Month: August 2020

High vs. Pop Culture – An Ongoing Discussion

I’m going to be frank: I find the phrase “pop culture” to be a contradiction in terms.  This should surprise no one… my blog is called Classically Educated, after all.

Now, this doesn’t mean that I find no value in popular expressions.  They can, for short periods of time, be entertaining, even brilliant.  Who hasn’t enjoyed a Hollywood blockbuster or delighted in a trashy 70s paperback?

In my own particular case, I often write popular entertainment.  While you can certainly make a case for Outside as being something much more than a fun science fiction novel (it is a fun science fiction novel, but it’s also a very pointed look at current social trends), I’m pretty sure Ice Station Death and Jungle Lab Terror will be afforded no such leniency, no matter how well-written they are.

So am I a hypocrite for what I’m about to say?  I hope not.

Starry Night - Vincent Van Gogh.jpg

I believe there is a huge gulf not only between high and pop culture, but also between those who enjoy high culture and those who find it boring, elitist and stuffy.  In fact, that’s one of the few distinctions between people I even care about.

Note that I didn’t say that enjoying pop entertainment is a negative trait.  Go ahead, listen to reggaeton, read a comic book or watch the latest transformers film.  It’s all good.  The problem is when you’re listening to Beethoven’s Eroica and unable to sit still for the duration because it is sadly lacking in explosions and no one is twerking nearby or on-screen.  That’s where I feel there is something wrong.

There is a difference between art that is fast-paced, superficial and ephemeral and that which requires a little more introspection and calm to appreciate it.  That doesn’t mean you have to like every expression of high culture, of course.  I have a really hard time with Opera, for example, and some abstract art is, in my opinion, pretty sterile, from the manifesto all the way through every execution.

However, being able to appreciate art that requires an effort is, to me, the sign of an intellectually curious human (even if you then decide–for yourself–that that particular piece of art is not particularly valuable).

Warhol Vegetable Soup Campbell's Can

Of course, this discussion drew worldwide attention when the pop artists were at work, attempting to blur the lines between the two forms.  Unfortunately (for their idea, at least), the solid philosophical grounding and thought-provoking execution landed them in the most ironic of spaces: the pop artists ended up as an unmovable part of high culture.

Regardless of the failings of Warhol and his ilk in blurring the lines, they DO blur, but only time can do so.  Hokusai’s prints were very much pop art (especially the erotic ones, I would say), but have crossed the gulf to enter the realm of high art.  Likewise Dickens’ novels and, sadly, Opera, which should have been strangled at birth, but somehow became socially acceptable (this is the art form that I really have to make an effort towards).

Historically, the theater may be the medium that has struggled with this dichotomy most often as, on one hand, it needed to keep those seats filled while, at the same time, keeping the nobility and better class of citizens happy as well, because not doing so brought consequences.  Shakespeare was famous for combining erudite classical references and the Greek tragic tradition with juvenile dick jokes which are only funny if you’re really, really lowbrow and laugh only because it’s a dick joke.

What will be considered high art in the future?  I don’t know.  It might be a superman comic or the Muppet Babies or AC/DC or Twilight (it will NOT be reggaeton).  We don’t know.  What we do know is that most of what we call “culture” today will fall by the wayside and be forgotten in much the same way as most of the major, popular “culture” of the past is utterly gone today.  That ephemeral nature is the main external difference between the two.

But in my mind the big difference is in the kind of people each type of culture attracts.  I’ve found that regardless of what popular entertainment (whether it be Lady Gaga or Star Trek or TikTok Videos) they prefer, the people I get along with also have an appreciation for high culture.  Whether that makes them more valuable or not as friends is a very personal question.  Your own mileage might vary.

But in my own particular case, I already know the answer.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose work straddles the line.  His linked collection of short fiction, Love and Death is definitely highbrow.  His fast-selling monster novel Ice Station Death… isn’t.

