classic Literature

Before the Golden Age

Astounding Stories - January 1934

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Still the Greatest Name in Literature

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

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

Goldfinger - James Bond - Ian Fleming

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

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

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

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

Pussy Galore

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

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

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

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

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

No way.

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

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

 

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

Unfortunately Annoying

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

Today’s subject didn’t.

A Fire Upon teh Deep - Vernor Vinge

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Bookends of Doom

The Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis

It’s been popular in the past couple of decades to attack The Chronicles of Narnia for its excessive use of Christian messaging.  This is jus one unfortunate side effect of a culture that politicizes everything in the most infantile of ways, meaning that whatever is on the “wrong” side of the political divide must be attacked.  Cue the Marching Morons obeying the dictates of their political-dogma-spewing overlords.

Even though I’m an atheist and should have been shocked (shocked, I tell you!!) at anything which hints at preaching, I decided to read the books anyway.  Why?  Various reasons.  First off, I was lucky enough to have been a kid in a time when good books were just good books and not symbols of protest, so all the later mud-slinging really made no impression on me.  Secondly, generations of children have loved these, and I thought it would be nice to see what all the fuss was about.

Thirdly, I remembered having read, at least partially, one or two of the books when I was a little too young to appreciate them, and wanted to complete that reading.

Most importantly, perhaps, I hate having important gaps in my reading.  By important, I mean books that have stood the test of time, not books that are faddish today – I won’t be running to buy any recent Hugo-award winners unless they are still beloved in twenty years’ time.  But Narnia?  Yes, a must read for anyone who with the maturity to leave political silliness aside.

So… How did they hold up?

In order to answer that question, I need to talk about the order in which the Narnia series was composed vs. the order in which it was meant to be read.  The first four books written (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair) follow the adventures of two brothers and two sisters who initially discover the land of Narnia and have adventures there.  These are the solid core of the series and each is enjoyable and beautiful.

Is there Christian messaging in this core?  Yes, there is, but it’s pretty light, and any intelligent child, anywhere on the political / faith spectrum, will be the better for being exposed to it and getting to think about things.  Plus, they’ll enjoy these books enormously.

Then came The Horse and his Boy, which, in reading order, slots between Wardrobe and Caspian.  This one is a good little adventure as well, although it doesn’t really do much for the central story except to set up the final book.

The last two books to be written were where C.S. Lewis made his big mistake.  The Magician’s Nephew was written to be the first in the series in reading order, and The Last Battle, as its name indicates, was meant to close the series out.

These are the only ones that fall flat, for several reasons, but mostly because Lewis was attempting to make his message (and yes, it is a very traditional Christian message) obvious to everyone.  They are just there, in fact, for that reason, and the adventures are relegated to a secondary role–the books suffer for it.

Are these two unreadable?  Not by any stretch of the imagination.  They just aren’t up to the spectacularly high level of the others.

I would recommend that anyone interested in this series read the first four (or five if you can’t get enough of it) books as written and ignore the rest.  And I recommend it to anyone at all.  If an atheist can enjoy it, so can you.

Just stay away from the last two books written.  They… don’t help.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose fantasy novel The Malakiad is not a Christian novel. In fact, it offends every religion from ancient Greece onwards, and it offends atheists and the politically correct, as well.  In fact, if you are not offended by it, Gustavo will be extremely upset.  You can check it out here (ebook) and here (paperback).

Woolf Comes Out Second Best

Virginia Woolf and James Joyce

Perhaps she was tired of the comparisons, or of being perceived as a practitioner of someone else’s art form, but when Virginia Woolf famously dissed Ulysses–and she held absolutely nothing back in her assault–she created one of the unintentional ironies of the time.

