Month: September 2018

Debuting The Culture

Consider Phlebas - Iain M Banks

I’ve been (sorta) binge-reading the first books in a number of far future, deep-space series.  We’ve already discussed The Expanse and Pandora’s Star, so of the three initial books in this particular project, only Consider Phlebas remains to be discussed.  For those of you unaware, this is the first book in the late Iain M. Banks’ Culture series.

This book is a little strange.  Though I certainly enjoyed the whole more than I did Peter F. Hamilton’s long buildup, of the three modern Space Operas, it was the one I found least memorable… and I’m not entirely sure why.

It’s certainly a high-stakes, well-paced and well-written novel, with a sympathetic cast.  Perfectly acceptable in other words, and the Culture itself is often hailed as a mature galactic civilization.  At least one writer I respect a lot has told me that he adores these books.

So, yes, I enjoyed it, but it certainly didn’t stick in my mind.  Without being exactly certain as to why, I’ll take a guess: I think it’s because the Culture itself doesn’t appeal to me as a galactic society.

Yes, I get it.  Within a certain number of years, any society in the galaxy is going to lose its frontier vibe and establish social patterns that, if you ignore the scale, can be very similar to what happens on earth.  Hence, a paternalistic socialism based on the logic of computer overseers is not farfetched.  I can also see certain people–perhaps farmer mind types–being attracted to this.

I found it unattractive.  I like my deep space SF to be wild and wooly, and my societies to be very much a grab bag of opportunists, depots and empire builders.  If one of the belligerents is a more expansive version of Scandinavia, it might turn off the centers of my mind that are interested by things.

Maybe if they’d been painted as the bad guys, I might have taken more notice.  A computer-controlled society of extreme conformists, mindlessly colonizing everything with their bland goodness (which reminds me of the San Angelinos in Demolition Man) would be a terrifying enemy.

But they aren’t, they’re painted as the choice of logic.

I’m willing to give this series a further chance on the sheer strength of the writing and the fact that the buildup was much less annoying than Hamilton’s.  Keep an eye on this space for further installments.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s space opera, Siege, has untidy, ragged good guys and a whole bunch of really bad entities as enemies.  He promises that you won’t find it bland, and you can check it out here.

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Modernizing the Disc

Terry Pratchett with OBE

One of the amazing things about Sir Terry Pratchett (lost, perhaps in the enormous litany of other amazing things about the man) is how open he was to allowing his greatest creation to change.

Pratchett’s Discworld is one of the most beloved fantasy worlds ever imagined.  It’s right up there with Middle-Earth and Hogwarts, and yet it goes about the task quite differently.

In Tolkien and Rowling’s world, the universe achieved perfection centuries or eons before the events that unfold in the books.  The characters are usually struggling to keep a way of life alive or–in the case of Tolkien–to return things to the state in which they were back in the good old days.  In both cases, evil is personified in the entity that wants to change it, to shatter that way of life.   In fact, though both Voldemort and Sauron (or Morgoth in the earlier mythology) are evil in other, more obvious ways, their true crime is to try to break the idyll.  It’s a pattern that writers in the literary genre use as well, though in the cases of Waugh, Bassani and Ishiguro they don’t bother to disguise the true nature of the evil.

Readers, of course, can identify and respond to the sense that all times in the past were better.

Pratchett, on the hand accepted none of the wallowing.  The Discworld might be sitting on a giant turtle, perched on the back of four elephants, but it is more flexible and realistic than most other fantasy worlds, because it changes.  And while I have an image of serious writers thinking about how serious issues in our world would be reflected in other places, I have an equally vivid image of Pratchett sitting around and saying… “I wonder how the nutjobs on the Disc would react to suddenly having guns?  Ooh, that could be fun to write.”

He wrote about guns.  He wrote about race relations.  He wrote about rock music.  He wrote about gender (quite a lot, actually).

And he didn’t do it as standalones that wouldn’t affect his other work, either; every single one of these issues changed the Discworld on a fundamental level, and Pratchett reflected that in later works.

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

The deepest change of all comes in Raising Steam, sadly the very last Pratchett book I will be reading for the first time.  In this one, he brings the Industrial Revolution to the Disc.  Everyone reading will know that the bucolic, strangely provincial life of even the most sophisticated Ankh-Morporkers are going to change forever, the lifestyle of the previous dozens of books will die away, blown through the desert by the winds of change.

