Thursday, November 30, 2017

YEAR OF GARAK, part 11: The Crimson Shadow by Una McCormack

We are one step closer to the end of the Year of Garak and I'm actually really sad about that. Because I have loved every moment of thinking and discussing everyone's favorite plain, simple tailor. Garak is a character that grows a lot during his time on the original show, and yet it's not until after the show ends that I think we find the most interesting stories about him. That deal with his fated return to Cardassia and what it has become. It's something we've explored a great deal already but coming into the home stretch we're looking at two incredible books by Una McCormack. First up of those is The Crimson Shadow, which finds Picard and the Enterprise dealing with a messy situation on Cardassia Prime. Do please, if you haven't, also check out the Year of Garak so far, because there might be some spoilers. You can find all the posts here: January | February | March | April | May | June | July | August | September | October.

I'm also briefly joined again today by Nicasio Andres Reed, so please welcome him back. If you're unfamiliar with his work (first off, how dare you?), here's a reminder:

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!

Ebb and Flow

CP: Well, I think this book is infinitely appropriate to look at around the year anniversary of the 2016 election. Because...well, because fuck, it is almost incredibly how the book resonates with that election. There’s so much going on, from scandal to distrust to the resentment that so many feel around what has happened on Cardassia, to what has happened in America and to many other places besides. And it makes a definite turning point for Garak, in my mind, away from his usual way of doing business and toward something different. To be all Batman about it, it’s about perhaps moving away from what Cardassia deserves and towards what Cardassia needs. But it’s such a complex story that’s being told, about politics and identity and need, about intolerance and democracy and love. There’s just so much to look at and see. I got this feeling while reading this book that here we have Garak battling down his demons, trying his hardest to believe in his people, in Cardassia, and ultimately finding his faith validated. something that’s almost painful to see, tbh.

At least, for me, we see Garak bottom out perhaps twice in these stories/books/shows/etc. The first is in that last scene of the show, when everything around him is ash. He’s lost so much, and prospect of losing more, of having lost more, is such a real thing. He declares that Cardassia deserves what it got. And then, in the Robinson short story from Prophecy and Change, which happens in the chaos following the assassination of Ghemor, he again hits bottom, again basically points at Cardassia and says that if people are going to choose to keep on as they’re going, then they deserve extinction. That they can’t survive more of it. And in that story I think now that he really makes his shift, that he embraces a new way of doing things, one that doesn’t involve so much...murder. That, finally, he is forcing himself to make his actions match his convictions and his hopes for Cardassia. He mentions this specifically in the book, talking to his ghosts, that he’s trying to do better, and I do think that’s something to pay attention to. That this book is a lot about the power of not only believing in your convictions, but living them. That you can’t create a good and just society if you’re going to be moving through the shadows murdering the people who make life difficult. That lasting change has to be built by the people. That ultimately you have to trust them, even if it seems all they’ll do is fuck it up. Which I think is why it hits so hard for me, coming after last year’s election (a year ago this month, in fact…). Because it’s one of those moments when trust is shattered. When it seems like the only way to fight people who obviously don’t respect the system or the principles of democracy is to fight just as dirty. And having to step back and say no, if there’s to be change, we have to do it right, or else what we create will still be just as broken.

But sorry, I’ve gone on a bit. Your opening thoughts?

NR: Events, dear boy, events.

I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head. We’ve seen Garak through some truly shattering moments in his life, and in the life of his people, but it’s those rock-bottom times that hit hardest, when his belief in the possibility of real recovery is gone. And I think it’s that decision to try to do better, to build better, that saves him, somewhat, in this book. It’s what saves me, in this book, given the political resonance you mention.

What resonates most for me in this book is the absolute fragility of things. The fragility of progress, of cooperation. That at any given time there is likely as much malice in the world as there is compassion, but one act, or one person, or the loss of one person, can have such an impact as to make us collectively sure that one has taken hold over the other. That something as massive and misty as a nation or the conscience of a society can be so swayed, can be so fragile, is terrifying. That terror is maybe the very thing that leads us create things like the Obsidian Order and its real-world analogues. But if I’ve learned anything from reading a stack of Le Carre, it’s that every old spy woke up after the Cold War and realized that the sacrifices they made, the dirty business they did, was nothing in the face of the everyday work of everyday people, surviving and making their lives more survivable one arduous step at a time.

