|SFX magazine column by David Langford: issue #151,
Christmas 2006 |
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John M Ford's middle name was Milo, but everyone called him Mike. That was a mystery of the SF world. He died in September 2006, aged just 49. There's no mystery about the shock and disbelief expressed by fans and friends of this very talented, often very funny US writer. For arcane reasons he had a low publishing profile in Britain, though his complex historical fantasy The Dragon Waiting has been reissued by Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks. In on-line circles and among SF fans, he was a celebrity.
I met Mike Ford years ago when I was a guest and he was toastmaster at Minicon in Minneapolis, where he lived. It emerged that we shared a birthday, as the con committee demonstrated by throwing a bizarre party for us both. The cake was covered in electric-blue Peeps, small marshmallow chicks. Best not to reveal any more ...
As a writer he was an amazing all-rounder, with the resources to tackle any literary challenge – impossible tasks preferred – and an impatience that kept him moving on to new frontiers. The Dragon Waiting won the World Fantasy Award, but even that didn't tempt him to produce a sequel.
One far-out challenge he set himself was writing a Star Trek novel in the spirit of a musical comedy (with songs) that mercilessly sent up Captain Kirk: How Much for Just the Planet? After this appeared, the franchise rules were changed to prevent any repetition of such arrant blasphemy.
Another Ford novel, The Scholars of Night, is a high-class spy technothriller with tricky historical clues, rather like the "David Audley" books by Anthony Price. It could have spawned a popular series, like Price's, but Mike moved on.
He wrote one of the silliest ever role-playing scenarios: The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues, correctly subtitled "An Excessively Devious Adventure", for the Paranoia game. It's a hilarious read even for non-players, littered with cruel puns and contingency plans for unlikely outcomes: "4. Great Cthulhu rises from sunken R'lyeh and eats everybody, no saving roll. (Sorry, got carried away.)"
Then there was Growing Up Weightless, a solidly good SF novel, and The Princes of the Air, a space opera, and the very nifty modern urban fantasy The Last Hot Time.
For light recreation, usually online, Mike wrote screamingly funny – though always erudite – pastiches and crossover fiction. In 2002 he emailed a document called MIRKWODE which proved to be a dizzy retelling of The Lord of the Rings (as far as the Council of Elrond) from the viewpoint of Bertie Wooster, who with Jeeves's support was substituting for Aragorn. "'It's a quest, then,' Elrond said, with the finality of a portcullis dropping on an unsuspecting hedgehog ..." Even brief weblog comments had outbreaks like: "Scotty! I need a sonnet in three minutes or we're all dead!" "Och, Cap'n, ye canna force the muse. Have ye got a rhyme for 'silvery Tay' somewhere on the bridge?"
Which reminds me that Mike was also a skilled poet. I've long admired W H Auden's sonnet cycle "The Quest", inspired by the logic of fairy tales. One year the Ford Christmas-card substitute was "20 Questers", wickedly imagining how Auden's cycle might have turned out if, instead, it were based on the clichés of modern commercial fantasy. Another Xmas surprise was Dark Sea, a blank verse mini-epic that brought the blind poet Homer through time as "observer" on a Mars mission. Dead serious, and impressive.
A third poem gained widespread Internet notoriety. "110 Stories", Mike's response to the horrors of 9/11, is painstakingly constructed from 110 reactions, comments or thoughts on the fall of the twin towers, one line for each storey, and ... well, it's harrowing, unforgettable, and easily found on the web. These poems, and others, are accompanied by much fine short fiction in his last collection Heat of Fusion (2004).
I envied his talent but not his health, which had always been terrible. A bionic insert and a kidney transplant helped a little: Mike was fascinated to learn that they don't remove the dud organ. On the birthday when I'd claimed to be playing with a full deck at last, he replied: "My deck is, as ever, crooked as the day is long. Actually, probably longer. Remembering that I have a three of kidneys and a USB port. (Really.) How odd to be living in someone else's future."
Now he's gone, but he left us a lot of wonderful things to read. Thanks again, Mike.
As usual, David Langford is feeling uncomfortably mortal.
Later: here, updated to August 2007, is a multi-part anthology of Mike Ford's wild and wonderful posts at the Making Light weblog.
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