#159: The Romulan Stratagem (TNG #35)

This week, Picard and Sela drag out their best Kirk speeches in hopes of closing a sale. Meanwhile, Ro Laren winds up on the hospitality beat and lands elbow-deep in one of the worst kinds of boy trouble. What’s the correct take on cargo pants? What’s to be done about the lack of synonyms for “android”? And who do we talk to about getting an anthology of Guinan’s exploits on Risa? All this and more in The Romulan Stratagem, the book that isn’t afraid to name-drop a deep Poe cut.

The Romulan Stratagem
Author: Robert Greenberger
Pages: 273
Published: May 1995
Timeline: After “Face of the Enemy” (S6E14), though probably more specifically sometime during season 7, since Ben is mentioned at one point
Prerequisites: Some familiarity with Sela’s various appearances [1] [2] [3] [4] is a fairly good idea

The planet Eloh, a world in a strategic position between Federation and Romulan space, is looking to get involved in the space game, and they’ve invited both sides to pitch them on the benefits of their respective alliances. But when Enterprise gets there, they find the Romulans have already been there for a minute, Premier Daithin being simply committed to hearing both sides present their cases. Even more surprising than the Romulans showing up first is the fact that Sela is in charge of the mission to convince the Elohsians to choose the Romulan Empire. The job is considered a lowly assignment by her superiors, but Sela is determined to turn it into a success that she can use to parlay into recovering her old status and bouncing right back to the top.

Eloh touts a recent push toward global unity after a protracted civil war, but many of their old prejudices still seem to be bubbling at the surface. Things reach a head when a power plant that Deanna and Geordi are touring suffers an explosion, and evidence that suggests a human culprit paints Geordi as the prime suspect. Thankfully, he’s quickly exonerated, but the crew sees that they’ll have to stay on their toes. Not long afterward, a targeted chemical explosion, this time traceable to a Romulan interloper, takes out a neighborhood near the parliament hall where Data is observing Sela’s open forum. With detective fiction once again enjoying yet another spate of popularity among the Enterprise crew, Data, in an investigative mood, gets permission to look for answers among the rubble. While combing the scene, he encounters Sela, who appears genuinely shocked that a Romulan seems to have gotten away with something like this on her watch, on a more personal, less authorized fact-finding hunt, and the two agree to work together to get to the bottom of who’s trying to sabotage both sides of the mission.

Meanwhile, back on the Enterprise, after Ro Laren throws a teacher into a wall in an effort to expedite putting out a fire, Riker thinks she could use a bit of an image rehabilitation among the ship’s civilian element and makes her the new orientation officer. The first family she’s assigned to acclimating are the Kellys, whose teenage son James immediately develops a huge crush on her. Enough of the story is dedicated to Ro trying to shake James off with limited success that you can see how she earns the cover billing, but don’t be fooled by the action pose: this is all she gets to do here. It’s not a great subplot, but it is at least in keeping with the kind of thing you get from more episodes of TNG than you would like.

Robert Greenberger is a name we’ve seen before, albeit not by itself. He’s a writer who’s generally more on the comics side of Trek, but has previously contributed to two collaborations, the unremarkable TNG novel Doomsday World and the decidedly stronger TOS effort The Disinherited. Dave Stern, the Pocket Books editor at the time, thought him capable of a solo effort. Was his faith properly placed?

Greenberger seems to find quite a bit of pleasure in describing mundane activities, especially taking tricorder readings, in a way that plays up how inwardly pleased all of the characters are with a routine job well done. Although it doesn’t exactly make for the most gripping prose, there’s a charming quality to its execution that feels like a warm blanket. The Ro Laren thread also kind of hits this way. It’s funny how these frivolous B-plots and domestic trifles often seem annoying when you’re watching the show and wishing it would do better by its characters and try harder to live up to its maximum potential, but when a book indulges those same and captures their tone accurately, it’s amusing. Probably says more about me than anything, I’ll admit.

It’s hard to say more about The Romulan Stratagem without wanting to talk at length about its ending, which legitimately shocked me because I’ve gotten far too cozy with TNG conventions. That sentence alone probably implicitly reveals more about how it generally goes than I’d like to spoil, but I’ll say that that ending singlehandedly takes the book from a 😐 with some agreeable qualities to a solid 🙂. In retrospect, it makes me want a book where the events of the ending happen a lot sooner in the story, and the bulk of the text is about how Picard and the others deal with the consequences of it and the emotions it evokes. But it also works as a heavy orb of unpleasantness that you’re just sort of left having to have sit on your stomach, as well as making sense in terms of wanting Sela to continue to be a credible threat.

So yeah, I think Greenberger acquitted himself pretty well on his first solo venture. Sela shows a little more of her human side here to great effect, and both she and Picard get more than one chance to show off their formidable rhetoric skills in appealing directly to the Elohsians. I also appreciated how Greenberger throws some nods to Edgar Allan Poe’s pioneering strides in the detective genre into the mix alongside the usual fawning over Holmes and Dixon Hill, just for something a little different. I didn’t go into this one expecting anything mind-blowing, and for the most part I was proven right. But it’s okay to not have your mind blown every time you crack one of these books, and in at least one aspect, this one did manage to do just that, and so on that score I have to give it due credit.


