Science Fiction

Before the Golden Age

Astounding Stories - January 1934

Many of us who read science fiction were introduced to the genre, knowingly or not, through the authors from the Golden Age.  Essentially, if your foundation in SF comes from Asimov, Heinlein or Clarke, you are a child of the Golden Age (even if you’re no longer a child).

It’s the era of science fiction that has been discussed, anthologized and studied harder than any other.  It is to the genre what “Pride and Prejudice” is to romantic novels (and romantic comedies).  The era towers so far above today’s genre writing that if you ask random readers the name of an SF novel today, most of them will still choose books from that era (especially if we recognize that 1984 and Brave New World are novels from the same period).

To be fair, there have been a few monumental classics, books that have stuck in the canon after the Golden Age ended (Dune, Ender’s Game and, perhaps, Ringworld come to mind), but for the most part, the end of that era marked the end of the public’s fascination with the genre as a literary form (of course, they still flock to theaters to watch genre films, but that’s another story).

The causes are myriad, and today’s SF is often more a platform for political preaching (although, to be fair, it often was in the Golden Age, too) than it is an entertainment medium.

Scholars agree that the Golden Age began on the day that John W. Campbell took over the editor’s position at Astounding.  His new views on what science fiction should be forever changed the genre… and he had a brilliant eye for talent when it came to writers, too.

But as someone who’s already read a lot of what the Golden Age has to offer, and who is conversant with the later eras as well, I was curious to find out what had come before.  What were these famous glory days better than?  I assumed it was something that came before (the people who came later have been fighting the idea that the Golden Age was in any way a good thing… and they’ve been losing that battle for fifty years).

So I went straight to the source (well, actually I went to Ebay) and purchased two editions of pre-Campbell Astounding.  Let’s discuss one of them today: January 1934.

I’ll talk about the stories in a bit, but first, let’s discuss the Letters to the Editor.  Now, astounding, back then, had a section called “Brass Tacks” in which readers would rank the stories, criticize the artwork and argue with each other.  In this edition, readers were saying how much they enjoyed (or hated), the “new” astounding.  Apparently, after a change of publisher (they’d recently moved to Street & Smith), the mag had given a greater focus to literary merit and scientific accuracy, moving away from more adventure-driven SF in the Sword & Planet style.

From this, one gathers that the changes that Campbell so famously cemented were already well under way when he appeared onto the scene (more on that on Friday), and that the Golden Age might have happened even without his shepherding influence, although, to be fair, it would likely have happened in a much-diluted form.

The authors, likewise, were a mix of pre-Golden-Age and Golden Age names.  Nat Schachner represented the old guard.  His tale “Redmask of the Outlands” replaces magic with incomprehensible technobabble and uses that to set the stage for an adventure.  It’s a hell of a good adventure, mind you, but it’s not science fiction as it was understood under Campbell.  On the other side of the ledger, we have the cover story, Donald Wandrei’s “Colossus”, which extrapolates straight from the scientific understanding of the time to create a scenario so huge we still can’t say, eighty years later, whether it’s possible or not.  Also, there’s a story from Jack Williamson.  How cool is that?

As was the custom, there are also novels in serial form…  Even cooler!

Of course, not all of the stories were excellent. “The Confession of Dr. DeKalb”, a short story by Stanton A. Coblentz was a bit of a clunker, and the style in some of the others owed a huge debt to the lurid writing that came before… but in general terms, it’s easy to tell why readers flocked to the newsstands in droves to buy these things.  They were entertaining, the writing was decent for the most part, and the magazine opened windows into world once could lose oneself in (during the Depression, I imagine many people wanted to lose themselves, and this was better than looking at the world out of the bottom of a bottle).

My own favorites?  Impressively, I managed to enjoy the most scientific story (“Colossus”) and the least (“Redmask of the Outlands”) pretty much equally, so I’ll go with those.

Fun stuff.  Reading copies of these mags are still affordable, so I’d recommend grabbing one to anyone with an interest in the history of literature.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest novel, Timeless, was released last week as an ebook for all the major platforms.  You can check it out here.

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Unfortunately Annoying

I’ve gone on record saying that some SF books are less compelling than others.  I’ve been especially critical of the first part of Pandora’s Star, for example.  But that one eventually got under way and became compelling.

Today’s subject didn’t.

A Fire Upon teh Deep - Vernor Vinge

I don’t ever recall having read a science fiction novel that was full of amazing ideas that I had as much difficulty getting into as Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep.

