Month: February 2018

We Need to Talk About Dan

If you’re a writer, critic or just a general cultural pundit, there are certain literary truths that you must accept… or else.  Joyce was the greatest writer of the 20th century.  Postmodernism isn’t stupid, it’s just that billions of people don’t get it.  Rhyming poetry died with the dinosaurs.

And Dan Brown in history’s worst writer.  He makes Stephanie Meyer and E.L. James look, respectively, like Shakespeare and Cervantes.

Since Classically Educated makes no pretense of being anything but unabashedly elitist, I suppose one would expect us join the choir in denouncing Brown’s crimes against literature.  One would be wrong.  We’re here to say reasonably nice things about his books.

Ah, I hear people say, a guilty pleasure.  Er, no.  Elitists don’t do guilt.  We do pleasure and leave the guilt to the hand-wringing middle classes and insecure academics.  I’m not looking to be forgiven for enjoying the Robert Langdon novels, but to try to analyze why I (and a lot of other people) enjoy them, despite the criticism of the limitations of the writing – which, to be fair, are pretty reasonable.  There is a bit of lazy writing in there.

So, having recently read two of his more recent Langdon novels, The Lost Symbol and Inferno, I thought it was time to bite the bullet and discuss why I’m still reading these.

For starters, I’ll tell you about my introduction to Dan Brown.  Like everyone else on the planet, my first contact with him came through The Da Vinci Code.  I had badly miscalculated the number of books I needed to take with me on a trip to the Middle East in 2005 and found myself flying back to Argentina via Spain with precisely zero things to read.  The one book that every single bookstore in the world–even in Spain–had on hand at that time was Brown’s, in English, in mass market paperback.  I picked it up with some trepidation.

I was immediately hooked, read the thing without stopping (and made demonic at the nice people whose attempts to give me airplane food were interrupting my reading) and put it down wanting more.  I don’t remember exactly, but I probably bought Angels and Demons immediately after the jet lag wore off.

Not once did I stop to criticize the prose.  Stuff which, if discovered in my own writing would have made me blanche and question my right to continue living flew right by.

Why?

Your mileage may vary, but I think it was two things.

The first factor is an old cliché: pacing and suspense (yes, I know they’re two different things, but they work best when they work together).  Simply stated, these novels keep you turning the pages because you want to know what happens next.  Will the characters make it, what is the solution to this or that riddle, etc.  There are things that keep you hooked both emotionally and intellectually.

Even better, is the fact that the pacing doesn’t bore you or make you wait.  It gives the solution within a few pages, but by the time you have it, Brown has introduced another question or risk or riddle for you to agonize over.  He does this extremely deftly, which ensures that absolutely no one (except perhaps a critic paid to look pretentious) is thinking about the man’s prose.

The second factor is the spectacular use of every conspiracy theory known to man.  Brown does his research on them.  Like the people trying to convince us that aliens have already landed and are in control, he uses just enough evidence to make a convincing, seemingly watertight, case, and leaves the deeper research–the stuff that puts the rest in context and makes it much less sinister–out.  So his books have whatever it is that attracts humans to conspiracy theories.

Umberto Eco famously said that Dan Brown was one of his characters.  He was, of course, referring to Casaubon in Foucalt’s Pendulum.  We’ve spoken glowingly about that book here, mainly because all good elitists are either skeptics when it comes to conspiracy theories or members of the Illuminati pretending to be skeptics.

What he meant by that was that Brown seems to have read all the same books that Eco did, but Brown took them seriously while Eco has them in his famous collection of fakes and lies.  He did clarify later that Brown was only using the same material for a different purpose and that he, Eco, had no evidence that Brown was a believer, but the glee he showed when throwing out the initial phrase means that we’ll take it as the true meaning.

I will postulate that Brown doesn’t use the old writings as a true believer does, but uses them as a good writer does – with the bottom line in mind.  Cynicism aside for a second, the bottom line in this case isn’t money (OK it isn’t only money) but readability and page-turningness.  In the case of his first two books, he realized that people love to read about dark plots within and around the Catholic Church and the New Testament.

The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown

For The Last Symbol, he spread his wings a bit and went after the Freemasons, which had the added benefit that he was able to set his novel in Washington DC, a place as rich in symbolism as any renaissance town – remember that Langdon solves these things in large part by interpreting symbols.

Inferno Dan Brown

After that, he asked himself “What group of conspiracy theorists am I missing?” and decided to write Inferno, set it in Florence (another good choice) and write about a guy developing a super-germ to wipe out humanity.  Also, he makes a brave choice with the ending…  something that shows that story, to him, is more important than just printing unlimited amounts of money.

I still haven’t read Origin, but, so far, and to his everlasting credit, Brown has resisted the temptation to complete his conspiracy bingo card by adding aliens to the mix.  There’s only so much we can defend here after all.

