#NotEnoughScifi: John M. Ford & the Funny Business / Part 3

I started reading obscure author John M. Ford’s Star Trek books recently and I was blown away by how good they are.

I mentioned this online and other Ford fans started coming out of the woodwork:

Then I picked up a rulebook for a roleplaying game – GURPS Infinite Worlds – to research a time-travel-themed event I’m working on with a client.

Of course, whose name did I find among the co-authors?

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Ford wasn’t just a novelist or poet – he also worked on role-playing games, devising scenarios and background material that other people could use to play out their own stories.

The past couple of years I’ve been working on ways to use such games for professional development, so I was pretty excited to have Ford come back into my life so soon.

Not only did he work on Infinite Worlds – a time-travel/parallel universe setting which, as the title suggests, can encompass almost any other scenario or genre – but he created an award-winning caper for the game Paranoia, and a manual for people who wanted to play as the traditionally villainous Klingons in the Star Trek game.

And here’s where we come back round to Ford’s novels, and to the making of fun and brilliant things in the cracks and spaces of big-money enterprises.

Here is where we talk about The Final Reflection.

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This novel tells a story from the secret history of the Star Trek universe – framed as Captain Kirk reading a scandalous novel about events which are purported to take place forty years in his past.

In it, the usual goodies-versus-baddies dynamic – with readers and audiences firmly on the side of Kirk and the Federation – is complicated by many shades of grey.

Klingons are turned from their original, vaguely Asian, vaguely totalitarian, pseudo-Soviet 1960s conception into a sophisticated society with space for dissent and disagreement within their martial way of life.

The novel’s title is derived from an imagined Klingon game which is like chess except that both players use the same pieces, which can switch allegiance turn by turn. Such games are beloved by what Ford’s Klingons call “Thought Admirals”: master strategists who seek to better understand other cultures through an appreciation of their games.

This is also a novel of libraries, and of readers. Kirk’s reading is prompted by the suddenly popularity of the scandalous novel among his crew. The Klingon protagonist makes use of a library which is also a games console and flight simulator, not so far from today’s information technology. And in one scene, a human ambassador educates our Klingon hero as to the power of books; when the alien threatens to destroy his library in order to demonstrate the superiority of force, he is outwitted by the pacifist:

“[…I]f you lose, it will not be your books that burn, but yourself.”

The Human said, “There is no difference.” He picked up the book, held it out to Krenn. “Here. It’s yours. Read it or destroy it; but if you destroy it, you will never know what it had to say to you.”

Krenn took it. He did not even look at the disposal slot. He knew he had been beaten, by one unarmed. He read the book’s title: Space Cadet, it said. The book could say nothing to him; how could it? He was no longer a cadet.

And still he knew he would have to read it.

Like all great intricate novels, Ford’s book is impressive not merely for the watchmaker’s craft which holds it all together and keeps it moving, but for the way in which it echoes the ambivalent feelings and interactions we endure in real life. The book neatly captures the intermingling of friendship, intimacy, and rivalry with professional relationships; atmospheres of politics and distrust; and machinations and competition which take place not only among our peers, but also our superiors at many removes.

Ford flips the usual poles of whom we jeer and whom we cheer. In place of the normally cordial, heroic, and peace-loving Star Trek cast aboard the Enterprise, he gives us conniving isolationist humans who wish to reject contact with alien life.

And the traditional bad guys of the series, the Klingons, are here not barbarians but sophisticated moral beings who are technologically more advanced than the people we usually find ourselves rooting for. (There’s a lovely bit about the invention of the transporter which I won’t spoil).

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Again, the point of these blogs and this reading is not just to celebrate good sci-fi but look at how it touches upon our lives and our work.

Ford’s story is one of people rather thanklessly doing the right thing in the face of institutional pressures which are destructive and cruel; of people who recognise that games are of consequence and that play should be taken seriously; of people who must accept that good deeds can be erased by those who wish to conceal the deceits and cruelties of the powerful.

Ford himself is a figure in this vein: an exceptional, little-known author, cherished by his professional peers but perennially short of money, who often managed to create amazing insights for big-money franchises like Paramount’s Star Trek.

Working with social and cultural institutions, with health providers and educators, I know of so many people who quietly, unfussily do the right thing every day, who give their health and energy to make the world better for those around them; I’m sure you’ll have stories of people like that too.

Not everyone will be celebrated as they should, but Ford’s Klingons have an answer for that too.

In their cosmology, even those who die alone have their deeds witnessed by the stars:

And though I had slain a thousand foes less one,
The thousandth knife found my liver;
The thousandth enemy said to me,
‘Now you shall die,
Now none shall know.’
And the fool, looking down, believed this,
Not seeing, above his shoulders, the naked stars,
Each one remembering.

As Ford’s friend Eric Burns-White wrote about the late author,

No episode of a future Star Trek will be dedicated to Ford’s memory — that’s not the way Paramount works.

But his impact was still there. […] The stars see our actions. The naked stars know what we have done. It doesn’t matter if the millions of fans of Star Trek know his name or not, if they know the things he did or not. John M. Ford’s fans know what he did. His readers know what he did.

The naked stars saw his deeds, and each one remembers.

And so will I.

 

One thought on “#NotEnoughScifi: John M. Ford & the Funny Business / Part 3

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