Interview: John M. Ford
By Mary Anne Mohanraj and Fred Bush
29 April 2002
Mary Anne Mohanraj: We're delighted to have the opportunity to interview John M. Ford, author of six SF/F novels, two Star Trek novels, two short story collections, various anthologies, many more short stories, quite a few poems, and even some essays, articles, and reviews. Ford won the World Fantasy Award in 1984 for The Dragon Waiting, the Philip K. Dick Award in 1993 for Growing up Weightless, and the Rhysling Award in 1989 for "Winter Solstice, Camelot Station." He's been nominated several times for quite a few other awards, and is surely one of the most prolific and versatile writers working in the field today.
I've been a longtime fan of Ford's work, particularly of his Star Trek novel, The Final Reflection, though I'm also very fond of Growing Up Weightless. Fred Bush, our senior articles editor, will be joining me for this interview, as he's also a longtime reader of Ford's writings.
Fred Bush: The first book I read with Ford's byline was actually a role-playing supplement, GURPS: Time Travel. Then I picked up a copy of How Much For Just the Planet?, laughed like a maniac for hours, and immediately went hunting for more. I'm happy to get a chance to interview someone who shares my obsessions.
We'll start this discussion with a few questions about the novels in general, and then move into specifics.
FB: Do you intend your novels to be completely comprehensible the first time through? They remind me of works by John Crowley or Gene Wolfe -- delightfully opaque. Or maybe I'm just desperately obtuse.
John M. Ford: It depends on what you mean by "completely comprehensible." I don't think anyone wants a reader to be completely lost -- certainly not to the point of giving up -- but there's something to be said for a book that isn't instantly disposable, that rewards a second reading.
There are readers who want every point to be clearly and unambiguously set forth, and there are those who want to pry ideas and meanings out for themselves. Most people want some of both, and there's no mechanical rule on where to set the balance.
MM: That was going to be one of my questions too. Many of your novels are very dense with complex invented cultures that aren't really ever explained to the reader. I've learned to have faith that by the end of the book, I'll understand most of what's going on, but there's usually a while at the beginning of each novel when I'm totally lost. Did you intend that? Have other readers found it difficult (that you know of)? Why do you structure your books that way?
JMF: Totally lost? No.
Have others found it difficult? Sure.
Why? One reason is that societies don't generally have large signs explaining how they work for the benefit of visitors. (It might be a better world if they did, but.) Sometimes one character can plausibly explain things to another -- the Stranger in Town, or the Young Person -- or a knowledgeable character can think about (say) the history and craft of the Thackeray Shifting Spanner while using one to tighten a loose plot point.
The ideal, it seems to me, is to show things happening and allow the reader to decide what they mean. Sometimes the reader will decide something else than the author's intent; this is certainly true of attempts to empirically decipher reality.
There's a comment of Michael Moorcock's about protagonists who are defined, not by what they say to the reader, but by what they choose to say. There are people who believe in an absolutely transparent prose; with every respect for clarity of expression, I don't. There's a difference between (say) "The wind rattled the windows" and "the wind beat on the windows." The second implies volition, menace -- and if you don't want to imply those things, use the first.
FB: In his review of your latest book, The Last Hot Time, Chris Cobb talks about how the book is best understood retrospectively, with what's discovered later allowing you to understand what's come before. But sometimes in your fiction the ending is just as uncertain as the beginning. For instance, near the end of Growing Up Weightless, you have politician Albin Ronay offer five different possible explanations for some of the important plot elements, and it's left uncertain (at least to me) what the "truth" is. Do you feel that there's one "correct" way to read your novels? Or do you value a certain uncertainty at the level of plot?
JMF: Algis Budrys has written about what he calls "validation," establishing at the end of a story that the story has indeed been resolved. A simple genre-fiction validation is the hero's winning the high-noon gunfight and being embraced by the schoolmarm while the bad guy is carried off to Boot Hill. (I note that there are arguments about validation, and if I've misrepresented Budrys it's my fault.)
FB: We'll let the readers decide; an essay by Budrys describing his idea of validation is online.