CP: So much this. Also, to take the references in a much more juvenile direction, I’m reminded of The Once and Future King when reading this book, and how that book frames the idea of Might & Right. Because I feel that this book covers some similar ground (and this allows me to wallow in my Arthurian knight fascination). Because we see that Cardassia has for so long been a place where Might makes Right, where the strongest are in charge, where it’s brutal in its methods and it really doesn’t matter who is in power because it’s all the same. And we see Garak who for most of this life, and for much of his time since the Fire, has been more of a Might for Right kind of person. He’s trying to use a lot of the methods that he’s learned over his lifetime to bring about change. He’s still the spy, still the manipulator, still working from the shadows. This was seen more in The Lotus Flower and things like that, but he’s setting about to rebuild Cardassia with a number of the old ways still in place. He has seen the Order in some ways as a noble institution (fighting against this bigger, even shadowier group), as an excuse for it existing.

I think, really, that the Order here is interesting, because we see Garak’s friend from the Robinson stories, the head of the Cardassian intelligence, get forced from power. And we Garak a little sad about this, because it does represent something of a shift. It means that this old way of thinking, that Might can be used for Right, is deeply flawed. Just as The Once and Future King covers, it’s the insistence on maintaining the Might that corrupts any attempt at righteousness. We see Camelot falling not because of any real specific awfulness, but because it’s still built on the rule of the strong. The rule of the king. It takes Arthur everything he has built crashing down around him to see that he was wrong, and I see a bit of that in Garak. That he sees that in order to really reach for change, for something better, it has to be Right for Right. Meaning, you have to build your house on a solid foundation, or else it will crumble. Which doesn’t mean that it’s secure. It means, really, that you have to be even more careful, because the building is slower, because there will be those seeking not only to undermine what is Right, but trying to leverage Might back into the equation. And where Garak before, I feel, would have had little problem just meeting Might with sneaky-murdery-Might, here he’s trying a different. To believe in the system. Which is hard. Which is a hair’s breadth from ruin. But which must hold if the Union is to be free from its past, and able to escape its endless cycles, just as Arthur is supposed to return, lesson learned, Garak-style, to one day break the cycle of Might and corruption.

A Tale of Two Doctors

 CP: Part of what really wrecks me about this novel is the way it positions Garak and his doctors. Because at this stage in the storyline Garak hasn’t seen Bashir since they parted so long ago, after the destruction of so much of Cardassia. And yet the novel still uses the frame of letters that Garak writes to Bashir to reveal what’s going on in Garak’s head (and heart). Bashir is still his confessor in some ways, even as Garak has Dr. Parmak now, who is certainly a romantic partner even if the book never exactly comes right out and says it. And I love Parmak for the way that he tries to keep Garak honest, for how they challenge each other, for how they obviously care for each other. While I was reading, though, the strain between Garak’s feelings for Bashir and his feelings for Parmak was probably the thing that wrecked me the most. That here Garak is, with Parmak, present and alive, and yet a part of him is still with Bashir, and it’s this gulf, this thing that comes between them, that Garak still writes to Bashir even as I want to shout at him sometimes “Just fucking talk to your boyfriend! He’s right there and you’re an ASSHOLE sometimes!” glob

But this brings me as well to something else I wanted to touch on. The ending. The way that Bashir responds to Garak when he makes his big reveal and decides he’s going to step out of the shadows. It’s something that Parmak saw coming, something that he’s on board with. But Bashir, getting this picture of Garak through his letters, doesn’t beam with happiness. He offers advice, and it’s something that shakes Garak before he realizes it’s still something he needs to hear. And it’s advice I love and something that really gets at the heart of how the book treats power and democracy. Because for all I might have wanted to see old Garak going through the shadows killing people, tricking people, working toward his mysterious goals that he keeps secret from everyone...that’s a dangerous and toxic game. And it’s the worst way to run a government.

The book as a whole comes to be about transparency and honesty in politics. About the power of not only being open about what you’re doing but owning your mistakes and trying to move forward toward something that is truly by and for the people. Not Garak’s vision of Cardassia. Not what he would murder for and conspire for. But rather a Cardassia that would never require that, that would never allow that. One worth fighting for, but not becoming a monster for. And at the same time, in some ways, it’s a push away from Bashir, a push to be closer with the people who are there. For Garak to open up more, to be more transparent. Not to lose what makes him great, and makes him himself, his interesting relationship with the truth, but to lower some of his shields. To let more people see the masks beneath the masks. It’s a touching and powerful way to end, with this hope that openness can defeat conspiracy, that democracy can win.

That it has come at a time when our own democracy has in some ways failed, when we’ve seen our elections mired in scandal and interference. also makes the ending rather difficult. Because for Garak this was a victory. For Cardassia, it was a step in the right direction. They don’t have to face what might have happened if they lost. But we do. We must imagine our own way forward, fighting against a return to tyranny. Perhaps our ruin is not fresh enough in our mind. Perhaps the price of authoritarianism is too distant a memory. Whatever the case, the book acts as something of a fantasy now, but also a call to never stop fighting. So we don’t have to fall as far as Cardassia did in order to learn the value of true democracy.


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