fantasy

A Wonderful Cultural History Lesson

Several years ago–long before this blog was born–I stumbled upon a series of books that i absolutely love and that I dip into every once in a while, although I know them basically by heart.

These books were published in the early 2000s by Collector’s Press (which I can’t seem to find today, so perhaps they no longer exist): Fantasy of the Twentieth Century and Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century.  The fantasy volume in particular is spectacularly well-thought out, but both are good.

But I needed to complete the genre set.

Horror of the 20th Century.jpg

Horror of the Twentieth Century, written by Robert Weinberg, didn’t let me down.  Although it wasn’t quite up to the Fantasy volume (I am in awe of that one, it’s a wonderful history), it does an excellent job of tracking the literary and cinematic fortunes of the horror genre through the 1900s (and with a bit of history to set the stage).

Of the three genres, Horror is probably the one that, particularly in the first half of the 20th century survived because of the movies, and that is reflected particularly well in this book.  Also, the horror boom and crash are looked at long and hard, which is key to understanding the genre today.

Since I’m not a collector, the text is as important as the images here, but as a writer, it’s always fun to fantasize about what would have happened if I’d been active in any of the eras described within.  Would this or that Weird Tales cover have had my name on it, or, better still would I have rated a Hannes Bok cover painting?  Reading these books creates a tangible feeling of connection with the men and women writing in bygone eras, sometimes even more than reading the stories did.

For readers who aren’t writers, these books are just as good (probably even better, as there’s no pressure to compare yourself to the heroes of the past…) and it’s the kind of book you’ll find yourself pulling off the shelves whenever you have a few minutes of free time and the novel you’re reading just isn’t as engrossing as you wanted.

In short, this is a great primer for those just getting in to any of these genres, but it’s also the stuff experts’ dreams are made of.

Hugely recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is a collection of dark fiction which would fit beautifully within the volume we’re discussing.  It’s called Pale Reflection and you can buy it here.

The Art of Writing Adventure – Made Spectacularly Evident

There’s a rule to writing any kind of exciting fiction that says, and I paraphrase: “Put your here in a dangerous situation.  Then pile another complication on.  Then another.  Once we’re sure he will never get out, send in the zombies.”

I always thought this was a bit of an exaggeration, but in reading the first of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, Storm Front, I found that adage to fall well short of what Butcher does to his hero.

Jim Butcher - Dresden Files - Storm Front.jpg

Normally, I’d run, not walk away from a book that goes as far over the top as this one does with regards to ratcheting up the disaster but…

But Jim Butcher has rare talent.  His prose, and consequently, Harry Dresden’s voice in your head, is amazing.  The mix of desperation about what’s going to happen to him when the other shoe finishes dropping mixed with a kind of world-weary resignation makes the book impossible to put down.  Not only do you want to see how he gets out of it (there are a LOT of books in a series called the “Dresden Files”, so you kinda know he isn’t going to become monster food in the first book), but you are also infected with a morbid curiosity as to what else Butcher is going to do to him before the end.  (Pro-tip: Butcher is imaginative and sadistic.  Never make an enemy of that guy).

A second thing that made me love as opposed to loathe this one is that the noir sensibility erases any number of sins in my mind.  Give me a first-person private eye, even a magical one, and I’m pretty much going to enjoy it no matter what else you do.

So, simply put, despite seeing what Butcher was doing (obvious as it is, even a lot of non-writers are going to spot the technique), I loved every second and exaggerated crisis of this one, right until the fiery, demonic ending worthy of the troubles he’d gone through.

Job has nothing on this guy but, if I recall correctly, the book featuring Job sold pretty well. Dresden sells amazingly well, too.

My main regret is that I’m just getting to this now.  Hell, I’ve been a fan of Glen Cook’s Garrett series since before puberty, and this one should have been a no-brainer.  Yes, Cook is funnier than Butcher, but that’s no excuse for not having checked the Dresden Files out much sooner.

