A clever (perhaps too clever for its own good), twisty (ditto) post-Cold War thriller by the late, great John Ford. I think this is his only non-sff novel, though it is arguably alternate history and possibly sf of the techno-thriller variety.

It juggles a lot of complex puzzle pieces, action set-pieces, and short, sharp character sketches into a whirlwind of a story concerning double agents, a newly discovered play which may be by Christopher Marlowe or may be a clever hoax, secret codes, war games, theatre, academia, the complications of love, spies in Elizabethan times, spies in Cold War times, and spies in the 1980s.

I had read this before, and recalled enjoying it but not having a clue what was going on, and I forgot the plot immediately upon finishing it. I finished my re-read fifteen minutes ago; I enjoyed it, but I still don't understand much of what happened or why. I can follow the general outlines of people running around, shooting at and betraying each other, and unraveling complex codes and schemes, but neither the details of how they're doing it or the overall reasons why, let alone who's really on which side.

Ford was undoubtedly much smarter than me (I am pretty sure he was much smarter than nearly everyone) and I don't expect to understand all the details and allusions and subtext, or even a lot of the plot, the first time I read any of his books. He tends to leave out a lot of stuff that other writers would put in, necessitating that the readers infer from the signposts he left, in lieu of an actual trail.

But this book depends more on plot than most of his; the characters exist to serve the plot rather than the other way around. It's set up as a mystery, but I didn't understand about two-thirds of the solution.

It's well-written but too subtle to quite work as a mystery/thriller. On the other hand, without Ford's usual depth of character and allusion, it feels a bit lightweight. It's definitely worth reading if you're a Ford completist, and is way more easily obtainable than it used to be, with cheap used paperback copies on Amazon. But it's a distinctly minor work.

Just a few of the many things I didn't understand:

Read more... )

The Scholars of Night
I notice that many people have gotten curious about the original series after seeing the movie. There are also some quite good novels, many by writers known for original sf/fantasy. Here's a brief, non-comprehensive guide:

The Spirit of Wonder

Diane Duane did the best job of capturing the joy I felt when watching the series. You want to serve on her Enterprise – and her Enterprise probably has a place for you. Her crew is full of aliens, and her stories are all about the longing to breathe in the air of a strange new world.

Spock’s World intersperses a mission to Vulcan with a series of heartbreaking vignettes from Vulcan’s history; the alternation of the intense emotional content of the historical chapters with the more contained emotions of legal trial in the main story works beautifully. Spock's World (Star Trek)

In The Wounded Sky, the main character is a female giant transparent spider physicist, and the story is about the ultimate in exploring strange new worlds, a journey both inward and outward. Poignant and beautiful. The Wounded Sky

Enterprise: The First Adventure, by Vonda N. McIntyre. An epic of alien contact, featuring nice roles for all the main characters (even Janice Rand, who is mentored by Uhura), plus backstage comedy via an interstellar circus (!) and a very angsty and interesting original Vulcan character. Her new crew realistically fails to mesh, then gradually bonds; her aliens and descriptions of zero-g are lovely. Star Trek Enterprise The First Adventure

John M. Ford, as always a category unto himself

The Final Reflection
might as well be an original sf novel, as most of the characters are Klingons – and much more sophisticated and interesting Klingons than actually appeared on the show. A beautifully written and powerful story about power, politics, identity, and the costs and rewards of the choices we make. I can’t be more specific because I have no idea what was going on for a great deal of the story (let me know if you do!), but that’s true of most of Ford’s novels. The Final Reflection (Star Trek, No 16)

How Much For Just The Planet? A musical comedy. No, really. No, really. And it’s actually funny! It’s kind of a parody, but a very fond one. Kirk and the rest end up on a planet in which everyone acts like they’re in some old movie. Uhura lands in a film noir, and Kirk in a chorus line. There are hilarious film strips and an attack milkshake. Oh, just read it. How Much for Just the Planet? (Star Trek, No 36)

What if the Series Hadn't Been Totally Sexist?

My Enemy, My Ally,
by Diane Duane. A Romulan woman commander develops a prickly friendship with Kirk when they’re forced to adventure together for reasons of political intrigue. Lots of convincing detail about Romulan culture. My Enemy, My Ally There are sequels that aren't quite as good.

