Tuesday, April 10, 2007

REVIEW: All the Songs of Heroes

Disclaimers: Unlike many of my readers, I did not know the late John Milo “Mike” Ford. I first encountered his work in Neil Gaiman’s blog and in his inimitable contributions to Making Light. If he ever posted to any of the Usenet groups I used to frequent, it’s so long ago that I don’t recall it.

When, several years ago, I picked up The Dragon Waiting, I didn’t even realize that the John M. Ford was the Mike Ford who was so often mentioned by my friends in fandom, nor that he was Elise’s “dear Mr. Ford.” The book looked interesting, and it was on the fiction shelves of Alan and Debbie—a sure guarantee of literary quality.

I devoured it—gulped it down, and read as much of his work as I could find in the succeeding weeks. It was subtle, brilliant, complex, and humane. I wished I could meet an author capable of writing such a dazzling novel in his mid-twenties. Our one chance was spoiled when he broke his foot just before he and Elise were to meet Alan and me in Las Vegas.

Literary criticism can be a touchy business, especially when the late author is widely known and loved. But criticism is the wrong word here; I’ll leave that to Derrida and nagging parents. Call it literary commentary. Worse, this commentary is not even a broad survey by an expert in the field or a definitive summing-up of a career. It’s a brief look at a single facet of a highly complex oeuvre. Death in the work of Mike Ford.

Mike Ford died young, and he spent four-fifths of his life dealing with chronic illness. From age 11 on, he had severe Type I diabetes. Eventually it wrecked his kidneys; a transplant gave him six extra years of life. Many of the people who knew and loved him say he lived a good ten years beyond what he expected, and they all credit his longterm partner Elise for saving his life. (alanbostick also says his writing was just the icing on the cake—that knowing him was even more rewarding than reading him.) Mike would have been fifty years old today.

I returned to Mike Ford’s work because I’ve been trying to whip up a certain rage at encroaching death. If I could feel it on his behalf, maybe I could learn to feel it for myself. Things did not work out that way. I found something infinitely more precious and joyful there.

WARNING: spoilers for The Dragon Waiting, How Much for Just the Planet?, Heat of Fusion and Other Stories

The Dragon Waiting, a subtle, brilliant alternate history, offers a plausible solution to the mystery of the Princes in the Tower. The divergences from history start with the existence of vampires. Instead of dying young, the Emperor Julian the Apostate became a vampire and survived long enough to bring back paganism, which resulted in a cascade of changes: Christianity is a minority religion, and Byzantium still rules most of Europe.

All vampire stories play with death. Ford’s play is both explicit and implicit.Explicitly, his vampires are individuals confronting the ugly realities: some gladly surrender their humanity and revel in bloodlust; others build relationships where occasional blood feeding is a gift for the family vampire, who otherwise subsists on animal blood alone; others confine themselves to animals and perhaps dying soldiers on a battlefield. One spends much of the book close to suicide; he keeps facing the terror of living (almost) forever. Incidentally, the vampire subplots are blessedly free from morbid romanticism; Ford’s chief vampire is an engineer.

The implicit playing with death is more subtle and almost lost in the conventions of alternate history. But Mike Ford not only works through the changes of history that his hypothetical situation entails, he also grants Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, a life that does not end on the scaffold—and the kind of lover he deserved. Rivers, a scholar and parfit gentle knight, may have been the only sympathetic Woodville. He was certainly the most literate of them.

The textual complexities of The Dragon Waiting are not an adequate preparation for How Much for Just the Planet? Nothing short of a PhD in popular culture and a large canister of nitrous oxide could possibly prepare the reader for this book. Try to imagine a Star Trek novel that starts with an inflatable rubber spaceship. Or one that combines the French farce of Georges Feydeau and the hometown nostalgia of Ray Bradbury. Or one that simultaneously riffs off Shakespeare, Gilbert and Sullivan, The Maltese Falcon, and half a dozen other cultural icons. Or one that finishes, as Dr. Strangelove was supposed to, with a cream-pie fight and the end of the world as we know it.

Now try to think of them all at once.

That’s the magnificently silly gift Mike Ford gave us in How Much for Just the Planet? I can’t compare it to any other Star Trek novel, because I’ve never read any other Star Trek novels. If they’re all this good, I have to catch up on some reading. But I doubt it. Very few writers of any genre are as skilled, inventive, playful, and profoundly humane as the author of this romp.

Also smart. He must have had a mind crammed with trivia and a library full of obscure and fascinating books and movies. Even as I laughed over allusions to “Peppermint Soda” and “Animal House,” I knew I must be missing a dozen allusions to every one I got—an experience positively Silverlockian. Clearly he was having fun: several well-known SF authors appear as characters, and he plays endlessly with the conventions of the genre.

How Much for Just the Planet? is a relatively early book, but its splendid foolery contains a key to the rest of the novelist and poet’s work. The settlers of a small, beautiful planet have made the place home, despite being there only one generation. Unfortunately, their planet has enormous dilithium reserves, which the Klingons and the Federation both need. And so our hero plots his roaring farce, recruits almost everyone else on the planet to participate in Plan C, and plays ringmaster to the comedy that greets the inevitable invasion of dilithium seekers.

He knew the life he loved couldn’t last. So he greeted the end of that life with a pie in the face.

The stories and poems in Heat of Fusion and Other Stories deal variously with death. In the title story, a scientist in a post-apocalyptic world is dying of radiation poisoning. The government urges him to write down his notes on the fusion experiments to create a new bomb, but he has arranged that any successful fusion will destroy the lab and everyone near it—including himself. His last words are “light. triumph”—an extraordinary greeting for death.

“Shelter from the Storm” returns to themes and tropes familiar from How Much for Just the Planet? A small planet, caught at a moment of vulnerability, must defend itself against attack by overwhelming forces. It’s classic hard SF, but it’s also a nuanced, tender love song to a home, a long life, a marriage, and a family Ford knew he would never live to have. The protagonist, Marshall Kinbote, is married to a calm and beautiful woman. “I would have been dead without Elise thirty years ago. Even if my body continued to breathe, I would have been dead.”

Knowing they cannot win in straightforward battle, Kinbote discovers that his daughter’s fiancé has been trained in a kind of guerrilla warfare: carefully targeted sabotage that so disrupts the plans of the attacking enemy that they must give up the attempt. The fiancé explains that he has been shaped into something like a werewolf—and warns the daughter that only someone who loves the werewolf can ultimately slay him.

“Dateline: Colonus” brings Oedipus to small-town America, where he and his daughters stop at a roadside café run by the Kindly Ones, Theseus is sheriff, and the self-blinded old man is able to end his life in peace, leaving great blessings for the place where he dies.

“Dark Sea,” one of the long poems in Heat of Fusion, sends an ancient Greek poet into space with modern Stellar-Namers and Readers of Earth. And in that poem, Ford states his lifelong theme clearly—though with characteristic doubleness. “All the songs of heroes are songs of Death.” All the songs sung by heroes, all the songs sung about heroes. “We sing because we die; the song goes on.”

Mike Ford was a hero. All his life he saw the dragon waiting, and he teased it, played with it, danced with it, told it stories, and pulled rabbits out of hats to entertain it. When he finally mounted it and rode away, he was kind enough to leave us some poems and stories to amuse us while we wait our turn.

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