I have to thank a good friend and amazing beta-reader for gifting me this one (I always read my birthday gift books, because I like to see what people who know me think I’d enjoy).  Highly recommended, but, judging by the sales numbers, I guess everyone already knew that.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His novel Outside was well-received despite not having any magical detectives in it.  You can buy it here.

Off the Beaten Path Has Been Launched!!

Off the Beaten Path by Gustavo Bondoni

Most books have a story behind them.  This one is no exception.  When I started writing short fiction for publication, back in the mid-2000’s, there were very few people from the non-English part of the developing world writing original work in English.  Oh, some people were translating stuff that happened to land on their desk, but it was a scattershot effort.

So, mixed in with my more usual fare (fiction set in an American or Western European setting), I loved to change it up on editors a bit and drop my characters into unexpected places.  So you get a noirish dystopia in Namibia, a parrot story in New Zealand or a straight up SF espionage tale on the moon… in which two of the antagonists are India and China.

These stories sold, so I kept creating them until, almost without realizing it, I soon had enough for a book dedicated to just my published work that takes place, as the title suggests, off the beaten path of traditional SF.

And it just happened that I already worked with the perfect publisher for a book of this kind.  Guardbridge Books is based in Scotland, but has specialized, since its launch, in books from different cultures.  They had published my novel, Outside, and when I pitched the idea, they were delighted to have a look… and they, like the editors who’d bought the stories initially, also decided to publish.

Of course, they asked for a couple of new stories, which I was more than happy to write, and which round out the book wonderfully (of course I think that… I’m the author!).

So, that’s the genesis of this particular book.  Have a look!  Buy a copy!  Hell, buy multiple copies…  give one to all your friends.  Sign it and pretend I did it (I’ll back you up).

Anyway, you can buy the book on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble.  Let me know if you enjoyed it.

Possibly the Most Unusual Book You’ll Read

As a writer, I read in many genres, but SFF is closer to my heart than, say, the Romance genre.  I’ve read more widely in SFF than in many others so when there’s a fantasy classic that I haven’t read sitting on a used-bookstore shelf, I will usually grab it without hesitation.

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake, Introduced by Anthony Burgess

Titus Groan was one such book.  Mervyn Peake‘s Gormenghast Trilogy is considered a classic, and the edition I bought was introduced by none other than Anthony Burgess of A Clockwork Orange fame.

I was expecting the book to be ponderous and impenetrable, but I was surprised.  It’s not impenetrable in the least.  Unlike Lovecraft, who often laced his work with archaic or unusual language in an attempt to heighten the effect, Peake wrote in language perfectly modern for his day and age (1946), which makes the book much more of a pleasure for modern readers.

Of course, it’s still ponderous.  It’s ponderous in a way that few other novels would ever dare to be.  Peake was apparently convinced that you should never describe a person in one paragraph where four chapters would do the job just as well.

It’s hard to get used to but, to be fair, it’s this dogged insistence on creating mountains of words that gives the book its texture and which has established it as one of the genre’s classic works even without its having been widely read.  You get used to the pacing after a while, and what action there is is decisive enough that the story is also a satisfying read if you can stick with the pace.

Once you close that back cover on the completed book, you’ll find that the world around Gormenghast mountain is alive in your head and you miss it.  You might not immediately want to seek out the two sequels, but you certainly have a sense that, eventually, you will.

But that’s not what struck me most about the books, however.  What struck me most is that they’re not strictly fantasy.  If not for the fact that Gormenghast has never existed anywhere, Peake might easily have been writing about a lost kingdom in central Europe in the 19th Century, The Prisoner of Zenda isolated from the rest of civilization.  There is no science fictional explanation for the castle’s presence, and the only magic is a premonitory dream which might, or might not have been an actual premonition.

The literary world has classified it as fantasy, though I’m not sure whether Peake himself would agree with that assessment (I still need to read Gormenghast and Titus Alone, so they might clarify the situation).  He just needed a place where his characters could play out… and where it made sense to write seventeen pages describing the moss on a stone wall.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose latest book is a collection of fantasy and science fiction stories from places that aren’t usually represented in genre fiction–from African gorges to South American ghosts–entitled Off the Beaten Path.  You can check it out here.

