The seven-season spinoff Deep Space Nine brought to the Star Trek franchise a new sensitivity to spiritual themes. Published in 2008, the tie-in novel Day of the Vipers adopts the framework of the religious worldbuilding from the television show. Author James Swallow anchors new concepts about Deep Space Nine’s two most distinctive alien races in passing details from the Trek universe’s canon and from other works of Trek apocrypha.
Day of the Vipers is the first in the Terok Nor trilogy, an extended prologue to the television show about the Cardassian occupation of Bajor that had just ended at the time of Deep Space Nine‘s pilot episode. Like the show, the book depicts its societies with dark honesty, avoiding both extremes of utopian optimism and cynicism. The alien cultures are depicted so realistically and organically that the religious dynamic feels strangely relevant to the Christian struggle for relevance in an increasingly secular society.
Day of the Vipers narrates the fall of Bajor in three stages, each part set five years before the previous part. There are at least three important plot threads, involving the arcs of three major characters — the Bajoran detective Darrah Mace (the protagonist), the Cardassian priest Bennek, and the Cardassian officer Skrain Dukat of television villainy. Although narrated through many viewpoints, the three-act plot generally weaves between Mace-centric and Bennek-centric episodes. Mace and Bennek only share the stage during one sequence of events, but Dukat’s schemes serve as a unifying antagonistic force.
The novel is plot-driven rather than character-driven. Mace, Bennek, and Dukat are all portrayed deeply, their personal stories fueled by the plot. The less important characters do not feel too awkwardly shafted into roles determined by plot requirements, but they can feel flat at times. The worst may be Mace’s wife Karys, who is a stereotypical nag. Even the portrayals of the three major characters occasionally feels slightly off — Mace’s role as an investigator can feel too woodenly cliché, and Bennek’s emotionalism sometimes feels forced. Still, the characterization is sufficient, and it even excels when it plays off the plot’s dramatic tension.
Although the story is central to Bajor and is told through many Bajoran viewpoints, the book is really about Cardassia. Deep Space Nine generally portrayed the Cardassians as villains. Swallow plays off the default negative portrayal of Cardassians, probing what must have gone wrong with Cardassian culture.
Cardassia is a cold and cruel society, a society that values strength and pragmatism above truth. The Cardassian soul is bitter, nursing old wounds and inadequacies, looking to impose the same hard bitterness upon other peoples — not only out of expansionist pride, but sometimes also out of a genuine belief that it is better to be that way. Despite the emphasis on external strength, the Cardassian soul has become weak, as the young Oralian priest Bennek observes.
The Cardassian soul has lost its way. The church of the Oralian Way and the Hebitian scriptures were once cornerstones of Cardassian culture, but now the Way is disgraced and belittled, its followers increasingly marginalized and persecuted.
But Central Command has set its sights on the rich resources in the Bajoran system. Oralian priests are sent as part of the official delegation to Bajor, in order to relate to the spiritual Bajorans and to present a facade of Cardassian unity. To the military delegation, the presence of the relgious Cardassians is a disdainful annoyance. To the Oralians, their mission represents their last great hope for relevance in their society.
In a worse novel, the portrayal of the Oralian Order could have been entirely negative — just another element of the evil Cardassian system bent on subjugating Bajor. It is much to Swallow’s credit and to the quality of the novel that this is not the case. The narrative only ever treats the Oralians with sympathy. At no point is the reader encouraged or even really allowed to view the Oralians as stereotypical troglodyte cultists. At least for the two Oralians important enough to receive viewpoints, faith is part of what makes them sympathetic.
This is all the more impressive given that the Oralians are not completely innocent. They played a role in the deceit leading to the subjugation of Bajor, unwilling but not entirely ignorant. The nature of the plot makes their failings into tragic flaws.
The inner conflict of the Oralian leaders speaks true to real doubts and temptations experienced by modern evangelicals. The very sincere Oralian priests reluctantly compromise some of their ideals based on the belief that their church and their religious heritage must survive at all costs. Enter “Wrongful Pragmatism,” one of the Christian speculative fiction community’s favorite tropes to expose.