JMF: For many readers, validation includes being told "what happened": a diagram of all the plot machinery that led to this point. "The guy on the bridge was signalling the motorcade to slow down, while the man in the blue overcoat took windage for the sniper." In mystery stories in particular, the reader is often trying to guess Who Did It?, and wants an unequivocal answer.
There is nothing wrong with this.
FB: Phew! I feel better now.
JMF: It does, however, require characters who can see that complete picture and explain it. I don't usually have those characters. Albin Ronay is well-informed and highly placed, but he's not omniscient; he may even know (or believe he knows) the chain of events, but for what he considers to be sound social and political reasons he's not going to publish it.
SF/F is very often about The Event -- getting the space colony built, defeating the Dark Overlord; the characters are there to help or impede that effort, and to tell us what we're supposed to think about it. I want to come at it from the characters' angle, and trust the reader to decide what the moral implications are. (Naturally, the reader has access only to the events I show and the way I show them, but as has been said, there's generally a good deal of ambiguity in that presentation.)
This is not done, or at least not deliberately done, to make the books "literature." I'm very happy that the New York Times has spoken well of my stuff; who wouldn't be? But it's not a choice I made. If I am "literary," it's because I like books and stories, and there seems to me a good reason why people still read Homer, while Elinor Glyn and Dennis Wheatley must be periodically recycled as Judith Krantz and Tom Clancy.
FB: Praise from the NY Times seems to be an entrée into larger literary circles than genre fiction readers; has it worked out that way?
JMF: No, but I haven't been trying to do that. I see a positive Times review not so much as "literary cachet" as exposing the book to a broader group of potential readers.
FB: Your novels are located in a tight web of literary allusions. I'm a grad student in English Lit, and I marvel at the breadth and command of wordplay that your characters display. How important do you feel that the "great works of literature" will be in the future? I mean, even now most people don't memorize Shakespearean verse, let alone have enough mastery to slip it into conversations as casually as your characters do.
JMF: The language fictional characters use is chosen for effect, at least if the author is concentrating. It is representational, and a good many writers of "realistic" dialogue -- George V. Higgins, Dashiell Hammett, David Mamet -- are in fact extremely stylized artists. Mary Renault's characters don't speak in hexameter; they speak in a demotic English that gives -- or perhaps more correctly, does not break -- the illusion that they are speaking the language of classical times.
Not many people memorize Shakespeare, but most English-speakers absorb bits of it, and play back lines like "to be or not to be" almost unconsciously. Contemporary speech is as loaded with reference and allusion as any other, possibly more so; the fact that the allusions are to tabloid headlines or what happened on Buffy last night doesn't change that.
FB: In The Dragon Waiting, you end the narrative with a quote from Perkin Warbeck, which is, of course, a play by the other John Ford, the Elizabethan dramatist. Web of Angels begins with a quote from Perkin Warbeck, and ends with a quote from Stagecoach, which is, of course, a movie by the other other John Ford, the noted director of Westerns. What affinities do you see between yourself as a writer and these other John Fords?
JMF: The answer is "not much." The epigraphs were really just an in-joke -- an affectation, if you prefer -- though the quotes were chosen to be relevant.
FB: Let's move now to some discussion of your individual novels. I've seen Web of Angels cited as a proto-cyberpunk novel, and certainly it seems to fit some of the genre conventions: a galaxy-spanning Web controlled by corporate interests, rebel hackers attacking the system. Do you think of it as cyberpunk? What kinds of similarities and differences do you see between the cyber-society you created and the one we have now?
JMF: It's one of several stories -- Brunner's The Shockwave Rider, Vinge's "True Names" -- that recognize the arrival of information networks. The label "cyberpunk" doesn't mean much to me, as it's been applied indiscriminately to anything with a computer net in it, whether or not the Net is a story element.
FB: Yeah, cyberpunk became quite a marketing tool, it seems. But I think that's because these novels -- yours included -- tapped into a frenzied desire for mythmaking about computers, an attempt to integrate computers into established genres.
JMF: What I think the writers mostly got right about the Net was the power of access to information -- the fact that, with laptops and satellite links, it is no longer possible to seal a location off from communication, and we are having to rethink what "privacy" means on a very basic level. On the other hand, we tended to present this in terms of Talented Lone Protagonists, that being a convention of genre fiction, and our TLPs were, by that convention, people of strong moral character who could be counted on to use their powers only for good.