In the end, the books are widely read because of their strengths, not despite their weaknesses.  In this context the weaknesses (aka uninspired writing), to a reader, become invisible.  The story takes over and pulls you along, not accepting any excuses.

There.  A critical apologism of Dan Brown and a call for his work to be appreciated.  For my next trick, I may need to find arguments to show that  Hitler was actually a perfectly nice guy if you got to know him or that Mao’s Cultural Revolution was well-intended but got a little out of hand.

Nah, that sounds like a lot of work; I’ll probably just do another movie review.  Everyone likes those.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over 200 stories published in seven languages (mostly in English).  His latest novel, Incursion, sets new standards in throwing characters under the bus.  His characters start the book thinking they’re on a suicide mission… and then it gets worse.

 

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Grant and Bergman and Hitchcock, Plus Uranium and Nazis? Where Do We Sign Up?

Hitchcock's Notorious - Film Poster - Cary Grant - Ingrid Bergman

Many of the people who follow this space came here for the reviews of the 1001 movies, which makes it a bit sad that we’ve been neglecting it over the past couple of months.  But we come back today with a cracker: Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious!  Though reportedly not his favorite film, this one was perfectly timed: less than a year after the dropping of the first atomic bombs on Japan, here’s the master of suspense with a film about Nazis in Brazil looking to build their own.  Perfection.

Quickly, the story revolves around a spymaster (Cary Grant) who convinces the daughter of a Nazi spy in the US (Ingrid Bergman) to help them disband a Nazi plot in Rio de Janeiro.

The setup becomes complicated when they fall in love because the assignment means that Bergman’s character has to seduce one of the Nazis, and she’s gone and fallen in love with Cary Grant (I suspect that falling in love with Cary Grant was a common affliction in the forties), who has also fallen for her.

Cay Grant Ingrid Bergman Kiss From Notorious

The only bad part of the film is that the whole stoic acceptance of duty and not talking about how they each feel about the other stretches the suspension of disbelief a little far and makes you want to hit them with their own hats.  But other than that, it’s a fun little romp and love story where good triumphs because good people risk their lives to ensure it.

It seems the exiled Nazi theme was popular immediately post war.  Hollywood, as always, was perfectly happy to make a buck by exploiting the fears of the common man.  Interestingly, the uranium that plays such a critical role in Notorious was in the script from the beginning, long before it was widely known that it could be used for atomic weapons.

This one is highly recommended.  My wife, who regularly falls asleep during viewings of the 1001 films list, was on the edge of her seat the whole time, anxious as hell to know what happens next.  Not all that usual for a film from seventy years ago.

Finally, our tradition of finding something unique or interesting about the film continues because of the presence of Fay Baker.  You see, apart from being an accomplished actress, Baker, it seems, wrote novels under the pseudonym Beth Holmes.  As a writer myself, I’m always happy to see that other people (Hollywood actors in this case) manage to understand that writing, even with all its heartbreak, is still better than the day job.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest novel is Incursion.

Themed Anthos – A Good Foot in the Door

Today continues the set of two articles on my own writing experience that began on Wednesday. If people like these (and possibly even if they don’t, I’ll likely continue them in the future).

At the risk of seeming like a complete jerk (and yes, I’m aware that many of you feel that that ship sailed long ago) I will tell you a story about how I got started as a writer.

I sat down and wrote a story over a couple of days.  I fixed some typos and I sent it out on submission. I sent it out to three markets that rejected it.  The fourth bought it.  That story, entitled “Tenth Orbit” not only gave its title to my first collection, but has been reprinted in seven languages and still sells as a reprint now and then.  Also, the news sparked what was probably the ugliest celebration dance in history, but you really, really don’t want to know the details.

The point of this isn’t to make you hate me.  I’ve had the same amount of rejection and heartbreak as every other writer, but the fact that my road into print was comparatively easy meant that I never had to listen to that nagging voice in my mind that said “nothing you write will ever be good enough to sell.”

Nevertheless, I often get the feeling that nothing I write from now on will ever be as good as what came before, and that the prose I’ve produced over the past six months is simultaneously infantile, pompous, pretentious and shallow.  Being all four might seem impossible, but I often feel that way, especially when a dry spell comes along.

I’ve found that a good way to break through this is to go to your favorite marketplace report (I use The Grinder and Ralan for genre projects) and select a themed anthology looking for submissions – make sure you choose one with a deadline far enough off to give you a chance to write a story.

I’ve found this approach to have several benefits.  The first is that the guidelines and theme will tell you exactly what you need to write.  If you can’t follow instructions telling you to send over a 2500 word story about alcoholic koala bears in space, then, sadly, you’re never going to be a writer.  Reading comprehension is a good part of writing, after all.