 

A Genre Buffet

Some writers don’t read contributor’s copies.  Some even insist their agents send them cut sheets (just those pages in which their work appears).  I suppose that if you’re an Asimov type, who published 250 books and countless articles and short stories, that makes a lot of sense.

I, on the other hand, read every contributor’s copy that I receive.  However, they do go into my pile which–for reasons of sanity–is read in chronological order.  That means that a book from 2017 might get reviewed in mid 2019… such as is the case with this post.

The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Volume 2 - Robert N. Stephenson

There’s a reason I preface my review that way, and that’s because today’s book is The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Volume 2, edited by Robert N. Stephenson.  Fans of my fiction will be aware that I’ve already been published in volumes 3 and 4 of this series and have sold a story to volume 5, so it might seem strange that I’m writing about the second volume.  The above should clear that up.

Anyhow, what about the book?

After reading a lot of old automotive publications, it was a delight to get back to my favorite genres, and this book is a brilliant way to get a sprinkling of a little bit of everything.  From well-known masters of the field like James Van Pelt–whose work I reviewed for SF Reader a few years back and who contributed an evocative tale for this antho–, to people I recognize from sharing many tables of contents with, to names that were new to me, this one gives a nice overview of what the genre can do.  There’s definitely a bit of each genre, and also, the sub-genres that make the field so rich are well-displayed.

A veteran reader of the field can lose himself in this one and enjoy the take on each type, while a newcomer can actually use this book to understand what they like most about SFF and find more work along those lines.  It’s a wonderful volume.

What I liked most was the book’s adventure story par excellence.  “Mnemo’s Memory” by David Versace is a swashbuckling steampunk airship story of the kind they just don’t make any more… and it was utterly wonderful.  Of course, I tend to like my adventure, and Versace got it exactly right in this one.

So, recommended for anyone interested in the genre, both newbies and long-time fans.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a writer with over two hundred stories in print.  He has a new collection coming out in August, but if you can’t wait that long, his short fiction has been collected in Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places and in Virtuoso and Other Stories.

 

Interview with Christopher Schmitz, Author of Wolf of the Tesseract

We’ve got something a little different today, and hopefully the start of a new series here on Classically Educated: an author interview.  Joining us is Christopher Schmitz, author of Wolf of the Tesseract.

Christopher D Schmitz

CE: Tell us a bit about yourself outside of the writing world. Who is Christopher, what inspires him, what makes him tick.

CS: I’ve always been a storyteller (actually a reader, first) and love tabletop gaming. Besides reading comics, I also was a GM and did lots of RPG gaming for superhero games in high school and run gaming clubs for kids, locally, now as part of my youth work job (youth work is where my college degrees are.) I also enjoy music and have been known bring my bagpipes abroad (though I’m probably a better guitarist than I am piper).

 

CE: What drove you to begin writing?

CS: As a kid I always loved stories, and we got two TV stations if there was good weather, so I had to make up my own. In elementary school I wrote stories and even had a comic book I drew for classmates. I still have them. They were awful, but it was formative. I’ve always had an inner drive to create and self-identified as a story-teller. I grew up in the 1980s and had exposure to new and great stories of the era in comics, cartoons (He-Man and Thundercats!) and fiction was really coming into its own with new waves of fantasy and sci-fi.

 

CE: Which writers do you admire most? Are there any books you’d like to recommend to our readers (and for Classically Educated to review)?

CS: I’ve always been a Tolkien fiend, though I recognize that he’d probably never be published today with the changes to how we publish and consume stories nowadays. Recently I’ve gotten into Robert Jordan and Jim Butcher. I’m also a fan of Timothy Zahn and really like what James SA Corey is doing. Classically, I love Heinlen, Orwell, and have a soft spot for John Wyndham. I really think I need to put Herbert’s Dune on my list. Maybe I’ll eventually get around to it but I’ve only watched it as a movie and it’s probably a failing in me as a person.