And yet, you find yourself cheering the train-building heroes on.  Let them win, let them burn everything down and change it.  And lift a hat to a man whose courage, not just his talent, will be missed more than almost any other’s.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He doesn’t have any bestselling fantasy worlds to burn down, but if you like anachronism in service of comedy in your fantasy, he recommends the hotel credit card scene in his book The Malakiad.  Kindle / Paperback.

An Eclectic Review Publication

From the Earth to the Moon - Swimsuit scene

Anyone truly fascinated by literature, as I am, will, at some point (probably sooner than later) spend a certain amount of time reading critical work.  In my own case, it just felt like a natural progression from reading a lot to learning about the writing. Heck, I’ve even discussed some of these reads here on CE.

Likewise, the leap from reading criticism to writing it felt natural.  Although I still write a lot more fiction than criticism (what I do here on CE isn’t real criticism, it’s more an exercise in exteriorizing my own feelings about books without spoiling them for others).

The first inkling I had that my critical thoughts might be worthwhile to others was when I sent The New York Review of Science Fiction an article about the relative merits of science fiction in the West and behind the Iron Curtain in the sixties and seventies… and it was published.

The best part of that was that I received a short subscription to the magazine.  I downloaded the PDFs, printed them out… and was amazed.

The New York Review of Science Fiction logo

Here was no-holds-barred criticism about… everything and anything under the genre sun (suns?), some of it extremely tenuously linked to the genre, but all of it thoughtful.  The depth of scholarly musings on subjects that wouldn’t necessarily have occurred to me was simply stunning, and the concentration with which these publications had to be read surprised me.

I subsequently published another piece there, and received another subscription, so let me use those as an example of the kind of thing you’ll find there (the samples are from December 2016 and August 2017).

Apart from my own piece (about SFF in Brazil), you’ll find an analysis of Gregory Benford’s fiction looking at from a pure definition standpoint, as well as a scholarly search for the true origins of a vegetable caterpillar found in Ripley’s… and several literary examples thereof.  And these are just the cover stories of one of the issues!

The rabbit hole gets deeper, the scholarship becomes more specialized and you often find yourself reading about books you’re not familiar with… and writers you haven’t even heard of.

Sound like a recipe for boredom?

It isn’t.  Or at least it isn’t to me.  To me it’s the distilled essence of why I read in the SFF genre in the first place, a celebration of blurred boundaries between fantasy and reality as well as those between different literary genres.

I also understand why no less than the late, great Gardner Dozois always mentioned this publication in his annual Summation… and why he never failed to add the word “quirky” to his description.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose novella Branch is both quirky and thought-provoking.  You can check it out here.

An Obsessive’s Delight

As longtime readers of this blog already know, I often throw in a review of a book about auto racing.  While the modern game is a bit tame, I think the history of the sport represents a romantic, hard-nosed and dangerous pastime worth reading about.  Our most recent post dealt with the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but I also like reading about the heroes of earlier ages.

Of course, at some point one needs to talk about Formula one, right?  Well, we need to do more than just this

Peter Higham - Formula One- Car by Car- 1960-1969

So I picked up a copy of Peter Higham’s book Formula 1: Car by Car: 1960-69.  Now, this book does exactly what one would expect, namely discusses  every single car that raced in the hugely innovative decade of the sixties, a decade that began with the last vestiges of the front engined cars of the sixties still on the track and ended with (as you can see on the bottom right photo of the cover above) with cars that had begun to sprout 1970s style wings.

All right. It does what it says on the cover.  So what?

So, the sheer amount of research, looking for the information, the description and, especially, decent photos of every car that made it onto the grid of every race is not an easy task.  In fact, I’d call it Herculean.

Of course, front runners are easy.  We all know everything about every chassis that Jim Clark ever drove, tested or even glanced at, but what about the LDSs and Sciroccos of the world?  Can anyone keep track of the different engined people shoved into Lotus 18 chassis?  Apparently Higham can, and you can follow along with this book.

Of course, labors of love of this sort can often be boring reads.  If you are at all interested in race cars, this one bucks that trend. The accompanying text is not only full of information, but also of interesting anecdote and period feel.

So for any car buffs out there looking for a definitive guide to what raced when, this series (there are books on other decades) is a great place to get the data.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author.  For completists looking to get his previously-published stories all in one place, a good starting point is Virtuoso and Other Stories.

The Argentine Experience… Darkly

Venganzas Sutiles by Pablo Mourier

I read mainly in English but, being from Argentina, I’m perfectly capable of reading Spanish-language books when the occasion calls for it.  I strongly prefer to read books in the original language because there’s always something lost in translation, no matter how good the translator might be.