The good part of the above is that for many projects you will only be competing against other stories written specifically for that antho.  While a place like Asimov’s might get thousands of subs in a month, an antho of this type might get only a few hundred.  Many of those will be by illiterates or people who don’t know what a koala bear actually is.  Yes, the odds are still long – that’s part of being a writer – but they are better than at other places.

The second benefit is that you probably don’t have an alcoholic koala story lying around, which means that you will have to stop and create something completely new, break out of a rut.  I’ve always found this to be a cool way to refresh the writing spirit.

A third benefit (assuming you write a good story and they buy it) is that at the end of it, apart from the money, you’ll have a shiny contributor’s copy filled with the work of a bunch of amazingly talented authors who love alcoholic koalas as much as you do.  It will feel amazing to be surrounded by these people, and you’ll also ask yourself what the editors were thinking when they bought yours as well…  but don’t worry, every author thinks that.

Strange Bedfellows Edited by Hayden Trenholm

This is often the best part.  I recently read a couple of anthos with my work in them, and I thought it would be fun to use them to exemplify the range of what’s possible here.  They’re both from 2014 (my TBR pile needs a new type of mathematics to describe it and it takes me a looong time to get to any book mired therein) and I place them here for your perusal.

The first is a pro-rate-paying antho (as defined by SFWA) entitled Strange Bedfellows, Edited by Hayden Trenholm. The guidelines for this one were pretty open: the story had to be about politics.

So I sent them a tale called “Gloop”, which, though not espousing any particular political leaning, clearly showed the effects of politics on the lives of the characters and their society.  The other stories were well-written, mostly left-leaning, but with a couple of more conservative stories to balance it out, and overtly political.  As one expects with this theme, philosophy and thought-out ideas (as well as a certain amount of pontification) were everywhere, but there was plenty of action and entertainment as well.

Undead and Unbound Cover

The second seems, at first glance, to be the polar opposite.  Undead and Unbound, edited by Brian M. Sammons and David Conyers, does exactly what it says on the tin.  Anything walking around after someone killed it was fair game.

Honesty compels me to admit that I was invited to this one, but it still made me sweat.  My problem was that I didn’t want to write a story that was just like everyone else’s.  I didn’t want to be a zombie in a sea of zombies, or just another vampire.

So I decided that a wight might do the trick, especially if that wight came alive during the Blitz and called it “Thunder in Old Kilpatrick”  To my relief, they accepted it…

The most interesting thing about this one, however, is that when I came to read it, it defied all my expectations about what an “undead” theme would include.  The writers went to great lengths to make their stories memorable, and the antho is extremely well written.  Definitely not just a piece of fluff for people with short attention spans.  So you can toss those prejudices out the window – your average call for zombie stories is going to require a lot of talent and imagination to get into.

And speaking of throwing out those prejudices, here’s another one that contains one of my stories.  I think you’ll agree that there’s an antho out there for everyone.  It’s just a question of finding the right call for submissions and writing the right story.

Sinisterotica Anthology Cover

 

Gustavo Bondoni was interviewed today by Jessica A. Scott.  His latest novel is Incursion.  You can buy it here.

Shared-World Anthologies – One Writer’s Experience

This week, I’ll be looking at the very different experiences I’ve had in publishing my short work.  Time permitting, I’ll do a post on Friday about a more typical antho (if not Firday, then next week for sure), but today, I’ll be discussing a pretty specific and unusual market type: the shared-world antho.

Like many readers, I was originally introduced to the concept of a shared world by the Thieves’ World anthos in the 1980s (they might have been created earlier, but I was reading in the 80s).   Memory is a bit fuzzy, but I was probably drawn to them because Robert Asprin‘s name was on the cover and I had just discovered his Myth books.

They were delightful books which I devoured (I was about twelve at the time and they were perfect).  Looking for more of the same, I came across the Heroes In Hell Series. And I saw something interesting:  many of the writers in both series were the same.  Strange.

Years later, I was invited by a friend to take part in a volume of the Sha’Daa series, edited by Michael H. Hanson  and Edward F. McKeon.  The basic premise is that, once every ten thousand years, the Sha’Daa – a demonic invasion of Earth – occurs.  And it’s due soon…  I was stunned and delighted, because I’d been watching from the sidelines as these books attained a bigger and bigger readership.  I didn’t take very long to give them a resounding “Yes”.

When I asked why he’d thought of me, my friend said the following: “I asked around and people like working with you because you deliver clean, quality prose on time.”  So yeah, I’m a hack, but it may be the nicest thing anyone has said of me as a writer.  Professionalism is something I value and, it appears, so do others.  It gave me my first Inkling of why so many writers were the same people across those eighties anthos: evidently, they played well with others, got things in on time and didn’t try to blow up the sandbox.

