Literature

Revisiting McCarthyism – Seventy Years on

The Red Scares of the immediate postwar era are notorious as twentieth-century witch hunts, and rightfully so.  There were many reasons they ended up reviled, but mainly it was because they mimicked the methods of the very people they were out to get.  When democracy looks like communism and attempts to pit neighbor against neighbor and rumor against rumor in the time-honored socialist way, something has gone very wrong somewhere.

Worse for McCarthy and his band, we now have hindsight to aid us.  We know that, even dominating half the world as they did until 1990, communism just isn’t sustainable and eventually collapses under the weight of its own grey hopelessness.  McCarthy didn’t have that advantage, or he would just have stayed home with a smug look on his face.  Or maybe that kind of personality would have annoyed a different group.

For a modern audience, it’s hard to understand what the general public would have felt at the time, or to be objective.  The weight of history (and of often left-leaning historians) has given its verdict and McCarthy has joined the ranks of the vilified.

But he had real support, from intelligent, thinking people.  And if you read into the times, you’ll probably come to a different conclusion: that McCarthy was doing a necessary job, and his true crime was ignoring due process.

A good way to analyze this kind of thing is to read the popular fiction of the day (don’t waste your time with modern revisionist stuff as they have the same preconceptions you do).

neither-five-nor-three-helen-macinnes.jpg

My demolished paperback copy of Neither Five nor Three by Helen MacInnes was in the same batch of 1970s’ paperbacks I’ve been reading through lately.  Nevertheless, it was written in 1951 (also, the paperback is from 1985).  This means that we can have a taste of the 1950s with the unmistakable  experience of the crumbling acidic paper of the eighties.

But it’s the 1950s insight that matters, and MacInnes is supremely qualified to give a more accurate picture than the one that has reached us.  She was both an academic and an intelligence officer, and therefore very much attuned to the question of communism in both academic and other circles.

So even if her book offends our modern preconceptions, the smart money is on her being right and our preconceptions being wrong.  That’s especially true if you feel very strongly about the subject one way or the other.

Basically MacInnes’ book postulates that the communist party in America was going to try to gain ascendancy by taking over editorial positions in American written media and, from those jobs, select the writers and viewpoints that would be printed therein.  Our heroes, as befits a novel of the era, are out to stop them.

This is the part where the cries of McCarthyism come in, but again, I assume MacInnes was right and we are wrong.  It certainly does seem plausible.

But more than plausible, it’s prescient.  In our current world, political parties on both sides of the spectrum do exactly this.  Impartial news is nearly impossible to find, and news outlets are no longer serious because… well, because exactly the scenario MacInnes was warning us about seventy years ago has come to pass.  Try selling a story about the successful application of free market thinking to The New York Times.  Or a heartwarming story about a commune giving out free milk to Fox News.

Of course, the left is much more likely to do this kind of thing (one of the tenets of communism was that everything was done for the state and for socialism, while democracy tends to focus on self-realization first), but everyone has learned the lessons.

I recommend this book as a must-read to anyone who wants to understand the current world.  MacInnes’ heroes might have won in the book, but when you see that some people mistake The Huffington Post (or Fox News or… insert your own pet peeve here) for actual information, you realize that, in real life, the good guys lost.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His own take on how the world can go to hell in a digital hand basket… and of what happens after that, is called Outside.  You can check it out here.

Literature was More Fun in the Seventies

Whenever possible, I try to go through my to-be-read pile in the order in which I acquired or borrowed the books.  Though this sounds incredibly obsessive, and probably is, I’ve found that it helps me to actually read all the stuff I lay my hands on.  Otherwise, I’d immediately read the shiny new stuff and some books would wallow in the pile forever.

But that method also means that stuff tends to come in thematic clumps.  If I happened to swing by a science fiction con, I will have a pile of SF books to read.  If I did an Amazon order, it’s likely that the books will all be from series I’m in the middle of.

This time, I’ve hit a patch of trashy 1970s paperbacks.  They are trashy both because of the quality of the printed object itself (acidic paper seemed to reach its peak in the 70s) as well as for the writing.  By looking at the covers, I’m guessing that there aren’t many literary pretentions in this lot.

