classic Literature

Remembering a Time when Political Discussion was the Province of Intelligent People

Social media seems to have given us a new paradigm: everyone, no matter how uneducated or unprepared for public discourse, posts political opinions, and we’re supposed to respect them, even if they’re moronic.

So what we end up with is that someone with perhaps four working brain cells posts a political statement which is based on a popular view or a piece of news fabricated by the Huffington Post or by Fox News – both sides are equally stupid when it comes to this, so not making any distinctions by party today).  Perhaps they just copy and paste some one-sided meme. Then, an equally ignorant individual from the other side jumps in and refutes the argument.

No one, of course, uses the media bias chart where everything under the midpoint of the yellow rectangle needs to be ignored if you have aspirations to being an intelligent human being… And any news further to the right or left of “skews” is worthless.

Media-Bias-Chart_Version 3.1

Eventually, the discussion dissolves into name calling in which people who aren’t racists get called racists, people who aren’t Nazis get called Nazis, and people who aren’t Communist get called Communist.  Of course, all of the people who call people these things are idiots…

Like all religions, politics has become dogmatic: if you don’t agree with the virulent left, you are a racist, if you don’t agree with the virulent right, you are a commie.

And then there’s Trump, who stirs the pot for unknowable reasons of his own which only makes things worse.  But this isn’t limited to the US… it’s a worldwide phenomenon.

A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf

in 1928, things were different.  Back then, political discourse was for thinkers.  There were expendable idiots even then, of course, but they were just rank-and-file members of different political parties who could be counted on to grab king’s horses or die trying.  But the actual thinking was done by individuals with qualifications.

Which is why, ninety years later, A Room of One’s Own holds up so well.

Now, those who know me well, know that I think extreme leftist thought (like extreme rightist thought) is hugely unproductive.  Making everything about identity politics, attempting deconstruction and brushing off a hundred years of evidence that shows that certain economic models simply don’t work unless you hold the population to them at gunpoint don’t strike me as the actions of intelligent people with everyone’s best interest in mind.  In fact they are more akin to the thinking of the religious fanatics they supposedly oppose.

Worse, I’ve gone on record disagreeing with Woolf’s opinions about Middlemarch, so I’m emotionally invested in disagreeing with her in particular…

Nevertheless, any fair reader will admit that Virginia Woolf wrote a revolutionary, angry book that is, at the same time, cogent and calm in its delivery.  As a means to attain a goal it strikes me as a hugely superior method than going out and calling everyone a racist.

In fact, this book-and the speech it was based on-are a political tract disguised as a bit of advice given to a group of women who wish to make their way in the world as writers.  It highlights an inequality by way of a series of remarks about a fictitious women’s college and then focuses on the one thing that would help the women in her audience overcome that unfortunate reality.  It doesn’t put everyone in a position to help them in the role of the enemy (which, at best is counterproductive and at worst can lead to Trump and Brexit).

So, am I recommending that you read a political essay from ninety years ago, from a side of the spectrum that isn’t my favorite?  Yes, I am.  I believe more people need to read this and to think about why it works, and why it hasn’t been out of print since its initial publication in 1929 – and long after its initial goals have been reached (remember that, today, there are many more female writers than male writers being published).

Maybe if more people did so, political discussion would return to something approaching semi-evolved subhuman intelligence.  Even that would be a vast improvement.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who prefers to explore the ramifications of technology as opposed to politics.  This makes him very different from almost all science fiction writers published today.  His novel Outside is a prime example of this preference.

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Dr. Livingstone, I Presume

As I’ve mentioned here before, I live about a block and a half from a beautiful Anglican church that holds a jamboree every year.  They have games for children, food and, in one delightful room, piles of used books for sale.

I particularly love this because the kind of books they have for sale tend towards the things that the British community in Argentina would have had on their shelves in the fifties, sixties and seventies: books and other periodicals in English that I never would have thought to buy for myself.  Often, they can be had for a token price and all proceeds go to charity, so there’s plenty of incentive to bring home something outside your normal comfort zone.