The Oralians keenly feel the disparity between the need to embrace universal truths and the need to uphold the specific truths unique to their traditions — the disparity between common grace and specific grace, the longing to find kindred spirits contrasted with the duty to preserve the core identity of the faith. Upon discovering striking liturgical similarities between the Bajoran funeral rite and their own ritual, Benek overflows with enthusiasm at the possibility that the alien religions express the same spiritual truth. The believability of his enthusiasm is surpassed only by the authenticity of the caution of the elder priest Hadlo:
“Remember where we find ourselves, Bennek. […] Amid those of our own kind who see no value in the Way, on alien ground amid those who may be misguided. We must take care to ensure that these people are kindred spirits.” (p. 85)
The similarities in ritual between the two religions emphasize the fellowship between the suffering people in both cultures. The plot depicts this by the ecumenical alliance between the two churches. For the most part, this is primarily shown as an external ecclesiastical cooperation, without venturing too deeply into the theological ramifications. However, the characters’ discussion of the possibility that Oralius and the Prophets “may be two fascets of the same great truth” (p. 108) evokes Inclusivism or religious pluralism.
Ecumenism and Inclusivism are sticky subjects. Very likely, even many conservative fundamentalists would love to celebrate shared values and theological insight with people of other faiths. Consider, for example, how eagerly American conservatives of different religious persuasions collaborate politically. In real life the uncertainty about duty to guard truth or duty to proselytize hell-bound unbelievers embitters the joy of ecumenical fellowship. However, in the non-Christian fictional setting of the Trek universe, Christian readers may well hope for the unity and brotherhood of the Oralian and Bajoran believers. In a entirely speculative environment, we can escape from the dark existential void that often shadows our real-world theological discussions.
Despite its viscerally real portrayal of believers’ theological predicaments, Day of the Vipers is not interested in theology for theology’s sake. At a glance, the narrative might seem to affirm religious pluralism, but it makes no deliberate point about it. Instead, the ecumenism serves to reflect one of Star Trek’s most cherished themes — unity amidst diversity. The narrative does not go out of its way to make some kind of arrogant claim about the equality of all religions. On the contrary, when a suggested ecumenical merger would have amounted to one of the religions being subsumed into the other, the reactions of the viewpoint characters suggests that such a thing would be bad.
The clearly delineated three-act structure strengths the predominate recurring metaphor of the book. The center of Cardassian culture is primitive theater, the worldbuilding directly evoking ancient Greek drama. Theatrical metaphors abound in the forsaken Cardassian religion — priests wear masks to stand as an avatar of their deity Oralius (who is said to be female, reinforcing the ancient Greek feel by association with real-world Greek oracles). The religious ceremonies in which the Oralian scriptures are read are called “recitations.” Secular Cardassians may have renounced and condemned their culture’s religious meaning, but the prime metaphor of theater carries through to dominate even their worldview. The subterfuge of the wicked Obsidian Order – the brutal intimidation tactics used by the Cardassian military – all are explained and justified in relation to theater.
The centrality of the Cardassian theater metaphor does not diminish the importance of Bajor to the plot. The Bajoran religion receives a less-detailed depiction than the Oralian Way does, appearing much the same as it does in the show. However, the Bajoran’s spiritual reverence for their homeland characterizes the setting. The plot is Cardassian, the setting Bajoran.
In Deep Space Nine, the Bajorans seem to represent the spiritual side of humanity, which the existing rules of the Trek universe prevented the show’s writers from exploring directly. Trek fans know that the Bajorans are one of the least makeup-covered alien species in the galaxy, differing externally from humans only by the horizontal ridges on their noses. The alien appearance of the Bajorans from a Cardassian viewpoint humanizes both groups:
…he had not truly understood how peculiar the Bajorans looked. Their flesh, with hues ranging from pinkish yellow to dark ebony, were nothing like the stormy, harmonious gray of his own species; and the faces were so smooth and uncharacterful, with only a small patch of nasal ridges to suggest anything like the fine ropes of muscle and bone that adorned the Cardassian aspect. (p. 80)
Here, the more-alien aliens marvel at the strangeness of the less-alien aliens. This forces us to see the humanity of both. Actual humans are rarely even mentioned before the last act, where two human Starfleet officers fill a minor plot function.
Following the subtle parallelism of the arc of Deep Space Nine, Day of the Vipers bridges Bajor and Cardassia by fate and by empathy. Although the purpose of the plot is to show how the bitterness between the two alien races originated, the story shows that the two alien species can share the same desperation, the same hope. Faith enables this powerful identification of two alien races with each other and both of them with us. Swallow depicts the sufferings and the desperate hope of alien believers with such authenticity that modern Christians can see their doubts and trials reflected even in the non-Christian universe of Star Trek.