But when I read the first, I was immediately delighted to have landed in this batch.

Toll for the Brave - Jack Higgins

Jack Higgins is not a writer I was familiar with (although I later realized that he wrote the semi-classic The Eagle has Landed), but I’ll definitely be on the lookout for more of his work after reading Toll for the Brave.

This was a classic-style seventies thriller where a guy survives against all odds, defeats communism and also beats his tortured (in this case rather literally) past.  Unlike modern takes on the theme, this is a slim volume at just under 200 pages, and yet seems to pack all the necessary action into the story.  The characters are also sufficiently well done that you start to wonder why any book should be thicker than this.

The enemy here are communists, and it’s a particularly nice to see them get their butts kicked by an individualist, filthy-rich product of capitalism.  The whole thing is cheesy and unbelievable, but fun as hell.  I’d felt the same way, quite recently, about The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin, which probably ticked the same boxes for the same audience in the era.

I read and enjoy plenty of modern books, but whenever I dip into the seventies, I wonder if we’re not all making a huge mistake by focusing so much energy on avoiding stereotypes and being more character-driven and literary.  That has its place, of course, but there’s also a strong argument to be made for the fun factor.

Seen in a different way, stereotypes are also archetypes–figures that many people who share a cultural background will be able to identify.  They’re a shorthand way of putting the reader at ease, letting him know what’s happening around him without dumping four hundred pages of exposition.  Those little tools make a book more enjoyable for the person picking it up.

There’s a reason books like this one sold in the millions and that’s because they were actually better than watching TV.  They’re also better than watching TV today.

So what should have been a light read of an admittedly preposterous thriller has actually made me think, which is an unexpected bonus.

The first benefit, of course, was that I enjoyed the hell out of it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist whose own preposterous thriller is called Ice Station: Death.  He thinks it’s even more farfetched than the Higgins above, but urges you to check it out for yourself.

The Fifth Di… A Slim but Poignant Tome

As those of you who saw Friday’s post know, I’m reading contributor’s copies.  The latest was The Fifth Di from March 2018 (yes, I’m a year and a half behind. I know.  My to-be-read pile is approaching critical mass.  If you see news that something collapsed upon itself and generated a black hole centered in Argentina that is slowly absorbing matter from all of the rest of the world and will end life as we know it, it was my TBR pile.  I apologize in advance).

The Fifth Di - March 2018 - Edited by J Alan Erwine

This one hit me hard, because of the four stories within, it contains one by my good friend Robert N. Stephenson, a brilliantly talented writer from Australia who, sadly, committed suicide in August.

This was my first time in Fifth Di, so it’s also my first contributor’s copy, and I was quite impressed by it.  It holds four stories (mine is entitled “Spinning Candle”, a science fiction suspense piece).  The one I liked the most (I never rate mine in these, obviously) was a tale by Lachlan Walter called “She has no Toys”.  This one was a tear jerker on more than one level, with a well-created atmosphere and, coming right before the story penned by my lost friend made the mag hit home pretty hard.

So, a recommended read here.  I definitely invite you to check it out (if you do, please let me know what you thought!).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writers.  For those who enjoy science fiction suspense, he is also the author of the tense thriller Siege.  You can buy it here.

The Visions Series – A Tough Act to Close

Readers of this blog are all aware that I’m a writer, and that I do a lot of science fiction.  One of the places I’ve sold a few stories to was the Visions series edited by Carrol Fix.  I was in Visions III and Visions VI.  The first contributor’s copy I read in this one was Visions III, and it impressed me very much.  The theme there was “Inside the Kuiper Belt”, and the stories hit the same sweet spot as The Expanse.

Visions VI, while not as mind-blowing, was a solid antho, and I guess you could say the same about the last volume in the series, Visions VII.

Visions VII - Universe - Edited by Carrol Fix

It certainly holds a large number of well-written stories which are worth reading for themselves, so most people who pick it up will enjoy it.  What I didn’t like quite as much was that the very wide way the theme, Universe, was interpreted by both authors and editor.

