Month: July 2018

When Culture Catches us by Surprise

Florence Fuomo

We’ve all seen them: the books about the touristy city we’re visiting (on the Grand Tour, perhaps?).  They are generally in a wire rack, sitting beside the plaster statues of the tower of Pisa, the brass replicas of the Eiffel Tower, the I ❤ New York t-shirts or whatever serves as a knickknack souvenir for the city you’re visiting.  The place to find these things is usually a hole in the wall store about twenty feet deep and just wide enough for one person to slip between the colorful rows of merchandise.

The books are usually, and for some reason known only to the creators of tourist books, given a dust cover of thick transparent plastic, the literary equivalent of coke-bottle glasses and visible from a mile off.

As far as I can tell, the main purpose of these books in the stores is to gather dust, remind people what city they’re in and also to ensure that the rights owners of sepia-toned photographs of the city as it was will continue to receive royalties.

My parents stocked up quite a number of these in the early eighties.  They were placed in the library… and continued to gather dust (the books, not my parents).

One day, I was in an Italian mood.  An idea for a novel set in Italy just before the First World War had been buzzing about in my head for ages, so I was grabbing anything Italian I could get my hands on.  I’ve already spoken about one of the books I read, and another came off the pile of souvenir books.

Florence the City and It's Art by Luciano Berti

The one I picked up happened to be Florence, the City and its Art by Luciano Berti.  As I read, the book surprised me.  It seemed a bit too erudite to belong to this subcategory.  It truly was a history of the city, but no less of its leading families, so long intertwined with the world of renaissance art.  There were no recommendations for popular places of entertainment, no pandering to the least common denominator.

It’s not surprising when one thinks about it.  Berti, after all, is a reasonably eminent art historian, so his work was always going to be a bit challenging for the average Hawaiian-Shirt-clad tourist, but more of a mystery is why the publisher decided such a book might be a good idea.

I have two theories regarding that last point.  The first is that they truly wanted to show the value of Florence as a cultural gem of the world.  The second is the Berti was the lowest bidder and they cynically speculated that no one would open the thing.

I’ll leave the decision regarding which is true up to you, but I’m delighted they chose the path they did.  There are many worse ways to spend a couple of lunchtimes than to become immersed in the wonderful world of renaissance art.

I’m sure there are many of those books in your home.  One never actually buys them, of course, but they seem to accumulate anyway.  Do yourself a favor and read one.  Maybe you’ll get as lucky as I did.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose novel The Malakiad deals with a very different kind of tourism.  In the Greek heroic era it was usually advisable to do one’s touring well-armed and with a bunch of military-minded friends…

 

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Trainspotting in Miniature

British Railway Modelling Augusta 2001

We’ve been on a bit of a hobby binge lately here at CE, in which we discussed the artisans who build near-perfect replicas of cars and the gently mad world of book collecting. We also did stamp collecting once, but that was quite a while ago.

I’ve never really been a miniature train enthusiast but, as a child had a couple of HO-scale locomotives, some wagons and some props that I’d inherited from my father, who really wasn’t an enthusiast either, but dabbled for a few months.  I understand the attraction that building a miniature world could have and even pored over an old Märklin catalog for hours as a kid but never really had the time, among my hundred other interests, to really get in deep.  Being a polymath and poly-interested-in-everything has its sacrifices.

But, as I mentioned last week, I went to the Anglican church jamboree… and they had an old edition of British Railway Modelling sitting there (August 2001).  So, of course, I bought it.

And went down the rabbit hole.

Model train layout

I have a certain amount of experience with modeling, and am also trained as an engineer, so I’m not exactly just off the turnip truck, but a read of this publication quickly set me straight.  Model railroading is just as packed with specialist terms and products as any other hobby practiced by a small group of alchemists sequestered in attics and basements without any significant contact with the human race.

First off, apparently the British have their own scale which is slightly different from the worldwide standard HO scale…  OK, I can live with that.