 

CE: Tell us about your first publication – a lot of aspiring writers never make it that far, so inspiration is always welcome.

CS: I wanted to write in a shared universe—I was a Star Wars fiend for many years and had read every novel up through the Thrawn Duology. I even wrote most of a book (some of those elements were refurbished for my Dekker’s Dozen space opera series,) and it led me on a quest to discover how to get into the publishing world. In the early days of the internet companies still listed information on how to get in touch with them and I even got a hold of someone at Lucas’s companies who explained that writing in their shared universe was by invitation. I was nineteen at the time and she told me, “Successfully publish something original and get noticed—then people will come to you.” I started writing my original-concept fantasy series, The Kakos Realm. Of course, I did everything wrong to begin with and sketched out a 7 book story arc, writing mythopoeic notes like diet-tolkien. It was picked up by a small publisher that eventually sold to someone else who bought it to shutter the place. I got my rights back, wrote more, and released it as an indie title later. I learned a lot along the way and launched my blog several years ago with the express intent of sharing wisdom I gleaned from making wrong choices or getting good advice from fellow authors. Being an author is a long-term plan. It’s not something you can do to get rich, but every year I’ve done better than the last—and chiefly because I’m finding better and better resources to equip myself with.

Wolf of the Tesseract by Christopher Schmitz

CE: What inspired you to write Wolf of the Tesseract? Was it something you experienced? Something you read? A love of wolves?

CS: Wolf of the Tesseract is something I wrote specifically for the YA and up crowd. I wrote it as something of an homage to Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series. Of course, I threw in healthy doses of tropes found in the Masters of the Universe and Thundercats era cartoons (both of which got short-lived post-2000 reboots that were amazing and were dropped in idiotic moves reminiscent of the Firefly cancellation.) Anyway, I also added lycan/werewolves to the mix; as a teen I played a lot of World of Darkness stuff and have always loved the themes. After the first book was picked up by a traditional publisher and then went indie when my contract expired and I also released a sequel and a prequel comic book which I bring to the many comic cons that I attend as a guest or vendor. People can get that comic book for free as a digital download (plus other books) by joining my mailing list.

 

Thanks Christopher! Hope some of our readers will check out your books and sign up for the mailing list.  It does sound like something the eclectic crowd here would enjoy!

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.

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.

 

Writing in Several Genres, or Why Your Houseguests Might Find a Vampire Erotica Book in Your Living Room

cof

 

I write in a lot of genres.  Science fiction seems to be my main source of income, but I have written thrillers and fantasy, mainstream and horror.  I recently sold a crime story to Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine.

For the most part, the genres I write in reflect the genres I read in–it’s very difficult to meet readers’ expectations if you have no clue as to how your chosen genre works.  You need to know which rules to follow, which to break, and which your glowing, luminous prose can transcend (just kidding, but I do know a few authors who actually think this way although, in my opinion, their particular prose tends to be of the plodding, ponderous type).

And yet, I’ve sold a number of erotic tales over the course of my career, despite it never having been a genre I read widely–or much of it at all.  The book in the illustration, Blood in the Rain IV (buy it here!!!), is an anthology of erotic vampire tales that includes my story “We Sail by Night”, and a good illustration of the principle.  My novel Timeless also straddles the line between a regular thriller and the erotica section of the bookstore.  I have another novel making the rounds that goes a lot farther than just straddling a line… although I think of that one as more of a literary effort than an erotic novel.  There are a number of erotic stories of mine out there, too (here’s a short example).

So why?  What makes erotica something that creeps into the work of so many authors despite the certain knowledge that A) people aren’t going to want to buy children’s books from you if they find out about it and B) that a lot of readers don’t like sex in their stories.

I personally think it’s because of the universality of sex in human lives.  We all either practice the art or spend an unconscionably huge amount of time thinking about it.  It’s the origin of everyone around us, and it’s also one of our most interesting sources of recreation.  It applies to everyone.