The White Nile by Alan Moorhead

One of these titles was The White Nile by Alan Moorehead, a hefty hardcover that I immediately grabbed out of the pile.

Now, for those of you who don’t know it, the history of the exploration and colonization of the lower reaches of the Nile in the latter half of the 19th century is fascinating, and Moorehead’s style makes for gripping reading.  The tale of Livingstone and Stanley is probably the most famous of these, but perhaps the military quests and particularly Gordon’s famous defeat at Khartoum are the most interesting parts.

Like Tarzan of the Apes, this is a book that one needs to read without falling into the revisionist trap.  Published in 1960, a time where the glories of the British Empire lived vividly in the minds of many, it doesn’t pander to modern sensibilities.  That’s not to say it’s rampantly racist or one-sided–it isn’t; Moorehead was a historian with a decent amount of sensitivity to the people he wrote about–but it IS written from the British viewpoint, and exclusively through the testimony of white explorers, many of whom truly believed that they were bringing light to a dark region of the world.  When you read their descriptions of what they found, it’s even possible for open-minded readers to understand why they felt this way.

If you can set aside modern thought patterns for a moment, this book is nearly as good as any lost race novel at transporting you to fascinating worlds… with the added benefit that the events related therein actually took place in real life.  It’s an escape from the pressures and rhythms of everyday life that make it well worth the effort of leaving one’s sensibilities aside.

And you’ll learn one heck of a lot along the way.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He is the author of the well-received novel Siege.

Idea Driven SF in its Purest State

On Saturday night, I was in one of Buenos Aires’ notable bars surrounded by Argentine science fiction and fantasy writers.  One of them was telling me how he’d recently bought a Clarke book (Childhood’s End, apparently) in a Spanish translation.  The introduction said (and I paraphrase because I don’t remember the exact wording): “this book is a classic example of the now extinct genre of ideas” (italics are mine).

He was livid.  As a postmodern exponent of literary writing, this man felt that his novels were rife with ideas, and valuable, socially-relevant ones at that.  How could a man who wrote an introduction to a book by Clarke be so ignorant, so limited, so crass?

I mumbled something noncommittal and changed the subject.  Why?  Because I tend to agree with the introducer–opinion that would likely have gotten me lynched.

I’ve been watching the SF genre descend from a literature of ideas to a kind of muddle where postmodern sensibilities have pretty much amalgamated the genre with the rest of post-modern literature.  If something is scientifically impossible, no worries, genre limits are so 20th century, aren’t they?  Plus, if the thing is more boring than watching paint dry, it doesn’t matter as long as it’s diverse, right?

Er…  I’ll let each of you answer that last one.

For a certain kind of reader plausibility is important in SF, and that is why readers are staying away in droves lately, and the last real consensus SF classic (by consensus, I mean among readers – I couldn’t care less what other writers or postmodern critics think)  was… I suppose it was Ender’s Game.

 

Larry Niven Ringworld

But there was a better time, a time when SF truly was the literature of ideas, and perhaps the purest form of this is in Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970).  The characters and the plot are there for one thing, and one thing only: to show us the wonderful construct of a ring around a star and to reveal how it works and why.

Are the characters wooden?  A little.  Is it diverse and sensitive?  Not in the least, Niven didn’t care, he just wanted to tell his story and show us this awesome thing he’d dreamt up (or read about somewhere and decided to flesh out).

The cover blurb says “Legendary Award-Winning Classic”, and that description is spot-on.  Everyone’s read this one, and most people remember it.

But I have this sense that if Niven were to submit it today, it would be bounced for any number of reasons.  The legendary award-winning classic would never make it past the slush pile.