Next, of course, I had to produce a decent story.  Flop-sweat time! Not only did I have to produce a decent story on command, but it needed to fit.  Luckily, I had reviewed one of the first two books for SFReader so I knew what I was getting into.  I also read the other volume and took copious notes on what worked well and what had already been done.

Sha Daa Pawns Cover

Then I sat down to write my own tale for Sha’Daa Pawns.  I wanted to do something different that fit the dark spirit of this amazing series well.  I set my own tale, Blood Stone in an African diamond mine, a milieu which I’d never really seen explored in speculative form.

When they accepted my piece with some minimal edits, I was delighted.  When they showed me the cover I was stunned.  And then they invited me back for the next one: Facets… which made the whole process and insecurity start over.  They wanted this one to be in epistolary/documentary text form, a style I’d always shied away from but, for reasons having to do with the structure of the planned book, fit perfectly.

When someone says “epistolary” I immediately think two things: Dracula and Victorian era.  So I went in that direction style-wise (albeit I made the setting a bit more modern) and, to my surprise, the story came together really well.  I managed to tell the tale I wanted seamlessly without stretching the form past its breaking point (or at least past the point where the reader would break, which would have been worse).

Sha'daa Facets Cover

The entire experience was different from anything else I’ve ever done in publishing.  Sometimes a detail had to be changed to fit another story.  At other times, the editors would ask you to change a little thing here or there to avoid a demonic apocalypse (always a danger in this series).  I recommend it to everyone.  The dynamic will certainly help you grow.

Once the stories were published (a couple of years apart) and I received my copies, I realized that this series is going from strength to strength.  My thoughts on these volumes pretty much reinforced the initial impression of the one I’d reviewed back when I was an impartial observer: the author lineup is strong, the action is excellent and I feel honored to be among them – and each of them had to play nice with others to earn their place there.  Cool to see, and I can only imagine what the editors went through to create those.

So, for the writers who have asked me how to get into the shared-world antho business, that’s the answer: be easy to work with, deliver your edits on time, and word will get around.  Oh, and write the best stories you can, too.

If you happen to hear of one of these being formed, write an author or editor already on the team who’s worked with you before.  You never know what might result!

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest novel, Incursion: Shock Marines, was released in September.  He recommends that you read it before something else comes out and he has to change this signature.  If that happens, you might miss it and you do not want that to happen (he says to trust him on this)!

What Happens When the Writer Dies?

A friend of mine who is also an excellent writer once told me that he doesn’t read doorstop fantasy series until they are complete.  The reason is that he is always afraid that the writer will die in the middle of it and leave him hanging.

As a writer myself, I begged to differ.  Everyone knows that we’re made of better stuff than that, and no self-respecting author would ever allow his body to fail in the middle of a series.  Priorities are priorities: readers come first, natural law a distant second.

Then, in 2007, Robert Jordan died–way too young–leaving us with The Wheel of Time three quarters of the way done.

A quick note about The Wheel of Time.  Nowadays, everyone and his kid sister like to brag about their knowledge regarding Game of Thrones.  But the show, and the series of books that it was drawn from, would have had a much more difficult path to publication and popularity if Wheel of Time hadn’t been a smash runaway bestseller.  Robert Jordan followed in the footsteps of some writers (Terry Brooks comes to mind) but the huge success of his saga opened up the doorstop fantasy sub category (for more on it, here’s my take on The Runelords, another series that likely owes its existence to Jordan).

But, despite his importance, tragedy struck and readers wondered what would happen next?

It’s a difficult decision for a publisher to make.  In some cases such as Robert Ludlum, and now Tom Clancy, the publisher simply keeps using the writer’s name and hopes no one reads the obituaries.  The real writer’s name is often featured in smaller letters saying something like “with Edward Edwardsson” (of course for sales like that, I’d gladly write a techno-thriller…).

Other publishers openly admit that their guy is gone and get another name author to wrap things up.  Think of And Another Thing by Eion Colfer.  It’s a good book, it’s a funny book. And no one is pretending the humor is anything like what Douglas Adams would have produced.  It isn’t.  But that doesn’t make it bad.

The publishers of the Wheel of Time decided to go with a more Robert Ludlum-esque approach.  They signed up-and-coming writer Brandon Sanderson, locked him in a room with Jordan’s copious notes and outlines and told him to write the last three books in the series in such a way that everyone would think Robert Jordan did it (OK, I’m not sure if they locked him in a room for the time it took him to write three humungous novels.  If they did, that had better have been one hell of an advance!).

Towers of Midnight by Brandon Sanderson  A memory of light Brandon Sanderson

To Sanderson’s credit, he pulled the magic trick off without a hitch, and the concluding books are just as good as the preceding volumes.

This was a rare case where a tragedy was good for all the survivors.  Tor got the sales they were probably counting on from this series.  Readers got the conclusion they wanted to the series.  And Sanderson became a household name among fantasy readers (I will admit to having asked who he was when I first heard the news).  In a limited sense, even Jordan came out ahead (I assume he would rather not have died, of course): his vision and notes were used to create the final product, and his style was respected.

