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Something Positive!

(From Something Positive. Click on the thumbnail for full sized 'snap!')

There are a few strips out there that really nail geek culture. They understand geek culture, and when they satirize it, it is often spot on. Home on the Strange is one of the most prominent right now, and it's good -- it really is. But it's not brutal. It doesn't go for geek culture's fucking throat. It's sympathetic to geek culture. "Look how silly we can be," it says. "We don't talk about season five of Babylon 5! Hee hee!"

On the other side of the equation, you sometimes see... well, newspaper strips try to make fun of geek culture. Curtis goes there sometimes. But the problem with a lot of those strips are they come from non-geeks, so it's not that it's mean spirited -- it's that it's clueless. Like trying to buddy up to a pack of rabid Browncoats by saying how you really liked Captain Kirk and Han Solo, the best response you can hope for is pity.

No, to really savage geek culture you must be inside geek culture, but be willing to tear all pretension away from it.

Ladies and gentlemen, Randy Milholland.

Now, this is not a remembrance of Robert Jordan. I'm not really qualified to do a remembrance of Robert Jordan. I have a copy of The Eye of the World sitting on the bookshelf behind me in the office where I'm typing this, given to me by an associate going on ten years ago, but I haven't read it. I've never really done the whole Wheel of Time thing. In my defense, I've also only read one Harry Potter book.

That isn't the only Robert Jordan book I own, by the by. But that's getting ahead of the essay.

Regardless, Jordan has clearly done something remarkable. I mean, really really remarkable. And it may be the greatest testament to a writer I can conceive of. And I mean that exactly as it sounds -- there is no higher praise for a writer than I can think of than the one I'm about to give Robert Jordan.

Robert Jordan's work has so enthralled his fans, both hardcore and jaded, that with the announcement of his death, everyone -- in or out of the fandom -- thought "oh my god he's not going to finish Wheel of Time!" instead of "oh my God Robert Jordan is dead."

In part, this stems from the knowledge we've had of Jordan's illness. We've known he was sick, and we've known he was not likely to survive. I wrote an essay about that in 2006, entitled "There is life, and there is living. But they're best done together. In volume." I talked about his cardiomyopathy in that essay, and my own cardiomyopathy as well. And I mentioned I would buy his latest book the next day (as it turns out, I bought Crossroads of Twilight. I have no idea if that was his latest or not, but it was there. I haven't read it, but it's made me think of finally reading The Eye of the World.)

Well, here we are, a year later and he has succumbed. Whether it was to congestive heart failure or to complications in the chemotherapy or something else I don't know. Someone reading this probably does. And I am saddened by this. But even though I've never read any of his books, my immediate thought on hearing the news was "Oh Christ -- he didn't finish The Wheel of Time." When I told someone else, afterward -- someone else who to my knowledge has never read Robert Jordan either -- the response was, immediately, "did he publish that last book first?" We are both sympathetic people, with absolutely no investment in the series to date, and before sympathy or reflection or even the "oh, what a damn shame" response, we both immediately jumped to "aw, shit. He didn't make it. Now the series won't be finished."

I can think of exactly one other writer who would have provoked this reaction. If J.K. Rowling had been hit by a bus before Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out, the outpouring of grief would have been monumental, but it would have been eclipsed by the shrieks of "OH MY GOD SHE DIDN'T FINISH THE SERIES!"

Robert Jordan inspired that. He did it by creating a series that hooked enough people that it became a holy quest for them. As God was their witness, they were going to make it to the end of The Wheel of Time. When others gave up on Jordan, they hung in there. They kept the faith. And now....

And now.

Of course, they will in fact see the end of the story. Even as J.K. Rowling went on record that the end of Harry Potter had been fully outlined in case she did get hit by a bus, so Jordan went on the record that he had kept his family fully appraised of what needed to happen in this final book, so that it would be completed in case he died. This was a necessary precaution, given his health.

But, the argument will go, it won't be the same. And that's true. And a number of fans will vehemently boycott the book that "the family clearly put out to profit on his legacy," even though it's clear Jordan intended for this story to be finished.

In other words, Geek Culture is in full swing. And that brings us back to Something Positive.

Now, we know that God, in Something Positive, is a full on bastard. We've seen it before. He does horrific things to Davan just to see the look on his face. This is a foundation of the strip.

Therefore, it is entirely in keeping with the spirit of Something Positive that God would cause Jordan's death purely to finally break Mike. Who, you will recall, is the face of Ugly Fandom, all the way to the present. He is Geek Culture at its least palatable, and even as he continues to walk the path of redemption he can backslide.

