As with the previous novels in the Star Trek: Discovery tie-in series thus far, this one takes place before the events of the television series, offering insight and growth into the characters we’ve become familiar with on screen but haven’t yet come to really know as well as we might like. In this case, the story centers around the character of Saru while serving aboard the USS Shenzhou. (I said early on I wished we could have more adventures aboard this vessel that we lost almost immediately. Ask and ye shall receive!) The year is 2252, four years before ” The Battle of the Binary Stars.” Saru and Burnham are still junior officers at this point, and Saru has come to the unsettling conclusion that Burnham will outpace him on his career path to First Officer and ultimately to his own command.
Likewise with the previous two books in the series, we get some callbacks to the original series, albeit far more subtle, as well as to The Next Generation. The drive to connect up the various parts of the franchise into something more cohesive is always welcome in my book, especially when the final result appears to be seamless. You know how sometimes retroactive continuity appears tacked on like some kind of Frankenstein’s monster? Not so here. The alien species that drive the action are the Gorlans (TOS: “Mirror, Mirror”), the Peliar (TNG: “The Host” – both Alphans and Betans), and, of course, that most xenophobic of threats in the Alpha Quadrant, the Tholians (TOS: “The Tholian Web”). Veteran Trek author James Swallow is able to juggle all of these races, giving them distinct cultural and personal identities while applying them directly to the specific internal struggle of Saru.
As our window into the Kelpian race, Saru speaks to two of the most necessary qualities of a Starfleet officer: courage and compassion. The biggest question I had about Saru while watching the first season of Discovery involved how it is he overcomes his fear instincts as one of a prey species. After all, where can you possibly go on a starship that doesn’t set off your Spidey-sense? The very nature of an exploratory mission is to venture into the unknown. It stands to reason that, while we may not see it on screen yet (give it time for such traits to develop), such a character is constantly pushing against all personal boundaries in a way that maybe no one else on the ship can understand or appreciate. Narratively speaking, it’s quite the feat to see this explored, one I didn’t expect to connect with on such an intimate level. Funny how that works, when a novel just happens to align with whatever happens to be front and center in your own life. I’ve been seeing that a lot likely, as if the books are choosing me instead of vice versa.
“Compassion is not weakness. Enduring is not living. And belligerence is not strength.” — Saru
In his semi-antagonistic dynamic with Burnham, Saru “interprets” his orders in a way that gets him involved in an interspecies conflict inside the borders of Tholian space. I’m not even going to try to explain it here, but suffice to say this is where Swallow’s ability to juggle new character personalities and racial cultures really shines. Consider if you will that Saru — designed for flight before fight — is the ranking officer in the midst of a prisoner situation, caught between warring species, behind enemy lines, and still somehow having to act to preserve the lives of all concerned and promote the peaceful and cooperative values of the Federation, all while looking strong while doing it and earning the confidence of those under his own command. This is a story worthy of any character on any Starfleet vessel we’ve spent time with over the years, but it’s tailor-made for Saru to help him overcome, to forge his perceived weaknesses into strengths.
The on-point messaging of Star Trek is front and center here without being overly preachy about it: inclusion, peace, coming to understand those who are not like yourself. Or as the Vulcan philosophy states, “Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination.” Ok, it’s a little preachy, but I sometimes feel we need that message to be offered directly without being antagonistic about it. In this day and age, it seems like everyone lives in their own bubbles, so we need to be reminded that we can — and should — have healthy, interactive relationships with people of different beliefs, customs, cultures, and values. We’re stronger together. This is what civil rights is about, and this is what Star Trek has been about since day one. Perfect. Mission accomplished. Related directly to that, some of the criticism of Saru early on is that he’s the token “fraidy cat.” This book proves that he’s so much more, giving Saru the means through which he can prove why his particular contribution to Starfleet is valuable. On screen, Lorca made Saru his First Officer likely because he underestimated the Kelpian, assumed he’d not challenge command decisions. We know now that’s not the case from watching the first season. This is the story that shows us where Saru’s reserve of awesome comes from when he needs it most. For me, the biggest takeaway the very advice that Saru received:
“Don’t try so hard. Don’t struggle against what you are… Accept what you are, Saru. That’s where your peace is.”