Science Fiction

More Visions

A little over a year ago, I wrote a review of a book called Visions III – Inside the Kuiper Belt.  I’d gone into that one with low expectations, but the book blew them all away.  It’s still one of the best contributor copies I’ve ever read.

Visions VI - Galaxies - Edited by Carrol Fix

Unlike its predecessor, Visions VI – Galaxies had some big expectations to live up to.  I’m happy to report that it succeeded reasonably well.   It’s not as good as Visions III, but then, almost no anthology I’ve read in the past few years is.  What it is, however, is a solid collection of writing about space, with adventure and wonder thrown in for condiment.

In a collection of 13 stories (of which I will only comment on 12 as the final tale was “Cloud Marathon”, written by yours truly), there is only one true clunker – a writer who gets the science very wrong (you need to know what a galaxy is if you’re writing a story about galaxies) and is also preachy.

Other than that, though, this book is full of good stuff.  Everything from way-out satire of SF television (“Space Opera” by Amos Parker is the memorable story that does this) to introspective tales that make you question humanity’s behavior (“Final Contact” by Al Onia), it spans the gamut.

Favorites?  There are a couple.  Bruce C. Davis’ “Old Soldiers” packs a strong emotional punch, while “Unity” by Tom Olbert is pure adventure goodness (this one almost lost me for being a little preachy and PC, but the writing carried the day in the end).  But there are other good ones as well, making this a solid read.

So, another good one in this series.  The good news for you is that there are a total of seven anthos in this series.  The good news for me is that I still have my contributor copy of Visions VII sitting in my pile.  A treat to come.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina.  For people who like anthologies similar to Visions, he recommends his book Siege.  You can check it out here.

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A Genre Buffet

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

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

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

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

Anyhow, what about the book?

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Space Opera at Its Best

Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds

It’s no secret that we at Classically Educated really, really like the work of Alastair Reynolds.  I firmly believe that he is the best writer currently working in the SF field by several lengths.  I know his case is helped by the fact that science fiction is currently not going through a golden age–quite the contrary, in fact–but Reynolds is a man who would have been heralded as a great in any era.

His stories take place in the deep future and, though they extrapolate from the present, they don’t pretend that the things that society is deeply concerned about today will matter in a thousand years–or even a hundred.  Thus freed from the fetters of writing boring politically-concerned drivel, Reynolds sets out to explore the galaxy.

And man, does he ever explore.  No distance is too far, and no element of particle physics too obscure for his pen.  His work is made even more interesting by the fact that, with his background as a scientist, he doesn’t take shortcuts: the science in a Reynolds book is limited by what we believe to be the true state of the universe.  No faster-than-light shortcuts to make the plot easier to weave together.  No quantum teleportation on a macroscopic scale.

Pushing Ice is vintage Reynolds.  Humanity is just beginning to push hard into space, with a foothold on the inner planets and profit-driven operations working further out to harvest water ice.  When a moon of Saturn begins to act extremely strangely, the nearest mining ship is sent out to investigate.

The people on board the ship are caught up in events and technology on a galactic scale that they can’t even begin to understand, but must somehow face up to if they want to survive.

As always, Reynolds is unflinching: he gives us a book where believable things happen to the characters, and miracles simply don’t exist which, strangely, ends up making this one an uplifting work.

It’s definitely a solid effort, hard to put down and well paced.  The one thing I didn’t like is that the two main characters often act like spoiled children, and the dynamic between them felt a little forced.

But that’s of little importance when you consider how well this particular drama plays out against the biggest canvas possible.  Another Reynolds winner.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own sweeping space opera is entitled Siege. You can have a look at it here.

Philip K. Dick Debut

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

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

A Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick

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

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

So what did I think?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Hope and Terror in the Aftermath

I always read the contributor copies of the publications where my stories appear (when they manage to successfully brave the postal system between the English-speaking world and Argentina, that is).  I don’t always read them immediately, though, as they go into the to-be-read pile, which is often biblical in scope.

into the ruins volume 7

So the Fall 2017 issue of Into the Ruins, which contains my tale “Anchored Down in Anchorage” has just cycled through.

When I read the guidelines prior to sending my story through, I remember thinking that a collection of stories set in the ruins of civilization would make for somewhat depressing reading, but the reality is that the magazine was actually a different from what I expected.

