Political Correctness

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.

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Away from a theory of a village so insignificant it isn’t even there creating a roadblock

There’s a major controversy currently underway in academic circles.  A study that attempts to expose non-scientific practices among major academic journals, where buzzwords and politics allegedly outweigh solid research, has the social sciences world abuzz.  Our contributor Stacy Danielle Stephens gives her reflection on the ultimate importance and consequences of the study.

 

Scene from Catch 22

-That sounds like a lot of crap.
-It is a lot of crap, Sir.

In Catch-22, Yossarian receives a medal for releasing his bomb load over the ocean. Realizing that both the target and the mission have no military value, whether considered strategically, tactically, or psychologically, he toggles his bombs three minutes before reaching the target, determined to avoid unnecessary civilian deaths. Because his plane is leading the formation, every bombardier in the group toggles their bombs on his cue. Yossarian’s insubordination is now mutiny, for which the commanding general wishes to bring Yossarian before a court martial. However, he immediately recognizes that a court martial will precipitate no small amount of negative publicity, much of which will reflect badly on Yossarian’s commander; that is, on the general himself. Luckily for both the general and Yossarian, there were no German fighters protecting the sea, and no flak defending it. Consequently, the group was undisturbed and in perfect formation, meaning their bombs fell in a perfect pattern. For achieving this perfect bomb pattern, Yossarian and several other officers of the group receive medals, and the general’s public image is enhanced commensurately.

Yossarian’s refusal to strike the intended target wasn’t cowardice or treason, but an awareness not only that the mission was pointless, but that his commanders were as aware of this fact as he was.

After the war, Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22, attended both USC and NYU, and received a Masters in English from Columbia. He was also a Fulbright Scholar who taught at Penn State and later wrote ad copy full time for a small but successful agency. He spent more time in academia than in uniform, and didn’t just know bullshit inside and out, but was sufficiently proficient in flinging it to make a living, although selling the movie rights to an internationally successful novel is what made him a millionaire.

The day before Catch-22 premiered in theaters, Canadian-American psychiatrist Eric Berne was delivering the keynote address at the annual conference of the Golden Gate Group Psychotherapy Society. He had titled his address “Away from a Theory of the Impact of Interpersonal Interaction on Non-Verbal Participation,” and admitted midway through that the title was a sham. In that speech, he speculated that the reason people went into psychiatry was “that they’re not required to do very much except to have staff conferences to explain why they can’t do very much.” Anyone who has read or seen Catch-22 recognizes instantly what Eric Berne meant: You can only see the Major when the Major isn’t in.

After admitting to the sham title, he explained that he’d decided upon that title because psychiatrists were always presenting papers titled “Toward a theory of…” one thing or another, but actually several things conflated for importance; not an importance of content but of context and resonance. It had to sound like something it wasn’t, really, without being too clear about what that was. He also explained that he decided on “Away from a theory” because he felt that it was only when you stepped back from any theory, and got a good look at it from a clear vantage point, that you could make any sense of it. He also noted that in the real world, no one goes “toward” something. When you get on an airliner, for instance, the pilot never says, “We’re going toward Chicago.”

Obviously, the hypothetical supposition that nonsense which sounds good and flatters someone in authority can be accepted and even applauded had been tested and proven even before Sokal successfully rose to the challenge in the late twentieth century. That three academics could give new life to a classic Calvin and Hobbes strip by cobbling together some trendy buzzwords isn’t exactly the stuff of firestorms.

Calvin and Hobbs Academia

It’s actually more of a tempest in the tea party. Yes, four facetious papers were actually published. Out of twenty. And three more had been accepted. But the four published papers were not acclaimed as brilliant by readers; rather, they were spotted as nonsense, even if there was no initial presumption of disingenuous intent or bad faith. And the brilliant scheme to expose something ended by exposing only the schemers, who prudently chose to confess to their duplicity somewhat ahead of schedule.

Taking Another Look at Gardner Dozois

We’ve discussed Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction series here before.  These books are the longest-running and most complete overview of the short fiction in the genre that money could buy.  The Summation–Dozois’ comprehensive essay about the state of science fiction–at the beginning of each book is worth the price of admission on its own.

