Saturday, September 30, 2017

YEAR OF GARAK, part 9: Scorched Earth by Altariel

So, today is something of a treat for the Year of Garak. Where the rest of the year has looked at canonical Star Trek in all it's glory, today we're shifting focus a bit and looking at a fan work that features Garak in a much different light than we've seen him so far. Fanfiction, people. Fanfiction! For those just tuning in, the Year of Garak is an exploration of whatever Garak texts I can find. Please check out the discussion thus far: January | February | March | April | May | June | July | August.

I'm joined again today by SFF poet, writer, and all around awesome person Nicasio Andres Reed. We're looking at "Scorched Earth" by Altariel, a fanfiction novella that explores an alternate timeline where the Cardassian/Romulan plot to destroy the Founders (and their homeworld) was a complete success. Not that things go exactly to plan, but as we discussed in August, the episodes the fanfiction spin out of feature Garak welcomed back into the fold, and the story follows his return to power, in all its chilling detail.

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: How did I not read this earlier? I will admit that my Garak-love fully bloomed when I had largely stopped reading fanfiction (though, I mean, does one ever truly stop?), but still, this is amazing. And I love the picture it paints of Garak in contrast to what is the “official” story of Garak. Garak the husband, Garak the father, Garak the explicitly queer (something that the canonical works have hedged around, though Andrew Robinson spelled it out pretty clearly in the short story from Prophecy and Change). The action here is so heartbreaking in part because it fits so well with my feelings about Garak. The twisted relationship between him and Cardassia. The weird way that he tries to be noble about it, and how it always ends in blood and death. And glob, just everything about this novella is wonderful and rending. From the scope (and wow, that scope) to the intimate moments sprinkled throughout. Yeah. Anyway, sorry, your opening thoughts?

NR: The scope of it! It’s astonishing. It’s impressive. It’s a story that pairs well (I know I have said this about many, things but I mean it the most this time) with McCormack’s “Enigma Tales” novel, in that they explore two different iterations of the same scenario: Garak comes (back) into power with the Cardassian establishment. “Enigma Tales”, of course, happens within the canonical storyline where this happens in a Cardassia that has turned its unforgiving lens inward, and the social emphasis has turned to an unflinching, painful soul-searching, a necessary and difficult reckoning. “Scorched Earth” happens within this alternate timeline where they have been able to continue trying to dominate outward, through expansionism and war, and god forbid the Cardassian national soul is searched. But Garak is Garak, and in the tradition of any great spy literature, the necessity of that painful reckoning is the thing that will haunt him over a lifetime, no matter the circumstances.

And poor fucking Odo, good lord. The scene from Tain’s ship, but instead this indefinite confinement, his only visitor is this fucking Cardassian who did this to him who is coming to Odo and treating him like his confessor, oh my god, Garak, you complete ass.

CP: Oh glob yes, the stuff with Odo is just so fucked up. Like, especially because, Odo being Odo, it almost makes sense. Like, Odo is one of the first to forgive Garak following everything, and even Garak is taken aback by it. But it fits the situation so well, because that’s how Odo is. He really doesn’t like what’s happening to him, but there’s also the detachment, and the professional respect that he has. Yes, he gets tortured, and yes, he gets held, and yet Garak is always so polite. It’s why in the show that moment in the shop hit so hard for me, when Garak is cleaning the ash-stained mirror and there’s Odo. Because Odo has, more or less, been there, been a part of the Cardassian machine and tried to pull something good out, and been tainted by it. Odo understands order, and so he seems to understand Garak very well, well enough to forgive him, to give him that, because in many ways Odo wants the same thing, to be forgiven for the bad things he’s done.

And just shit, the things that Garak does. I’m going to be here just weeping over Brun, because, well, fuck. Finally we have this moment of Garak’s sexuality and how much a threat it would be on Cardassia, and just fuck. this. story. I cried so much. But it, too, fits very well with what is known about Cardassia. And authoritarian governments more in general. And right, instead of seeing things maybe getting better and more accepting (which one might see if one looked at Never Ending Sacrifice) you see things get so much worse. And Garak, himself queer and at the heart of it, the fucking architect of it, just feeding the flames. I love how Bashir frames it toward the end, the relationship between Garak and Cardassia, and just how fucked it is. That they are terrible for each other, because when Garak gets near that power he wants to use it to make Cardassia strong and secure, but his idea of that that means...just wow. Like, him trying to get back there in the end, before he gets arrested...just fuck. This may seem odd but it reminds my of the Vonnegut novel Mother Night. Go figure, it’s about war crimes and spying and masks. But it captures this idea that the mask is at least as important as what’s underneath, so while Garak is definitely wearing a mask in the Tain regime, he’s also responsible for its worse atrocities. And though that might not have been the “real Garak,” it doesn’t really matter.