And, in a nutshell, that’s the main problem with the genre today.  It’s bleeding readers like a neck wound because the new stuff is more concerned with social and literary sensibilities than it is with attempting to cater to its readers.  Those former SF readers used to be going to comic books and movies but, as witnessed by the floundering of the Star Wars saga due to some of the writers wanting to use it as a platform for their politics as opposed to just a cool universe to tell a story, this way be reverting back.

Whatever the outcome, the nice thing about literature is that the classics are still around.  We can pick them up in paperback.  Most of us have already read Ringworld, but there are dozens of others… sometimes it’s even fun to pick up a random unremembered book from the Golden Age just to relive that sense of wonder (those with an overdeveloped sense of literary outrage may want to give this a pass… some of the prose is, gasp, workmanlike!).

And if you haven’t read Niven’s Masterpiece, you need to do so right now.  When a setting is universally remembered and everyone knows all about it, you can safely ignore the postmodernists and read it.  You may not enjoy every word, but you won’t forget the Ringworld.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina.  His fiction explores big ideas, nowhere more so than in his reprint collection Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places.

Book Collecting for Non-Collectors

Summer 2018 Fine Books & Collections

I’m not a book collector.

Well, I am in the sense that I have hundreds of books on my shelf, and that I love to possess books that are important to me in beautiful editions.  But I’m certainly not the kind of person who cares whether a book is a first edition, first state copy with the missing semicolon on page 59.  I prefer to have a nice copy I can read than a million dollar edition from 1814 (if you’re going to give me a gift, however, please send the million dollar edition… I’ll buy my own nice copy and keep the change after the auction).

So, perhaps I am not the target consumer for a magazine entitled Fine Books & Collections.  And yet, I look forward to its arrival every quarter more than anything else I subscribe to.

Why?  I suppose it’s because the magazine is much more than just about collectible books.  It’s about books in general, especially old ones, the history of the book, artwork, maps, covers, typesetting and pretty much anything else that might have the most remote connection to books.  It’s the most culturally interesting publication I’ve seen that doesn’t fall over the edge into specialist reading that requires either thirty years of accumulated knowledge to enjoy.  Anyone can pick it up and fall in love.

A Gentle Madness by Nicholas A. Basbanes

So perhaps there’s a reason I enjoy this one, but why did I love the book A Gentle Madness, written by the magazine’s editor, Nick Basbanes, so much?  On the surface, it seems like something for the true collectors: a detailed look at some of history’s major bibliophiles and the story of how their collections came to be.  If someone pitched that at me in an elevator, I’d say… So, a book about a bunch of boring rich old guys?

Well, many of them were both rich and old, but this book was anything but boring.  The passion (obsession?) driving the creation of some of the world’s foremost collections, and the… let’s say eccentricity… of the principals makes this one an absolutely riveting read.  I couldn’t put it down, something that doesn’t often happen to me with nonfiction titles.  There’s everything in here from magnates to thieves, and it should appeal to basically anyone who’s ever coveted a book.

And if you’re anything like me, you’ll enjoy knowing that there’s at least one hobby that turns normal people into madmen that you haven’t fallen victim to.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He is currently writing a book that takes place in the same universe as his novel Outside.

 

The Matrix Owes More to William Gibson than Most People Realize

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Yes.  I know.  I’m fifteen years late to the party.

Still, I just now got around to reading both Neuromancer and Count Zero, the first two books in Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy (maybe I’m thirty years late to the party?), and I was surprised at just how similar they are to the film The Matrix – or, rather, just how much the film lifts from the series.  I’m surprised that more ink hasn’t been spilled about this, and that it hasn’t been covered a little more in depth, so indulge me for a moment.

Now, I’m not accusing the producers of trying to hide anything.  After all, the very title of the film, The Matrix, is a nod to the name of the web in Gibson’s dark future so they were very respectful of the source material.  The way one navigates, by jacking in using special decks, will also resonate with those who watched the movie.  But, plot-wise, and philosophically, one concedes that there are many differences.