I’ve been a bit down in my reviews of some of these volumes lately, mainly because I saw them following the same depressing trend as the rest of the genre–while the writing is uniformly excellent, the stories themselves are boring, and they are beginning to fall into a predictable pattern.  With all of time and space to play with, is it possible that so many of the “year’s best” stories harp on the same theme?  It’s always the same: someone with no power (usually from an oppressed group or subgroup) does something and the reader comes to understand how power works and how the oppressed feel and act.  The American culture wars writ large… and yawn.  Individually, the stories can be inspiring and interesting… but a dozen of them together make for a dull slog.  Thankfully, there’s usually a dark and twisted Alastair Reynolds tale in there somewhere to break up the monotony.

In fact, I have often pointed to Dozois as being one of the main motors of this trend.  After all, he spent more than thirty years as the single most important tastemaker in the genre.  If he said it was good, then it was good.  No questions asked.

And then Dozois went and died on us in May.

Though I never knew him personally, never sold him a story and had been critical of some of his recent selections, he was an important literary figure in my life (and even more for others).  Collections he edited, alone or with others, take up quite a bit of lineal yardage in my bookcases.  I knew his name very well as a teenager, long before my first story sale, or even before it occurred to me I might have stories worth telling.

So I decided to take a step back and to look at his work in the context of the current state of the genre by dipping into two of the Year’s Best books, one recent and one a little earlier.

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

The earlier volume was The Year’s Best Science Fiction – 10th Annual Collection, chosen precisely because it comes from a time before I was writing in the genre and from a time before the culture wars overran the SF world.  This one collects stories from 1992 – I was in high school then.

This one was interesting indeed.  You see, the trends that were to shape the nineties and noughties were already there: despite the fact that a lot of the stories had a very eighties feel to them (eighties feel in SF is hard to explain except to say that I know it when I feel it), the choice of some writers who would come to make a deep impact on the field, and themes such as environmentalism and diversity were already present.  Dozois wasn’t so much leading the charge as he was reading currents that it would take others a decade or more to recognize.

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

The recent volume was The Year’s Best Science Fiction – 31st Annual Collection, which covers stories published in 2013.  My verdict?  This one was a little better than the preceding pair, and the hope from the thirtieth edition was realized.  In this volume, the trend to have fewer and fewer of the more preachy stories continued, and the quality and enjoyment factor, as a consequence, increased.

I still need to read four more of Dozois’ volumes (I hope the publisher clearly and explicitly either ends the series or assigns a new editor instead of keeping Dozois alive as a zombie) to see if this trend continues, but I suspect it might (stay tuned for future reviews).

If it does, it will be Dozois’ greatest prediction: while the 2018 Hugos were, due to internal politicking in the SF world, a tinny and hollow celebration of one group’s politics, with absolutely no relationship to literary merit (through no fault of the winning writers, I hasten to add, all of whom probably do have literary merit), Dozois was looking forward to the time after the politicking was done, and a new SF genre more accepting of both racial and political diversity came into being.

While everyone else was shouting, Dozois was busy reading everything, regardless of politics, and thinking.  My suspicion, pending the few volumes I still have left to enjoy, is that the shouters on both side’s of SF’s divide will catch up to Dozois sometime in the next decade.

His adult voice among squabbling children will be sorely missed.  And so will his summations…  man, those were awesome.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest Science Fiction novel is entitled Outside.  You can buy it here.

A Trip I’d Take in a Heartbeat

Imagine the following: you hop on a local train in Boston and, a few weeks later, hop off a train in Patagonia.  It sounds like the trip of a lifetime, doesn’t it?

Well, it kinda is, except for the fact that it isn’t, technically, possible; not only is the Darien Gap still alive and well, but there are other spots where the train system is disconnected in the middle of the journey.  That, of course, didn’t stop Paul Theroux from getting as close as possible in 1979.

Now, I don’t normally read travel books of any kind (though we do sometimes have travel writers here), but I’d read Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast in high school (it wasn’t assigned reading, but I used to sit in the back row and I had a locker just behind me.  Another class was reading this, and I was bored in class, so I read it while my classmates were slowly discussing Shakespeare plays that I’d already finished reading), so I decided to give this one a shot.  Plus, I got the book for free…

The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux

The Old Patagonian Express tells the story of an adventure which, even in the limited form that Theroux attempted, is no longer possible.  The final legs of the train journey, within Argentina, no longer exist (they may, again, someday – the missing link has recently reopened for cargo trains… here’s hoping passenger service will resume someday).