Musing on the Current State of Grand Prix Racing

Every once in a while, we complain about the current state of Formula 1.  But we need to be really unhappy to do so.  The last time, Bernie was still in charge.
Dan Gurney at Spa.jpg
So, after watching the Belgian GP, I think the F1 rules need to be completely thrown away.
 
Not the technical ones… those are fine. It’s all the stupid around it that needs to go, the testing and development bans, the need to use the same engine for five races. That’s what has made GP racing garbage for years, and makes the races utter crap.
 
Just allow the teams to show up for the race weekend with cars (at least two per team, but it would be fun to allow any number) that meet the technical rules and… that’s it.
 
Qualifying engines with 2000 bhp that last a lap? Sure, as long as they meet the rules.
 
Hand-grenade type motors that might–or might not–last five laps? Sure. Let teams take technical risks with high potential rewards. Let a backmarker take a chance with an engine that has a ten percent chance of finishing… but which will run up front until it blows.
 
And a new development every race? Of course. Sure, it will mean expense, but this is the pinnacle of motorsport.
 
The current setup is about as boring as can be. There will always be one team ahead of the rest… and the rules ensure that that team will stay there until the next major technical overhaul. It was Red Bull during the blown diffuser era, now with the hybrid powerplant era it’s Mercedes… That’s just stupid.
 
When I saw the clear skies in Belgium (rain would have helped), I nearly gave the race a miss… and it would have been the first F1 race I intentionally missed since 1983. I stayed the course, but it wasn’t really worth it.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina whose latest novel, Jungle Lab Terror is a romp combining geopolitics, special forces, terrorists and, of course, monsters.  If that sounds fun, you can check it out here.

The Translations Fad

Today is a reflection about the writing world, so if that isn’t the kind of thing that interests you, you can always read about parties.

Still here?  Cool.  Let’s talk about the current glut of translations hitting the market.  I will focus on the science fiction and fantasy worlds for this particular post, because that’s the world I know best, but I see similar trends elsewhere.

The English-language market has traditionally been the largest market on the planet (although I suspect that the Chinese market might have surpassed it), and the great works from many literatures are usually easy to find.  In fact, it’s often the case that the best translation for those unable to read the original is the English.

The reason for that, intuitively, is that the competition for a slice of the market is so fierce that only the best of several translations survives.  This is good for readers and also forces translators to up their game.

Solaris - Stanislaw Lem.jpg

This isn’t always true, however.  The science fiction classic Solaris sat in bad-translation limbo for decades because the bad English translation came from what was reputedly a bad French one as opposed to having come from the original Polish.  So it doesn’t always work perfectly.

In general, though, English readers had the best of both worlds.  The very best foreign fiction was published in what often were the best translations.

The downside was that second-level foreign work usually didn’t make it, and short fiction was pretty much ignored by the translators (even though a lot is available, there is a LOT more that isn’t).

But social and academic trends change and, for whatever reason, it is now considered wrong that English-speaking authors have an advantage… and translations have become trendy, whether novels or short stories.

Cixin Liu Three Body Problem

This is a mixed blessing.  On one side, there are some wonderful books available to English-speaking audiences that would probably never have been translated in other days.  It’s probably even more notable on the short fiction side.  A good example is American Monsters, which we discussed here a few weeks ago.

But there’s a downside.  What we said for the translation side of things, also goes for the writing side.  The English-language market is much more competitive than any other market on the planet.  There are more writers competing for fewer publishing slots than anywhere else.

The reason for this is simple: the English market’s huge audience means that writers get PAID for their work.  That seems like an obvious thing, but sadly, it’s very much isn’t.

I get together once a month (when pandemics don’t intervene) with the local Argentine SFF writing community.  There are some very good writers and editors there, but the only one who gets paid to write is me.  And that’s because my writing is good enough to break into the US and British markets.

In Argentina the dynamic is different.  Publishers see the writers as either providers of free content (in the best of cases) or as investors in the printing process.  This is often done with the best of intentions, and often art is the first priority, but the dynamic drives away all but the truly obsessed, creating art for art’s sake.  Only bestsellers and celebrities make even pin money from their writing.

