Photons be Free: a Review for the Federation Times, by John Longswood, Cmdr (retired).

"Photons be Free" is a rather interesting case as far as holo-novels go; the first fictional piece ever to be written by a bonafide "sentient" hologram - specifically, the Emergency Medical Hologram (Mark 1) installed aboard the now-famous USS Voyager. The version we're reviewing is currently listed as an "early" version, and we're promised a revised version from the Doctor's publisher soon. This reviewer, however, feels there is plenty to be going on with in the original, some bad, but much that is actually genuinely insightful and moving.

Set on the USS Vortex, an Intrepid-class Starship stranded far from home (sounds familiar?), the protagonist is the EMH of the ship, thrust into a situation head first with little support. If it sounds like it's going to be an autobiographical piece, think again - as the Author himself notes in the ten-minute long introduction (which might sound excessive but it contains some interesting tidbits that, nonetheless, might have been better served as an appendix) this is a work of fiction, and having served in the fleet, and with Captain Janeway in fact, earlier in her career when she was stationed on the Al-Batani, I can assure you that "Captain Jenkins" is nothing like her, save facially.

The author might not have been wise to use the facial characteristics of his crew mates to portray the crew of the Vortex (which is apparently one of the major revisions of the edited version, along with the class of the Vortex, no doubt at the behest of his cremates who doubtless don't enjoy being portrayed as heartless monsters) but the rest makes for a compelling story - the world "Photons be Free" inhabits is a dark world, with the Federation and Starfleet portrayed as cruel and uncaring for a sentient being they created. Having used EMH's myself during my service, prior to my retirement post-Dominion War, I feel ashamed to say that I saw them as tools. To see that uncaring attitude reflected back at me, and exaggerated into a monster, does have an impact. The message the portrayal of Vortex's crew sends borders on overkill, and runs the risk of muddying the argument the author is trying to make by turning the opposition into a strawman, but nonetheless the emotional power of living in those moments cannot be denied.

There are other elements that help to send the message the EMH wants to make clear to us, as well. Notably, the mobile holoemitter - a device that is commonly known to be small, sleek technology, even if the details of that technology are unknown - is portrayed here as a heavy, lumbering backpack which in that heaviness cannot help but make a thinking audience member realise that no matter what it's size, it is a permanent mark of difference between the EMH and anyone else. Again, the message borders on overkill, but it's impact cannot help but be felt.

Avoid the next paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers.

It is the ending that is most bleak, and ironically shows up both the fictional and factual elements of this piece. Despite everything the protagonist attempts to do (and believe me, this protagonist tried a fair few, somewhat excessive varieties of "everything" while trying the novel) the main character is ultimately reprogrammed, the few advancements as a sentient being they've been allowed to make on the repressive Vortex cruelly ripped from them. Although clearly (since he wrote this) this has not been the EMH's fate, it has been the fate of hundreds of programs exactly like him over the years. It truly makes one wonder whether the EMH's currently mining Dilithium had any experiences that might have been comparable to the one's shown in "Photons be Free". Although loyalty to the Fleet makes me want to say otherwise, I cannot help but think that the EMH has unintentionally recreated something real in the attitudes of some of the Vortex crew.

If at the end of "Photons be Free" you haven't once thought about the plight of the Mark 1 EMH's, or holograms in general, then you must have a heart of stone, because at the end of it, I was provoked to genuine thought. The somewhat tactless use of the real Voyager crew's faces might be a misstep (one the Author is already correcting) but in this edition it can only help to emphasise the ideas the EMH is trying to portray. For a first effort, it is heavy handed and unsubtle, possibly even sledgehammer, but it does what it sets out to do, and I heartily recommend it.