It also tells the story from a point of view that is almost forty years old.  Yes, I know that most Americans are still just as provincial in their outlook today as they were in 1979, but now the WAY they are provincial has swapped around.  Today, an American traveler might be surprised that countries on the other side of their border are not as politically correct and don’t really care for American’s sensibilities…

Trochita - Expreso Patagónico - Patagonian Express

But in 1979 it was very different.  Theroux might have been a world traveler and an enlightened exponent of his age, but he still looks at the people in Latin America without romanticizing them, and generalizes about their habits and activities in a way that would cause shock and outrage if published today.

The net effect of this is… refreshing and likely more accurate.  Much of what he says isn’t exactly gentle and “nice”, but it is supremely accurate.  Someone using this as a field guide for Latin American countries might find that a lot has changed, but might still find a more realistic description of the people one will encounter along the way than if you look at a modern equivalent.  Seems that modern authors will never let you know when a certain town in Costa Rica is populated almost exclusively by people who hate tourists and look to rob them whenever possible.

Now, the question is: is accuracy a sacrifice that it’s reasonable to make in the name of cultural sensitivity?  When does political correctness cross the line from a necessary buffer to avoid prejudice to outright lying in order to soften a hard truth.

I don’t have the answer to that, but I recommend reading this book if you’re interested in the question.  It will make you think, and possibly to question.

And besides, it tells about a fascinating adventure which, in itself is more than enough to justify the purchase price.  Also, we like trains.

Definitely one to read if you can.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose most popular novel, Siege, is available here.

 

 

Remembering a Time when Political Discussion was the Province of Intelligent People

Social media seems to have given us a new paradigm: everyone, no matter how uneducated or unprepared for public discourse, posts political opinions, and we’re supposed to respect them, even if they’re moronic.

So what we end up with is that someone with perhaps four working brain cells posts a political statement which is based on a popular view or a piece of news fabricated by the Huffington Post or by Fox News – both sides are equally stupid when it comes to this, so not making any distinctions by party today).  Perhaps they just copy and paste some one-sided meme. Then, an equally ignorant individual from the other side jumps in and refutes the argument.

No one, of course, uses the media bias chart where everything under the midpoint of the yellow rectangle needs to be ignored if you have aspirations to being an intelligent human being… And any news further to the right or left of “skews” is worthless.

Media-Bias-Chart_Version 3.1

Eventually, the discussion dissolves into name calling in which people who aren’t racists get called racists, people who aren’t Nazis get called Nazis, and people who aren’t Communist get called Communist.  Of course, all of the people who call people these things are idiots…

Like all religions, politics has become dogmatic: if you don’t agree with the virulent left, you are a racist, if you don’t agree with the virulent right, you are a commie.

And then there’s Trump, who stirs the pot for unknowable reasons of his own which only makes things worse.  But this isn’t limited to the US… it’s a worldwide phenomenon.

A Room of One's Own - Virginia Woolf

in 1928, things were different.  Back then, political discourse was for thinkers.  There were expendable idiots even then, of course, but they were just rank-and-file members of different political parties who could be counted on to grab king’s horses or die trying.  But the actual thinking was done by individuals with qualifications.

Which is why, ninety years later, A Room of One’s Own holds up so well.

Now, those who know me well, know that I think extreme leftist thought (like extreme rightist thought) is hugely unproductive.  Making everything about identity politics, attempting deconstruction and brushing off a hundred years of evidence that shows that certain economic models simply don’t work unless you hold the population to them at gunpoint don’t strike me as the actions of intelligent people with everyone’s best interest in mind.  In fact they are more akin to the thinking of the religious fanatics they supposedly oppose.

Worse, I’ve gone on record disagreeing with Woolf’s opinions about Middlemarch, so I’m emotionally invested in disagreeing with her in particular…

Nevertheless, any fair reader will admit that Virginia Woolf wrote a revolutionary, angry book that is, at the same time, cogent and calm in its delivery.  As a means to attain a goal it strikes me as a hugely superior method than going out and calling everyone a racist.

