Month: December 2018

Of Fun in Your Fiction

Revelation Space Alastair Reynolds

Tuesday’s post got me thinking about the kind of stuff I most enjoy reading.  A correct answer to the question “what is your favorite kind of book?” is a complex beast and probably depends on a myriad of factors – everything from my mood to the kind of novel I’m working at at the moment of answering the question.

Probably the kind of writing I enjoy most is the quintessentially British humor of authors like Wodehouse, Pratchett or Douglas Adams.  But I’ve read almost everything they’ve written, so that initial flash of wonder at their brilliance is no longer available.

On the other hand, I often enjoy a good dose of the classics, especially some of the 20th century greats (I especially recommend The Great Gatsby and The Remains of the Day).

Other days, I love nonfiction in various forms.

But if I had to be specific about one particular type of genre, I’d say I enjoy space opera and medieval-style fantasy.

Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

The fantasy is easy to explain.  Lord of the Rings is the benchmark there, and many of the doorstop series that began in the 1970s through 1990s followed the template.  They eschewed social questions to focus on the eternal battle between good and evil… and are all the better for it (Terry Brooks is probably the prototypical exponent of this, but Feist, Jordan and Eddings–before he became impossibly annoying–were good, too).  Escapist stuff, with little in the way of moral grey areas and absolutely no message fiction.  It’s lovely to read stuff in which politics are absent–I can always look at my Facebook feed if I happen to miss that (hint: not likely!).

Dune-Frank Herbert (1965) First_edition

Space Opera falls into a similar space, at least at novel and series length.  By its very nature, the subgenre deals with worlds so transformed by technology that current modes of thought and moral discussions are irrelevant.  This has the effect of making even the political considerations–and, as seen in the Dune series, politics can be used effectively–interesting, as opposed to yawn-inducing.

And it’s only in space opera that writer’s imaginations are fully unleashed.  The technology is so far from today’s stuff that it bends society and even what it means to be human beyond recognition.  If fantasy is escapist, then this takes escape to the next level.

Unfortunately, both genres (like everything else) are subject to the whims of fashion… and fashion is currently dictating two things:

  1. Medieval fantasy is wrong because the social and political structures necessary to make it believable (feudal class structure and a society where men do most of the fighting) are very much not in vogue today.
  2. It is compulsory for science fiction to focus on the next fifty to one hundred years.  And they must be shown as grim because capitalism will destroy us, and global warming will destroy us.

My only problem with the above is that those trends forget that SF became popular because, on one side, it was fun, and on the other, it presented ideas that caused people to say “wow”.

Fortunately, some writers have ignored the dictates above and are still writing about a post-Earth human future.  The old sense of wonder, more mature, more jaded and much more knowing, is still alive in these works.

I really don’t think yet another post-apocalyptic society based on egalitarian political thinking is going to create much of a sense of anything.  Ennui, maybe.  Extreme boredom, perhaps.

But nothing else.

As a genre, we really need to bring the fun back.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose best space opera is probably Siege.  You can check it out here.

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A Lesson on Leaving Well Enough Alone

Ghost Legion by Margaret Weis

Star of the Guardians is a space opera series by Margaret Weis, released in the early 1990s.  I read the original trilogy of books as a teenager basically upon their release.  I was also aware that there was a fourth book in the series (apparently, there are now three spinoff books, too), but was never able to find it here in Argentina and by the time I discovered Amazon, the book was out of print and I couldn’t get them to ship used books here.  By the time global internet commerce became a thing, and I could find the book easily, I had pretty much forgotten I wanted it.

That was the state of play until, browsing the SF section of one of my favorite used book stores (BABS Casi Nuevo in Buenos Aires), I stumbled upon it and bought it.  The book was tossed into my TBR pile, and there it lay until I got around to reading it a couple of weeks ago.

I remember enjoying the first three volumes in this series, and, to be honest, the storyline was pretty much closed right where those ended – the lost heir’s quest had been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction and the bad guys had been dealt with.  However, there was one major loose end that Weis felt she needed to address, and wrote this book.

