"The Empire of Ice Cream" by Jeffrey Ford: An Appreciation by Rajan Khanna
The Empire of Ice Cream begins, as many of Jeffrey Ford's stories begin, firmly entrenched in the mundane, the every day, in a world both familiar and comforting. Yet we're confronted with a character, William, who is anything but ordinary, for he has synesthesia, a condition where senses are somehow shuffled, where sounds have color and flavors have textures, where "the number 8...reeks of withered flowers."
William's story alone, his attempt to cope with his condition, to fit in, would have been enough to keep me interested and satisfied, but Ford layered the story, introducing elements of music - William's penchant for the piano, his love of Bach, the subtle element of the fugue which gains significance later in the story. As a piano player, one who always played for personal reasons rather than performance, I was drawn in. Like William, I played as another form of expression, a way to translate feelings and sensations into something else, my own form of artificial synesthesia.
I was already entranced, so the moment where the story crossed the line, where the elements of the fantastic started to bleed through, took me by surprise, like finding a hidden door in a house that you love, and having it open onto a magical place. There, with William at the Empire of Ice Cream ice cream parlor, the other movement of the story begins, building at last to a stunning crescendo that fades, in the end, like a subtle but sweet aftertaste.
I won't say any more about the story--it deserves to be read, not retold--but I will say that for me, this story marked a defining moment as a reader and a writer. I was never big on short fiction as a younger man, and at the time I was just beginning to explore it, still unsure of the form. Many of the stories I'd read were enjoyable, but would fade rather quickly after they were done. The Empire of Ice Cream stayed with me for a while afterward. In the end, it was my coffee ice cream, the jolt that opened up a window into another world, a world I fell in love with, a world of stories that had weight and substance, that lingered on the tongue long after they were finished. Like William, I was for the first time experiencing something I hadn't before, and I'd acquired a taste for it. I consumed it eagerly, enjoying its sweetness, its fullness, and the slight chill that accompanied those sensations.
Proving I wasn't the only one who liked it, The Empire of Ice Cream was nominated for the Hugo Award, the World Fantasy Award, and a Sturgeon Award and won the Nebula in 2003. Despite all that richly deserved attention, this story will always have particular personal significance for me, and I am grateful to Jeffrey Ford and Ellen Datlow for allowing me the opportunity to read it.
Link to story.