Literature

Who Says Cyberpunk is Dead?

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

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

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

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

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

Write Ahead : The Future Looms Volume 2

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

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

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

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

 

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

Poirot, Like a Breath of Fresh Air

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

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

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

Evil Under the Sun - Agatha Christie

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

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

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

 

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

Tommy and Tuppence Again

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

By the Pricking of my Thumbs - Agatha Christie

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The Long Shadow of Coincidence

It’s unusual for me not to enjoy an Agatha Christie book.  Most of them are really good, and I’ve only found one that I really didn’t like.

Now, I can add one that wasn’t bad, just mediocre, to the list.

Postern of Fate - Agatha Christie

If this book is typical (it may not be) Tommy and Tuppence are certainly not among Christie’s greatest creation.  They certainly didn’t inspire me anywhere near as much as a Marple adventure would, and we can’t even begin to compare them to the great Poirot.

The one good thing you can say about this book is that Christie’s overarching mastery of both the craft of writing and literature itself comes to the fore and makes the act of reading pleasurable, kind of like digging for diamonds.  Had work, but ultimately profitable.

Unfortunately, the mystery itself is well-titled.  Fate intervenes when a house purchase leads the duo to an ancient mystery with ramifications that come to the present day (1974 in this particular case).

With the victim dead ages ago, the plot loses some of its immediacy, and the ending was ultimately unsatisfying.  There is no way for the reader to try to guess who the guilty parties are… because the shadowy people behind everything don’t appear and are never named.

Definitely one of her weaker books, albeit one that is extremely erudite.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own foray into crime fiction, Timeless is a fast-paced thriller entitled Timeless.  You can check it out here.

The Dreamlike Apocalypse

The two most important trends I’v seen recently in modern science fiction are a tendency towards a much more literary style of writing and an equally strong tendency towards eschewing far-future space-based scenarios for near-future dystopias.

Few books embrace both these trends as completely as Eliza Mood’s O Man of Clay.

O Man of Clay - Eliza Mood

Set in a post-global-warming England in a town half-submerged under the rising sea, the book tracks two women and one man as they navigate, each in their own way, the new reality of scarcity, radiation and pollution.

But it’s the way this book is written that sets it apart.  Within the linear structure following the main character, a young girl who lives outside the new society starting to form, we get flashbacks into the life of the antagonist, a former prisoner in a Siberian camp.

To make things a little more interesting, some of the characters are not perfectly aware of who they are, others are totally confused about what year it is and the only one thinking clearly is expressly trying to avoid the rest of them.

The fact that the writer managed to keep the threads advancing coherently and not have the whole thing unravel on her qualifies this book as a writing tour-de-force.  This is the kind of book that will appeal quite strongly to those who enjoy the more literary aspects of genre work, as well as a different look at a post-apocalyptic society.

Those who love deciphering themes in their fiction will enjoy it as well.  It comments on both authoritarian régimes and capitalism overtly (and, in a nice change of pace from usual practice, it attacks them both), but there are several other things to find.

The characters don’t act like characters.  They act like people.  Unbalanced, obsessive people from a Russian novel, perhaps, but definitely not characters.

This is a book for those who want to be one step ahead of the bleeding edge: post-apoc, dark and literary to a degree seldom seen.  If that describes you, I recommend it wholeheartedly.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His science fiction book Outside deals with some of the same themes, but very differently.  You can check it out here.

Old-School Fun

Back when I started publishing regularly in science fiction and fantasy magazines in the late 2000s (does anyone say the “noughts” any more?), there were a lot of large format perfect-bound magazines out there which took advantage of then-new print-on-demand publishing technologies.

These mags contained fiction, poetry, art and even comics.  They were a lot of entertainment for the money.

But not many of them survived for very long, which is why horror magazine Night to Dawn is such a refreshing reminder of how things used to be.

Night to Dawn Issue 35 - April 2019

I received my contributors’ copy of Night to Dawn 35 because it contains my vampire story “Neurosis and the Undead”, and read through it, savoring the sense of being back in 2010–which, in this case, is a good thing.

For starters, there were a LOT of vampire stories in this magazine (I suppose the title of the publication should make one expect that) which is surprising in modern times.  Vampires, the common wisdom contends, are overdone.  I argue that vampires might have been popular, but they were popular for a reason: they are fascinating creatures, and you can always tell a new and different story about them.

Next, there are many, many interior illustrations of the black and white type we always loved in an earlier generation (think 1960s / 80s) but which you almost never see anymore.

And then there is the fiction.

Many outlets for short fiction, especially in small press, are essentially a mouthpiece for political pandering.  The stories therein might be better or worse, but they are often selected for criteria of ideological homogeneity or an attempt to ensure that the table of contents is populated by the correct demographic instad of quality (I won’t get into any arguments here about why this is wrong.  If Stephen King is taken to task for arguing that quality is more important than any other criteria, I don’t even want to imagine what Twitter would do to me).

