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If You Listen, You Can Understand

From the End of the Twentieth Century

By John M. Ford 

30 Sep, 2015

Graveyard Orbits

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(Added November 2019)

The reasons given in this review for Ford’s work being out of print are wrong. I apologize for the error.

The actual reason can be found here.

If I had been more on the ball, I’d have had this review ready in time for 25 September, the ninth anniversary of John M. Ford’s death. Ford was an author’s author, beloved by the literati, someone who didn’t condescend to the reader by making his texts easy to read. That, and a habit of drifting from genre to genre, left him more obscure than he deserves. Although no more obscure than lazy readers deserve.

To make matters worse, although he had long been in ill-health (in theUS, no less), Ford never got around to choosing a literary executor. Due to barbaric laws that grant no inheritance rights to significant others to whom one is not legally married, the rights to his books are held by his blood kin. They didn’t approve of his career and have not, the last I heard, allowed any out of-print-material to be reprinted. 

I seriously considered reviewing John M. Ford’s 1993 juvenile Growing Up Weightless to get the taste of Luna: New Moon out of my mouth … but I was already in a bad mood. Thinking about why Growing Up Weightless is out of print would have just made it worse. So I decided to review his 1997 collection, From The End of the Twentieth Century, one of three works by Ford that I believe are still in print. (See the end of this review for a list.)


Introduction( From the End of the Twentieth Century)” • essay by Neil Gaiman

A short, passionate tribute to Ford.

Comments:

Some parts of this have not aged well. Specifically, it is no longer possible to talk about Ford in the present tense.

From the End of the Twentieth Century” • essay 

This starts off talking about trains, but is really about the need for fiction to be more than just the surface details.

Comments:

No nutty nuggets from Mr. Ford.

1952 Monon Freightyard Blues” • (1981) • short story

A hobo’s sense of the dramatic earns him elevation from wanderer to wanderer-with-a-purpose.

Comments:

This seems so much like the sort of thing that Michael Hanson loved. I am amazed that nothing of Ford’s ever made it onto Hanson’s radio show, MindWebs .

Amy, at the Bottom of the Stairs” • (1982) • short story 

On the eve of her death in 1560, Amy Robsart Dudley receives an unexpected visitor.

Comments:

This story includes a short historical note about Dudley’s death from a fall, a death that was sufficiently suspicious to keep her husband from marrying Queen Elizabeth. 

I don’t know that I would find the visitor’s revelations particularly reassuring or that it is reasonable for him to think that Amy Robsart Dudley will. But there’s an incident (mentioned in passing) that suggests that the visitor’s not firmly bolted down on all sides.

A Little Scene to Monarchize” • (1990) • poem

Various Elizabethan playwrights act out the War of the Roses.

Comments:

Among my many faults is a huge blind spot where poetry is concerned. It’s odd that I don’t seem to have the same problem with song lyrics, which are just poetry set to music. I also don’t know anywhere near as much about the playwrights figuring in this poem as I should.Someone familiar with the period would probably find this hilarious.

Mandalay • [Alternities, Inc.] • (1979) • novelette

Caught between worlds when .… something catastrophic … happened to the enigmatic system Alternities used to reach alternate worlds, a band of survivors march down the endless tunnel between worlds, looking for the hatch leading to home. 

Comments:

This was the first work of fiction by Ford I read. The first of his works that I read was his non-fiction essay On Tabletop Universes,” which was about something called a roleplaying game,which I could immediately see was a pretty stupid idea that wouldn’t play a major role in my life. This work of fiction, on the other hand, hooked me on Ford’s fiction.

After re-reading this, I wondered if the people who created Halflife ever read the Alternities stories. I also wonder if I read this before or after The Princess Bride .I am inclined to think before,” because the twist was still a twist for me. 

Rules of Engagement”•essay

Why do stories work? Why do some stories not work for some readers?

Comments:

Relevant to a thread over at File770 and a certain conflict that has consumed all fandom since April.…

Monochrome”• poem:

A tribute to black and white movies.

AnotherI sland” • poem:

I would have pegged this as a Cold-War-era anti-war poem but it seems to date from 1997

Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail” • short story

A preternaturally talented Depression-era musician attempts to retrieve his lover from a distant realm 

Comments:

I often illustrate my tendency to cluelessness by telling people that I managed to read Niven and Gerrold’s The Flying Sorcerers without noticing it was supposed to be a comedy. Now I can also tell people that it wasn’t until Orry and Miss Eunice got to the Golden Gate that I realized just what mythological tale Ford was riffing on.

The Dark Companion •(1981) • novelette

An astronomer races against time to carry out valuable research before research becomes impossible.

All Our Propagation” • (1990) • short story:

As pace probe’s encounter with a planet, told in an interesting style. 

To the Tsiolkovsky Station” • essay

One of Ford’s literary quirks was that he omitted details that the characters would have no reason to notice. No as you know Bob”in his works, no siree. This essay shows off the hidden homework he did for GrowingUp Weightless by outlining the railway system that connects the cities of the Moon.

If Ford had written the Game of Thrones series, the whole thing would be one five hundred page volume and very, very dense. 

