science

Judas Unchained and the Conclusion of the Commonwealth Saga

I’ve said it before, so I won’t belabor the point, but I wish Peter F. Hamilton edited about 25% out of his books. They are too long and the narrative structure, which jumps around from one focus of the action to another very often, doesn’t help. If he was a talentless hack just filling in pages, or if his stories were bad, that wouldn’t be so frustrating.

But he isn’t. His Commonwealth saga is a truly interesting story with well-developed characters that takes place within a wonderful setting. I’m a sucker for mid- to far-future stories with human colonization of the galaxy, and this one definitely qualifies.

The story itself is about an interstellar war in which there is one clear antagonist and a bunch of nonhuman races (both human-generated and fully alien) whose loyalties aren’t quite clear at the outset. Intertwined with the galaxy-spanning conflict, we also get a police investigation novel intertwined… and in the end, the cops become almost more important than the people driving the starships against the enemy alien.

In fact, my one criticism of the saga is that it becomes clear rather early in the book that the war will go humanity’s way, and the final enemy standing is more of a question of justice than of survival. When a book is a thousand pages long, knowing that the good guys are too powerful to lose anything but their morality by page 500 is a little too much.

But even with that criticism (which in any other book would have been the death knell), the novel is worth finishing. You want to know how the character arcs play out despite the plot losing a certain amount of attraction, and you want to spend more time in that coalition of planets linked together by wormholes through which trains tie the planets together (yes, an interplanetary civilization based on trains. How cool is that).

If you’re patient, this is well worth reading. If not, you may be better off reading The Lost Fleet, which has a lot of the elements that make the Commonwealth fun but with a laser focus on action and character.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who has explored the question of humanity making a last stand against the forces of an uncaring galaxy in Seige, a well-received novel that looks not only at the limits of humanity’s physical powers, but also at the definition of humanity itself. You can check it out here.

And the View from Today

Last Monday, I wrote about the way National Geographic had dealt with the wonder of the moon landing when it happened, and felt the same wonder that readers must have felt back then, the same sense that nothing was impossible, and that the future was truly on the way.

But then 50 years passed.

Much of society, in the meantime, have become jaded to the fact that the moon was reached, and look at it in purely economic terms, or view space exploration as a waste of resources hat could be used for whatever pet social project people favor. It seems incredible to me, a mean and miserly way to consider humanity’s greatest achievement, something only minds with small horizons should be capable of, but I’ve seen it often enough that I’m no longer surprised when people say things like that.

In light of this, one might think that Ad Astra‘s edition dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the landings (which I was also given at the ISDC) might contain a certain amount of bitterness, a sense of betrayal by the rest of humanity.

But I forgot who I was dealing with. People who love space exploration are, above all, believers in the invincibility of the human spirit. Not for them reproach or recrimination; this magazine is a wonderful celebration of the past, sometimes a reminder of the fact that we still have work to do, and an affectionate look at the true heroes involved.

If you never read another issue of ad Astra, this one is worth your time. It teaches you how to look back in admiration. Which is the only way to think of the past.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside is a look at a future in which humanity has not only conquered the stars but become bitterly divided between those who live a physical existence and those who live only in uploaded versions of themselves. It will make you question what it actually means to be human. You can check it out here.

More ISDC Goodies

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Humanity’s greatest achievements are the moon landings. Nothing comes close. It’s literally (as well as figuratively) on another plane to everything else we’ve ever done. It was a statement of intent, that we are not going to live and die as a single-planet species doomed to irrelevance.

Since the landings, of course, the misguided souls who believe that we need to focus on Earth first have, unfortunately, stunted humanity’s growth, but a new generation of explorers are now focused on important stuff again… and they’re rich enough not to care if someone whines, which governments sadly could never do. Spurred by this, governments have been forced to put space front and center again, and we have a new space race.

But when I went to the International Space Development Conference in 2019, it was poignant to see what the last thing humanity has to be proud of actually is. They gave me a reprinted copy of the article in the December 1969 Issue of National Geographic that reported the Apollo 11 landing, complete with the original covers.

We should have something better by now. But the closest thing we currently have going for us is that the last time there was no human being in space was on October 30, 2000. Hopefully, that will be the last day in history in which the human race is chained to a single ball of dirt.

So I reread this Nat Geo excerpt. It’s an emotional experience. Sometimes, the fifty-odd years that have passed seem to have blunted the importance of the event in daily life. We forget that a quarter of the humans on the planet were watching the Apollo 11 mission. Everyone in the world stopped what they were doing when the landing occurred. Baseball games were interrupted so people could sing patriotic songs. Foreign leaders were glued to the TV. We just can’t imagine, in 2020 what it was like for those who experienced it.

That emotion and sense of something incredible happening hits you with full force as you read the fifty-year-old coverage. Thanks to this reprint (more than 60 pages), I lost hours watching moon landings one after another. 11. 12. 14. 15. 16. 17. Each different, and each the most important thing any human has ever done except for the others.

If you’re too young to understand, try to get a copy of the magazine (no one throws away National Geographics, so they should be cheap) and read the coverage from people who appreciated just what they were seeing, unsullied by years of earth-first dullards and pessimism breaking the human spirit. It will be an eye-opening experience into a world where anything seemed possible. It was possible, but people who hate seeing others spread their wings have worked against it since.