FB: I'm sure many hackers do consider themselves to be "Talented Lone Protagonists" as they rip off Microsoft or bring down government Web sites.
JMF: If I were to write Web now, it would be a much, much darker book. At one point I intended to write precursor and sequel novels, about the establishment of the Web and its next evolution, but I am very unlikely to now; they would take place in a different universe.
MM: I really adored The Final Reflection, your Klingon Star Trek novel. It seemed a real departure to me from the typical Star Trek novel, in that it took place almost entirely in the Klingon empire, with Kirk, Spock and McCoy just making brief guest appearances. What were you aiming to do, with that novel?
JMF: Well, it's an adventure story, and a Bildungsroman, of course, but there was also the intention to describe a culture that had been seen in rather narrow terms. [The book] doesn't deliberately contradict anything we had seen of the Klingons (remembering that it was written just after the first film, long before the Next Generation series), but it shows them in a much broader context.
If all anthropologists were military personnel whose only contact with the groups they studied was in situations of armed conflict (even if not actual violence), the picture they provided of those cultures would probably be less than rounded and objective.
And it is a "toss you into the culture" novel; while the main character is probably more flexible of thought than many of those around him, he's not a rebel against his society (think of all those dystopian sf novels where the protagonist, having lived happily for twenty-odd years with the oppressive dictatorship, abruptly decides he ought to go to the barricades). There are things he won't do, because he considers them dishonorable and therefore wrong; but they aren't always the same things that our culture calls dishonorable and wrong.
FB: You've talked about the sorts of characters you usually write about. Do you usually begin a novel or a story with a character, or with a society?
JMF: I would say usually with a situation. Final Reflection was always going to be a view of Klingon society exclusively from the inside; the Bildungsroman seemed an obvious format for that, which led to the notion of a character who, while fully inside the society, was "different" enough that he would, for survival's sake, constantly have to think about how things around him really worked. In Last Hot Time, the character was going to be thrown into water much deeper than he ever could have expected; he had to be naive in many ways, but with skills that would make him valuable (and keep him at the center of the action, as, say, a mathematical whiz kid wouldn't be) and a certain amount of early maturity.
As I said, I'm interested in character stories more than explications of imaginary societies (Reflection was halfway an exception), so I don't usually choose a viewpoint character with the best expository position, and I try hard to maintain control of viewpoint.
FB: As I said earlier, my first experience with your fiction was the hilarious How Much For Just the Planet? What kind of responses did you get to that book from Star Trek fans? It seems like such a departure from the "standard" Trek novel.
MM: Yes, a madcap Gilbert and Sullivan romp. On the face of it, not very Star Trek . . . though it did also seem to mesh well with the classic Trek crew dynamic. Did the readers get it? Did it do what you wanted it to?
JMF: The response I've seen has been overwhelmingly positive. People tell me they laughed hard enough to wake their spouses, that they've given away numerous copies to friends, and that it's the one Trek book they'll give to people they wouldn't expect to like others.
The people who don't like it tend to dislike it intensely. That's unfortunate, but not surprising when one deliberately goes against audience expectations.
It's certainly satirical toward some of the standard Trek concepts, but it's not meant to be "mean" -- characters are embarrassed, but nobody's harmed in the end. (One review said, "everybody gets handed a towel after the pie fight." ) And, in the way of much farce (Feydeau in particular), many of the characters create or complicate their awkward situations by trying to avoid being caught in embarrassing circumstances.
Terry Gilliam recently said of Brazil that the people who "got it" loved it, and the people who didn't never would -- and that he'd rather have made a film that got that kind of polar response than one that everyone thought was, well, okay. I feel that way too. Now, if Planet had been overwhelmingly unpopular -- if only a handful of the readers had laughed -- then I might call it a failure (I still wouldn't be sorry I'd done it). But my perception is of a great plurality of laughter out there, and that was the book's sole and exclusive intention.
FB: Could you talk a little about your writing for Steve Jackson Games? Besides GURPS Time Travel, I know you've had a hand in their Discworld adaptation and a couple others. How much similarity is there between games writing and speculative fiction in your mind?