I know that there are Jordan fans who are pissed over this episode of Something Positive. For "belittling his death," apparently. To me, this validates the strip. Because this isn't about Robert Jordan, even as this essay isn't a remembrance of the man. This strip is about the fandom. About geek culture. About us. From Mike's innately selfish point of view, God did kill Robert Jordan just to make him snap. Freaking out at Milholland for this is A) missing the point of the strip, which is not about Robert Jordan but is about geeks, and B) making it clear you're exactly who he had in mind when he wrote it.

Does that deny the real pain people are feeling? No. But it is observing it, and it is not being gentle about it. That's the business Milholland is in, and business as always is good.

Robert Jordan was clearly a remarkable writer. He inspired passions and dedication and a general sense of his magnum opus that rivals Harry Potter. And we, as geeks, think first of that work -- and how it impacts us -- before even feeling grief for his death. Milholland nailed this one, and nailed us with it.

There's a guy I know named Chris Meadows. He's called Robotech Master. He's been called that since... hrm. Well, at least 1991 based purely on how long I've known him. I've known him since the Superguy days.

When I started this up, he had a blog that linked to mine. And when I started up the Project Wonderful ads... he was the first one. He grabbed a button -- he doesn't have long green any more than I do -- but he was being supportive.

The button was for Space Station Liberty, a Talkshoe Talkcast where people can call in and talk to the guests he has on the show. Robotech fans could tell from the show's name (and... well, his name) that it's Robotech based. And it's pretty damn impressive. He has a lot of high profile voice actors and production people on. He had the developer of the Robotech RPG -- legendary RPG iconoclast Kevin Siembieda -- on a show. Hell, he had Chase Masterson -- voice actress and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine -- actress on.

He didn't ask me to link him. He's never asked me to link him. Not once. But the moment I put up ads he grabbed one at the level he could afford. To advertise his show, sure. But also because he has my back. It's the kind of guy he is.

Well, the ads have been pricing out of Space Station Liberty's budget, which I can understand. (Though he's tried to keep pace.) It's an exciting, woolly and wild bidding process, and oxygen ain't cheap up at that space station, you know. But God damn it, I'm going to tell you about the thing. Because he does it well. Because it's at least moderately likely some people here remember Robotech fondly. And because he'd do it for me.

Oh, and over on his other Talkshoe, The Biblio File, he actually has interviews and discussions with Diane Duane and Peter S. freaking Beagle. He didn't buy any ad space for that one, but Jesus, folks. Peter S. freaking Beagle.

I was watching a show on the History Channel, called How William Shatner Changed the World. It was one of those shows that tracked the people who actually made things like ion propulsion drives for NASA unmanned spacecraft and the cellular telephone and had them saying "well, yeah. I was watching Star Trek and hey -- Data was listening to music on his computer so I went down to my job at Apple and then I wrote Quicktime and then we invented the iPod."

You know, a fluffy show, but fun. This one featured some of Shatner's trademark (for this decade) self-deprecating humor.

But... they made an interesting contention in this show.

See, Star Trek was low rated, but then snowballed. And was huge. And Star Trek: The Next Generation was even bigger. (And if you haven't been playing along at home... we're reaching the point where Star Trek: The Next Generation was as long ago as the original Star Trek was when TNG first came out. Feel old yet? But I digress.)

And then Deep Space Nine came out. Which was my favorite of the series. And it did okay... but it was significantly lower rated than Next Generation which was on at the same time.

And then Voyager was lower rated still.

And then Enterprise was lower rated enough that it tanked.

We all know these things. And we all know the justifications. "People were burned out on Star Trek. Competition from cable and the internet killed them." Et cetera. But that's not what they were saying on here.

No, their contention -- and it was a throwaway -- was simple. Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation were Roddenberry's vision of a future where humanity's problems were solved and technology was a good thing that made life a paradise and allowed humanity, who had matured, grown together and embraced that paradise, to develop themselves and explore the galaxy. Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise were darker shows where there were interpersonal conflicts between the crew, a more "realistic" approach to technology (which often failed) was adopted, and there were universal wars, terrorism, and lots of bad things and tense moments. And the millions of people who loved Next Generation didn't love these darker shows in such great numbers, despite their critical acclaim (the critics loved Deep Space Nine -- and so, for that matter did I). They loved the overall sense of optimism that Roddenberry had brought and people like Braga, Berman, and Behr eschewed as hokey.

