Jan 24 2012 10:00am

Pre-existing Universe, Very Original Story: John M. Ford’s The Final Reflection

Love them or loathe them, tie-in novels are written for fans of the media to which they tie in. They have the same problems and advantages as books set in actual history — the writers can’t change what canonically happened and the readers are already invested in the characters and the universe. This is what’s good about them, for those readers, but it makes them odd to read if you are a fan of the author and not of the series.

My interest in Star Trek is minute, and my knowledge of Star Trek is on the level of “I haven’t been living under a rock for the last forty years.” (I think I may have mentioned here before that I hate TV.) There’s probably nobody who might plausibly pick up this book, nobody who might plausibly read this post, who doesn’t know the names Kirk, Spock, Enterprise, Klingons. Star Trek is just that much part of the zeitgeist. But reading The Final Reflection as someone with only that level of knowledge is odd. When you read a book set in the aftermath of WWII, the author doesn’t need to stop to explain the significance of uranium, and similarly here Ford doesn’t feel his audience needs him to stop to explain the significance of dilithium. It makes the book unbalanced — it’s a strange blip when the text is cueing you to get excited to meet the grandfather of a character whose name seems only vaguely familiar.

For me, The Final Reflection would be a better book if it were set in an original universe. But it’s still an excellent book — it’s one of those rare tie-in books that’s good even if you’re not a fan of the show and it must be world-shatteringly marvellous if you are. The important thing here is a tightly paced and fascinating story about warrior aliens and the difference between tactics and strategy.

I have been told by fans that Ford invented Klingon culture in this book, and if this is so, he did a very good job. This story is told entirely from the point of view of Klingons. They are aliens of a kind who seem designed to be enemies to civilization — they are slavers, they consider war and piracy the only really important things, they torture prisoners for fun and information. You wouldn’t think anybody could make them sympathetic. But Ford does it — he gives us psychologically plausible Klingons, and a psychologically plausible Klingon culture, and he shows it to us from the inside. They play live action chess-like games where the players are children and can really die or be maimed, and Ford shows us this from the point of view of one of those children, desperately proud of his position. The whole culture — their position on genes, on lines, on aliens, and their internecine strife — is of a piece. They are Spartan, uber-Spartan, and they are absolutely sure it is their destiny to fight well and continue to fight past death in the Black Fleet. They’re never nice, but Ford makes them realistic and comprehensible.

The novel is a story of a complex and subtle revenge, and re-reading it I was able to appreciate that properly. Ford’s plots are often sufficiently subtle to be surprising on a first reading and much more satisfying when revisited. I find the Federation underdeveloped — because Ford quite reasonably expected readers who already knew all about — and that makes it seem thin and sketchy compared to the richness of Klingon culture.

The plot is deceptively simple. Krenn, who we first see as Vrenn, defending his square in the game of klin zha, is an orphan who is adopted by a Thought Admiral — a strategic genius, who teaches Krenn all the variants of all the strategy games. Krenn later understands aliens because he understands their games. He rises through the ranks, and avenges his adoptive father by playing the mirror klin zha game out in the real universe. What makes it so great is the complex emotional and cultural reality that goes along with that.

If you’re a Star Trek fan you’ve probably already read this book. If you’re not but you like interesting complex SF, you should definitely try it.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Keith DeCandido
1. krad
WARNING: MAJOR GEEKERY ALERT! (Hey, I'm doing the TNG Rewatch for this very web site, whaddaya expect?)

Well, Ford created a Klingon culture for the book, and it was a damn good one. At the time, all that was known of the Klingons was from only about half a dozen appearances by individual characters (plus background extras) over the course of the three years of television, and in two movies), so Ford had a pretty clean slate to start scribbling on.

And his culture worked based on those appearances. But then, in 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted with a Klingon main character, and we started to learn more about the culture.

Where Ford gave us, as Jo described, a very Spartan society of soldiers, where service to the state was the most important thing, on TNG (and later on the other spinoffs, particularly Deep Space Nine), the Klingons developed into a society of warriors who valued honor and combat -- Viking Samurai, basically, with the violent love of life of the former and the code of conduct of the latter. (Starting in particular in "Sins of the Father," the first-ever visit to the Klingon homeworld. Yes, that was a cheap plug. Sue me.)

Amusingly, as the Cardassian culture was developed on DS9, it proved to be almost a perfect match for Ford's Klingons: a nation of soldiers where the citizenry's greatest cultural imperative is service to the state, and where rule was shared by the military and the shadowy intelligence organization. Just change the Klingon Defense Force to Central Command and Imperial Intelligence to the Obsidian Order, and you've got it. :)

Having said that, bits of The Final Reflection crept in here and there. My personal favorite was one time General Martok on DS9 used the curse, "By Kahless's hand!"

