classic Literature

London, Frozen in Time

For many of today’s globetrotters, London is a signature city, a mixture of modern design and old-world charm. They go there for reasons financial or for reasons advertising-related and see only the modern, progressive city of young, hip global citizens.  They never stop to think of what the new town was built on.

For readers of Dickens, however, London is a very different city.  For those of us who grew up with his fiction London will forever be the smoky motor of the industrial revolution, full of shady characters and dark, twisting alleys.  The vicissitudes of hipsters, no matter how many generations of hipsters, will never alter that reality.  (Also, filmmakers have gotten the message across as well).

Dickens' London by Charles Dickens

However, there is an even better window into the world Charles Dickens moved in than his novels.  He was also an essayist–well, his writings are almost essays and at the time, they were denominated “sketches”–of amazing note.  His “Sketches by Boz” and “the Uncommercial Traveler” actually made his name before Oliver Twist or David Copperfield turned him into a worldwide superstar.

And he deserved every accolade that these sketches sent his way, if the collection in the Folio Society volume entitled Dickens’ London is any indication (in case you’ve forgotten, we love the Folio Society’s beautiful books).  This book essentially brings together those essays of Dickens’, slightly satirical but still mostly true, that deal with life in the metropolis.  From the condemned cell of the jail (gaol, of course) to lonely midnight walks, it tells you just as much about the writer as it does about the town.  The full force of Dickens’ critical but affectionate relationship with London and with the common people who were its pulse, shines through clearly.

If you have an image of London that coincides with the modern city, this book will correct that error.  The way the great man interacts with the city will leave an indelible image than no amount of traveling in the modern “reality” will ever overcome.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His most popular book is a science fiction novel entitled Siege.  You can check it out here.

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Philip K. Dick Debut

OK, we’ve all seen Blade Runner.  Most of us have also watched the sequel… I remember liking it when I watched it.  The thing is that the movie, in my mind, is more of a collection of sensations, generating the same kind of feeling that noir film of the thirties did, than something I analyze as a piece of science fiction.

Now, I’ve read every major SF writer out there, in depth and in detail… except for Philip K. Dick.  Why?  I’m not sure.  I’ve had the Library of America PKD collection in my shopping cart for about a decade, but it always seems to get bumped out by something newer and shinier.

A Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick

But on my birthday a year ago, a friend gifted me A Maze of Death, one of his novels.

Let’s be clear, this book is not the conventional door into Dick.  That would probably be the novella that engendered Blade Runner: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  Additionally, this is a dark book, whose central theme–as foreshadowed by the title–is the human propensity to cause other people’s deaths.

So what did I think?

This boy has potential.  If even one of his minor works is so intriguing, I can’t help but think that his classics must be amazing indeed.

So let’s have a look at this one.  Without being overly spoilery, this one has three separate layers of reality all transpiring concurrently, of which one, in what, from what I’ve read online, is a typical display of Dick’s sense of humor, is only evident in the chapter list.

The book is interesting more on an intellectual level than as a typical literary enterprise.  The characters are, to put it mildly, unlikable, and they die in mostly uninspiring ways.  Nevertheless, the reader is always kept engaged by the underlying mystery.

The style–perhaps intentionally, I won’t be able to judge fully until I read more of the man’s work–reminds me more of the work of the fifties than the seventies.  It’s reminiscent of A Case of Conscience, or even Mission of Gravity.

So, as a corporate boss might say, this is a good start.  I still need to get my act together and read the meat of his output in order to give my loyal readers a better picture.  Stay tuned!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own exploration of the human psyche is strongest in his novel Outside.  You can check it out here.

The Great American SpecFic Novel

A few years ago, another writer compared me to Neil Gaiman.

That is the kind of thing that makes writers nervous.  Gaiman, of course, is almost universally revered as one of the masters of the craft.  One might not like his stories per se, but no one doubts his ability or his magnificent talent.  So comparisons with Gaiman tend to take the following form: “Unlike Neil Gaiman’s wonderful work, this writer’s tale…”

Fortunately, this particular writer only commented about the similarity of my hair in a photograph to the good Mr. Gaiman’s.  Even so, it was assumed that I was following in his footsteps…  If I recall correctly, the exact phrase was “did you steal Neil Gaiman’s hair?”  That is the power of Gaiman.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I’ve reviewed Gaiman’s work here before, but, as I mentioned then, still had to sink my teeth into his meatier offerings.  The Tenth Anniversary Edition of American Gods is about as meaty as they come.

So, does the man live up to the hype?  In a word, yes.

The talent is there.  The craft is there.  The concept of down-at-the-heels gods isn’t particularly new, of course (if you’ve read Douglas Adams’ Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, you’ll know exactly what I mean… and if you haven’t, do so immediately) but Gaiman creates a novel of ideas out of this particular well-plowed field.

