This week, when a scientist of questionable repute dies, the powers of the galaxy race to bid on his creations. But when Wesley stumbles on a way to make gold-pressed latinum grow on trees, the invention falls into the hands of the last people you’d want that sort of thing to. What is Geordi’s major malfunction? Can we break the Bing Klingon translator? And has Data been running a long con this whole time? All this and more in Balance of Power, the book that dirties up nicely.
Balance of Power
Author: Dafydd ab Hugh
Published: January 1995
Timeline: Shortly after “Thine Own Self” (S7E16)
Prerequisites: The ramifications of “Force of Nature” (S7E9) play a significant role
Geordi is on Kurn’s ship performing a retrofit when he receives news that his “mentor” Dr. Zorka has died. Geordi considers the dude a quack, but that seems to be a minority opinion, because Zorka’s son, a failed artist, is auctioning off his old man’s inventions and field notes to fill his own coffers with project funds, and everyone from the Federation to the Klingon Empire to the Cardassians is interested. Picard, who has been tapped to bid on select items on the Federation’s behalf, invites Geordi to discuss the letter’s misgivings about Zorka in private, but Geordi can’t show any receipts, so Picard has no choice but to accept the request and set course for the auction site.
Meanwhile, back at the Academy, Wesley Crusher has been on a steady diet of humble pie ever since The Incident. He’s not too thrilled with his roommate situation either: Fred Kimbal is nice enough and has a good head for numbers, but he’s a complete dud in the social department, and practically no one considers him officer material. But Wesley thinks their luck might turn around when they get invited to buy in to the annual end-of-term poker game. Prior to the game, Wes tinkers with an abandoned project of Fred’s. When he gets it working, he discovers it can turn a cheap metal called chaseum into gold-pressed latinum—or at least, a facsimile so close to the real thing that only the most powerful instruments can work out the difference.
The Ferengi hosting the game, Tunk, takes advantage of Fred’s good-natured obliviousness to the tune of about twenty bars of latinum, a debt Fred pays by turning over the counterfeit-latinum producer. Appalled that Fred would consider that an option and horrified by the logical conclusions of what a Ferengi would do with such a device, he attempts to sneak aboard Tunk’s yacht to steal the device back, but is caught and conscripted into service as the ship’s cabin boy. Tunk and his father, Munk, a roving pirate and persona non grata in the Ferengi business community, are headed for the same destination as everyone else in the galaxy, with the plan to crush all other bidders’ hopes with their inexplicable largesse, particularly those of a certain Grand Nagus. Wesley must figure out how to get the device out of their clutches before they clean out the auction and get their hands on some potentially devastating inventions.
I am on record as being a vehement un-fan of Dafydd ab Hugh’s first Trek novel Fallen Heroes (a position I continue to stand behind), but I liked this one as much as I disliked that one. The most noticeable element of Balance of Power is the thick coat of DS9-flavored grime that coats this particular rendering of the TNG universe. People tend to get weird about the presence and use of money on the TNG side of Trek, mostly because of that one misbegotten yet somehow also widely misinterpreted line from First Contact, but I think it’s interesting to force them to work with it. I’m both surprised and not that TNG wears this messiness well; it’s often a little too squeaky-clean for its own good, and it’s fun to watch the characters play around in a sandbox that allows them to loosen their collars a little bit.
Picard and Geordi may be the characters on the cover, but this is resolutely a Wesley story, a very strong portrait of where his heart is at in season 7 right around the time the Traveler comes and picks him up for the ultimate road trip. In general, Wesley Crusher is a better character when he’s in a mess that he can’t just engineer or math his way out of. He also benefits handsomely by comparison to a naif like Fred Kimbal, which makes him look like a much more well–put-together person and not so much a know-it-all stuffed shirt. The piece of Wesley’s inner thought process that Balance of Power adds to the puzzle fits in very comfortably, and the ending in particular feels like it really solidifies in his mind that he’s making the right decision by leaving Starfleet behind for his own path.
One thing I was afraid of with this book was the prospect of it descending into farce once it got into the thick of the auction proceedings, sort of like a How Much for Just the Planet?–lite. Various characters get shuffled around in their alliances and end up representing—e.g., Picard ends up getting asked to bid on behalf of the Klingon Empire, Deanna Troi gets roped into bidding for Betazed, Worf and Data at various points represent the Federation, etc. Except for one notable event, nothing too wacky happens, and I’m glad that Hugh was able to show restraint and not allow the book to spiral. One distinction I think a lot of people don’t make when it comes to Star Trek is that it can do humor well, but not comedy. Balance of Power features lots of humor and stays away from the comedy, a move that’s always beneficial to Trek.
As we move out of the era of TNG’s televised run and get farther out in time from things that held the series back, like excessive involvement from Roddenberry, I think we’re well on our way to seeing more authors get a little more down and dirty with it, and based on Balance of Power, I have to say I’m looking forward to it. There are times I think we may have gotten too jaded to be able to create something like TNG today, but I also think there’s something to be said for tempering it with some more realistic lines of thought. There are a lot of ways this book could have gone wrong, and it’s a pleasure to report that it avoids all of them nimbly.