I would have expected this one’s tales to be set on a broad scale, well above the galaxy level with, possibly a wink to multiverse existences.

And yes, some of the stories do this, and do it well (my own story in the collection, “Burstchasers” was written specifically with this scale in mind – you can judge for yourself whether it’s any good or not).  But too many of them are set on generic planets that could be a few dozen light years away, with no need at all to have been placed in an antho subtitled “Universe”.

That’s a nit, though, and one most readers won’t be bothered by.

As I said above, the stories are good, which is what matters.  Most memorable, and one I think did a fantastic job at interpreting the theme was “Universal Hero” by Darrell Duckworth.  It’s a bit whimsical, perhaps even naive, but well-thought-out and extremely interesting.  I’ll remember that one for a long time.

Anyway, start at number one and read through this series.  It’s fascinating to see the scope grow ever larger as it progresses–even though, the Universe seemed a tad too big for many authors.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an award-winning Argentine author.  His novel Siege takes place on a huge scale, albeit not quite on the Universe level.  You can check it out here.

A Lesson in Why the Greats Are Great

Over the past few years, I’ve been complaining about Gardner Dozois’ Years’ Best Science Fiction anthos.  They were still, I argued, the best source for the reality of the genre in the modern era, and his summation was a priceless essay, but the stories were getting weaker year by year.

Why?  Well, the message was drowning the storytelling.

For those living under a rock, the science fiction world’s current tempest in a teacup is that half the genre believes that the most important thing that SF has to do is to advance a progressive political agenda and that everything else is secondary while the other half feels that the job of science fiction is to tell a good story, politics be damned.  There have been some well-publicized arguments about this which I won’t go into here.  Google is your friend.

Though my reading preferences fall squarely into the second camp, I don’t mind reading a good message story with my action.  My problem was that the message stories were no longer good, and the genre was becoming more about diversity than about actual interesting tales.  Which explains why so much respected genre fiction isn’t selling while every Hollywood film seems to be an SF title.  Dozois, I felt, was echoing this trend instead of fighting it, and I wasn’t impressed.

But I now realize I owe the man an apology.  I wish he were still alive so I could give it to him in person.

The Year's Best Science Fiction- Thirty-Second Annual Collection - Gardner Dozois

This year I became a Hugo voter for the first time, mainly because Guardbridge books launched my collection Off the Beaten Path at WorldCon in Dublin.

So, full of enthusiasm, I started reading the nominees.  The first book was terrible, so I went on to the next.  Ugh.  The third… well, you see where this is going.  It was, to put it gently, a weak field.  The reason: preachy, political stuff and not much that I didn’t find boring.  I was gutted.

In fact, my conclusion was that it had been a bad year for the genre in general.  Until I saw the Dragon Award nominees and realized that it hadn’t been a bad year… just a bad selection.

That forced me to reappraise Dozois’ last few books.  He hadn’t selected too many bad, preachy stories… he had, in fact, had to cull the best ones from an ocean of utter tripe to give us the ones fit for human consumption.  He was doing his job, holding his nose and giving us the Best of the Year… no matter how bad some of that year might have been.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Second Annual Collection, pictured above, is a good collection.  Not as good as some of the older ones, definitely not Golden-Era-worthy, but good, especially when compared to what’s been happening to the Hugos.  He will be missed – his death is a huge blow to the SFF genre.

As for the story selection in this one, I was disappointed that the Alastair Reynolds tale wasn’t quite as good as some others of his I’ve seen over the years, but that disappointment was made up for by excellent stories by Cory Doctorow (“The Man Who Sold the Moon”) and Ken Liu (“The Regular”).  Those were my favorites.

Bad ones?  Yes, there were a few (albeit every one of them well-written).  Nevertheless, considering what’s happening in the rest of the genre, this is a solid collection.  Better than most of the more recent ones.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose collection Off the Beaten Path, mentioned above can be seen here.

 

A Taste of New York in the Eighties

In June, I was in New York speaking with a friend of mine who is also a writer, and she happened to mention that she had gone to art school (SVA) with Keith Haring.  My wife almost lost it; Haring is one of her all-time favorite artists.

