Armus' cousin or something and just lied about not eating sentient creatures.

    Two comments:

    Dillard goes to the "Alien menace stalks the halls of the Enterprise" trope too often. She's a capable writer but she's used this plot in multiple books.

    This feels like a season two episode of Enterprise. And I don't mean that as a compliment. It doesn't feel very original and even though there are some positive aspects it ultimately feels flat. I have to assume there is some behind-the-scenes explanation for why this book seems so unfinished.

    My rating:

    /review ends abruptly and unsatisfactorily.