People of the Stars Unite

Stellaris is one of the strangest books I’ve read in a while. In combining fiction with scientific discussion of the underlying issues, it feels like a real throwback to an earlier era in which space stories, in order to be taken seriously, needed scientific bylines explaining the fiction.

This one is in that vein, except it updates the science, bringing the knowledge gained in 60 years of human spaceflight to the format.

And wow, does it ever work.

There’s a reason the Golden Age of Science Fiction truly was a golden age, and that has to do with moving beyond the old unscientific Sword & Planet stuff and into a new era of scientifically driven tales using the best guesses available in the 1930s and 1940s as to what was coming. The stories that came out of this weren’t pure escapism: they inspired generations of scientists and engineers with the tantalizing glimpses of plausible futures. Of course, most of them didn’t come to pass, but not because they were deemed impossible at the time of writing.

This book rekindles that feeling (or in the cases of readers unfamiliar with the Golden Age, creates that wonder for the first time) as we look at the challenges we now know will be facing anyone attempting to colonize the stars. The best part about it is that the fiction in this volume is related to the nonfiction, so you always feel that the issues are precisely the ones that should be focused on, as opposed to a random collection of ideas the writers put on the page.

My overall impression of this book is that anyone who wants to be a science fiction writer absolutely must read it (unless you’re focused on dreary earth-based political SF, in which case you won’t need it). It not only gives amazing pointers on the tech directions you should be looking at as well as very good short stories, but it ALSO rekindles the sense of wonder and “what if” that seems to be absent from so much of today’s genre work. I remember a time when SF used to be about kindling the imagination and inspiring the next generation of explorers.

Every one of the fiction pieces is great but if I had to choose a favorite story, I’d say it’s Les Johnson’s “Nanny”. Powerful and a little heartbreaking, but hopeful and spectacular. William Ledbetter’s “Bridging” was another standout in a strong field. But they’re all so good, I’m certain everyone will have a different favorite.

Anyhow, this is one that should energize you and rekindle your desire to see humanity expand and leave the people incapable of seeing beyond Earth behind.

To the stars!

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most recent novel is entitled Lost Island Rampage. It might have been a pleasant Indian Ocean Travel book except it’s full of man-eating dinosaurs. You can check it out here.

A Massively Good Book

As regular readers know by now, a couple of years ago, I placed second in the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Contest, and part of my prize was a huge box of books, which have now cycled to the top of my TBR pile. The first couple of books were decent albeit urban fantasy which isn’t my favorite subgenre (although one of these books was still hugely enjoyable).

But now I’ve gotten to some of my favorite parts. Straight SF (with a military slant) telling a story in the form of short fiction.

Freehold: Resistance is pure entertainment. The stories are fast-paced, the action is relentless and the characters are fun to be around. Every single writer in this book did his or her job with precisely the right touch, and I found myself loving every moment of it.

In short, and without spoilers, the Freehold is a freedom-loving space colony that is invaded by the forces of Earth so that they wouldn’t become independent. It’s kind of the American revolution played on a galactic scale and with modern weapons and attitudes…

It’s also a political book in a certain sense (highlighting the advantages of a society where freedom is respected versus a more regulated and sanitized vision of society), and we all know what I think of message fiction. But the action and characters overcome that particular drawback most of the time, so you don’t get pulled out of the action to think about the philosophy.

Anyhow, I really enjoyed this one, and like the Freehold universe quite a bit, so this is definitely a keeper.

Quick caveat on this one – I’ve been published alongside a couple of the writers in this book – I don’t think it colored my review, but I wanted to establish that up front so readers can take their own conclusions (here and here are the books where I’ve appeared alongside writers from this one).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest genre book is a monster romp through tropical islands in the Indian Ocean. It’s entitled Lost Island Rampage, and you can check it out here.

An Operatic Bomb

While it appears to have been successful at the box office, I can’t say the latest installment of the 1001 movies list, 1954’s Carmen Jones, is a good film. Or at least, not a particularly enjoyable one.