She’s been a fan since forever, but the depth of her reaction might have been helped along because by a book I’d bought her a couple of years earlier.

Keith Haring

Entitled simply Keith Haring, by Jeffrey Deitch, Suzanne Geiss and Julia Gruen, this one is what I’d call an “art biography”. You don’t get much about the subject’s childhood, you don’t get too much about who was sleeping with whom, but you get a comprehensive explanation of the milestones in his artistic career, from elements of his style to people he met along the way and even specific trips and events that proved particularly notable in his career.

It’s a book tinged with sadness, of course–Haring died of AIDS in the early 1990s at far too young an age–but it doesn’t dwell on the sadness.  This book represents that overused phrase: “a celebration of life”.

And it was a life to be celebrated.  Few artists mix innocent style and good-natured self promotion with controversial (and sexual) themes as seamlessly as Haring did.  He preferred to change the world that affected him, even though he wasn’t averse to taking on the bigger-picture issues if he was called to do so.  To me, his Crack is Wack mural is much more indicative of the way he thought–it was inspired by one of his best friends’ addiction–than his action in anti-nuclear protests.

Crack is Wack Mural

I will admit that his art isn’t exactly my cup of tea.  It’s interesting, especially as I see the eighties as a morally straight-laced decade wildly at odds with his more pornographic imagery, but it’s not the kind of thing I would go out of my way to view.  Give me a good Constable any day.

However, this is a man who defined a city in a decade.  The book gives us a glimpse of New York’s art scene and a city lost to gentrification.  Also, a night scene lost to AIDS which utterly destroyed the libertine air that Haring lived and breathed.  From that perspective, this volume is fascinating even if Haring isn’t your favorite artist.  You want to read this book as a cultural icon of a lost world that still influences us today.

And most people who love art think of Haring in terms more similar to the way my wife does than the way I do.  I bought this book in L.A. alongside one of the Complete Peanuts volumes.  The guy at the cash register looked up at me approvingly.  “Haring and Peanuts,” he said.  “Two of my favorites.”  And then he offered me a Barnes & Noble points card.

Anyway.  This is interesting for both arts lovers and people who want to know what the eighties were really like.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He sometimes creates literature as opposed to entertainment.  If you like that kind of thing, you might enjoy his collection Love and Death.  You can check it out here.

Merril, Saved by the Year

Judith Merril was probably the most notable science fiction anthologist of the sixties.  She was completely aligned with her decade, and probably wouldn’t have felt out of place at one of Warhol’s happenings.  Her selections and her own written intros were very self-consciously built to reflect the intellectual trends of the sixties.  We’ve discussed her before many times, and even dedicated individual posts to two of her books (here and here).

I’m not a fan of her work in the sixties.  She had a few too many pretentious works to choose from and as a consequence, her anthos veered into the strongly literary as opposed to being SF collections of the kind I enjoy.  I don’t read genre work for its literary merit–I prefer the books to be well-written, but I’ve found that the more experimental they get, the less I enjoy them.  You can replace “experimental” with “political” and the previous sentence still works.  I don’t mind “intellectual” quite as much, but if that intellectual tangent is exploring a faddish (or even lastingly popular) social question then it’s unlikely to hold my interest very long.

So what happens when an anthologist whose tendencies are New Wave, puts together an antho before there were New Wave stories to select?

The Year's Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy - Second Anual Volume - Edited by Judith Merril

The answer to that is The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy – Second Annual Volume,  and the other answer is that you get a really good book.

Under the masterful guidance of the great John W. Campbell, the most important and influential editor the SF field has ever known (and likely WILL ever know), the genre had evolved from a literature that focused on sword and planet stories where the science was secondary (if addressed at all), to the genre we know and love.

Mature stories, and places where they could be published began to appear, and writers with a more literary bent found themselves able to sell stories that would have languished in an earlier era.  The genre became the stomping ground of many great stylists…

But the conditions were not yet in place for them to completely undermine the foundations of what made SF a popular pastime.  They had to play within a certain set of rules, and apply their undoubted talent and literary inclinations to building a fun or intriguing speculative story.  Navel-gazing or mindless political or social tracts were out of the question.  So was excessive experimentation.

