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Ford, John M.: From the End of the Twentieth Century

John M. Ford's From the End of the Twentieth Century is a 1997 anthology from NESFA Press; it overlaps only slightly with the recent Tor anthology Heat of Fusion (having in common "Preflash" and "The Lost Dialogue"). Ford died this week (many links and tributes at Making Light), and I'm writing this from memory, to complement Rachel Brown's posts about his novels (Part I, Part II (forthcoming)). As this is by way of being a memorial post, I am breaking with my tradition and cross-posting it between my booklog and LiveJournal, where my other comments were posted.

You can get an idea of the breadth of the collection, and of Ford's work generally, by reading Neil Gaiman's Introduction. As a way of organizing my own thoughts, I'm going to approach the collection by type of piece.

Essays first. The opening essay, "From the End of the Twentieth Century," is subtitled "A Discursion on Trains, Theatre, and Fantasy," which tells you a great deal about what's to come: connections all over the place, sometimes surprising ones, and an interest in approaches to storytelling. That interest is further developed in "Rules of Engagement," which considers how readers approach words on a page and provided me with a lasting metaphor for my experience as a reader: "Every book is three books, after all; the one the writer intended, the one the reader expected, and the one that casts its shadow when the first two meet by moonlight."

Trains are another interest demonstrated by the opening essay and then expanded upon, in "To the Tsiolkovsky Station: Railroads in Growing Up Weightless" (a hard sf novel set on the moon). I don't think one would need to have read Growing Up Weightless to understand the essay, as Ford sets out his assumptions and extrapolations clearly. I'm not particularly interested in trains, but I found this an interesting read.

Finally, I'm going to lump "Roadshow" in with the essays. Ford also designed role-playing games, and "Roadshow" is a scenario for a science fiction game where the players bodyguard an incredibly-famous rock band. I don't role-play and am thus not qualified to comment on whether it's a good scenario.

I'm going to pass over the song lyrics completely, because I am incapable of judging song lyrics in the absence of music. They're there; if you can read song lyrics and evaluate them, let me know what you think.

In contrast, I do have a lot to say about the poems, which is unusual because it's a genre where I'm much, much more likely to miss than to hit. But any fame Ford gained outside the SF and RPG communities was probably through his September 11 poem "110 Stories", and one of his two World Fantasy Awards was for the poem "Winter Solstice, Camelot Station" [*], so it's not just me.

[*] I suspect this was the first thing of his I read, in a Datlow-Windling Year's Best anthology. It's in Heat of Fusion and itself justifies the purchase price. (I haven't finished Heat of Fusion yet, which is why it's not here.)

One of my favorite pieces in the collection is "All Our Propogation," regarding which I can't improve on Neil Gaiman's description in his Introduction: "A prose-poem meditation on the dreams of satellites, moving and transcendentant, very high over Milk Wood."

You can read another of my favorites, "Troy: the Movie," at Strange Horizons. Obviously given the dates, it has nothing to do with Brad Pitt, but is instead an imagining of episodes from the Trojan War as movie scenes: Achilles and Hector as a Western showdown, the duel of Paris and Menelaus as a silent comedy, and so forth. It's brilliant. In a similar vein, equally as good, is "A Little Scene to Monarchize," which condenses Shakespeare's version of the War of the Roses into—well, I think they're all Gilbert and Sullivan parodies as done by Elizabethan playwrights, but I am (a) sadly ignorant of musical theater and (b) reluctant to re-read. Ford posted one section to a comment thread at Making Light (what turned out to be his last comment). Anyway, I'm sure my appreciation would be increased if I recognized all the layers of parody instead of just the top one, but Ford's writing is like that.

I have less to say about the other two poems, "The Lost Dialogue" and "Restoration Day"; I remember liking them, but they didn't hit me as hard as those three. Which, considering the length of this already, probably causes a sigh of relief rather than disappointment. Any particular partisans of those two are welcome to sing their praises in the comments.

