Author: GB

The Elephant in the Room

I’ve been reading some Road & Track magazines from the early seventies, and I’ve been enjoying them enormously.  I finally realized that was strange.

After all, I HATE any discussion of politics… so why am I enjoying what, in at least part of every issue, seems to be a running battle between the entire automotive industry, (including magazines) and the US government because of the overzealous, rushed and clueless application of safety and pollution legislation.  There was a war on the automobile in the early 1970s–a war that the automobile ultimately won, but at a huge cost to the consumer, the US auto industry and even, ironically, the environment (lowering smog in the 1970s meant that a LOT more CO2 was released).

Road & Track November 1972

So why in the world am I enjoying these?

To answer that, we need to fast forward to 2020.  Over the past month, I got emails about Black Lives Matter from several newsletters I subscribe to and saw related content on a bunch of websites.  I didn’t open any of those newsletters and I didn’t read any of those articles.

Why?  Am I a racist?

Not at all.  The problem was that the sites (and newsletters) were sports sites, automotive sites, and the SFWA newsletter.  None of these are sources I look to for political news and opinion.  When I’m reading the news, I definitely click on those articles.  But when I’m on your literature site, I will click away if you’re doing politics.  And if you’re a professional organization dedicated to working for writers, I’m not looking for affirmative action from you unless there is a specific case of discrimination, in which case, I’d expect the organization to protect its minority members with the utmost ferocity.  But I’m a member for purely professional and not political reasons. So I didn’t open their Black Lives Matter announcement.  SFWA’s opinion is irrelevant in these matters.

Road & Track April 1973

The thing Road & Track did extremely well in the 1970s is focus on the places where their opinion WAS relevant.  Regulation that affected the auto industry in such a negative way was definitely something I look to R&T for.  Other politics aren’t.

You know which word hasn’t appeared once in any of the magazines from the period I’ve read so far (including the two pictured in this post, which are the most recent I’ve read)?

I’ll let you think about it.

Got it?  No?

OK.  The word is ‘Vietnam’.

Think about that for a second.  Journalists focusing on the stuff they actually know about and giving readers what they want instead of talking about politics.

Our modern everyone-has-to-give-their-opinion-or-suffer-the-consequences society could learn so much about professional journalism and giving people what they want from these guys.

Someday, hopefully, unrelated media will stick to what they’re good at and not publish content no one visits their site to see.  Wouldn’t that be a radical departure?

I, for one, will welcome the day.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who doesn’t take his own advice.  Probably best known as a science fiction writer, he also writes literary fiction.  His book Love and Death is an excellent example.  You can check it out here.

Apparently, Aristocracy is Inevitable

Time for a digression, not something even remotely academic, but something I have often thought about, and something I’m pretty certain is true: aristocracy is inevitable.

So, yeah, in 1917 and the years immediately after, the Russian people rose against their rulers, killed the Czars, inspired the Anastasia conspiracy theories and installed a communist government.

Aristocracy, they told us, was dead.

Russsian Revolution

A handful of years later, the party elite had their Black Sea dachas and were driven around in chauffeured cars while everyone else watched the carriages with undisguised resentment.

Exactly the same as in the pre-1917 era.  The only thing the communist revolution managed was to industrialize the country and create a new royal family.  (in their defense, they also defeated Hitler, but I’m not trying to make a different point here, not criticize communism per se).

China, another communist country, currently has 373 billionaires while a good billion people live the agrarian life of a Russian serf.

Another notable revolution that was supposed to get rid of the aristocracy was the French.  France currently has 40 billionaires…

So, whether capitalist, socialist or communist, society naturally seems to stratify into classes.  An upper class defined by either wealth (or in the case of communist Russia, by access), education or refinement springs up in every system.

Even the failed nations, the African warlord republics or Venezuela have a clear definition of haves and have-nots.  In Venezuela, the dictator’s corrupt cronies live like kings, for example.

Why?

I think I know: people with talent and drive don’t want to be counted among the masses. They work hard to achieve status so that either they or–failing that, their descendants–can have an easy life and enjoy themselves.  After all, enjoying yourself is much better than any of the alternatives.

Elon Musk worked to make his billions and now works just as hard at doing stuff he loves.  His definition of enjoying himself might put mankind on Mars.  Which means that, annoying as his electric cars might be, we’re all rooting for him.

And that’s the wonder of the modern world. You don’t need to be born a von-Anything to gain access to the world of the aristos.  All you need to have is drive, brains and a modicum of luck and you will get there, eventually.   Or be a really good soccer player.  Or a brilliant neurosurgeon.  Or guitar virtuoso.  There are infinite roads, but all require talent and hard work.