It’s possible to argue that the years selected, 1955 and 1956, might represent one of the true great ages of the SF genre.  Great names like Asimov, Knight, Sturgeon, Kornbluth, Budrys and Ballard were present, but the field had already expanded to include such outlets as Galaxy and Playboy, magazines that went well beyond Astounding’s traditional formula.  We had all the literary merit without any of the forgettable pretentiousness that arrived with the 1960s.

Even Merril, whose eye for a good story clearly wasn’t as bad as her work from the 60’s made it appear, couldn’t mess this group up.  The book is massively strong all the way through, and represents what can happen when that happy middle ground is achieved.  It would not be found again until the post-new wave reminded everyone that SF is supposed to be fun, and literary aspirations and politics are secondary (a lesson that we seem to have forgotten in the 2010s as purely political forces again besiege the genre – luckily, it’s happened before, and they will go away and bug someone else, eventually).

Interestingly, the antho’s strength lies in the fact that all the stories entertain, more than in having one or two standouts.  Of the tales in this volume, the best is probably Sturgeon’s “The Other Man”, but they are all pretty close.

Anyway, this is a good one.  Probably not too hard to find, but these old paperbacks are starting to disintegrate, so best hurry.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of several books in various genres, including the well-received science fiction novel Outside.  You can check it out here.

A Fleet Street Pratfall

As a writer, sometimes you read something and wonder why you even bother with writing.  You will never be as brilliant as *insert writer name here*, so why waste your time.  You can just tell everyone to go read *insert writer name here*..

I recently got that feeling (I’m here to tell you that what can be a joy as a reader can be agony as a writer).  The first thirty-five pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop are so good that I can replace the unknown writer from the first paragraph with Waugh and not feel in the least bit guilty.

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

Now, I’m no stranger to Waugh’s work, but Brideshead Revisited is a very different animal.  It’s a beautiful book, and a beautifully written book, but it’s not a brilliant book of the kind that makes you shake your head in wonder that someone can make words do what they are doing.

That feeling only comes once in a while.  Wodehouse is probably the guy who does it to me most often, but Waugh… well, the first thirty-five pages of this one are pure gold.

It can’t go on, of course, and once the story hits Africa, it loses a little momentum and becomes merely very good and very entertaining.  Also, the characterization of how things work in a third world country are spot-on.  Modern readers from the developed world might be offended at the generalizations about banana republic governments, but I’m writing to you from Argentina to say that it’s perfectly all right and you can read the book without guilt.  Waugh satirizes it perfectly.

And that doesn’t even touch on the central tenet of the book: Waugh’s masterful send-up of the British newspaper industry, its lords and ladies and hangers-on.  Though the misunderstandings in the plot are worthy of the Marx Brothers, it comes across as truth… and I’m pretty certain that there’s a central kernel of true story around which each of the anecdotes in the book accreted.  It would be fascinating to have lived back then to know which ones.

Like in Dickens, the characters are archetypical with the most predatory of all being “the girl” as in “boy meets girl”.  In Waugh, of course, boy certainly does not keep girl… and the reasons for it are spectacularly funny.

Also interesting is that Waugh was apparently conscious of the way this book’s style approximated Wodehouse’s.  He even named a character Bertie Wodehouse-Bonner in case anyone missed the point.  Two masters coming together in prose.

I’ve had my eye on the Folio Society edition of Vile Bodies for a while now, and my reading of Scoop has pushed it to the very top of my list.

Do yourself a favor and read this one.  It will make you happy.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He has recently launched a collection of linked short stories entitled Love and Death.  You can check it out here.

Scared of Creepy Clowns? Accursed Toys are Worse.

Sha'Daa Toys - Michael H. Hanson and Edward F. McKeown

Ah, the innocence of childhood, those rose-tinted days of warm security and grass-scented summers.  Idyllic and wonderful right up to the point where a group of horror writers take the magic and run with it.

