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Science-Fiction writer John M. Ford dies
Crafters of sci-fi attend obscure writer's eulogy
Peers laud Minneapolis author for his unpredictable works
BY TAD VEZNER
There's fiction, and then fiction. Really making things up.
Minneapolis science fiction writer John Milo "Mike" Ford dreaded the fable told a thousand times — the story casually predicted, pages from the end.
Ford's stories were so unpredictable they landed him, impoverished, in a one-bedroom apartment in South Minneapolis' Wedge district, where he died last month. On Friday, more than 100 genre writers, editors and industry gurus from across the country converged on a Twin Cities church to pay homage.
Writers adored him. Masses seldom read him.
The best-selling fantasy genre writer in the country, James Rigney (pen name: Robert Jordan), called Ford "the best writer in America — bar none." New York Times best-selling sci-fi author and Wisconsinite Neil Gaiman called Ford "my best critic … the best writer I knew."
Rigney and Gaiman began and ended a four-part eulogy for the 49-year-old man who hobbled across the streets of south Minneapolis, cane in hand, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, a kidney transplant, high blood pressure, retinal neuropathy, and the after-effects of several heart attacks. A science fiction, mystery and fantasy author of 14 novels and compilations, Ford crafted complex ventures in a city long accustomed to nurturing the genre.
"I still don't understand what's happening here!" New York City editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden repeatedly lamented while paging through Fords' labyrinthine manuscripts.
"I have a horror of being obvious," Ford would reply.
"I confess — you have not the least idea what normal people find obvious!" the editor chucked back.
One example: Ford's take on the cookie-cutter format of the Star Trek paperback. He wrote two of the hundreds published.
Rather than starship battles cluttered with blazing photons, Ford wrote a Gilbert and Sullivan-style musical called "How Much For Just the Planet?" a classic fight between the Federation and their then-nemesis, the Klingons, which ended with a pie fight.
"After that, they (the publisher) said nobody could do that anymore," Gaiman said.
Perhaps Ford's most famous work, "The Dragon Waiting," winner of a 1984 World Fantasy Award, was about … well …
Greg Ketter, owner of Minneapolis' DreamHaven Books, could not easily describe it. "His stories were so obscure in their literary content, I guess I felt somewhat stupid reading them sometimes," he said.
The online Wikipedia defines the story as a "fantasy alternate history combining vampires, the Medicis, and the convoluted English politics surrounding Edward IV and Richard III."
"It so makes sense," said memorial attendee Jo Walton, of Montreal, another World Fantasy Award winner.
But others refer to the strato-sphere when describing Ford's writing: how he just kind of soars and glides up there, above everyone's heads.
"Most normal people had the slight sense that something large and super-intelligent and trans-human had sort of flown over," said Patrick Nielsen Hayden, senior editor and manager of the Tom Doherty Associates' sci-fi division, which publishes the powerhouse TOR books. "There would be a point where basically the plot would become so knotted and complex he would lose all of us."
Ford once confided in author Joel Rosenberg that he was revising a novella, "Fugue State."
"Oh good, does this mean you are clearing up some of the ambiguities?" Rosenberg asked.
"No, I'm adding new ones," Ford replied.
Ford's agent, Valerie Smith, remembers in 1979 when Ford got the news his first novel had been picked up: "He'd kind of blush. 'Well, I guess that's all right, then,' he'd say."
"It drove the editors crazy," said editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden. "The Iliad" reworked as a silent movie. Winning a World Fantasy Award for a poem put on a Christmas card to friends. Winning the Philip K. **** award for a story about a boy on the moon. Inventing a Klingon language. Coining the term "cyberpunk" in what was likely the first novel of that genre, according to Rigney and others.
Rigney remembered Ford sipping tea in his pantry, watching The Weather Channel with the sound turned off.
"I like the plot," Ford explained. But Ford's menagerie of ideas, ideals and styles kept him from continuity. And a decent living.
"He was never someone who had much money," said Ketter, who, among others, sometimes spotted for Ford's dinner.
"His problem wasn't the writing. He had the other writer's problem: paying the rent," Gaiman agreed.
Born in East Chicago, raised in Whiting, Ind., Ford began reading at 3 and attended Indiana University at 16. He quit to help start Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.
About 1990, he moved to Minneapolis, where he joined an enclave of science fiction writers known as "the Scribblers" — some of whom rented him an apartment for writing.
"Minneapolis has always been disproportionately important to professional written science fiction and fantasy," Nielsen Hayden said. "It goes back to the 1950s and 1960s."
Ford was found dead of natural causes Sept. 25 in his Garfield Avenue apartment by Elise Matthesen, his partner since the late 1980s. In the end, Ford plugged away at an unfinished finale 14 years in the making: a story titled "Aspects." It would have been six times the length of a typical novel.
"It's a fantasy version of the British 19th century," Nielsen Hayden begins … "No, it isn't!" his wife corrects.
"Then they get on a train …" "… very much like an alternate Roman Empire …" "… Victorian architecture and Georgian politics …" "… And music!"
It takes three industry veterans to rattle off Ford's conception.
Or what maybe it might have been about.
Last edited by toomuchcoffee : Oct 28, 2006 at 12:41 PM.