JMF: Not sure I understand the question in those terms. Creating the fictional background for a game world isn't significantly different from creating a background for fiction. There may only be one story told in the novel-world, as distinct from the many adventures the players have in the game-world. The Lensman series mainly follows Kimball Kinnison and his companions, but Smith built a huge universe and filled it with a huge conflict, and there must be other Lensmen (and even some ordinary folks) having adventures there as well.
A game scenario is different from a story in that it needs to be, to some degree, open; in a story the author orchestrates the course and timing of events -- just ask Boromir -- while in gameplay the players ought to be given as much free will as possible. A scenario isn't a story that the gamemaster reads to the players, it's an outline for improvisational storytelling.
Oh, and I wouldn't have used the word "speculative" in the question, for two reasons: one, roleplay is not confined to SF/fantasy themes (though they are in the majority), and storytelling doesn't care if it's speculative or not.
FB: Let me be a little more general, then. A lot of fantasy novelists, like Raymond E. Feist and Steven Brust, have based some of their series on roleplaying sessions. How do you feel your experience writing (and presumably, participating in) roleplaying games has shaped your fiction?
JMF: Very little. I would say it was the other way around; I was trying to work out how to tell stories long before there were RPGs (the statement in Clute and Nicholls [Encyclopedia of Science Fiction] that my game work came before my published SF is wrong, by the way).
Again, the elements of story -- plot, character, conflict -- are common, but the format is quite different; gamemastering is improvisational and reactive, written fiction isn't. Chip Delany has an excellent essay on the subject (in, I believe, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw).
JMF: They're a fascinating social development, though I find the meta-features more interesting than the games -- the idea of auctioning one's character online, for instance, or the players who hang around the places where new characters appear in the game specifically to ambush and kill the new arrivals before they can get oriented.
I don't, however, have any real interest in playing them. I like live interaction, am not much interested in RPing with strangers, and my taste in computer games runs to solo strategy games like Civilization and, of course, Railroad Tycoon.
FB: It seems like you've been ahead of the speculative curve for quite a while now: you wrote some of the first media tie-in novels, one of the first novels to address information technology's implications, and you wrote alternate history before it was "big." We're getting towards the end of this interview, time to break out the Heavy Questions -- what directions do you see science fiction taking now? Care to make any predictions about the next big thing?
JMF: The cynical part of the answer is that I expect to see a good deal more space opera, set far enough in the future as to be disconnected from contemporary issues. (This is by no means a swipe at the form; writers like Melissa Scott and Lois Bujold are doing excellent, thoughtful work.)
I can't "predict" any more than the next person. The two Zeitgeistig topics now in sci/tech seem to be environmental catastrophe and bioethics. The first has long been an SF subject, especially in Britain -- John Wyndham at one point of the spectrum and J. G. Ballard at quite another -- though these days it seems more the realm of the mainstream disaster novel. The second, I would think, has potential for a novel that shakes up the discussion of "essential humanity" -- the next Left Hand of Darkness, if you like, and about time too.
A dozen or so years ago I started a book on the consequences of the complete failure of data security -- a society where any information transmitted electronically can be read by anyone interested enough to do so, and the only way to maintain privacy is to keep the data on paper, or in someone's head. I let it drop, and now it seems like last year's model. I do have a story in the works on a different aspect of massive data structures, but, well, it's not ready for discussion.
The usual disclaimer: SF is not about the actual consequences of technological change, because we can only make informed guesses about that. (Some of those guesses turn out astoundingly accurate, but sometimes you pick the right number at roulette, too.) What it is about -- its utility, for those who must have utilitarian fiction -- is its premise that there will be consequences, mostly unexpected; the world will be different.
FB: And speaking of what the future has in store for us -- to conclude this interview, let me just ask, which projects are you working on right now?
JMF: Mainly, a very long fantasy novel called Aspects (this may or may not be the actual title). It's a sociopolitical story -- the society and politics are vaguely Georgian, though the technology is steam-era Victorian -- in a place where magic happens to work. It'll be done . . . well, when it's done.
FB: And we too are done. Thanks very much for your time!
Mary Anne Mohanraj is the Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons.
Fred Bush is the Senior Articles Editor of Strange Horizons.