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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 timefor 25 September, the ninth anniversary of John M. Ford’s death. Fordwas an author’s author, beloved by the literati, someone who didn’t condescend to the reader by making his textseasy to read. That, and a habit of drifting from genre to genre, lefthim more obscure than he deserves. Although no more obscure than lazyreaders deserve.

Tomake 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 tosignificant others to whom one is not legally married, the rights tohis books are held by his blood kin. They didn’t approve of hiscareer and have not, the last I heard, allowed any outof-print-material to be reprinted. 

Iseriously considered reviewing John M. Ford’s 1993 juvenile GrowingUp Weightlessto get the taste of Luna:New Moonout of my mouth … but I was already in a bad mood. Thinking aboutwhy GrowingUp Weightlessis out of print would have just made it worse. So I decided to reviewhis 1997 collection, FromThe End of the Twentieth Century,one of three works by Ford that I believe are still in print. (Seethe end of this review for a list.)


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

Ashort, passionate tribute to Ford.

Comments:

Someparts of this have not aged well. Specifically, it is no longerpossible to talk about Ford in the present tense.

Fromthe End of the Twentieth Century” • essay 

Thisstarts off talking about trains, but is really about the need forfiction to be more than just the surface details.

Comments:

Nonutty nuggets from Mr. Ford.

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

Ahobo’s sense of the dramatic earns him elevation from wanderer towanderer-with-a-purpose.

Comments:

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

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

Onthe eve of her death in 1560, Amy Robsart Dudley receives anunexpected visitor.

Comments:

Thisstory includes a short historical note about Dudley’s death from afall, a death that was sufficiently suspicious to keep her husbandfrom marrying Queen Elizabeth. 

Idon’t know that I would find the visitor’s revelations particularlyreassuring or that it is reasonable for him to think that Amy RobsartDudley will. But there’s an incident (mentioned in passing) thatsuggests that the visitor’s not firmly bolted down on all sides.

ALittle Scene to Monarchize” • (1990) • poem

VariousElizabethan playwrights act out the War of the Roses.

Comments:

Amongmy many faults is a huge blind spot where poetry is concerned. It’sodd 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 nearas 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

Caughtbetween worlds when .… something catastrophic … happened to theenigmatic system Alternities used to reach alternate worlds, a bandof survivors march down the endless tunnel between worlds, lookingfor the hatch leading to home. 

Comments:

Thiswas the first work of fictionby Ford I read. The firstof his works that I read was his non-fiction essay On TabletopUniverses,” which was about something called a roleplaying game,which I could immediately see was a pretty stupid idea that wouldn’tplay a major role in my life. This work of fiction, on the otherhand, hooked me on Ford’s fiction.

Afterre-reading this, I wondered if the people who created Halflifeever read the Alternitiesstories. I also wonder if I read this before or after ThePrincess Bride.I am inclined to think before,” because the twist was still atwist for me. 

Rulesof Engagement”•essay

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

Comments:

Relevantto a thread over at File770 and a certain conflict that has consumedall fandom since April.…

Monochrome”• poem:

Atribute to black and white movies.

AnotherIsland” • poem:

Iwould have pegged this as a Cold-War-era anti-war poem but it seemsto date from 1997

Hereto Get My Baby Out of Jail” • short story

Apreternaturally talented Depression-era musician attempts to retrievehis lover from a distant realm 

Comments:

Ioften illustrate my tendency to cluelessness by telling people that Imanaged to read Niven and Gerrold’s TheFlying Sorcererswithout noticing it was supposed to be a comedy. Now I can also tellpeople that it wasn’t until Orry and Miss Eunice got to the GoldenGate that I realized just what mythological tale Ford was riffing on.

TheDark Companion •(1981) • novelette

Anastronomer races against time to carry out valuable research beforeresearch becomes impossible.

AllOur Propagation” • (1990) • short story:

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

Tothe Tsiolkovsky Station” • essay

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

IfFord had written the Gameof Thronesseries, the whole thing would be one five hundred page volume andvery, very dense. 

AsAbove, So Below” • (1980) • short story:

ACount shares what turns out to be a final moment with his captivedragon.

Comment:

Cursethose quantum mechanics and their little cats too! 

WalkawayClause• (1986) • novelette

Apilot, or something very much like him, returns years after he wasdeclared legally dead. That’s all well and good for him and his lovedones, but will nobody think of the insurance company?

Comments:

Ilike to think this is the same set of aliens who appeared inSilverberg’s TheMan in the Maze.They are tinkering with humans and slowly getting better at it.…

(Thereare probably enough I was repaired by well-meaning aliens wholacked the benefit of proper documentation” short stories to fillan anthology.)

TheLost Dialogue” • (1995) • poem

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

Scrabblewith God” • (1985) • short story:

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

Preflash”• (1988) • short story:

Braindamage leaves a photographer with a rare gift. 

Comments:

Althoughnot a comforting one. 

Persephone’sDaughters” • poem:

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

TheBard in Prime Time” (selections) • poem:

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

WhiteLight” • poem:

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

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

Asurvivor of the great Alternities Fracture finds what seems to be asafe haven. He overlooks the fact that this world is experiencing aWorld War Two in which technology seems several years more advancedthan it was in our timeline. This means that nukes are due real soonnow. Sadly for him, his role in the Fracture is not over.…

Comments:

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

Isuspect that the handful of Alternities stories we did get left adeeper impression on me than I realized at the time. Any story thatinvolves getting from universe to universe through tunnels or gatesgets a more favorable reaction from me than it might otherwise havereceived, simply because it made me remember Ford’s work.

Troy:The Movie” • (1989) • poem:

Alongish poem that delivers what it says on the tin. Ford does notseem entirely optimistic about how good a Troy movie would be. Iwonder what he thought of the Troy movie we actually got?

Roadshow”• essay:

Thisis a short adventure for the Traveller RPG in which the playercharacters get to enjoy being roadies for a rock and roll band. INSPACE!

Comments:

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

Waitingfor the Morning Bird” • (1981) • short story

Awriter and all his muses wait for the launch of a shuttle. Thereality of space flight seems somewhat underwhelming.

Comments:

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

RestorationDay: Plainsong” • [Liavek] • (1990) • poem :

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

Althoughshared universes in fantasy and science fiction had been around forsome time (many of them involving Poul Anderson for some reason; Idon’t know what about shared universes he found so attractive), therewas a brief fad for them starting in the late 1970s. They hitdiminishing returns pretty quickly.

Liavekwas one of the rare shared universes that didn’t suck right off thebat and that didn’t end up eating its own tail. I liked the Liavekcorpus enough I am afraid to go back and reread it, lest it not liveup to my memories. It does not help that I know that Wool Sweaterlyhelped create Liavek. It is possible that addled WS Easter eggsare concealed in the bushes.

Ridingthe Hammer• [Liavek] • (1988) • novelette:

Thisbegins as a fairly conventional story of a railway engineer who keepsencountering the ghost of a young woman at the same point in hisroute. But that’s not quite the ghost story Ford wants to tell.….

GeneralComments:

Ihave a number of bad habits as a reader. The bad habit that’srelevant to this book is that having picked up a book, I then read itfrom 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 butsurprisingly dense. It would likely be more enjoyable if read a workor two at a time, spread over days or weeks, not three hours. Learnfrom my fail. 

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

Thereare two other Ford works that are appear to be available. One is his2004 collection, The Heat of Fusion and Other Stories and the other ishis 2000 novel The Last Hot Time. Both are from Tor, and I suspect that’s not coincidental: as longas his friends at Tor keep those books in print, Ford’s blood-kincannot suppress them.

Atribute site to John M. Ford can be found here.