And when I say ‘full of amazing ideas’, I don’t mean that he just looks at gender roles within established genre tropes or something equally banal and yawn-inducing.  I mean that Vinge comes up with concepts that are truly underexplored in SF.  Things like multiple-organism-minds or variable speed of light and its effects on technology.  There is truly groundbreaking thought behind this book and it deserved to be better.

But it was let down by the characters, especially the milti-organism mind creatures which, for some reason, I found to be more annoying than anything I can remember reading in the genre.  It wasn’t that the writing was bad–it isn’t–but I just found the alines themselves unbearable… and that made the whole book really tough to digest, as half of the action took place in that setting.

I went through it anyway and came away with a sense that it could have been a true great (many already consider it to be one, you should read other reviews by folks who didn’t have such a strong visceral reaction to a major group of characters), with a good quantity of space action, an implacable and incomprehensible (albeit mostly off-stage) enemy and enormous stakes.

The ending did feel a little facile, and some of his speculation bordered on fantasy, but those were minor quibbles.

Anyhow, I may need more time to sort out how I feel about this one.  As a writer, it’s obvious to me that this book is a major achievement… but purely as a reader, it was a hard grind that I really can’t recommend to others.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose own far-reaching space opera, Siege… is much less well known than A Fire Upon the Deep.  But people seem to like it, so there’s that.  You can check it out here.

An Interesting Juvenile

We spoke about interesting finds in Buenos Aires used book stores yesterday, and here’s another one.  Secrets of Stardeep is one I’d probably never have purchased if it hadn’t been in one of the used book shops.  But it was, so I picked it up.

Secrets of Stardeep - John Jakes

Now, I’d never heard of John Jakes which, apparently is wrong, as the guy is a #1 New York Times bestseller.  In my defense I plead the “his bestsellers happened in genres I don’t read that much” gambit (and will ignore his Planet of the Apes novelization)

But I only learned that later and I went into this one blind.  From the cover, I never would have guessed that it was a juvenile, and it clearly wasn’t marketed to the juvenile market–and the YA market had not yet been invented.  I thought it was a typical sixties / seventies space opera.  But it turns out that the protagonist is of about high-school age, and is preparing his examinations when he learns decides that a detour might help him clear his father’s name…

Of course, this leads to adventures galore on a faraway world which puts not only his continued academic career but his very life at risk.

That’s standard fare, and the characters, though more sophisticated are reminiscent of an Asimov juvenile novel.  What isn’t expected is the double twist at the end… which would have worked beautifully in an adult book, too.

I won’t say I loved this one, but I do respect what the author managed within the limitations of trying to appeal to younger readers.  It’s a solid effort which aspiring SF novelists might want to track down to see how it’s done.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He also has a space opera novel you can read.  It’s called Siege, and you can check it out here.

Global Warming Antho – My Take

I love reading publications that contain my stories.  Unlike many authors who just keep cut sheets of their own stories and discard the rest of the book or magazine (for reasons of space), I not only keep everything, but I also put it in my to-be-read pile.  Eventually, they cycle to the top (my TBR pile is an epic thing which holds a year or more of reading material at any given point in time).

Ecotastrophe II - Edited by J Alan Erwine

The latest contributor copy to make it to the top of the pile was Ecotastrophe II.  As explained in the Amazon book description (see link), this one is a follow-up to an antho that Sam’s Dot published a decade or so ago – this one is from Nomadic Delirium Press.  I have a story in this one called “The Wrong Kind of Ship”, which is an SF piece that I like quite a bit.

Sometimes small press anthos can be hit and miss, but I found this one to be solid all the way through.  The seven stories are entertaining, and though they all speculate about global warming, and therefore fall in the realm of science fiction (for now), there are different styles, ranging from the horror of “The Last Polar Bear” to the bleak outlook of “Pelagus”.

My own favorite was “The Perisphere Solution” by Robert J. Mendenhall, which is a futuristic thriller.

So, recommended not only for the eco-consciousness, but also for holding a number of good stories.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s is an author whose short fiction has appeared in dozens of publications, but a good place to start is with his reprint collection Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places.  You can see it here.

Debuting The Culture

Consider Phlebas - Iain M Banks

I’ve been (sorta) binge-reading the first books in a number of far future, deep-space series.  We’ve already discussed The Expanse and Pandora’s Star, so of the three initial books in this particular project, only Consider Phlebas remains to be discussed.  For those of you unaware, this is the first book in the late Iain M. Banks’ Culture series.

This book is a little strange.  Though I certainly enjoyed the whole more than I did Peter F. Hamilton’s long buildup, of the three modern Space Operas, it was the one I found least memorable… and I’m not entirely sure why.