Unless you live in a communist country.  In that case, you will need political ability to enjoy the spoils.  But the same principle applies: if you’re GOOD at it, you’ll make it.

So I generally oppose systems which pretend to make the world an equitable place.  Evidence shows that the only way to enforce this is to give more and more power to the government, which just means a different subset of people fill the role of the aristocracy.

Since I generally respect talent and hard work more than I do political ability, I’ll probably always want the free-market people to win.

But whoever ends up in the drivers seat, know this: a talented group willing to put in the hours are going to have stuff the rest of the people don’t.  All the current political divide is doing is trying to define which group that will be.

Me?  I will stay on the sidelines wondering why it’s important for some politician on the left to have everything versus some dude who started a company.  I don’t actually care who it is, but you’ll generally find me in free-market countries because my talent does NOT lie in political acumen.

Anyway, just some random thoughts to break up the reviews for once.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose published work spans every genre from literary fiction to comic fantasy.  His dark fantasy is collected in Pale Reflection.  You can have a look here.

Who Says Cyberpunk is Dead?

To the general public, literary cyberpunk means William Gibson (to others, perhaps The Matrix, although Johnny Mnemonic is much more true to the genre), specifically Neuromancer.

But in the world of SF literature, there exists another truism: Cyberpunk is dead and we’re in the era of post-apocalyptic dystopias (created, if you don’t want to go to ideological jail, by corporations or capitalist governments).  If you want a change of pace from that, we can do some identity politics speculation.  Fun!

Of course, this is nonsense, except in the very tiny area spanned by certain critics in the deepest corners of the genre gutter.

Readers don’t want that stuff, as evidenced when you walk into a random Barnes & Noble.  Neuromancer is ALWAYS on the shelves, as are Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke.  Of the modern ones, you’ll find Alastair Reynolds, James S.A. Corey, Iain M. Banks, etc.  Very few examples of what is supposed to be the modern focus of the genre (although Banks is definitely political, but at least he isn’t dogmatic, boring and predictable ALL the time).

Readers still love cyberpunk.  And now, there’s a magazine that caters to this preference.

Write Ahead : The Future Looms Volume 2

Write Ahead / The Future Looms is a full-color publication unlike anything else in the SFF genre today.  It is simply gorgeous in design and execution, on glossy paper and a very modern cyberpunk-ey feel to it.

I recently read Volume 2 (full disclosure – my story “A Local Matter is in this one”) and I was hyper-impressed.  Contributor copies sometimes have stories one needs to dig deep to finish.  That wasn’t the case in this mag–cyberpunk is always fun.

Favorite story here was “The Proxy” by Alexander Hay, but they were all entertaining reads and all gave a different take on our electronic future.

This is one of those publications that I recommend without any reservation whatsoever.  Go forth and read one.  I think you’ll like it, and it certainly makes a wonderful break from the formulaic state of other magazines in the field.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose fiction spans many genres, from literary fiction to comic fantasy.  His SF novel Outside is a study of what happens when humans and early-stage post humans interact.  You can check it out here.

Another Hollywood Writer

Even before the 1950s, the public (or at least the studios) had lost its fascination with private eyes.  Latter-day noir films focused on insurance salesmen and housewives and even tried to look at things from the criminal’s point of view.

By 1950, Hollywood had seemingly replaced its fascination with detectives for a tendency for major films to focus on show business and media.  We’ve discussed All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard already and now it’s the turn of a Bogart classic: In a Lonely Place.

In A Lonely Place - Humphrey Bogart

In what has been described as the role in which Bogart most closely plays himself, this one is about an alcoholic, self-absorbed Hollywood writer who is suspected of a murder.  The important issue isn’t whether he actually committed the murder, but actually about whether he would have been capable of it.

That question throws its shadow over the entire film, and eventually leads to the denouement (the poster calls it a surprise ending, but I don’t think modern audiences will find it surprising).

In a Lonely Place Film Poster

What they will find here is a fast-moving flick that holds interest from the word go, a strong performance from the leading man and a love interest that holds the interest.  A classic that flies a little under the radar for those who aren’t film buffs.  Everyone’s heard of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon but I personally hadn’t heard of this one.

The little irony is that the murder victim in the film was played by Martha Stewart (no, not that Martha Stewart).  And though she was murdered in the film, she is the final surviving star from the original cast.  So if she ever stumbles across this, hello!

Good movie.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose one crime novel follows a reporter as opposed to a screenwriter but is a spiritual successor of the kind of noir we used to get back then.  You can check it out here.