Now, I don't know if this is right or not. I don't have demographics or interviews or statistical data. But it was an interesting contention for me, because it goes hand in hand with where I think comic books are dying.

See, comics used to be bright. They were optimistic. The good guys were good guys. The bad guys were bad guys. And the good guys eventually won. This was true at DC, where generally the heroes were stalwart and upright, and this was true at Marvel where the heroes were flawed and had problems. But it was still true.

Over the last several decades, comics have "grown up." They've become more realistic. And we ultimately had things like Zero Hour and Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis and Civil War. And some of those series have been popular and everything, but comic books have been in major decline. The most popular books today get the kinds of numbers that middle of the road-to-unpopular books got in the seventies (and let's not even think about the forties or fifties. Superman used to sell many millions of issues a month.) Hell, over on Mister Kitty's Stupid Comics site (which is always good fun), an entire essay was devoted to pointing out that back when comics were stupid they vastly outsold the most popular comics of today. Even Little Dot.

And I've wondered for some time when the comic book companies became ashamed of superheroes. When did Realism, and "secret identities are bad" and "goofy heroes like Ralph and Sue Dibney need to die" and "the government needs to regulate all super heroes in a clear nod to Guantanamo Bay" and "hey, let's show Hank Pym immediately after employing the potential kinky sex acts that shrinking your body to the size of a dildo imply on his ex wife and former abuse victim Janet in our flagship team comic!" take the place of "Captain America beats up Hydra so they can't conquer the world" and "Iron Man is a good guy who fights bad people who want to take over the world."

I mean... what if the William Shatner documentary was right? What if the reason Enterprise tanked was because they'd lost the clear, clean message of the original series and Next Generation. What if the reason comic books are a niche item (and Manga outsells them in bookstores) is people liked the clear cut good versus evil stuff more than the 'popular' depressing 'realistic' stuff?

It would explain a lot, wouldn't it?

Narbonic

(From Narbonic! Click on the thumbnail for full sized... well, you know.)

I am in Ottawa, Canada. It is very nice. I have met Frank Cormier and Meaghan Quinn in the flesh. They are both awesome.

Before that, we were in Ithaca. I showed Wednesday many places significant to Gossamer Commons.

In both places, I had alcohol.

I will tell you of these things in more detail another time. I have little time now. All I can say is this.

There was water in the swimming pool.

Was this the time? Does he need to <em>re</em>fill it? I dunno. But there was water in the pool today.

God, I love Narbonic.

Back later. I have to go tear my arm off.

Requiescat In Pace: John M. Ford

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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.
--John M. Ford, The Final Reflection

I have a report from the truly wonderful weekend Weds and I had in Pennsylvania to write, but sometimes (all too often) life gets in the way. And then it's time to write another one of these damn things.

You may recall I'm part of a certain fraternity in the Role Playing Game developers community: guys who've written for Star Trek's officially licensed role playing game. That's an astoundingly cool thing -- a chance to play in the ultimate geek playground. But as neat as it is, the chances of actually influencing Star Trek that way are negligible. Sure, I can dream that someone will read my writeup on Mudd, decide it makes sense, and make reference to it in a later movie, but it's so astronomically unlikely that I might as well go back to hoping I win the lottery or spontaneous evolve superpowers: either of those is more likely. Even Kenneth Hite, arguably the finest Star Trek RPG developer in any system or game, hasn't had measurable effect on the universe we played in.

But one man did. One man hit the lottery. The same man who went on two write two Star Trek tie-in novels which rank among the best written, most popular, most commonly cited and most influential of the Star Trek tie in novels of all time.

His name was John M. Ford.

Ford's RPG work, over in Star Trek, was largely centered on Klingons. Back in those pre-Next Generation days, Klingons were an ill-defined metaphor for the Soviet Union -- a totalitarian race who enslaved peace loving worlds and turned them into fodder for their own empire. The closest we came to sympathetic Klingons was in Day of the Dove, and even that didn't make them into a fleshed out race. And in the plethora of Star Trek tie in novels, Klingons were adversaries and enemies at best. Barbarians and cruel sadists at worst.

Until John M. Ford came along.

