Jeffrey Ford may well be the finest short fiction writer at work in SF and fantasy today. His poetic style is elegant and perfectly judged, never veering into excess; his plots and ideas are endlessly surprising and original; and his close, compassionate social and psychological observation lends his writing a humanity and human significance that is supremely moving. So Ford's second collection, The Empire of Ice Cream, has been for me one of the most anticipated books of 2006; and it delivers on those expectations in full.
The Empire of Ice Cream is a bigger, more mature, and more consistent compilation than the author's first, The Fantasy Writer's Assistant (2002), excellent though that book was. The hallmark of The Empire of Ice Cream's stories is a unique mingling of pure dream logic with an immediate, often autobiographical realism — as an example, consider "Botch Town," the long novella original to the collection. Here, a family somewhat resembling Ford's when he was a child, living in a suburb where his family lived, confronts magic-realist turns of event everywhere: bizarre characters, mystical insights, extraordinary coincidences, and spooky apparitions, so that paranoia and childlike wonder seem always on the brink of justification, yet in an entirely mundane period cultural envelope. The narrator is a typical enough boy attending a typical enough school, but his siblings are utterly strange, his brother an imaginative malcontent, his sister a moderately autistic child prone to the assumption of an alternative identity and busy participation in lessons in a numinous classroom. Real everyday problems are experienced, like a mother who drinks, the risk of suspension from school, and neighborhood rumors about wandering pedophiles and voyeurs; but these are inextricably intertwined with intimations of the supernatural, prophecies, warnings from a nun about the Devil, and a sense that the death of a local boy is part of a Faustian pact going back to World War II. Ford has used broadly similar techniques in his novels, hinting subtly at the fantastic rather than engaging fully with it; but in "Botch Town" he adds a fresh layer of humor, so that a certain preternatural joy, mirth at the antics of eccentric suburbanites, leavens any sense of Bradburyesque horror, and there too the mimetic and the surreal meet and collaborate in mesmerizing ways. "Botch Town" is a fresh indicator of Ford's uncanny literary versatility, and certainly one of the best novellas of the year.
Using "Botch Town" as a sort of mean, it's possible to categorize the other stories in The Empire of Ice Cream as leaning more to the fantastic, or less, though every tale observes the balance to some degree. Towards the waking pole, the biography of Jeffrey Ford himself, one encounters "The Trentino Kid," a richly intelligent ghost story involving a drowning among clammers (Ford once was one) off the New Jersey coast; "A Night in the Tropics," in which Ford, sitting in a bar in his home town, is regaled with an account of a cursed chess set which can only be surrendered through violence; "Coffins on the River," which informs two creatively blocked artists, via a hallucination of rescuing a kidnapped child, of the necessity of drawing inspiration from real life; "The Weight of Words," about a lovelorn man contemplating a menacing form of subliminal advertising in the na´ve '50s; and "Summer Afternoon," which employs fleeting interstellar whimsy to pass a minim of literary genius from Henry James to a writer of the now. The circumstantial essence of modern existence breathes through these stories, shrewdly magnified by touches of the unreal. But then there's the dreaming pole, for which realism is a spice, and (perhaps) an anchor to the waking realm. This is where Ford's writing achieves its greatest beauty: in the exquisite textures of "The Annals of Eelin-Ok," describing how a fairy of sorts lives his entire life in a sandcastle [in] the space of a single day, all human experience compressed into brief elegiac hours; in "The Green Word," a robust YA fable dooming a dogmatically pious King to immolation by the cycles of Nature; in "The Beautiful Gelreesh," a hilarious if cynical glimpse of psychology murderously misapplied by a half-human trickster; in "Boatman's Holiday," an especially brilliant odyssey through Hell by a Charon longing for redemption; in "Jupiter's Skull," a superb allegory of the heritability of Fate; and "Giant Land," the oddest piece in The Empire of Ice Cream, a collage of dream-fragments requiring careful reassembly by the reader. Dreams, phantasms these all are; but ever present is the consciousness that dreams emanate from the human mind, summarizing our condition elliptically as we sleep.
There is another, occasional tendency in Ford's tales: the implication that we, or the characters, are mere dreams, functions of the mind of another. Two novelettes express this in tragic terms, like echoes of The Mysterious Stranger: "The Empire of Ice Cream" itself, with its melancholy pairing of sensitive souls across the gulf of mutually exclusive realities, synesthesia operating as a code of dissolution; and "A Man of Light," in which a reporter becomes the sacrificial victim of a mad Edisonian genius striving to contact the divine brightness outside his Fallen universe. Dark though these reminders of our frailty and subjectivity may be, they do provide conclusive endorsement of a moral latent in The Empire of Ice Cream as a whole: that we dream ourselves and our waking lives, and thus must take care to dream responsibly.
The Empire of Ice Cream is an exceptional book, a gallery of genius. It will be astonishing to see what further oneiric miracles Ford can work as his career burgeons.
— Nick Gevers, Locus Magazine, March 2006