Month: January 2018

The Door into Lovecraft

If you are anything at all like me, you’re surrounded by people who revere H.P. Lovecraft as a master of the weird fiction genre.  But also, if you’re like me, you grew up reading modern writers – or at least writers that were still alive in the eighties, such as Asimov, Heinlein or Robert Asprin, to name a few genre figures I recall from my early days of reading science fiction and fantasy.

Astounding Lovecraft cover

Every once in a while, an essay (generally found in one of Asimov’s collections) mentioned this legendary “Golden Era” from whence all that is good in the genre originated, but the publications mentioned therein where antediluvian.  There were a bunch of new books being published every year by great authors (Thieves World!).  Why waste time on the older stuff.

Well, there are various good reasons to do so.  For starters, Asimov was right when he gushed about the era.  If you enjoy can-do attitudes and heroes willing to overcome whatever an unfriendly universe can throw their way, then the Golden Age is a good place to start.  If you want to see everything from the limits of space travel to the boundaries of mental capacity explored through a scientific lens and with innocent joy, this is the era to go.  Admittedly, if literary experimentation or diversity are the main things you look for in your fiction, then this is probably not the right era for you. These are straightforward stories written to entertain, and they do that job well.

So it was with those expectations that I picked up my first Lovecraft, a Del Rey paperback of The Doom that Came to Sarnath and Other Stories.

I found it interesting, but not the mind-blowing experience that the Lovecraft fans had led me to expect.

Why?  Well, in these tales, Lovecraft does what so many editors who rejected him criticized him for: writes in a forced archaic tone which helps create atmosphere and add to the dread, but also slows down the reader – which, come to think of it, was likely also intentional.

I left off of Lovecraft to read more pressing matters after that, but, thanks to Easton Press and their now-discontinued Horror Classics series, I ran into the man again.

Easton Press - HP Lovecraft - At the Mountains of Madness

And this time I got the message.

The book Easton Press selected was At the Mountains of Madness.  It has become the book that I send people who ask me: “What’s all the fuss about Lovecraft, anyway?”

The reason for this is that this one is told by a modern-day (remember it was written in 1931) explorer in his own colloquial voice, but it still combines many of the elements found in his other tales, including Shoggoths, the hint of the old ones, Miskatonic University and namless fear leading to madness.  It’s all there, but it’s also readable.  Those who wish to explore further can do so in his other work.

Plus, if you want to know where writers and filmmakers who placed their horror stories in the wasteland of Antartica got their inspiration, you need look no further.

As an added bonus, this one is short enough to read quickly – and he street cred that having read Lovecraft brings among SFF fans is priceless!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His best-known novel is probably Siege, and that’s likely why it’s the one being adapted into a graphic novel.

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Writerly musings

I almost never do this.  After all, this blog is about general culture and movies and books written by other people and stuff.  It’s not supposed to be a vehicle for the neurotic outpourings of a reasonably unknown science fiction writer.  But people ask for these things, so I guess this is as good a place as any.

So, since most of the CE audience is getting their first look under the hood, I’ll tell you a bit about how and what I write.

First off, I write for traditional publishers, and I write for pay (other than this blog, which I write because I find a lot of stuff interesting and because I meet a lot of other people who also like Wodehouse and old movies and classic cars and whatever else I happened to riff on).  Both of the conditions above mean that, unlike self-published writers, I get to deal with gatekeepers.

And despite what you might have read elsewhere (especially for those who read my whinings on Facebook) that is a good thing.  It means that there is an editor involved who decided my work was good enough to grace their publication (or their list, if they are an author).  Then, usually, there’s a publisher somewhere who needs to make money on the book.  And then there are readers and reviewers who need to like it.

The upshot is that, unlike this post, my books and stories need to be written in such a way that they hang together coherently.  Or at least coherently enough that editors and publishers send me checks as opposed to large men with lead pipes and orders to break my knees.

Also, they need to be spelled correctly and grammatically composed.  If I fail to do that, broken knees will look like a vacation compared to the rejection letter they’ll send me.  Getrude Stein knows of what I speak.

