#NotEnoughScifi: John M. Ford & the Funny Business / Part 2

Life is messy. The structures and services we design need to reflect that.

Creative responses to the world resist programming and procedure. You have to be flexible when you seek to address the challenges of this uncertain, unpredictable existence.

And if you’re going to plan and scheme a better future, that process should be intellectually stimulating, exciting: fun, even. Because if a vision of the future doesn’t engage, convince, and inspire, how are you going to make it work?

Let’s talk about Star Trek.

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More specifically, let’s talk about John M. Ford. I warned you we’d do this last time.

Ford’s not a household name, but he’s respected by household names – like Neil Gaiman, who gave Ford’s work the very highest praise.

Ford was the writer’s writer of science fiction: a designer of roleplaying games, a poet, novelist, friend of libraries, and passionate sci-fi fan. A man who won a World Fantasy Award for a poem put on a Christmas card to friends.

He was the guy who mashed up Star Trek with Gilbert and Sullivan.

How Much For Just The Planet? was the first of Ford’s two influential Star Trek novels, both written in the eighties as authorised spin-offs to the famous TV and movie series.

The novel’s plot revolves around a planet rich in valuable dilithium, with both Captain Kirk’s Federation and the traditionally villainous Klingons vying for access to the resource.

They find themselves enthusiastically welcomed by the planet’s inhabitants, who have an unsettling habit of breaking into song. Instead of wary trade negotiations, both our heroes and their usual antagonists find themselves inveigled into increasingly ludicrous situations.

Engineer Scotty is challenged to a duel and he chooses to satisfy his honour by means of a golf game, with a detour to the pub for a few pints in the middle.

Uhura finds herself on the run and cuffed to a geeky Earth-loving Klingon who can’t help but point out their predicament’s cinematic quality:

“Angel, I’ve seen every film Hitchcock ever made at least three times. That includes both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and I can practically quote you North by Northwest.” He pointed at the handcuffs. “Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The Thirty-Nine Steps.”

Another mismatched group end up in a swashbuckling adventure, held captive by a subterranean queen – while Kirk himself agrees to participate in a contrived scheme to make a lovestruck young local look like a hero to his beloved. Said scheme involves Kirk dressing up as a notorious cat burglar, and of course Ford can’t resist poking fun at the physique of William Shatner, who played Kirk on-screen.

[Kirk] stripped to his skivvies, folded his tuxedo, and tugged on the leotard. It fit pretty well, except around the middle.

The whole thing descends fully into farce with a ludicrous pie fight. I won’t spoil how it ends but I’ll tell you it’s worth forking out for this fun, fond tribute to the old sci-fi series.

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Ford’s novel is about sidestepping enmity and threat through improvisation, thoughtful performance, and chutzpah. And it’s not just what the characters do within the novel that makes this a great celebration of human (or Klingon) creativity.

It’s about the story beyond the covers: who wrote this novel and how.

John M. Ford’s Star Trek work took beloved franchise characters and showed them in a new light. However ludicrous the plot gets, his tale never rings a false note with the familiar characters he’s handling. His genius was to take incredibly well-known fictions and give them an effervescence not usually found in the goodies-vs-baddies world of starships and televisual sci-fi.

Anyone who has ever worked within the realm of a big institution, bound by policies or bureaucracy or managerial whims, will recognise Ford’s achievement in sneaking something funny and brilliant past the powers that be.

As Neil Gaiman put it, Ford  was “responsible for setting new parameters to the Star Trek Franchise, mostly consisting of ‘He got away with it because we hadn’t thought to make rules against it, and now he’s done it no-one else is going to do it again’.”

Ford might have been hamstrung by his own genius. He never did the same thing twice, ranged from games to poems to franchise work and his own original fiction, and he loved byzantine plots.

Ford’s editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden was known to lament their intricacy. Ford is reported to have told her he had a horror of being obvious, to which she replied: “You have not the least idea what normal people find obvious!”

But Ford’s value lay not in his accessibility. He was a writer’s writer, who we’d celebrate alongside the like of Donald Westlake and Alice Munro if his chosen topic hadn’t been spaceships and old TV shows. He was a master craftsman who pushed other, better selling authors to new heights.

And his work was not, after all, without its ripples: next time, we’ll look at Ford’s work in game design, as well as his other Star Trek novel, which reshaped our vision of good and evil in that famous sci fi franchise.

 

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