This week, when Neelix advises avoiding the bad neighborhood, Janeway makes a beeline for the bad neighborhood. But when she gets Voyager pulled into the middle of a centuries-old conflict, the Prime Directive and her dignity compete to see which one will come out less battered. What is that weird orb at the center of the battlefield? Is the Caretaker’s companion inside it? And does anyone besides Janeway think any of this is a good idea? All this and more in Ragnarok, the book that taught me what the cube-square law is!
Author: Nathan Archer
Published: July 1995
Timeline: First half of season 1
Prerequisites: Some knowledge of “The Corbomite Maneuver” (TOS S1E10) will make it go down a little smoother
Neelix recommends going around the Kuriyar Cluster, where the Hachai and the P’nir have been waging war against each other since anyone can remember and are not especially discerning about filtering out innocent passersby who wander through their lines of fire. As he and Janeway go back and forth about the decision, Voyager is hit by a coherent tetryon beam, not unlike the one that preceded the displacement wave that brought it all the way to the Delta Quadrant. Janeway decides to ignore Neelix and cut through the Kuriyar Cluster on the chance that the beam was sent out by the companion the Caretaker mentioned, the one that decided to see other parts of the galaxy rather than devote all its time and energy to taking care of the Ocampa.
The full first third of the book has Voyager moving from one war-blasted, resource-stripped planet to the next, during which time Janeway begins to sympathize with the Hachai. She knows nothing about either side, but show her a few corpses and a charred baby doll and you will gain her full support. Of course, the Prime Directive prevents her from officially taking a side, and she pays it some lip service, but her heart’s pretty well set by the time they stumble upon the war in progress, which comprises 250,000 kilometers of ships locked in mortal combat and so many casualties that they’re surrounded by a literal cloud of blood.
Into this maelstrom of freeze-dried viscera Janeway plunges her ship and her entire crew with no regard whatsoever for sound advice and common sense. By the end of the book, she has so comprehensively failed to effect any meaningful change in the conflict that her only real win is extracting her ship and crew from it in one piece. At no point do they even learn why the Hachai and P’nir are fighting, except for a glancing admission from a P’nir captain that the Hachai are “unfit”. No strides toward peace are made; in fact, the Hachai and P’nir end up loosely aligning against the Federation, and Janeway is just lucky they have no idea what that is or that they come from the Alpha Quadrant or that their garbage ships will ever reach it.
Butt-ugly cover aside, Nathan Archer’s other Star Trek novel, Valhalla, was pretty cool and had some intriguing ideas. This, however, is singularly awful, maybe in the bottom five of books I’ve covered here so far. And it comes down pretty much entirely to Janeway. Every decision she makes is mind-meltingly boneheaded and an insult to the lived experiences of her peers. Why even keep Neelix around if you’re just going to blow him off when he tells you not to go somewhere he’s been and you haven’t? And yes, the book does make that point, though I’d argue that being cognizant of it and still doing it is perhaps worse than choosing to gloss over it entirely.
But the crux of the problem lies even deeper than that. There is a big difference between offering help to people who need it and declaring yourself the fixer of the galaxy. How is it not incredibly presumptuous to think that you are the key to ending an 800-year conflict, spread out over a quarter million kilometers of space, that you know absolutely nothing about? Does the phrase “discretion is the better part of valor” mean nothing to you? Maybe—this might sound wild, but I’m just spitballing here—maybe you should just leave these people alone? A tiny chance that the Caretaker’s companion might be camping out in that one weird orb in the middle of the melee is a fairly flimsy excuse for charging headlong into a war zone.
And that doll, that stupid doll. The only thing dumber than getting involved in this conflict in the first place is taking a side, and so of course that’s exactly what Janeway does. Her perfunctory invocation of the Prime Directive has all the effect of a Super Soaker on a wildfire. Every now and then, the book takes a meaningful gaze at the charred doll that Janeway took from the wreckage of an asteroid that used to be a Hachai world. Somehow, she’s able to tell from that and three Hachai corpses huddled against each other that, truly, these are the victims in this conflict. And for a little while, she feels a pang of guilt whenever she has to fire on a Hachai ship or take it out of commission. But by the end of the story she’s firing at anyone and everyone and is completely out of craps to give. Worst of all, it’s completely arbitrary. If she had found P’nir corpses and a P’nir toy, she’d have felt sorry for them instead. There’s no rhyme or reason to her actions at all.
There are entire parts of this book I never even got around to, like Chakotay and Harry boarding a P’nir vessel and their interactions with that species. Those parts have some cool qualities, like how the P’nir speak exclusively in imperatives. But none of it matters because the entire basis for getting there is faulty on a molecular level. One might argue that if they don’t go through the Kuriyar Cluster, there’s no story. My rebuttal to that would be: maybe that’s not a story that needs to exist, then. Maybe not every story is capable of justifying its existence. Actually, now that I think about it, the Hachai–P’nir war is so insular and focused on itself that you could reasonably argue that they could have taken the shortcut and completely avoided the fight! Ye gods, this book made me mad. It is terrible. Terrible, terrible, terrible. If you never take any other recommendation from this site, take this one: Avoid. This. Book.
MVP & LVP
- This week’s MVP is anyone who tried to tell Janeway that going into the Kuriyar Cluster and/or talking to the Hachai and P’nir was a bad idea. When Janeway insists on finding the source of the tetryon beam and “Neelix threw his hands up in disgust at that”? Neelix gets an MVP. When Tuvok says “The logical thing for us to do … would be to detour around the battle entirely, and to proceed on toward the Alpha Quadrant”? Yes! Excellent idea! Listen to your Vulcan, Janeway! Tuvok gets an MVP. I think even the Hachai try to turn her away before it becomes impossible to prevent anything from happening to her and Voyager? Hachai MVP. Chakotay makes a half-hearted attempt to suggest it might be a bad idea, but quickly falls in line and upbraids anyone who tries to say it’s pointless by saying that peace is a noble end? Ehh, half-credit.
- This week’s LVP is Janeway. I think I already made a solid enough case for why.
Nuggets & Stray Bits
- I doubt it’s much of a spoiler to reveal that the “weird orb” I mentioned earlier is a hollowed-out First Federation shell. A cool callback, albeit not one that brings anything substantial to the table.
- For some reason, the name “P’nir” clangs in my head and I really do not like it. My brain wants to autocorrect it to “Panera” every time I read it.
- It is at least a little cool/amusing that Nathan Archer managed to name both his Star Trek novels after elements of Norse mythology.
- “It was very unusual for creatures as large as these to have exoskeletons; the cube-square law usually made it impractical. The P’nir must have evolved in a low-gravity environment.” — If I can find nothing else kind to say about Ragnarok (and I can’t), I can at least say that it taught me what the cube-square law is, or perhaps more accurately gave me language to put to the idea. I had heard vaguely before that it would be scientifically impossible for giant monsters to exist without collapsing under their own mass, and this is basically the axiom that explains why. (p. 146)
- “‘Mr. Evans,’ Janeway called. ‘Open a channel to the Hachai.'” — Sly little bit of authorial self-insertion here. (Nathan Archer’s real name is Lawrence Watt-Evans.) (p. 193)
Terrible. I have almost nothing positive to say about Ragnarok. It is a story that has no reason to be told. In more extreme cases, Janeway’s decisions might justify a mutiny. Nothing she does makes a lick of sense, and Voyager would have made more gains doing the opposite of everything she says to do. She doesn’t listen to trusted advisors and people with valuable experience, and exhibits no internal consistency. One of the worst Star Trek books I’ve ever read, hands down.
NEXT TIME: A brief look at The Ferengi Rules of Acquisition