Which means that I spend a large amount of my writing time either editing the stuff I’ve written before.  And as time goes on, I’ve discovered two things.

The first is that the moment during which I hate my writing the most is when I’ve just committed it to the page. After each session I’m pretty much sure that my career is over and that the World Writers Association of Actual Writers will be sending me a cease and desist order.

Actually, that’s a lie.  The time when I hate the writing most is when I’m editing it and rewriting.

Which is what I was doing earlier today.  It is the activity which prompted this post.  You see, the novel I’m currently doing a bunch of composing and then rewriting and editing on and which needs another 20 thousand words now, is one that was requested by an editor who works for a publisher that I really, really want to sell a bunch of books to.

So I’m in the unenviable position of having a novel which I’m editing and rewriting of which I hate every word and which is a key stepping stone for me.  Oh, and I have to get it turned in in the next ten days.  Or else.

Is this a whine?  Perhaps.  But it’s also a celebration of everything good about being a writer.  I know hundreds of writers who’d love to be in my position.  But every one of them, as well as the hundreds in whose shoes I’d love to be, will understand that sometimes you just have to send that piece out into the wild in as good shape as you can bring it to.  In six months you probably won’t hate it as much as you do now.

Or maybe you will, but the editor will still love it and so will hollywood, and they’ll send you checks so large the zeros have to be on microfilm.

And that is the second thing I’ve learned (bet you’d already forgotten I said two things): writing that sits on a hard drive isn’t going to bring you any readers.  If it isn’t good enough, editors will kindly let you now out of the goodness of their hearts with feel-good missives saying things like “Dear Author, please never send us anything again. and remove our email from your files.” But at least you’ll know.

So yeah, I feel like a bunch of drunken monkeys could have written the novel I’ll be sending out in ten days…  And if that’s true, they’ll let me know.  But I won’t sit on it.

Anyway, if you still feel like reading more of these writerly musings, I can make it a regular post here.

Or I can never do it again.  You guys aren’t shy about letting me know…

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  One of his novels is Outside, and both an editor and a publisher thought it was good enough to send him money for, so it might be better than the one mentioned in the post above.

Better Than a Real Estate Guide

Bibury-village-Cotswolds

In an earlier post, I went on in great length about where I could and couldn’t live, and why (hint: if you think your medium-sized city is attractive to me, think again).  For those of you who are terminally time-strapped or just lazy, I’ll give you the Cliff Notes version: Big, big cities (think ten million or more) anywhere or tiny, tiny villages in some civilized piece of Europe.

I don’t need to know too much about big cities, because I’ve been to a whole bunch of them and lived in a few.  They are, essentially, all alike across continents and cultures, and, if you have the means, all can be enjoyed.

But villages…  the last time I lived in anything resembling a village, I was a young child.  And even that was more a pastoral suburb than a real village.  I can’t visit a village in Argentina because they are different from the ones I like, and whenever I’m in Europe, I tend to spend all my time in Art museums or lake Como, so I don’t get to check out real villages.

So I did what I always do in these cases:  I bought a book.  And I’m so glad I bought it that I’m going to tell you all about it.

615v1yhvpAL._SX401_BO1,204,203,200_

The book is called The Most Beautiful Villages of England by James Bentley and with photographs by Hugh Palmer, and it does just what it says on the tin.  It’s a visual tour of some of the prettiest little collections of houses you’ll ever see.

Are they the most beautiful in England?  I really don’t know.  I’m certain the authors thought so, but I’m equally certain that, somewhere in the Costwolds, the inhabitants of some picturesque village get together once a year to protest the snub of not being included by pushing pins into voodoo dolls of the estimable Messrs Bentley and Palmer.  You can’t please everyone.

But you can please the reader, and this book is very good at that.  It’s a warm sensation knowing that, if I want to enjoy looking at pictures of English villages, I don’t have to do so on a screen – this is probably EXACTLY the kind of book that is saving dead-tree publishing.  It’s not possible to enjoy it the same way electronically, no matter how wired to your PC you might be.