It’s a big book in more than just heft.  The title of this post is not whimsical.  If we ever do get the Great American Novel, it will likely be structured in a similar way to this one.  It’s a road movie of a book, a sprawling exploration of what America means.  If it’s seen through the eyes of a foreigner, then all the better.  Lolita didn’t suffer for that, and American Gods doesn’t, either.

It’s a book that’s hard to put down, with a compelling plot driving it relentlessly forward, but that’s not what makes it great.  The greatness is in the little things, wonderfully turned phrases and scenes that, though slightly off from reality, are perfectly realized.  Some of those scenes promise to stick in the memory for a long, long time.

In conclusion?  You may or may not like this book, but you will agree with Gaiman apologists that the man deserves the accolades.  The craft and the talent herein are impeccable.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose gods also sometimes walk the earth, particularly in his novel of ancient Greece, The Malakiad.  You can check it out here.

In Order, No Less

Serial killers are fascinating to me only because of the obsessive quality of their work; I don’t really care for the actual murder part of it…  Which probably explains why I enjoy Agatha Christie’s work.  Her cases, though involving the sordid occurrence of the death of one or more human beings, always steer away from any suggestion of violence or mess:  “Ooh. There’s a cadaver, let’s see who made it.”

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

The ABC Murders, though not considered one of Christie’s best, is interesting as it brings Christie’s style to the personality of a serial killer.  The sequence of murders is in alphabetical order, and they are all announced by a note giving warning.

After that setup, however, the rest of the book is classic Christie.  Poirot enters stage right and, though others appear to be leading the investigation, takes command.  He guides us through the plot and reminds us to keep an open mind even when things appear to be leaning strongly in one direction.

His cryptic comments keeping everyone honest are the reason this one stays fair, and I’ll give it high marks in that regard.  Also, readability is supreme, as is the obsession factor to know whodunnit.  I read it in a single day, unable to go to bed without knowing how it finished.

High marks and a good place to keep going once you’ve read the obvious candidates (Roger Ackroyd, Orient Express).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose novel Outside is science fiction, but with an underlying mystery that should make Christie fans happy.  You can check it out here.

 

The Science Fiction of JRR Tolkien

Yes, I was surprised too.  Tolkien isn’t supposed to be a science fiction writer.  The received wisdom is that he left such trifles to the other Inklings, notably C.S. Lewis, who was a moderately successful exponent of the genre.

However, Papa Tolkien was more interested in SF than most modern students of his work know, and his fascination for the forms of the genre come through in a little-known work entitled The Notion Club Papers.

Interestingly, I came upon this piece not through a search for Tolkien’s SF but because several versions of The Notion Club Papers are included in Sauron Defeated, the ninth installment of The History of Middle Earth, which is also Volume 4 of the History of the Lord of the Rings.  To add to the fun, The Notion Club Papers is part of The History of Middle Earth, but Unrelated to The Lord of the Rings, despite being concurrently with it.  Confused yet?

sauron defeated_christopher tolkien

And while the text is related to the goings-on in Middle-Earth, and therefore possibly fantasy, the framework in which it’s couched is definitely SF.  The story is that the papers are “discovered” in the 21st century after having been composed–documenting the goings-on of a club similar to the Inklings–in the 1980s.  Both of these dates were in Tolkien’s future, of course.

The most interesting part of the papers (aside from the way they segue into the Silmarillion story) is a discussion about the fact that science fiction fails as a genre because the need for a space-ship defies the suspension of disbelief.  Science Fiction (called scientifiction throughout) has merit as a way to explore societies real ills through the lens of a different world, but the act of getting to that other world is what destroys the illusion.

The conclusion they reach is that the only realistic way to reach far-off lands is to travel in the mind, in dreams or somesuch.

That’s a head-scratcher for sure, but there you go.

All in all, this is a brilliant piece of insight into Tolkien’s thinking, and, as a bonus, it also includes the concluding textual history of The Return of the King (see here for more), as well as some other texts linked to the Silmarillion story.

But, after reading his SF, it’s just as well that old Papa Tolkien concentrated on fantasy…  his talents weren’t in the scientifiction realm.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is a thriller entitled Timeless. You can check it out here.

 

Living Right on the Boundary: Yet More Penguin Science Fiction

Yet More Penguin Science Fiction - Edited by Brian Aldiss

I recently purchased yet another old collection of science fiction stories.  Anthologies are the one thing I simply can’t resist, especially if they include major figures such as Brunner and Clarke.  I’ll even buy them if they’re edited by Judith Merril, whose selections normally leave me scratching my head.

So I bought Yet More Penguin Science Fiction by Brian Aldiss, and it eventually cycled to the top of my TBR pile.

Now, I was curious about what this one would look like.  Aldiss, after all, was smack in the middle of the New Wave, which I didn’t much enjoy.  But 1964 was pretty early in the game when it came to the New Wave, so there was hope for this antho.