Ford wrote several seminal products for the original Star Trek Roleplaying Game, published by FASA. He wrote The Klingons, Klingons: Star Trek Intelligence Manual, and Klingons: Game Operations Manual. He went from the then radical idea that Klingons shouldn't just be adversaries -- they should be a complete and fleshed out race. In fact, his work was designed to actually let players and GMs run entire Klingon-based campaigns -- campaigns that didn't need to focus on killing and torment, but actually were set in a consistent, workable, and above all alien empire.

Such things have been done before, and they've also been done since. But Ford pulled off something even more amazing. He (alongside editors and publishers at FASA) convinced Pocket Books and Paramount to let Ford also write a Klingon Star Trek-tie in novel. And that novel was entirely set in Ford's Klingon Empire, with the same terminology and assumptions he made for the role playing game being reflected in the novel.

That itself would be staggering. That sort of thing just doesn't happen in Star Trek. It would be many years and people like J. Michael Straczynski (with Babylon 5), Joss Whedon (with both Buffy and Firefly) and most significantly George Lucas (with Star Wars) before we would see tie-in literature and media incorporated into the official canon of their properties. Paramount has always been extremely chary about letting anything into the canon (including the entire Star Trek: The Animated Series). They sure as Hell never let two different license holders collaborate. That way lies chaos, and possibly even dancing.

But, they let Ford write his book. All by itself, that would be remarkable.

The book he wrote was The Final Reflection.

"It's not whether or not the bear dances well, but that it dances at all," or so they say. Well, this bear knew how to dance.

The Final Reflection is a serious and somber book about an extremely sympathetic protagonist who happens to be a Klingon. As we follow his life and times, we also learn about an empire where the strong grow, the weak fall into decline, and all others are kuve -- Servitor races, sometimes mistranslated as "slaves" (or even "meat"). There is even an analogue television program in the Klingon Empire -- Battlecruiser Vengence -- which culturally fits the same kind of roles for Klingons that a show like Star Trek (or, say, Galaxy Quest) would have fit for the Federation. There is the deeply significant chesslike game klin'zha. There is a heavy tradition of song, of music, of dreams. And of the stars in the sky above watching the deeds that brave men do and remembering them. There is an afterlife -- the Black Fleet, where brave warriors go to fight and spar for all eternity, killing their enemies a thousand times, laughing, and perhaps dying at their hands as well, for honor and glory.

Klin'zha is especially interesting. Our protagonist's foster father is a grand master of the game, and many Klingons believe that all of existence is itself an extended game of klin'zha (the Perpetual Game, as they call it). Fitting, perhaps, for a race that was itself largely defined (in this way, at least) as part of a Role Playing Game.

The Final Reflection sent a shockwave through Trek fandom. Back in those days, before any of us had ever even heard of Captain Picard, the Star Trek novels and the very rare movies (this was the same year that Star Trek III came out), the novels were what the faithful had to keep going. This novel stood out as one of the best -- it was serious, hardcore science fiction even if one cut out "Star Trek" from it entirely. It was even distinctive in that the original crew -- who had been in every other novel to come out, most of the time at the center of it -- were relegated to a wrapping device at the very beginning and very end of the book. This was a book almost entirely devoid of Kirk, and while both Spock and McCoy had some influence in the book, it was entirely different than we had come to expect.

Most of all, it was good. And it managed to make Klingons not just respectable, but sympathetic. People began to like the Klingons as more than brutes or enemies (or as more than a simple reaction against the Federation). While some folks (primarily Star Fleet Battles players, at least in my experience) enjoyed Klingons before that, it was always through the lens of their opposition to the Federation -- their antagonistic role. Now, Klingons could be protagonists.

Ford then followed this novel up with a second Klingon centered novel. It was a musical comedy.

Seriously.

The printed book was a musical comedy.

It was called How Much For Just the Planet and it was hysterical. From Scotty and a Klingon Engineer meeting and dueling on the field of honor (a golf course) to full sized inflatable starships, to an honest-to-Christ pie fight. And yet, the characters remained strong (and true to themselves) throughout. This was definitely the crew of the Enterprise from The Trouble with Tribbles and I, Mudd, but it was still the crew of the Enterprise.

While How Much For Just the Planet wasn't the same kind of epic transformation that The Final Reflection was, it was popular. Usenet sig files became full of quotes from it (my personal favorite being "Blueberry," Kirk thought instead of ducking. WHAM! Blueberry it was, which appeared quite often for a while in those sigs.) This was good old fashioned anarchic fun.

