How Much for Just the Planet?

How Much for Just the Planet? by John M. Ford
Pocket Books, 1987
Price I paid: Either one or two bucks, I don’t remember

Dilithium. In crystalline form, the most valuable mineral in the galaxy. It powers the Federation’s starships…and the Klingon Empire’s battlecruisers. Now on a small, out-0f-the-way planet named Direidi, the greatest fortune in dilithium crystals ever seen has been found.

Under the terms of the Organian Peace Treaty, the planet will go to the side best able to develop the planet and its resources. Each side will contest the prize with the prime of its fleet. For the Federation—Captain James T. Kirk and the starship Enterprise. For the Klingons—Captain Kaden vestai-Oparai and the Fire Blossom.

Only the Direidians are writing their own script for the contest—a script that propels the crew of the Enterprise into their strangest adventure yet!

If it wouldn’t mean so much extra work, and if it weren’t an idea done a couple dozen times (I imagine, anyway), I’d start a new blog where I review all the Pocket Star Trek novels. Maybe in some kind of order? But not chronological order. Some kind of arcane order that makes sense only to me. After all, if I’m dreaming, I might as well dream big.

I have so many fond memories of these books. I read a lot of them as a teenager. I was not very, um, critical in my reading in those days. Every single Trek tie-in was a treasure. I lived in a small town, and I didn’t have much money, so they were few and far between. The library had some, and sometimes I’d get one for Christmas or a birthday. They were read, and re-read, and re-re-read, over and over again. They were my Scripture.

Hell, I even liked the Shatnerverse novels.

I used to be embarrassed to think about this part of my personal cultural history. I’m not anymore. I won’t enumerate all the reasons for that here because they’re really not that interesting to anyone but me and maybe my therapist, but the big one is that I’ve recently discovered just how many genuinely good science fiction writers were producing these things. Vonda McIntyre, Diane Duane, A.C. Crispin, Greg Bear, and Peter David all spring to mind. There are, I’m quite sure, others I’ve yet to rediscover outside of their Star Trek oeuvre.

One of those, I know for a fact, is John M. Ford. He’s having a bit of a revival lately, with his works getting a complete reprint from Tor, and that’s delightful to know. Several people have recommended him highly to me, and I look forward to exploring his work. So far, though, all I know is his Star Trek work. He wrote two Trek novels. I’d already read one of them, The Final Reflection, some years back, but after my teenage binge period. It’s probably my favorite Trek tie-in. It’s so good, y’all, even if it’s now so far from canon that it’s almost unrecognizable as Star Trek. That’s okay. It’s worth it. I recommend it even to casual Star Trek fans. I also recommend it to people who aren’t fans at all, because I genuinely believe it’s a good book all on its own, but so far nobody has bitten.

So I decided to read his other book this week, mainly because I was feeling a little grumpy already and I didn’t want to exacerbate that too much. I wanted to read something that I could be fairly sure I’d enjoy, so here we are. Was I right? Oh yeah, I was right. This book is a pleasure. Perhaps not as good as The Final Reflection, but that’s hardly a fair comparison. The two books are very different.

Whereas the former book is a pretty somber sort of meditation and exploration of an alien culture that was barely developed during the course of the show, How Much for Just the Planet is bonkers. Bananas. Absolute light-hearted fun with just a touch of satire. It’s more in line with something like “Shore Leave” or “The Trouble with Tribbles.” It owes quite a bit to the latter, I’d say, both in terms of tone and in references.

Very Serious Star Trek Fans might be put off by it. Characters act, well, out of character sometimes. At one point it seems like the whole damn Federation acts out of character. There are goofs and laughs that turn the starships from the perfect, well-oiled machines presented in the show to a series of hilarious malfunctions and sassy computers.

I would rebut their complaints by pointing out that this book is from 1987, so all we had to go on were the Original Series and four of the movies. Maybe a few episodes of The Next Generation were out by the time this book hit shelves. There was very little canon established yet. Hell, we didn’t even know when the franchise properly took place. And the Original Series did have a few sassy malfunctioning computers. “Tomorrow is Yesterday” stands out.

Anyway, let’s talk about the book proper.

A starship named the Jefferson Randolph Smith—which I just learned is named for a 19th century con artist—discovers a planet with huge dilithium deposits. Probably the richest planet ever discovered. Dilithium is the power source of Federation and Klingon starships. It’s vital to the growth and maintenance of the fleet.

