Pluralistic: 26 Sep 2021


Today's links



The cover of John M Ford's 'Scholars of the Night.'

The Scholars of Night (permalink)

John M Ford ("Mike" to his many friends) was one of science fiction's most accomplished writers, by which I mean, his accomplishments were so prodigious as to be slightly bewildering.

If he hadn't been so mind-bogglingly quick-witted in person, it would be tempting to believe that his books were the product of several eccentric geniuses. Everything he did, he did brilliantly, and he did so very much.

He was the author of several bestselling, award-winning RPG modules, and a Star Trek novel that was also a Gilbert and Sullivan musical, and a string of genre-crossing novels that used pulp conventions to create transcendent, glittering tales that amazed and delighted.

Ford was beloved of those who knew him. When he died – 15 years ago this week – the tributes were incredible. Here's Neil Gaiman:

https://journal.neilgaiman.com/2006/09/john-m-ford.html

And the thread on Making Light:

http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/008033.html#008033

But the sorrow quickly turned to horror as it became clear that some kind of complications with his family and his estate planning meant that his work was unlikely to come back into print – that it might just slip beneath the waves of time and sink out of sight.

Ford's death spurred many of us to get out literary estates in order and to name literary executors (if I die suddenly, John Scalzi gets to make the final decisions about my work, until such time as my kid is ready to take over).

From his death in 2006 until 2019, a large part of his legacy was this cautionary tale. But then something wonderful happened. Writing for Slate, Isaac Butler detailed his 18-month journey into the mystery of Mike Ford's literary legacy.

https://slate.com/culture/2019/11/john-ford-science-fiction-fantasy-books.html

Butler recounts many of the strange and wonderful elements of Ford's biography and bibliography – his $3,000 university library fine, the proto-cyberpunk novel he published four years before Neuromancer came out.

Above all, Butler describes his versatility and virtuosity: no two books were ever alike, but every book recognizably and unmistakably a Mike Ford book, and the books were only the tip of the iceberg – the real Fordian legacy was the ephemera.

Ford was a master of doggerel and poetry, of improvised live-shows at cons, maps for fantasy novels (he was Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time cartographer), Christmas card inserts – all of it glittering with genius.

Ford had Type I diabetes and lived a life of economic and physical precarity, struggling to afford care and maintain his health. His friends helped him out, which was good, because he was estranged from his family.

After he died, the story was that they were conservative Christians who disapproved of him for myriad reasons. Butler heard they were particularly upset by his polyamory.

Various of Ford's friends, including Gaiman and Jordan, tried to buy his literary estate from his family after his death, but it didn't come to pass. Ford's friends and fans believed that the family planned to suppress his literary legacy.

But when Butler tracked down his family members, he got a very different version of the tale; they professed great pride in Ford's accomplishments, insisted that what others had taken for estrangement was really just introversion.

They said his romantic life was his own business, expressed appreciation for his partner Elise Matthesen, and claimed they had repeatedly tried to interest Ford's agent into posthumously reviving his work.

While the disparity in different versions of the story of Ford's literary legacy is never fully resolved, Butler does verify one important clue to reconciling the two versions – shortly after Ford died, his literary agent "disappeared" from the industry for years.

She attributed that disappearance to a combination of family and legal woes, and while she says that she didn't get queries from the family, Butler makes a credible case that at least some of the postmortem issues with Ford's work was down to misunderstanding.

That's bolstered by what came next. Butler's investigation led to deal between Ford's family and Tor Books, with Beth Meacham pledging to "gradually bring all of his books back into print, plus a new volume of stories, poems, Christmas cards, and other uncollected material."

And now, that process has begun. I've just finished readiing "The Scholars of Night," Ford's cold war spy thriller, in a new edition with an introduction by Charlie Stross.

https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250269171/thescholarsofnight

Scholars weaves together a global network of spies and historians and political scientists who gather around game-boards to play tabletop wargames, and in secret NATO bunkers for simulated nuclear naval battles.

It's a spy-vs-spy book, but it's a Ford book, so it blends many genres – in this case, historical fiction: its MacGuffin is a lost Christopher Marlowe manuscript that's discovered bricked up in the walls of a stately English mansion.

It's not so much that the plot of Scholars defies description, it's that Ford is so skillfull at bluffing, double-bluffing, reversing, twisting and propelling his plotlines that any attempt at summary will be both inadequate and riddled with unforgivable spoilers.

But this is such a good book, full of delicious, complex relationships – mentor-protege, comrades, respected enemies, hostile allies, sociopathic pragmist-vs-idealist, and more. Yes, it's a precision watch of a spy thriller, but it's also an astute tour of human relations.

Having Ford's work back among us, after the decade-and-a-half long drought and the doldrums where it seemed it would vanish for 75 years, until the copyright ran out, is a minor miracle, a bright spot in a difficult time.

And there's more good news to come. Last year saw the reissue of Ford's masterpiece The Dragon Waiting:

https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250269010/thedragonwaiting

In 2022, Tor will finally print Ford's unfinished magnum opus, Aspects, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman.

https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250269034/aspects

And that's just for openers. The whole of Mike Ford's catalog is coming back. I'm delighted to be able to say that I'll play a small role in this: I'm writing the introduction for the (eventual) reissue of Web of Angels, that proto-cyberpunk classic.



This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago Phil Zimmermann has no guilt over PGP https://slashdot.org/story/01/09/24/162236/philip-zimmermann-and-guilt-over-pgp

#15yrsago RIP, sf writer John M Ford http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/008033.html#008033

#15yrsago Gigantic Little Nemo book does justice to the loveliest comic ever https://memex.craphound.com/2006/09/25/gigantic-little-nemo-book-does-justice-to-the-loveliest-comic-ever/

#10yrsago That’s Disgusting! Awesomely gross picture book https://memex.craphound.com/2011/09/26/thats-disgusting-awesomely-gross-picture-book/

#5yrsago Climate denial’s internal contradictions spring from a need to defend economic doctrine https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11229-016-1198-6

#5yrsago How many Wells Fargo employees were fired for NOT committing fraud? https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2016-09-22/whistle-blowers-and-good-activists

#1yrago Adventures of a Dwergish Girl https://pluralistic.net/2020/09/25/dwergish-girl/#you-are-a-pickle



Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. Friday's progress: 327 words (20444 words total)

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Saturday's progress: 1019 words (1019 words total).

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A nonfiction book about excessive buyer-power in the arts, co-written with Rebecca Giblin, "The Shakedown." FINAL EDITS

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: Disneyland at a stroll https://craphound.com/news/2021/08/22/disneyland-at-a-stroll/
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • The Shakedown, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press 2022

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