NR: I have (shamefully?) never read any Vonnegut at all, but associating this one with Garak of course means I will have to pick it up. What you describe reminds me, in turn, of Galen Erso in Star Wars: Rogue One, who I’ve railed against now and again. Because the thing is, even if you build a hypothetical off switch to your genocide machine, you have, in the end, still built a genocide machine. The likelihood of it happening without your efforts or your off switch doesn’t really erase that action, or its consequences. It’s all true, especially the lies.

I find myself trying to find a way to argue with the idea that a deep institutional homophobia makes sense, given what we already know of Cardassia, and I don’t know whether this urge to argue because I think it doesn’t necessarily make sense, or because I wish it didn’t. I of course wish institutional homophobia were less of a universal constant, and, as always, I wish Star Trek was queerer than it has historically been. This is unlicensed fanfiction, so Garak can be textually queer, but it’s still Star Trek, and written by someone who intimately understands the canon, and its approach to that textual queerness is within the realm of the canonical Trek. Which is to say: the way things play out is brutal, and it’s, as you say, fitting with what we know in the world about authoritarian regimes.

So yeah, I don’t know if my vague disappointment is with this story, with Cardassia, with Star Trek, or what, but it does always rankle whenever a work takes me to another world, another galaxy, and shows queers living through the same old shit. Have these feelings kept me from reading and enjoying Sad Queer stories in great quantities all my life? Not at all. Does it keep me from thoroughly enjoying this story? No, not really. But it’s rough! It’s rough. Watching the monsters it makes of people, watching the way his marriage plays out, it’s rough. Maybe it’s especially rough because I know it does make a lot of sense.

Oh, god, I just want queer Cardassians to be happy, Charles.

Okay, okay, okay, right, anyway, so!  So a thing that gets me in this is specifically Kira and Bashir’s reactions to Garak throughout. Kira is, in a way, gratified that her instinctive suspicions played out, and grossed out that Bashir is like, trying for the life of him to find a way for this to be okay. And then it is, and he is, increasingly not okay. The moment you mentioned, when in the prison, telling Garak that he’s at his worst when he’s in Cardassia, is part of a clear-headed perspective that I wonder if he ever actually reaches in the canon. With regards to Garak, anyway.

CP: Oh glob I have such Bashir feels because in many ways I hate what the show did with him and especially with Garak/Bashir in the later seasons. Because right, I don’t think that they ever really have this moment of honesty in the show that they do in this story. Their final scene in the show is hitting and crushing (for me, at least), but it’s still essentially between strangers, where Bashir is disillusioned by what’s happened with Section 31 and ahh, this isn’t about that! Sorry, dragging myself back to here. Yes, exactly! Bashir is so optimistic about people in this story, even as he’s spent a lot of his life broken from the Federation which wouldn’t help in the conflict. But Bashir still sees the good in ways that he lost, I feel, in the show. And it plays out in that scene with Garak, when Bashir still sees the good in him, sees the tailor and not the politician. The thing is that Garak thinks in these huge plots, in these big sweeping arcs, and if people die in the meantime, well… He cuts through Cardassia like it’s a suit he’s making and doesn’t ever really stop to consider the fabric lost here and there are people.

I want to touch on some of the way the story captures the setting of Star Trek, though. I feel that, as you say, seeing queerness be treated so brutally (especially by a queer character) makes the story very difficult at times. The canon barely makes Garak queer (I think in the Robinson short story in the Prophecy and Change antho it pretty much spells out that he’s bi/pan but this really isn’t addressed much beyond that), and to see him get to really step into that only to…do what he rough. Yes. Fuck. It’s where I feel the story, as a work of fanfiction, does a nice job of kind-of critiquing the source material. Because I do see the work as both an amazing example of Star Trek as well as a rather incisive critique of it. Just looking at the failure of the Federation in the story, who are supposed to be the “Good Guys.” Now, DS9 did a lot with that, too, but here we do see the further implications of a Federation that is A-Okay with genocide. With the Founders, with the Klingons, with everyone. The Federation is just so...conservative, and I feel the story does a good job of showing that. That the fair liberal bureaucracy of it allows the erasure of queerness, the mass murder of queer people, all for the nebulous goal of peace. Star Trek is basically Garak here, planning for the Good of the Franchise and allowing queer creators/actors to participate but never allowing them to be fully accepted.

