#039: How Much for Just the Planet? (TOS #36)

How Much for Just the Planet? serves up blue orange juice and inflatable rubber starships straight out the gate and only gets weirder from there. If you’re looking for the wackiest, goofiest, zaniest, most out-there Star Trek there is to be had, then you can stop drillin’, ’cause you struck oil. The only previous novel it has anything even remotely in common with is Ishmael, and even then, that’s only in the sense that there is absolutely no way, in this day and age when publishers are supremely and exclusively concerned with The Brand, that it would ever get published today. John M. Ford’s second and final Trek book is daring, clever, silly, wildly original, and like no Star Trek adventure before it or since.

I also do not like it very much.

How Much for Just the Planet?
Author: John M. Ford
Pages: 253
Published: October 1987
Timeline: Circa season 2
Prerequisites: None

A tiny mining freighter discovers a planet with record amounts of dilithium deposits. The Federation and the Klingon Empire get wind of it nearly simultaneously, and suddenly it’s on like Donkey Kong. By the parameters of the Organian Treaty, whoever most successfully develops the planet’s resources gets to lay claim to it.

But what do you do if you live on the planet and you don’t want anyone carving up your private planetary paradise? If you’re the Direidians, you roll out “Plan C”—which is to say, relentlessly screwing with the intruders in a wacky, elaborately constructed farce straight out of a Preston Sturges film.

Suddenly, Kirk and Direidi ambassador/pseudo-old flame Charlotte Sanchez get caught up in a convoluted plot to help a couple get back together. Bones and Sulu go off hunting treasure and end up fulfilling a “prophecy”. Uhura and an officer from the Fire Blossom named Aperokei (aka Proke, not to be confused with the excellent browser game of the same name) get framed for the death of an Andorian and have to rely on Proke’s knowledge of old Earth film noir tropes to escape their bondage. Scotty and Chekov defend the Enterprise’s honor—on the golf course. And the poor bedraggled crew members of the mining freighter that found the dilithium in the first place just want some decent directions to civilization after they crash-land to evade the Klingons.

Do not attempt to adjust your dial, and throw out every metric you have for analyzing Star Trek novels, because John M. Ford’s How Much for Just the Planet? (hereafter How Much) is a comedy, full stop. Hijinks ensue. Misunderstandings pile up. Characters randomly burst into song. Pies get thrown in faces. Pick any synonym for “crazy”—nutty, zany, goofy, etc.—and it will fit this book like a glove. It’s all quite the spectacle … and that’s part of the problem.

Musicals are supposed to be a visual and auditory treat for the viewer. Trying to capture those sounds and kinetics in a book is like trying to light a wet match. There are certain things I as a reader can reasonably be expected to bring to the table—e.g., prior familiarity with Star Trek characters and concepts, as well as an open mind to unusual formats or deviations from the norm. Manic energy, however, is not typically something I’m prepared to supply for any book I read, let alone a Star Trek paperback.

I also feel the medium of text does a disservice to the songs Ford wrote. Not being terribly well-versed in musicals, I could only intuit the melody of one song just by reading the lyrics (the one based on the Rawhide theme). I assume all the songs in the book are parodies of and/or homages to actual compositions, but I don’t know well enough to make any strong assertions about it. So after a while, I just began skipping the songs entirely, finding it aggravating and tiresome to slog through lyrics I couldn’t match to music.

That said, I suspect what’s closer to the truth is that Ford’s song work here is actually pretty clever and I’m just too much of a philistine to properly appreciate it. That’s the dilemma I face in having to review How Much: it’s clearly operating on a level way outside my wheelhouse, so I don’t feel I can speak authoritatively on it. Nonetheless, its day has come, and this whole website was my bright idea, so I must render some sort of judgment, ready or not.

I will say this: it’s certainly ambitious. How Much follows three ships’ rosters of senior officers, breaks them off into several smaller groups, and never loses track of any of them for very long, which is pretty impressive. Also, nearly every Enterprise bridge officer (except, surprisingly, Spock, who probably wouldn’t be much fun in this situation anyway) gets a healthy amount of page time and active participation, which is more than many recent books both excellent and execrable can claim.