Night to Dawn is refreshing in this sense as well.  The stories are diverse in the best sense of the word, meaning that they are different from each other.  Some seem to lean progressive, some a little more conservative.  It’s quite clear that the attempt here wasn’t to line up a point of view but to select the best possible stories for publication.

Whether that is successful or not will depend on the taste of the reader.  Most likely, in an eclectic mix like this one, you’ll enjoy some more than others.  Most intriguing to me was “Therapy for a Vampire” by Margaret L. Carter (this one is a serial, so I don’t know if the ending is as good as the setup).  I also enjoyed “My Zombie Valentine” by Roxanne Dent and “Professor Zapfman’s Miraculous Galvanic Apparatus” by Bernie Mojzes.  Your mileage will vary depending on your tastes, of course.

So if you miss the old-school style of horror, this one just might be for you.  I encourage you to have a look.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose darker fantasy is collected in the ebook Pale Reflection.  You can check it out here.

A Magazine About Creating Beauty

One of the nice things abut buying books from Folio Society is that they send you little gifts with the books.  My personal favorite is the annual Folio Diary, but another wonderful little gift is Folio, the company’s magazine.

Folio Magazine - August 2018

This magazine is about what you’d expect from the house organ of a company dedicated to creating beautiful publications (and one which I’ve featured before).  It’s a bit of an advertising piece disguised as a self-indulgent series of interviews of creators, behind-the-scenes look at how the final products are made and paeans to the finished product.

It is an utterly wonderful read.

The images of Folio artwork in this edition (Autumn 2018), are wonderful.  The central topic is the Folio edition of Atlas Shrugged, which, love it or loathe it, is undoubtedly a hugely important book that seems even more relevant to political discourse today than when it was first published.  Politics aside, Folio’s artwork is a wink and a nod to the era in which it was published, and takes us back to the glories of the Art Deco age.  It’s like standing in the lobby of the Chrysler Building.

But that’s not the only article.  Food, mythological beasts and murder mysteries are all illustrated in the pages of this publication, because they are also illustrated in the books the magazine is trying to sell.  You get a look at the creative process behind the art, a guided tour given by editors and just a general sense of the loving way the books are put together.

Probably the most effective piece of advertising I’ve ever been exposed to.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose literary collection of linked short stories is entitled Love and Death.  You can buy it here.

A Reasonable Voice from the Past

As someone who already has way too many hobbies, I avoid politics like the plague.  My main exposure to politics in those times when Argentina is not close to a national election (one month every couple of years where you can’t listen to the radio in the car without being bombarded) is on social media.

I watch in amusement and horror as lunatics on the left and right register their unworkable, extremist views for all to see.  The arguments between left and right are always fun, but those between left and left are usually the best of all.  Since history tends to argue hard against the more extreme forms of socialism, these tend togo down some spectacular theoretic rabbit holes.  Anyone caught arguing for common sense, moderation or even a slightly less fantastic dogma is vilified and is subjected to one of those famous internet pile-ons.

All of this has led me to believe one of the old jokes from the right, the one that states that the preferred battle formation of the far left is the circular firing squad.

And it’s always been that way.  It’s popular among the ignorant (or the unscrupulous with a political axe to grind) to speak of George Orwell‘s Animal Farm or 1984 as allegories against capitalism, but the truth is they are both direct strikes at the heart of the Soviet Communism in the 1940s written by the most famous overtly socialist writer of the 20th century.

No one would say these were measured strikes.  But Orwell was capable of subtlety, too.

Down and Out in Paris And London - George Orwell

Which neatly brings us to this.  Down and Out in Paris and London is also by George Orwell, and it is also a book which looks to further his socialist agenda.  But instead of attacking his enemies within the party using bitter satire, he uses the one tool that is always effective, even with people who don’t share his views: promoting understanding.

He, the gentleman writer of impeccable breeding, credentials and education, takes us on a guided, first-person tour of life in the lowest slums of Paris, displays how to get work as a kitchen helper and then joins the tramps of the London environs.  The difficult nature of these lives is brought to life in his words–it’s not a coincidence that Orwell is a celebrated novelist; regardless of subject matter, his writing brings the action to life.

There isn’t much plot to speak of, of course, as this is mainly a descriptive exercise, but it is still packed with incident.  Even better, it is a mix of nostalgia in the vein of In Search of England with a reveal of a social class the book’s readers will be unfamiliar with (as will all modern readers, since the life depicted therein no longer exists).

In a world where it seems that the accepted way for politics or activism to be discussed is with anger and the utter denial that an opponent might have any good qualities, books like these (see also  remind us that public discourse was once the province of people with intelligent arguments.  Remember those days?  Now it seems to be the place for people who only read things that agree with their point of view and let their little, inconsequential echo chambers and their confirmation bias do the rest. (and end up with conclusions like Trump wants to be dictator for life and Bernie is a communist who wants to put everyone on collective farms).