I wasn’t disappointed.  This one if full of stories from top writers, adding Kornbluth, Blish, Van Vogt, Walter Miller Jr., Tenn and Knight to the aforementioned Clarke and Brunner.  Best of all, though the tendrils of what later became the New Wave had not yet become pervasive, and the stories could easily be considered “late Golden Age” tales – with literary sensibilities, but still putting the ideas and the story first.  Even James Blish managed to write an idea-driven story without losing itself in too much introspection (although he was close).

A couple were somewhat predictable, although whether this is because of the fact that they were obvious in their day or that the genre later imitated them to death, I can’t really say, but the rest were more readable than what I expected from SF from the sixties, although the Tenn, “Eastward Ho!”, probably interesting and groundbreaking in its day, has the unfortunate distinction of foreshadowing today’s identity-politics-driven SF.

On the other hand, Kornbluth’s “MS Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie” is both experimental and interesting.  “The Rescuer” (Porges) was one of the predictable ones, but likely groundbreaking in its own time.

Interestingly, the best story in the book was by a lesser-known writer called Theodore Cogswell, whose “The Wall Around the World” definitely deserved its lead spot in the antho.

If you only have money for one antho from a fifty-odd years ago, buy 17 x Infinity.  But if you happen to run across this one, it’s an interesting snapshot of a time of transition which also holds some fun stories.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine Novelist and short story writer whose latest Science Fiction novel is Outside.  Check it out here!

The Reasons We Write – Yet Another Take

Writer at a Typewriter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moby Dick - Herman Melville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Waving to the New-New Wave

science-fiction-bookshelf

As a kid, I loved going to the bookstore.  We had a Walden Books in the open mall where my mom would go to Kroger, so that is the one I would frequent.  When we first arrived in the US, my interest was in Hardy Boys, but I soon graduated to the science fiction section.

This part of the bookstore was dominated by names such as Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke,  even Silverberg… the gilded voices of the Golden Age.  These were the giants of the time when science fiction was finding its feet, establishing the things that would define it.  They were the men who ruled, uncontested, until the New Wave toppled them from their throne in the 1960s.

That is the narrative, of course.  The reality is that I was a kid in the 1980s, and none of these guys had been toppled.  They still ruled the roost as if the New Wave never happened.

Yes, I’ve discussed the New Wave here before, but never in the context of it’s effect on the genre of the 1980s and 1990s.

First, some context.  If you ask someone about the New Wave today, they will likely say that it marked the end of Campbell’s influence on the genre, and paved the way for today’s more character-driven and literary work.

There may be some truth in this… but it certainly isn’t 100% correct.  The reality on the ground in the 1980s was that the New Wave had pretty much been beaten back by the old guard by the time I started paying attention to science fiction.  Yes, some of the names from the sixties consolidated their places (notably Frank Herbert and Ursula K. LeGuin, with Philip José Farmer a lesser name), but for the most part, the blip had been neutralized, and the rest of the best-sellers were newer names such as Orson Scott Card and Larry Niven.

Girl Looking at stars

Even the writing style had gone back from the convoluted literary muddiness of Judith Merril’s anthologies to a more direct type of narrative with a  focus on story.  Had some of the character-driven sensibilities remained?  Yes, those had survived, everyone appeared to agree that they were a good idea… but the other stuff was discarded as soon as editors realized that readers hated it.

The eighties and the nineties, therefore, were good epochs for SF literature.  The genre sold well, and new readers arrived.

With the turn of the century, however, another shift occurred, a new New Wave, if you like.  SF became more politicized (it was always political, of course) and the sensibilities looked to the literary and experimental once more.  Slipstream flourished, straight idea-driven stories became anathema.  Some misguided souls began using the term “Golden Age” as a kind of benevolent insult.

The main result of this trend was actually a rise in fantasy sales.  People such as Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind and even George R.R. Martin benefitted.  They were telling straightforward stories of action and adventure in the traditional mold without looking to challenge or subvert anything… and readers flocked to them in droves.  They still do, in fact.  Harry Potter was also a product of this time.  No one will call Hogwarts progressive, but it certainly did become the darling of supposedly super-progressive Millennials…

Meanwhile, Science Fiction asphyxiated under the heavy yoke of literary writing, and split into factions (the Sad Puppies appeared to try to bring it back, but that effort was, at best, misguided), each of which defends their turf with rabid aggression.

Will any of today’s “superstars” be remembered in the 2030s or will they fall by the wayside the way the writers from the sixties did?  I think most of what is happening today will be forgotten as soon as Elon Musk establishes his Mars colony and people become fascinated with progress and ideas again (as opposed to the current preoccupation with politicizing even the tiniest of human interactions and navel-gazing).  When humans remember why we admire individuals with drive and initiative who push the species forward, SF literature will reverse its current trend towards utter boredom and resurge like the phoenix.