In fact, this book-and the speech it was based on-are a political tract disguised as a bit of advice given to a group of women who wish to make their way in the world as writers.  It highlights an inequality by way of a series of remarks about a fictitious women’s college and then focuses on the one thing that would help the women in her audience overcome that unfortunate reality.  It doesn’t put everyone in a position to help them in the role of the enemy (which, at best is counterproductive and at worst can lead to Trump and Brexit).

So, am I recommending that you read a political essay from ninety years ago, from a side of the spectrum that isn’t my favorite?  Yes, I am.  I believe more people need to read this and to think about why it works, and why it hasn’t been out of print since its initial publication in 1929 – and long after its initial goals have been reached (remember that, today, there are many more female writers than male writers being published).

Maybe if more people did so, political discussion would return to something approaching semi-evolved subhuman intelligence.  Even that would be a vast improvement.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who prefers to explore the ramifications of technology as opposed to politics.  This makes him very different from almost all science fiction writers published today.  His novel Outside is a prime example of this preference.

The Byzantine Story of the Buenos Aires Zoo

On a cool evening in the autumn of 2016, I got home and my wife told me that there was an event being held in the neighborhood.  The idea was that one could visit various expositions and historic sites around Belgrano R and get a stamp at each.  Once one had all seven stamps, one could claim a prize.  The only catch was that we had to do it all before 8:30 PM… it was already 6:30.

St Saviour's Church Belgrano

Her kids and I (she couldn’t join due to being seven months pregnant) took off at once.  We rushed around like maniacs and visited 3 churches (including the one in the photo), 2 schools, a social club and some other stuff I can’t remember, walked about three miles and earned our prize.  The kids chose a book.

On the face of it, this book was a natural choice, as it was about the Buenos Aires Zoo.  But delving a little deeper, it wasn’t really a good book for kids at all.  It was a collection of scholarly historical essays dealing with the creation of the zoo itself in all its historical and social significance, as well as a specific focus on a Byzantine Portico commissioned for the entrance to the park.  The book, quite naturally, is entitled El Pórtico Bizantino del Jardín Zoologico de Buenos Aires.

El Portico Bizantino del Zoologico de Buenos Aires

To understand the attraction of something like this, it must be noted that, when the zoo was being planned in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Buenos Aires was the capital of a world power which looked to Europe for its social cues.  Anyone visiting from fin de siècle Paris would have felt right at home, and did.  Transplanted victorian ladies would have been able to walk the park’s promenades without having to modify their dress–their Argentine peers would have looked exactly the same.

So the government had art experts scouring the markets in Europe and the Middle East for suitable antiquities.  Many arrived… some real, some not-so-real, and the analysis of whether the Portico’s columns are from classical antiquity or from a 19th century Italian workshop is both exhaustive and, to a modern reader, amusing.

Amusing in a sad way, though.  Firstly, because, despite having been in the zoo many, many times, I’d never really paid much attention to the semicircle of columns set on an island in a park lake.  It was just part of the background, and a difficult to see and not-very-imposing part at that.

Secondly, it’s sad because, due to unfortunate intervention of a small but vocal minority, the Buenos Aires zoo, a magnificent public space enjoyed by a city of fifteen million people, was forced to close at just about the same time as I was gaining possession of this particular volume.  It’s supposedly going to be reopened at some future date as an eco-park (the word “eco” in there should give a clue as to which special interest group needs to be appeased), but it hasn’t happened yet.

It’s poignant that the Portico might disappear now.  Not because it was a major attraction–it wasn’t.  But it was part of the history of the city… To have it disappear as an unintended side effect of pressure from fanatics is a sad but accurate reflection of how the modern world works.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His novel Incursion was released by Severed Press in 2017.

Writing the Other

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

I recently read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  This was a gift, since it’s not the kind of book I’d normally have bought for myself.  I don’t go out of my way to read extremely unusual viewpoints in my fiction (for those who don’t know, this book is written from the viewpoint of a boy with Asperger’s). I read fiction to be entertained or to learn about the human condition, and find that neither happens when the author is forcing an “other” on us.  And a character such as this one, by its very nature, can’t be anything but forced.

