Milan crumbles beneath us, say the ministers,
And so temptations speak from tropic graves.
Leaving magic is not lighter than gaining it.
The book is in the water, the staff in pieces,
The robe makes nests for magpies; yet
Milan is full of books, sticks, robes.
My umbrella hums with power, my old hat
Whispers secrets, my morning paper
Anagrams the account of a football match
Into the words that will divide thunderheads
And turn seas to blood.
Roughly two pages into Heat of Fusion and other stories (2004), it became apparent to me that reading John M. Ford (1947-2006) was likely to be an exercise in running just to stand still. An exhilarating, incandescent sort of exercise, but strenuous nonetheless.
I'd received fair warning of this, of course, via the inestimable Graham's essay on the collection in the New York Review of Science Fiction, which prompted me to buy the book in the first place. But I was still not quite prepared for just how alert one needs to be to read Ford. There are imaginative and intellectual fireworks around every corner, but there are always more layers to be teased out. Each entry (short stories, sonnets, narrative poems, even a sort-of play) is a mosaic of nuance, allusion, and sly wit - and, sometimes, hidden messages - all wrapped up in a writing style so controlled and fine-tuned that never a word is wasted, and it's a miracle the stories can breathe at all. And yet for the most part they do breathe, dazzlingly.
This precision of style is well suited to, and was surely honed by, Ford's obvious fondness for the complex technical demands - rhyme, rhythm, meter - of various poetic forms, and in particular for using those forms to riff on classic works, to recast the old in new settings. Put another way, he liked his literary mash-ups. (It strikes me that there is something very genre science fictional about this - examining the familiar from new, alienating perspectives - in concept if not in choice of targets). Thus we get the swashbuckling fun of the Three Musketeers-meet-Cyrano de Bergerac in 'The Man in the Golden Mask', space opera sung Homerically in 'Dark Sea' (which stands out mostly for its typically Fordian interest in how stories are constructed by their apparently disinterested tellers), the Tempest riff of 'Third Thoughts', or - most successfully, I think - the steampunked, mass media-age Arthuriana of 'Winter Solstice, Camelot Station' (available to read online; scroll down a little to get to it). Also online is '110 Stories', Ford's 9/11 poem, in which every line - one for each level of the World Trade Centre - acts as a self-contained tale from that day.
'Letters from Elsinore', meanwhile, retells Hamlet from stolid Horatio's perspective, illuminating the play's post-Reformation tensions from a new angle:
We went up to the tower in Wittenberg
Because the old professor, Johann Faust
The wondersmith, the one who could not choose
If God had mercy, promised us a wonder.
Shortly he gave it, with his body and crossed timbers
And a thunderclap. Demons, you said,
Had rent him. I never thought you
More than metaphorical.
If demonless Wittenberg and haunted Elsinore
Were brought together in some essential coitus
Would the child be good?
Not surprisingly, given my tastes, for the most part I responded more deeply and immediately to the prose rather than the poetry. That said, 'Janus: Sonnet', which I'm reproducing in full here simply because it needs to be seen so for full effect (if anyone complains that it goes against fair use, I will of course take it down!), rather took my breath away, as a technical feat and as a sentiment, both:
Sufficient time for faith and miracles
We find we cannot fit into our days;
And nothing's left at all that joyous dwells
Inside the heart. The spark of spirit stays
Too small for dreamburst, and all earth may prove
Inadequate for art. No human is
This potent all alone, and fear kills love...
Love kills fear, and alone: all-potent, this.
No human is inadequate for art,
For dreamburst; and all earth may prove too small.
The spark of spirit stays inside the heart
That joyous dwells, and nothing's left at all
We cannot fit into our days. We find
For faith and miracles, sufficient time.
As in the poetry, so too - more so - in the prose. The mash-ups and evocations of other authors are less pronounced, and Ford apparently more interested in steering his own course, in the prose. Nonetheless, there are always far more things going on under the surface of a John M. Ford story than you're ever likely to spot on a first read, or even subsequent ones. For that matter, often the plot itself is tricky to pin down, because Ford tended to opt for distancing narrators who keep their cards close to their chest and talk in allusions and circumlocutions. This was clearly a stylistic preference - Ford seeking to retain mystery, assuming his readers could keep up, or simply (one sometimes feels) getting impatient with extraneous things like explanation and description.