And that’s where most analysis ends.

Count Zero by William Gibson

The problem, as I see it, is that most readers only read Neuromancer, and never go anywhere near the other two books in the series.  And, though I’ve yet to read Mona Lisa Overdrive, Count Zero suddenly changed my perception of The Matrix.

A quick, spoilerless take on this one would be that it continues to tell stories set within the world that Gibson introduced in the first installment while only mentioning the original characters offhand.  If anything, it’s a slightly more ambitious book from a plot perspective, with three separate storylines that weave together in the end.  It starts slowly and gets good about a third of the way through… and then you hate the fact that it ends (this is quite different from Neuromancer, which starts strong and ends a bit weakly).

Twins from the Matrix

But quite apart from the story and general quality of the book, Count Zero introduces all the spiritual preoccupations that the second and third Matrix films revolve around.  It zags away from the tech / hard SF of the first book to explore a different philosophical terrain (albeit shallowly) – and gave the Brothers Wachowski all the ideas they needed to produce the sequels (whether or not they should have remains something of an open question).

So, an interesting weekend read on a number of levels.  Amazingly, these books hold up perfectly well over 30 years later.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  In Outside, he gives us his own take on an uploaded future.

A Writer’s First Sale

Typewriter Blues

I think most writers will identify, at least a little bit, with the article below, which I wrote ages ago to try to convey the wonderful feeling and circumstances of my own first sale… I give it here as a public service to those who may not have felt the joy of publication yet.  Hopefully, it will inspire you to push onwards… If I could do it, so can you!

Like most writers, I have a regular job that pays the bills.  And my first sale, in 2005 actually came on a day when I was regretting a recent job switch.

The problem was my new boss, who seemed bent on removing all self-esteem and will to live from his subordinates. With the rest of them away on business, I had been left to bear the brunt alone.  It had been the worst week of my professional life.

Jupiter SF - Issue VII - Pasiphae

Arriving from work depressed and exhausted after nine o’clock, I was handed a manila envelope, with handwritten address.  Inside was a copy of Jupiter SF, a genre magazine printed in black and white.

At first, I was unsure what to make of this.  I had sent them a story, maybe this was a strategy to get me to subscribe.  But then it occurred to me that they might have decided to print my story, and had been unable to inform me due to my change of email.  I leafed through it quickly, and there it was!  “Tenth Orbit” by Gustavo Bondoni.  The magazine in my hand was a contributor’s copy.  The first payment of any kind for my writing.

I must honestly admit that, since changing jobs, I had let my writing slide.  I hadn’t written anything at all in months, and hadn’t even bothered to send rejected stories out to new markets.  Not enough energy.

Nevertheless, at the moment I realized that I was now a published author; my other worries were forgotten.  The satisfaction I felt was not monetary (although, having submitted by email and received a magazine worth four dollars, I had, unusually, come out ahead), but because someone had thought that my story was good enough that people should hand over their hard-earned cash in order to read it.  And that, somewhere, people were doing precisely that.

My drive to write and publish was instantly rekindled.  And I felt I had achieved something truly significant.

Which was something I had really needed.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is still writing, and has since sold over 200 stories and a number of novels.  His book Outside deals with the consequences of posthumanity and transhumanism.

Bibliophile Heaven with History

As a book lover, there are few things I enjoy more than perusing a good library.  Whether it be by looking at the spines of the books at a friend’s house or visiting the New York Public Library when I’m in the city (Protip: the original stuffed animals that inspired Winnie the Pooh are on permanent display in the Children’s section on the ground floor of the NYPL), this king of sightseeing is something I never fail to enjoy.

Abbey-of-Saint-Gall

However, it’s not always possible to hop on a plane and fly to St. Gall each time I want to view an even more impressive depository, so, as usual, my solution is to get a book.  Actually multiple books.  The first book I bought about libraries is called The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World, and as its name suggests, the preoccupation here is to allow the beauty to shine forth by using spectacular photography.  Fortunately, it also gives the–sometimes tortuous–history of each of them as well.