All of which doesn’t leave me feeling relaxed. A major problem I have is that I’m in the middle of A Song of Ice and Fire, and at the rate they’re being written, I certainly hope George RR Martin has the immortality thing figured out…

 

Gustavo Bondoni, apart from blogging, also writes.  His latest novel, Incursion, is a fun romp about what happens when a suicide mission gets really complicated.

Party Like You’re in India and It’s a Thousand Years Ago

A few years ago, we published our most popular post ever.  Ironically, considering that we try to be at least a little bit high-brow and are proud of being elitist pigs, our most popular piece was a humorous story about parties written by our vampire columnist.  It immediately went viral and everyone read it.  Then, like all these things, everyone forgot about it.  (even more ironically, our second-greatest hit was a depressing relationship piece written by a columnist calling herself Scarlett – argh, there goes our street cred).

We may be elitist, but we aren’t proud and we like clicks as much as the next blog, so we asked Baron H (famous as the main columnist of the now defunct Undead Smart Set) to do a follow up to that one.  He hemmed and hawed that he’d gotten all the best parties in the first one, but when we pushed, he started saying things like “well, there was that one time in Mexico, but I really shouldn’t talk about that…”  We told him he was going to talk about it or we’d call in the stakes and garlic brigade, and the results are below.

 

Greetings and Salutations,

It’s always a mystery to me why mortals get so exercised about parties.  They’re entertaining, yes, and often instructive, but from what I’ve seen of the blowouts organized by humans, they’re not really all that special.  Granted, there are some exceptions, but in general I’ve found that the undead have much better blowouts… Perhaps the fact that we’re permitted to eat the mortals present make our festivities inherently better.

Nevertheless, there were some good party eras in the past and it’s worth celebrating the ones I missed last time.  Nothing too new, of course, because modern people have no idea what a good party looks like – not even in the seventies, when sex was a lot more free and easy than it is today.

 

300px-Codex_Magliabechiano_(141_cropped)

5.  The Re-consecration of Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan

Now this was a good party to be undead at mainly because, for a glorious few days, the strict taboo on not killing the partygoers was lifted.  Every male was expected to bring something to the party – specifically, every male was expected to bring a prisoner, captured in battle to sacrifice at the altar.

No one is quite sure what the final number of victims were.  Sources have said that it might have been as high as eighty thousand killed over the course of four days.  As a witness, I’d say that there certainly were a lot of them, although I’d be hard pressed to give an exact count.  Why, you ask?  Well, there are certain things that a gentleman doesn’t discuss… let’s just say that there were other things happening at the party apart from the sacrifices.  It was good enough for fifth place on this list.

 

kubla khan pop-up coleridge

4. Kubla Khan’s Xanadu

I didn’t mention this last time because I wanted to spare Coleridge’s blushes.  I told him all about the parties, how the great Khan would empty entire nations to have the right kind of food and drink for the table and the right shade of girls on hand for his soldiers.  But then he went and got stoned out of his mind and forgot most of it.

I tried again, but the woman I told it to was either even more stoned than Coleridge or had a really low opinion of what her contemporaries could understand.

Either way, these were amazing parties with a seriously dark edge, but I’m done trying to explain them to humans.

 

Nero's Domus Aurea

3. Nero’s Domus Aurea

This is a gold dome near to my heart.  Nero’s Rome was possibly unique in its tolerance of the undead.  They were pretty much up for anything back then, and would happily invite anyone – and anything – out of the ordinary to join in.  When you have accepted that infinite power corrupts infinitely, and have decided to enjoy that fact, it takes a lot of creativity to make you feel special again

At this place, every night felt special.

The amount of blood, wine, food and bodily fluids spilled at any of these parties could fill an ocean basin, and I suspect they probably tried.  I shudder to think of the wasted blood.

 

White Smoke from Papal Conclave

2. Papal Conclave of 1644

One normally doesn’t think of the Catholic Church as a hedonistic and freewheeling institution.  In fact, if one doesn’t know the right people, it might seem precisely the opposite (assuming one politely looks the other way on the subject of altar boys).

The reality is very different.  Everyone knows that in earlier, less social-media-conscious centuries, the Vatican had a brothel for its priests.  Also there were Medicis in there – those guys knew how to throw a party.

But that just scratches the surface.  If you want to see what the Vatican is capable of, try to get invited to a conclave.  Better yet, build yourself a time machine, or go around the earth really fast or get hit by lightning and go back in time to 1644 and get invited to that conclave.

