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Ford, Jeffrey

Entry updated 13 November 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1955-    ) US teacher and author, most of whose work has been fantasy and horror (but see Horror in SF), though his intimately knowledgable and sophisticated use of the toolkits of Fantastika make it impossible to affix any dominant label to his oeuvre; his tales, mostly narrated by an immanent and sometimes visible Ford-like story-teller, permeate and are permeated by the conversant web (or mycelium) of the storyable. From the first, his work detectably converses with that world, and therefore contains echoes and premonitions of a large fellowship of authors, though his characteristic narrative voice is as distinctive as (say) Lucius Shepard's, but trimmer; or Ray Bradbury's, though utterly free of the lachrymose. His first publication of any interest, the short novel Vanitas (1988), shows its apprentice nature mainly through the obviousness of its associations and interplays, with idioms and venues of authors as widely separated as H P Lovecraft and M John Harrison clearly stamped into the text. The tale itself, set in a garish fantasyland, can be read as a moderately crude Science-Fantasy precursor of the New Weird "movement" briefly espoused by Harrison as well as China Miéville, whose work also has affinities with Ford's. Other writers detectable in the wide-ranging parlance of his storytelling include Stanisław Lem, Clark Ashton Smith, Cordwainer Smith, James Tiptree Jr, Jeff VanderMeer and Gene Wolfe. There are many others, including, inevitably, Franz Kafka.

Though it may be that Ford is at his richest and most confrontational at shorter lengths, there are several novels of interest. At the heart of the Well-Built City sequence beginning with The Physiognomy (1997), which won the 1998 World Fantasy Award, is a City whose entrails reflect and perhaps constitute the dreaming brain of Master Below, its maker [for As Above, So Below and Edifice see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Below's madness exudes through the world of the series, though in sf terms is perhaps most evident in the Dystopian rigor of his attempts to control his citizenry through mandatory phrenology tests (see Pseudoscience; Scientific Errors);he seems, however, too erratic to enforce anything like a Eugenics regime. The Portrait of Mrs Charbuque (2002) is set in a fantasticated late-nineteenth century New York. The Cosmology of the Wider World (2005) combines Beast Fable and Posthumous Fantasy [again see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] through the life of a version of the Minotaur caught in the prison of the flesh. The Shadow Year (2008), which shared (in a tied decision) the World Fantasy Award for best novel, hardens any Bradbury resemblances in the tale through its unsweetened rendering of episodes featuring a child at deadly play with the inhabitants of a miniature world (see Great and Small; Wainscot Societies). The Twilight Pariah (2017) renders an upstate New York venue, which includes a haunted house, in terms reminiscent of Shirley Jackson, though with gonzo touches. In Ahab's Return; Or, the Last Voyage (2018), Ahab survives and Ishmael has written Moby-Dick (see Herman Melville); the Captain soon arrives in a New York depicted with some of the chthonic facility displayed in Tim Powers's versions of California, where he attempts, with the help of a newspaperman (who narrates the tale) to restore sense to the world.

Assays into the marvellous that may be presented too relaxedly in the novels rarely overstay their welcome in Ford's very numerous short stories, including "The Empire of Ice Cream" (2003 Sci Fiction), which won a Nebula as best novelette. These tales are assembled in several volumes beginning with The Fantasy Writer's Assistant (coll 2002) and The Empire of Ice Cream (coll 2006), both of which won the World Fantasy Award for their respective years. The most convenient collection is probably The Best of Jeffrey Ford (coll 2020), which contains some tales with sf elements, including "Exo-Skeleton Town" (Spring 2001 Black Gate), set on a frontier planet (see Westerns) whose inhabitants trade a potent aphrodisiac (see Drugs) for prints of classic Hollywood movies (see Cinema); "Daltharee" (in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, anth 2008, ed Ellen Datlow), featuring the inhabitants of a Pocket Universe who can only be encountered through a story within the story (a structural device commonly used by Ford); "The Seventh Expression of the Robot General" (in Eclipse # 2, anth 2008, ed Jonathan Strahan), a Satire on contemporary militarism, as manifested in the deep Near Future of perhaps another world by a retired Robot general whose controlling AI can only think of killing still more Aliens; or "The Dismantled Invention of Fate" (in The Starry Rift, anth 2008, ed Jonathan Strahan), a romantic fable set in a highly populated Space Opera universe. "Dr Lash Remembers" (in Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded, anth 2010, ed Ann VanderMeer and Jeff VanderMeer) is Steampunk, slightly overloaded.

Many of Ford's best stories are designed as unfoldings of the seemingly affable narrator's own dreams, imparting a hypnopompic allure to tales that are sometimes, in the event, very harsh in their implications. The human-become-spider eponym of "Daddy Long Legs of the Evening" (in Naked City: Tales of Urban Fantasy, anth 2011, ed Ellen Datlow) progresses from ingesting his/its neighbours from the inside out, to the eventual ingestion of "the larger politics of the Realm ... the center of everything"; the tale can be understood as a vision of our planet being devoured by ichneumonids in Homo sapiens masks. Other tales, like "The Blameless" in A Natural History of Hell (coll 2016) (the collection won the 2017 World Fantasy Award), allow its listeners some peace around the campfire. But Ford's voice, which can rightly be perceived as companionable, is also, in the end, a tool crafted to tell the truth. [JC]

see also: Readercon.

Jeffrey Ford

born West Istlip, New York: 8 November 1955



The Well-Built City

  • The Physiognomy (New York: Avon Books, 1997) [The Well-Built City: pb/uncredited]
  • Memoranda (New York: Avon Eos, 1999) [The Well-Built City: pb/Phil Singer]
  • The Beyond (New York: HarperCollins/Eos, 2001) [The Well-Built City: hb/Phil Singer]

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