Poirot, Like a Breath of Fresh Air

Those following along will remember that the last two Agatha Christie novels we reviewed here were Tommy and Tuppence vehicles.  You can see my take here and here.

These are not the books that made Christie famous.  Not by a long shot.

But, like finding a glass of water in the desert, one appreciates her great work more by exposure to the arid wasteland.  And when Poirot returns, rejoicing ensues.

Evil Under the Sun - Agatha Christie

I don’t know if it was the rebound effect, but I found Evil Under the Sun to be a near-perfect murder mystery.  It has everything you want from Agatha Christie: a secluded location, a group of people with motives for killing the victim, wonderful red herrings and a resolution that depends on the psychology of the victim.

It’s a simply beautiful piece of mystery fiction and blows away the boring image of the Tommy and Tuppence books.  I suppose the reason it works so well is that the setting is comfortable and familiar, and that the possibility of the reader guessing the murderer exists (though that is never necessarily Christie’s strongest suit in my experience).  The clues in this one exist… but you don’t necessarily manage to put them together until Poirot explains them.

So THIS is classic Queen of Crime, and if you’ve already read The Murder of Roger Akroyd and Murder on the Orient Express, this is a good choice for continued reading.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who doesn’t write whodunnits, but his book timeless is a sexy, fast-paced thriller.  You can check it out here.

Weird Imports, Technical Savvy and Bumbling Regulators

As we continue reading through our 1970s Road & Tracks, absorbing the culture of the times and trying to note the differences with today, there’s one thing which truly stands out: foreign cars in the US were often spectacularly unsuited for the market.

I’m not talking here about Ferrari, Mercedes or BMW.  Like today, those factories knew what they were doing, offering a superior product at a premium price.  Likewise, Japanese imports, taking advantage of the weak Yen and effective quality procedures, had a chokehold on the lower end of the market which they only relinquished to Korea in the 2000s, mainly because Japan had more profitable fish to fry (or to fillet and eat as sushi, I guess).

But in 1972, a road test of a Renault 15 was included on the cover.  I assume it was supposed to be a selling point, but it might simply have been for the comic relief.  I can hardly think of a worse car to try to sell in the US, unless it’s a Peugeot 304 or a Saab Sonett (see the other cover).  Simply stated, peopel were much quirkier and individual back then, apparently enough to buy a Saab Sonett of all things.  That’s probably why there were fewer tattoos and personalized iPhone protectors in evidence: people actually had real, as opposed to manufactured, individuality.

Still, though we respect individuals, some of these were really crappy cars.

Road & Track July 1972

Another point of interest is just how much technical knowledge the editors assumed on the part of its readers.  These are mass-market magazines, remember.  Today, while adolescent readers might know exactly how many valves a Lamborghini has, most of them would never know how to gap a sparkplug or how to build one’s own head gasket… but 1972’s readers apparently did.  So the technical analysis of components (tires, for example) and race cars is wonderful.

Road & Track October 1972

Finally, the cluelessness of legislators was once again gleefully put into evidence, as two safety cars with airbags (1972, remember) were put to the test… and failed miserably.  In part due to these tests and also because of the fact that the proposed safety car rules were utterly stupid, that particular initiative was eventually abandoned (sadly too late to save the MGB’s chrome bumpers).

But other legislation went forward.  The clean air act controlled Nitrous Oxides (NOx), Carbon Monoxide (CO) and unburnt hydrocarbons.  I think we all agree that it was a good thing for air quality.

Ironically, however, the same rules meant that cars were getting worse as manufacturers scrambled to meet these massively-quickly applied regulations.  By getting worse, I’m not just talking about things like losing power, becoming more complicated and more unreliable and gutting the Detroit car industry.  Those are actually minor things in the big picture–people just needed to suck up and take it.

The bad part is that fuel economy also suffered, so cars were burning more fuel to get less power and work worse (the reasons have to do with compression ratios and fuel octane, mainly).  When a car burns fuel, one of the INTENDED emissions is Carbon Dioxide.  By burning more fuel, you create more carbon dioxide… so it meant that, until the Fuel Crisis caused regulators to clamp down on economy, the application of the clean air act actually meant that countless more tons of carbon dioxide were released into the air.

Of course, thirty years later we all realized that carbon dioxide, as the main greenhouse gas, was not really a good thing.

The road to hell and all that…

But in 1972 no one knew about those things.  All they cared about was that the suits in Washington seemed determined to extract all the joy from the automobile, preferably to kill it altogether.

I, for one, am delighted that they failed.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside also deals with unintended consequences, of the kind that could shatter entire civilizations.  You can check it out here.