This situation is extended to most of Latin America, and I know that most worldwide SF publications don’t pay, so I’d assume it can be extrapolated to a certain degree everywhere.

The competition in those places is naturally less.  Therefore, the quality is also proportionally less.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t geniuses writing in every language on Earth, but I would definitely say that the second-level stuff wouldn’t be good enough to make any impression at all in the English-language marketplace.

Unfortunately, it’s often second-level stuff that’s now the bulk of what’s being published in the translation fad.  Perhaps talented writers, but ones that would need to hone their craft in the crucible of the most competitive market before they can earn their place.

This situation is making the life of English-language writers a little difficult.  I’m lucky enough that I’ve been selling steadily, both on the novel and the short fiction fronts (perhaps because I’ve been in the market long enough that readers know my name – ironically, having a weird name makes name recognition easier), but many are finding this new market reality impossible.  They are being forced to the sidelines by work that would normally be rejected… just because it’s translated.

I think a lot of writers just entering the market will be turned off by this… and we’ll lose them, possibly even some major talents.  Of course, we’ll also get a taste of translated work, so it should even out for readers.

In the future, I think the market will sort itself out.  I think the upper level translations are here to stay, but the foreign-language writers on the second tier will either need to up their game or find that these automatic acceptances are no longer the case.  Fashions do not last forever, and the English-language market is a strict meritocracy: you need to impress both editors (to make the cut) and readers (to ever make the cut again).  A lot of the translated stuff from the past couple of years won’t meet this litmus test, and will gradually disappear.

But what remains will make the genre stronger, so I say welcome aboard.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s well-received science fiction novel Siege is a sweeping story of desperate survival in a galaxy ravaged by war and incomprehensible intelligences.  You can check it out here.

My Favorite Anthology Covers

I sell a lot of short stories, both original and reprint, so it stands to reason that my work has appeared not only in magazines, but also in countless anthologies.

Sometimes, the antho cover is a bit of a disappointment.  Most times, though, they are wonderful, with either beautiful artwork or brilliant design jumping out at readers.  But, since I’m an expert at neither art nor design, choosing my favorites ends up being a question of personal opinion without too much basis in argument of any kind.

That, of course, has never stopped me before so, without more ado, I present my five favorite antho covers from books in which my work appears, in no particular order.

 

A High Shrill Thump makes the list because that Etruscan zombie on the cover is an illustration of my story “Comrade at Arms”.  I’m pretty sure this is the first time the cover illustration of an anthology was based on one of my stories.

A High Schrill Thump.jpg

 

Made You Flinch. This one makes the list because, all these years later, I still remember it.  The reason was that, as I was working my way through the lowest ranks of the indy press, the quality of artwork was often iffy at best.  This one was striking, and anything less than iffy.  I don’t recall much of the stories inside (excpet mine, “Topside”), but this cover is unforgettable.

Made You Flinch

 

Sha’Daa Toys.  I always loved the Sha’Daa covers, even before I managed to convice the editors that I was good enough to join this particular shared world antho series.  And the Toys cover is creepy and dark and moody and everything that it should be for the apocalypse.

Sha'Daa Toys.jpg

 

American Monsters Part One.  The Fox Spirit Books of Monsters represent the most critically acclaimed series of anthos on this list, and with good reason.  They have a powerful lineup of writers from all over the world writing about the monsters near and dear to them.  It’s understandably powerful.  But the artwork is also wonderful.  How and you not love these sepia-toned images?  My story “Vulnerable Populations” is included in there.

Amercian Monsters Part One.jpg

 

Sinisterotica.  Normally, this cover wouldn’t have made the list.  I don’t love it when computer-generated humans land in the uncanny valley, and those fonts are… questionable.  But the cover is also the bravest, boldest thing I’ve seen in a long, long time.  Only the judicious use of shade keeps it from landing in the adults-only section behind a brown paper wrapper but, as they say, no guts, no glory, so this one makes the list among more professionally executed covers.  It contains my story “Top of the Food Chain”.