So fast forward to 2018, and a lot of things have happened.  I’m no longer an impressionable teenager, so some of the actions, and the way the plot weaves science fiction and religious fantasy together jars me more than it did then.  Also, there’s a whole lot of head-hopping, which, though I don’t really hate it, is strange twenty-odd years later.

In addition to that, space opera has really evolved since then.  Alastair Reynolds and a few others have moved the goalposts so far down the field that they couldn’t even be seen in the late eighties when these books were being conceived.  This is not Weis’ fault.

But some things are.  The beginning of this fourth volume drags on and on.  The book hits its stride in the last 150 pages, which means that any reader less dogged (and emotionally invested) than myself would have abandoned long before hitting pay dirt.  Worse, the excess length is mainly used to beat us over the head with character motivation–of course that needs to be in there, but some of it is quite repetitive, which seems counterproductive.

The reason for this appears to be that Weis needs to place the characters she’d developed over a well-paced trilogy in a new mental space, and that forces her to break them out of molds.  Unfortunately, all the development she did in three books didn’t lend itself to easy undoing in a single volume… and it got a bit dense.

Luckily, Weis’ penchant for writing action in which characters we care about do amazing things is unaffected and once the pieces are in place for the final act, the book flows briskly to a satisfying conclusion.  It leaves a good aftertaste and rewards the effort to get there.

So it’s not a bad book but, looking back, I probably wouldn’t have read it if I’d known exactly how it was going to go down.  Too much work and there are other good books out there.  Likewise, Weis probably would have been better served (artistically, although perhaps not financially – I don’t know details about that one way or the other) to leave the series where it stood and move on to other projects.  It was in a good place at the end of the original three books.

I don’t know Weis personally, so I can’t ask her about it, but I suspect she might want to take this one back.  I know that if the choice were mine, I’d let the original trilogy stand for itself.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose own galaxy-spanning space opera is entitled Siege.  You can check it out here.

Friends… a Couple of Decades Later

Friends Cast

A BBC skit making the rounds has brought the 1990s TV staple Friends back into the spotlight.  It depicts a help group for people who are “so woke they can’t have any fun at all.”

Now, while I’ve always had a huge issue with people trying to show how virtuous they are*, it’s interesting to see that they chose Friends to attack.  I remembered the show as being modern and pretty much unproblematic–except when they looked at the issues head-on.

So now it’s on Netflix, and we’ve been watching it.  And…

Yeah, there’s a lot to like and not a lot to hate.  The most difficult thing to watch is usually how Ross’ goofiness is so overblown as to be painful.

Other than that, the show still works extremely well unless you’re actively looking for reasons to dislike it.  Most of the conversations that take place, despite the show’s age, could still take place today without raising eyebrows.  Sure, some of them would raise eyebrows on a particularly activist campus… but only if the people speaking were other activists.  Normal people–Democrats, Republicans and probably even Communist–still talk the same way.

The only things that have really aged are the relationship to technology and a few of Chandler’s clothing choices.

And therein probably lies the secret (in the tech, not Chandler’s clothes).  By removing the internet as a real thing except as something going on in the peripheries, the first few seasons of Friends show humans talking to their friends.  Since there is no such thing as Facebook, politics is essentially something that is ignored–the way it mostly is in offline conversations.  Think about it: what percentage of your interactions with flesh and blood people is political.  If it’s 5%, that’s probably because you’re an activist of some kind.  I know if you were my friend and you spoke to me about politics too often, I’d good-naturedly remind you that normal people don’t act that way in the real world.  That’s what Twitter is for.

It’s so refreshing that I have to recommend this one to everyone who wants a sitcom the way they used to be.  Ten minutes in, you’ll remember why thie was THE show in the nineties.  The writing is good, the acting is good and the situations are often genuinely funny (some do fall flat, but that is a rare occurrence).  And if you’ve never seen it before, you’re in for a treat… either that or you’re going to need the support group for people who are too woke to have any fun at all!

 

*I’ve found that the really virtuous ones are usually awful human beings, whether their virtue is based on puritanism, prohibitionism or political correctness – essentially anyone who actively acts to force others to adopt their extreme beliefs is a twat.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest book, Timeless, is now available for all the major ebook platforms. You can check it out here.