Her criticism came after she had written the subject of today’s post: Mrs Dalloway.  Incensed by the comparison between her work and Joyce’s magnum opus, she claimed that Joyce was just striving for effect, doing schoolboy tricks to make his work stand out.  She also claims to have been bored by the book and abandoned around page 200… so I assume she never read Molly’s sentence at the end, which would likely have enraged her…

Now, while I’m not going to say that Ulysses is either fun or particularly entertaining–and she joins millions of other readers in having given up on the Joyce–calling any book boring is a bit rich coming from a woman who defended Middlemarch–a paragon of absolute stultification–as one of the few novels suitable for grownups.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Woolf’s problem is that, unlike Joyce, she appears not to have realized–at least in this book, I still need to read To the Lighthouse to give a final verdict–that interior monologue doesn’t need to be prim and proper.  Where Joyce delves into the deeper depravities of the psyche, Woolf contentes herself with excellent writing and conventional morality.

Joyce has been proven right by history.  His work is more widely read today (or more widely abandoned, at least), and the prurient passages are a big reason for it.  I bet millions of undergrads have opened the book to scan for the masturbation scene.  And the schoolboy tricks–the endless sentence, for example–have attracted an equal number.  I’ve heard Molly’s monologue referred to as “that sentence”.

In contrast, Mrs. Dalloway is… properly experimental in form.  (No matter what we might think of the plot and its comparisons with Joyce today, we need to remember that Woolf was helping to build the foundations of modern fictional style.  Even if her work is dull by today’s standards, it is still hugely influential).  But it’s boring and unmemorable.

My conclusion is that Woolf encountered the same problems that Joyce did in the development of modernist literature: where to cut off the internal monologue to keep the reader from becoming bored.  Joyce decided to use the literary equivalent of clowns and dancing bears to keep his readers with him, while Woolf stuck strictly to the manifesto.

Joyce, apparently, chose more wisely.

So Woolf still has one book that I recommend heartily, A Room of One’s Own, but apart from that, I’ve been unimpressed by both her fiction and her criticism of others’ work.  Perhaps To the Lighthouse will change all that, but I’m much less enthusiastic about reading that than I was after reading A Room of One’s Own.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer with more than two hundred published stories.  His latest collection is Virtuoso, which you can check out here.

Celebrating the Human Need to Explain the Inexplicable

Umberto Eco

Ever since the first hominids developed language, humanity has felt the need to fill in those blank spaces on the map.  Whether that terra incognita was just across the next ridge or somewhere in the south seas, the profusion of legendary lands created to explain what might be there is stunning.

In fact, we still do it today: science fiction writers fill the darkness of space while, more metaphorically, spiritualists and fantasy writers try to satisfy people’s need to know what, if anything, happens when we die.

One of our favorite subjects here at CE is Umberto Eco (don’t believe us?  Look here or here or here) so we’re glad to say that he’s tackled the subject of legendary lands in his own inimitable fashion–namely in a medievalist and exhaustive way.

The Book of Legendary Lands - Umberto Eco

In The Book of Legendary Lands, he defines “legendary” as an inexistent place that, nevertheless, contemporary people actually believed in.  So you get an analysis that goes from the Garden of Eden to Hyperborea, from Atlantis to the Aryan kingdoms the Nazis wanted to believe in.

Now this is a hefty book, and Eco can often be quite… how to say this diplomatically?.. obscure in his wording when he wants to be, so I was expecting a long, plodding–albeit ultimately rewarding–read.

On that front, I was pleasantly surprised.  Eco, by his own admission, has a passion for the medieval that drove him in his career, and it comes through in his prose when working in that era.  The Name of the Rose became a bestseller not only because it was brilliant but because it was written in accessible (all things being relative, of course) language that allowed everyday readers to connect with the era and the characters.  It’s a beautiful book.

This one is also beautiful, with the added benefit that it’s lavishly illustrated.  As the text advances, you get contemporary illustrations, everything from medieval manuscript illuminations to paintings by Dante Gabriel Rosetti.  It’s quite the mix, but it works.

Of course, this is a book aimed at popular consumption, but it’s a scholarly work at the same time, researched by an expert whose loss the field won’t easily recover from.  Eco famously collected books of  what he called “fakes”, or things that were demonstrably untrue–this volume draws a lot from this.