Then there is the fact that, of course, trains that come straight out of a box are inferior to those which are sold as small resin bits and assembled and weathered by the end-user.

So far, I managed to understand what was going on, but there was a whole bunch of other stuff going on, some of which assumed knowledge I will never have.  I’d say that only about 80% of the contents were things I could easily comprehend…

After reading Chapman’s Homer and Joyce without too much trouble (although, admittedly, Finnegan’s Wake is still on the to-be-read list), it’s nice to know that there is still literature out there that can leave me wondering what the hell that was all about.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  You can check out his novel, Siege, here.

 

Remembering a Time when Political Discussion was the Province of Intelligent People

Social media seems to have given us a new paradigm: everyone, no matter how uneducated or unprepared for public discourse, posts political opinions, and we’re supposed to respect them, even if they’re moronic.

So what we end up with is that someone with perhaps four working brain cells posts a political statement which is based on a popular view or a piece of news fabricated by the Huffington Post or by Fox News – both sides are equally stupid when it comes to this, so not making any distinctions by party today).  Perhaps they just copy and paste some one-sided meme. Then, an equally ignorant individual from the other side jumps in and refutes the argument.

No one, of course, uses the media bias chart where everything under the midpoint of the yellow rectangle needs to be ignored if you have aspirations to being an intelligent human being… And any news further to the right or left of “skews” is worthless.

Media-Bias-Chart_Version 3.1

Eventually, the discussion dissolves into name calling in which people who aren’t racists get called racists, people who aren’t Nazis get called Nazis, and people who aren’t Communist get called Communist.  Of course, all of the people who call people these things are idiots…

Like all religions, politics has become dogmatic: if you don’t agree with the virulent left, you are a racist, if you don’t agree with the virulent right, you are a commie.

And then there’s Trump, who stirs the pot for unknowable reasons of his own which only makes things worse.  But this isn’t limited to the US… it’s a worldwide phenomenon.

A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf

in 1928, things were different.  Back then, political discourse was for thinkers.  There were expendable idiots even then, of course, but they were just rank-and-file members of different political parties who could be counted on to grab king’s horses or die trying.  But the actual thinking was done by individuals with qualifications.

Which is why, ninety years later, A Room of One’s Own holds up so well.

Now, those who know me well, know that I think extreme leftist thought (like extreme rightist thought) is hugely unproductive.  Making everything about identity politics, attempting deconstruction and brushing off a hundred years of evidence that shows that certain economic models simply don’t work unless you hold the population to them at gunpoint don’t strike me as the actions of intelligent people with everyone’s best interest in mind.  In fact they are more akin to the thinking of the religious fanatics they supposedly oppose.

Worse, I’ve gone on record disagreeing with Woolf’s opinions about Middlemarch, so I’m emotionally invested in disagreeing with her in particular…

Nevertheless, any fair reader will admit that Virginia Woolf wrote a revolutionary, angry book that is, at the same time, cogent and calm in its delivery.  As a means to attain a goal it strikes me as a hugely superior method than going out and calling everyone a racist.

In fact, this book-and the speech it was based on-are a political tract disguised as a bit of advice given to a group of women who wish to make their way in the world as writers.  It highlights an inequality by way of a series of remarks about a fictitious women’s college and then focuses on the one thing that would help the women in her audience overcome that unfortunate reality.  It doesn’t put everyone in a position to help them in the role of the enemy (which, at best is counterproductive and at worst can lead to Trump and Brexit).

So, am I recommending that you read a political essay from ninety years ago, from a side of the spectrum that isn’t my favorite?  Yes, I am.  I believe more people need to read this and to think about why it works, and why it hasn’t been out of print since its initial publication in 1929 – and long after its initial goals have been reached (remember that, today, there are many more female writers than male writers being published).