While everyone in Rome was distracted by the fact that, oh, woe, the Pope was dead and also by the fact that someone had wisely ordered that the water from various fountains be replaced with wine, leaving the population drunk for days, the cardinals shut themselves in a huge palace with every courtesan in Italy.  The wine also meant they didn’t realize that a lot of their wives were also missing, and so were a number of altar boys.  Finally, I find it amazing that no one commented that the white smoke smelled decidedly funny.

The Cardinals themselves?  They were having such a good time that not one of them threatened me with a crucifix during the whole party.

 

Indian Sex Temple Carvings

1. Indian Chandela Dynasty

Look, I know there have been good parties everywhere.  But when they’re so good that you actually carve the images of them on temples and they’re still causing comment a thousand years later, then you were really on to something.

Such was the situation in India during the Chandela dynasty.  As Mel Brooks used to say, “It’s good to be the King”, but it is even better to be the king of a civilization whose Pantheon includes a deity called Kama, essentially a god of sex.  So you can spend the entire GDP of your people on a huge party, run through the entire supply of virgins of both genders in a few nights, and still say that you were observing a religious holiday.  Bliss.

Today all the guides tell tourists that the temples are carved with all aspects of life and that sexual lust was one of the things of which one had to be purified before entering the sacred space – hence its prominent placement along some walls.  It’s not hard to tell that that is purely PR spin and you should pay no attention to it whatsoever.

We know exactly what those temples are: they’re the 10th century equivalent of those Instagram pics of the party last weekend.  The one that got a little out of control.

I know because I was there – being immortal has its perks!

 

Anyhow, this time I’m really out of parties worthy of including in future lists, but if you know of any coming up that might compare to these…  well, just leave a comment and the owners of this blog will invite me.

Kind Regards,

Baron H

 

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest novel is entitled Incursion.  He assures us that, if you enjoy adventure and action by believable characters, you’ll like this one (of course, he’s the author, what else is he going to say?)

City of Light, City of Magic

Today we have something different: a thought piece by one of our contributors.  Longtime readers will be familiar with Stacy Danielle Stephens’ monumental historical novel about WWII, of which we’ve run excerpts here quite often (if you haven’t seen those yet, just search for her name in the little box on the top right.  Trust me on this one).  In this post, she brings together two very disparate elements: baseball and Nazi segregation of Jews.  It should make you think.

Star of David in 1930s

Is this couple offended by those stars they’re wearing? Of course not. When Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, no Jew on earth was so far removed from Tsarist pogroms or from Martin Luther’s “On the Jews and Their Lies” as to assume the privilege of being personally offended by anything an otherwise polite and civilized society might arbitrarily inflict upon them. So, these stars they’re wearing–are they offensive? Yes, of course they are.

Upon pronouncement of that word, “offensive” Libertarians in particular like to throw up their hands in mock horror, and shriek in a sort of Mickey-Mouse-impression voice, “Heavens to Betsy! We can’t have anyone being offended.” And even your average conservative likes to downplay the subtextual attack quietly yet forcefully contained in offensive terms, symbols, or statements by immediately repackaging incidents surrounding them as public instances of a personal offense which the offended party ought to keep to themselves.

But what made those stars offensive was not any personal feeling of the people required by law to wear them; rather, it was the harmful attack not merely symbolized by those stars, but carried out through them. And the impact of that attack was further compounded by the complacency of a society willing to construe them as small, inoffensive details in the natural order of everyday life. Who, after all, was hurt by a simple star bearing a single simple and absolutely true word? Where is the harm in an accurate label, Jew, being applied to a Jew? The harm of it, of course, was not in the label itself, but in the fact of it being applied.

Now there are a few things I should tell you about myself. First, I hope to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature one day. And once I do, my childhood hero, Mister Peabody, is sure to visit me. Then I can borrow the WABAC and start going places.

Mr Peabody and Time Machine

Well, alright, he’s a cartoon character, so I’d better plan on building my own time machine, unless I can rent one. Either way, the first place (and time) I’d go to is Frankfurt, Germany, in June of 1936, so I could book a trans-Atlantic flight on the Hindenburg the year before it exploded.