And that makes it natural that it might creep into the work of your favorite author when you’re least expecting it.  You can read a hundred of my SF stories and not find more than an oblique reference to the fact that, at some point, some of the characters might consider jumping into bed with some of the other characters.  And then, you blithely come upon “We Sail by Night” or “Pacific Wind” and stop to scratch your head at the adult content.

Hopefully, at this point you’re thinking “wow, I never knew he could write sex so well” . and move along with the tale.

So why is my erotic work selling despite not reading all that much in the genre?  Again, I think it’s linked to the ubiquitous nature of sex in the human experience, something writers share with everyone else on the planet. Of course mileage and emotions differ from one reader to the next, but finding the common ground allows the writer–even the one new to the genre–to tap into that commonality.  If you can manage that, the story will work.

Of course, the true measure of a brilliant erotic tale is in the “one-handed-reading index”, but that is not something that readers ever send fan mail about, so it’s kind of hard to gauge…

On second thought, maybe we should limit that sort of correspondence to email… not sure I want to be handling letters about that subject matter.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest novel, Timeless, is a thriller about bestselling books, ancient monasteries and modern criminals.  You can buy it here.

Of Fun in Your Fiction

Revelation Space Alastair Reynolds

Tuesday’s post got me thinking about the kind of stuff I most enjoy reading.  A correct answer to the question “what is your favorite kind of book?” is a complex beast and probably depends on a myriad of factors – everything from my mood to the kind of novel I’m working at at the moment of answering the question.

Probably the kind of writing I enjoy most is the quintessentially British humor of authors like Wodehouse, Pratchett or Douglas Adams.  But I’ve read almost everything they’ve written, so that initial flash of wonder at their brilliance is no longer available.

On the other hand, I often enjoy a good dose of the classics, especially some of the 20th century greats (I especially recommend The Great Gatsby and The Remains of the Day).

Other days, I love nonfiction in various forms.

But if I had to be specific about one particular type of genre, I’d say I enjoy space opera and medieval-style fantasy.

Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

The fantasy is easy to explain.  Lord of the Rings is the benchmark there, and many of the doorstop series that began in the 1970s through 1990s followed the template.  They eschewed social questions to focus on the eternal battle between good and evil… and are all the better for it (Terry Brooks is probably the prototypical exponent of this, but Feist, Jordan and Eddings–before he became impossibly annoying–were good, too).  Escapist stuff, with little in the way of moral grey areas and absolutely no message fiction.  It’s lovely to read stuff in which politics are absent–I can always look at my Facebook feed if I happen to miss that (hint: not likely!).

Dune-Frank Herbert (1965) First_edition

Space Opera falls into a similar space, at least at novel and series length.  By its very nature, the subgenre deals with worlds so transformed by technology that current modes of thought and moral discussions are irrelevant.  This has the effect of making even the political considerations–and, as seen in the Dune series, politics can be used effectively–interesting, as opposed to yawn-inducing.

And it’s only in space opera that writer’s imaginations are fully unleashed.  The technology is so far from today’s stuff that it bends society and even what it means to be human beyond recognition.  If fantasy is escapist, then this takes escape to the next level.

Unfortunately, both genres (like everything else) are subject to the whims of fashion… and fashion is currently dictating two things:

  1. Medieval fantasy is wrong because the social and political structures necessary to make it believable (feudal class structure and a society where men do most of the fighting) are very much not in vogue today.
  2. It is compulsory for science fiction to focus on the next fifty to one hundred years.  And they must be shown as grim because capitalism will destroy us, and global warming will destroy us.

My only problem with the above is that those trends forget that SF became popular because, on one side, it was fun, and on the other, it presented ideas that caused people to say “wow”.

Fortunately, some writers have ignored the dictates above and are still writing about a post-Earth human future.  The old sense of wonder, more mature, more jaded and much more knowing, is still alive in these works.

I really don’t think yet another post-apocalyptic society based on egalitarian political thinking is going to create much of a sense of anything.  Ennui, maybe.  Extreme boredom, perhaps.

But nothing else.

As a genre, we really need to bring the fun back.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose best space opera is probably Siege.  You can check it out here.