Set immediately after the events of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (aka STI), Bennett explores Spock's struggle to redefine himself after his experiences with V'Ger, McCoy's being unsure of himself on a refit Enterprise which now houses species he hasn't even heard of before, and Kirk's uncertainty of his actions concerning Decker and the way he retook command of the Enterprise. All those personal crises are overshadowed by the return to the people of Yonada (For the World is Hollow and I have touched the Sky) who face their own difficulties in liberating themselves once and for all from the oppression by the Oracle after their arrival at their new home planet.
Plotwise this novel draws quite an accurate picture of what problems new democracies face on their way to true freedom. Shaking of tyranny and oppression is only the first step, and perhaps the easiest one, it's keeping peace and not giving in to impossible promises that's the hard part. And amidst all the different factions and their negotiations, terrorists try to force the people to go back to the old ways... again, nothing new if you followed the news of the last 15 years, but Bennett manages to breathe life into this plot via likable characters and believable actions and reactions.
Interestingly, it's the characterization of the triumvirate I have more problems with. Granted, Spock just experienced an upheaval of everything he's worked for his entire life due to his mindmeld with V'Ger. I'd certainly expect an emotional struggle within him. After all, he has to decide where to go from there. However, I'd have wished for a more internal portrayal of this struggle. I just can't see Spock walking around the ship with a smile on his face. That's a serious no-no to me - and I'm sorry to say, but that's what I remember most about this novel. Of course, I realize that Spock smiled in the early episodes of TOS (*shudder*!), but to me that was due to the fact that TPTB didn't quite know yet what to do with him. I never tried to look for another explanation or to see the stoicism of later episodes as character development. I always imagined Spock as a man who keeps a tight rein on his emotions, but who nevertheless feels everything intensely. His struggle is about keeping the balance between his emotions and logic, a struggle even more pronounced due to his dual heritage. During his Kolinahr-training the scales leaned heavily toward the logical side, almost at the cost of his emotions. His contact with V'Ger, his understanding that logic couldn't be everything, turned the scales in favour of his emotions, that much is clear. But again, I perceive this struggle as a mostly internal one. Even if he's deeply disturbed Spock'll fight to keep up his cool exterior front. Obviously, Bennett draws quite a different picture of Spock, and while it's an interesting one, I can't quite relate to it.
But apart from Spock, there are quite a few other issues I have with this novel. For one, I think that McCoy acted quite cowardly towards Natira. It's one thing to leave her at the end of the mentioned TOS-episode, but I thought it quite callous how he returned to her, only to discard her again at the end. Granted, he isn't sure of his vocation, of his position on the ship and in life in general, but he should at least have had the grace not to involve Natira in his personal struggles. I know, that's easier said than done, but still, I'd have expected such a behaviour from Kirk, not from the always moralistic McCoy. And the other thing that bothered me quite much is Bennett's penchant for detailed analyses of stellar phenomena, or alien processes or physiology. He takes the word "science" in science fiction a little too close to heart. I don't have any background in astronomy, I just want to know what something looks like to be able to picture it in my mind - I definitely don't need a lecture on the physics behind a phenomenon. The same applies to the detailed analysis on mindmelds right at the climax of the story... at a crucial point this distracted from what was going on and took away a lot of the suspense and excitement I was feeling. And, if I remember correctly, some medical details about the procedure didn't quite sound right, either... and since I do have some background in medicine after all, that annoyed me quite a bit.
Overall, despite the criticism "Ex Machina" is a very enjoyable novel. Bennett's writing style has some quirks which I could certainly do without, but he does know how to build up an intriguing plot and keep the tension from the start right to the finishing line. And that almost makes up for the fact that we apparently don't quite see eye to eye when it comes to Spock's character.
review originally written in 2007