That is especially true of todays’s subject.  Venganzas Sutiles (Subtle Revenges) is a book by Pablo Mourier, an Argentine writer and humorist.  The book is a collection of short tales which, as one can imagine with a name like that, bring many of their protagonists to either sticky ends or uncomfortable resolutions.

The stories themselves are both entertaining and memorable but, more importantly, they convey a sense of the particular idiosyncrasy of the Argentine people.  Except, perhaps, in Uruguay (which is the country most similar to Argentina), these stories could only occur here.  In fact, many of them are very specific to Buenos Aires.

And yet (and the reason I’m writing about it here), the stories are, at the same time, perfectly accessible to non-native readers.  They’ll feel that the people are just slightly off from what they’re used to but not so far as to defy belief.  And they’ll soon realize that the stories are consistent with each other.

So, if you do read Spanish, and would like a window–albeit a very darkly humorous one–into the Argentine mind, this one is for you.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His appreciation for dark humor is on full display in The Malakiad, which you can check out here.

Five Classic SF Novels From the Fifties

merican Science Fiction- Five Classic Novels 1956-58

Two (or possibly seven) American classics came together through sheer serendipity for me.  I was walking through the Strand bookstore in New York (can’t recall whether it was in the SF section or in the hardcover / special area near the checkout counter), and I found a copy of American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956-58. from the Library of America.

I love these Library of America editions for many reasons: price, presentation and, most importantly of all, the fact that they select only the cream of the crop.  Better still this copy, though pre-owned, didn’t appear to have been pre-read, so it was essentially like buying the book new.

But the important bit was the content.  Like it says on the tin, this contained five novels from a truly fruitful era of science fiction, written by five different men.  Here’s the list:

– Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein (this was the only one of the five that I’d read before)

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

A Case of Conscience by James Blish

Who? by Algis Budrys

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

merican Science Fiction- Five Classic Novels 1956-58 with Artwork!

By far and away, the most memorable of these, if not necessarily the best or most enjoyable is the Bester.  Some of this novel is extremely well done, and the parts that aren’t are, at least, laudable for attempting to do something different and audacious.

The main character is strikingly brutal, but then, the fifties were still an era where people understood the banal brutality of the common man, as opposed to what we do today which is to try to look for specific psychoses.  It’s interesting to realize just how effective dumb aggression from a man too underprivileged to know any better, but, at the same time too dogged to give up can be.  It’s also a reminder of why SF was more widely read back then than it is now – the heroes represented everyman, warts and all.  The poor unprivileged main character didn’t need to have a heart of gold… he could just be a guy doing the best that he could.

The part that isn’t brilliantly done is the whole time travel / trippy / ESP bit.  Of course, this was in vogue in the fifties, but it was not impressive sixty years later.  Still, a big book in its day, and still a staple of “best SF novel” lists, and of books like this one.

Who? and A Case of Conscience are tied as the next most memorable.  They are both deeply informed by the fears of the Cold War, and represent their time brilliantly, possibly even better than the Bester.  Staple reading for SF cognoscenti, and decent novels in themselves.

The Big Time is classic Leiber in the sense that he plays with boundaries of the genre and its rules as well as with history and time travel.  It is more fun than the others, and takes itself less seriously at the same time (which ends up making it a good book).  I found it slightly half-baked… and I think Leiber would agree, as he later expanded this concept.

The best of the bunch is still the Heinlein, even though it isn’t one of his “major” works.  Heinlein was just that good.

Most people who buy a book like this one will be general readers attracted to it by the fact that the works were selected by the Library of America.  They will come away with a critic’s-eye-view of what SF meant in the 1950s, and of five sociologically important books of the era.  Is it representative of what the public was reading?  Possibly, but it goes a lot further than that, too.

I heartily recommend this one to my readers who are looking for a good primer on science fiction.  If you share Margaret Atwood’s belief that science fiction is monsters and spaceships, you’ll be surprised by both the literary quality and the connection to the zeitgeist that this one displays.

And if you already like SF, chances are you may have overlooked these novels.  They are definitely worth knowing.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside is very much connected with the trends of the 21st century and explores the fears we have… or, at least, should have.

It’s Like a Harry Potter Book Where Everybody Dies

The Call - Peadar Ó Guilín

The title of this post is taken directly from a 2017 interview with author Peadar Ó Guilín, and the book he is describing is his own YA fantasy novel, The Call.

Now, I’d never normally use the writer’s own self-promoting words to describe a book but this time it just felt right.  This book does give one a sense of the community building and adolescent bonding from the Rowling books… but in a much, much darker world.

