This week, when Voyager finds a space city melted to slag, Janeway wants to figure out who pointed the gun at their own faces. But when Tuvok eats the brown acid by proxy, he’ll need a heaping helping of Vulcan control to overcome oppositional defiant disorder. When does space-ifying concepts go too far? Who’s the real first officer? And is a portable replicator too much for Voyager’s status quo to bear? All this and more in Incident at Arbuk, the book that has only a mouth and must argue.
Incident at Arbuk
Author: John Gregory Betancourt1
Published: November 1995
Timeline: Just before “Phage” (S1E5)2
Ensign Kim isolates a distress signal from the Arbuk system, the sender of which Neelix identifies as a Sperian, a species that has built an entire culture around arguing and haggling, often to a degree that works against their self-interest. It’s saying something when Neelix finds a species annoying, but of course, since he recommends skipping this stop, we can be sure of what Janeway’s decision will be. Getting closer, they find a slag heap that used to be a city, littered with 13,000 bodies and showing no signs of life. Beyond the city lies a long tube, reminiscent of the “planet killer” from TOS’s “The Doomsday Machine”, that pounds the city with a massive laser blast at regular intervals.
Finding a drifting ship with one Sperian aboard, they beam the alien and its craft over to Voyager. The EMH’s attempts to revive it meet with little success, so Tuvok risks a mind meld. Unfortunately, owing to a psychotropic stimulant the Doctor gave the Sperian in one of his earlier awakening attempts, the meld goes a little too well, with Tuvok and the Sperian (whose name is Sozoas) each manifesting personality aspects of the other—a real raw deal for Tuvok, since it makes him as illogically bull-headed as Neelix initially made the Sperians out to be.
Conversely, however, that makes Sozoas extremely logical and cooperative, and he’s more than happy to educate Janeway at length about Speria’s heavily factioned and sub-factioned society. Meanwhile, Torres and her team beam over to the death tube—which Tuvok learns was supposed to be a warp accelerator,3 though it didn’t work out as planned, since the Sperians suck at building things on account of how they argue about everything all the time—and find a hastily installed box being controlled remotely. While she’s over there, three Sperian warships ambush Voyager, and though Voyager dispatches them easily, they do manage to knock out the warp drive. Sozoas explains that it’s the Military Faction of Speria that’s responsible for the remote sabotage—and now they’re on their way to Arbuk…
Incident at Arbuk is the first solo Trek novel by John Gregory Betancourt, who previously teamed up with Greg Cox for the enjoyable DS9 story Devil in the Sky. The first thing I noticed about this solo debut, other than the poor guy’s name being misspelled on the cover and spine, is how slim it is. Arbuk boasts a page count that hearkens back to some of the very first books I reviewed on this site. Although it comes in at nearly sixty pages below the average for a numbered installment, it’s nevertheless about the right length for its specific tale. Yet somehow, it still takes a surprisingly long time to start firing on even one cylinder, and by the time it does, you’re ready to be done with it.
That’s too bad, because there is some cool conceptual stuff in here once it finally gets rolling. The Sperians are weird in that great way that the books are far more capable of regularly achieving than 90s TV was; they have no sensory organs other than a mouth, and they “see” in texture rather than in color via the tendrils atop their heads. The concept of a psychotropically affected mind meld is also pretty indelible. Betancourt cleverly implies that Tuvok still isn’t fully ready for duty by using the third-person narration as a detached POV that reveals subtle bits of odd behavior; plus, it made me imagine the idea of Vulcan hippies arguing with staunch, emotionless logic in favor of legalizing psychotropic mind melds, which was hilarious and usually more fun to entertain than whatever the book was giving me at the time. I’m a little surprised I’ve never seen the topic broached before now, to be honest.
Overall, however, I had a hard time getting into this one. It doesn’t help that it features a running subplot that’s so mindbendingly idiotic that it’ll turn your brain to porridge, which we will talk about at exhaustive length shortly. But so far, with only Devil in the Sky to compare it to, it looks as though having a partner to team up with might have allowed Betancourt to keep some of his areas of less developed talent away from scrutiny. He didn’t write that many Trek books—only four in total, I believe—but hopefully the rest of them don’t bear that speculation out.
MVP & LVP
- My MVP this week is Tuvok. He’s written a little oddly even without factoring in the dilithium Kool-Aid acid test behavior, but how are they getting Sozoas to wake up and talk without the mind meld? The Doctor sure wasn’t having any luck. Have I made Tuvok the MVP of every Voyager novel so far? Sure feels like it.
- This week’s LVP is Neelix. You’d best strap in—we have a lot to talk about here.