Over time, I discovered that despite its coffee-table size, this book is one of the most frequently perused volumes in my own book cases.

The Library - A World History

So I succumbed to the pressure of Amazon recommendations and bought a companion volume: The Library: A World History.  Written by James W. P. Campbell, this one, though also a large-format and lushly illustrated book goes back to the very beginnings of literary history and gives a blow-by-blow account of how the way people have stored books has evolved.  It’s bang up to date to its publication in 2013.

I found it fascinating to learn which advances permitted–and sometimes forced–the way library formats have evolved over the centuries.  Knowing why a room full of books looks the way it does is almost as enjoyable as looking at it.

Almost.

Though the focus here is definitely on the scholarship, the pictures of libraries, reading rooms, and the furniture within are worth the price of admission even if they were all that was included.  This book gets pulled out and stared at even more than the other one, mainly because, though there aren’t as many pictures of each library, there are many more libraries featured, including some in Korea, Japan and China. Those latter places are not only fascinating for themselves, but also illuminating in context; they illustrate beautifully how differences in book format created different kinds of storage rooms.

Recommended.  I think that bibliophiles will love these.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist who is currently writing the sequel to his comic fantasy novel The Malakiad.

And One That Didn’t Quite Make the Grade

The other book I ordered from Folio along with Notes from a Small Island was yet another classic on the cusp from a contemporary writer.  Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy is another beautifully produced edition, but it didn’t, in my opinion, live up to its promise.

Paul Auster - The New York Trilogy - Folio Society edition

The problem here is the content of the book.  No matter how perfect the binding or evocative the illustrations, it’s hard to turn an exercise in experimental fiction into a good read.  Even worse, this book is saddled by the yoke of postmodernism…

So, of course, the critics loved it, lauded the way it plays with the tropes of detective fiction, and basked in its empty nihilism and lack of definition.  After all, we were in the throes of destroying all that had come before and exposing the falseness of underlying assumptions.

And I guess in that, they were correct.  As a piece of postmodern art, this one could be a hell of a lot worse.  By using the structure of a detective novel, at least it doesn’t descend into complete navel gazing, as there are actually things going on, even if they aren’t quite as entertaining as the things that go on in real detective novels, and if the ending isn’t as satisfying as they are in, say, a good noir book.

Perhaps that’s what hit me the hardest on this one.  I’m going through a phase where I’m enjoying noir enormously, and I feel that an author of Auster’s caliber (even here, it’s obvious that the man can write, if he had so chosen) could have done something truly special with the form.

But no… postmodern sensibilities won out.

I often wonder if anything postmodern will be part of the canon in a few years time, or if it will all be consigned to the rubbish bin of history like the dead end it is.  Perhaps a few pieces of postmodernism will survive, in the same way that a few bits of modernism have reached us as illustrations of their particular form.  Perhaps Folio is right and Auster’s trilogy is one of those pieces that will represent the movement going forward.

But I doubt that much else will last.  Cynicism and irony are great if savage and loaded, not when they replace a shrug and a sigh.  The postmodernists are not as jaded as they want to make us believe… and it shows int heir weak output.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside explores posthumanism without attempting to be too optimistic or too pessimistic about it.  But realism can be quite shocking, too.

 

The Rich Tapestry of a Small Island

A you may have surmised from this blog, I am not exactly someone who has their finger on the pulse of popular culture.  In fact–and we need to have this discussion someday–if I’m sitting at a table with people discussing famous actors, pretty models who are married to sporting figures or the latest diet craze, I’m usually the guy in the corner rolling his eyes and wondering how 21st century civilization manages to survive if its citizens are concerned about those things.