Despite not reading all that much in the YA genre, I’m no stranger to Peadar’s writing.  Some years ago, I had read his novel The Inferior, and had found it to be brilliant, possibly even miscast as YA, because it had, in my opinion, a much broader appeal…  But it should have given me fair warning: Ó Guilín does not pull his punches when he creates a world.  The starting conditions from The Inferior were, to put it lightly, stark.  The brilliance came from building a sympathetic storyline and lovable character born of the starkness.

If anything, the world of The Call is even darker.  Its protagonists are surrounded by enemies they can’t fight or even see most of the time… but when they do, it’s alone, without friends, on the enemy’s turf, on the enemy’s terms.  Most will die… and this is what is expected.  Survival comes out of ensuring that the number of dead is as small as possible.

I don’t want to give spoilers here, so I’ll limit myself to saying that the academy setting of the novel does make it much more similar to the Harry Potter books than Peadar’s earlier works, and it also makes it much more YA in feel.  This one is definitely, squarely aimed at the target and, from watching the adolescents I know (my wife has a couple of older kids from an earlier marriage), this is exactly the kind of book they can sink their teeth into.

YA dark fantasy is hard to do, but Peadar manages to create the perfect sense of dread and doom, a fear that sticks with you.  And he does it without resorting to any cheap tricks–you come away frightened because the situation is so awful, not because someone sticks an eyeball on a pencil.

And yet, as with The Inferior, the characters attempt to bring brightness to the dark world, even playing against a stacked deck.

So this is a winner (as evidenced by the award nominations it has received), and I recommend it wholeheartedly.  In fact, it’s so well done that I’d say only young adults should read it.  We older adults are not prepared to see kids struggling against such horrific odds.  And I hear the sequel is ever darker… gulp!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest book is a comic fantasy tale set in Ancient Greece, The Malakiad.

Now We’re Talking…

My attempt to read some new core SF got off to a slow start, even though it finished well, so my second attack of a space opera novel the size of an Egyptian building stone was faced with some trepidation…

Leviathan Wakes - James. S.A. Corey

I needn’t have worried.  James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, the first book in The Expanse, is a rollicking read from the very beginning.  Perhaps that is due to the characters not being described in excruciating detail but actually shown to us through their actions instead.  Perhaps it’s because the world requires a little less explanation than Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth.  Whatever the reason, this one hits the ground running… and just keeps going.

This is the kind of science fiction we all wish we’d grown up reading.  Fast-paced, well-written and not overly bogged down with politics (particularly not the kind of politics we are discussing today which, in a space-faring society will be long forgotten), it takes you straight to another world as soon as you open the book.

Perhaps this immediacy is the product of the author’s talent, or maybe it has been helped along by the fact that Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the two writers collaborating under the pen name Corey, get to read and critique each other’s work.  Whatever the formula, it certainly functioned perfectly in this particular instance.

Well enough, in fact, that it spawned a TV series on the SyFy Channel (yes, I know, but this one is reputed to be good), and it made absolutely perfect sense to me.  Unlike certain adaptations, which are head-scratchers, this one appeared to be the perfect fodder, in pacing, visual magic and plot for a movie or TV series.  I may need to watch it… if I find the time, I’ll talk about it here at some point.

Anyway, this one is highly recommended as the state of the art of bestselling space opera.  Even though it seems a little too fun and insufficiently committed on the political front to actually win a Hugo in the current climate, this series overcame those handicaps (???!!!) to be nominated for three of them so far.  That should tell you more about just how good it is than anything else I can write.

Anyway, go out and buy it.  Might not change your life in any deep, philosophical way, but it will entertain you.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a science fiction writer.  His own entry in the space opera field, Incursion, is available here.

A Man Who Starts Slowly

A quick note before I begin this post – I recently decided to get back to reading core SF and to fill some gaps in my reading.  To me, the central core of the genre consists of the kind of thing Asimov or Clarke used to do so well: deep space, far future and tech based speculation.  For my money, the current master of the form is Alastair Reynolds, but I wanted to give others a chance, so over the next few days you will see reviews regarding books by James S.A. Corey and the late Iain Banks (the ones with the M in the writer name).

Today, we start with Peter F. Hamilton.

Of the three writers involved in this particular quest, Hamilton is the only one whose novels I’d been exposed to previously.  I even wrote a review of Misspent Youth for SFReader.  In that review, I had a problem with Hamilton’s writing: he seems to start off extremely slowly, and to create characters that can be extremely annoying–or at least seem that way yo me.

However, the final ten percent of the book showed a pickup in pace.

Pandora's Star by Peter H. Hamilton

Pandora’s Star, the book I chose as Hamilton’s representative in the reading of core SF, suffers from almost exactly the same issue.  You end up hating many of the characters… and then they become important when the pace picks up (and boy, does it ever pick up) in the latter half of the book.  The main difference is that this book is much longer than Misspent Youth, so both the suffering and the payoff are much more prolonged.

To be completely fair to Pandora’s Star, the very first few pages are actually quite funny, but then it reverted to the same form as the other book and I had decided to pan the novel at about 40% through.  And then things exploded in the second half, and it became truly interesting.  I find Hamilton at his best when he is writing action and events as opposed to characters.  Or perhaps he is just a master at setting things up so you leave the book feeling that he is amazing at that–one way or the other, his books end well.

Well enough in this case that I will eventually be adding the second book in this series to my TBR pile.  I want to know how the longer arc ends, even if I don’t care about most of the characters.  The events are compelling enough.

So yes, this is a kind of tortured review.  I like the setting, like the tech, love the conflict… but I have a hard time rooting for some of the characters.  Maybe that’s the point, or maybe it’s just my own spin on normal human beings that others won’t find too much fault with… but that is what I’m left with after reading this one.

Still… I’m going to be buying book 2, so take that as you will!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own take on core SF can be found in two loosely linked novels: Siege and Incursion.

In Competition for the Best Novel of the 20th Century

Remains of the Day film Location

Sometimes it’s fun to join the argument.  The 20th century was an amazing time for the novel.  It was a mature form even as the century began, so practitioners weren’t having to make it up as they went along, so we didn’t get bogged down with things like the epistolary narrative in supposedly great literature.

This means that the century got off to a running start, but the truth is that it really hit its stride in the 1920s, which is where the lost generation comes in. Though Hemingway might not be in play for the greatest novel of the 20th century, Fitzgerald most certainly is, and prior to reading the subject of today’s post, I would have said that The Great Gatsby beat everyone else in the running by a few lengths.  It is, after all, a nearly perfect book.  It still has a partial lock on my vote.

There are generally a couple of other books that appear on every top ten list you can find: Lolita and Ulysses I’ve spoken about Ulysses elsewhere, so let’s discuss the Nabokov.

Lolita is an extremely well-written work, of course, but I do believe that the subject matter–a key part of its fame–lets it down slightly.  While most of us can relate to the characters in the Fitzgerald (in fact, other than the near-mythical Gatsby himself, it’s easy to imagine being any of the others), it takes a little more imagination to put oneself into old Humbert’s shoes.  Advantage Gatsby.

And then, after Lolita, the great works appear to have dried up.  Sixties rolled into seventies, rolled into eighties, rolled… wait a minute.  In 1989, a book came out that maybe, just maybe, could topple the king.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (Folio Society Edition)

That book is The Remains of the Day, by Englishman Kazuo Ishiguro, which won the Man Booker prize in the year it was published.

I normally don’t pay too much attention to the Booker, but man, this time they absolutely nailed it.

Half social commentary, half elegy for a simpler world, the story is absolutely taut and perfect. You feel for the character, feel for what he is going through, and understand that what seems monstrous to us is perfectly normal to the main character of this book, which acts as a multiplier to the emotional effect of the novel.

Where a book such as Brideshead Revisited (which, structurally is surprisingly similar–it looks back at many of the same things from approximately the same place in time) approaches the loss of innocence through the lens of youth, The Remains of the Day does so out of a place of maturity and by looking at a sense of duty and of the inevitable process of aging.  The understatement, the ambiguity and the fact that the writer lets us come to our own conclusions just makes the story all that more powerful.

The fact that I read the Folio Society edition of this one might have helped me enjoy it even more.  Some books require a beautiful edition while others–I’d put Neuromancer in that list–are better enjoyed in a smudged and broken mass market paperback.

Is it best of the 20th?  Only time will tell.  Gatsby has had nearly a hundred years to age, to consolidate its leadership and to fight off the Nabokov’s of this world.  Ulysses is a novel that defined its philosophical movement. The younger novel, on the other hand, ignores postmodernism to return to a more ancient state of the novel.  This makes it a stronger book, but it might also contribute to a failure to impress the critics as the last century fades further into the past.

It might be passed over, but I hope Ishiguro’s Nobel prize means that it won’t.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His book Outside deals with humanity and post-humanity in a world where almost nothing is quite what it seems.  You can have a look here.