John M Ford — AKA Mike Ford — (previously) was a spectacular and varied science fiction writer who performed brilliantly across a wide range of genres and formats, from RPGs (GURPS, Paranoia) to licensed Star Trek fiction (his "How Much for Just the Planet" effectively created Klingon fandom) to fantasy novels like The Dragon Waiting, which grip and delight the reader in ways to rival George RR Martin or Ursula K LeGuin.
Mike died in 2006 and his work has largely disappeared from print since, with battered copies of cheap paperbacks commanding hundreds of dollars in the used book market. I heard many stories about why his books were no longer available, and the prevailing narrative was that his religious, estranged parents were suppressing it, out of disapproval for Mike's polyamorous relationship with Elise Matheson (herself a brilliant writer and wonderful person), whose lack of legal standing meant that Elise was not given any legal right to control his literary estate.
This ghastly situation has been widely known in science fiction, and was behind a movement, spearheaded by Neil Gaiman (a dear friend of Mike's) to get writers to make out wills dictating the future of their literary estates (John Scalzi is my literary executor for this reason!).
Slate's Isaac Butler discovered Mike's books three years ago and set out to find out why they were no longer in print. In the course of researching the story, Butler discovered that the truth was more complex than the received wisdom about religious intolerance suppressing the works of a beloved author. It turned out that Mike's books were out of print due to a nebulous (and ultimately impossible to pin down) combination of familial estrangement, Mike's own disorganization, and the fact that his agent basically quit the field when he died (again, for complex reasons, some of which relate to heartbreak at Mike's death).
All of this leads to a wonderful coda: Butler's reporting ended up reconnecting Mike's relations with Tor Books and its executive editor Beth Meacham and co-publisher Patrick Nielsen Hayden, with the result that most of Mike's books are coming back into print, starting in 2020, and the series will continue previously unpublished work, including a never-published novel, Aspects.
Butler does a good job of capturing the wonderful, eclectic brilliance of Ford, and also the cautionary tale that he represents as America debates Medicare for All: Ford was plagued by expensive health problems that kept him constantly on the brink of bankruptcy (the only reason he wasn't blind was that a surgeon waived part of his fee for a vital eye-surgery). He was repeatedly bailed out of terminal financial distress by his friends, including Harriet McDougal (one of his editors) and her husband James Rigney (better known by his pen-name, Robert Jordan).
This is nothing less than spectacular news, the happiest possible ending for Mike's friends and family alike. It's simultaneously a testament to Mike's brilliance, his friends' tireless love for him, his family's reasonableness, and the power of investigative journalism to be a force for good in the world.
I can't wait to fall in love with Mike's books all over again.
"He would make art in the most surprising places," Gaiman told me. "Once he wrote a short play based on the invitation and directions to my annual Guy Fawkes party. There was a typo, and he took that as the grounds for a play." When Ford visited his editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden at her office at Tor, he would scribble short parody poems of the documents on her desk and leave them for her to find. "Life was not long enough," she recalled, "for Mike to do all the stuff that he would think of to do."
"He could have had a more successful career," Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Teresa's husband and Tor's editor in chief, said, "if he had been more disciplined about his writing" and stuck to one genre, or written a series. "But Mike wanted to write what he wanted to write."
No single example illustrates this better than The Dragon Waiting and its aftermath. As Gaiman put it, "Had he taken The Dragon Waiting and written a sequence of five books based in that world, with that power, he would've been George R.R. Martin." Ford opted instead to write two Star Trek novels (The Final Reflection and How Much for Just the Planet?, both unexpected delights) and The Scholars of Night, a riff on midcentury British espionage thrillers with no fantastical elements and a lost Christopher Marlowe play at its center. Gaiman still bemoans that The Scholars of Night "should've been marketed like The Name of the Rose. You needed to go, `We have a great writer who is really fucking brilliant and he has written a book that combines high and low culture.' " Instead, Tor, which had been recently acquired by St. Martin's, published Scholars with a blank back cover. It didn't exactly do Umberto Eco–level business.
The Resurrection of the Greatest Sci-Fi Writer You've Never Read [Isaac Butler/Slate]
(Image: Neil Gaiman and John M. Ford in 2002, by David Dyer-Bennet)