Nevertheless, I’m glad I read this one.  It was a quick and easy read because the author, Mark Haddon, writes very deftly, and the first three-quarters of the book are quite entertaining.  They’re couched as a mystery story, and one can look past the message in the fiction.  It does fall down at the end because, inevitably, the message needs to be delivered and not even someone as talented as Mr. Haddon can get around the fact that message fiction is always worse than any alternative.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

My own favorite message-fiction gripe is The Handmaid’d Tale.  While I’m not a huge fan of Margaret Atwood’s writing, it’s undeniable that hers is a brilliant literary mind.  But in order to get a message across, she thought it would be fun to take an interesting idea and bludgeon us with it.  The results are only successful if you happen to be an activist for extreme feminism (which, interestingly, and in her own words, Atwood isn’t).  I can only imagine what a real SF writer, say Ursula LeGuin or Robert Heinelin would have done with the idea.  They would have put the story first and left the message in the background (of course, they would have sold millions of copies less, but that’s another story), making the book much better, if more ambiguous, in the process.

Another example of a politically-fueled book that fails to impress is Atlas Shrugged.  It’s just as bad as the Atwood, and for the same reasons.  Only the politically motivated can possibly maintain that it’s a good book.

The second reason I’m glad I read it is because it got me thinking about writing “the other”.  This is a bit of a taboo in certain literary circles.  Essentially, there’s an outcry against people from any dominant group writing characters that belong to supposedly subjugated populations.  Whether that subjugation is due to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or whatever is irrelevant; the feeling is that there should be a minimum of tolerance for writers who commit this sin (unless that writer is part of the “right” group, in which case he’s an activist and it’s OK – yes, hypocrisy is alive and well in literary circles, it seems).

I happen to disagree.  I believe that a writer has the obligation to write whichever character is best for the story.  If someone is offended… well, let’s just say I am probably not the right person to apply to in those cases.

An author needs to tell a story.  It’s likely that that story is aimed at a certain audience so, if you’re writing about someone who is extremely different from you, you need to make sure that you do it to the best of your ability.

Will it be perfect?  No, probably not.

Does that matter?  No.  Not unless the discrepancies are so large that your audience finds them jarring.  Nobody matters but your readers.  If a college professor out in Portland denounces you for being insensitive to vegan activists because of your portrayal of your main character’s boyfriend, chuckle, thank him for the extra sales and write your next book (Chronicles of a Free-Range, Locally-Grown Chicken).

I do draw the line at purposely portraying characters from underrepresented groups as villains for political reasons, but I think the writers who do so aren’t a problem.  Why?  Because they’ll weed themselves out.  As I said earlier, books where the message gets in the way of the story are crap.

So yeah, there will always be Puritans and Prohibitionists who like to butt in and tell everyone what they can and can’t do, especially in the age of social media and the politization of absolutely everything.  Ignore them.

And if anyone says you can’t write something, tell them I gave you permission and send them here.  By the time they finish reading this, they’ll be so mad at me that they won’t even remember what they were scolding you about.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist who wasn’t born on Tau Ceti, but still writes about people who were.  He also isn’t a young woman, but the main character of his novel Outside is.  He’ll let readers decide whether that’s a good thing or not.

Stripping the World to its Bare Bones

Albert Camus L'Etranger First Edition

It’s amusing to wonder what the Wehrmacht censors thought when presented with Albert Camus’ novella The Stranger for their approval in 1942. One can imagine them getting together in a smoke-filled meeting room, looking into each other’s eyes to see if any of them had taken any particular offense (or even any particular meaning) from the book and then, with a collective shrug, approved it for lack of any better idea.

After all, a book about the world’s indifference to someone completely outside of all its rules–Nazi, Allied, Polynesian, it makes no difference–can’t be framed as a political tract or even particularly subversive.

And, in that light, they were correct.  The books subversiveness is aimed at a much deeper level of existence than mere politics.

But let’s talk about the politics for a second.  The Nazis–the freaking NAZIS–let it pass and yet in the post-colonial world a sequel was written where the arabic characters were given a life of their own. Talk about completely missing the point and making a fool of oneself.  This is why so many post-colonial movements are derided: they put anger ahead of brains, and it shows a little too strongly.