Chief Wahoo - Cleveland Indians

And then I would go to Cleveland, Ohio, in October, 1948, to see them win two world series games at home the last time they won the series. Because I’ve been a Cleveland Indians fan for most of my life. Why? Chief Wahoo. He won my heart at an early age, in much the same way Tony the Tiger convinced me that Sugar Frosted Flakes were GR-R-REAT! He did exactly what a logo was supposed to do, and he did it perfectly well. I’m telling you this because I want you to understand that I’m not a Social Justice Warrior, whose only angst is meticulously striking that razor’s-edge balance between a Draconian principle and its Procrustean application. Although when I heard that this season will be the last in which Chief Wahoo will be appearing on the team uniforms, I did not hammer out an impassioned letter imploring the front office to rethink their decision, which, after all, was a carefully considered action by a professional corporation, fully aware of their club’s historical significance in both their league and their city. They have been an important part of each for more than a century. The franchise not only predates the Cleveland Orchestra, it predates the New York Yankees. When the franchise owner wanted to change the team name, Naps, to something else, a poll of local sportswriters settled on “Indians” which went into effect with the 1915 season. The name was allegedly chosen as an homage to Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian, and popular outfielder for Cleveland’s long-defunct National League team, the Spiders. He had passed away on Christmas Eve 1913. Chief Wahoo first appeared as a logo in 1947, later taking on his more stylized, cartoonish features. Neither the name nor the logo were intended to be disparaging of Native Americans any more than the St Louis Cardinals intended to disparage either the Catholic Church or the Audubon Society. Other than a lawsuit in Canada, whose courts have limited jurisdiction because the Indians play a few of their games in Toronto each year, there has been no legal action against Chief Wahoo, and the only organized protest is a relatively small annual event on Opening Day. There has never been an organized boycott, nor a denunciation from a guilt-ridden white celebrity. And, to be honest, no member of the Cleveland Tribe has ever come forward to complain about Chief Wahoo. So what has compelled the front office to make such a decision? Why remove this popular logo from the team uniform?

Because it’s the right thing to do. Duh.

I realize, as I’m sure you do, that there’s no more of a parallel between a caricature on a ballplayer’s jersey and a star on a Jewish woman’s overcoat than there would be between a training camp and a concentration camp. Obviously, the two things are very different, even though they have an identical formal operation; that is, each is a patch sewn onto a garment to visibly communicate a simple fact, but more than this, to also create a vivid impression at a preconscious level. Chief Wahoo tells us the wearer is a Cleveland team member in exactly the same way the yellow star tells us the wearer is Jewish. However, the impression each creates is created by an operation which is the inverse of the other. Without that star, our impression of the Jewish couple would be very different from what it is. But a simple geometric figure with a single short word inscribed upon it forces us to wonder if that couple were still alive a year after the picture was taken. Without Chief Wahoo on his uniform, we only wonder which team the man is playing for. This is the profound, inescapable power of a simple logo attached to a human being, that it can create such widely dissimilar feelings while doing nothing at all, purely in the nonverbal impressions it prompts, the subtle feelings it engenders through a graphic depiction of a particular image. And it does that regardless not only of what its designer may have intended it to depict, but with very little regard for what we might have supposed it depicts. When we think of a star of David on an Israeli flag, or cast in silver suspended on a small chain and hanging just below a person’s collarbone, our associations are not at all what they are when we see that picture. We might insist that it represents pride or devotion, rather than condemnation, but when we see it sewn on a person’s coat, we know better than to argue that it represents anything else.

So in evaluating this decision by Cleveland’s front office, we must also evaluate the impressions Chief Wahoo creates, and not simply the impression the ball club wishes him to create, or the impression of him so many fans, myself among them, have cherished. For most, throughout a lifetime. For many, across three generations.

Ride Great Trains Through a Great Country

We will ask, reasonably, what harm is done by a cartoon Indian. In considering a similar question in 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren noted that we have to look beyond tangibles in measuring damage done when vestiges of racism are enforced as if they were valid realities. Even so, we must begin the assessment with something tangible, like a yellow star, to establish context for the very consequential impact of intangibles.

MLB Baseball Team Logos

In this case, we must examine Major League Baseball team names and logos.

In listing and categorizing them, I find twelve are Mythic or Legendary characterizations. (Angels, Braves, Brewers, Dodgers, Giants, Mariners, Padres, Phillies, Pirates, Rangers, Twins, and Yankees) Of these, only the Braves have a blatant ethnic connotation, visibly reinforced by their Tomahawk logo. The Padres and Yankees each have a fairly clear ethnic connotation, and the Brewers a very subtle one. These teams’ logos avoid any ethnic associations. I find seven teams are named after abstractions. (Astros, Athletics, Mets, Nationals, Reds, Rockies, Royals) Among these, the Royals might be thought to have racial associations, since Kansas City was home to the Negro League Monarchs. Such association, if it exists, has never evinced any negative expression. I find three teams are named for birds, (Blue Jays, Cardinals, Orioles), two for mammals (Cubs, Tigers) two for fish (Marlins, Rays) two for sox (Red Sox, White Sox), one for a reptile (Diamond Backs) and one–the Indians–for an ethnic group.

As an aside, two points must be mentioned. First, that Cleveland alone carries the name of an ethnic group validates Commissioner Manfred’s insistence “that the logo is no longer appropriate for on-field use in Major League Baseball”. Second, the Braves, although essentially the same issue, are another discussion entirely. I’m not a fan, and leave it to those who are to work that problem. So it would appear that we have reached a dead end. Other than pirates, Major League Baseball offers us no semblance of an equivalent group of human beings for comparison. There’s no avoiding the fact that Chief Wahoo places real live people on a par with fish, birds, snakes, and sox.