Apart from the sheer visual beauty, you get a good walkthrough of the history of the featured villages, which are often chilling.  Why?  Because the pretty, picturesque parts of these places were generally built to house people who “belonged” to the land.  The real country swells lived in the big house on the hill, the one with lawns tended by seven hundred gardeners costing the earl a grand total of three pounds, two shillings a year.

Now, of course, they are just beautiful places, and it’s better that way.

England is probably the best place for tiny villages – although both France and Italy will get their due consideration if I can ever write a novel that spends the better part of a year at number one on the NYT bestseller list and simply move away from the faster-paced life I currently “enjoy” – right after I get tired of Tahiti, of course. I spent hours poring over this book trying to chose which village would produce the best writing if I had to walk its streets and look at its scenery every day.

And that, of course, is the crux of it all.  I know many writers in rural areas want to hit it big and move to New York.  I spend plenty of time in New York every year, and yes, it’s a wonderful place (my recommendation to writers who make it big is to buy the Park-view apartment from Devil’s Advocate), but having lived my entire life in a place just as big and bustling means that my own ideal place to wrestle with the follow up to whatever novel made me famous – and all the pressure that comes with that – would be a leafy back garden, preferably with a stream running through it somewhere in England.  I could happily spend a summer writing there.  This book has given me a couple of places to look into when that happens.

In winter, of course, look for me in Tahiti.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  He is probably best known as the author of Siege.

A Great Sportsman, A Great Time

Perhaps the golden era of the playboy sportsman took place during the Victorian and Edwardian periods.  Of course, anglophones normally read about the exploits of English nobles in those days, but the rest of Europe was also in on the fun.  The first world war put an end to that, and the second applied the exclamation point, the final nail in the coffin for those who persisted in trying to enjoy life.  A decade of austerity lay ahead.

But the same couldn’t be said of Americans.  The 1950s became the golden age of the American playboy sportsman.

Cunningham Sports Cars By Karl Ludvigsen

Why so late?

Well, while the European nobles were busy refining the art of yacht racing all over the continent, and also learning about internal combustion engines and fielding legendary polo teams, their American equivalents were dragging an agricultural nation kicking and screaming into the industrial age after the civil war.  They didn’t have time to goof off.  Also, a lot of them were of a slightly puritanical bent, and hadn’t yet realized that the main reason to have money is to be able to enjoy yourself with it in ways that everyone else simply can’t.

So yes, by the 1950s, the scions of American industrialists had finally understood their position and went off to get serious about having a good time.

And that brings us to Karl Ludvigsen, one of the great automotive historians.  Because, of course, this post is about a book, as well as being about amazing race cars (we did say “eclectic” in the manifesto, didn’t we?  If we didn’t, we meant to).

You see, Ludvigsen wrote a book entitled Cunningham Sports Cars, which might sound like a dry racing title, but is actually a lasting monument to a great American playboy sportsman: Briggs Cunningham.  The book, like all Ludvigsen titles, is painstakingly researched and evocatively illustrated but what it is most notable for is making the reader wish he was Cunningham.

You see Briggs, who died in 2003, was not content to use his enormous wealth to buy cars and yachts – he actually built his own, painted them in American racing colors (blue over white) and tried to win Le Mans (with the cars) and improve the breed (with his yachting innovation).  He also won the America’s Cup, but that was while skippering a tub built by someone else, so he might not have been happy with it (we are, of course, kidding).

In an age where the excesses of the rich are indulged in private or at least with as little publicity as possible (to avoid having the po-faced masses* attempt to raise income taxes or establish even more draconian luxury taxes), it’s refreshing to read about a man who did so openly and under his own name (kind of like an Elon Musk without any kind of social concern or wish to advance humanity).

Cunningham c2-r

Even more importantly was the fact that he learned from his mistakes.  Le Monstre (a special-bodied Cadillac) is rightly remembered as the ugliest thing to defile the sacred Mulsanne straight (and this is hard to do because, other than on race weekends, that is a stretch of French highway, and we assume that Ami 6s were allowed to use it), but his later, Cunningham-branded cars were truly beautiful.