But maybe that goes beyond what the story intended. Maybe that’s just me looking for ways to make sense of the FEELS I have when reading this or when watching the show, and especially with watching where the franchise went after DS9. It’s just hard for me to read fan works as not in some way critiques on the source material because, well, fanfiction subverts canon. It subverts “The Way Things Are” within any franchise to both illuminate lacks and try to recontextualize missteps. But in doing so it does basically say “and this is where Trek gets it wrong look I can do better.” But it’s also a small correction here that still keeps to the “queers must be miserable” line because that’s what media in general promotes. It won’t allow Garak to be happy in part because it doesn’t break enough from the canon to do that. Because it recognizes that to do more, to make it more okay and cool and everything, the setting would need to be even more different than the alternate reality it creates in this story. And fuck, well...yeah…

NR: Yes! Yes, that exactly. In order for things not to have gone as rough as they did, the author would have to make a full break with the canon. And I don’t make a value judgement, one way or the other, about the decision to do that or not do that. There’s fic that makes a very distinct break from canon (in whatever way, or many ways) and is just as effective and affecting as this one. In this case, a big part of the tragedy is that Garak, for all his schemes, can’t think of a way out. He can’t see a path to living as a fulfilled queer person in the place that he knows and loves. And that hurts to see. Because it’s Garak, and we love him. And also because it’s us reading, and we’ve lived that, we know that to be true: sometimes there isn’t a way.

The Federation, and Starfleet in particular, are so conservative. It’s the reason we so often see Our Heroes disobeying the Prime Directive. When non-intervention is your overriding rule, then you send decent people out into the universe where they witness some awful stuff happening, then they’re gonna break that rule. But that’s the exceptions, and generally speaking, Starfleet hesitates to act. Starfleet wants to engage with outsiders on Starfleet’s terms. And if those terms aren’t met, then they’ll sit back and allow a massacre to happen.

I keep thinking about this thing in the Star Trek: Discovery pilot, with this Klingon faction leader, basically saying to his people, “Just you wait. The Federation is going to come in here, eager to assimilate us into their culture, to flatten what makes us Klingon, and they’re going to do it while saying we come in peace.” And they do! They say those exact words, and this room full of Klingons, hearing those words from the mouth of a Starfleet officer, howl in anger and bitter laughter. And it’s this thing where that hit me right in my guts. That speaks to me directly as a person from a former US colony. I 100% immediately was like, yes, I get this, I’m on board. But I do have to wonder whether the text knows that that’s what it’s speaking to, whether that was meant to be my welcome into the show. And because Trek is not, by and large, told from a non-Federation point of view, it has the prerogative to snatch that reading away from me at any time. To say it didn’t mean what I thought it did, and that I was silly to think it might have. Worse, the show remains within its rights to say that the Klingons were wrong to doubt the Federation’s benign intentions.

There is one great power of fanfiction: to make rigorously explicit that which was left slyly implicit in the source text. To say, no, you cannot give a people anti-colonialist motivations and then have your narrative side unambiguously with the colonizers. And no, you do not get to make use of queerness without acknowledging queer people.

CP: Yes, oh glob yes. Like, with Trek yeah, there are moments of great commentary and criticism of the Federation and that mentality, but also, well, a framing of them as the good guys. The thing with the Federation is that the show (any of the shows, really) is allowed to criticize it while offering or imagining no better way. Basically acknowledging that it brings up a very difficult situation but sort of shrugs it away as “well, this is the best we can do.” And fanfiction can and often does show that to be a lie, where people can imagine better systems, better worlds. After all, so much of that statement, that the Federation must be best, is written into the plot of the shows. The plot ends up reinforcing the Federation being the best because, well, it’s not like there’s this utopic queer-friendly not-dictatorship waiting for people on the other side of the wormhole. The show needs Drama and Villains and for all that DS9 specifically complicates things, in the end the status quo is upheld, and good thing the Federation wasn’t better because then they might not have won the war. Blech.

But fanfiction! I feel that yes, a power of fanfiction is essentially to either 1. Reject this thinking entirely. To imagine stories that don’t play into that fantasy, that push people to find better alternatives to the Federation or at least the Federation that the shows/books constructs. Why not a Federation that is as good as its ideals? One that protects and accepts queerness and values difference. Or 2. As you say, make the implicit explicit, and explore what happens in plots where what is protected in the show is no longer above question. Just imagine what might have been the reaction of people to Bashir or any of the main characters leaving the show for moral reasons, because the Federation was failing in such a huge way, and then not being made wrong by a plot that made them then rely on the Federation for protection, saving, etc. Of course, even this story does in some ways restore the status quo in the end. But I feel it does a nice job of highlighting the limits of what the Federation does in crisis situations. It’s failure mirrors Garak’s failure, trading lives for security. Only characters like Bashir, here, seem to get beyond that to truly value the lives being destroyed. Which is why Bashir makes such a great voice in the story and why I love how he’s constantly Garak’s conscience, offering him some chance of healing and relief after a lifetime of abuse and fear.

Okay, that wraps up another month of Garak! Stop back in next month when the final episodes of the series and Garak’s canonical return to Cardassia Prime will be up for discussion. Cheers!


No comments:

Post a Comment