“So,” you may ask, “a team that celebrates Native-American heritage with a cartoon character featuring a big smile has to discontinue using its mascot?” Rather than answer this rhetorical question, I will suggest a pair of thought experiments. First, let us suppose you commemorate New Year’s Eve by firing a pistol into the air. If, when that bullet returns to earth, it strikes someone, they will be harmed by it, and no argument based on your intention to celebrate something, anything, will undo that harm. You cannot reasonably expect anyone who might be struck by such a bullet to have a greater respect for the innocence of your intentions than you have for their well-being.

Evita Cartoon for the Cleveland Argentines

Or imagine the Cleveland Argentines, with this caricature of Evita as their mascot. Now perhaps you can tell me how well this celebrates Argentine heritage. Honestly, with the possible exception of Donald J Trump, I doubt that anyone would want to explain how an exaggerated depiction of a former prostitute married to a dictator is a celebration of Argentine heritage, or an image which will innately foster a positive, charitable opinion of Argentina or anyone from Argentina. So if the question here is whether Chief Wahoo represents affectionate and respectful celebration, or bigoted derision, the answer can only be that, at best, he encapsulates a misplaced affection without respect for the human dignity of a very large number of people. Just as this unflattering presentation of Evita Peron imparts to you a negative perception of the archetypical Argentine, so Chief Wahoo tacitly inclines you to a narrow and unkind view of the average Native-American.

Having demonstrated that Chief Wahoo doesn’t merely offend a few people, but is the embodiment of a harmful insult characteristic of attack, I hope you will not be disappointed by my forbearance in refraining from what might appear to be the next logical step, but I have no intention of discussing whether the franchise name, “Indians”, is also offensive, although stopping short of that will surely seem to be a case of hacking at the branches of an evil while leaving the root to flourish. I will say that whenever the front office discards and replaces that name, I intend to express my support for their decision just as I am doing now for their first step, at once both abysmally small and abhorrently huge, finally taken. It is, of course, long overdue for those to whom it is due, and yet seems much too soon for far too many of us.

 

Somewhat Scholarly Reflections on Science Fiction, Part 3

In our last post in this series, we bemoaned how the science fiction pendulum has swung all the way from being a genre best suited as entertainment to being a showcase for postmodernist and politicized literary experimentation.  We illustrated this final point by reviewing a pair of Gardner Dozois Year’s Best collections.

Either end of the pendulum represents a sad state of affairs, so it was nice to be able to end the piece on a positive note, noting that the latest one I’d read when the piece was written showed a bit of a return to balance (I’ve since read another, and this trend looks to be continuing, but I’ll have to do a complete piece on that one later).

However, although Gardner Dozois is the best measuring stick for the current state of the genre, and the tastemaker for the more academic side of the SFF world, he is not the only person putting together Year’s Best collections.

Years Best SF 6 - Hartwell

David G. Hartwell’s (1941-2016) long-running series of Year’s Best Books is the one I’d recommend for people who like a little more balance between fun in SF and the ever-present identity politics of the genre.  They are also a place where people who still think of Science Fiction as the “literature of ideas” can find solace in a world where much of the widely-recognized SF has become character-based to the point where the science fiction is almost secondary.  There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but a change of pace is welcome.

The two most recent Hartwell’s I’ve read are number 6 and number 16.  Number 16 was co-edited by Kathryn Cramer.  As these are annual, there are 10 years between them… and other than the names active in each (there’s a Waldrop story in number 6!) there is very little difference in the tone of the stories.  They are both well-written and fun, without espousing one political view over the other (compare that to Dozois, who goes from slightly left-leaning to extremely left-leaning and then dials it back somewhat in the same time period), which is refreshing in these polarized times.

Year's Best SF 16 - Hartwell Cramer

The death of David Hartwell is, to me, a terrible blow to science fiction.  Not only because of his even keel in selecting the best stories regardless of political preference as the genre navigates strange philosophical waters, but also because he was the founder of the New York Review of Science Fiction (where I’ve published a couple or articles but, sadly, they were published after Hartwell’s death).  He, and this series, will be sorely missed.

I wish Cramer had continued the series (I assume she is as good as Hartwell at choosing great stories), but sadly, I can’t find any beyond #18, which is already some years old.

Here at Classically Educated, we promise to scour the Year’s Best shelves to see if we can find another series which keeps this particular flame alive.  In times where political fanatics poison everything from daily life to Facebook feeds, finding someone who leaves politics aside (to the point where I can’t tell whether Hartwell leaned left or right, which, to me is a sign of greatness in a writer or editor) when editing an anthology is a refreshing breath of fresh air.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He writes in many genres, so if you prefer a good supernatural love story to straight science fiction you might enjoy Pacific Wind.