A Voice Crying in the Wilderness: Reflections on Wonderlands
“I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” — Alice in Wonderland
Set between the first two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery‘s third season, Wonderlands is the story of Michael Burnham’s lost year in the 32nd century. It was written by my favorite Star Trek novelist, Una McCormack.
Wonderlands is a novel close to my heart for many reasons. This book deepened my appreciation of the fundamental changes we saw in Michael when we met her again, the new lightness in her spirit, and the ambivalence to return to duty after tasting freedom.
Una wrote this novel during lockdown, whilst homeschooling her daughter. This is an experience I can relate to; I wrote my first novel during lockdown, with my children at home. Just as I did in my own writing, Una took the feelings of loneliness and isolation many of us felt, the sense of loss of a pre-pandemic life that we will never get back, and wove those feelings into the book to give resonating gravitas to Burnham’s inner emotional life.
Michael Burnham is not my favorite Discovery character… that honor goes to Tilly, to whom I deeply relate… but this book made me feel so much closer to Michael than I ever had watching the show, and made me realize how much I relate to Michael on a deeply personal level. Michael may have saved all sentient life in the galaxy, but I kept two children alive during a pandemic with no support, whilst writing a book and returning to university, and I think that’s almost as great an accomplishment.
Strangers and Pilgrims
On a more somber note, I know intimately what it is to leave behind everything that one has ever known – family, friends, culture, language, and belief system – to go into a strange new world in which nothing is familiar and one does not know whom to trust. I didn’t travel nine hundred years into the future as Michael did, but I did leave a fundamentalist sect that was oppressive towards women, in order to find a more rich and full life for myself and my children.
Our sect was so much more than where we went to church on Sunday. It was a way of life, a subculture that set us apart from “The World”, our own language that outsiders couldn’t understand, a set of mores and guidelines for every aspect of our lives. When I left all that behind, I felt every bit as lost, friendless and naive as Michael did upon arriving in the 32nd century. Everything was as different and new to me, as I entered the world at large, as it was to Michael, learning to navigate the post-Burn society.
Just as I did, Michael found a circle of friends whom she could confide in, lean on, drink tea with, bicker with, and draw strength from. I so cherished getting to know more about: Sahil’s story; his friendship with Michael; his long years of patient, faithful watching; and his utter devotion to the ideals of Starfleet and the Federation. This book made me appreciate Sahil’s journey from lonely station keeper to commissioned officer back home at Starfleet HQ.
As I am an absolute sucker for the “enemies to friends to lovers” trope, I keenly enjoyed Burnham’s unfolding relationship with Book. I was entranced by their adventures together, by the way they would always show up for each other, by the antagonistic banter but easy intimacy of their journey toward friendship. I “shipped” those two from the moment I saw them together, and I loved that we got a bit of their backstory.
Strengthen the Things That Remain
Wonderlands is, like The Last Best Hope, a very Brexit novel. Getting to see the post-Burn world through Michael’s eyes, and considering the parallels in current world events, made the desperate conditions of that time very real in a way the show could not convey. I found it very moving that, throughout the novel, Michael found the fragments of the Federation, and learned she was not as alone as she had thought.
I found that the book made the rebuilding of the Federation in Season 4 of Discovery almost unbearably poignant, because – just as I did not know how full, rich and joyous my life would become once I left my fundamentalist sect – Michael has no idea of the future that awaits her. She doesn’t know that the phantom-like message from Senna Tal will eventually lead her to Adira and result in the Discovery’s homecoming to Starfleet HQ. She doesn’t know that the black boxes she discovers will lead her to the source of the Burn, and to a being even more alone than she was. She doesn’t know that her mother will show up and that they will have a joyous reunion. She doesn’t know she will trade a cramped, untidy courier ship for the captain’s chair. Somehow, getting glimpses into the depth of her despair and desolation through her logs makes those joyous events of the season even more meaningful.
Final Thoughts and Ratings
I so appreciated that Una named her women scientists after women Star Trek novelists: Marshak and Culbreath, for Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath; McIntyre, for Vonda McIntyre, an essential Trek writer best known for The Entropy Effect; and Lorrah, for Jean Lorrah, who gave us “Murder, She Wrote meets Star Trek” in the form of the classic novel The Vulcan Academy Murders.
Wonderlands was exactly the ‘hope from despair’ story that my heart needed in this pandemic. It made me laugh, made me cry, and gave me hope. I award it five out of five medals named after Christopher Pike!
Ruth Anne Amsden has been a Trekkie since she was a ten-year-old reader voraciously devouring Star Trek novels (her family did not allow television in the home). She is working toward her first BA and aspiring to professionally write Star Trek novels as love letters to the novels she loved growing up.