Maybe if more people did so, political discussion would return to something approaching semi-evolved subhuman intelligence.  Even that would be a vast improvement.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who prefers to explore the ramifications of technology as opposed to politics.  This makes him very different from almost all science fiction writers published today.  His novel Outside is a prime example of this preference.

Dr. Livingstone, I Presume

As I’ve mentioned here before, I live about a block and a half from a beautiful Anglican church that holds a jamboree every year.  They have games for children, food and, in one delightful room, piles of used books for sale.

I particularly love this because the kind of books they have for sale tend towards the things that the British community in Argentina would have had on their shelves in the fifties, sixties and seventies: books and other periodicals in English that I never would have thought to buy for myself.  Often, they can be had for a token price and all proceeds go to charity, so there’s plenty of incentive to bring home something outside your normal comfort zone.

The White Nile by Alan Moorhead

One of these titles was The White Nile by Alan Moorehead, a hefty hardcover that I immediately grabbed out of the pile.

Now, for those of you who don’t know it, the history of the exploration and colonization of the lower reaches of the Nile in the latter half of the 19th century is fascinating, and Moorehead’s style makes for gripping reading.  The tale of Livingstone and Stanley is probably the most famous of these, but perhaps the military quests and particularly Gordon’s famous defeat at Khartoum are the most interesting parts.

Like Tarzan of the Apes, this is a book that one needs to read without falling into the revisionist trap.  Published in 1960, a time where the glories of the British Empire lived vividly in the minds of many, it doesn’t pander to modern sensibilities.  That’s not to say it’s rampantly racist or one-sided–it isn’t; Moorehead was a historian with a decent amount of sensitivity to the people he wrote about–but it IS written from the British viewpoint, and exclusively through the testimony of white explorers, many of whom truly believed that they were bringing light to a dark region of the world.  When you read their descriptions of what they found, it’s even possible for open-minded readers to understand why they felt this way.

If you can set aside modern thought patterns for a moment, this book is nearly as good as any lost race novel at transporting you to fascinating worlds… with the added benefit that the events related therein actually took place in real life.  It’s an escape from the pressures and rhythms of everyday life that make it well worth the effort of leaving one’s sensibilities aside.

And you’ll learn one heck of a lot along the way.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He is the author of the well-received novel Siege.

Idea Driven SF in its Purest State

On Saturday night, I was in one of Buenos Aires’ notable bars surrounded by Argentine science fiction and fantasy writers.  One of them was telling me how he’d recently bought a Clarke book (Childhood’s End, apparently) in a Spanish translation.  The introduction said (and I paraphrase because I don’t remember the exact wording): “this book is a classic example of the now extinct genre of ideas” (italics are mine).

He was livid.  As a postmodern exponent of literary writing, this man felt that his novels were rife with ideas, and valuable, socially-relevant ones at that.  How could a man who wrote an introduction to a book by Clarke be so ignorant, so limited, so crass?

I mumbled something noncommittal and changed the subject.  Why?  Because I tend to agree with the introducer–opinion that would likely have gotten me lynched.

I’ve been watching the SF genre descend from a literature of ideas to a kind of muddle where postmodern sensibilities have pretty much amalgamated the genre with the rest of post-modern literature.  If something is scientifically impossible, no worries, genre limits are so 20th century, aren’t they?  Plus, if the thing is more boring than watching paint dry, it doesn’t matter as long as it’s diverse, right?

Er…  I’ll let each of you answer that last one.

For a certain kind of reader plausibility is important in SF, and that is why readers are staying away in droves lately, and the last real consensus SF classic (by consensus, I mean among readers – I couldn’t care less what other writers or postmodern critics think)  was… I suppose it was Ender’s Game.

 

Larry Niven Ringworld

But there was a better time, a time when SF truly was the literature of ideas, and perhaps the purest form of this is in Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970).  The characters and the plot are there for one thing, and one thing only: to show us the wonderful construct of a ring around a star and to reveal how it works and why.