A few exceptions exist, usually literary.  I read The Da Vinci Code when everyone was reading it (I happen to like that kind of thing and turn a blind eye to the obvious shortcomings) and also read and watched the Harry Potter series in nearly real time (I began with the first movie).

That’s not normally the case. I usually sneer at popular culture as the modern equivalent of the prefrontal lobotomy.

But sometimes–not always, or even usually, but sometimes–popular culture ends up becoming part of the canon and it’s nice to be beaten over the head with it and discovering it twenty years later (twenty years seems to be the benchmark–if it dies before the 20 years are up, it wasn’t really worth much, was it?).

Notes From a Small Island - Folio Society Edition - Bill Bryson

I frequent a few of those places where popular culture makes the transition to high culture and I discover things that I might have missed.  One of those places, strangely enough, is the Folio Society website.  Yes, the Folio Society is mainly known for its pretty editions of classics, but they also have a fine sense of when a book or author is making that transition between the popular and the canon.  If your book becomes a Folio edition, you have, in a real sense not necessarily measured in dollars, arrived.

For readers like myself, who are often have no way of telling the popular culture wheat from the chaff, it’s a great place to find out what is making that transition and to discover authors that everyone but I have already heard of.

To that list, I have now added Bill Bryson, and specifically his amazing book Notes From a Small Island.  For those who are as sadly clueless as I was, Bryson is an American journalist who lived in Britain for many years.  Before returning to his homeland, he decided to take a sort of Grand Tour of the Isles and write it up.  The result is a delightful, often laugh-out-loud-funny, and affectionate glimpse at Britain through the eyes of someone who can tell what is so funny about it and make us understand.

It’s one of those delightful books that definitely make life richer.  If you haven’t read it, track down a copy–you won’t regret it.

In fact, finding things like this is almost enough to make one want to pay more attention to what is going on in popular media, or even to pay attention to what the people around you are discussing at lunch.

Almost.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and insufferable elitist who expounds his unsustainable worldview in a number of novels and collections which he only wishes would become a part of popular culture and make him a millionaire.  Branch is a novella about evolution in the next few years and, as a shorter work, is probably a good introduction to his oeuvre.  

A Brontë Reader at a Great Price

Charlotte and Emily Brontë - The Complete Novels

I’m a sucker for pretty editions of books I love.  We’ve talked abut that before.  But perhaps what hasn’t been that clear is that the editions don’t necessarily have to break the bank.

For example, Barnes & Noble has a whole raft of beautiful editions of classics available for excellent prices and which are often displayed at the very front of the store.  So there’s no real reason other than the sentimental to hang onto your battered paperback copies of the Foundation trilogy, for example.

The book pictured above, the complete novels of Charlotte and Emily Brontë, is another good bet.  Not only is it very pretty but it also saves valuable shelf space compared to having the individual tomes.  It holds the usual suspects: Jayne Eyre, Wuthering Heights and the less-known Charlotte works, Shirley, Villette and The Professor.

As I am already quite familiar with the first two, my focus was on the less famous novels.  I’ve seen many people cite one or another of the three as the best of Charlotte’s output but…

Shirley is all right, I suppose.  An interesting novel in the Middlemarch vein (and here’s what I said about Middlemarch) but with none of the interesting gothic elements that make Jayne Eyre such an enduring work.  It almost makes me think that those who prefer Shirley are like those hipsters who listen to obscure music just to prove that they are different and, in consequence, somehow better than you.

The Villette / The Professor twins are minor work in comparison.  I’m glad to have read them, but they will never join the conversation.

Having revisited the Charlotte and Emily work, I will fall prey to my own argument above about obscurity.  I truly believe that Anne should be celebrated at the same level.

But I suppose that particular battle is long lost.  And perhaps its fair.  While Anne’s writing may be better, the crazy lady locked in the tower and Heathcliff are both more memorable than anything Anne ever did… and perhaps that’s what swings the balance.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is a comic fantasy set in ancient Greece entitled The Malakiad.