Mike Ford, a review never published

I did actually review his most recent book1 for the Guardian. They never printed the review, because the book,sent me by PNH, was never published here. But I did send it to him, and got a kind note back.2 Below the fold.

1 No, I don’t want to write “last”.

2 Kinder, perhaps, that I would have written myself in response to a review so much about other people. But I was writing for a self-consciously high culture audience. They still have on file an appreciation of Resumé with Monsters which they don’t know what to do with.

John Ford review

Andrew Brown for Claire Armitstead 19/03/04

A cycle of twelve sonnets on science fiction cliches; Ernest Hemingway’s advice on shopping at the mall; an elegy for the Twin Towers: John M Ford is a writer of overwhelming bubbling, invention,. One has the feeling that if he were not writing anything else, he would be submitting entries to the New Statesman competitions. The closest resemblance, perhaps, is Peter Dickinson, who also writes at an acute angle to the conventions of his chosen genres, and who did, in fact sharpen his wits in literary competitions as a young man.

The stories and most of the poems collected in Heat of Fusion are mostly science fiction. Some are fantasy, but it is fantasy of a reassuringly unheroic type, in which magic works as technological innovation does in science fiction, to highlight existing human nature, not to remove the constraints that make life interesting.

Science fiction offers two sorts of pleasure that more realistic, or are least more quotidian writing, cannot. The first, which tends to be noticed most by people who don’t read it, or don’t read much of it, is the pleasure of plot twists that could not happen in the real world. Perhaps the classic example of this is the Arthur Clarke story of the Billion Names of God, in which a computer in a Buddhist monastery is set to enumerate all the different names by which God is known — and when it succeeds, one of the programmers looks up. Overhead, one by one, the stars are going out.

But the great twists were all found years ago. It would take a truly brave science fiction author to predict the discovery of a new plot twist that hinges on technology. Sure enough, the elements of the stories here are all familiar, though sometimes strangely garbled: the gunfighter forced out of retirement for one last battle with his ancient foe is the guardian of an entire planet, not a small town in Wyoming.

What Ford gives generously is the second distinctive pleasure of SF, which is the creation of haunting atmospheres. To some extent all worthwhile novelists do this, and some of the science fiction novelists who produce the most memorable worlds don’t do so in a particularly science-fictional way. Ford does. In this sense, he is a follower of Jack Vance, rather than William Gibson. Gibson gives us our own world, twisted so that we can recognise it more easily. Vance made places that never were, or could be, but which had, at their best, the sense that they ought to exist, and that the universe would be a better place if they did: a world where everyone lives on colonies of giant lily pads; or one in which eating and drinking are only ever decently performed in private.

So here we have a news cameraman who finds, after an accident, that he sees through one of his eyes a film showing the future death of whoever he is watching at any moment. Daedalus and Icarus exchange a sequence of poems about engineering after Icarus crashed in the sea, lost an arm, and retrained as plumber on the island of Thera, which is remembered, after the eruption, as Atlantis.

Not all of these are entirely successful, but the failures are all original and almost as interesting as the successes. I did not know until I had finished this book what a limited tolerance I have for science fiction written in erratic blank verse. But the good bits are great enough to make the whole book worthwhile. The poem on the fall of the twin towers, 110 stories, which first appeared on the literary blog Making Light, is quite astonishingly good: he takes here the Waste Land’s trick of casting apparently disconnected fragments of demotic speech into verse, but the effect is solidarity, not, as with Eliot, disgust.

The great drawback of working within a tightly defined genre is that you will get overpraised and sloppy. Ford is one of those writers with a fine parodist’s ear, so that sometimes he sounds archaic, and sometimes frozen — or at least chilled out — in a cyberpunk future. But when he gets in focus on the present, the results are breathtaking, and, best of all, you never know what he will write next. Apparently he’s written almost anything for money in the past, including television spinoffs, which makes this book the first thing I have ever read which made me want to rush out and buy a Star Trek novelisation.

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