The horror genre has a long history of twisting childhood tropes into something darker with It and Chucky perhaps being the best known examples of the type.

So when my contributor copy of Sha’Daa Toys arrived (I have a story in this one entitled “Between Boy and Man”), I was pretty sure I knew what to expect.  I’d been in a couple of Sha’Daa anthologiess before, after all.

Nevertheless, I was still surprised by the sheer breadth of the stories within.  An impressive lineup of writers takes on the question: if the apocalypse is upon us and there are enchanted toys out there–both on the side of good and the side of evil–what would it look like?

The answers are as varied as the writers.

From teddy bears to toy blocks to GI Joe dolls, everything anyone ever wanted to play with is in here.  I personally believe that Etch-A-Sketches were always the work of hell, so not surprised to see one of those there either.  It’s strange that no one included the most evil toy ever, the Rubik’s cube.

And the stories are just as varied as the toys themselves.  Hyper-dark, heartwarming, adventure-driven and even humorous, they keep this hefty (nearly 400 pages) volume from becoming monotonous.

The Sha’Daa series is one of the longest-running shared-world anthos out there, and this book is a good example of why.  It stands alone and each writer’s voice comes through clearly… and yet, it is of a piece with the rest of the series.  This is a series that should continue for a long, long time.

Favorite story?  I’ll go with “Samuel Meant Well and the Little Black Cloud of the Apocalypse” by Shebat Legion and Joe Bonadonna, mainly because the little black cloud of the title is a memorable character in itself.

Pick one of these up.  It doesn’t matter which: they are all a treat for horror lovers looking for something a little different.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose collection Off the Beaten Path was launched in August.  There are some dark works in that one, too.  You can check it out here.

A New Favorite Dickens

I probably read Charles Dickens in the wrong order.  My first exposure to the man was a volume called Hard Times which didn’t impress.  This was followed by Oliver Twist, probably also a mistake.  The overly melodramatic and emotional has never been my cup of tea.

Things began to look up with A Tale of Two Cities which, by dint of being about something other than suffering, immediately took the top spot in my personal rankings.  At the time I enjoyed it a lot.

Enough, in fact, that I went on to read David Copperfield.  That one was a masterpiece, and probably, if one is objective, the best of Dickens’ work.

Luckily, though, I didn’t stop reading with that one.  His minor work (Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol) was duly consumed and found reasonably good, and I did enjoy Dickens’ London, a compendium of sketches by Boz and other essays.

But now, I can say that I’ve finally found MY Dickens. (Yes, that does sound unfortunate when you read it out loud.  Don’t read it out loud.  Especially in a crowded train).

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, better known as The Pickwick Papers, is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  Certainly the one book by old Charles that creates a feeling of wonder as opposed to simple admiration about how well the guy writes on a sentence level.  This one is also entertaining, a bit kooky (yes, that is a technical term reviewers use all the time) and just as well written as his heavier works.

And therein lies the rub.  This one un very un-Dickens-ian in the sense that it’s a light-hearted romp through several counties of English countryside (some, perhaps all, apocryphal) as opposed to a worrying grind through an urban landscape.  It’s like reading Wodehouse written by Dickens, which is always a treat (more on that particular angle in my forthcoming review of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop).

Essentially, it tells the adventures of four friends who, though wealthy enough to go on the kind of lark one would usually enjoy, are utterly clueless when it comes to everything else, apparently.  Hilarity ensues.

As such, it’s a pleasure to read.  Every singe page is fun stuff, and Mr Pickwick must rank among Dickens’ most memorable characters, which is quite a feat in itself.

For those who think that humor is somehow a guilty pleasure, you can rest assured that it’s all right.  No one will shake their heads at you in disapproval at your next literary gathering because A) Dickens is a classic writer, B) it’s 800 pages long so most of your literary friends won’t have read it and C) it has redeeming social commentary, so you can pretend you read it only because of that.

So you can enjoy every one of those 800 pages without having to make any excuses at all.

Perfect.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His laters book is a collection of short genre fiction set in non-traditional places entitled Off the Beaten Path.  You can check it out here, and it’s worth having a look for the cover art alone.