Oh, it’s not bad, and even has decent moments, but it seems to get in its own way a little too much, probably because it’s a very ambitious piece for its time.

The first thing you notice is that it has an all-black cast, a distinction that probably meant something in its day (it actually did hurt its chances of getting financing, apparently), but that seems a little weird in today’s unsegregated world.

The cast wasn’t the problem, though. In fact, some of the players are really, really good (Harry Belafonte is memorable, as is Dorothy Dandridge), but they seem to have been held back by the material, which is the other piece of ambition in this one.

As the title hints, the film is a musical based on the music from Carmen (the opera) but brought into a then-nearly-current WWII setting. It only works sometimes, and flails around at others.

Worse still, the story is predictably melodramatic, with none of the characters learning from their mistakes. While doomed men are a typical operatic theme, it doesn’t work any better here than on the stage… and you end up feeling very happy when the leads get what’s coming to them.

In all honesty, the second half of the movie picks up a bit… but you still don’t feel sympathy for the characters and applaud their dooms. The only guy you end up liking is the boxer character and his entourage, who simply are what they are, and go through life with nary a care in the world.

Anyway, unless you’re really into dead-end experiments in musicals or black history, you can skip this one without missing much.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is entitled Safe and Sorry. It’s a collection of intertwined shorts that come together to tell a story and force you to look at your life and ask yourself whether you’re living or merely existing. You can check it out here.

Now THAT is the eighties

It took all the way to the May 1981 edition until I said THAT’s the eighties I remember in my reading of old Road & Tracks. How did they do it? Well, the cover gives a clue:

That car on the cover? It was codenamed the P-Car but launched as the Pontiac Fiero and, unlike the 280ZX, which I hated, I adored the Fiero as a kid who didn’t know any better. Even as an adult, the design and concept looks wonderful – a 2 seat mid-engined runabout lighter ans sportier than anything else in GM’s arsenal at the time. And it only really existed in the 80s.

Even more than that, this issue has a large article on unlimited hydroplane racing. To me, the glory days of Hydroplane racing were the eighties, mainly because it was one of the sports you could count on to be shown on ESPN… so you’d catch it on a lazy summer Saturday. Very cool indeed.

This is, of course, the period of Miss Budweiser, which I mentioned in my last review of an R&T. But in 1981, the Budweiser team was just starting to experiment with the predecessor of the jet-powered boat I remember, moving from the Merlin engine to a Griffon. The jet came in the mid-eighties. Just seeing a picture of a hydroplane takes me back.

Other than that, this edition was warmly welcomed because it heralded the return of auto racing coverage after the dreaded offseason. It kicked off with the 24 Hours of Daytona (those 935s again) which are the traditional beginning of the race season, even today (I no longer count the Dakar Rally… ever since they moved it out of its traditional route across the Sahara, I see it as just another anonymous rally raid). In fact, another eighties thing was the Paris-Dakar, as it used to be: an utterly perfect race to which no change could ever be for the better (because when you “improve” one thing, you end up ruining the essence of what made it so good in the first place).

Anyhow, one of the big things one gets from these magazines is how the health and safety brigade has made life a lot grayer. I’m not surprised that the current generations are whiny and too preoccupied with safe spaces: they were never allowed to do anything involving even a tiny bit of risk. As they grow to over-coddled adults, the world is the worse for it.

I’ll take my 80s mags full of cigarette ads and dangerous motorsports anyday.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is entitled Safe and Sorry. It’s a literary collection in which each story tells a chapter in the life of one of the characters–all intertwined without ever knowing about it. You can purchase the book, if you so wish, here.

The Cunning Man – Urban Done Right

So, last week, I griped about most urban fantasy. This week, I get to talk about the other side of the coin.