It’s certainly a high-stakes, well-paced and well-written novel, with a sympathetic cast.  Perfectly acceptable in other words, and the Culture itself is often hailed as a mature galactic civilization.  At least one writer I respect a lot has told me that he adores these books.

So, yes, I enjoyed it, but it certainly didn’t stick in my mind.  Without being exactly certain as to why, I’ll take a guess: I think it’s because the Culture itself doesn’t appeal to me as a galactic society.

Yes, I get it.  Within a certain number of years, any society in the galaxy is going to lose its frontier vibe and establish social patterns that, if you ignore the scale, can be very similar to what happens on earth.  Hence, a paternalistic socialism based on the logic of computer overseers is not farfetched.  I can also see certain people–perhaps farmer mind types–being attracted to this.

I found it unattractive.  I like my deep space SF to be wild and wooly, and my societies to be very much a grab bag of opportunists, depots and empire builders.  If one of the belligerents is a more expansive version of Scandinavia, it might turn off the centers of my mind that are interested by things.

Maybe if they’d been painted as the bad guys, I might have taken more notice.  A computer-controlled society of extreme conformists, mindlessly colonizing everything with their bland goodness (which reminds me of the San Angelinos in Demolition Man) would be a terrifying enemy.

But they aren’t, they’re painted as the choice of logic.

I’m willing to give this series a further chance on the sheer strength of the writing and the fact that the buildup was much less annoying than Hamilton’s.  Keep an eye on this space for further installments.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s space opera, Siege, has untidy, ragged good guys and a whole bunch of really bad entities as enemies.  He promises that you won’t find it bland, and you can check it out here.

An Eclectic Review Publication

From the Earth to the Moon - Swimsuit scene

Anyone truly fascinated by literature, as I am, will, at some point (probably sooner than later) spend a certain amount of time reading critical work.  In my own case, it just felt like a natural progression from reading a lot to learning about the writing. Heck, I’ve even discussed some of these reads here on CE.

Likewise, the leap from reading criticism to writing it felt natural.  Although I still write a lot more fiction than criticism (what I do here on CE isn’t real criticism, it’s more an exercise in exteriorizing my own feelings about books without spoiling them for others).

The first inkling I had that my critical thoughts might be worthwhile to others was when I sent The New York Review of Science Fiction an article about the relative merits of science fiction in the West and behind the Iron Curtain in the sixties and seventies… and it was published.

The best part of that was that I received a short subscription to the magazine.  I downloaded the PDFs, printed them out… and was amazed.

The New York Review of Science Fiction logo

Here was no-holds-barred criticism about… everything and anything under the genre sun (suns?), some of it extremely tenuously linked to the genre, but all of it thoughtful.  The depth of scholarly musings on subjects that wouldn’t necessarily have occurred to me was simply stunning, and the concentration with which these publications had to be read surprised me.

I subsequently published another piece there, and received another subscription, so let me use those as an example of the kind of thing you’ll find there (the samples are from December 2016 and August 2017).

Apart from my own piece (about SFF in Brazil), you’ll find an analysis of Gregory Benford’s fiction looking at from a pure definition standpoint, as well as a scholarly search for the true origins of a vegetable caterpillar found in Ripley’s… and several literary examples thereof.  And these are just the cover stories of one of the issues!

The rabbit hole gets deeper, the scholarship becomes more specialized and you often find yourself reading about books you’re not familiar with… and writers you haven’t even heard of.

Sound like a recipe for boredom?

It isn’t.  Or at least it isn’t to me.  To me it’s the distilled essence of why I read in the SFF genre in the first place, a celebration of blurred boundaries between fantasy and reality as well as those between different literary genres.

I also understand why no less than the late, great Gardner Dozois always mentioned this publication in his annual Summation… and why he never failed to add the word “quirky” to his description.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose novella Branch is both quirky and thought-provoking.  You can check it out here.

Five Classic SF Novels From the Fifties

merican Science Fiction- Five Classic Novels 1956-58

Two (or possibly seven) American classics came together through sheer serendipity for me.  I was walking through the Strand bookstore in New York (can’t recall whether it was in the SF section or in the hardcover / special area near the checkout counter), and I found a copy of American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956-58. from the Library of America.

I love these Library of America editions for many reasons: price, presentation and, most importantly of all, the fact that they select only the cream of the crop.  Better still this copy, though pre-owned, didn’t appear to have been pre-read, so it was essentially like buying the book new.

But the important bit was the content.  Like it says on the tin, this contained five novels from a truly fruitful era of science fiction, written by five different men.  Here’s the list:

– Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein (this was the only one of the five that I’d read before)

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

A Case of Conscience by James Blish

Who? by Algis Budrys

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

merican Science Fiction- Five Classic Novels 1956-58 with Artwork!