MVP & LVP
- My MVP this week, perhaps not so surprisingly, is Wesley. Ferengi are an easy target, especially TNG-style ones, but it’s still satisfying the way he runs circles around them, and it’s also fun to see him navigate daily life and work aboard Tunk and Munk’s yacht. I also keep going back to the ending, which isn’t something I’ll dare to spoil. Of that, I’ll say only that I think he acquits himself very nicely, all things considered, and I love the way you can just see it all coming together in his mind and codifying his imminent-future decisions.
- My LVP is Geordi, who is in especially rare form in this book. Everyone has always assumed Geordi’s razzing of Dr. Zorka belied a secret affection for him, but no, Geordi legitimately hates Dr. Zorka and was not being jokey or lighthearted when he said any of that stuff. The problem is that he lets it get in the way of his duty. Once they realize Geordi is on Kurn’s ship, and Kurn will surely have no problem breaking the speed limit, they ask him to bid on the goods. Geordi straight-up refuses. He claims his oath is to the Federation and Starfleet, not one person—but, like, whose money do you think you’re playing with, fool? It doesn’t matter what you think. The Federation thinks Zorka’s stuff has value; they want you to flash the cash; your oath is to Starfleet; therefore, you do what they want. Not throw a fit because you hated taking the guy’s classes. Riker gets super-pissed about all of it—and he should! It’s made even worse by the fact that Deanna has some of the same reservations (albeit not as strongly voiced), yet she gets a lecture from Picard about all the things Geordi successfully begged off the request for. But when Geordi does it, they’re just like, well, it’s his decision, can’t do anything about it. If Geordi had been a more central character, as the beginning of the book makes it seem like he’s gearing up to be, then this would have been far more of a problem, but thankfully it shifts focus to Wesley pretty quickly.
Nuggets & Other Stray Bits
- Cover Art Corner: This is the first of 31 covers by Dru Blair. Welcome aboard, Dru!
- Kurn’s ship is called, according to Hugh, [deep breath] “Strange Legendary Klingon Fish That Hides in Rocks and Spies on Enemies of the Warrior Gods”. The handy-dandy Bing Klingon translator renders this as qeylIS voDleH DaH ‘enqIyDu, which surprises me with its economy and elegance, though as with most online translators, I can’t guarantee that it’s grammatically correct, and I somehow kind of doubt it. (p. 1)
- “‘This is really amazing, Fred. You know with this, a person—a criminally minded kind of guy—could become as rich as the Trump family.'” — No need to be redundant, Wes! OH! Even in my beloved Trek novels, I can’t get away from them. At least I can take solace in the idea that nothing after roughly the early to mid-90s in our universe is canon in Trek. Fred asks if that was the guy that turned everything he touched into latinum, and Wes says he thinks so, which is amusing, but, uh, not so much. (p. 43)
- Wes messes around with a toy Ferengi in Tunk’s apartment. The Ferengi wears a barrel, and when you lift the barrel, the toy whizzes in your face. Not sure who would want an eyeful of a Ferengi’s wing-wang, but takes all kinds, I suppose. (p. 46)
- Some new non-canon Rules of Acquistion for ya…
- #219: “Possession is eleven-tenths of the law” (p. 67)
- #303: “The sheep want to be fleeced” (p. 153). Notable for going well above the canonical maximum of 285.
- #69:1 “Ferengi are not responsible for the stupidity of other races” (p. 179)
- “If questioned by the authorities, Wesley would tell the truth, of course, which would put both Fred and himself into Chokey.” — I’m aware it’s just a general term for prison, but I’m of an age where the word “Chokey” fills me with intense nostalgia for Matilda. (The book, not the movie as linked.) (p. 137)
- “‘Ah,’ said the Nagus, licking his lips, “if you could just replicate us a nice bottle of Ferengi spunk, I think the deal would go infinitely smoother.'” — A nice bottle of Ferengi what now? I’ll just take water, thanks. (p. 163)
- Data, when Wesley asks if he mangles phrases on purpose: “Yes, I find that restating common idioms in a convoluted manner gives me an affect of ingenuous naivete.” Data, you sly dog! All this time! And they say androids can’t lie. (p. 241)
- I have to say I’m not super-keen on the names Tunk and Munk. It makes them sound more like Pakleds than Ferengi. But it’s hardly a big deal.
- I understand that the warp five limit introduced by “Force of Nature” is more of a narrative hassle than it’s generally worth, but I appreciate stories that take it seriously. Most of what Riker gets up to in this book is gnash his teeth over it and bemoan how impotent the Enterprise is in the face of it, and I think it meshes well with this book, as opposed to being an unnecessary contrivance.
- Despite featuring the Grand Nagus, Balance of Power never refers to him by name as Zek, and also sadly lacks any appearances from Maihar’du. This is kind of odd, since those elements were already well locked in early on in DS9, even by the time this novel presumably would have been started.
Final Recommendation: 💎
As it turns out, a greasy layer of splickety-splack does TNG a world of good. It’s an excellent portrait of Wesley on the cusp of his Academy exodus, one that captures the character in a particularly excellent light. The book is also funny without ever capitulating to some of Star Trek‘s worse tendencies with regard to comedy. What’s the opposite of a sophomore slump? Because this is about as much that as you can get. Nice to see the first book of a new year take top honors.
NEXT TIME: Data solves the Mystery of the Missing Crew