Monday, September 25, 2006

Ten Years Ago.

This was the introduction I wrote to Mike Ford's book From the End of the Twentieth Century, ten years ago.


Concerning Speculative Engineering, with notes on Exploration, the Scattered Oevre of John M. Ford, and an Unreliable and Vaguely Scatalogical Anecdote about Freud or Someone Like That.

...and here we gather to celebrate John M. Ford (b. 1957 and still very much alive) -- not the Elizabethan playwright John Ford (1586-1639), nor the film director John Ford (real name Sean O'Feeney) (1895-1973), although they frame him as they framed several of his early novels, but the late twentieth century writer of that name -- and the immediate metaphor that keeps coming to mind, embarrassingly, is entirely defecatory.

It's a half-remembered anecdote about Freud or Jung or one of those brainy big-bearded German bods who was, at least in the anecdote, asked by some aspiring young man how he (the aspiring young man that is, not the big-brained German bod,) could become famous in his field.

And Freud or Jung, said, "You shit all in the same place."

Which is something that comes to mind when we stop to puzzle why Mike Ford (the John is silent, as in M. John Harrison) is not as well-known as lots of other writers who are a damn sight less able and thousands of times less good.

This is a man who has written a World Fantasy Award-winning novel of alternate history, The Dragon Waiting; who wrote the best hard sf juvenile since Heinlein stopped doing juveniles, Growing Up Weightless; who wrote my favourite modern spying and intrigue and Christopher Marlowe too novel, The Scholars of Night; who wrote not one but two astonishingly brilliant Star Trek novels -- one, The Final Reflection, a first contact novel from the Klingon perspective, the other, How Much For Just The Planet? a genuinely funny musical farce -- each book responsible for setting new parameters to the Star Trek Franchise, mostly consisting of "He got away with it because we hadn't thought to make rules against it, and now he's done it no-one else is going to do it again"; who has written award-winning poems -- one of his Christmas cards won a World Fantasy Award as Best Short Story; who published a cyberspace novel, prefiguring Neuromancer, Web of Angels, when he was 23, in 1980.

You begin, I trust, to see what one of those beardy German bods I mentioned earlier would probably refer to as 'zer problem'.

And if you don't, read this book.

It's like dipping into a kaleidescope, or receiving mailings from far-flung departments of the Library of Babel -- or talking to Mike Ford.

Mike Ford in person has been my friend for over a decade: he is a warm, brilliant man, with an habitually slightly quizzical expression which dissolves into a delighted, almost schoolboyish grin when he makes a connnection no-one has made before, which is pretty often. He is one of the few people who genuinely has no snobbish considerations about high and junk culture: he speaks both languages, and can translate between them. (He once took a typo on an invitation to my annual bonfire party as the starting point for a short (and, incredibly, performed) musical drama -- somewhere between Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Sellers and Yeatman.)

Examine the goodies here assembled, from over 15 years of writing:

Essays include 'Rules of Engagement' -- a delightful study of how readers relate to texts (using Ford's own contentious How Much For Just The Planet? as a case in point); 'From the End of the Twentieth Century', in which he talks about The Naming of Trains and fantasy and the theatre, and also offers us a key to opening the fiction of John M. Ford:

"The artistic task is to present things clearly, approachably, while still leaving space for them to mean more than their literal existence," he tells us, exactly and wisely.

Of course it is. And like a slack-rope walker, a master-baker, or the original 'Mission: Impossible' team, he makes it look so easy.

Prose tales in this collection include the new story 'Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail', which turns out not to be a new story at all, but one of the oldest stories: 'Intersection' and 'Mandalay' two (of the four) Alternities stories which make one wish he would write the other three; 'Walkaway Clause', which is a love story; 'Waiting For the Morning Bird' which is, as the author points out, non-fiction, even the parts that are made up.

And there are songs -- proper lyrics, capable of being sung. One caveat though -- while most of Ford's anagrams and references are capable of being resolved by anyone with a Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, a good Dictionary and a little luck, I must confess myself still utterly baffled by the identity of Ilen the Magian, who sang 'Monochrome' in How Much For Just The Planet. Lord, but it's a fine song nonetheless.

When the weather gets colder and the nights get shortest, then, addressed in a fine and calligraphic hand, the postman brings me Speculative Engineering's latest production, part Christmas card, part chapbook, always limited (one is informed) to one hundred unnumbered copies. And one counts oneself fortunate, never quite knowing what one is going to receive. For example:

A prose-poem meditation on the dreams of satellites, moving and transcendentant, very high over Milk Wood.

A tour of Shakespeare's histories, presented by a number of dead playwrights, doing a Dick deBartolo with and to Gilbert and Sullivan and Frank Loesser, along with the odd villanelle.

A delving into mythic engineering -- the engineering of myth, and the engineers of myth, -- with Daedalus and his son, Lefty.

And what this next holiday season will bring, no man but one can say. Several of these pamphlets have been assembled here for your delight.

Clear evidence that John M. Ford is not an author who confines himself to one small area, piling it high in one place.

But then...

Reading the materials (and not just 'Mandalay') that comprise this book put me in mind of another writer whose output spanned short stories -- mainstream, SF, fantasy and adventure, novels, poetry, songs, parodies, and children's fiction -- the author of 'The Married Drives of Windsor', a Shakespearian caprice about cars, starring all of good Will's main characters, as the high point of 'The Muse Among the Motors', his collection of poems about motoring, written in the styles of great poets of history. For there is something of Kipling in John M. Ford: the restlessness, and the willingness to play, to explore formal verse and formal stories, the urge toward parody, and the ability to tug unashamedly on the heartstrings. Like Ford, he was all over the place, but his core subject was people, and what went on inside them -- inside all of us. Look at 'Walkaway Clause' or 'Waiting For the Morning Bird'.

And reflecting on what happened to Kipling, it is comforting to observe that sometimes the big-brained anecdotal German bods are, to put it bluntly, full of shit.

For John M. Ford is not just a writer, but a writer's writer. We are lucky to have him. And while some writers are content to sit in their own small rooms, repeating themselves for an audience who knows just what it wants (id est, whatever it heard and liked, last time), John M. Ford seeks out new lands, like an Elizabethan sea captain, or a Western pioneer, or the man in Kipling's poem 'The Explorer' who heard 'a voice as bad as Conscience'...

On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated --so:
"Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges-
"Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!"

And who went to see.

Neil Gaiman. Winter 1996.