But in the end, I think it’s just not for me. Without any visual referents or kinetic action, I was mostly just bored. If this is the kind of thing you already possess the mental tools and wherewithal to make come to life for you inwardly, then you’re liable to enjoy it immensely. But it’s not for everyone, and seemingly by design. It’s easily skipped, but I also wouldn’t necessarily recommend not checking out—if anything, the sheer weirdness alone may overwhelm your curiosity. Just know what you’re getting into first.

Nuggets and Other Stray Bits

  • I think another reason the book didn’t really stick the landing for me was its brand of humor. How Much‘s sense of humor was corny and old-fashioned when it was new; now, it’s downright hoary. I did laugh out loud from time to time—the entire chapter explaining dilithium in the form of an educational filmstrip is a riot and almost singlehandedly justifies this book’s existence—but for me, this was more of a Sensible Chuckle kind of book.
  • How Much to me really evokes season 3 in particular, which I don’t mean as a compliment.
  • Ambassador Sanchez’s middle name is Caliente. I wish I was kidding.
  • p. 82: “James Caligula Kirk” is a pretty great joke, not to mention an excellent alias for writing slash fic.

Final Verdict

I give How Much for Just the Planet? 2 out of 5 pies in the face, though your mileage will almost certainly vary. Sometimes you come upon a work and you get the feeling that whoever made it only cared about entertaining a small clique of close friends, and anyone else’s enjoyment was entirely incidental. I for one tend not to enjoy sensing that my pleasure was not a high priority for the author. I feel confident saying Pocket Books would never indulge a whim like this today; the question is whether they’re better or worse off for it.

It’s a shame this turned out to be Ford’s last Trek novel, as it’s obvious from both the extreme difference between the two he wrote and the thrust of his other writing in general that he would have done something even more wildly different with a third. But it’s pretty incredible that in just two books, he left such an indelible impression on the franchise. However, we’re now knocking on Next Generation‘s door, and it won’t be long before nearly all the influence he and a handful of other authors had on certain elements of the franchise will be almost entirely eradicated.

NEXT TIME: It’s finally time for our first adventure with the Next Generation crew as they have a fateful Encounter at Farpoint


#038: The Romulan Way (TOS #35)


Shore Leave #07: Taco Tuesday


  1. Quill

    I find this book hilarious, but much as I adore Ford’s (non-Trek) Growing Up Weightless, I don’t think HMFJTP is a GOOD book. The sub-plot with the inflatable ship, the milkshakes, and the kids is really unnecessary, it does all get overly silly, and I feel the Klingons are distractingly off-brand (I didn’t care for The Final Reflection).

    I don’t know what the music is supposed to be either, but I enjoy the cameos that I recognize–many of the Direidians are actual people (including Diane Duane and Neil Gaiman), and some of the others are characters from other franchises. I probably haven’t figured them all out.

    It makes me whoop with laughter when I read it, but that’s just me. 😀 Kirk deserves what he gets, and I love Uhura’s scenes. And I’d love Proke too if he weren’t such a plot device…

  2. Adam

    Man, I loved this one. Guess the humor just really worked for me. Of course, I was also 15 when I gave it a read. (I’m 47 now.)

    Maybe I should pull it off the shelf sometime…

  3. Jean Pearce

    I haven’t read this one in years, but I remember bonding over it with my mother (also an avid Trek reader), possibly because we have similar taste in music.

    One thing that I do remember clearly is that the song involving the man singing about pigeons in the park is based on Queen’s ‘Good Company’.

    I think another song may have been based on something by Gilbert and Sullivan. And let’s face it, if there isn’t a G&S number in there, there should be!

  4. Adam Goss

    Just as I am immensely enjoying reading your reviews (as of this morning I have finally read all of them!), I gave this book a second chance long ago after reading someone else’s review of Pocket Trek books!

    When I first read How Much, I thought it was a bizarre novel and just didn’t get it. Then later on I read an article in one of the “Best of Trek” book collections reviewing most of the novels published by that time, and tho brief in assessment of each book they were largely similar to your takes on them. How Much’s description started off as “Star Trek as musical comedy.” I grew up on musicals as my parents were both heavily involved in community theater, and I was shocked that I had not caught onto what Ford was doing! So I went back and read How Much again. And like for audiences in the 1960s of the Broadway musical A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, who had to be informed at the start that the musical was “Comedy Tonight!” (after the musical’s debut had bombed for being “un-funny”), it all suddenly clicked and I laughed my butt off. But I can see why it might not appeal to you or others, as comedy is so subjective. For me, however, this book is among my own person First Water choices.

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