Are the characters wooden?  A little.  Is it diverse and sensitive?  Not in the least, Niven didn’t care, he just wanted to tell his story and show us this awesome thing he’d dreamt up (or read about somewhere and decided to flesh out).

The cover blurb says “Legendary Award-Winning Classic”, and that description is spot-on.  Everyone’s read this one, and most people remember it.

But I have this sense that if Niven were to submit it today, it would be bounced for any number of reasons.  The legendary award-winning classic would never make it past the slush pile.

And, in a nutshell, that’s the main problem with the genre today.  It’s bleeding readers like a neck wound because the new stuff is more concerned with social and literary sensibilities than it is with attempting to cater to its readers.  Those former SF readers used to be going to comic books and movies but, as witnessed by the floundering of the Star Wars saga due to some of the writers wanting to use it as a platform for their politics as opposed to just a cool universe to tell a story, this way be reverting back.

Whatever the outcome, the nice thing about literature is that the classics are still around.  We can pick them up in paperback.  Most of us have already read Ringworld, but there are dozens of others… sometimes it’s even fun to pick up a random unremembered book from the Golden Age just to relive that sense of wonder (those with an overdeveloped sense of literary outrage may want to give this a pass… some of the prose is, gasp, workmanlike!).

And if you haven’t read Niven’s Masterpiece, you need to do so right now.  When a setting is universally remembered and everyone knows all about it, you can safely ignore the postmodernists and read it.  You may not enjoy every word, but you won’t forget the Ringworld.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina.  His fiction explores big ideas, nowhere more so than in his reprint collection Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places.

Book Collecting for Non-Collectors

Summer 2018 Fine Books & Collections

I’m not a book collector.

Well, I am in the sense that I have hundreds of books on my shelf, and that I love to possess books that are important to me in beautiful editions.  But I’m certainly not the kind of person who cares whether a book is a first edition, first state copy with the missing semicolon on page 59.  I prefer to have a nice copy I can read than a million dollar edition from 1814 (if you’re going to give me a gift, however, please send the million dollar edition… I’ll buy my own nice copy and keep the change after the auction).

So, perhaps I am not the target consumer for a magazine entitled Fine Books & Collections.  And yet, I look forward to its arrival every quarter more than anything else I subscribe to.

Why?  I suppose it’s because the magazine is much more than just about collectible books.  It’s about books in general, especially old ones, the history of the book, artwork, maps, covers, typesetting and pretty much anything else that might have the most remote connection to books.  It’s the most culturally interesting publication I’ve seen that doesn’t fall over the edge into specialist reading that requires either thirty years of accumulated knowledge to enjoy.  Anyone can pick it up and fall in love.

A Gentle Madness by Nicholas A. Basbanes

So perhaps there’s a reason I enjoy this one, but why did I love the book A Gentle Madness, written by the magazine’s editor, Nick Basbanes, so much?  On the surface, it seems like something for the true collectors: a detailed look at some of history’s major bibliophiles and the story of how their collections came to be.  If someone pitched that at me in an elevator, I’d say… So, a book about a bunch of boring rich old guys?

Well, many of them were both rich and old, but this book was anything but boring.  The passion (obsession?) driving the creation of some of the world’s foremost collections, and the… let’s say eccentricity… of the principals makes this one an absolutely riveting read.  I couldn’t put it down, something that doesn’t often happen to me with nonfiction titles.  There’s everything in here from magnates to thieves, and it should appeal to basically anyone who’s ever coveted a book.

And if you’re anything like me, you’ll enjoy knowing that there’s at least one hobby that turns normal people into madmen that you haven’t fallen victim to.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He is currently writing a book that takes place in the same universe as his novel Outside.

 

Of Wizards, Geniuses and the Rest of Us

Most people have a hobby (albeit of late those hobbies seem to include a lot of staring at phones and TV sets).  We’ve discussed stamp collecting (of all things) here before, but now I’d like to talk about a very different hobby… but not about the hobbying aspects of it.

