Alas poor Warped!
K.W. Jeter’s novel goes in for a lot of abuse within fandom–the story was inaccessible, the writing was bizarre, the take on the Star Trek universe was unbelievable, the book sold so poorly that Pocket wouldn’t think of doing another DS9 hardcover for a decade. I’ve heard all of these arguments, I’ve thought about all of them, and of all of them the fourth may have some validity, but none of the rest do.
Warped may be “out there,” but there’s a reason for its outreness, and in the end the story holds together and does something different with the Star Trek universe. Realityclasm stories have been done in Trek before, most notably in the writings of Brannon Braga, but Braga’s stories are merely watered down Philip K. Dick or Jeter, both of whom made careers of writing about the conflict between reality and the perception of it.
I liked Warped. I liked Warped a lot, and much of my appreciation for Warped comes from a knowing and understanding of the literary antecedants that K.W. Jeter was using in his story. Warped is very much a novel in the Philip K. Dick tradition, a story that examines the nature of reality and the human response to its collapse. Warped, at its core, is a Philip K. Dick pastiche. In the past I’ve likened the book to Dick’s masterpiece, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, as both books cover similar thematic ground. Holodeck technology isn’t quite Perky Pat and its drug-fueled hallucinations, but if you have the power to build a living, breathing reality with holodeck technology, cannot that same technology be used to rebuild reality?
Despite some of Brannon Braga’s odder efforts in that direction (I’m thinking specifically of the TNG episode with transporter psychosis), Star Trek hasn’t really dealt with realityclasms. And there’s a reason for that.
Star Trek is a generally utopian universe. It’s basically a nice place. (That’s not to say that bad things don’t happen, but as a general rule they don’t very often.) Reality breaking down isn’t something that would happen in a basically utopian environment. (Or, depending on a person’s psychological conditioning in that environment, a realityclasm might be something they wouldn’t even notice.)
The phildickian ethos is not utopian at all. His universes are rather ordinary. There’s dirt in them. People lead lives of quiet desperation. Housewives have affairs out of boredom and neglect. People aren’t experts at what they do. Gifted, truly capable people are uncommon, and it is truly rare when they can function in society.
Matters are never truly dire in Star Trek. Death can be cheated or outwitted. There’s always a way out. The world isn’t about to end. Not so in a phildickian universe. The careful balance between order and chaos is always breaking down, the floodgates are opening, and the waters of chaos are spilling over into reality, remaking it in chaos’s image.
You would think these two universal conceptions would be incompatible. Warped melded the two sensibilities, critiquing an unstated assumption of the Star Trek universe from the vantage point of a phildickian rumination of the nature of reality. And I found it to be a successful piece of fiction as a result.
The unstated assumption is this–holodeck technology, despite a high-profile problems (such as Moriarty), is largely harmless. What Jeter did in Warped is that he asked the question–if the holodeck replicates a reality indistinguishable from the “real world,” what would prevent a holodeck reality from insinuating itself onto the “real world”? Take that to the next step–if holodeck reality can impinge upon the real world, why can’t it replace the real world? Wouldn’t a person with that ability have the power to remake the world as he (or she) sees fit? Why would such a person have benign motivations? Moriarty came about by an accident; Data meant no malice by his creation. Data had scrupples, but not everyone with access to holodeck technology would have those same scrupples. And McHogue didn’t.
Why Deep Space Nine for this story? I can’t imagine this story being told with any other Star Trek crew. Kirk’s crew is too day-glow. Picard’s crew is too psychologically flat for a realityclasm to really interrupt their lives in any meaningful way. It fits the ethos of Deep Space Nine, from the anarchy of Bajor post-Occupation to the dual nature of Dax. This book really captures the bond in Sisko’s relationship with Jake. I don’t think any other novel captured quite as well the arrogance of Julian Bashir as did Warped. The single most remarkable scene in the novel comes when Jadzia’s consciousness disengages itself from Dax’s, as their perceptions of the reality around them separated. It’s a scene that couldn’t be done on film; only prose could do it justice, and Jeter nailed in that scene his vision of the novel.
I think the reason why so many readers find the novel inaccessible is that phildickian mindfucks on the nature of reality are not every reader’s cup of tea. If you’re not in the mindset to read that type of story, it’s not the type of story you’re going to like to read. Reading Dick (or Jeter) takes time, effort, caution, and carefulness. Hasty reading can cause deeper philosophical musings to be lost. I don’t expect to sway others with my opinions on Warped. It pains me to see so many that hate, despise, or reject the novel altogether. I think Pocket was right to take a chance on Warped, and to this day I rank it among the top twenty Star Trek novels published.