(2006) Craig Shaw Gardner, Gollancz, £6.99, pbk, 304pp, ISBN 978-0-575-0-7966-3
The Cylons' Secret is a tie-in novel based on the Sci-Fi Channel's re-imagined (2004) Battlestar Galactica television series: the original was first broadcast back in 1978. This tie-in novel was originally published in the US last year (2006) but is now, this year, available in Britain courtesy of Gollancz.
Tie-in novels face several challenges: they have to tell a good story within the limits of existing settings, characters and history and, especially in programmes such as Battlestar Galactica with tight continuity, it can be tricky slotting the story satisfactorily in the overall arc. Tie-in writers are also frequently subject to restrictions from programme makers on what may or may not done with the characters and their backstories. Writers further run the risk of being contradicted by subsequent developments in the source programme. Most of all, stories need to feel 'right': the novel must ultimately be as convincing a Battlestar Galactica story as well as in its own right - do the characters behave as you would expect, is the jargon correct and so on.
When done well, a tie-in novel can expand on and explore in more detail aspects of the programme's setting and characters and can feel as integral a part of the programme as an episode. An excellent example are the Babylon 5 tie-in novels, the first of which were poor, generic and unconvincing but later ones benefited enormously from advice from the series' creator, Michael Straczynski. These nicely filled out B5's setting with the stories expanding on key story arc elements like the Psi Corps.
So, how does The Cylons' Secret measure up?
Set 20 years after the Cylon War, about halfway between the war and the start of the mini-series, it features Tigh and Adama as more junior officers on the Galactica and Tom Zarek as a young man, before he becomes the legendary terrorist/freedom fighter/politician we see in the programme.
The Cylons' Secret certainly has an interesting premise: the Colonies are rebuilding after the Cylon War and the Galactica, with Adama and Tight on the crew, is venturing out into space previously explored by the Colonies before the war in an attempt to find out who and what, if anything, might still be out there and re-establish contact. Here, just a little bit ahead of the Galactica, is the Lightning, a scavenger ship, also going where man has gone before but for much more selfish reasons. Its crew includes Zarek who is trying to fit in with rough and dangerous comrades.
While out there, both ships come across Omega Station, an old scientific outpost whose survivors are still trying to explore new ways of living with Companions, sentient machines who are related to the Cylons, as an alternative to the old master/slave relationship with the Cylons. Needless to say, the Cylons themselves are not too far away...
The Cylons' Secret certainly has some fairly fine aspects to it. The story itself is a pretty good yarn, culminating in a big battle between a number of Battlestars and a Cylon Dreadnaught, the interior of which is neatly described, along with some pretty nasty shocks on what happened to its previous human crew.
The author's description of the pre- and post-war Colonial political backdrop is also pretty convincing both compared to the series background and to real-world expectations, especially the inter-colonial rivalry and conflict and how Colonial unity is beginning to fray since the departure of the common Cylon threat. He also has some interesting ideas about the Cylons, including a very vivid flashback to the start of the Cylon war as the machines begin to revolt.
The essence of some of the characters are also captured well, especially Tigh, most notably in a segment recalling how he and Adama first met and the beginnings of their friendship and Tigh's alcoholism. The new characters are mostly drawn well too, especially the rather unsavoury crew of the Lightning and, in particular, Captain Nadu, its borderline insane commander.
The society of Omega Station is also effectively described, coming across as equal parts as intriguing, creepy and believable, particularly the interactions between the station's human staff and the machine Companions. The reactions of fear, horror and hatred by the crews of both Galactica and Lightning to the Companions is also all too plausible.
However, on the downside, while setting the story in the inter-war period neatly avoids the problem of slotting into Battlestar Galactica's tightly-plotted story arc, it reduces the familiarity of the setting and limits the number of familiar characters that can be credibly included. As it is, the idea that Adama, Tigh and Zarek all faced the Cylons together is a bit of a stretch, especially as none of them ever saw fit to mention any past history together.
The book also suffers from a lack of attention to detail with respect to the programme's background. For a start, the Cylons are described as using energy weapons when, even 20 years later in the TV programme, they are seen onscreen still using conventional firearms. The young Zarek as described in the book comes across as a generic restless young hero, with no signs of becoming the future firebrand activist. In fact, he is described as being from a privileged family on Caprica, rather than the exploited/oppressed colony of Saggitaron, as stated in his very first onscreen appearance.
Quite frankly, anyone looking for a convincing story of Zarek's youth and development into the wonderfully complex, ambitious and ambiguous political operator we see on screen would be better off with Dynamite Comics' recent Zarek limited series. A more major problem is implications of the climax of the story: a large-scale confrontation with the Cylons involving several Battlestars. That directly contradicts a major premise of the mini-series - that no one has encountered the Cylons in the past 40 years. It stretches credibility that that many people could have kept the secret that long or that the Colonial fleet and government would have been quite so complacent knowing there was an active threat from the Cylons.
It actually almost seems like the book was originally written as a generic SF story and then incompletely converted into a Galactica one, albeit including a couple of excellent vignettes (the Cylon revolt and Tigh and Adama's early days).
Overall, The Cylons' Secret is an entertaining story but fails to convince as a contribution to the Battlestar Galactica saga - there are too many elements which will jar for knowledgeable fans.
Elsewhere on this site there is the review of the graphic novel Battlestar Galactica: Saga of a Star World.
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