Aspects by John M. Ford

So many weeks and months gone by, and still none of the right words about Aspects. John M. Ford sold his first story to one of the “big three” science fiction magazines before turning 20. Ford wrote a Star Trek novel from the point of view of the Klingons years before The Next Generation brought Lt. Worf to the bridge. He wrote another — How Much for Just the Planet? — that settled the main conflict with a song contest, in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The powers that be never let him write a third. He won a World Fantasy Award for a poem — “Winter Solstice, Camelot Station” — that originally appeared in his Christmas card and only later saw print in an Arthurian anthology. He wrote a gaming supplement, The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues, so perfect in its zaniness that its fame has nearly eclipsed the game for which it was written. He wrote the extraordinary sonnet “Against Entropy” in less than eight hours in response to an idle blog comment. These are some of John M. Ford’s aspects.

Aspects by John M. Ford

He wrote Web of Angels, a cyberpunk novel, four years before Neuromancer. The Dragon Waiting is a fantasy novel set in an alternate Europe where Byzantium still rules while York and Lancaster contend for the English throne. There are no dragons, unless one counts Wales. It has depths that repay numerous re-readings, and is not immune to the occasional meta joke: the story features a captain, a doctor, an engineer and a scientist together in an undertaking they occasionally refer to as “the enterprise.” It won the World Fantasy Award in 1984. He never wrote a sequel or another major work set in the same, fascinating, detailed world. He said he had a horror of the obvious. These, too, are some of the aspects of John M. Ford.

He wrote The Last Hot Time a story of magic and elves in a Chicago that’s part 1930s, part 1990s, and part post-apocalypse. It’s short and irresistible. He wrote Growing Up Weightless, a book of life on a lunar colony. It’s in dialogue with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and is so much better than Heinlein’s book that it’s almost embarrassing. He wrote a Cold War thriller about a lost Marlow play. He wrote so many short items, pastiches, parodies and occasional poems at just one site that it took twelve blog posts to begin to catalog them. And then he died. Suddenly and completely one night in September 2006.

Aspects was unfinished. It was, for many years, little more than a rumor. Ford’s works were out of print and difficult to find. I owe my copies to a dedicated friend who trawled through used-book web sites for a couple of years as we explored his works together. The story went that the family had not approved of Ford’s work, and as his will was unwitnessed and thus invalid, they were keeping him out of print. The truth was stranger and, in a way, sadder. Thanks to journalist Isaac Butler and the story linked above, Ford’s work is now returning to print, in handsome editions with fulsome forewords by authors such as Neil Gaiman and Francis Spufford.

Aspects remains unfinished, of course. There were to be six parts as Ford indicates with a sonnet sequence, one for each intended part, although the volume contains two versions of the final sonnet, alternately titled “Home from Death” or “Death and Homeward.” Part I seems complete, with four chapters; Part II nearly so, with three chapters and two pages of a fourth. Together, they amount to nearly 500 pages. Aspects was going to be a landmark, possibly even a trilogy.

It begins with a duel in Lystourel, “capital city of the Republic of Lescoray, the twenty-fifth day of Shepherd’s month, three days before the Equinoctial holiday and six until the autumn equinox itself.” (p. 3) Lord Varic, parliamentarian, sometime reformer, intended victim of political intrigue wins handily, sending the young lieutenant who was his opponent scampering away, and spoiling the aim of the duel proctor who would have shot the lieutenant for wanting to live. Ford follows Varic closely through the next week or so, revealing many aspects of the world of Lystourel, of Varic and the people around him, and people more generally.

The city is generally European with technology of the mid-19th century. There are trains, and they can be comfortable and reliable, but electric light is still an uncertain novelty. Magic works, though nowhere as reliably as science, and its human costs can be considerable. One of the novel’s aspects concerns a woman who channels powerful magic through poetry, but who has become so sensitive that she can barely stand to be in the world at all. Varic is nearly the only person who can keep her grounded. The Goddess is manifestly real, too, though there is also a state-supported church that supplies pomp and circumstance alongside the actual divinity.

Ford does not hurry at all in Aspects, one of the things that sets it off from his other, shorter novels. He takes the time to develop Varic’s friendships, particularly with one Lord Brook, a more senior parliamentarian and an ally in the cause of modernizing Lystourel’s government. There are scenes in restaurants, scenes in and around parliament as people are trying to get a last few things done before leaving the city for the impending holidays. Ford brings readers into the middle of a rich and detailed world, leaving them to their own devices to discover just what the story is about.

That’s both the joy and the tragedy of Aspects. In its unfinished state, it is still at the stage of throwing many balls up into the air and juggling them. There is a semi-forbidden love affair that develops. There are meditations on different kinds of friendships. There is an excursion into governance, dealing with banditry, and the possibilities of road-building in rough lands. There is a near-immortal who may be nearing his mortality. There are echoes of the Jean Grey/Phoenix storyline from the X-Men. A war may be brewing. A critical illness strikes. There are questions of reform, questions of religion, questions of tradition. The sonnet sequence that structures the book hints that the story would have played out through the seasons, coming back home at the end to find much changed. It is a deep and rich book, full of astute observations, charming characters, and adult concerns. It will repay re-reading, and as I write it is difficult not to fall right back in and begin re-reading immediately. What it won’t do, alas, is resolve. All of the possibilities will remain aspects.

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