Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Empire of Ice Cream

Jeffrey Ford is one of the more decorated writers in speculative fiction over the decade or so. His first fantasy novel, The Physiognomy, won the World Fantasy Award, as have his first collection, The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant, a short story and a novella (Botch Town, which appears in his second collection).. The story whose title, The Empire of Ice Cream, serves as the name of his second collection, won a Nebula award. For all the awards, his writing deserves a much bigger audience. Those who have read his work, at least most of those with whom I’ve come into contact, think very highly of his writing.

What I’ve read from Mr. Ford has been spectacular, and his most recent collection (the aforementioned The Empire of Ice Cream) is no exception. The first story, The Annals of Eelin-Ok though distinct in its story, does set a tone for the overall collection. Just under our noses, small fairy folk live on the beaches we visit every summer. Ford’s story is the diary of one of thse little folk and it is supremely effective at giving the reader a different lens by which to view the world.

The second story, Jupiter’s Skull, had the feel of an old folk tale, something passed down through the generations. Considering the nuts and bolts of the story itself, this is very fitting. An old artifact is inexplicably passed down through generations and has a magical effect, something of demonic possession one might say, on those who come into contact with it, particularly if they are of opposite sexes.

A Night in the Tropics is a very surreal and powerful story which is a showcase of Ford’s ability to capture the everyday life of his characters. The mood and characters are so real and believable that the fantastic elements come across just as real. In this story, a cursed artifact has made its way to a person from the protagonist’s past.

The story which lends the title for the collection had probably the deepest connection to his award winning novel, The Physiognomy. A misunderstood boy with a “condition” goes through much of his life distanced from reality. Only when the right doctor comes along and diagnoses his condition does the protagonist’s life take a foothold in reality. The archaic condition here is synesthesia, a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway, or where one can taste colors and hear smells. This was possibly the most tragic story in the collection. For the time being, this story is still online at the SciFiciton archives.

The Beautiful Gelreesh has the feel of a modern fable or parable to it, although there are also hints of science fiction. Like any such story, humanity’s fears and emotions are at the core of what drives the story. The enigmatic Gelreesh makes promises to those with whom he speaks, but the price is not negotiable, or known at the outset.

I first read Boatman's Holiday in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, in fact I purchased the issue primarily for the story. Here, Ford plays with the myth of the ferryman who carries souls across the river Styx. I liked this one quite a bit; there was a wry, dark sense of humor to it.

Botch Town, the largest story in the book, is also the most richly alive story of the collection. The story reminded me of the best of Stephen King’s stories of youths who encounter things of the other. Stories like The Body, Hearts in Atlantis, and his massive novel IT. Like many of Ford’s stories, Botch Town, has a ring of the truth about it, you believe the narrator and imagine the strange events could happen. The nugget of fantastic here is that a model town in a family’s basement can be used to show how events will happen in the future.

The only story that didn’t completely connect with me was A Man of Light. This is not to say it is a bad story, I just don’t think it succeeded as well as the other stories. However, the story’s authentic seeming pseudoscience did resonate with his novel, The Physiognomy.

Perhaps the weirdest story in the collection was Giant Land. Ford transports his characters across strange landscapes in this story that felt very much a stream-of-consciousness. Characters are plucked from an everyday commute into a world of Giants, both human and human with animal heads. Without missing a beat, the story shifts slightly into a dream like state as the protagonist realizes the reality that mirrors our own is not hers. The story flips between fantastical and “real” without missing a beat, displacing the reader’s sense of reality.

The Trentino Kid closes out the collection and is perhaps the most personal story of the bunch. Many of the tales collected in this novel either are informed by Ford’s life and/or include a protagonist named Jeff. This gives the stories a greater air of authenticity, and this trait is on its greatest display in The Trentino Kid. The life of people who work on the ocean can be very wearying, even more so considering the very real dangers the work entails. Part ghost story, part semi-autobiography, this story would fit in very nicely with some of Rod Serling’s classic and chilling Twilight Zone episodes.

I don’t know if this collection is better than his previous World Fantasy Award winning collection, The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant, but it isn’t any lesser a collection. What we have here is a writer unrestrained by bounds of genre and imagination. Jeffrey Ford’s writing has such an authenticity about it, you cannot help but trust that the stories he tells have a ring of truth to them. More importantly, you want to believe them as real and year for the next stories to be told.

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