Star Trek: The Next Generation #64: Immortal Coil

Science fiction mysteries are difficult to pull off well. While I have a long-standing affection for Larry Niven’s Gil the ARM stories, they’re weak as mysteries. Asimov’s Robot novels are unsurprising whodunits, marred by a lack of detection and a lack of suspects. Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man is more of a sociological study than a genuine murder mystery. Even films such as Blade Runner are more suspense thrillers than mysteries. Given the difficulty of science fiction in general to effectively mix science fiction worldbuilding with the conventions of the mystery thriller, one would expect (and find) that Star Trek‘s own track record with mysteries is dismal. “A Matter of Perspective”? Disappointing. “Suspicions”? Dreadful. “Ex Post Facto”? A laughingly bad homage to 1940s hard-boiled detective films. “A Man Alone”? The less said the better. Star Trek and murder mystery don’t mix. In the wrong hands, even in the right hands, mixing Star Trek and mystery could easily be a recipe for disaster.

On a distant scientific outpost one man is murdered, another is brutally beaten, and the culmination of their lives’ work is destroyed. In the wreckage of their laboratory one of the victims scrawled a name in his own blood, the name of a person hundreds of light-years distant. Who attacked the laboratory? Why was one of the Federation’s leading roboticists killed? Why was his partner left for dead? Why was the project destroyed? And why was the name “Data” found written in blood? From that premise Jeffrey Lang’s Immortal Coil stakes its ground early on as a mystery and allows the story to unfold from there. Immortal Coil succeeds admirably, telling a compelling mystery mixed with a healthy dose of character exploration. Quite possibly, this is the definitive Data story.

Comparisons to Asimov’s Lije Baley/Daneel Olivaw novels come easily. In both cases we have a human detective (Lije Baley/Enterprise-E security chief Rhea McAdams) paired with a robotic companion (R. Daneel Olivaw/Data) to track down the murderer and solve the crime. Both explore how robotics and artificial intelligence have affected their respective universes. But where Asimov explores the sociological implications of human/robotic interactions and their influence on future human development, Jeffrey Lang delves into the secret history of artificial intelligence in the Star Trek universe. That exploration of artificial intelligence makes Immortal Coil the perfect venue for exploring Data’s character. In the past, Data stories have tended not to dwell upon the ideas and implications inherent in what being an artificial being means. Data might in the course of the story learn something of where he came from and his developmental potential, but it never seems to matter–becoming human in Jean Lorrah’s Metamorphosis prompted an “imaginary story” for Data, while installing the emotion chip in Star Trek: Generations had no lasting effects on his personality by the time Star Trek: Insurrection was released.

Of all the Star Trek characters, Data is perhaps the most alien because he’s the least human. Odo and the Doctor, while plainly not human, also recognize their non-human natures. Odo appears outwardly human because he wants to, but he also knows that he can be so much more. The Doctor also appears human, but he is limited by his semblance of intelligence and independence. But Odo can compare himself to the other Founders, and the Doctor is but one of many holograms that have grown beyond their original programming. Data, on the other hand, is alone in the universe. No one else knows what it means to be Data because there are no other Datas. Data has no frame of reference against which he can measure his development. Surrounded by humans, raised by humans, Data can only measure himself against them, but it’s not a fair comparison. Data might look human, Data might have human emotions with his emotion chip, but Data isn’t human. His actions are not human actions, his thoughts are not human thoughts, his reactions are not human reactions. Data exists as something else entirely. What that something else is, however, stands as the central question of Data’s character, and a good Data story should, I think, explore the essential nature of Data’s alienness. Immortal Coil succeeds here by using the trappings of the mystery story to propel Data into an exploration of his own origins and the artificial precedents that came before him. No other character, save perhaps Jean-Luc Picard, could explore the history of artificial intelligence, but even then Picard’s interest would only be in the abstract sense, while for Data the exploration goes to the very root of his existence.

Most impressive in Immortal Coil are the quiet moments. A conversation Data and Picard have about mortality and losing those closest to them. A middle-of-the-night call Data makes to Geordi asking for advice on when to call a woman after a date. The development and deepening of the relationship between Rhea and Data. Little moments don’t make a novel, but they do humanize the characters.

As I read Immortal Coil, I found myself making mental comparisons to Judith & Garfield Reeves-Stevens’ Classic Trek novel Memory Prime. Both books explore artificial intelligence in the Star Trek universe but in radically different directions. Both novels work with an historical sense that things happened in the Star Trek universe in the distant past but continue to have repercussions into the Trek present. For fans of Memory Prime‘s style, Immortal Coil comes as a welcome surprise. There is something in Immortal Coil for every Star Trek fan, of every series. From an exploration of the Doctor’s holographic technology to the fate of some of the artificial intelligences James Kirk encountered in the 23rd-century, Jeffrey Lang ties together disparate threads of Star Trek history into a cohesive whole and spins a strong story.

Above all, Immortal Coil was a book that demanded to be read and difficult to put down. I kept turning the pages because I wanted to know what happened next, what revelation would be made, what plot twist was coming. I was especially pleased with the novel’s sheer accessibility; this novel could be read by someone completely unfamiliar with Star Trek and still be understood and appreciated. The book starts strong and never lets go, building a solid mystery and running with the implications as matters develop.

For every naysayer who says that singleton Star Trek novels no longer have a place in today’s market, they should read Immortal Coil for an example of an epic story that doesn’t require six books and an uninspired hardcover to tell the tale. Immortal Coil is one of the best Star Trek books in recent memory, and looking at 2002’s schedule, I can’t imagine that more than a handful of Trek novels will compare.