One of my favorite science fiction series is set over the five-year period from 2231 to 2235, and written in a fourth-wall-shattering first person perspective by retired Admiral the Lord Ken Barron, some 30 years after the events. This affinity will come as no surprise to some readers who are also Defense Command fans, but for those of you who are currently reading the series, or may want to do so in the future, I must insert a warning –– please stop reading this post, and make a note to return to it after you’ve read the last page of Enemies of Empire. Because spoilers –– huge, gigantic spoilers –– follow.
There are 20 individual Defense Command books, and from the earliest pages you know that the ‘narrator’ –– then-Commodore Ken Barron –– is crazy about his colleague, then-Captain Karen McMaster. Maybe even beyond crazy. To say he adores her is an understatement. But despite his obvious high opinion, much about their relationship is left unsaid. They work brilliantly together –– that’s never a question –– but are they a couple in the traditional sense of the word? Does she share his feelings? What really happens after they eat fish sticks and potatoes for dinner every evening in her cabin? Does she always dance alone?
Interestingly, Karen’s perspectives on the events of the series are never shared. Ken Barron routinely invokes other characters’ opinions and perspectives, because he has had time since the end of the war to gather everyone’s stories. This is seems curious… until, in the second book of the series, he reveals that a horrifying event will eventually land Karen in intensive care. From his perspective, that day is the longest of his life, but you have no idea what happens or why –– let alone if she survives –– so you spend many books wondering whether their story will end in tragedy.
It does end in tragedy. Karen ends up in intensive care at the very beginning of 2235 because of a vicious attack at a celebratory Empire Day gala. Injected with a compound that appears to be designed to kill her, she is immediately plunged into a medical crisis, and the Emperor’s finest surgeons can only watch helplessly as the substance progresses through her system, finally consolidating in a certain part of her brain. Much to everyone’s relief, she eventually regains consciousness…
But not as the Karen she had been just days before. Fifteen years of memories have been completely erased.
This is not a typical plot-device memory loss. A knock on the head doesn’t just bring her back. The damage is permanent, and it has profound consequences. Over the final three books of the series, as Ken and Karen struggle to track down and defeat the villain who launched the attack –– and to stop his overly-elaborate scheme –– they must also come to terms with the fact that Commodore McMaster’s formidable experience… is gone. She has not lost everything, because she still remembers the earlier days of her career, but she no longer possesses much of the expertise required by her duty… and worse, she cannot remember any of the four years immediately preceding the attack –– the four years when, finally, she and Ken were able to work together, shoulder-to-shoulder, on the same ship.
It seems a sad end for Karen’s career –– and Ken’s, since he sees no meaning in staying an Admiral when he cannot be at her side. But in the final pages of Enemies of Empire, a secret is revealed.
In the very first of his many fourth-wall-breaking soliloquies of Defense Command, Ken Barron had said he agreed to write the series because he wanted to set the record straight about the war (and for the money). In the very last of his fourth-wall-breaking passages, he revealed this was a lie. In reality, his whole 20-book venture had been for a single purpose:
The truth is that these books… are meant to recount the story of what Karen and I did together… for her. The publisher who pitched this series to me might wonder why I finally gave in and agreed to do it… it was because one night after his proposal, Karen said to me: “I’d love to read them. I’d always be able to remember what I missed.”
Karen’s memories had been erased. Ken was giving them back, and along with them, the knowledge of how deeply and completely he loved her.
I could not resist tears when I first read that, in front of my Christmas tree in Waterloo, Ontario. Over and over I kept thinking: Karen lost her memories; Ken gave them back. Suddenly, a series that had been so enjoyable for its action, its politics, and especially its characters was about something else entirely: it was about winning the battle with lost memories. It was about Alzheimer’s.
My son, the writer behind the Ken Barron character, had been just ten-years-old when his grandfather died after his decade long struggle with that disease. Young Kenneth Tam and Dick Barron could not have been closer, and Kenneth has long since described his grandfather –– the man he knew only when he had Alzheimer’s –– as having one of the most powerful influences on his life. The two cherished each other, and the time they spent together. They were comrades, and friends, and adventurers of the best kind.
From the age of about seven, Kenneth was very aware of what was happening to my father. He watched, along with us, as a horrifying disease attacked and erased his grandfather’s memories. He tried, as we all did, to minimize the impact of that reality as they played, and dreamed, and adventured together. But ultimately, that small boy couldn’t give his grandfather back his memories, couldn’t do anything as the days passed to even slow the progression of the disease. None of us could. But at the age of seven, and eight, and nine, and ten, he understood the heartbreak, the helplessness, and the compelling need.
Kenneth honours his grandfather each and every day, in the man he has become, and in the stories he tells. In these Defense Command books, he did what those of us who lose loved ones to Alzheimer’s so desperately want to do… would do if we could.
I remain hopeful that some day in the not too distant future, one of the many dedicated researchers searching for a cure or treatment for Alzheimer’s will have a breakthrough. Perhaps it has already happened. But in the meantime, we can, in our own ways, preserve the memories that our loved ones have lost, and honour the people they are. What they have lost, we can treasure and hold safe… just as we treasure them, knowing that whatever the disease has taken from them, it cannot be allowed to erase the value of their lives. Knowing that it cannot be allowed to erase them. Knowing that, on some level, our love will be felt and recognized.
To finish this post that was inspired by the fact that this is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, I will offer one final spoiler: Ken Barron and Karen McMaster were, in fact, husband and wife through the entire period covered by the series. They had been married for nearly a decade before the start of the series, a fact they kept hidden because they knew that in their line of work, family could be used against them. The church in the fictional story –– the Basilica in St. John’s, Newfoundland –– is real… and happens to be where the author’s grandparents and parents were married.
But now, instead of spoiling anything more from Defense Command, I will end with a very short excerpt from A Daugther’s Gift:
When youth becomes age and joy becomes pain, see with your heart, remember with your soul, and treasure the person within the transformation. He is still there. She is still there. And your love will be recognized.