Albert Camus Philosopher

So what does it subvert if not the social and political structure of its day, which it accepts without question?

It goes after the very core of what it means to be human.  By looking at the world through the eyes of the ultimate flatliner and alienated outsider, Camus questions the botom layer of the fabric of society.  Family.  Friends.  Lovers.  The very existence of a possible connection between two individuals besides shared interests and shared pleasure.

In that sense, it’s a brilliant exercise and flinches away from the end consequences only a couple of times that I was able to spot.

Of course, it’s also a dead end.  The reader is left feeling very little for the character at the end of the book.  Perhaps a vague sense that it would have been a happier ending if someone had recognized his right to be different… but also that it probably wouldn’t have made all that difference after all.  The nihilism is a bit contagious.

It’s also a dead end because it doesn’t really deal with the human condition except at one extreme, and that extreme, though valid as an argument–why can’t humans be allowed to live within their own moral codes–is still not a discussion (seventy five years after the book was writen) that humanity is mature enough to have.  People who deviate from the social establishment (be that a small group such as an office, a medium-sized group such as a political party or a large one such as a nation-state) are treated badly and metaphorically put to death.

I’ll leave others to attempt to link this one to the modern world (try analyzing a school shooting through this lens and you’ll come up with a disturbing and different take), but I do recomend giving it a read.  It’s one of those which sets the borders of human thought, and that’s always valuable.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argetine novelist and short story writer.  If you enjoy reading about outsiders, check out his novella Branch, which explores what might happen when humanity splits into distinct species.

Crossing Genres Successfully

As a writer who has published a number of science fiction books but whose next two scheduled books are in different genres (a humorous fantasy coming out in March which you can have a look at – and pre-order if you’re in the mood to make a writer happy – here, and a literary collection of linked stories which is scheduled for a little later in the year), I’m always interested in writers who succeed across multiple genres.

There are many, but since I’ve recently finished reading Hornet Flight by Ken Follett, let’s talk about him.

Hornet Flight by Ken Follett

Some years ago, I was in a relationship with a girl whose first contact with Follett was through The Pillars of the Earth.  When I chuckled and told her that Follet was a writer in the Ludlum mold – a man who produced thrillers aimed at the male beach-reading audience, she was shocked and nearly offended (she was easily offended by things that broke her structured view of the world, so that might not mean much).

As a guy who’s never shied away from reading a little bit of caveman fiction, Follett had made several appearances in my reading piles, and had always delivered.  Most notably, The Key to Rebecca is not only a good WWII spy novel but, more importantly, it finally forced me to read the original du Maurier book which is utterly brilliant and has the best opening line in the history of literature.

But back to Follett.

His case is different from mine.  I’m trying to expand into other genres while I’m still a small fish in the pond.  Supposedly, it’s easier to do it this way before you become so well-known that publishers and readers expect something specific and get angry if they don’t get it.

Follett seems to have neatly defied that conventional wisdom.  When he started writing historical novels, he was already a giant in the espionage field with a number of massive bestsellers under his belt.

Did the historical books succeed despite of this?  Or because of this?

It’s a good question.  My own opinion is that Follett’s track record–and a desire to keep him happy–spurred the publishers of the historical books to give them the marketing support they deserved.  Combined with the fact that they are reportedly very good (I have yet to read one, but intend to remedy that in the short term) sold them to a completely new audience, people like my former girlfriend, who’d never heard of the man before, but are fans of well-written historical novels.  Apparently, when your pool of new readers is almost completely different from the old one, you don’t get typecast.

More interesting still, however, is how the new audience and style feeds back into the thrillers.  Hornet Flight (2002) was written after Follett started writing the historical novels…  and I can kinda tell.

His earlier thrillers, as far as I remember, were testosterone-fueled action stories where masculine virtues were celebrated – the difference that Follett brought to the table was historical accuracy.  They were the kind of books your ex-paratrooper friends might have enjoyed and that the local librarian would have wrinkled her nose at.