  • The MVP of the week is Data. When he’s written poorly, the cringe is real, but when he’s written well, as he is here, it’s hard to top him for sheer fun factor. I like how he returns to the Holmes approach since it’s worked for him before, but pulls it off in a way that doesn’t require a corny vocal inflection or force him to dress up in a floppy hat and work it out on the holodeck. Runner-up to Worf, who shows some—dare I say it?—honorable professionalism when having to work alongside Sela. We know how he feels about Romulans, after all.
  • My LVP this week is James Kelly, though I admit the reasoning touches a little bit of a personal nerve. On one hand, it would have been really satisfying to just see Ro shut him down with no mercy, and damn the consequences. On the other hand, I was totally that kid once—hopelessly crushing on teachers who had neither any idea what to do about it nor any desire to be the target of it. It’s a bit of an uncomfortable peek in a mirror to the past. Like, you’re supposed to be so smart—so why can’t you see that absolutely nothing about this works?

Nuggets & Stray Bits

  • “Unlike Regor, the people on this continent had taken to sporting oversized pockets, almost all them [sic] bulging with something or another. They had hip pouches attached by a belt as well, and those pouches had many colorful patterns. Geordi thought the look was comfortable as well as practical.” — The Elohsians lied! They have had contact with another culture: the Liefeldians! Also, I would like to take this opportunity to re-up my dad card and say that Geordi has the correct opinion about cargo pants/shorts. (p. 109)
  • Guinan, p. 118: “I once had a suitor on Risa that tried for weeks to find out even my name. Handsome. For a Tellarite.” — Now there’s a Short Trek I wanna see.
  • Geordi becomes the second Star Trek character to have a non-canon experience with fire at a young age in the novels, the other being Uhura in The Three-Minute Universe. He seems to have done a much better job of recovering from the trauma than she did. (p. 123)
  • Greenberger uses the characters as a mouthpiece to drop some Edgar Allan Poe deep cuts. I’ve never heard of the stories “Ligeia” (misspelled in the text as “Ligea”) or “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall”, but as someone who’s decided to dedicate a significant chunk of his time to reviewing Star Trek novels, I’m definitely into the idea of someone dropping a deep cut for its own sake. Are they lost gems, or is there a good reason they’re obscure? Only one way to find out! (p. 170)
  • “A subroutine also ran that had Data comparing [Sela’s] oratory skills with some of the most noteworthy speakers in the Federation, including Surak of Vulcan, Adolf Hitler of Earth, Kodos the Executioner of Tarsus Four, and the recently retired Stephaleh of Andor.” — Always cracks me up. “Say what you will about old Hitler, but you have to admit he was a great speaker!” No, I don’t! Hitler sucks! No points for Hitler! Meanwhile, Stephaleh is a callback to  Doomsday World. (p. 171)
  • “Data’s discussions of detective fiction had peaked her curiosity” — You know that at this point I only point out typos if they’re particularly egregious. And boy howdy, is that a nasty one. Piqued! The word is piqued! There are also three instances of “sight” that should be “site”. (p. 183)
  • “The synthezoid stopped his motion to listen to the back room.” — Look. I know it’s tough to keep using the word “android” all the time. You wish there was some other synonym you could use, some way to mix it up a little. It’s the same word! Every time! If you have to type it one more time, you might puke. So in a moment of desperation, you seize on a new coinage. But, brother? This ain’t it. This so ain’t it. (p. 231)
  • “As the room returned to normal, Ro’s hand reached behind her and unclasped the dress. Letting it fall to her feet, Ro decided to go for her usual off-duty Bajoran look, remain in the room, and try and finish the Dixon Hill caper.” — Does … does Ro hang out in her quarters in the buff? I don’t remember hearing any mention of this in the show. I’m inclined to think it’s just authorial wish fulfillment. (p. 267)

Final Assessment: 🙂

The Romulan Stratagem is probably not one of the greatest examples of Star Trek literature ever committed to paper, but it does a few very important things very right. It strikes a tone that for much of its readtime makes it a comfortable if not terribly exciting read, but its surprising ending makes it worthwhile to see how it leads up to the end all by itself. Pretty much all of the characters behave the way you would expect and want them to, and though it takes a while to be sure that it’s a satisfying piece of comfort food, it is in the end just that.

NEXT TIME: Torres, Kim, and Neelix commit time crimes in The Escape


#158: Valhalla (DS9 #10)


#160: The Escape (VOY #2)


  1. Adam Goss

    Greenberger if I recall correctly was even more of an editor than a writer (or he did both), and I do often find that when editors turn their hand to writing themselves, it’s like they forget to have someone else edit for them to help strengthen the finished product. Also putting Surak and Hitler in the same sentence like that… yikes that line has not aged well. Also also, unless you’re describing a second fire experience, Geordi did have a childhood experience with fire that is canon – see the episode “Hero Worship” where he talks to Data about having been trapped in a burning building as a very young kid.

  2. A.D.

    I don’t think I even finished this book. If my memory serves, my impression was that almost nothing happened for the entire first half of the book. I’m not someone who demands a phaser fight every five pages, but I think a book should have something (anything!) to catch my interest before I’ve broken the halfway point.

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