By far and away, the most memorable of these, if not necessarily the best or most enjoyable is the Bester.  Some of this novel is extremely well done, and the parts that aren’t are, at least, laudable for attempting to do something different and audacious.

The main character is strikingly brutal, but then, the fifties were still an era where people understood the banal brutality of the common man, as opposed to what we do today which is to try to look for specific psychoses.  It’s interesting to realize just how effective dumb aggression from a man too underprivileged to know any better, but, at the same time too dogged to give up can be.  It’s also a reminder of why SF was more widely read back then than it is now – the heroes represented everyman, warts and all.  The poor unprivileged main character didn’t need to have a heart of gold… he could just be a guy doing the best that he could.

The part that isn’t brilliantly done is the whole time travel / trippy / ESP bit.  Of course, this was in vogue in the fifties, but it was not impressive sixty years later.  Still, a big book in its day, and still a staple of “best SF novel” lists, and of books like this one.

Who? and A Case of Conscience are tied as the next most memorable.  They are both deeply informed by the fears of the Cold War, and represent their time brilliantly, possibly even better than the Bester.  Staple reading for SF cognoscenti, and decent novels in themselves.

The Big Time is classic Leiber in the sense that he plays with boundaries of the genre and its rules as well as with history and time travel.  It is more fun than the others, and takes itself less seriously at the same time (which ends up making it a good book).  I found it slightly half-baked… and I think Leiber would agree, as he later expanded this concept.

The best of the bunch is still the Heinlein, even though it isn’t one of his “major” works.  Heinlein was just that good.

Most people who buy a book like this one will be general readers attracted to it by the fact that the works were selected by the Library of America.  They will come away with a critic’s-eye-view of what SF meant in the 1950s, and of five sociologically important books of the era.  Is it representative of what the public was reading?  Possibly, but it goes a lot further than that, too.

I heartily recommend this one to my readers who are looking for a good primer on science fiction.  If you share Margaret Atwood’s belief that science fiction is monsters and spaceships, you’ll be surprised by both the literary quality and the connection to the zeitgeist that this one displays.

And if you already like SF, chances are you may have overlooked these novels.  They are definitely worth knowing.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside is very much connected with the trends of the 21st century and explores the fears we have… or, at least, should have.

Now We’re Talking…

My attempt to read some new core SF got off to a slow start, even though it finished well, so my second attack of a space opera novel the size of an Egyptian building stone was faced with some trepidation…

Leviathan Wakes - James. S.A. Corey

I needn’t have worried.  James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, the first book in The Expanse, is a rollicking read from the very beginning.  Perhaps that is due to the characters not being described in excruciating detail but actually shown to us through their actions instead.  Perhaps it’s because the world requires a little less explanation than Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth.  Whatever the reason, this one hits the ground running… and just keeps going.

This is the kind of science fiction we all wish we’d grown up reading.  Fast-paced, well-written and not overly bogged down with politics (particularly not the kind of politics we are discussing today which, in a space-faring society will be long forgotten), it takes you straight to another world as soon as you open the book.

Perhaps this immediacy is the product of the author’s talent, or maybe it has been helped along by the fact that Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the two writers collaborating under the pen name Corey, get to read and critique each other’s work.  Whatever the formula, it certainly functioned perfectly in this particular instance.

Well enough, in fact, that it spawned a TV series on the SyFy Channel (yes, I know, but this one is reputed to be good), and it made absolutely perfect sense to me.  Unlike certain adaptations, which are head-scratchers, this one appeared to be the perfect fodder, in pacing, visual magic and plot for a movie or TV series.  I may need to watch it… if I find the time, I’ll talk about it here at some point.

Anyway, this one is highly recommended as the state of the art of bestselling space opera.  Even though it seems a little too fun and insufficiently committed on the political front to actually win a Hugo in the current climate, this series overcame those handicaps (???!!!) to be nominated for three of them so far.  That should tell you more about just how good it is than anything else I can write.

Anyway, go out and buy it.  Might not change your life in any deep, philosophical way, but it will entertain you.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a science fiction writer.  His own entry in the space opera field, Incursion, is available here.

A Man Who Starts Slowly

A quick note before I begin this post – I recently decided to get back to reading core SF and to fill some gaps in my reading.  To me, the central core of the genre consists of the kind of thing Asimov or Clarke used to do so well: deep space, far future and tech based speculation.  For my money, the current master of the form is Alastair Reynolds, but I wanted to give others a chance, so over the next few days you will see reviews regarding books by James S.A. Corey and the late Iain Banks (the ones with the M in the writer name).