And at last, we come to the short stories. These are a little more mixed for me, but still contain a very high percentage of things I really like. For instance, I don't usually hear "1952 Monon Freightyard Blues" talked about, but it always makes me tear up. I can't even give a coherent description of it, not having read it for a few years, but I know: always makes me tear up. So does "The Dark Companion," about an astronomer who's losing his sight. It sounds cutesy or contrived, I know, but there's no melodrama to it.

Then there are some stories I respect but don't love: "Amy, at the Bottom of the Stairs," which is another take on the death of Amy Robsart (though I suspect it, with its focus on meeting death, might read differently to me now that I know Ford expected to die young, much younger than he did); "Riding the Hammer," which is a Liavek story, and I just keep bouncing off every Liavek story I try; and "As Above, So Below", a dialogue with a dragon about paradigm shifts. And there's "Preflash," which I'm sorry to say is the one story in the collection that I don't understand. Anyone who knows what's going on is invited to comment (in ROT-13, please).

Two of the stories I quite like are retellings of much older stories, though alas to say which would spoil the plots: "Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail," which I suppose might be thought of as a trial run for The Last Hot Time, one of my favorite novels, and "Walkaway Clause," which I find particularly moving. (In retrospect, and this may just be recent preoccupations colliding, I feel it has a faint whiff of something Stephen Maturin-like. Or possibly I'm making it up.)

Another two stories, "Mandalay" and "Intersections," are linked, part of an incomplete "Alternities" series about a company that created (or found) pocket universes for vacations, until the system broke down. (Two more were written (bibliography by NESFA), and according to Neil Gaiman's Introduction another three would have completed the cycle.) They're very good, I'm getting bogged down again in contemplating the fact that there won't be any more of them, it's time to move on.

Last, there are two stories that strike me as similar in tone, first-person tales that feel somehow loose, improvisational riffs on a theme—though I suspect I wouldn't find an extraneous word. In "Waiting for the Morning Bird," our author watches a shuttle launch along with some figments of his imagination, archetypal science fiction characters. Which completely fails to do it justice, but I don't know how to. Maybe if I go on to the next one, "Scrabble with God," which is just what it sounds like:

I made OXYGEN, and got a triple word score. He made a grumbling noise. Outside, a cloud blotted out the sun . . . .

"It's oxygen," I said. "It's all around us."

He said, "You sure about that?"

I took a couple of deep breaths, just in case. (You think I'm kidding, right? Do you remember when the sky was dark with skazlorls? Double word score, fifty-point bonus, phfft. And then He challenged me on it.)

(I'm quoting this bit rather than the zweeghb bit because then I can link to Jo Walton's Skazlorls post.)

I've hand-sold a couple of copies just by handing people a copy open to this story. And if I can do the same virtually for just one person, then I will count this as a job well done.

Edit: and if you buy it and don't like it, I'll buy it from you (we had a spare which I lent to someone and am probably never getting back, so extra pimping copies would be useful).

Tags: ,

Thanks for this. I ordered several of his books yesterday-- they'd been on my immense to-read list for a while. I think I need to add Heat of Fusion to the purchase.

_Heat of Fusion_, I forgot to say, also has "Erase/Record/Play," first published in _Starlight 1_ which is *also* itself worth the price of purchase.

So, yes, you do. =>

Mmmph. Buy-back offer added to the main post.

(no subject) - mdevnich, 2006-09-29 10:43 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2006-09-29 10:43 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - mdevnich, 2006-09-29 11:19 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2006-09-30 12:26 am (UTC)(Expand)
I just picked my copy of this off the shelf tonight, in response to one of elisem's posts. I was lucky enough to get it signed at Noreascon 4.

I like trains, and transportation, and logistics, and well-thought-out systems...and "To the Tsiolskovsky Station" still amazes me. I just re-read it, and all throughout I kept thinking "of course!" and "I would have missed that, but it's Clearly The Right Thing!"

As a lapsed RPGer, I also liked "Roadshow". It's a great mix of setup and scenario basis, with enough of an episodic nature to make a great series of game sessions (depending on length of sessions, you might even manage to do one tour stop per session) and enough plot hooks for a GM to really have fun with.