The Entropy Effect, by Vonda N. McIntyre. Time travel, Angsty!Fencing!Sulu, cool alien characters, several cool original female characters, and a rather slashy Kirk/Spock relationship: what’s not to love? The Entropy Effect (Star Trek)

Uhura’s Song, by Janet Kagan. This is another one that’s almost an original sf novel. When a plague hits, the cure involves going on a quest with a bunch of catlike aliens on their home world. There’s an original female character whom a lot of people call a Mary Sue, but all I can say is that I only wish Mary Sue was usually portrayed as Buckaroo Banzai, Trickster Archetype. Sweet and fun. Uhura's Song (Star Trek No 21)

Crossroad, by Barbara Hambly. A remarkably dark and often darkly funny story involving Lovecraftian horrors in spaaaaace. Christine Chapel is a major character, and her (non) relationship with Spock is developed convincingly and poignantly. Crossroad (Star Trek, Book 71)

Not My First Choice, But Worthwhile

Star Trek, Log One,
by Alan Dean Foster. Based on the animated series, this is nothing really special but nicely written.

The other novels by Barbara Hambly and Diane Duane are worth reading if you enjoy the series, as are Jean Lorrah’s. I note that Laurence Yep, Peter David, Joe Haldeman and Greg Bear all wrote novels for the original series; I don’t remember them, but they should be at least decent. I vaguely remember enjoying A. C. Crispin’s books.

Run Fast, Run Far

All the novels by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath are unreadable, though the “Phoenix” ones do have Kirk naked (and tortured) for most of the book. Avoid, even if that’s a selling point.

The Tears of the Singers, by Melinda Snodgrass. Oh God. Uhura meets a tousle-haired, temperamental asshole of a hot genius musician with a heart condition that will kill him if he gets excited. A planet of baby seal aliens are being clubbed to death by Klingons for the jewels they weep at the moment of death, only their song is holding the universe together. Kirk drafts the musician because he’s the only one who can translate the song, and he dies operatically in Uhura’s arms after saving the world. A baby seal alien spontaneously sheds a single perfect tear of woe, which Uhura makes into a necklace. The Tears of the Singers (Star Trek, No 19)

Did anyone read Spock, Messiah? Was it as dire as it sounds? SPOCK, MESSIAH! (Star Trek)
I notice that many people have gotten curious about the original series after seeing the movie. There are also some quite good novels, many by writers known for original sf/fantasy. Here's a brief, non-comprehensive guide:

The Spirit of Wonder

Diane Duane did the best job of capturing the joy I felt when watching the series. You want to serve on her Enterprise – and her Enterprise probably has a place for you. Her crew is full of aliens, and her stories are all about the longing to breathe in the air of a strange new world.

Spock’s World intersperses a mission to Vulcan with a series of heartbreaking vignettes from Vulcan’s history; the alternation of the intense emotional content of the historical chapters with the more contained emotions of legal trial in the main story works beautifully. Spock's World (Star Trek)

In The Wounded Sky, the main character is a female giant transparent spider physicist, and the story is about the ultimate in exploring strange new worlds, a journey both inward and outward. Poignant and beautiful. The Wounded Sky

Enterprise: The First Adventure, by Vonda N. McIntyre. An epic of alien contact, featuring nice roles for all the main characters (even Janice Rand, who is mentored by Uhura), plus backstage comedy via an interstellar circus (!) and a very angsty and interesting original Vulcan character. Her new crew realistically fails to mesh, then gradually bonds; her aliens and descriptions of zero-g are lovely. Star Trek Enterprise The First Adventure

John M. Ford, as always a category unto himself

The Final Reflection
might as well be an original sf novel, as most of the characters are Klingons – and much more sophisticated and interesting Klingons than actually appeared on the show. A beautifully written and powerful story about power, politics, identity, and the costs and rewards of the choices we make. I can’t be more specific because I have no idea what was going on for a great deal of the story (let me know if you do!), but that’s true of most of Ford’s novels. The Final Reflection (Star Trek, No 16)

How Much For Just The Planet? A musical comedy. No, really. No, really. And it’s actually funny! It’s kind of a parody, but a very fond one. Kirk and the rest end up on a planet in which everyone acts like they’re in some old movie. Uhura lands in a film noir, and Kirk in a chorus line. There are hilarious film strips and an attack milkshake. Oh, just read it. How Much for Just the Planet? (Star Trek, No 36)

What if the Series Hadn't Been Totally Sexist?