Today, we start with Peter F. Hamilton.

Of the three writers involved in this particular quest, Hamilton is the only one whose novels I’d been exposed to previously.  I even wrote a review of Misspent Youth for SFReader.  In that review, I had a problem with Hamilton’s writing: he seems to start off extremely slowly, and to create characters that can be extremely annoying–or at least seem that way yo me.

However, the final ten percent of the book showed a pickup in pace.

Pandora's Star by Peter H. Hamilton

Pandora’s Star, the book I chose as Hamilton’s representative in the reading of core SF, suffers from almost exactly the same issue.  You end up hating many of the characters… and then they become important when the pace picks up (and boy, does it ever pick up) in the latter half of the book.  The main difference is that this book is much longer than Misspent Youth, so both the suffering and the payoff are much more prolonged.

To be completely fair to Pandora’s Star, the very first few pages are actually quite funny, but then it reverted to the same form as the other book and I had decided to pan the novel at about 40% through.  And then things exploded in the second half, and it became truly interesting.  I find Hamilton at his best when he is writing action and events as opposed to characters.  Or perhaps he is just a master at setting things up so you leave the book feeling that he is amazing at that–one way or the other, his books end well.

Well enough in this case that I will eventually be adding the second book in this series to my TBR pile.  I want to know how the longer arc ends, even if I don’t care about most of the characters.  The events are compelling enough.

So yes, this is a kind of tortured review.  I like the setting, like the tech, love the conflict… but I have a hard time rooting for some of the characters.  Maybe that’s the point, or maybe it’s just my own spin on normal human beings that others won’t find too much fault with… but that is what I’m left with after reading this one.

Still… I’m going to be buying book 2, so take that as you will!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own take on core SF can be found in two loosely linked novels: Siege and Incursion.

The First Love Never Dies Away Completely

When it comes to reading, the writers most responsible for my passion are probably Enid Blyton and the composite figure who went by the name of Franklin W. Dixon.  As a seven- to nine-year-old living in Zürich, a place where it got dark at a ridiculously early hour in winter, I would voraciously devour any age-appropriate mystery books in the school library – see number 5 on this list.

Interestingly enough, I also had my first brush with science fiction and fantasy literature by reading The White Mountains… but it didn’t seem to have stuck.

Another Fine Myth by Robert Asprin

I owe my love of the SFF genre, and my writing career, to someone unexpected: Robert Asprin.  He was quite big in the 1980s, and one day, randomly waiting for my mother to finish buying stuff at a Kroger at age ten or eleven, I picked up Another Fine Myth from the rack, probably because I liked the cover of the Ace paperback.

I was hooked.

Forever.

Yes, this isn’t mainstream fantasy.  It’s the equivalent of H2G2 for fantasy.  But, they are still the benchmark for laugh out loud comedy in the genre.  Just as the H2G2 books haven’t been surpassed by anyone for sheer comedy in SF, these are still the benchmark for fantasy (I’m also a huge Discworld fan, but those usually put the story before the comedy and just feel a bit less jokey to me).

Such is the power of those early Asprin books that I am still reading them today.  Asprin died in 2008, the year Myth-Fortunes (the latest one I’ve read) was published, so I’m assuming that this collaboration with Jody-Lynn Nye was the last he participated in.

Myth Fortunes by Robert Asprin and Jody Lynn Nye

To be completely honest, the final few books in the series have lost a little of Asprin’s original silliness; I suppose dilution is unavoidable when working with a collaborator.  On the plus side, without Nye, one can never be certain that the new myth books would have been written t all.  Asprin certainly had a long period when he wasn’t writing any more of them.

I’m just thankful we have the new Myths at all.  The cast of characters certainly doesn’t miss out by being less comedic, and the storyline–probably due to Nye’s influence–has taken some very interesting and unexpected turns.

I rate the early ones better, of course, but that might be just because Asprin had a blank canvas to work from, and he could put his characters in whatever situation he felt like without going against a firmly established vein.  The structure of the later books, and fully rounded characters puts a few constraints on doing that in the current iterations.

That doesn’t mean the new ones are bad; they aren’t.  In fact, they’re very good.  And Myth-Fortunes is a solid effort that appears to put many of the story arcs on new tracks… so now I need to read the next one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a short story writer and novelist.  His comic fantasy book The Malakiad isn’t as well known as Asprin’s, but he thinks it’s just as good (and he loves the cover).  Check out the print version here, and the Kindle ebook over here.