The Cunning Man by D.J. Butler and Aaron Michael Ritchey is another of the books I won in Baen’s contest, and if anyone had summarized the plot for me, I’d probably have given it a miss because it has everything I hate in Urban Fantasy–witches using ancestral lore, a society that doesn’t understand them and a depression-era setting in the southwest–plus, it also has a lot of Christianity tossed in for good measure.

Fortunately for me, I didn’t know any of this when I started reading, and I enjoyed the book. Why? Because the writing was excellent, the pacing spot on–it’s a slow-burn thriller that just builds and builds tension as it advances–and the characters actually likable. Also, the Christian element actually managed to balance the New-Agey stuff just enough that neither was annoying or preachy.

This is one I recommend without any qualms whatsoever. It’s a good book that makes you forget the noise and want to know what happens to the characters. At its core, it’s a book in which the good are really good and the evil is really evil… and that seems to make it stronger than those instances where the good/evil dichotomy is based on some silly little point of dialectical doctrine.

So I’m delighted to have been awarded this one, and I’m overjoyed to have read it, especially as it’s not remotely the kind of book I’d normally have gone anywhere near.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a literary collection of intertwined shorts exploring whether it’s more important to live one’s life or to exist safely within the strictures of society. You can check it out here.

Z-cars and Clydesdaes – April 1981

The April 1981 issue of Road & Track definitely brought back memories, not of the early 80s but of the mid-to late part of the decade.

The cover car for this issue was the Datsun (yeah, the name change to Nissan was still a couple of years away) 280ZX Turbo. These cars eventually became the 300ZX and were the company’s couples that you saw everywhere when I was living in Cincinnati. I used to like them only because they were obviously 2-door sports cars, but even then I knew they weren’t exactly the elite of the genre, all of which changed when Nissan Launched the early 90s 300ZX which was an incredible car, reigniting the passion that started with the original Z. But that’s a different story.

Also in this issue was an April Fools’ Test of the Budweiser Clydesdale wagon. I’m not sure if Budweiser still uses the horses in their promos and ads in the US, but in the 80s, it was a blitz. I actually recall three different Budweiser ad campaigns from the era, the Clydesdale one, the famous “gimme a light… no, no Bud light” comedy versions, and my personal favorite, the Bud Thunder campaign. The Miss Budweiser hydroplane (the Jet, not the Griffon) is probably still my favorite boat ever… but it wasn’t even close to being their only motosrports icon. Who will ever forget Kenny Bernstien’s Funny Car or Rahal’s Budweiser March. They even had Darrell Waltrip in NASACAR. The best in every major form of US motorsport all together. (they even won the Sebring 12 Hours with a 962 unless I’m sorely mistaken).

Anyway, there’s another thing that I’ve been seeing about these 1981 mags: they are easier to read, which surprised me as there were no major editorial changes between these and the 1980 editions. Perhaps it’s just a sensation, but I actually think the mag itself is reflecting the new attitudes of the 1980s. Of course, MOST of the sensibilities are still rooted firmly in the 70s… but not all of them. I’ll let everyone know when Benetton clothing and big hair make their appearance.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest monster thriller, Lost Island Rampage, is available here.

Some Urban Fantasy Thoughts

A few years ago, urban fantasy became the darling of the SFF world. It caught fire and it seemed that about half of all new published books landed squarely in the subgenre.

I could never really see the attraction. For one thing, I prefer to read fantasy set in a far-flung location. Pure escapism, in my own experience, is better than just partial escape. Even worse was the fact that urban fantasy seemed to become an outlet for a certain type of writing that was more political than entertaining. While I understand that there’s a market for this kind of thing, I’m not that market. I believe that being overly political is simply a way for writers with zero talent for telling a story to get a like-minded editor’s attention.

I know this sounds cynical, but I’ve published nearly 400 short stories, mostly in the SFF genres and, as you know, I read shorts in huge amounts (including contributor’s copies) and trust me, the amount of drivel that gets passed off as “literature” when it’s just political posturing is mind-blowing. And urban fantasy stories, for whatever reason, appears to be the worst offenders.

