John Milo Ford, writer: born 10 April 1957; died Minneapolis
c 24 September 2006.
His career might have seemed all fits and starts, except
that his voice was unmistakable no matter what he wrote. The
science-fiction writer and poet John M. Ford achieved long
before his early death, almost by stealth, a quite
extraordinary breadth of recognition for his contributions
to American self-knowledge.
Decades of severe ill-health severely hampered his
productivity, but never diminished the passionately
immaculate control he maintained over the form and content
of the 100 or so stories and poems he allowed into print
over 30 years. Even his occasional Star Trek novelisations
had moments that seemed magically ardent, that seemed able
to invoke some of the more superficial aspects of the
American Dream without mocking them.
There seems no reason for Ford's reticence about his early
life, except for the fact that he claimed that it was not of
any interest to describe. He was born near Chicago in 1957,
and attended the University of Indiana, but did not
graduate. While still a teenager he published his first
professional short story, "This, Too, We Reconcile", in
1976. His first novel, Web of Angels (1980), gracefully
inhabited something very much like the cyberspace William
Gibson created four years later in Neuromancer; but Ford
lacked Gibson's vital haunted urgency, or his mesmerising
sense that the future was already in our bones.
Indeed it soon became clear that Ford was deeply
uninterested in getting the future right, that instead he
used the tools of his trade - his very considerable if
conservative skills as a poet and author of tightly
organised fiction, his deep knowledge of the literatures of
the fantastic of the Western world, and his intimately
Gothic sense of the past of his native land - to compose in
verse and prose archaeologies of the given.
Though each of his few novels differed markedly from the
other, they all shared a sense that the tales they told were
being told in retrospect; as though they had been dug up to
be treasured, and perhaps to tell us something about where
we come from. The Dragon Waiting: a masque of history
(1983), which won a World Fantasy Award, poignantly comments
on the world that made us through its vision of an alternate
medieval Europe without religion. The title of Growing Up
Weightless (1993), which takes place on the already settled
Moon, precisely designates the fate of those expected to
grow up without history; the story itself is not about
finding the future, but searching for roots.
From the early days of his career, Ford's health was
uncertain, but, although he attended relatively few of the
conventions and conferences so often held in the SF field,
he soon established a reputation as an exceedingly witty
writer and raconteur, and as an alarmingly well-read
He was a slender, slightly abstract-seeming man, and he gave
the almost certainly false impression that he uttered his
jokes and spoofs and infodumps without forethought; he
always seemed a bit startled at what he had just said. But
his health deteriorated. He had been diagnosed as a diabetic
at the age of 11; and also suffered from diseases of the
kidney (after long dialysis, he was given a transplant in
2000). In later years, the internet allowed him to maintain
his large circle of friends, as witness the hundreds of
tributes to him that appeared on various sites in the days
after his death.
His last works were perhaps his best. The Last Hot Time
(2000) brilliantly and compactly depicts an America
reconstructed by magic into a world of Return, where the
pleasures and miseries of the 20th century can be acted out,
once again, by Americans otherwise lost in the new. The
stories and poems assembled in Heat of Fusion (2004)
reiterate a sense that in order to live honourably one must
take responsibility for one's roots. We must honour what has
Nowhere is this moral vision more vividly conveyed than in
"110 Stories", a poem which has become famous on the net for
its powerful and intricate depiction of the destruction of
the World Trade Centre in 2001; each of its 110 lines is an
end-stopped fragment of a different participant's point of
view of the tragedy. The passion that infuses this intricate
structure is as intense as that which might infuse a sestina
by William Empson:
The steel turns red, the framework starts to go.
Jacks clasp Jills' hands and step onto the sky.
The noise was not like anything you know.
Stand still, he said, and watch a building die.
There's no one you can help above this floor.
We've got to hold our breath. We've got to climb.
Don't give me that; I did this once before.
The firemen look up, and know the time.
These labored, took their wages, and are dead.
The cracker-crumbs of fascia sieve the light.
The air's deciduous of letterhead.
The reprieve of the transplant did not last. Alarmed that he
had not answered her e-mails, Elise Matthesen, his partner
of the past 13 years, came to his long-time home in
Minneapolis at two in the morning on Monday, and found him
dead. His death was from natural causes. She has recorded
that, from the expression on his face, he seemed a bit
Heck,he was one of the people I met through CompuServe in 1986
when few considered the Internet as a consumer-accessible thing.
: His last works were perhaps his best. The Last Hot Time
: (2000) brilliantly and compactly depicts an America
: reconstructed by magic into a world of Return, where the
: pleasures and miseries of the 20th century can be acted out,
: once again, by Americans otherwise lost in the new. The
: stories and poems assembled in Heat of Fusion (2004)
: reiterate a sense that in order to live honourably one must
: take responsibility for one's roots. We must honour what has
He's left a lot that I haven't read but would probably find
worth my time.
: Nowhere is this moral vision more vividly conveyed than in
The World Trade Center towers MUST rise again,
at least as tall as before...or terror has triumphed.