So we at Classically Educated invite you to raise our glass of whatever obscenely expensive bubbly you might have to hand to a man who was more concerned with the good things in life than with why enjoying them is antisocial in some way.

Living well is the best revenge, of course.  And if you buy the book you can do so for a modest sum… at least vicariously.  And you can wish you were Briggs Cunningham, as well as reliving yet another age lost to the merciless passage of time.

*I have a defective socialism gene.  Can’t be helped.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist who writes in English.  His latest book, Incursion, was published in 2017.

On the Importance of Choosing a Good Magic System

Last week we discussed a series of fantasy books that, despite having a pretty standard “new age and elves” style magic system, is still beautiful and memorable because of the way characters and prose wove together to make a completely different kind of magic.

But what if you are not a supreme prose stylist, but simply an excellent writer attempting to give the world a rollicking good yarn?  Unless you do something different, of course, your books are very unlikely to ever see the light of day, and sometimes, if they do, they won’t make a huge impression.

A good way to make sure you leave a mark is via the magic system.  Make the rules of the magic strange, different excessively arcane, and then figure out all the ramifications… and you’re likely to have a brilliant story waiting to get out.

runelords cover David farland

David Farland’s (real name, Dave Wolverton) The Runelords is probably the best example of  a hugely imaginative magic system with serious consequences for all involved that I’ve come across in a lifetime of reading big fantasy series.

In short (and attempting not to give spoilers), each Runelord (generally, albeit not always of noble birth) can take “endowments” of different characteristics from people willing to give them.  This makes them stronger in that particular characteristic.   The downside is that the person who donates the ability loses that quality.  So giving an endowment of brawn leaves you weak as a babe, one of sight blind as a bat, etc.

You can give the strangest things, and all are useful.  Grace, for example. Or – and this one has drastic consequences – metabolism.

A lot of the politics of the series revolve around how to accumulate endowments, and how to protect those who’ve given the endowments from being massacred by people who don’t particularly want their rivals to have that power.

It makes for a nicely convoluted political backdrop to a “journey of the hero” plot with some truly alien bad guys getting tossed in once the foundations are laid.

This isn’t necessarily my favorite fantasy doorstop series (I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that that one is probably The Wheel of Time endless descriptions of ladies’ blouses and all), but I wholeheartedly recommend this one not only to readers who are looking for some fantasy fun, but also to other writers.  It’s a masterful example of using your magic system to shape the life and politics of a secondary world.

And as the original 4 book series (which I’ve recently finished) advances, the consequences of the magic system grow ever deeper.

Good stuff.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story Writer.  His latest novel is Incursion: Shock Marines.

Great Adaptations

Dickens, as has been proven by countless failures of his work on screen and stage, is tremendously difficult to adapt faithfully.  Either critical events get cut from the final version, or the rapid succession of scenes removes any depth from the characters.  Dickens’ magic dies in either of these two scenarios.

In 1946, when the movie we are going to discuss today was released, the consensus was that there had been no good Dickens for the screen.

Great Expectations

Sir David Lean‘s version of Great Expectations changed all that, which is quite surprising, as the original book is a multi-scened doorstop that explicitly exposes much of the introspection of the main character.

In that sense, perhaps the adaptation was doomed from the start.  It most certainly doesn’t manage to transmit the inner thoughts of Pip, and that robs the twist ending of much of its emotional strength.

But that is the film’s only weakness.  It manages to capture the characters emotions beautifully.  Pip’s openness, Joe’s faithful, unconditional generosity and (perfectly, brilliantly), Estella’s cruel aloofness.  It succeeds on both the strength of those portrayals and in the stunning rightness of the sets they used.  The forge, the marsh and especially the decaying mansion, all work brilliantly.

I was interested to learn that the book has been filmed again, as recently as 2012.  Looking over the rankings of the more modern versions on IMDB, I’m not really surprised that most of the newer versions rate much lower than the Lean.  Despite being hampered by postwar shortages and black and white photography (although, to be honest, that seemed just right for this one), the 1946 version is still the definitive Great Expectations.

It’s not surprising, as it’s difficult to improve upon near perfection.