Hornet Flight?  Not so much.  The spy-novel genre is a formula that works pretty well and Follett’s attempts to be inclusive and politically correct while still writing a WWII thriller falls a bit flat.  Part of it is that most of the novel is buildup to a spectacular ending (nothing wrong with that ending!) which makes it a bit of a slog in parts (whoever wrote that blurb on the cover above must have been talking about a different book), but most of it seems due to Follett’s attempt to translate modern political mores, including character selection (for example there is one female main character, good guys and bad guys, for each male) into the middle of the Second World War.

Perhaps the book was an attempt to appeal to the demographic that is reading his historical novels and also to the people who rely on him to give them great WWII thrills?  If so, he definitely failed the latter – they don’t want revisionism or forced diversity, they want those stories real and raw, warts and all.  Not being privy to the sales numbers, I can’t discuss the former.

I read Folletts every once in a while and, as I mentioned, I want to read the historical books (or at the very least the first one) so I’ll probably be adding some more opinions on his career in the future.  Stay tuned!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the Argentine writer who wrote Siege.  Everyone loves Siege. 

Acton Bell was the Best of them

It’s quite possible you’ve never heard of Acton Bell.  After all, this was a writer overshadowed by better-known siblings Currer Bell and Ellis Bell.

What?  You haven’t heard of them either?

Ah, you must not be a collector of first editions or a student of literary history.  You see Currer Bell published a novel entitled Jane Eyre, while Ellis was responsible for a tome entitled Wuthering Heights.

first edition tenant of wildfell hall

Yes, they were.  Google the first editions if you don’t believe me.

All right.  In their era, it was difficult to get published, so the Brontë sisters sold their work under male pseudonyms, Ellis, Acton and Currer being the sobriquets chosen by Emily, Anne and Charlotte.  But while even the most casual readers are familiar with the work of Emily and Charlotte–either via the written word or the countless TV and film adaptations of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (or, for absolute bizarreness, the music video of the latter)–very few have been exposed to Anne’s work.

There is a reason for that.  Charlotte, who was the only one who didn’t die terribly young, kept Anne’s novels from being reprinted after her death (she is also rumored to have burned a manuscript of a second novel by Emily).  So while Charlotte’s work was becoming ever more well known, Annes languished, only beginning to get critical recognition much later, with the early feminist movement.

Political use of her work aside, it’s a true pity that Anne seems to be the forgotten sister (brother Branwell, by all accounts, squandered any talent he might have had due to a dissipated lifestyle).  Judging simply by her writing, she seems to have been, by far, the best of the three.

Yes, I know. That’s supposed to be Emily, the firebrand whose prose scars you as you read.

Yes, it’s true that Emily’s writing, and her characters are both more memorable than Charlotte’s.  They are tortured, egoistic souls stymied by their preferences and circumstances and as melodramatic as it is possible to be.  Definitely better than Charlotte’s stultifying boredom (yes, I know there was a madwoman in a tower.  Still boring)…

Anne Brontë by Branwell Brontë

But Anne, as a novelist, took more risks than Charlotte, and wrote a clearer, better-paced story than Emily.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the best of the Brontë novels.  If you don’t believe me, that’s because you haven’t read it.  It contains sympathetic protagonists who defy the conventions of their time enough that they feel almost modern, and the story is about the way they struggle against those conventions and the consequences of rebellion.  Also, it has an antagonist who deserves to be despised.

Though the novel’s re-acceptance into 19th century canon is cause for rejoicing, it’s a bit unfair that it’s been tarred with the “early feminist novel” brush.  That alone will keep many people from approaching this book–anyone familiar with the writing of Kate Chopin will have learned their lesson: writing that only survives because of a political push is always terrible, even if the politics are sound.  It’s a pity that this should be so because Anne’s novel is actually good literature, despite the anger that might or might not have informed some of its more memorable scenes.

Yes, the very act of writing and publishing this book was a feminist act (as was that of Wuthering Heights, which is just about the most un-feminist book I can think of), and yes, when Anne’s protagonist leaves her husband, it was the first time something like that had happened in a major English novel.

But there are more important things going on in this book, and the political significance, whether contemporary or post-mortem, was given to it by others.  It’s really just a book about characters dealing with their world as best they can.  And it excels in that light.

So go to your library and ask them for something by Acton Bell.  Hopefully, a librarian should know what you mean… if not, send them here!