We learn a lot about this from an early chapter called “Educational Short Film: Useful Facts About Dilithium.” It’s a transcription of an educational filmstrip called Dilithium and You, presented by the Dilithium Information Institute, a subsidiary of the Deneva Mining Consortium.

We’re told the basic facts about the amazing mineral, but we’re also told how important it is that we support continued tax deductions for dilithium research. There’s also a nice touch of anti-Klingon propaganda in there, of the “if we don’t get it, they will, and they will kill us with it” sort.

It’s not until The Next Generation comes around that The Federation is really portrayed as a non-capitalistic society. A post-scarcity society, if we want to be precise. Seeing this kind of familiar propaganda put into Star Trek is jarring, but it’s also hilarious. This was my favorite chapter. It was so perfectly done.

The rest of the book is fine, although I have some quibbles to talk about. The Enterprise shows up to this planet, Direidi, as do some Klingons, led by a Captain Kaden. So now we’ve not only got the Enterprise crew, with whom we’re familiar already, but we’ve got a fair number of the Klingon ship’s crew to keep in our memories, and the three crew members of the Jefferson Randolph Smith. All of the new characters stand out pretty well from one another, it’s just that there are a lot of them. And eventually they all fall into their plotlines, of which there are something like five or six running concurrently, and I had some trouble keeping it all in my head.

Some of those plotlines felt like they dropped out for a long while, only to come back near the end of the book without any real resolution. They just kind of…ended. Heck, Captain Kirk’s plot drops out for most of the middle of the book, only to be the crux of the ending. And there are two kids from the planet who beam up to the Enterprise accidentally, run around for a little bit, and then beam back down. They didn’t serve much purpose. At one point Spock—sadly underused in this book—has an awkward moment regarding a Vulcan crew member of the Smith. It’s never referenced again, although the implication was that they had a bad date once.

All in all, I think this book could have been trimmed from its 250 pages to, say, 200 or so, and would have worked a lot better. Maybe Ford had a word count to hit.

The Federation and the Klingons can’t openly fight over the planet, due to the Organian Peace Treaty. The Organians enforce the treaty by making all aggressor’s weapons extremely hot until they back down, as seen in the episode “Errand of Mercy.”

There’s also the fact that the planet is inhabited. The Diredians, we learn, are much more happy to be outside of these Federation-Klingon squabbles, so they set up a giant con game, and it’s incredible.

The Enterprise and Klingon crews end up hanging out with one another, in groups. Each of these groups then find themselves in ridiculous situations. Sulu and McCoy and a pair of Klingons whose names I don’t remember end up in some kind of cave where a woman calling herself The Black Queen holds them captive. They must solve a series of puzzles to escape. Uhura and the Klingon communications officer, Aperokei, end up in a mystery plot a la something like The Maltese Falcon, where Uhura finds and loses a small harp and the pair gets wrapped up in a murder mystery. Scotty, Chekov, and two Klingons end up playing golf.

Kirk, Klingon Captain Kaden, Kaden’s first officer Arizhel, and Federation Ambassador Charlotte Sanchez, are stuck in a ridiculous sitcom plot, full of hilarious misunderstandings, setbacks, and double-crosses. The situation is that two Direidians want to get married but they can’t due to family drama. The guy approaches Kirk and Kaden and asks if they can make him look heroic for just a moment by helping him fend off a burglar played by one of his friends. When the friend doesn’t show up, Kirk has to do it.

But at the same time, the woman approaches Arizhel and Sanchez and asks if they’ll help her boyfriend look like a hero by helping him fend off a burglar, portrayed by one of her friends. That friend also doesn’t show up, so Arizhel has to play the burglar.

The two pairs go through the whole thing, not knowing that the other one is also in on the act. So when the burglars run into each other, it looks like there was a real burglar all the time, so they set out to stop the real burglar and it all just goes cuckoo bananas and it’s great.

All of these situations finally come together at the end. Everybody involved is extremely irritated and it all breaks down into a gigantic pie fight.