Sinisterotica

There are so many more that I love, and I hate to leave out such a massive number of great publishers and editors.  But I had to cut somewhere and these are the five I thought of today.

Ask me again tomorrow, and I’ll probably pick a different five.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over 300 published stories.  His latest collection is Off the Beaten Path, a curation of stories that take place outside the usual American and European settings.  They will make you think, and they will entertain you.  You can check it out here.

 

In The Quiet Man, John Wayne Proves he is About More than Just Westerns

I admit that, when I saw John Wayne’s name in the opening credits of The Quiet Man, I was a bit bummed.  I wasn’t in the mood for a western that night.

But the first scene, in technicolor brought hope: a glorious green landscape and a some Irish accents.  This was most certainly not Tombstone…

The Quiet Man Film Poster.jpg

No, it isn’t a western.  Not one gun is fired at another human being in the entire movie… and yet it still manages to be an entertaining romp where John Wayne can be at his macho best without ruining–in fact in the service of–the love story at the center of the film.

In a nutshell, this film is a take on the “boy meets girl but her family opposes the marriage” plot.  The fun part–and it is very fun–is the way the problem is resolved.  That, in particular, is not traditional at all, and it’s really fun.  Any time you need professional boxers as extras… you know it has to have some good scenes.

The best prat of this one, perhaps is the way it shows how village life can be… idiosyncratic in large ways, and how even the village priest can be complicit in the hijinks.  In that sense, it reminds me a lot of Whisky Galore.  And that is a good thing.

Anyway, this one has my unreserved recommendation.  Find it and watch it.  It’s an enjoyable film.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose collection Love and Death follows the lives and loves of a group of characters whose fates are intertwined, usually without their knowledge.  It’s a study of the truly important things in a world that so often seems indifferent.  You can check it out here.

Civic CVCC – an Important, if Unsexy, Milestone

The cover of the April 1974 issue of Road & Track doesn’t inspire confidence.  After all the difficulty surrounding the regulatory war against the automobile of the early part of the decade, and the fact that cars went from awesome to crap in the space of less than five years, a tiny econobox on the cover of an enthusiasts magazine heralds more of the same, doesn’t it?

Road & Track - April 1974.jpeg

No.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

Car designers, manufacturers and engineers are extremely bright people who actually love the products they design and market (something that emphatically cannot be said for people in consumer goods or most other industries).  Sometimes the companies are overrun by grey accountants and political animals, but the backbone of these places are the car guys… and that shows more often than not.

Honda, of course, is one of the places where it shows most often.  From Soichiro Honda to the present day, this has been a high-performance race shop masquerading as a consumer-facing corporation.  They love speed, they love efficiency and they love making things better and better.

While most of the auto industry saw federal emissions in the early seventies as a case of clueless regulators destroying a key industry to gain a couple of brownie points with “concerned” people on key coastal cities (and were correct to a large degree), Honda saw it as a chance to gain a huge foothold in the US market through superior engineering.  The CVCC concept and engine were the first sign since 1970 that an automobile could actually get better.

It was a sign of hope.

Also included in this issue was something utterly awesome: The Alltime Championship of Makes, a calculation of the points accrued by car manufacturers in major international races from 1895 to 1973.  Ferrari, despite being a late arrival, was already on top of the scorecard, but the presence of marques such as Panhard and an analysis of the early days, make this fascinating reading.

Apart from that, you get what you expect.  There’s an article on airbags being available in some Buicks and Cadillacs, and another, interesting article on how the trend for imports and small cars are being ignored in Middle America – apparently, some social trends don’t change with time.  Middle America is still America, no matter what the coasts do, even fifty years later.

Anyhow, it’s nice to see a ray of hope, presaging the brilliant eighties, in the car world.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest novel is Jungle Lab Terror, a thrilling mix of international intrigue, action and, of course, enormous monsters.  If you enjoy a good survival adventure, this one is for you.  You can check it out here.

