This review of "The Smallest Choices" from Strange New Worlds 9 contains some major spoilers.
There are stories in the Strange New Worlds 9 collection with incredible cosmic scope, fantastic amounts of StarTrek trivia woven into the story, or just plain creative story-telling methods. But the story that resonated the most with me emotionally was this one: "The Smallest Choices" by Jeremy Yoder.
To say it had an emotional impact is something of a paradox since this quiet story has only two characters and both are Vulcans: T'Pring and Spock. But Yoder deftly handles the nuances of the Vulcan psyche in a way that is true to what we know of Vulcans and yet dramatically compelling.I see no way to comment on what made this story so great without giving away significant details, so be warned, significant spoilers follow.
"Amok Time" is one of the most celebrated episodes of Star Trek. It is a landmark, indispensable moment in Trek lore. To tell a short story rooted in the events of "Amok Time" is therefore a tricky thing to do well. For example, I mentioned my misgivings about the way the Guardian of Forever was treated in another story in this collection. Similarly, to start commenting on the story behind the story of "Amok Time" could cross the line from touching homage to a lack of respect for the original. In my opinion, this story never even approaches that line. It reveals nothing incongruent with what we know of Spock and T'Pring or of Vulcans in general and yet manages to be fresh and even touching. In other words, it is a logical (in true Vulcan fashion) outgrowth of everything we know while still providing us insight we didn't have before we sat down to read the story.
The story is told in the third person, but from T'Pring's point of view. As the story unfolds we mostly see her reflecting on her choice to reject Spock and choose Stonn as her mate. A story about a human marriage called off at the last minute would represent a completely different set of parameters - and stories like that are told over and over again in Hollywood. But here we see a Vulcan woman whose decisions were not based on following her heart or true love or infatuation or lust. She simply follows logic. She follows her logic to a decision that a century later she is still wrestling with.
She is a Vulcan woman who has achieved Kolinahr, the complete purging of emotions. Yet she is married to a Vulcan man who has difficulty controlling his emotions. He is certainly unemotional from a human point of view, but she is endlessly frustrated because he is so often motivated by love for her. Well, frustrated may be too strong, too emotional of a word for a Vulcan, but the point is the same. The dynamics of Vulcan relationships are counter-intuitive to everything we know as humans, and yet somehow we can read this story and relate to it. We can see that as alien as the pattern of thinking may be, as deeply suppressed as their emotions may be, there is something compelling, something human about them.
And now she is on her way to see Spock as a representative of the Vulcan government to acquire information on his efforts to promote reunification with the Romulans. The references to Spock's appearance in The Next Generation two-part "Unification" and to Kirk's death in Generations are handled well. They don't come across as obvious efforts to force a cross-over between elements of the various series, but instead are the realistic backdrop against which this story is told. That's where Spock is and what he has been doing, and it is natural that he would come to mourn Kirk's death (in his own stoic, Vulcan way). At the same time, Vulcan-Romulan reunification becomes a nice metaphor for the paths T'Pring and Spock have chosen.
The story ends with what reminded me of Sarek's appearance in the TNG episode bearing his name. Sarek shed a tear - only a single tear, as he forcefully reminds Picard later in the episode. But what did that tear represent? Picard's effusion of emotions following a mind-meld with Sarek where we see the intensity of Sarek's deep, intense love for his family gives us some idea. Yoder captures the power of Sarek's ordeal, as embodied in a single Vulcan tear, in a few simple lines:
In her lifetime, she had only cried a few times as a child. Otherwise, even at the grave of her family members, she never flinched. Never gave in to emotion. To do so would have been disgraceful, especially to one who had achieved the purity of Kolinahr.This is a story of unrequited, Vulcan love. It is a story of "The Smallest Choices" we make and how they can haunt us for years to come. While it may not have had the photon torpedoes, time travel, or Tribbles of a Grand Prize winner, it's treatment of just two characters is so well done it wins my personal pick as the best story in the collection.
So how odd that now, in the quiet stillness of her cabin, a single tear escaped and slid down her cheek. She willed no more to come, yet she did not wipe it away.