My Enemy, My Ally,
by Diane Duane. A Romulan woman commander develops a prickly friendship with Kirk when they’re forced to adventure together for reasons of political intrigue. Lots of convincing detail about Romulan culture. My Enemy, My Ally There are sequels that aren't quite as good.

The Entropy Effect, by Vonda N. McIntyre. Time travel, Angsty!Fencing!Sulu, cool alien characters, several cool original female characters, and a rather slashy Kirk/Spock relationship: what’s not to love? The Entropy Effect (Star Trek)

Uhura’s Song, by Janet Kagan. This is another one that’s almost an original sf novel. When a plague hits, the cure involves going on a quest with a bunch of catlike aliens on their home world. There’s an original female character whom a lot of people call a Mary Sue, but all I can say is that I only wish Mary Sue was usually portrayed as Buckaroo Banzai, Trickster Archetype. Sweet and fun. Uhura's Song (Star Trek No 21)

Crossroad, by Barbara Hambly. A remarkably dark and often darkly funny story involving Lovecraftian horrors in spaaaaace. Christine Chapel is a major character, and her (non) relationship with Spock is developed convincingly and poignantly. Crossroad (Star Trek, Book 71)

Not My First Choice, But Worthwhile

Star Trek, Log One,
by Alan Dean Foster. Based on the animated series, this is nothing really special but nicely written.

The other novels by Barbara Hambly and Diane Duane are worth reading if you enjoy the series, as are Jean Lorrah’s. I note that Laurence Yep, Peter David, Joe Haldeman and Greg Bear all wrote novels for the original series; I don’t remember them, but they should be at least decent. I vaguely remember enjoying A. C. Crispin’s books.

Run Fast, Run Far

All the novels by Sondra Marshak and Myrna Culbreath are unreadable, though the “Phoenix” ones do have Kirk naked (and tortured) for most of the book. Avoid, even if that’s a selling point.

The Tears of the Singers, by Melinda Snodgrass. Oh God. Uhura meets a tousle-haired, temperamental asshole of a hot genius musician with a heart condition that will kill him if he gets excited. A planet of baby seal aliens are being clubbed to death by Klingons for the jewels they weep at the moment of death, only their song is holding the universe together. Kirk drafts the musician because he’s the only one who can translate the song, and he dies operatically in Uhura’s arms after saving the world. A baby seal alien spontaneously sheds a single perfect tear of woe, which Uhura makes into a necklace. The Tears of the Singers (Star Trek, No 19)

Did anyone read Spock, Messiah? Was it as dire as it sounds? SPOCK, MESSIAH! (Star Trek)
John M. Ford was a marvelous writer, one of my favorites. I never met him, but was a great fan of his work; so my memorial will be to see if I can stir up a bit of discussion about his books.

I read his two Star Trek novels— perhaps the works most frequently cited in discussion when the question arises as to whether fanfic or media fiction can ever be considered great art— and soon began the long quest to read everything else he ever wrote. I think I only ever managed to buy one of his books when it was new: the others were all obtained by scouring used bookshops, ordering online from used bookshops, borrowing from friends, or interlibrary loans.

I went to those lengths because his prose was so beautifully precise, his images so right yet unexpected, his scenes so memorable, the emotions evoked so powerful. Long after I’d forgotten the exact sequence of events, fragments stayed in my mind, bright as glass: a wizard literally and horribly unmade by his own magic; an educational filmstrip called “Dilithium and You!” a tape recorder that stops and starts at a rehearsal, marking the impossibility of ever knowing the truth of events in retrospect, the impossibility of not trying to figure it out; “Jacks clasp Jills’ hands and step onto the sky;” a paramedic on the border between Elfland and post-apocalypse learns that a small side benefit of magic is clothes that fit perfectly; a boy plays a Grand Master, and learns to lose brilliantly; a girl tries and fails to create a beautiful ending for a long-running game, a long-running friendship.

If they're so good, why, then, are the majority of his books out of print?