Finally, perhaps most delightfully, Eco gives his own opinion on the wisdom of certain beliefs.  He’s understandably easier on the ancients–after all, science was still embryonic when they were creating Atlantis–but he comes down pretty heavily on Victorian mystics and Aryan cultists, as well as other modern actors.  Deservedly so.

In conclusion, find a copy of this book.  You will enjoy it, you will learn from it, and you will like the pretty pictures.  You can thank me in the comments.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of several novels set in places that don’t exist (or that don’t exist yet).  His novel of an Earth changed beyond recognition by humanity’s conscious choice to evolve, Outside, can be purchased here.

Modernizing the Disc

Terry Pratchett with OBE

One of the amazing things about Sir Terry Pratchett (lost, perhaps in the enormous litany of other amazing things about the man) is how open he was to allowing his greatest creation to change.

Pratchett’s Discworld is one of the most beloved fantasy worlds ever imagined.  It’s right up there with Middle-Earth and Hogwarts, and yet it goes about the task quite differently.

In Tolkien and Rowling’s world, the universe achieved perfection centuries or eons before the events that unfold in the books.  The characters are usually struggling to keep a way of life alive or–in the case of Tolkien–to return things to the state in which they were back in the good old days.  In both cases, evil is personified in the entity that wants to change it, to shatter that way of life.   In fact, though both Voldemort and Sauron (or Morgoth in the earlier mythology) are evil in other, more obvious ways, their true crime is to try to break the idyll.  It’s a pattern that writers in the literary genre use as well, though in the cases of Waugh, Bassani and Ishiguro they don’t bother to disguise the true nature of the evil.

Readers, of course, can identify and respond to the sense that all times in the past were better.

Pratchett, on the hand accepted none of the wallowing.  The Discworld might be sitting on a giant turtle, perched on the back of four elephants, but it is more flexible and realistic than most other fantasy worlds, because it changes.  And while I have an image of serious writers thinking about how serious issues in our world would be reflected in other places, I have an equally vivid image of Pratchett sitting around and saying… “I wonder how the nutjobs on the Disc would react to suddenly having guns?  Ooh, that could be fun to write.”

He wrote about guns.  He wrote about race relations.  He wrote about rock music.  He wrote about gender (quite a lot, actually).

And he didn’t do it as standalones that wouldn’t affect his other work, either; every single one of these issues changed the Discworld on a fundamental level, and Pratchett reflected that in later works.

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

The deepest change of all comes in Raising Steam, sadly the very last Pratchett book I will be reading for the first time.  In this one, he brings the Industrial Revolution to the Disc.  Everyone reading will know that the bucolic, strangely provincial life of even the most sophisticated Ankh-Morporkers are going to change forever, the lifestyle of the previous dozens of books will die away, blown through the desert by the winds of change.

And yet, you find yourself cheering the train-building heroes on.  Let them win, let them burn everything down and change it.  And lift a hat to a man whose courage, not just his talent, will be missed more than almost any other’s.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He doesn’t have any bestselling fantasy worlds to burn down, but if you like anachronism in service of comedy in your fantasy, he recommends the hotel credit card scene in his book The Malakiad.  Kindle / Paperback.

An Eclectic Review Publication

From the Earth to the Moon - Swimsuit scene

Anyone truly fascinated by literature, as I am, will, at some point (probably sooner than later) spend a certain amount of time reading critical work.  In my own case, it just felt like a natural progression from reading a lot to learning about the writing. Heck, I’ve even discussed some of these reads here on CE.

Likewise, the leap from reading criticism to writing it felt natural.  Although I still write a lot more fiction than criticism (what I do here on CE isn’t real criticism, it’s more an exercise in exteriorizing my own feelings about books without spoiling them for others).

