John M. Ford

Science-fiction writer and poet

John Milo Ford, writer: born 10 April 1957; died Minneapolis c 24 September 2006.

His career might have seemed all fits and starts, except that his voice was unmistakable no matter what he wrote. The science-fiction writer and poet John M. Ford achieved long before his early death, almost by stealth, a quite extraordinary breadth of recognition for his contributions to American self-knowledge.

Decades of severe ill-health severely hampered his productivity, but never diminished the passionately immaculate control he maintained over the form and content of the 100 or so stories and poems he allowed into print over 30 years. Even his occasional Star Trek novelisations had moments that seemed magically ardent, that seemed able to invoke some of the more superficial aspects of the American Dream without mocking them.

There seems no reason for Ford's reticence about his early life, except for the fact that he claimed that it was not of any interest to describe. He was born near Chicago in 1957, and attended the University of Indiana, but did not graduate. While still a teenager he published his first professional short story, "This, Too, We Reconcile", in 1976. His first novel, Web of Angels (1980), gracefully inhabited something very much like the cyberspace William Gibson created four years later in Neuromancer; but Ford lacked Gibson's vital haunted urgency, or his mesmerising sense that the future was already in our bones.

Indeed it soon became clear that Ford was deeply uninterested in getting the future right, that instead he used the tools of his trade - his very considerable if conservative skills as a poet and author of tightly organised fiction, his deep knowledge of the literatures of the fantastic of the Western world, and his intimately Gothic sense of the past of his native land - to compose in verse and prose archaeologies of the given.

Though each of his few novels differed markedly from the other, they all shared a sense that the tales they told were being told in retrospect; as though they had been dug up to be treasured, and perhaps to tell us something about where we come from. The Dragon Waiting: a masque of history (1983), which won a World Fantasy Award, poignantly comments on the world that made us through its vision of an alternate medieval Europe without religion. The title of Growing Up Weightless (1993), which takes place on the already settled Moon, precisely designates the fate of those expected to grow up without history; the story itself is not about finding the future, but searching for roots.

From the early days of his career, Ford's health was uncertain, but, although he attended relatively few of the conventions and conferences so often held in the SF field, he soon established a reputation as an exceedingly witty writer and raconteur, and as an alarmingly well-read polymath.

He was a slender, slightly abstract-seeming man, and he gave the almost certainly false impression that he uttered his jokes and spoofs and infodumps without forethought; he always seemed a bit startled at what he had just said. But his health deteriorated. He had been diagnosed as a diabetic at the age of 11; and also suffered from diseases of the kidney (after long dialysis, he was given a transplant in 2000). In later years, the internet allowed him to maintain his large circle of friends, as witness the hundreds of tributes to him that appeared on various sites in the days after his death.

His last works were perhaps his best. The Last Hot Time (2000) brilliantly and compactly depicts an America reconstructed by magic into a world of Return, where the pleasures and miseries of the 20th century can be acted out, once again, by Americans otherwise lost in the new. The stories and poems assembled in Heat of Fusion (2004) reiterate a sense that in order to live honourably one must take responsibility for one's roots. We must honour what has happened.

Nowhere is this moral vision more vividly conveyed than in "110 Stories", a poem which has become famous on the net for its powerful and intricate depiction of the destruction of the World Trade Centre in 2001; each of its 110 lines is an end-stopped fragment of a different participant's point of view of the tragedy. The passion that infuses this intricate structure is as intense as that which might infuse a sestina by William Empson:

The steel turns red, the framework starts to go.

Jacks clasp Jills' hands and step onto the sky.

The noise was not like anything you know.

Stand still, he said, and watch a building die.

There's no one you can help above this floor.

We've got to hold our breath. We've got to climb.

Don't give me that; I did this once before.

The firemen look up, and know the time.

These labored, took their wages, and are dead.

The cracker-crumbs of fascia sieve the light.

The air's deciduous of letterhead.

The reprieve of the transplant did not last. Alarmed that he had not answered her e-mails, Elise Matthesen, his partner of the past 13 years, came to his long-time home in Minneapolis at two in the morning on Monday, and found him dead. His death was from natural causes. She has recorded that, from the expression on his face, he seemed a bit startled.

John Clute