Monday, July 31, 2017

YEAR OF GARAK, Part 7: The Never Ending Sacrifice by Una McCormack

Welcome back! The year of Garak continues in glorious fashion, though this week we might be sidelining our hero to look at a work where he's not really the focus. For those just tuning in, I've been looking at various Garak media, from short stories to novels to the original DS9 episodes. Basically, if it's got Garak, I want to examine it, because I love Garak and something needs to distract me from...other things 2017 has brought with it. If you want to catch up, here's links to the previous posts: January | February | March | April | May | June.

I'm joined again today by SFF poet, writer, and all around awesome person Nicasio Andres Reed. We're looking at another tie-in novel by Una McCormack, The Never Ending Sacrifice so SPOILERS apply. Feel free to jump into the comments (they are moderated so it might take a little while for them to show up but I will try my best to check in regularly). Otherwise, sit back and enjoy the discussion!

Also, in case you forgot...

Nicasio Andres Reed is a Filipino-American writer and poet whose work has appeared in Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, Shimmer, Liminality, Inkscrawl, and Beyond: The Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy Comics Anthology. Nico currently lives in Madison, WI. Find him on Twitter @NicasioSilang.

And now, to the discussion!


CP: FOR CARDASSIA!!! Fuck. I literally just put the book down and there is so much to process here. Rugal. You were so right. Rugal. I’m not sure I have words right now so why don’t you open with some thoughts on this one?

NR: So this fucking book, right?? First off, what an ingenious choice of viewpoint character to observe this period of Cardassian history. Plucking Rugal out of early DS9 obscurity was absolutely brilliant, and the movement of his life from the hills of Coranum to the streets of Torr, to the bunkers of some godforsaken rock, none of it feels contrived, it’s an absolutely believable path for this displaced young adult trying to find some place to belong and find himself. God, I love this book. It’s so good. It’s so good! His Bajoran father! That poor man, good god! And Kotan! Fuckkkk!!

This is a terrible beginning, sorry, sorry, I’m literally just in my underwear, getting ready to eat breakfast, and saw that you finished this book and couldn’t not yell about it. I really do think, with this book in particular, that McCormack does for Cardassians what Diane Duane did for Romulans. And that’s some of the highest Trek praise I can give.

CP: Okay okay, part of what I want to do is pick up on our discussion from A Stitch in Time, because these two books/stories are so amazing when viewed side by side. In the one, we have Garak who grows up on Cardassia without a father, without much of a family at all that cares for him, and who is forced to leave by one of his father-figures. He’s exiled to DS9, where he lives out the war years before returning to Prime at the close of the war and getting involved in its reconstruction/politics. Rugal, though, is raised on Bajor and in many ways is exiled from DS9 to Cardassia where he lives out most of the intervening years before leaving Cardassia at the close of the war and finding a much different path away from Prime. He’s a character with almost too much family, where Garak always had hardly any. And Rugal is all about community, something that even almost gets him into trouble in the final chapters of the novel (more on that later).

But I love the way the two books help to flesh out the Cardassian people and their world and their politics. We’ve talked before about the Cardassian idea of the repetitive epic and this book is definitely conscious of that, taking its title from the “highest” work of that style, one that we see complicated in the novel itself with Natima Lang’s nonfiction and fuck, yes, this book just makes it so easy to nerd out about the smallest of details in Cardassian life. I love it. Because while this is the Year of Garak, this month we’re taking a look at someone who is Garak’s foil—someone who is earnest and transparent, without much guile (though he learns a little), who is more interested in open resistance than cunning subversion, and who has people he depends on and who depend on him. His journey is about family, trying to reconnect with the one that he was torn from and finally finding his own. I’m not sure if there’s a question in there, but maybe what do you see as some of the ways A Stitch in Time and The Never Ending Sacrifice are in conversation with each other, and what do you feel they’re saying—about Garak, Rugal, and Cardassia as a whole?