Not Quite the Most Depressing Film I’ve Seen Lately, but it wasn’t for Lack of Trying…

A few months ago, I called Ladri de Bicicletti the “most communist film ever” (and I have also seen the classics like October and Battleship Potemkin).  While that might not be strictly true, the Italian film is definitely the most intentionally depressing.

Now it has a bit of competition from Mexico and none other than Luis Buñuel.

Los Olvidados - Luis Buñuel

Los Olvidados (1950 – translated as both The Forgotten Ones and The Young and the Damned) is what hedging critics like to call “unflinching”.  Apparently, that means that it takes people living dreary, hopeless lives and pretends those lives make deep, meaningful cinema, driving society to mend its terrible ways.  When translated to English from critic-speak, it means “downer”.

And it’s a pity.  The characters are well-drawn and there are a couple you actually end up caring about.  If the view were not so remorselessly bleak, it might be a worthwhile film to watch.

Even more of a pity is that Buñuel’s most remembered work after Un Chien Andalou are all the same kind of flick.  Las Hurdes is depressing, and so is this, his most important Mexican film. I have not yet viewed any of his later work (I have high expectations for Belle du Jour) which returned to traditional filmmaking, so there’s still hope, I guess.

Essentially, this is a film that uses the sad lives of poor children in Mexico City to try to shock adults.  One might argue that it aims at having redeeming social value because it should move people to act, but the truth is that A) films don’t do that and B) you have to consider the source.  Buñuel was a provocateur with a history of shock for shock’s sake, and though he professed a strong preference for leftist ideology, his work makes one wonder if that wasn’t just a cover.  He was the kind of guy who liked to toss a box of lit firecrackers into a crowd and watch what happened.

The “kids as a shock tactic” strategy is still used.  Immediately coming to mind is the 1995 film Kids, which shocked no one but the critics.  The formula, apparently, was still dumb forty-five years later.

Another modern link is that the child actor who played the lead character is still alive, so if Alfonso Mejía is reading this, hat off to you.  Your acting was wonderful, but betrayed by the director and producer’s inability to let go of their bleakness.

The final indignity is that there was no reason for this one to be this way.  As I researched this post, I learned that there was another ending. A happy ending.  Of course, Buñuel discarded it.  After all, you couldn’t have people leaving the cinema in a good mood, could you.  No, much better if they immediately went to the nearest bar and drank themselves to death.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose most realist work lives within the pages of his book Love and Death.  He should probably practice what he preaches, as many of the episodes in this one don’t turn out all that well for the characters.  He defends himself by saying that an artist must follow his muse, whatever that means.  You can check out Love and Death here.

Tommy and Tuppence Again

I recently reviewed an Agatha Christie book entitled Postern of Fate.  Its main characters are a married couple, Tommy and Tuppence, who are serial Christie protagonists.  Unfortunately, they are not the most interesting of her creations.  Poirot, to take her most important protagonists as an example, they most certainly are not.

By the Pricking of my Thumbs - Agatha Christie

The main problem is that she breaks her own formula (after decades, I imagine she was ready for a change).  Instead of giving us the characters and then murdering one of them and then sifting–with the reader watching over her shoulder–the nuggets of information from the red herrings, these stories involve long-buried mysteries and the criminal ends up being someone we don’t particularly care about.

By the Pricking of my Thumbs is better than Postern of Fate in that, unlike the latter, at least all the actors are involved in the book.  There aren’t any last-minute additions that make no sense.

But we don’t actually care about the resolution.  A murder mystery should involve the reader and this one doesn’t.  The only characters we care about are Tommy and Tuppence, while everyone else is just there to play a part, often a strangely twisted part that throws you off.  The resolution, though surprising, is not enough to raise this one to the Queen of Crime’s usual standards.

The contrast with Christie’s usual technique of doing nuanced psychological studies of the people surrounding the detective(s) is what makes this particular volume, though pleasant reading, one for Christie completists only.

There’s a reason Poirot and Marple are better known.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His own thriller–most certainly NOT a cozy mystery–is called Timeless, and you can check it out here.

Hollywood Plays Itself

If All About Eve, the last of the films we’d reviewed, was a study of theater people with the rose-tinted glasses removed, then Sunset Boulevard is the x-ray of what life is truly like in Hollywood.  The only thing not present is the casting couch, but that’s pretty normal in a Code film.

Sunset Boulevard dead body

The irony, for those in the know, is heightened to almost unbearable heights by the fact that so many of the characters are played by themselves.  Some are wearing their own names (Cecil B. DeMille is the most notable), but the most impactful are the ones that are slightly disguised.