The Direidians finally step out and announce how this was all an elaborate con. They’re willing to negotiate with the Federation and the Klingons, but only now that they, the Direidians, have what they need to keep the two forces in check. They got this whole experience on film, up to and including the giant pie fight at the end. They give each captain a copy of the tapes, knowing that if they ever got out it would be a massive embarrassment both to the captains themselves, and the Empires they represent. 

The Federation is presented in some pretty imperialistic ways in this book. I think Ford might have been playing into the Federation=USA, Klingons=USSR bit, but using it to make his own points that even Star Trek never really delved into on the show. Ford took great pains to make the Enterprise and Klingon crews equals in a lot of ways. They have more in common than otherwise. They even have the same problems with the food dispensers in the cafeteria.

It’s easy to see that he’s saying the Klingons aren’t purely bad, but more subtly, he’s saying the Federation isn’t purely good, either. I haven’t watched the Klingon episodes of The Original Series lately, so they might hint subtly at this kind of thing, but if they do, I don’t remember it.

The Direidians offer a compromise. While they would much prefer neither side of this conflict get control of the planet and its dilithium, they know they can’t keep them both away forever. So they offer to join the Federation provisionally, but only if the Federation then contracts the Klingon Empire to mine the dilithium and they split the profits fairly.

Everyone agrees—Kirk and Kaden really don’t have much choice, after all—and the ships fly off into the galaxy toward their next adventures.

This book was a ton of fun and I recommend it so highly. Yes, it does have some pacing issues, and yes, I had trouble keeping up with all the plot threads, and yes, there were great big sections of song lyrics that I completely skipped over, but none of that takes too much away from the fact that this book was such a fun Star Trek excursion.

Part of where I think Ford succeeds most is that he took this franchise and made it his own, if only for a little bit. He introduces things that would never appear on screen, like a Vulcan slob who spilled a milkshake on her ship’s computer and made it malfunction, or a Klingon obsessed with classic Earth movies. He has characters acting out of character. They’re still definitely themselves, though. They’re recognizably acting out of character.

I struggled a bit with whether I thought this book would have worked just as well without being a Star Trek novel. I’m leaning toward yes, it was fine all on its own and would have been fine as a goofball sci-fi novel with new characters. But it did gain a lot from being a tie-in, too. I think mainly of T’Vau, the Vulcan who is a slob. It’s immediately amusing to most people familiar with Star Trek. Would the character have worked in a new setting? Sure? I mean, having a slob who spilled a milkshake on the computer is a fine bit all by itself. It’s amusing that it’s out of character for a Vulcan to do that, but not required.

I finally decided that yes, this would have been a fine book as a standalone, but that being a Star Trek book helped it along for a lot of reasons. Ford was able to take a new plot, one that didn’t require a franchise built around it, and then use that franchise to enhance the story. He did it with skill and panache and I respect the heck out of it.

Admittedly the book started to drag in places and there were threads left dangling. If I had to recommend this one or Ford’s other Star Trek work, I’d very definitely go with The Final Reflection. But then I’d say to follow that up with How Much for Just the Planet?. Seeing the two in contrast with one another is yet another point in Ford’s favor.

I look forward to reading his non-Trek works very soon. Where do I start, o readers?

8 thoughts on “How Much for Just the Planet?

  1. My God, PocketTreks were to you what Tom Swift, Jr. was to me, thirty years earlier. It makes perfect sense; they are the same kind of book, but better written. I have read a lot of them and I find them superior, on average, to the TV episodes of the original series.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That brings memories. The Better Half is a big Trek fan, and she adores these books. She has a pretty good collection of them, and she does have this one, which she mentioned enjoying. Nice review. Best, and keep on blogging.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You might want to glance at “The Dragon waiting”, it’s set in an alternate middle ages and is a wonderful read. Though it’s not a short book by any means.

    Alternately (and seeing you’re looking for books of short stories), he contributed some short stories to the shared world of Liavek (along with such notables as Gene Wolfe, Megan Lindholm, Stephen Brust, and Walter John Williams). A younger me quite liked those books, but then a younger me was remarkably easy to please in world building, provided the words were good.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Two years late, but as a weird-but-important tangent I’ll also recommend grabbing a copy of Ford’s “The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues”, an adventure for the TTRPG Paranoia. It won the H. G. Wells Award for Best Role-Playing Adventure of 1985, and it deserved it.

    (Also, good gods do I love “How Much”. It’s such great comfort food.)

    Liked by 1 person

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