The Reasons We Write – Yet Another Take

Writer at a Typewriter

I’ve mused in many articles about the reasons anyone would do something as completely barking mad as writing… and I’m not the only one.  Analysis of the writerly life can be delightfully variable, as witnessed by the fat that everyone has a different take.  Isaac Asimov used to consider writers as a species of supermen, an activity not everyone was cut out for.  He even had fun with it, saying (and I paraphrase from memory) that if, as was extremely likely, you couldn’t make it as a writer, you could be president of the United States (this was written back in the era when that was probably the world’s most respected job).

A more modern take on writing would be more like “O woe, writing sucks” (and then the person who wrote that profound thought goes on to whine about how they never get anything published).

My own take is somewhere along the middle path.  While I accept that writing can be a grind, it also brings about great rewards.  There are few feelings comparable to holding a book that contains something you wrote in it, if it’s there on merit (I have no clue how vanity publishing or self-publishing feels, as I’ve not really had experience there – for all I know, it’s awesome).  The daily grind of rejection, on the other hand, is a very effective counterweight.

In my own case, the balance falls on the side of “keep writing”, so that’s what I do… but I often wonder if there isn’t another component: hope of immortality.

Before I look into the immortality game when it comes to writing, I wanted to say that I, personally, believe that all art is motivated, at least a little bit, by that dream of being remembered after you’re gone.  Whether it be a commercially successful film director making a film to cement his critical reputation as opposed to raking in the dollars at the box office or a small child giving you a drawing (and crying if you happen to lay it on a table for a second), artists want one thing: to be remembered.  Yes, approval at the time of creation and presentation is important, but it’s the legacy that matters more.

It’s deeply ingrained.  A small child probably doesn’t have too much of a fixation on death or a true understanding of the stark fact that, someday, he will no longer be around, but even so, the instinct to live on through a piece of art is there.

And, from the Lascaux Paintings to Moby Dick, that hope is sometimes fulfilled…  more often, it isn’t, but the lightning in a bottle can happen.

Moby Dick - Herman Melville

I mention Moby Dick because, in literature, period popularity doesn’t necessarily track to immortality.  Melville died believing Moby Dick was another failure in a career filled with them.  Also believing he was a failure on the day he died was F.Scott Fitzgerald.  And Poe, of course.  Emily Dickinson’s poetry was, for the most part, discovered after her death (only about a dozen of her 1800 poems saw the light while she lived).  Lovecraft and Howard are two men that the SFF genre anointed well after they were gone.

Of course, critical reevaluation and fame aren’t necessarily the rule.  For every rediscovered author or poet who joins the canon once safely buried, there are ten that are universally accepted to be creating literary history as they write, a million who will never be recognized at all and a thousand whose bestsellers are no longer read by anyone (an amazingly interesting read is this page of bestsellers from a hundred years ago).

But writers who were establishing themselves forever were sometimes easy to spot.  Dickens was writing history and everyone knew it.  Harper Lee cemented her position in the pantheon and retired (well, mainly… let’s pretend Watchman never happened).  Then there was Joyce, who established not only his reputation, but will, now and forever, define modernist literature.

But those are classic writers.  Much more important to those writing today is the question: “So what about MY writing?”

Short answer?  No one knows.  Stephen King might be the next Dickens, a man whose work was wildly popular in its day and had staying power as the best reflection of an era, or he might be completely forgotten.  The same could happen with the writers on the other end of the commercial spectrum (although it’s more likely that they will be forgotten, as there are less people around that would remember them).

Me?  I always have this image of a scholar in 500 years or so coming across a brittle anthology containing one of my stories, a precious relic of the final days of print, and writing a misguided book-length dissertation on the way my characters reflect my subconscious manifestations of my desire to retire to a monastic existence on Ceres.

If that, or anything equivalent, ever happens, my work shall be done.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is called Timeless.  The theme of why authors write is also explored in that one… although the motivations are very different than what he cites above, proving, once again, that you can’t trust writers to keep the same idea in their heads for more than a few weeks.  Timeless can be purchased here.