NR: I feel like The Never Ending Sacrifice gets at something that the episode “Cardassians”, where Rugal was introduced, fails to pin down. Aside from being a political jab at Dukat, Garak’s repatriation of Rugal forces the boy to live the dream that Garak could not: to be publicly acknowledged and welcomed into the fold of high society. Especially at that stage of his life (this episode is well before “The Wire”, remember), Garak can’t fathom that this could be anything other than a net positive in Rugal’s life. My main read on it is that Garak barely considers Rugal’s stake in the situation at all, but if and when he does take a moment to do so, it would seem like a huge step up, from his point of view. Especially considering the lowly place that orphans occupy in the Cardassian social hierarchy. I would put a couple bars of latinum on a bet that there’s a decent number of Cardassian fiction dedicated to the forgotten-prince-lifted-out-of-orphanhood-by-magically-alive-parent trope. From the Cardassian perspective, it’s a downright heroic thing Garak does for Rugal.

Of course, as we’ve lightly touched on, the Cardassian perspective is somewhat fucked.

Take, as you started in on, the repetitive epics such as the one from which The Never Ending Sacrifice borrows its title. As summed up by Bashir:
All of [the] characters lead selfless lives of duty to the state, grow old and die. Then the next generation comes along and does it all over again.
I joke about Cardassia being Space Russia, but it really is the first thing that comes to mind in this case, the classic doorstopper novels about generations of Russian families on and on, ad infinitum. Bit a South American tradition there too. But anyway: these books, these stories, these repetitive epics where the pleasure is in the steady and exact repetition. You’re born, you give of yourself completely, then you die, content in the knowledge that your children, now born, will give of themselves completely. It ties in nicely with the deathbed confessional/passing-on-of-vendettas tradition. Enmities and debts, generation to generation, forever and ever amen. Rugal’s yearning for community, for home, for gentleness and growth, seems to me to be about, if not escaping that cycle, then at least finding peace in spite of it.

CP: Okay so I love the whole found-prince as a narrative idea that must be in Cardassian literature because IT MAKES SO MUCH SENSE. And in that, yes, we do see that Garak, in sending Rugal “home,” might mistake his own desire to return to Cardassia and be reunited with his father in order to set right the wrongs that have been done to him for what’s best for Rugal. Not that he would have let a chance to score a point on Dukat pass him by even if he knew that it would hurt Rugal, but I do think you hit on something very true there, that this is a chance for Garak to send someone back to Cardassia, which is what he wanted so much for himself. Of course, we see that complicated and flipped at the end of the book, when it’s Garak again using his cunning and bureaucratic know-how to send Rugal off again, only this time to the Federation. Part of me wonders if that, too, isn’t fitting, because it comes at a times when Garak’s own feelings toward Cardassia are so changed. But it does rather show that he’s grown a lot from “Cardassians,” and this time is very mindful of what Rugal wants.

I think that in other Garak/Rugal parallels, both books give rather stark (but very different) views of Cardassian schooling. Perhaps because Rugal is older, he doesn’t do the whole Battle School thing that Garak did. Instead he’s in a much more traditional setting, but whereas for Garak we only really saw his spy-training, here we get to see some of how Cardassian education works. And it is terrifying. One of the most complex and wrenching scenes for me was when Rugal was being taught about the Cardassian occupation of Bajor and running up against the institutional racism and policies that defined Cardassia’s relationship with Bajor. When he has to face that his lived experience, his argument, is dismissed out of hand, his anger a sign of his lack of reasoning and logic, it’s just...well, it’s an amazing picture of how the problems of Cardassia run deeper than just who’s in charge. It shows that cycle, the sacrifice, is taught from an incredibly young age, to the point that most Cardassians refuse to believe that change, real change, is even possible.

Looking at Tret, and how certain he is of Cardassian policy, and how broken he becomes when he loses his faith in it—we see that for many, admitting that Cardassia can be wrong, that it’s history can be wrong (something we’ve seen already with the Oralian Way), is shattering. As so many of these stories and novels have shown, it’s not enough to simply shoot democracy at the situation. The problems of Cardassia go deep indeed, and I think we see this idea that for real change to be possible, the roots of the mindsets that led to the trouble in the first place have to be dug up and burned. Which is a painful, bloody, tragic process. But not one without hope.