Thanks for this, Jo. TFR is a great novel, and it's good to see it getting its props.

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Mordicai Knode
2. mordicai
Oh man this book is so great. I hold it up pretty often as an example of how tie-in fiction CAN in fact work. I am a big pusher of The Final Reflection-- I've probably given half a dozen copies away.

I don't think Ford SHOULD have explained why dilithium is important; it is sort of a MacGuffin, & like you say, you can get why uranium is important in a post-WWII novel, right? Same thing. I feel like the context-- we want this mineral resource!-- is all you need to "get" it.
Fade Manley
3. fadeaccompli
This was the first TOS tie-in book I read, and now I'm reminded to pull it out and reread it. I always found the general lack of canon characters to be a selling point; I like the universe, but the story works all the better for giving the author freedom to run a complete character arc with his protagonist, instead of needing to fit into an episodic slot.
4. wiredog
This, and his other TOS book "How Much For Just The Planet?" (which has more dilithium, and is very funny) are two of my favorites. Read it when it came out in 84, when I was just out of high school. At that time I was still reading every ST book as it was released. I eventually got rid of most of them, and only have a couple dozen left.
Paul Howard
5. DrakBibliophile
There were several great lines in this book. (I may get them slightly wrong).

"You fear the Klingon and that's not wrong".

"You tell us that you will never "grow" and be a danger to us. We'll never believe that".

Of course, the "best line" wasn't spoken to humans but thought by
Krenn. "His people wouldn't believe that humans would show him how little they know about using dilithium. They'll think that humans are much more advanced than what they should him".
Lianne Burwell
6. LKBurwell
Ah, one of the books from the brief golden age of Star Trek novels. This was the era that brought us My Enemy, My Ally (where Diane Duane created what many fans consider the definitive Romulan culture), Uhura's Song (by the late and much lamented -- at least by me -- Janet Kagan), Time for Yesterday (where AC Crispin takes an original series episode and show us Spock's on, born in the distant past), The Vulcan Academy Murders, and many more.

And I really recommend How Much for Just the Planet, also by John M Ford. I laughed myself silly. Star Trek meets the Marx Brothers, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (but with musical portions), and the Maltese Falcon, with Scotty challenging a Klingon to a golf match, and a pie fight to end all pie fights.
Benji Cat
7. benjicat
John M. Ford's How Much For Just the Planet is one the funniest books you'll ever read and my favorite of the Trek novels.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
8. tnh
Keith, the comparison with Spartans isn't inappropriate, but it's not enough. For example, Mike built tactical games into the structure of their society in some complicated ways. It was very nicely done.

I've heard that the change in the series bible after Final Reflection went something like "When we say Kirk and Spock have to appear in the book, we don't mean as an infant and a rugrat somewhere around page 120."

Paramount was so stupid. Mike could have stayed within canon while doing all kinds of lovely worldbuilding and back-formation in their universe, if they'd let him.
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
TNH: They do both appear as adults in the frame story in which the internal text is a historical novel within in their universe.

But you are nevertheless absolutely right.
Kristen Templet
10. SF_Fangirl
I agree with the concept of the golden age of the Pocket Book ST novels. It makes me feel better about having read everyone until about 1992 when I went to college. I had less time and more access sci fi novels (than just Waldenbooks), but I really remember of being tired that every story ended with every major character exactly the same as he started. The books I do remember usually had original characters playing a signifigant part. I don;t remember this novel as well as some others, but I was never a big Klingon fan. also some of the depth might have gone over my most likely pre-teen head. I'll definately consider rereading this one now since you recommend it Jo.
Tucker McKinnon
11. jazzfish
I've heard that Paramount very specifically wrote TNG Klingon culture differently from how JMF presented it in The Final Reflection (and the Klingon supplement for the FASA Trek game) to avoid having to pay additional royalties. This may be just the grumbling of FASA fans and/or writers.

(I've not read this one yet. Best of my knowledge, it's my last unread JMF work, outside of uncollected stories. Been saving it for a rainy day.)
Ben Wert
12. bennyrex
Keith, I'm surprised you didn't sneak in a shout-out for your own Klingon books. Jo - Keith has written a pretty fantastic series of books exploring Klingon culture as the various series have revealed it over the years. It's connected to the TV and movie series, but not in a way that you have to be aware of the inticracies of the universe of the show to follow. At the beginning of the series, I believe it was intended to be like a Star Trek show if the main characters were Klingon instead of Federation, but in the last book (my favourite) 'A Burning House', the focus shifted to the Klingon empire, and not just one ship. It's good stuff.
13. Mrenn
In "How Much for Just the Planet," my favorite part is when the Star Trek characters get up and have breakfast together. The funniest is McCoy . . . He never did seem much like a "morning person" to me. :)

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