The first inkling I had that my critical thoughts might be worthwhile to others was when I sent The New York Review of Science Fiction an article about the relative merits of science fiction in the West and behind the Iron Curtain in the sixties and seventies… and it was published.

The best part of that was that I received a short subscription to the magazine.  I downloaded the PDFs, printed them out… and was amazed.

The New York Review of Science Fiction logo

Here was no-holds-barred criticism about… everything and anything under the genre sun (suns?), some of it extremely tenuously linked to the genre, but all of it thoughtful.  The depth of scholarly musings on subjects that wouldn’t necessarily have occurred to me was simply stunning, and the concentration with which these publications had to be read surprised me.

I subsequently published another piece there, and received another subscription, so let me use those as an example of the kind of thing you’ll find there (the samples are from December 2016 and August 2017).

Apart from my own piece (about SFF in Brazil), you’ll find an analysis of Gregory Benford’s fiction looking at from a pure definition standpoint, as well as a scholarly search for the true origins of a vegetable caterpillar found in Ripley’s… and several literary examples thereof.  And these are just the cover stories of one of the issues!

The rabbit hole gets deeper, the scholarship becomes more specialized and you often find yourself reading about books you’re not familiar with… and writers you haven’t even heard of.

Sound like a recipe for boredom?

It isn’t.  Or at least it isn’t to me.  To me it’s the distilled essence of why I read in the SFF genre in the first place, a celebration of blurred boundaries between fantasy and reality as well as those between different literary genres.

I also understand why no less than the late, great Gardner Dozois always mentioned this publication in his annual Summation… and why he never failed to add the word “quirky” to his description.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose novella Branch is both quirky and thought-provoking.  You can check it out here.

Five Classic SF Novels From the Fifties

merican Science Fiction- Five Classic Novels 1956-58

Two (or possibly seven) American classics came together through sheer serendipity for me.  I was walking through the Strand bookstore in New York (can’t recall whether it was in the SF section or in the hardcover / special area near the checkout counter), and I found a copy of American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956-58. from the Library of America.

I love these Library of America editions for many reasons: price, presentation and, most importantly of all, the fact that they select only the cream of the crop.  Better still this copy, though pre-owned, didn’t appear to have been pre-read, so it was essentially like buying the book new.

But the important bit was the content.  Like it says on the tin, this contained five novels from a truly fruitful era of science fiction, written by five different men.  Here’s the list:

– Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein (this was the only one of the five that I’d read before)

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

A Case of Conscience by James Blish

Who? by Algis Budrys

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

merican Science Fiction- Five Classic Novels 1956-58 with Artwork!

By far and away, the most memorable of these, if not necessarily the best or most enjoyable is the Bester.  Some of this novel is extremely well done, and the parts that aren’t are, at least, laudable for attempting to do something different and audacious.

The main character is strikingly brutal, but then, the fifties were still an era where people understood the banal brutality of the common man, as opposed to what we do today which is to try to look for specific psychoses.  It’s interesting to realize just how effective dumb aggression from a man too underprivileged to know any better, but, at the same time too dogged to give up can be.  It’s also a reminder of why SF was more widely read back then than it is now – the heroes represented everyman, warts and all.  The poor unprivileged main character didn’t need to have a heart of gold… he could just be a guy doing the best that he could.

The part that isn’t brilliantly done is the whole time travel / trippy / ESP bit.  Of course, this was in vogue in the fifties, but it was not impressive sixty years later.  Still, a big book in its day, and still a staple of “best SF novel” lists, and of books like this one.

Who? and A Case of Conscience are tied as the next most memorable.  They are both deeply informed by the fears of the Cold War, and represent their time brilliantly, possibly even better than the Bester.  Staple reading for SF cognoscenti, and decent novels in themselves.

The Big Time is classic Leiber in the sense that he plays with boundaries of the genre and its rules as well as with history and time travel.  It is more fun than the others, and takes itself less seriously at the same time (which ends up making it a good book).  I found it slightly half-baked… and I think Leiber would agree, as he later expanded this concept.

