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’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.