A lot of people (especially male people) of a certain age built plastic models as a youth.  Though it’s not as popular today as it was a few decades ago (too many video games to play), some still do.

But, like in every pastime, there are dabblers and there are artists, and perhaps the best-known builder of automotive miniatures in the world is Gerald A. Wingrove.  A quick look at his webpage (linked here) will allow you to understand what I’m talking about. The man is an artist in every aspect of his work, from the selection of his subjects to the materials and techniques he uses to build them and, perhaps most importantly, to the results achieved.  With the correct background, his models really can be mistaken for the real thing.

As a person who’s built a number of model cars and planes in their life, I am uniquely qualified to say that most scale models emphatically do not look like the real thing from the right angle (or from any other angle for that matter).  Not even the ones in museums.

You can usually tell that some panels are too thick, or the paint isn’t quite right, or something is stuck on at an odd angle (and don’t get me started on what my own builds look like)… but not on Wingrove’s.  He truly is a master.

The Complete Car Modeler 1 by Gerald A. Wingrove

And a generous one at that.  I recently read his book The Complete Car Modeler 1.  This book is both uplifting and depressing at once.  Uplifting for many, many reasons, including the fact that Wingrove shares all his secrets and techniques in a display of generosity not often seen.  Also encouraging is that the techniques don’t seem to be overly expensive.

Depressing?  Well, anyone who’s tried to become a true craftsman in some discipline knows that that particular dream is often incompatible with the pressures of daily life, and requires the sacrifice of other pursuits.  In my own case, there are other things I’d like to master first, so this one will likely remain a distant ideal unless things in my life change quite a bit.

But it’s nice to see that it’s possible, with just a little (all right a huge amount) of effort and dedication.  If you’d like to build beautiful models indistinguishable from the real thing, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

And if you do so, send me pictures – I’ll post them here!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over 200 short stories in print.  His latest science fiction novel is Incursion.  You can buy it here.

The Matrix Owes More to William Gibson than Most People Realize

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Yes.  I know.  I’m fifteen years late to the party.

Still, I just now got around to reading both Neuromancer and Count Zero, the first two books in Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy (maybe I’m thirty years late to the party?), and I was surprised at just how similar they are to the film The Matrix – or, rather, just how much the film lifts from the series.  I’m surprised that more ink hasn’t been spilled about this, and that it hasn’t been covered a little more in depth, so indulge me for a moment.

Now, I’m not accusing the producers of trying to hide anything.  After all, the very title of the film, The Matrix, is a nod to the name of the web in Gibson’s dark future so they were very respectful of the source material.  The way one navigates, by jacking in using special decks, will also resonate with those who watched the movie.  But, plot-wise, and philosophically, one concedes that there are many differences.

And that’s where most analysis ends.

Count Zero by William Gibson

The problem, as I see it, is that most readers only read Neuromancer, and never go anywhere near the other two books in the series.  And, though I’ve yet to read Mona Lisa Overdrive, Count Zero suddenly changed my perception of The Matrix.

A quick, spoilerless take on this one would be that it continues to tell stories set within the world that Gibson introduced in the first installment while only mentioning the original characters offhand.  If anything, it’s a slightly more ambitious book from a plot perspective, with three separate storylines that weave together in the end.  It starts slowly and gets good about a third of the way through… and then you hate the fact that it ends (this is quite different from Neuromancer, which starts strong and ends a bit weakly).

Twins from the Matrix

But quite apart from the story and general quality of the book, Count Zero introduces all the spiritual preoccupations that the second and third Matrix films revolve around.  It zags away from the tech / hard SF of the first book to explore a different philosophical terrain (albeit shallowly) – and gave the Brothers Wachowski all the ideas they needed to produce the sequels (whether or not they should have remains something of an open question).

So, an interesting weekend read on a number of levels.  Amazingly, these books hold up perfectly well over 30 years later.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  In Outside, he gives us his own take on an uploaded future.