In the first place, half of the stories focused on the potential for adventure after the fall of civilization.  It might be worrying if you stop to think about it, but while reading, these tales are mainly entertaining.

The other half of the stories are, interestingly, of the type where humanity falls into its basest patterns… terrifying for different reasons.

So these stories, though set in a world after global warming takes its toll, are not about the catastrophe (even though every single one of them uses global warming and rising sea levels as its starting point as opposed to some other kind of calamity).  The post-civilization world is just a setting to explore the ins and outs of the characters immersed therein.

My favorite was “The Cupertinians” by Damian Macrae, which might best be described as a morally ambiguous romp in the Indiana Jones style.  Wonderful.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest novel is entitled Timeless, and you can check it out here.

Living Right on the Boundary: Yet More Penguin Science Fiction

Yet More Penguin Science Fiction - Edited by Brian Aldiss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Of Fun in Your Fiction

Revelation Space Alastair Reynolds

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

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

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

Other days, I love nonfiction in various forms.

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

Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

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

Dune-Frank Herbert (1965) First_edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But nothing else.

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

 

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

A Lesson on Leaving Well Enough Alone

Ghost Legion by Margaret Weis

Star of the Guardians is a space opera series by Margaret Weis, released in the early 1990s.  I read the original trilogy of books as a teenager basically upon their release.  I was also aware that there was a fourth book in the series (apparently, there are now three spinoff books, too), but was never able to find it here in Argentina and by the time I discovered Amazon, the book was out of print and I couldn’t get them to ship used books here.  By the time global internet commerce became a thing, and I could find the book easily, I had pretty much forgotten I wanted it.

That was the state of play until, browsing the SF section of one of my favorite used book stores (BABS Casi Nuevo in Buenos Aires), I stumbled upon it and bought it.  The book was tossed into my TBR pile, and there it lay until I got around to reading it a couple of weeks ago.

I remember enjoying the first three volumes in this series, and, to be honest, the storyline was pretty much closed right where those ended – the lost heir’s quest had been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction and the bad guys had been dealt with.  However, there was one major loose end that Weis felt she needed to address, and wrote this book.

So fast forward to 2018, and a lot of things have happened.  I’m no longer an impressionable teenager, so some of the actions, and the way the plot weaves science fiction and religious fantasy together jars me more than it did then.  Also, there’s a whole lot of head-hopping, which, though I don’t really hate it, is strange twenty-odd years later.

In addition to that, space opera has really evolved since then.  Alastair Reynolds and a few others have moved the goalposts so far down the field that they couldn’t even be seen in the late eighties when these books were being conceived.  This is not Weis’ fault.

But some things are.  The beginning of this fourth volume drags on and on.  The book hits its stride in the last 150 pages, which means that any reader less dogged (and emotionally invested) than myself would have abandoned long before hitting pay dirt.  Worse, the excess length is mainly used to beat us over the head with character motivation–of course that needs to be in there, but some of it is quite repetitive, which seems counterproductive.

The reason for this appears to be that Weis needs to place the characters she’d developed over a well-paced trilogy in a new mental space, and that forces her to break them out of molds.  Unfortunately, all the development she did in three books didn’t lend itself to easy undoing in a single volume… and it got a bit dense.

Luckily, Weis’ penchant for writing action in which characters we care about do amazing things is unaffected and once the pieces are in place for the final act, the book flows briskly to a satisfying conclusion.  It leaves a good aftertaste and rewards the effort to get there.

So it’s not a bad book but, looking back, I probably wouldn’t have read it if I’d known exactly how it was going to go down.  Too much work and there are other good books out there.  Likewise, Weis probably would have been better served (artistically, although perhaps not financially – I don’t know details about that one way or the other) to leave the series where it stood and move on to other projects.  It was in a good place at the end of the original three books.

I don’t know Weis personally, so I can’t ask her about it, but I suspect she might want to take this one back.  I know that if the choice were mine, I’d let the original trilogy stand for itself.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose own galaxy-spanning space opera is entitled Siege.  You can check it out here.

Waving to the New-New Wave

science-fiction-bookshelf

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

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

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

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

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

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

Girl Looking at stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Groff Conklin Saves the Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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