NR: To some extent, those aspects of the depiction of Cardassian education, and especially the way you break it down here, reminded me of the way American history is taught in the US, and how I’m sure McCormack probably experienced British history as taught in the UK. I grew up in and out of the US, but had a couple years of high school in an American public school, this one by all rights one of the more progressive, forward-thinking public high schools in the area. What I remember most isn’t a rewriting such as in Never Ending Sacrifice, but an eliding. It was jarring, to come from a high school in the Philippines, to being in an American classroom where the theft of Philippine independence, the brutal atrocities committed, and the 48 years of American rule in the Philippines was reduced to a dry half-sentence among the larger story of the benevolent spread of US influence abroad. Even though you come into that situation with some knowledge of how things work, there’s still that moment where you suddenly realize that you’re surrounded by people, by a whole society, that willfully either justifies or ignores horrors that it’s visited on your people. I’m sure it’s a familiar feeling for Native people, and black people, in American schools. And it is, as with Rugal, one of those situations where letting your feelings show is a risky proposition.

There’s a lot in this book that really speaks to that experience of living as a colonized person among the colonizers, complicated by ancestry, and here I’m thinking of both Rugal and Ziyal.

CP: Well fuck. Also I’m glad you mentioned Ziyal because she’s such a complicated character that works so well in my opinion as a counterpoint to Rugal, especially because of the role that Dukat played in both of their lives. I loved in the book how there’s this moment when so many people are gleeful about what’s happened to Dukat with the announcement of Ziyal and how the politics swarm around it and how for Rugal it’s just this moment of numbness. Like, there is no joy in it for him, and that this moment will later be used as an excuse to send him into war is, if we needed further proof that Dukat is the worst. But I love that Rugal reaches out to Ziyal and that they have this moment of bonding but that, in the end, the influences in their lives are so very different. It really does show what a differences their fathers make, because with Rugal, having a dad who really does try and wants to help bring about a better Cardassia, it allows Rugal space to see Cardassia for what it is and what it could be. A place that he never comes to love but he does come to care about. Not as a home but as a complicated world with some good people. But Ziyal, because of her father, never sees Cardassia. She only sees what Dukat wants her to see, and it’s not until far, far too late that she starts really questioning that.

And ahh, this book. I want to talk about all the different aspects of it. I really liked where it went, showing Rugal constantly at a crossroads of identity. And always wrapped up in family, most often against his will. Except that family, for all that it fucked him over so badly in everything that happened, is also what redeems him. He learns to embrace what he’s known all along, that blood isn’t really what defines a family. That only love does that. Which I know is like the sappiest damn thing but I might have teared up at the end of the book and it’s just so beautiful that after all the shit that’s happened there’s something of a happy ending. One that doesn’t, that can’t, erase the damage done but still sets to work trying to build something beautiful. Which feels to me to very much capture the story of Bajor and Cardassia—wounded but not dead, marked by violence and war but not broken.

NR: The ending is so great. It’s sweet and awful, and such a deft, almost delicate coda to show how war and the waxing and waning tides of empire impacts lives and communities all over the place. It also does that thing that I love in fiction, the unflinching admission that it can be completely random, who survives war and who doesn’t. Survivors can be unlikely, the unreturned can be unsatisfying. As writers, it can be tempting to tell the most satisfying story, even if it isn’t necessarily the most honest one. McCormack consistently falls on the side of honesty. She’ll come back in other Cardassia stories, on the individual and the planetary level, to this tough idea that there are people we’ll never see again, and resolutions we’ll never get, simply because of the wounds that war tears through lives. Rugal is such a great character, because he grapples with that so directly, and he’s lucky enough to get to grow from furious anger to some measure of peace.

Lord, what a good book.


And that marks the close to another great month! Be sure to stop by again in August, when we'll be talking about a pair of very important (and very Garak-y) DS9 episodes that feature Enabran Tain himself. See you then!


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