It was also a reaction against Paramount, who had explicitly kiboshed Ford's true sequel book to The Final Reflection. Their reasons became apparent quickly, when Star Trek: The Next Generation came out, with a Klingon on the bridge. Paramount had begun to tighten their grip on Pocket Books's continuity, which in turn tightened their grip on the authors. Which Ford mocked in the book (at one point, Scotty looks at a distant mountain, notes its crown of stars, and makes mention of the comfort he feels in some higher power arranging them -- a clear reference to the Paramount logo).

Regardless, How Much for Just the Planet represented the end of Ford's involvement with the Star Trek license. But not his influence.

Klingons in The Next Generation and beyond are not Ford's Klingon's. For one thing, they're nowhere near as feasible, well developed, sustainable, rational, or alien. They are far more simplistic. And they're almost unreconcilable with the Klingons of the original series. In fact, the only way one could reconcile the two visions of the Klingon empire were through John M. Ford's eyes -- his Klingon Empire could support the original series and the far less sophisticated Next Generation model. However, even though Paramount went with other writers to create their House Klingons in Canon, you could see lots of places where the serial numbers have been filed off from Ford's version. The much mocked (and much celebrated) tradition of Klingon Opera comes from Ford, admitted or not. The three legendary Klingon captains from the Original Series to appear on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine were named "Dahar masters," in echo of the foster father of Captain Krenn from The Final Reflection, an undrawn Grand Master of klin'zha.

And then there was "Heart of Glory."

"Heart of Glory" was the first Klingon-centered episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It featured Worf (the first episode to really put Worf front and center) meeting with renegade Klingon warriors. And it was clearly heavily influenced by The Final Reflection. Korris, one of the renegades, cries out "you have betrayed Kling!" in clear echo of the concept of klin from The Final Reflection. They make note of Worf's name (which he said was because he was fostered to humans before the "Age of Inclusion") in clear echo of the tradition of Klingons in Ford's work to change the first letter of their given name to K if they join the navy or M if they join the Marines. (All of the warriors' names began with K in the episode.) At one point, it looks like the Klingons were going to take a hostage, only to surrender the child in question. Worf is dismissive at Yar's concerns. ("Cowards take hostages. Klingons do not.") This was in direct echo of The Final Reflection:

Orion pirates take hostages for ransom. Kuve in desperation take hostages for their lives. And now the Federation shows us more rules than a Vulcan would make, about selling hostages! I will tell you what the Klingon law of hostages is: a dead thing is without value.

The only thing "Heart of Glory" lacked was Ford's name. It was a significant lack.

Ford has done much more than write about Klingons, of course. He wrote about elements of what would later be called Cyberpunk in 1980's Web of Angels, a full four years before William Gibson's Neuromancer and two years before the redefinition of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep into Blade Runner. His book Growing Up Weightless won the Philip K. Dick award. He published poetry. And his RPG work was significant and broad: he did some of the seminal work on GURPS (including the GURPS 4th edition Characters section) as part of a long and fruitful association with Steve Jackson Games. He wrote some of the finest GURPS supplements, including GURPS Infinite Worlds and GURPS Time Travel. And he wrote The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues, perhaps the single most significant work ever done for the Paranoia game.

Most of all, he was accessible. He was a notorious and fully forum gadfly. I had more than one conversation with him on the Steve Jackson Games forums. He was largely recognizable for his signature file, which was hysterical and which he changed at least daily (and sometimes it seemed for every post). He was also recognizable, of course, for being a funny and friendly and above all easy to talk to correspondent. Mike Ford (as he was called when not being formal) made any online home he was part of better by his presence.

And now he's dead.

Making Light broke the story. Neil Gaiman quoted the last e-mail he received from John M. Ford, just a few days ago. My friend Mason, who used to roleplay with him back in the days of the original pre-Seizure Illuminator BBS, is in shock. And everywhere I turn, people are sad, and so am I.

But not sad for Mike Ford himself. Because unlike so many of us, he had impact. He wrote good things people read and loved. He touched lives, he was always funny (even during some horrible health issues including a kidney transplant), he was always kind.

And I turn my eyes back to that improbable event that essentially no other RPG writer has done -- his Klingons, which actually reached up from his FASA products through truly great novels to help shape the course of Star Trek itself.

I said above that the one thing that "Heart of Glory" lacked was Ford's name. And it is true and it is wrong, not just because Ford's word deserved to be commemorated, but because Ford's work was better than what they ultimately went with. 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. And in the poem I quoted at the top of this piece he pointed out an essential component of his Klingon culture. 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.

Logo: Sleeping Snarky

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