I’d like to take a few more moments to talk about my own experience with the film.  You see, this isn’t my favorite Dickens novel.  Yes, it was better than the maudlin Oliver Twist, but can’t hold a candle to the masterpiece that is David Copperfield (in fact, it seems at times a little like a light, punched-held version of Copperfield).  I wasn’t particularly looking forward to watching a long period piece in black and white adapted from a book which I didn’t enjoy and whose twist I already knew.

It’s kind of like watching a film version of Murder on the Orient Express.  Knowing how it ends kills most of the magic.

But in the end, I liked it.  It was that good.

Weird stuff, or at least stuff that interested me, abounded in this one.

Kilroy Was Here Marker

First off, there’s a scene in which a “Kilroy was Here” appears drawn in the dust.  It’s in the final scene of the film, but I haven’t been able to get a good screenshot (if anyone has one and can send me the link in comments, it will immediately be placed here!).

Also, there was an Argentine born actress in this one: Martita Hunt.  She is long gone, but we salute her from Way Down South!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.

The End of Deverry

Most of the huge, sprawling Heroic fantasy series I’ve read deal with a single set of characters and follow them through the conclusion of a single crisis (or perhaps more than one if the author made a lot of money and decided to keep writing).

That makes a lot of sense.  After all, it’s the formula that Papa Tolkien set out for everyone when he invented the sub-genre  (fortunately, I have not yet succumbed to writing one of these, or else I wouldn’t be that smug!).  Look at The Wheel of Time, The Sword of Truth, or the Belgariad and Malloreon.  All of these now-classic series used the formula, and all of them have at least one title with the word “bestseller” in the blurb.

Terry Brooks took the idea one step further by simply having several different generations of his characters have essentially the same adventures over and over again (he does it really well, too.  I for one, can see what he’s doing and still buy his books).

Perhaps the only contemporary writer to vary the formula (albeit only slightly) and be a huge commercial success is George R. R. Martin, and I will be very interested in seeing how the newer generations of my writing peers respond to his lead.  I expect quite a bit of the sincerest form of flattery, to be honest.

But for a twist that really twists, I would recommend a dark horse that most people haven’t heard of.  Katharine Kerr’s Deverry Cycle, which I’ve recently, with my reading of The Silver Mage, completed.

The Silver Mage by Katharine Kerr Cover

A quick note on this.  Finishing the Deverry cycle, though rewarding, was like losing an old friend.  It ran from 1986 to 2009, and I joined the party in about 1991 or so.  Fifteen books later, I’m done.  A bittersweet moment.

But back to why it’s special.  Kerr does something that few other fantasists (I can’t think of another who has an epic series doing this) do: she uses the same characters over and over in different time frames, but they are reincarnated.  So things that happen to one guy might lead to terrible revenge or good karma for the same soul (but a different character) a thousand years later.  And since the timelines are all woven together, different time periods occur in different books, so you might have a chapter that takes place two hundred years before the one preceeding it.

The magic, of course, is in the fact that it all winds up making sense in the end.  As a writer, all I can do is tip my hat with respect and say “better her than me.”

Another thing that recommends this series is the writing style.  It’s a bit dreamy, a little literary and very feminine.  Fortunately, however, there is enough good, old-fashioned sword- and catapult- driven mayhem to keep genre fans happy. There are also dragons That is a good thing.  The balance of the two elements is well-managed and effective.

Perfect?  I suppose not.  Though I enjoyed these, they might not be everyone’s cup of tea.  The character set can feel a little new-agey (that cover above should be a dead giveaway…). There are, fortunately, no unicorns that I can recall, but the elves all live in the west and the magic system is more seventies crystals than magic swords.  I also had one good friend tell me they abandoned the series when one of the human characters became a dragon.  I didn’t love that twist, but it wasn’t a deal breaker for me, and I read on until the end.

NOTE: After I posed this, Katharine Kerr herself (wow!) clarified the origins of the magic system in the comments.  It’s much more complex and nuanced than I had originally assumed so I urge you to have a look in the comments for the real story.

Anyway, if you do pick it up, drop me a line.  In the meantime, consider this post my farewell to an old friend.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina.