Month: November 2018

Before the Golden Age

Astounding Stories - January 1934

Many of us who read science fiction were introduced to the genre, knowingly or not, through the authors from the Golden Age.  Essentially, if your foundation in SF comes from Asimov, Heinlein or Clarke, you are a child of the Golden Age (even if you’re no longer a child).

It’s the era of science fiction that has been discussed, anthologized and studied harder than any other.  It is to the genre what “Pride and Prejudice” is to romantic novels (and romantic comedies).  The era towers so far above today’s genre writing that if you ask random readers the name of an SF novel today, most of them will still choose books from that era (especially if we recognize that 1984 and Brave New World are novels from the same period).

To be fair, there have been a few monumental classics, books that have stuck in the canon after the Golden Age ended (Dune, Ender’s Game and, perhaps, Ringworld come to mind), but for the most part, the end of that era marked the end of the public’s fascination with the genre as a literary form (of course, they still flock to theaters to watch genre films, but that’s another story).

The causes are myriad, and today’s SF is often more a platform for political preaching (although, to be fair, it often was in the Golden Age, too) than it is an entertainment medium.

Scholars agree that the Golden Age began on the day that John W. Campbell took over the editor’s position at Astounding.  His new views on what science fiction should be forever changed the genre… and he had a brilliant eye for talent when it came to writers, too.

But as someone who’s already read a lot of what the Golden Age has to offer, and who is conversant with the later eras as well, I was curious to find out what had come before.  What were these famous glory days better than?  I assumed it was something that came before (the people who came later have been fighting the idea that the Golden Age was in any way a good thing… and they’ve been losing that battle for fifty years).

So I went straight to the source (well, actually I went to Ebay) and purchased two editions of pre-Campbell Astounding.  Let’s discuss one of them today: January 1934.

I’ll talk about the stories in a bit, but first, let’s discuss the Letters to the Editor.  Now, astounding, back then, had a section called “Brass Tacks” in which readers would rank the stories, criticize the artwork and argue with each other.  In this edition, readers were saying how much they enjoyed (or hated), the “new” astounding.  Apparently, after a change of publisher (they’d recently moved to Street & Smith), the mag had given a greater focus to literary merit and scientific accuracy, moving away from more adventure-driven SF in the Sword & Planet style.

From this, one gathers that the changes that Campbell so famously cemented were already well under way when he appeared onto the scene (more on that on Friday), and that the Golden Age might have happened even without his shepherding influence, although, to be fair, it would likely have happened in a much-diluted form.

The authors, likewise, were a mix of pre-Golden-Age and Golden Age names.  Nat Schachner represented the old guard.  His tale “Redmask of the Outlands” replaces magic with incomprehensible technobabble and uses that to set the stage for an adventure.  It’s a hell of a good adventure, mind you, but it’s not science fiction as it was understood under Campbell.  On the other side of the ledger, we have the cover story, Donald Wandrei’s “Colossus”, which extrapolates straight from the scientific understanding of the time to create a scenario so huge we still can’t say, eighty years later, whether it’s possible or not.  Also, there’s a story from Jack Williamson.  How cool is that?

As was the custom, there are also novels in serial form…  Even cooler!

Of course, not all of the stories were excellent. “The Confession of Dr. DeKalb”, a short story by Stanton A. Coblentz was a bit of a clunker, and the style in some of the others owed a huge debt to the lurid writing that came before… but in general terms, it’s easy to tell why readers flocked to the newsstands in droves to buy these things.  They were entertaining, the writing was decent for the most part, and the magazine opened windows into world once could lose oneself in (during the Depression, I imagine many people wanted to lose themselves, and this was better than looking at the world out of the bottom of a bottle).

My own favorites?  Impressively, I managed to enjoy the most scientific story (“Colossus”) and the least (“Redmask of the Outlands”) pretty much equally, so I’ll go with those.

Fun stuff.  Reading copies of these mags are still affordable, so I’d recommend grabbing one to anyone with an interest in the history of literature.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest novel, Timeless, was released last week as an ebook for all the major platforms.  You can check it out here.

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Timeless Released!

Timeless - Gustavo Bondoni

It’s not every day that I release a new book.  And it is even less frequent for me to attempt a new genre.  I’d never written a thriller before, much less a romantic thriller, but it’s a genre I read in frequently.  The end result was that I felt both excited at the novelty and comfortable while writing it–an amazing experience, in fact.

Timeless was launched over the weekend, and it’s an ebook format.  You can get it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and, if you prefer to avoid the big retail chains, you can also get it from Smashwords.

A little about the book for those of you who might be curious:

Journalist Marianne Caruso is in Athens on her first investigative piece: finding the reclusive author of a best-selling novel about drug smuggling in the Aegean. She goes out for a night on the town with a good friend, Karina, who disappears after leaving the club.

Marianne’s journalistic instinct, combined with a re-reading of the novel, makes her suspect the kidnapping is linked to her investigation and that the book describes real criminals and events—criminals desperate to keep her from publishing her findings. Now even more determined to locate the author, Marianne teams up with Karina’s family to speak to underworld contacts and discovers the author is a monk at an ancient monastic complex forbidden to women.

Medieval misogyny be damned, Marianne arranges a secret meeting with the monk, but the criminals ambush her. Separated from her companions, she runs for her life with only the monk himself for company, a man who might hold the key to rescuing Karina, but whose past holds secrets that might make him just as dangerous as the men she’s trying to escape.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer based in Buenos Aires.  You can check out his website here.

The Other Airport Read

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke of one of my usual airport purchases: Scientific American.  Well, there’s another mag I often buy in airports, and that one is The New Yorker, proving that I’m not only a pretentious twit, but that I’m a stereotyped pretentious twit.  I guess I can live with that.

The New Yorker - September 16th, 2017

My most recent moment of weakness came in September of 2017 (see cover above) but, as you can see, I’m reviewing it over a year later.  Just like my scientific American, the reason for that is that I only read the first few articles, the ones that are time-based such as concert dates and the like, before tossing the mag onto by To-Be-Read pile, which is a beast about a year in height.

Of course, once I got to the mag, the concert dates were no longer relevant, and many of the theater reviews referred to shows I could no longer watch, but I read through them again anyway.  The reason for this is that I’m always fascinated by The New Yorker’s combination of two things: an appreciation for the finer things in life such as symphony orchestras and the breathtaking capacity to discuss run-of-the-mill stuff in terms that makes you think they belong among the finer things in life.  As an example of this latter trend, it’s impossible to tell whether a couple of the lesser-known bands they talk about are just a bunch of friends who’ve been practicing in a garage and sound like it or the second coming of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

I spend this time on the social news at the beginning of the magazine because that sums up the whole attitude perfectly.  It’s a local section that doesn’t feel local: you get the idea that the writers truly feel that a concert happening in a bar in New York needs to have a global audience, but it’s also an exercise in discussing everything, regardless of relative quality or banality, in the most exquisite language possible.

Of course, 95% of the people who pick up a copy of the mag will fall into one of two groups: those who shake their head in disgust at the pretentious nature of the writing, and those who think that reading it will somehow “improve” them (some of the latter group may be right, so I encourage them to keep trying).

For the five percent remaining, this one is a guilty pleasure.  We know what the editors are doing, and yet we love the magazine anyway.  We can take the pretentiousness, or leave it aside to read less opaque prose, but whenever we do come back, we find it charming.  I like to think that a lot of the readers of Classically Educated are the same way (although I often hope they don’t think we’re in any way pretentious twits…).

A final note for the fiction section, which, as you can imagine, I always read with particular attention.  The story in this one was well written… but I always seem to buy the editions with the suburban angst and sorrow.  Where are the great, bold stories of yore?  I guess they’re gone to wherever the bold men and women of yore have been laid to rest–after all, the fiction does reflect the readership, or at least it should.

Anyhow, if you’ve never picked up a copy of The New Yorker and read it cover to cover, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Even an old copy bought used is a good bet.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer based in Buenos Aires.  His literary heroes include Borges, Wodehouse and Asimov, and if you can reconcile those three, you are a better psychologist than he is.  His short fiction has been collected in Virtuoso and Other Stories, and you can check it out here.

 

Still the Greatest Name in Literature

As I’ve mentioned more than once, I have a habit of perusing used bookstores.  There are some books that I invariably grab whenever I happen to be at one of them.  Any Wodehouse that I don’t own gets added until such a time as I happen to run across an expensive edition I shouldn’t buy but do so anyway.  Likewise anything by Gerald Durell (not his brother, though).

There’s also one set of books that I buy exclusively at used bookstores and of which I’ve never owned (or indeed seen in person) a new copy, and that is Ian Fleming’s original James Bond series.  The most recent one of these that I’ve read is Goldfinger.

Goldfinger - James Bond - Ian Fleming

Of course, the first thing one wonders when reading these books is how well the movie (all of which, of course, civilized people will have watched multiple times) follows the plot of the book.  In Goldfinger, I’m happy to say that the movie is, in fact strongly based on the original material… which is always a relief.

The book is one of the better Bonds, as anyone who has seen the movie would have suspected, and I won’t talk about the plot here.  Instead, I’ll discuss how society has advanced and also how it has regressed since the book was published.

The advance is simple and easy to explain: Fleming was a Brit writing at the tail end of the Empire.  His attitude with regards to everyone else on the planet was one of paternalistic condescension, racist assumptions and stereotyping.  I found it quaint, but I’m sure it will appropriately infuriate certain people who make it their life’s work to be offended by such things.  Cue the book bannings.

Also, it was a reminder of why a James Bond actor who isn’t believably originated in a 1950s public school England (or descended from a man who was) is a travesty, and you might as well call the character something else entirely because no matter what you call him, he is no longer James Bond.

Pussy Galore

The place in which we’ve regressed isn’t quite as obvious at first glance, but it becomes glaring once you stop to think about it.  I’m referring, of course, to Pussy Galore.

Let’s start with the first question: did Fleming know what he was doing?

Yes.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  He used the name in the modern way, which, back then, was likely either soldierly slang or something said by sailors.  The important part, as far as Fleming was concerned, was that the upper-class censors and publishing house officials that would be looking at the books would have no clue… and he just barefacedly left it in the MS and, as expected, raised no eyebrows.

By the time the film was made a few years later, most people got the joke, but the British producers kept it anyway… only the American censors attempted to take any action, but in the end, they left well enough alone.

Cue 2018… could a name like this, unless used as a purely satirical element showing that the writer or producer is a socially conscious person of obvious virtue, make it onto the big screen in a mega-popular production?

No way.

We live in an age of neo-puritanism, in which the political correctness has replaced religious fanaticism as the scourge upon humor.  Of course, both were proposed by “good” people, but the situation appears to have reached the point where we’re shocked by character names that made it past the censors in the 1950s… that can’t be a good thing, can it?

Anyhow, this is a good book to start from if you’ve never read a James Bond novel.  Familiar enough to be Bond, but interesting in its own way.  As Fleming’s writing has slowly moved from trashy-bestsellerdom to classic, and is recognized as the inspiration for so many others, it’s also important reading as more than a guilty pleasure.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s Outside is a tense tale of disaster and mystery.  You can have a look at it here.

Ongoing – and still going well

A Kingdom Besieged - Raymond E. Feist

A couple of months ago, I mentioned that I’d recently read At the Gates of Darkness by Raymond E. Feist.  Well, as befits a series that I enjoy quite a bit, I followed that up by reading the next installment of the long running Riftwar saga:  A Kingdom Besieged.

After a series has been going on for so long, the enemies tend to get more and more dire, and this one is no exception.  Our mortal heroes find themselves having to face enemies on an ever more cosmic and incomprehensible scale.

And yet, this series doesn’t suffer from this excess.  I think that’s mainly because Feist has a deft hand when it comes to making the enormous extremely personal and keeping the characters’ style of conflict resolution constant, irreverent and always entertaining.  That, more than any big concepts is what has made this series a steady mega-selling winner for all of its history.

This is like the perfect antidote to things like A Fire Upon the Deep, which we looked at last week.  Yes, the Vinge has a huge edge when it comes to originality. In fact, Feist re-uses concepts from every great fantasist ever, from Tolkien to Lovecraft, but even though his work is not in the least original, it is still much, much better.  Yes, I know A Fire Upon the Deep is reaching classic status, but I would argue that Feist’s long-running series deserves it just as much, if not more, than the Vinge.

Anyway, if you haven’t already done so, pick up a copy of Magician, the first book in this series.  You’ll be taken on one hell of a ride.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is a comic fantasy novel entitled The Malakiad.  You can check out the Kindle version here and the paperback here.

 

Unfortunately Annoying

I’ve gone on record saying that some SF books are less compelling than others.  I’ve been especially critical of the first part of Pandora’s Star, for example.  But that one eventually got under way and became compelling.

Today’s subject didn’t.

A Fire Upon teh Deep - Vernor Vinge

I don’t ever recall having read a science fiction novel that was full of amazing ideas that I had as much difficulty getting into as Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep.

And when I say ‘full of amazing ideas’, I don’t mean that he just looks at gender roles within established genre tropes or something equally banal and yawn-inducing.  I mean that Vinge comes up with concepts that are truly underexplored in SF.  Things like multiple-organism-minds or variable speed of light and its effects on technology.  There is truly groundbreaking thought behind this book and it deserved to be better.

But it was let down by the characters, especially the milti-organism mind creatures which, for some reason, I found to be more annoying than anything I can remember reading in the genre.  It wasn’t that the writing was bad–it isn’t–but I just found the alines themselves unbearable… and that made the whole book really tough to digest, as half of the action took place in that setting.

I went through it anyway and came away with a sense that it could have been a true great (many already consider it to be one, you should read other reviews by folks who didn’t have such a strong visceral reaction to a major group of characters), with a good quantity of space action, an implacable and incomprehensible (albeit mostly off-stage) enemy and enormous stakes.

The ending did feel a little facile, and some of his speculation bordered on fantasy, but those were minor quibbles.

Anyhow, I may need more time to sort out how I feel about this one.  As a writer, it’s obvious to me that this book is a major achievement… but purely as a reader, it was a hard grind that I really can’t recommend to others.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose own far-reaching space opera, Siege… is much less well known than A Fire Upon the Deep.  But people seem to like it, so there’s that.  You can check it out here.