That’s not to say that it can’t be done well. The first book of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files (review here) is unquestionably urban fantasy, but it’s also really, really good. Fun, fast-paced and noir, it avoids the pitfalls and tells a wonderful tale. I haven’t yet read the rest of the series (I have the second in my TBR pile), but based on the first, I’m not surprised they sell well.

All of which brings us to neatly to today’s subject.

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I recently received a big box of books as a contest prize. One of them was an advance review copy of Tim Powers’ Forced Perspectives.

So where does this book fall on the spectrum discussed above? I guess you’d say somewhere in the middle.

The good is that the author doesn’t fall into the trap of attempting to push a political agenda. It does what a fantasy books should: tell an interesting story. And this one IS interesting, with several players and a very strange magic system.

On the other hand, it does suffer from the lack of escapism that I mentioned earlier, and perhaps something related to it: I really couldn’t get into the magic and suspend disbelief. I think that’s actually a failing in me as opposed to the author… I’ve never been able to get into spiritualism, and this book leans very hard on the kind of lore that people into spiritualism would enjoy.

Since the writing was good and the story well-plotted, I’d have to say that this one would work really well for the target audience, but not so much for me. It wasn’t unreadable, and the tense final moments are excellent, just that, overall, it isn’t my particular cup of tea.

So whose is it? I’m tempted to be a bit snarky and say it’s for the crystals and ouija board set of aging 1970s post-hippies (with the right air of disdain), but I’m not sure that would be fair. I don’t know the urban fantasy market well enough to make that particular joke. Perhaps there’s a revival of the spiritualist sentiment out there. Perhaps sensibilities have come back around to where this is a huge market.

If so, I wish Powers every success. This one is well written, even if I prefer something else.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest thriller is entitled Lost Island Rampage. It’s a nice relaxing tropical island vacation… if your idea of relaxation is running from man-eating dinosaurs only to be confronted by the island’s cannibal inhabitants. Like we said, chill. You can have a look here.

Road & Track was the Most British of the American Car Magazines, with Doug Nye at the Forefront

I often wonder why, back in it’s golden years (until they moved out of Newport Beach, essentially) Road & Track was so much better than the rest of the automotive mags published in the US. I suppose an editorial preference for light and efficient cars had something to do with it, of course. Ignoring the Yank Tanks makes for good reading.

But other, lesser, mags were also doing the same thing. So, even more than just the European focus, it was a certain British sensibility that made the mag great. So, for example, the most notable writers, Henry N. Manney III and (better still) Peter Egan were extremely American in their references and style. But their humor and affinity was utterly English, just beneath the more obvious American veneer. And the Grand Prix reports were done by Rob Walker and Innes Ireland… two eminently British characters (eminently British and eminently characterful).

But even more than these, for a time in the late seventies and early eighties, one man contributed so much to R&T that he single-handedly turned it from an American-feeling mag into one that should have been headquartered on Fleet Street (as evidence for that claim, I present the cover of the March 1981 R&T and argue that only the British would put a TVR on the cover…).

That man is Doug Nye, and for a while, and even though he wasn’t listed as one of the regular editors and instead was called a contributing editor, his byline appears all over the mag. In this one, for example, he wrote the cover story (no surprise there), a feature on the recently launched Mini Metro and a profile of photographer George Monkhouse. Though there were none in this issue, he was also R&T‘s man at European car shows. (and for those who don’t know, he is also the author of innumerable books, many of which I have on my shelves… bought even before I realized he was an R&T mainstay).

So he was the pillar, but just to show you how British the mag was in the early eighties, there was also an article on the newest Rolls Royce, a report about the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run and (despite it being the dreaded offseason, a driver ranking by Rob Walker.

Perhaps the excuse was that Tony Hogg the Editor-in-Chief, was from England, but this philosophy extended both before and after his stewardship of the mag.