My First Experience with Chilean SF

Like many Latin American countries, Chile has a rich literary tradition, but one which is best explored by those who speak Spanish.  Pablo Neruda, for example, was a poet, and that is a form that is best explored in the original language.  Many other great writers are criminally untranslated.  So it sometimes seems like the English-language market is condemned to limit itself to Isabel Allende… which is unfortunate.

I’m lucky that I can read Spanish, which means that I can range across the entire spectrum, and I’m doubly lucky that I’m a writer, which means that I often receive books by my peers as a gift.  I always read them, although it takes me a while.

Más Espacio Del que Soñamos - Leonardo Benavides.jpg

Leonardo Benavides is, first and foremost, a good guy.  We got to talking at a meeting of science fiction writers in Buenos Aires, and he gave me a copy of his book Más espacio del que soñamos (translates as More Space than we Dream of), a collection of science fiction stories.

To those familiar with SF canon, this one will immediately feel familiar while, at the same time being just a little different.  The familiarity will arise from the themes which are very much those of Golden Age science fiction.  Space exploration, robots, alien invasions and the moral and social issues of the technology of the future are well represented and solidly explored.  There’s even a story in here with the classic flip of perspective in which we get to see how an alien would see us.

At the same time, this collection has enough modern sensibilities to avoid feeling stale, and it also has other things that set it apart.  The first, of course, is the fact that it is written by a Latin American who, whether consciously or not, brings a certain worldview to his work.  The work is stronger for it.

(As a somewhat related aside, I recently had a conversation with one of my publishers who said that my work has a lot of philosophical development in it.  I suppose he is correct, but it’s not something I necessarily do consciously–the same might be the case in Benavides’ work: I’ll have to ask him the next time I see him)

Another thing which I found interesting is that I would have been able to guess that the writer was a doctor even if I hadn’t known (I did).  There is an abundance of medical takes in the stories that are much more precise than what one usually sees in any kind of tale, and that makes it different.  In SF, different–when it doesn’t get in the way of comprehension–is always good.  In this case, I think bringing a surgeon’s viewpoint even to non-medical stories removes a certain sentimentality and forces us–as doctors must–to view what we have in front of us dispassionately.  These stories are about what is as opposed to what we’d like for it to be.  They can get a little dark.

In summary, this is a great primer to Chilean SF and I recommend it heartily.  My own favorite story in here was “Un horizonte curvado”, a survival story.  If you can read it, you should.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose most recent collection, Off the Beaten Path, explores the corners of the world we don’t always see, and the people we don’t often encounter… but who feel familiar to us anyway.  You can buy it here.

The Outstanding Classic SF Film of the Fifties

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is an important movie to me, despite the fact that I only saw it for the first time a few days ago.  My mother’s cousin, a wonderful man who always had time for annoying children, told us the story of this one when I was seven or eight or something.  It’s one of the few stories from my childhood that stuck with me.

That cousin died earlier this year after a long illness, at much too young an age, but it was fun to remember him by watching the film, one of the 1001 movies we’ve been going through here.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).jpg

I still vividly remember his description of the robot, and the main misgiving I had when we started watching was that the film might be slower and more boring than modern flicks and ruin the memory.

I’m happy to report that it is none of those things.  The SF elements are woven with suspense and romance elements, which is the key to making the film fun.  It needed to be diluted because the moralistic elements of the main plot – an alien comes to show humanity the error of its ways and develop an ultimatum – are spectacularly heavy-handed in a way that only the 1950s can deliver with a straight face.

But it works.  The film is a fun movie despite the messaging–which, as we’ve discussed here, and as anyone who’s read modern science fiction of the critically-acclaimed type, is very hard to do).

And that’s pretty much all you need to know about the movie.  As the first major Hollywood science fiction motion picture, it showed that a movie with aliens in it could be a “real” film as opposed to a B-Movie special.  It plays the part well, and still holds up today, unless the cold-war style messaging and Christ-figure of the main character puts you off.

A warm hello to Billy Gray, who played the son of the female lead in this one, and was an important part of the plot.  He’s still with us and, as a child actor when this was produced, is still relatively young compared to other survivors from the era (and we must take the opportunity to mourn the recent passing of Olivia de Havilland).