The best of the bunch is still the Heinlein, even though it isn’t one of his “major” works.  Heinlein was just that good.

Most people who buy a book like this one will be general readers attracted to it by the fact that the works were selected by the Library of America.  They will come away with a critic’s-eye-view of what SF meant in the 1950s, and of five sociologically important books of the era.  Is it representative of what the public was reading?  Possibly, but it goes a lot further than that, too.

I heartily recommend this one to my readers who are looking for a good primer on science fiction.  If you share Margaret Atwood’s belief that science fiction is monsters and spaceships, you’ll be surprised by both the literary quality and the connection to the zeitgeist that this one displays.

And if you already like SF, chances are you may have overlooked these novels.  They are definitely worth knowing.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside is very much connected with the trends of the 21st century and explores the fears we have… or, at least, should have.

In Competition for the Best Novel of the 20th Century

Remains of the Day film Location

Sometimes it’s fun to join the argument.  The 20th century was an amazing time for the novel.  It was a mature form even as the century began, so practitioners weren’t having to make it up as they went along, so we didn’t get bogged down with things like the epistolary narrative in supposedly great literature.

This means that the century got off to a running start, but the truth is that it really hit its stride in the 1920s, which is where the lost generation comes in. Though Hemingway might not be in play for the greatest novel of the 20th century, Fitzgerald most certainly is, and prior to reading the subject of today’s post, I would have said that The Great Gatsby beat everyone else in the running by a few lengths.  It is, after all, a nearly perfect book.  It still has a partial lock on my vote.

There are generally a couple of other books that appear on every top ten list you can find: Lolita and Ulysses I’ve spoken about Ulysses elsewhere, so let’s discuss the Nabokov.

Lolita is an extremely well-written work, of course, but I do believe that the subject matter–a key part of its fame–lets it down slightly.  While most of us can relate to the characters in the Fitzgerald (in fact, other than the near-mythical Gatsby himself, it’s easy to imagine being any of the others), it takes a little more imagination to put oneself into old Humbert’s shoes.  Advantage Gatsby.

And then, after Lolita, the great works appear to have dried up.  Sixties rolled into seventies, rolled into eighties, rolled… wait a minute.  In 1989, a book came out that maybe, just maybe, could topple the king.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (Folio Society Edition)

That book is The Remains of the Day, by Englishman Kazuo Ishiguro, which won the Man Booker prize in the year it was published.

I normally don’t pay too much attention to the Booker, but man, this time they absolutely nailed it.

Half social commentary, half elegy for a simpler world, the story is absolutely taut and perfect. You feel for the character, feel for what he is going through, and understand that what seems monstrous to us is perfectly normal to the main character of this book, which acts as a multiplier to the emotional effect of the novel.

Where a book such as Brideshead Revisited (which, structurally is surprisingly similar–it looks back at many of the same things from approximately the same place in time) approaches the loss of innocence through the lens of youth, The Remains of the Day does so out of a place of maturity and by looking at a sense of duty and of the inevitable process of aging.  The understatement, the ambiguity and the fact that the writer lets us come to our own conclusions just makes the story all that more powerful.

The fact that I read the Folio Society edition of this one might have helped me enjoy it even more.  Some books require a beautiful edition while others–I’d put Neuromancer in that list–are better enjoyed in a smudged and broken mass market paperback.

Is it best of the 20th?  Only time will tell.  Gatsby has had nearly a hundred years to age, to consolidate its leadership and to fight off the Nabokov’s of this world.  Ulysses is a novel that defined its philosophical movement. The younger novel, on the other hand, ignores postmodernism to return to a more ancient state of the novel.  This makes it a stronger book, but it might also contribute to a failure to impress the critics as the last century fades further into the past.

It might be passed over, but I hope Ishiguro’s Nobel prize means that it won’t.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His book Outside deals with humanity and post-humanity in a world where almost nothing is quite what it seems.  You can have a look here.