And Road & Track was all the richer for it.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is a delicately interwoven series of short stories that celebrate living as opposed to merely existing. You can check it out here.

High Noon, Except the Wife Saves the Day

What is it about Hollywood and copycatting? One of the worst things about watching movies nowadays is that it seems like there isn’t an original idea in Hollywood. EVERYTHING seemed to be either a remake, a sequel or a series.

We like to think that it wasn’t always like that, but let’s be honest… it’s been happening since the earliest days of cinema. A recent example we discussed here is A Star is Born. The definitive Judy Garland version was not the first (unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last, either – Hollywood never accepts that something is ‘Definitive’ if they see the chance to squeeze an extra dime or two from it).

There are films that try to disguise their origins but fail because they are there for everyone to see. Silver Lode (1954) is one of those movies. It is essentially a rehashing of the plot of High Noon, but in color.

Of course, when the inspiration is both recent and famous, you need to ramp things up a bit (think how Aliens was a much more spectacular and action-packed film than Alien, while trying to keep the tension). So Silver Lode pits one man against not just the bad guys, but the whole town, who become convinced the bad guys are right in gunning for our hero.

Since said hero scrupulously avoids killing any of the townsfolk–whose only crime, after all, is to be dumber than falling bricks–you come to realize he’s going to survive after all (had he crossed the Line, the Hays Code would have demanded his demise), and you relax and watch the action.

Spoiler: the ending brings the major difference between the two films. He is saved by two women (his blameless wife and the town whore) who believe in him and save him from losing everything. While everyone else was after him, the two women who truly knew him, believed in his innocence. The only weird note here is the aforementioned relationship with the local fallen woman… I wish I know how 1950s audiences reacted to that, but I guess since her role is never made explicit, she can be explained away as a waitress.

Anyhow, it’s a fun flick, but I think it might be just short of good enough for inclusion in the 1001 movies… f for no other reason than the fact that High Noon had happened so recently.

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is a celebration of the difference between existing and actually being alive, in a series of interlinked short stories entitled Safe and Sorry. You can check the book out here.

Gremlins Go Home – Unexpectedly Decent

In 2019, I won second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Short Story Award (I was third in 2021, too). Part of my prize was a wonderful box of Baen books. With the vicissitudes of the Argentine post, these arrived in March of 2020, and they’ve only now begun to reach the top of my TBR pile. Since many of these books were new to me, I put them in the pile in pretty much random order, to discover treats as they come.

So I reached the first one, entitled, strangely, Gremlins Go Home.

Now, I’m going to be honest. The only reason I was looking forward to reading this one at all was because of the fact that it’s written by Ben Bova and Gordon R. Dickson. Those two guys were genre powerhouses for decades… but this slim volume didn’t seem like their usual fare, and the cover seemed aimed at a younger audience.

Well, I was right about the younger audience. Though this book is from an era before YA became a distinct category (remember when they were called “Juveniles”?), its protagonist is a youth with non-adult problems and preoccupations.

And while I normally wouldn’t have picked up a juvenile, this one was a fun read. The situation is admittedly ridiculous (personified gremlins around a Mars launch), but that is part of the book’s charm. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

I’ll also be reviewing all the rest of the books in that box. There’s some core SF which I’m really looking forward to, and a lot of other subgenres that I’m not quite as familiar with (urban fantasy and alternate history, in particular) that will be a learning curve for me. Should be a fun ride.

As for this one, I consider it an appetizer, a short intro to the entertainment to come. If you are the type to seek out juveniles or SF/F mashups from a more innocent age, you’ll really like this one.

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book in his popular monster series is Lost Island Rampage. If your idea of a relaxing holiday is being trapped on a small island with genetically modified carnivorous dinosaurs on one side and murderous natives on the other, then this book can almost serve as a travel guide. For the rest of you, it’s just pure fast-paced entertainment. You can check it out here.