Anyway, if you like SF or classic cinema, this one is a must-watch.  Even if you don’t, you should be entertained.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a science fiction writer whose novel Outside explores issues facing the 21st century, as seen from far in the future.  An exploration book and a thriller, outside will appeal to everyone who enjoys thinking about where we are going.  You can check it out here.

An American Tragedy Arrives on the Silver Screen, Bringing Liz Taylor with it

The name of the novel on which it’s based is An American Tragedy… so it’s kind of a given that 1951’s A Place in the Sun is a bit of a downer.  Worse – or maybe better, in this particular case – the film completely misses the mark as a critique of American society.  We’ll get to that.

Montgomery Clift and Liz Taylor in A Place in the Sun.jpeg

Essentially, the 1920s novel attempts to show the American rich and insensitive and useless parasites of society by depicting the struggle of a poor member of a rich family to earn his “place in the sun”.

Unfortunately, watching the film leaves one with precisely the opposite sensation.  It’s invariably the rich characters who act like decent human beings towards him, without exception and without fail.  The “everyman”, as represented by the woman who isn’t Liz Taylor, by the police and the lawyers, and by the angry mobs seen in the final montages are in a much less positive light.

Now it’s true that the rich people are essentially seen as enjoying their lives and privilege, but they are also shown as working hard and studying hard to get ahead.  The fifties, clearly, were not a good time to pretend the American Dream was a myth.

The antagonists in the film are two: the main character’s own mistakes and moral weakness and the poor girl’s desperation.  They both reinforce exactly the opposite of what the novel attempted to convey.  In this film, being poor and scared leads to actions that are reprehensible, while being rich apparently creates kind individuals.

Usually, my major problem with this kind of message film is usually that people are not better or worse because of their social or economic positions.  There are nice people and assholes in every strata of society, from indigent to billionaire (and if anyone tells you different, they are one of the assholes), so these crude, broad-brush depictions never help anyone but the propaganda minister of your favorite dictatorship.

But that isn’t the main reason I didn’t like this one.  This is a film that cried for a happy ending, even if that meant moving away from the source material.  The characters were sympathetic enough, especially Taylor’s, to deserve it, and one wishes the filmmakers had risen to the challenge.

Of course, if they had, it would have won fewer Oscars and probably wouldn’t have made it onto the 1001 movies list because we all know what “powerful performances” means…

Dilbert powerful performances

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His collection Off the Beaten Path is a treat for those who enjoy exploring our common humanity unusual settings far from the Western world.  You can check it out here.

 

The Offseason Blues

Just like live is awful in those terrible months when there is neither baseball nor football on TV (the unimaginable suffering that has made basketball, of all things, popular), auto magazines from the 1970s are at their dreariest when reporting on the offseason.

The problem is that while motorsport in the mid-seventies was wonderful, dangerous and technologically interesting, road cars were not.

March 1974 Road & Track.jpg

The March edition, which usually came out in February, lands pretty much in the dead center of that offseason, with the result that the only big racing report is on the SCCA Runoffs which, while fun, is not the same as reporting on Formula 1, Le Mans or the Can Am (raise your hand if you think it’s time for another no-rules formula so race cars can actually go fast again).

So the editors of Road & Track dedicated the space to technical articles (the one about hydrogen fuel was very interesting if misguidedly optimistic, the one about insurance truly enlightening), road tests (argh) and the Tokyo Motor Show (not the most optimistic show ever).  The fuel crisis, now with more Arabs, was on everyone’s mind, adding to the mess already created by US regulators.

Dark days indeed, but not without their silver lining, which took the form of a profile of James J. Bradley, Head of the Automotive History Collection at the Detroit Public Library (now the National Automotive History Collection).  A wonderful article that shows how one man can guide an institution’s collecting philosophy and make it a worldwide treasure.

I now have a reason to visit Detroit someday!

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is Jungle Lab Terror in which genetically modified monsters battle communist revolutionaries in the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere.  If that sounds like fun, you can learn more here.