But even twenty years from now, the stuff written today will still be around so that future readers can look at it and scratch their heads much like I do when I read a lot of what came out of the sixties.  At the very least, today’s trends will serve as a reminder of how interesting dead ends can be.

 

Gustavo Bondoni has never been accused of being overly literary.  His latest novel, Timeless, is a romantic thriller in the mold of Sidney Sheldon.  You can check it out here.

Groff Conklin Saves the Day

There are few experiences quite as disheartening as discovering that a genre you love had some growing pains.  Unfortunately, most things worth having suffered at some point, and science fiction, quite obviously, was not the exception.

The genres dark ages happened in the sixties and seventies.  Riding a wave of enthusiasm derived from the Pulp Era and the Golden Age, science fiction hit the days of hippies, pop culture and Vietnam with a resounding thud, and something called the New Wave.

Now, as someone who entered the genre in the 1980s, I was surprised to learn about this.  To me, science fiction was Clarke, Heinlein and especially Asimov, three men who dominated the field in 1987 or so, just as they did in the fifties.  To anyone joining then, it was as if the New Wave never happened.  It’s still kind of that way today, except that all of us recognize that New Wave sensibilities did give us one colossus of the genre, Dune, and another literary great, LeGuin.  Other than that, it has mostly been forgotten.

But the anthologies are still out there, places where one can see the atrocities perpetrated against the genre in all their unfortunate luridity.  Perhaps the greatest of the criminals against genre during the New Wave era was Judith Merril.  At the time a respected anthologist, her collections tend to be strings of empty stories that mainly paid homage to the times and have little lasting value.

Unfortunately, she was also quite prolific, and she compiled a lot of the era’s “Year’s Best” collections, so she’s the first anthologist you’re likely to encounter, and the one that will form your view.

The Best of Sci-Fi- 17 x Infinity - Edited by Groff Conklin

All of the above is just a very long-winded way of saying that when I picked up The Best of Sci-Fi 17 x Infinity, published in 1963, I was expecting more of the same.  Pop-minded crap where density of composition attempted to hide a lack of originality and ideas… boy was I mistaken.

This one actually covers much more ground than other anthos of the era, and includes stories by such colossi as Rudyard Kipling and E. M. Forster.  And before you ask, these aren’t stories “considered” to be science fiction – these are straight SF yarns with no excuses given; cover the writer’s name, and you’d guess Golden Age Astounding.

When you add in more modern authors such as Asimov, Herbert, Bradbury Pohl and Sturgeon it becomes… well, quite simply, this was one of the best SF anthos I’ve ever read.  Perhaps not cutting edge by modern standards, it was a breeze to read… which is the way to know you’re enjoying something.

Favorite tale was probably Herbert’s, which was funny as hell and would probably cause a few interesting meltdowns if someone published it today… which is always a plus.

Track this one down and get a copy.  It’s probably only worth a couple of dollars at your friendly neighborhood used book store.  You’ll enjoy this one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest book – Timeless – was recently released.  You can check it out here.

For Those Who Like Extreme Science in their Science Fiction

Hal Clement - Penguin - Mission of Gravity

I’m on a bit of a science fiction classics binge, which is always an enjoyable place to be…  After not one but two issues of the old Astounding Stories, I moved on to Mission of Gravity, a novel which, fittingly enough, was published in Astounding in 1953.  Since then, it has appeared often in book form, and was even published by Penguin, which I have always found, albeit with a few exceptions, to be a harbinger of at least some literary merit.

This novel delivers a fascinating, if not particularly tense, tale of space exploration at the limits of known science, and takes place on a hugely massive planet spinning at a crazy rate, which does some very interesting things to the gravity.

The main characters are the inhabitants of that world, and it’s interesting to watch how they’ve adapted to the conditions prevalent on their planet and how they respond to the presence of human explorers who have a problem that they can’t solve themselves.  Making a scenario this alien believable is probably Clement’s strongest point in this book.

I’m also interested in the fact that the author doesn’t stop to explain the physics.  If you don’t know how to recognize the symptoms of high spin or the effects of high gravity, then you’ll miss a whole lot of this.  Perhaps the book was most interesting as an indictment of today’s more lenient and easier education systems.  Sixty years ago, authors assumed science knowledge that would cause a lot of genre readers to stumble and grumble today.  Ouch.

Anyhow, it does dive into science, so might not be everyone’s cup of tea in this slipstream and “soft science is just as respectable as hard science” day and age, but it’s certainly a shining example of the breed.  And unlike the character studies currently in vogue, I’ll actually remember this one in a few years’ time – that’s because SF is the literature of ideas, and the ideas in this one are actually kinda interesting.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose latest novel, Timeless is a thriller about a journalist.  You can have a look at it here.