There are some writers whose cult following and lack of mainstream popularity baffled me. John M. Ford was not one of them. Though I have long adored his writing, it is perfectly obvious why most of his works will only ever appeal to a smallish subset of readers. Though much of his work reads quite easily and fluidly, the plots (as opposed to the scenes) tend to be buried, mysterious, accessible only by repeated readings and much thought. Though their emotions come through strongly, his characters’ motivations tend to be difficult to read; and while each individual scene is strong and clear by itself, I am often baffled by much of the overall story.

But I tend to remember scenes better than stories anyway, and as political machinations often lose me even when the author is trying her darndest to make them clear, I am used to reading while confused. Also, not everyone finds his plotting as perplexing as I do. They are probably also the ones who get the elaborately allusive jokes he made online, of which I’d say I caught about one in five.

That being said, not all of his work is difficult, some of it is extremely funny, and all of it is worthwhile.

How Much For Just The Planet?

This hilarious Star Trek novel is not difficult in the slightest, and might well be enjoyable even if you hate Star Trek—though it will be funnier if you’re a fan. (Some fans detest it because it does not take Kirk, Spock, et al too seriously; I'd say it is a laughter which springs from love of a series which could be both dumb and wonderful.) It’s a farce, and also a musical comedy. With pie fights. And “Dilithium and You!” Co-starring an out of control Vulcan milkshake.

The Final Reflection

Another Star Trek novel, also accessible to non-fans, also even better if you are one. It’s written from the point of view of the Klingons, for whom Ford constructed a culture that is much more complex and interesting than what is actually portrayed on the show. The familiar Trek characters are limited to cameo appearances. It’s a somber, intense novel about war and negotiation, as performed on the battlefield, across a game board, at gunpoint, and heart to heart. It is unfortunate, but not terribly distracting, that one character’s name is better-known as a hair restorer. But unlike Terry Brooks’ twelve-stepping druid Alannon or Guy Gavriel Kay’s Aileron (an airplane part), Rogaine had no other meaning when Ford coined it. I can mostly follow the plot of this one.

Web of Angels

Early cyberpunk. I own this, but recall nothing of it except that I never did manage to figure out what was going on in it. I will try again some day.

The Scholars of Night

A non-fantasy spy novel. I remember enjoying this despite never really knowing what was going on, but have not read it lately because I had to interlibrary loan it, and have never seen a copy for sale, and so do not remember it well. I have deep envy in my heart for the two people I know who own a copy.

The Dragon Waiting

This doesn't involve dragons in any conventional sense, though the dragon is more than a metaphor. It involves vampires, but unconventional ones; magicians, but extremely unconventional ones; and a highly unusual portrayal of Richard III.

It's written in prose both exquisite and violent, like a very sharp knife aimed at your throat. It contains a number of unusual and memorable characters, down to the wizard who appears in the first chapter and never again thereafter, but who looms over the rest of the book like a menacing shadow. The dark side of magic is darker here than I've ever seen it portrayed, but partakes of no cliches about human sacrifice or anything like that. There are love stories, friendships, and human predicaments which are moving, emotional, and real.

All that being said, I'm damned if I can produce a plot summary. It's an alternate history novel in which Christianity is a little-known heresy and Gaul is Byzantine instead of Roman. Loosely, it involves a woman doctor, a vampire, a soldier, a magician, and Richard III, all involved in machinations so complicated that I had no idea what they were up to at any given moment. Luckily, the characters' emotional motivations were generally clear, so I read happily until I reached the end, and then put the book aside, satisfied.

Growing Up Weightless

At first glance, this seems a young adult novel in the Heinlein mold, told in clear, precise, elegant prose, about a young man growing up on a Lunar colony, full of hyper-realistic and clever extrapolation.

Actually, other than the fact that it's sf and all the s appears impeccable (and often more detailed than I, at least, cared about) it bears more resemblance to a typical young adult novel than a typical Heinlein novel. There are world-shaking events of a typically opaque nature going on way, way in the background, but the protagonist, Matt Ronay, is only peripherally involved in them. It's mostly about a boy and his group of friends in an interesting milieu, and how he comes to terms with his father and with growing up. It's extremely atmospheric, packed with bright details, and, despite a total lack of melodrama, quietly heartbreaking.

Next post will cover The Last Hot Time, The Princes of the Air, and some short stories.

Please put "spoiler" in the headline of your comment if you're going to discuss with spoilers; unspoiled readers beware.
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