Wed
Mar 31 2010 10:41am
Amazingly solid world: John M. Ford’s The Princes of the Air

The Princes of the Air (1982) is a short book that feels longer. It’s in my favourite subgenre of SF, planets and spaceships, and I really like John M. Ford’s writing, so I ought to love this book. The problem is that I don’t—I’ve never understood why I haven’t warmed to it. I re-read it from time to time hoping that this time I’ll get it.

All the ingredients are there. There are three friends in the underworld of an unimportant world in the Empire, conning their way into a better future. Orden becomes indentured to have a chance in the Diplomatic service, while David and Theo play the space simulators that are so realistic they can step into real ships and fly them when they get a chance. They all have dreams, and the cons that run get more and more complicated until they achieve their dreams, and then things get complicated. There’s a system of anti-aging, revies, where you can only have so many before your system won’t take it. There’s a weird way of going faster than light, into the Blue, where colours are different. There are lots of different worlds, with different problems.

There’s an Empire, ruled by a beautiful Queen, and when they play the game they say “For the Queen!” (There’s a lot of chess symbolism going on, not only Dr Bishop the teacher and ambassador, but the Rooks that guard the planet and the knighthoods they’re granted.) There are rebellions against authority. There’s a wonderful command-and-persuade language, ELI-3, which is rhyming iambic pentameter. There are samechs, sapient mechanisms, robots that can’t talk but use sign between themselves. Orden’s knowledge of samech sign is significant.

The universe is worked out in all its implications and second order implications. The plot’s fast moving and contains lots of instances of the heroes conning everyone and getting away with it. I was trying to think what to compare it to, and the first thing that came to mind was Walter Jon Williams’s Dread Empire’s Fall books, which let me see what’s wrong with this. It somehow isn’t fun.

A plot like this needs to be fun to work. It isn’t the suicidal depression Orden suffers after being interrogated. That just offsets the essential unrealism of three boyhood friends bluffing their way into being the three people essential to a Galactic Empire.  I think the problem is that you have to pay fiendish attention every second to have a hope of following what’s going on. In Ford’s later books this is worth doing, but here there isn’t enough payoff. Most of the plot isn’t on the page, it has to happen in your head, and it’s more work than the worth of it for a story of interstellar intrigue with a lunatic villain and a hidden plot to restore the republic. Maybe I’m just not intelligent enough for this book, but even re-reading and knowing what’s going to happen I’m more inclined to say “Huh?” than “Ah!” at the revelations.

The details are brilliant—zero gravity banquets where you vector the meat through hanging globes of sauce, the ambassadors with their uniforms covered with genuine but meaningless ribbons, the spaceship called “Bellerofon” because the painter can’t spell. The worldbuilding hangs together at deep levels, everything is mentioned for a reason and the cons really are extremely clever.

At the panel on John M. Ford’s work at Anticipation, Teresa Nielsen Hayden said that he had a horror of being obvious, and his editors had to keep asking him to clarify. I suspect The Princes of the Air could have done with another round of this. 

If you have read everything else of Ford’s, then of course you’ll want to get hold of this too, because even his minor works are worth reading. If you haven’t, I recommend everything that’s in print: the collection From the End of the Twentieth Century, The Last Hot Time, and most of all The Dragon Waiting.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

10 comments
p l
1. p-l
You seem to re-read quite a few books that you don't actually like. (At least, I think this is not the first one you've mentioned...)
Can I ask why? There are so many, many books out there; it seems like it would be easier to find something new that you do like.
Jo Walton
2. bluejo
P-L: there are a number of different reasons why. In this case, I really like Ford's other work, and I feel I ought to like this one, and every time I pick it up feeling that if I read it once more I might. Sometimes it's a middle book in a series where I like the others and I don't want to skip it. Other times I used to like a book and I find I don't like it when I come back to it. Most of what I re-read I do like, pretty much by definition.

And I do read new stuff as well, though I don't write about it here, and these days it feels a bit like goofing off when I do!
Dan Blum
3. Dan Blum
Maybe I’m just not intelligent enough for this book, but even re-reading and knowing what’s going to happen I’m more inclined to say “Huh?” than “Ah!” at the revelations.

I get that feeling a bit with some of his other works - Web of Angels, in parts, "Fugue State," "Preflash" - but either I understand this one or I'm fooling myself. :)

A minor, non-consequential worldbuilding detail I particularly like is that everyone measures long periods of time - such as people's ages - in hours. Which makes perfect sense, since it's the largest arbitrary unit of time, but a lot of works with common interstellar travel don't do it.
Tim Nolan
4. Dr_Fidelius
If even Jo Walton finds a Mike Ford book difficult to follow then there's hope for me yet.

I loved The Dragon Waiting; right now I'm reading How Much For Just The Planet? and laughing fit to burst. I really, really need to put his other work at the top of my to-buy list.

Meanwhile I'll have to make do with the occasional works over at Making Light.
Liza .
5. aedifica
I haven't read this one yet, but how you describe your feelings about it is about how I feel about Web of Angels. I kept thinking this must be his Delany book but Delany did it better. It's very odd for me not to love one of Ford's books.
p l
6. p-l
@2: Well that's good to know. I enjoy your book posts so much, but I'm relieved to learn that you're not torturing yourself on our behalf :)

PS: For a reader who tends to like more difficult and "literary" SF, what is the best John Ford novel to start with? I've never read him, but he's been edging onto my radar lately.
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
P-L: The Dragon Waiting as I said above. It's in print in a UK edition, and the link above is to my post on it here last summer.
Andrew Plotkin
10. zarf
(Let's see if my tor.com posting curse has faded...) (Hm. First try: failed.)

For years my problem with this book is that I kept confusing it with Emma Bull's _Falcon_. I re-read _Princes..._ a few months ago to remind myself, and it's still not my favorite Ford book, but I enjoy many of its pieces a lot. Pieces are fun. The pieces don't *fail* to hang together, but, as you say, the payoff isn't sufficient. The whole is no more than the sum of the parts.

Nitpick: the simulator games aren't that realistic; it's just that the protagonists are obsessives. There's a bit where they run through a complete (unnecessary) starship launch checklist, slapping blank panels where switches aren't, ignoring the game's "Welcome players!" spiel.
Paul Andinach
11. anobium
A minor, non-consequential worldbuilding detail I particularly like is that everyone measures long periods of time - such as people's ages - in hours. Which makes perfect sense, since it's the largest arbitrary unit of time, but a lot of works with common interstellar travel don't do it.

The reason a lot of people don't do it, I suspect, is that it's hard on the reader: in these planet-bound times everyone has an intuitive grasp of "Three years went by", but most people have to stop and think about "Twenty-five thousand hours had passed since then". I read The Princes of the Air with a pocket calculator within arm's reach and made the best of things, but if I'd been somebody else I suspect I'd have resented it.

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