I need to buy Heat of Fusion.

Thanks for the comments on "Roadshow." It sounded plausible to me, but I don't have any experience to judge it against.

I've just ordered it.

I hope you like it. And if you don't, as I've just edited the post to say, I'll buy it back from you and brandish it at other people. =>

Just ordered. Damn, but there's so much I hadn't realised was his....

Thanks, and hope you like it. As I say above, I'll buy it from you if you don't.

(no subject) - akicif, 2006-09-29 11:40 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2006-09-29 11:44 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - akicif, 2006-09-29 11:49 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2006-09-29 11:53 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - akicif, 2006-09-29 12:17 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2006-09-29 01:35 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - akicif, 2006-09-29 02:41 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2006-09-29 02:44 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(Deleted comment)
I think that would be a good thing.

The Wars of the Roses poem you link to is a villanelle (which is why he posted it, it was in response to one of Patrick's Sidelights). I don't think there's any G&S or whatnot going on there, but I won't swear to it.

I understand "Preflash" up until the point where I don't, so I would welcome an explanation of the end, at least. (What I really want, though not relevant to your post, is an explanation of "Fugue State" beyond the basic concept, which I got.)

I picked up a number of old Asimov's issues at a used book store a while back because they had Ford stories - I need to dig them out and see if the other Alternities stories are in them.

I understand "Preflash" up until the point where I don't

Yeah, that's a good way of putting it. =>

I haven't read _Fugue State_, though we have it.

(no subject) - tool_of_satan, 2006-09-29 03:31 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Yeah, I thought I understood "Preflash" (after the fourth reading, that is) until the phoenix came out (where the heck did that come from?), and really that entire last scene, and then decided I was probably wrong about understanding it. And I would also love an explanation of "Fugue State." And The Scholars of Night (I think I get the really broad main idea, but that's it) and The Final Reflection (ditto-- who did kill Van Diemen?).

(ROT13 for that last parenthetical: V guvax gur Xyvatbaf, fcrpvsvpnyyl munea, xvyyrq uvz nf cneg bs gurve cybg gb trg vasb nobhg qvyvguvhz, ohg V jnf arire fher nobhg guvf.)

And, probably, an explanation of a whole lot of other things I can't think of right now. (Could someone set up a website where all the subplots are explained? :) )

Really, really liked "The Lost Dialogue," which is just allusive like crazy (yeah, okay, that clause was redundant), but was not viscerally moved by it the way I was by "110 Stories" or the wonderful, spectacular "Camelot Station." Don't remember "Restoration Day," so presumably didn't like it as well.

(Hi, by the way. I've lurked around for a while but had to come out for Ford, who... was... (ow) one of my favorite living writers, and was responsible for introducing me to a whole lot of random stuff (Charles Williams, the history of the Byzantine Empire, etc.) through his writing...)

In re. "Fugue State": (with a Growing Up Weightless bonus)

http://badger2305.livejournal.com/59660.html?thread=455948#t455948

I found that just clicking through various JMF links. It's a bit weird to be reading conversations between people that I don't know and likely will never even meet. I hope no one's offended by sharing the link.

(no subject) - kate_nepveu, 2006-09-30 12:22 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - tool_of_satan, 2006-09-30 01:59 am (UTC)(Expand)
Welcome. Yeah, past tense is a bitch, isn't it?

I think it's very possible that I like "The Lost Dialogue" better than I remember, but I didn't want to re-read because I wanted to write this now, and also didn't want to associate the text with fresh grief. But my recollection suggests that its virtues are less emotional and more intellectual.

(no subject) - tool_of_satan, 2006-09-30 01:58 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - charlie_ego, 2006-09-30 05:25 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Preflash - nbardsley, 2006-09-30 06:39 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Re: Preflash - nbardsley, 2006-09-30 09:36 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Re: Preflash - kate_nepveu, 2006-10-01 11:07 pm (UTC)(Expand)
?

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