Social conditions have changed for the much better since this book was released.  There is no post-war scarcity, and the world is mostly democratic today, but the book still resonates.  Apparently, unlike social media controversies, good writing and clear thinking are timeless.

The edition I read was–ironically–a Folio Society book (ironically because reading socialist books in luxury editions seems somehow wrong).  I can’t post a link here because it’s no longer available from Folio, but I do recommend tracking down a copy as the reading experience is certainly better than what you’d get from cramped text and yellowed paper.  Besides, buying this one second hand seems perfect, considering the subject matter.

Highly recommended, even–perhaps especially–if the online screaming has turned you off politics forever.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love and Death intertwines stories to form a novel spanning generations and crossing social barriers.  You can buy it here.

Horror for the Literati

Like erotica, horror is another genre I don’t read as often as I do science fiction, crime/thrillers or fantasy.  It’s not that I don’t like it, but I often relegate purchases because a shiny new discovery in a different genre beckons.

That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in it.  Quite the contrary.  I like reading the stories and watching the movies, and I should probably do it more often, especially since my fantasy fiction has a tendency to run, terrified and screaming, right over the boundary between fantasy and horror.

One good reason to read more horror is that I wouldn’t be surprised when an antho breaks the tropes.

Let me explain.  When I have read horror, at least modern horror, I have found it to fall in a certain box: thrilling, terrifying and unafraid to use a certain amount of shock value to drive the point home.  This goes for Stephen King, and it also goes for the books I receive in which my own stories appear.

Enter Re-Terrify.

Re-Terrify Anthology

Edited by Kelly A. Harmon and Vonnie Winslow Crist, this one surprised me.  Yes, it’s undoubtedly a horror antho, but it aims for a very literate approach to the genre.  If you like gore or extreme terror, this isn’t the right place for it; it has its frights, but builds up to them like MR James more than Friday the 13th.

The final effect is powerful.  There was only one story I didn’t like (not awful, but a little weaker than the others), and it was buried almost in the exact center of the book, which seems to indicate the editors had some misgivings about it, too.  The rest, reprints all, from the 1950s to the 2010s (mostly from the 2010s), showed why they’ve been selected by editors at least twice.  They are uniformly good, and written to a truly high standard, generating horror without being blunt about it. (disclaimer – this is a contributor’s copy, meaning that there’s one of my stories in there… so I might not be completely objective, but I truly did like them all!).

Another thing this one has going for it is that it’s just a horror antho.  Not a horror fairy antho or a werewolf book or a slasher volume.  There’s a little of everything in here, even horror-sf, so you won’t get bored of ploughing the same furrow.

One story, though maybe not the best, was definitely memorable, above and beyond the norm, and that one was “Uncle Sharlevoix’s Epidermis”, by Gregory L. Norris, which was creepy and imaginative, even though the ending is in the classic style.

The rest are all good, and I’m pretty sure you’ll have a different favorite, so go out there and buy yourself a copy.  You will enjoy this one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest collection Pale Reflection, pretty much defines dark fantasy.  You can buy it here.

A Flat Detective

It should have been a match made in heaven.  Murder mysteries are one of my favorite genres.  Italy is one of my favorite places on earth.  And Sicily is just paradise if you happen to like the same kinds of places that I do.

And yet something failed to click.

The Age of Doubt - Inspector Montalbano - Andrea Camilleri.jpg

The Age of Doubt is a book by Andrea Camilleri in the Inspector Montalbano series.  I had seen the Montalbano series on TV a few years ago, and the series hadn’t really caught my attention (I’m much less of a series watcher than I am a series reader), but this was my first exposure to the author’s writing.

I was unimpressed, mainly because, unlike Fred Vargas’ Adamsberg, I found the inspector to be utterly annoying in his insecurity and strangely adolescent (or perhaps even pre-teen-girl-like) in his emotional responses to pretty much everything going on around him.

At first, I was tempted to blame the translator, as I wasn’t terribly impressed with the prose even before encountering the emotional issues, but once I saw how childishly emotions were rendered, I’m giving the translator a pass.  For all I know, this is a faithful rendering of the original Italian (I can read Italian, but not well enough to judge prose quality, unfortunately).

These are small irritants, of course.  The overall review of this book is that it’s an interesting murder mystery with a melodramatic ending.  I personally found the Inspector’s emotional inner monologue to be an irritant, but others obviously enjoy it.

This series can’t be dismissed, as the late Gardner Dozois famously did every year to the even later Martin H. Greenbergs’ anthologies, as “pleasant but minor”, as it is already a worldwide bestselling publishing phenomenon.  So I’ll limit myself to saying that I prefer my investigators to have different neuroses, treated differently, and leave it at that.  If you prefer a touch of overwrought melodrama, this might be just the series for you.

In my opinion, there are better crime novels among the millions of options out there.  Your mileage may vary.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose crime novel Timeless is a fast-paced, sexy thriller.  You can buy it here.