As Above, So Below” • (1980) • short story:

A Count shares what turns out to be a final moment with his captive dragon.

Comment:

Curse those quantum mechanics and their little cats too! 

Walkaway Clause • (1986) • novelette

A pilot, or something very much like him, returns years after he was declared legally dead. That’s all well and good for him and his loved ones, but will nobody think of the insurance company?

Comments:

I like to think this is the same set of aliens who appeared in Silverberg’s The Man in the Maze .They are tinkering with humans and slowly getting better at it.…

(There are probably enough I was repaired by well-meaning aliens who lacked the benefit of proper documentation” short stories to fill an anthology.)

The Lost Dialogue” • (1995) • poem

The fall of Atlantis, as told by persons closer to the event than Plato.

Scrabble with God” • (1985) • short story:

This is a short, comic, story about exactly what it says it is about. 

Preflash”• (1988) • short story:

Brain damage leaves a photographer with a rare gift. 

Comments:

Although not a comforting one. 

Persephone’s Daughters” • poem:

This seems to be about the seeding of the plains with people useful to thetrain companies. 

The Bard in Prime Time” (selections) • poem:

The second of these, Secret Hamlet Man,” is annoyingly ear-wormy.

White Light” • poem:

This isn’t X‑Files, the Poem,” but it can see X‑Files the Poem”from where it is.

Intersections • [Alternities, Inc.] • (1981) • novelette:

A survivor of the great Alternities Fracture finds what seems to be a safe haven. He overlooks the fact that this world is experiencing a World War Two in which technology seems several years more advanced than it was in our timeline. This means that nukes are due real soon now. Sadly for him, his role in the Fracture is not over.…

Comments:

The plan was for there to be a collection of Alternities stories, one that added up to more than the sum of its parts. No hope of that now.

I suspect that the handful of Alternities stories we did get left a deeper impression on me than I realized at the time. Any story that involves getting from universe to universe through tunnels or gates gets a more favorable reaction from me than it might otherwise have received, simply because it made me remember Ford’s work.

Troy: The Movie” • (1989) • poem:

A longish poem that delivers what it says on the tin. Ford does not seem entirely optimistic about how good a Troy movie would be. I wonder what he thought of the Troy movie we actually got?

Roadshow”• essay:

This is a short adventure for the Traveller RPG in which the player characters get to enjoy being roadies for a rock and roll band. IN SPACE!

Comments:

One of the reasons I can never be a fiction writer is that I don’t always remember where I first encountered an idea (although generally the more vividly something comes to me, the more likely it is that I am just remembering it without proper accreditation). Case in point: I know I read this essay, Yet at one point I came up with the idea of Space Roadies and thought it was mine . Heh. (Well, the source might have been Still Crazy”, but that would have meant substituting a rocket ship for a bus.)

Waiting for the Morning Bird” • (1981) • short story

A writer and all his muses wait for the launch of a shuttle. The reality of space flight seems somewhat underwhelming.

Comments:

Ford’s afterword, presumably written in 1997, comments that the shuttle trilogy he had envisioned was overtaken by events, a reference to the loss of Challenger which occurred before Ford wrote the third story about a shuttle crash. He didn’t know how overtaken by events his story would be: the shuttle whose launch the author is watching is Columbia .

Restoration Day: Plainsong” • [Liavek] • (1990) • poem :

I am not entirely certain what this poem means, so I will talk about Liavek instead. If you want to commit literary exegesis in comments, go right ahead. 

Although shared universes in fantasy and science fiction had been around for some time (many of them involving Poul Anderson for some reason; I don’t know what about shared universes he found so attractive), there was a brief fad for them starting in the late 1970s. They hit diminishing returns pretty quickly.

Liavek was one of the rare shared universes that didn’t suck right off the bat and that didn’t end up eating its own tail. I liked the Liavek corpus enough I am afraid to go back and reread it, lest it not live up to my memories. It does not help that I know that Wool Sweaterly helped create Liavek. It is possible that addled WS Easter eggs are concealed in the bushes.

Riding the Hammer • [Liavek] • (1988) • novelette:

This begins as a fairly conventional story of a railway engineer who keeps encountering the ghost of a young woman at the same point in his route. But that’s not quite the ghost story Ford wants to tell.….

General Comments:

I have a number of bad habits as a reader. The bad habit that’s relevant to this book is that having picked up a book, I then read it from cover to cover in as close to one swell foop as I can manage. That habit does not work well for this book. The book is short but surprisingly dense. It would likely be more enjoyable if read a work or two at a time, spread over days or weeks, not three hours. Learn from my fail. 

According to NESFA’s catalog, they still have limited quantities of this collection. Of course, the catalog seems to date from 2009, so that information may be out of date. Sorry if it is.

There are two other Ford works that are appear to be available. One is his 2004 collection, The Heat of Fusion and Other Stories and the other is his 2000 novel The Last Hot Time. Both are from Tor, and I suspect that’s not coincidental: as long as his friends at Tor keep those books in print, Ford’s blood-kin cannot suppress them.

A tribute site to John M. Ford can be found here.