So there’s a C-plot running throughout the book involving Neelix and a Maquis crewman named Paul Fairman, who has snuck a top-of-the-line replicator aboard, for which the only part he needs is a power supply. Of course, using such a luxuriant item would put a significant strain on the ship’s systems and attract the wrong kind of attention, so Fairman wants to make sure the power supply he receives is a portable one. To get one, he agrees to do favors for Neelix, who eventually finds him one in the wreckage of Sozoas’s ship.
Naturally, one might imagine that with the crew having easy access to the culinary creature comforts of home, Neelix’s services as a chef would be in far less demand, if not obviated entirely. Thus, to ensure that the status quo eventually asserts itself and Neelix maintains a necessary role on the ship, Fairman is presented as a lazy malcontent4 who has previously violated the Prime Directive by selling replicators to insufficiently advanced peoples, and his plan for the replicator is one of personal gain—essentially, trading delicious replicator meals for covered shifts and favors of the like.
This plan is presented as something that needs to stay on the down-low, lest it somehow incur a wave of disapproving tsk-tsks from Janeway or Chakotay. But here’s the thing: if Fairman is going out of his way to secure a portable power supply for this idea, what exactly is the problem with it? If he was a fine officer, there wouldn’t be one. The mental gymnastics this book has to do to present a portable replicator as a selfish thing beneath contempt are excruciating. The only reason a portable replicator can’t exist on Voyager is that it would make Neelix pout and feel useless. You bet your sweet bippy Janeway would put him and his leola root stew out the nearest airlock if it meant infinite coffee the rest of the way home. But evidently there is something so pure and good and ethically unassailable about a morale officer busting his hump over real meals with genuine ingredients for a room full of people with skeptical eyebrows and wrinkled noses that the morale officer must take it upon himself to preserve it at any cost.
Worst of all is the subplot’s resolution, which I have no compunction about spoiling since I hate it so much. To ensure that Fairman is unable to move forward with his scheme, Neelix sneaks into his quarters, removes the replicator, and sells it to the Sperians’ Tech Faction for all the materials needed to fix up Voyager. The Tech Faction assures Neelix (verbally) that they won’t share the secret of the replicator with other factions, and Janeway wonders how he struck such an excellent deal with such an argumentative people but doesn’t think too hard about it, and the whole matter is dropped. Neelix is no better than Fairman! Mother of mercy, I hated this subplot. Hated, hated, hated it. Loathed it with the fury of a thousand suns.
Nuggets & Stray Bits
- Cover Art Corner: Harry doesn’t do anything to merit making the cover, but he also doesn’t do anything to deserve that awful portrait. The head-on view of Voyager lit from underneath is super rad, though.
- Janeway idly wonders if the warp accelerator can be turned on the Borg, simultaneously recalling Peter David’s Vendetta and presaging how much the series would later explore the Borg.
- “That, Janeway thought, had to be one of the highest compliments she’d ever heard a Vulcan pay to a meal. She’d once heard Tuvok refer to a four-nova restaurant on Betazed as ‘sufficiently nutritious.'” — As long as science fiction has existed, writers have been known to future up mundane concepts by putting a cute little spacey twist on them, as if readers/viewers are somehow constantly in danger of forgetting that the overwhelming majority of sci-fi stories either involve space or are set in it. Honestly, most of the time, we barely notice this sort of thing, unless it’s part of, say, a sight gag or somesuch. That said, however: “four-nova”? Really? What’s wrong with stars? Stars already exist in space. They already have that going for them. Telling us the restaurant is on Betazed already informs us that it is alien and exotic. Replacing “four-star” with something more obvious and clunky in its spaceness adds nothing. This passage really landed with a thud for me. (p. 63)
- “[Janeway had] stopped by the sickbay immediately after her talk with Tuvok to get an update. If only the Sperian would regain consciousness, she thought, she could spare her first officer the possible trauma of a bad mind-meld.” — What an oddly basic error for an editor to let slip through the cracks. I mean, Tuvok certainly performs the workload of a first officer, and I’m sure Janeway wishes he was hers, but it simply isn’t the case. (p. 73)
Bad. Incident at Arbuk does have some interesting elements, most notably a cool alien presence in the Sperians, but it takes way too long to start firing on even just a few cylinders, and by the time it does, it’s too little, too late. It also suffers at points from some even more lackluster editing than usual. Some parts I liked (the Sperians; the idea of psychotropic mind melds), others I didn’t (the Neelix/Fairman business), but overall I didn’t really feel this one.
NEXT TIME: Sulu rescues The Captain’s Daughter*
*(he’s the captain)