Often, though, it is central to how a given story works. This is particularly pronounced in 'The Persecutor's Tale', for example, which reads like Italo Calvino's Castle of Crossed Destinies as told by Severian from Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. A group of strangers, all travellers who are on the road for different reasons, spend the night in the same inn, and pass the evening by swapping stories about themselves. The one that we linger over - and the one that disturbs its hearers - belongs to a gaunt man, who names himself a "persecutor for the state", a sort of official Fury whose job it is to hound - unto madness - those whose crimes are "beyond the reach of ordinary law". A persecutor does not physically harm his victim, merely shadows him through the rest of his life: a masked, invasive presence, repeatedly shredding any hope of privacy and serving as constant reminder of the crime. In response to the fearful hostility of the others, the gaunt man gives a brief account of one of his cases, which climaxes with his description of the criminal/victim's state of mind:
"Many persons under persecution choose to multiply their identities; very often it is the last phase of events. For when night after night the persecutor continues to appear, the subject knows, first, that he cannot escape the state; second, that whatever he may call himself, he is the same thing within... the evil knows its territory. And there is a third thing that he comes to know... that a person without an identity is dead. We all need some 'I'."
His audience, like Ford's reader, is captivated by the tale, so distracted by the clues dropped - apparently indicating that the persecutor's target is one of the assembled company - that all concerned miss the point. For the whole thing is an elaborate bait-and-switch; the gaunt man, in fact, is the criminal/victim fleeing into different identities. The persecutor, it turns out, is the narrator, who interposes himself into the story at the beginning,
If not for the interruption of our journey, I do not think we would have noticed one another at all. I except myself, of course; but my observations are not detected by my subjects. They would be valueless otherwise.
- and then again at the end, using his ring to release a toxin into the gaunt man's neck, which, to judge by his behaviour the following morning, causes him to forget who he is entirely. (The persecutor notes that the ring has two toxins, although he only names the other, "Remembrance", which brings "death by convulsion, often breaking bones"). Otherwise, the persecutor-narrator watches without comment, leaving us uncertain how accurate is the gaunt man's portrayal of persecution, whether he told the truth about his crime, or how final is the dose from the ring - is this a final punishment, the irrevocable destruction of the criminal/victim's self? Or might recollection slowly seep back, and with it the knowledge that the whole cycle of persecution is to begin again? Ford, and his narrator, leave the implications to our imagination. (Likewise, how far we might imagine 'author/narrator' and 'persecutor' to be synonyms in general.)
Compare this with 'Chromatic Aberration', which uses the same chillingly precise narrative voice only to subvert it. The story was first published in 1984, and the date turns out to be entirely appropriate, for it is a piece about the elasticity of language and the many ways in which meaning can be manipulated, lost, and encoded through even the smallest alterations in terminology or syntax - with specific reference to ideologically-driven alterations that are imposed from above.
These words summarize the credo of the revolution: What was true then, is not true now. These words summarize the credo of revolution. Thus by the subtraction of a single three-letter word is a declarative fact made into a platitude. Yet is the platitude any less valid? Can we not therefore say that the word the was unnecessary, that its meaning was overdetermined? Surely so. Suppose we broaden the analysis to the credo itself: subtract the word true, in fact subtract it twice. What was then, is not now. Just as meaningful, just as valid. Are then to assume that truth can be extracted from any statement without altering its essential meaning? Continue the process. What was, is not. Something is wrong here: we have reduced the statement by half, and suffered no loss in value.
It takes the form of a series of vignettes that together build up a partial picture of the coming of a revolution and the fall of the "ancient world" it replaces, told by a narrator who appears to be the very mouthpiece of the revolution, and structured around evocations of the 'new' colours that were created (or, in the revolution's own terms, properly perceived for the first time) in the wake of the revolution. Such a transformative event was the revolution, we are told, that it altered even something so fundamental as the colours of the rainbow, made people see differently ("the modern world could see things the ancients could not. She saw still in the ancient manner, which is to say, she could not see at all, but felt her way blindly through halls of memory.").
This is both true and false. It emerges, over the course of the story, that the 'new' colours are nothing more than the old ones renamed arbitrarily (redor, angeyel, lowgre, etc). Yet at the time it is undeniable that such a traumatic upheaval as this society has undergone would alter perceptions; that for better or worse it would create new categories, new ways of seeing things, and bring new significance to the familiar. Redor was the colour of the flame that burned a scroll memorialising those who died for the revolutionary cause; lowgre is that of the "modern army"'s uniforms; the discussion of eindi gives us the story of the "Night Physician" and her ruthless treatment of dissidents and disorder.
This last section also, incidentally, gives us a taste of the more straightforward charms of Ford's prose, besides the dexterity of his use of language, as he reels us in with cool, languid description of pre-dawn skies and echoing hospital corridors before the plot-trap snaps shut, on us as much on as the Physician's hapless victim. All of these things represent, for those living under the revolutionary regime, new emotional landmarks, new experiences, and new fears; perhaps even this attempt to monopolise and bind expression only gives it new outlets. Perhaps.
The twist in the tail of all this is alluded to only at the end: that the narrator, apparently so strident in support of the official propaganda, has embedded a hidden message to the reader in the very structure of the piece, in the transitions between each vignette. Twelve words about, of course, truth and lies. As I said above, in Ford nothing is incidental; everything has more meaning than at first appears.
And I think that's quite enough for one evening. Back tomorrow with the rest.