Gloria Swanson plays a silent movie actress who thinks she is due for a comeback but is actually even more washed out than she knows.  Erich Von Stronheim is a failed former director.  Buster Keaton and other former silent stars play Swanson’s card friends, a group she refers to as “her waxworks”.  It is funny in the most bitter, self-referential way.

Fortunately, the film rises above the navel-gazing and the story of the three characters involved in the love triangle at the center of the plot are intriguing in themselves, and only Swanson is grotesque.

The gothic sense of this one is heightened by the lush décor, which reminds one of the silent era, as well as the huge, rambling house.  It pays homage to film noir in many of its aesthetic and narrative choices, and the ending is pretty much a noir staple, even if the film itself isn’t necessarily something I’d classify as noir.

It’s not surprising that Lloyd Webber, with his past success in studying the shadows of show business, would have adapted this one to the stage. It is pretty much of a type–if of a different era–with the Phantom of the Opera, with many of the same emotions at work.

despite the ehaviness, it is an eminently watchable film.  It is also a great one.  Perhaps not in the conversation for the greatest of all time, but it towers above the other films I’ve watched recently in that indefinable category of “greatness”, with only The Third Man beating it out of the films I’ve seen recently.

Finally, the lead love interest in this one was played by Nancy Olson, who is with us still.  If you’re reading this, hi!

Anyway, this is one of those no-doubters.  Among the greats.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a short story writer and novelist.  His literary work is collected in Love and Death, a series of intertwined stories that function as a single cohesive narrative.  You can check it out here.

 

A touch of color

We’ve already mentioned that 1971 was an annus horribilis for the  automotive industry and, by extension for the automotive press.  But the automotive industry is mainly composed of hard-headed individuals.  Engineers and designers are not the kind of people to mope about the people who don’t understand an industry trying to regulate it (with, as time taught us, incredibly disastrous results for the industry and for the greenhouse effect).

And they weren’t going to let a bunch of sociologists and clueless regulators beat them.

Road & Track - May 1972

So by 1972, two things had taken root: a stoic determination to survive despite the stupid and the capacity to laugh at the scale of the folly.  When true believers go on a crusade, it is apparently the obligation of engineers to make fun of them (while at the same time showing them that, though their demands are both unrealistic and counter-productive, a good engineer can do anything).

This attitude is reflected in the magazine.  The May 1972 issue wasn’t quite the racing tour de force as the last one we reviewed (when Daytona gets cut to 6 hours, you know it isn’t a vintage year for that race), but it still seemed more optimistic.

One thing that helped was that there was more color inside.  From what I’ve seen, 1972 was a year in which magazines such as this one began to use much more color.  It is still predominantly black and white, but the color is used for more than just advertising space in this issue.

This is interesting.  Color is more expensive than b-w, and yet here is a magazine about an industry under siege using more color.  Why?

I don’t have access to sales figures but I assume that it has to do with the new cars being sold.  Suddenly, a product that was working really well in the 1960s was regulated into a cantankerous, crappy fleet of cars that lasted less, worked worse, broke down more often, and consumed more fuel.  Consumers were probably looking for some way to explain it all, and searching for advice anywhere they could.  So sales were probably way up in this era.

That’s reflected in the content, too.  Car magazines back then were much more technical than they are now.  A typical article from the era is in this may edition, called “No-Camber Suspension” and deals with a new geometry for race-car suspension, explaining how it works in detail.  Consumer-oriented magazines today never do this.  There’s an analysis of rotary racing engines and an in-depth look at the Tecno F1 car (they should have looked deeper: the car ended up being a disaster, but the article, written before we knew that, was optimistic about it).

Most memorable article, however, was not a technical piece but the description of a cross-country trip in a Saab.  In it, Henry N. Manney III describes the sights and sounds of America in a way that truly puts the attitudes, prejudices and style of the era into sharp relief.  It immerses you in the early 1970s in a way that even talk about bumper heights and crappy emissions systems can’t.

People brought up in the last decade might be horrified by some of the things they read here, but this is actually another reason that these are valuable.  They should make young people read them to understand context, and to realize that perfectly blameless people sometimes held antiquated beliefs–even as recently as the 1970s.

Maybe that will help us to stop the kind of people who want to judge the art of the past by today’s very specific and transitory standards.

I doubt anyone will do this, though.  People don’t want context.

But I’ve been enjoying my 1970s immersion enormously.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina.  His work spans all genres and time periods, and his most recent book is Jungle Lab Terror, which you can check out here.