Friday, February 20, 2009

John M. Ford

About three years ago I became a regular reader of Making Light, a weblog run by science fiction/fantasy editors Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden (recommended). Most of the postings and comments were by their professional colleagues: novelists, poets, journalists, editors and the like. Peer pressure kept the literary quality top-notch even if the writing sometimes outshone the thinking, like fine Waterford crystal cradling a bratwurst: the weblog's politics often leaned toward woolly-headed liberalism. I made a point of visiting the weblog several times per week to enjoy the stylish language and the snappy repartee.

From time to time, a comment from John M. Ford would appear on the weblog and throw all of this bright discussion into shadow. Ford, primarily a writer of science fiction and fantasy, had a quicksilver wit and an Olympian knowledge of history and literature. He seemed to have read everything under the sun and found delight in it all -- from Damon Runyan to Shakespeare, from Sophocles to Mad magazine. His comments ranged from the scholarly to the madcap. He had a special gift, almost amounting to genius, for impromptu versification. He could generate a comic sonnet for a weblog discussion thread as deftly as somebody else might write a paragraph. I was dazzled to see him lavish finely-crafted, marketable humor and commentary on a mere weblog. Lesser writers could have supported themselves selling the pieces that Ford lightly tossed on the Internet for the pleasure of his friends.

I had to seek out Ford's books through inter-library loan; the main library had just two of his titles. I enjoyed reading his work, but I was a bit disappointed that I saw only intermittent flashes of the humor and erudition he revealed on the weblog. The man himself was more interesting than his books.

John M. Ford died in September 2006 at the age of 49. His health had always been fragile, owing to complications from diabetes. His obituary and bibliography are summarized in a good Wikipedia entry, evidently written by one of his many friends.

His written legacy comprises his novels, short stories, poems, and his collected weblog comments on the Making Light website. I suspect that his greater legacy is to be found in the memories of those whose lives were touched by his generous sharing of his talent.

Here is John M. Ford in a playful mood.

A is for Ann, who a grey eye attracts
B is for Betsy, unclear on the facts
C is for Chris, who at least argued well
D is for Daisy, who never did tell
E is for Ellen, who’d never been close
F is for Fay, who bought rings by the gross
G is for Gilly, whose smile was a candle
H is for Hilda, who got quite dismantled
I is Isolde, who went down with laughter
J is for Jill, who was tumbled right after
K is for Kay, who was certain and sure
L is for Lynn, who strayed off the coach tour
M is for Molly, untied from her beau
N is for Nora, who never said No
O is for Olive, whose caution was small
P is for Peg, who liked Ewan MacColl
Q is for Quinn, who was startled but pleased
R is for Rosie, whose kirtle got creased
S is for Susan, who went with a nod
T is for Tessa, who woke feeling odd
U is for Ursula, old for her years
V is for Vicky, who dates balladeers
W is for Wanda, who asked and who got
X is for Xenia — well, X marks the spot
Y is Yolanda, who needed some force
While Z’s clever Zoë, who bet the right horse.

Ford had a knack for explaining history with a clear and lively style.

All kinds of interesting things happened inside the Nazi weapons-research establishment, and a lot of them were not exactly efficient and not particularly honest. Once the Leader became enamored of Wonder Weapons, Wunderwaffenprojekten became an excellent way of not being sent to the Russian Front.

There was a steadily escalating series of priority hierarchies, as teams tried to leapfrog their projects ahead of others. Note that while some money was involved, this was not an issue of the workers trying to get rich — they were trying to stay out of the front line, and to get some basic resources (food, a decent place to live) that were in short supply. New classes of “very important project” were continuously created. About midwar, someone came up with “Führer Priority,” projects that the Boss supposedly was personally interested in; this was intended to be a trump card, but by war’s end there were six levels of Führer priority.

The effect of this was much labor but no product. Germany was, for instance, trying to develop a ground-to-air AA missile, which obviously would have been of great use; they tested a variety of designs, with varying levels of success, but instead of focusing the research into one AA Missile Group, it was scattered around numerous little teams, who competed for dwindling resources and, of course, shared nothing with each other. At war’s end, there were over forty such projects.

Ford could effortlessly juggle lofty Shakespearean cadences and funky slang. Just try and get the words "hammer down is how the hard girls kiss" out of your head.

From Verona Total Breakdown (Liebestod), a forgotten early Infernokrusher work by Bill "Hoist This Petard" Shakespeare . . .

Ro-Mo. Your windows are still mirrored; taunt me not,
But show your colors, dare to challenge me,
These lips are two shaped charges, primed and hot,
That wait the go-code for delivery.
J-Cap. The flag is to the deadly, not the loud,
Yet aim as well as posing show in this;
The worthy throwdown's always to the proud,
And hammer down is how the hard girls kiss.
Ro-Mo. My draft is stopped; I struggle toward the clutch.
J-Cap. And would a charge of nitrous make thee run?
Ro-Mo. Too much; but what else is there but too much?
Let me take arms, and elevate the gun.
J-Cap.Small arms but hint what demolitions say.
Ro-Mo.Then, gunner, gimme one round.
J-Cap.On the way.

Ford wrote often and well about literature and the writer's craft.

The appreciation of literature isn’t binary, get it/don’t get it; many, if not most, works of depth can be read for their pleasures as adventure stories by almost anybody, and returned to when other themes have room to resonate, either against direct life experience or a knowledge of history. The Iliad is an obvious example, Dumas is another. To be crude and nasty, one of the distinguishing features of crap entertainment is that it offers nothing new to view on a repeat performance, and nothing new to the viewer who has changed/matured/learned/sobered up in the interval.

The perspective shift (the parallax?) is certainly true of Shakespeare for the reader — the Falstaff one wants to hit the streets with at seventeen turns into the abandoned scoundrel of a later age — but it’s also true that a high-school performance of Rude Boy Hal (never mind, gor’ save ‘un, Cordelia’s Bad Hair Day) is going to hit different notes than one with older actors, even if the older cast are not vastly more skilled actors. Which is entirely as it should be; student acting can be ruined as an experience (though I think this is much less common than it was) by teachers who are trying to get everyone to hit the marks from whatever taped production the class has been shown as a model, and not find their own modus locopodus, to new-mint the words, in John Barton’s phrase.

This has been tonight’s performance of Numbingly Obvious Points Theater.

The following poem and "110 Stories," a poem that John M. Ford wrote about the September 11th attack, revealed Ford's understanding of the deeper human emotions.

The worm drives helically through the wood
And does not know the dust left in the bore
Once made the table integral and good;
And suddenly the crystal hits the floor.
Electrons find their paths in subtle ways,
A massless eddy in a trail of smoke;
The names of lovers, light of other days --
Perhaps you will not miss them. That's the joke.
The universe winds down. That's how it's made.
But memory is everything to lose;
Although some of the colors have to fade,
Do not believe you'll get the chance to choose.
Regret, by definition, comes too late;
Say what you mean. Bear witness. Iterate.