The Disappearance of John M. Ford

Three years ago, over breakfast, my friend Helen handed me a novel about a quest that, unknown to both of us, would set me off on a quest of my own. The book was called The Dragon Waiting, and it was written by the late science fiction and fantasy author John M. Ford. Helen placed the mass-market paperback with its garish cover in my hands, her eyes aglow with evangelical fervor, telling me I would love it. I would soon learn that, owing to Ford’s obscurity, his fans do things like this all the time. Soon, I would become one of them.

The Dragon Waiting is an unfolding cabinet of wonders. Over a decade before George R.R. Martin wrote A Song of Ice and Fire , Ford created an alternate-history retelling of the Wars of the Roses, filled with palace intrigue, dark magic, and more Shakespeare references than are dreamt of in our philosophy. The Dragon Waiting provokes that rare thrill that one gets from the work of Gene Wolfe, or John Crowley, or Ursula Le Guin. A dazzling intellect ensorcells the reader, entertaining with one hand, opening new doors with another.

I wanted to buy a copy, but it was out of print. At the time, used copies of this mass-market paperback from 1985 started at $200 on Amazon. (It’s currently much more affordable.) John M. Ford had other books that were not available at all, even as used copies. How had a writer this good fallen into this level of obscurity? The more I looked into Ford’s career, the more frustrating and mystifying his posthumous invisibility came to seem. Ford had won the Philip K. Dick Award and multiple World Fantasy Awards. He was a beloved and influential peer to writers including Neil Gaiman, Jo Walton, Ellen Kushner, James Rigney (better known as Robert Jordan), Jack Womack, and Daniel Abraham. So why had so few people heard of him? Why wasn’t anyone publishing his books?

It would take me 18 months to answer my questions. My quest would bring me to the vast treasure trove of Ford’s uncollected and unpublished writing. It would introduce me to friends and relatives of Ford who hadn’t spoken to each other since his death in 2006. And, in an improbable ending worthy of a John M. Ford novel, my quest would in fact set in motion the long-delayed republication of his work, starting in the fall of 2020. How did this happen? More importantly, why was he forgotten in the first place? More importantly than that: How did he write those amazing books?

John Milo Ford was born the first child of two pharmacists in East Chicago, Indiana, in 1957. Everyone called him Mike. According to his aunt, Jane Starner, “He was brilliant from the start—reading at an adult level when he was in kindergarten and talking to college students.” He played chess and loved model trains. But he was also sickly—after nearly falling into a coma at the age of 9, he was […]

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