It’s the only way you’ll truly understand the new space age which is coming.

Gustavo Bondoni is a science fiction writer from Argentina whose critically acclaimed Siege deals with how humanity can evolve and still find itself at the brink of extinction… taken there by its own offspring. You can check it out here.

My ISDC Participation

Back in 2018, I sent a story entitled Acid Test to the Jim Baen Memorial Award contest. It was awarded second place (it was later published under a different title, and you can read it here), and with that, I was invited to the awards ceremony held during the International Space Development Conference in June 2019 in Washington DC. This is also how I ended up with my latest few copies of Ad Astra.

I had no idea what to expect as a conference VIP, so I kind of drifted around with the three other science fiction writers at the event, chatting, talking to other people, and even sitting in on some of the sessions (there were usually several conference rooms occupied at once, and they were all packed). The session I sat in on was one where they were talking about the differences between the philosophies of government space programs and the private sector, effectively (if not sexily) illustrated by an example using a valve purchase process. (Essentially, the private sector can do things cheaper because they allow themselves to iterate faster and give their suppliers less restrictive contracts, as well as being more open to innovation).

One of the most surreal moments of my participation came during the prize-giving lunch session. The keynote speaker (whose name I won’t mention), essentially said that one could achieve immortality by creating something she called a mind clone, basically letting your electronics gather all they can about your preferences, actions, habits and activities and making that data available for upload. That way, she argued, you would live on in an AI indistinguishable from your own self.

Now, I have given this a certain amount of thought, and I utterly disagree with this particular position. My own take is that immortality MUST imply a continuation of consciousness, so this doesn’t count. But more important than my own opinion is the realization that being a futurist must be full of this kind of skepticism. To have any shot of being a true visionary, it’s not enough to extrapolate current trends. Anyone can do that. You need to imagine the things that are going to come out of left field and catch everyone by surprise.

Her prediction most certainly does… even if it’s wrong.

Gustavo Bondoni is a science fiction writer. His novel Outside looks at the lines between artificial and natural consciousness, and at what happens when they blur too much for comfort. You can check it out here.

Ad Astra Again

For someone who’s never been a paid member of the National Space Society, I’ve received a reasonable number of editions of Ad Astra, the Society’s magazine.

It’s all because of being a science fiction writer, of course. SF writers, as a breed, are usually kindred spirits to NSS members (except for those writers who specialize in whiny near-future pessimism). We look to the stars and believe that humanity is essentially awesome and that we’re going to be facing the challenges of life in space sooner rather than later.

So some of my activities get me into positions where copies of Ad Astra come my way.

The first time was back in 2008. As a total unknown, I entered a contest for an antho called Return to Luna, sponsored, in part, by the NSS. As one of the winners, my story “Ménage à Trois” was published in the resulting book. Part of the prize was a year-long membership in the NSS, and I received a year’s worth of the magazine.

More recently, I scored second place in the Jim Baen Memorial contest, and got to go to the Award Ceremony in Washington in 2019. The ceremony took place within the framework of the National Space Society’s annual convention, so I got another chance to grab copies of Ad Astra. (As an aside, the story which came second was eventually picked up by NewMyths.com and should be available to read in their December 2019 issue by the time this post is published. So if you’re curious, go ahead and have a look).

Since I was given a copy of the Winter 2019 edition of the magazine, I read it.

And I loved it. Not so much for the specific information it contained or for any spectacular achievements in writing or graphic design (It looks decent but not hyper-polished) but because of the sheer optimism it exudes. It’s nice to feel surrounded by people that, when faced with a difficult problem say “what if we try this?” instead of shrinking from the challenge. The kind of people who believe the only true failure is the one you don’t learn from.

In a world where people seem to respect pessimism and seem to celebrate those who remain within the accepted limitations imposed by society while not overreaching, Ad Astra rekindles ones’ faith in humanity. We aren’t just a bunch of angsty whiners; some people are still looking outward and striving for greatness.

I’ve gone on record saying that I think the moon landings are humanity’s greatest achievement, and that we’ll never do anything more important than that until we leave Earth. This magazine is my proof that I’m not alone.

Hopefully, I can win a few more of these as time goes on. If not, I may just have to join the NSS!

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose book Siege looks forward into humanity’s far future where the challenges of space colonization and posthumanism come into sharp focus and are faced off against humanity’s unconquerable spirit. You can check out the well-received novel Siege, here.

Why Space Opera is so Much Better than Dystopian SF

We live in a world that seems to love its dystopias. From television shows about zombies to near-future resource-constrained novels to the sudden rediscovery of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is a crappy book that resonates with certain forms of gloom-and-doomism, it’s in vogue to consume media that tells us how awful everything will be.

The world, critically acclaimed media tells us, will be awful, and humanity will be trapped on Earth, never to leave again.

Of course, it isn’t actually obligatory to consume dystopian SF. While it’s difficult to escape it, there are good things on the shelves at your local bookstore and even, if you make the effort to look for it, on TV.

And while I can’t explain the popularity of depressing SF that takes place on Earth, I can tell you the name of its fun, inspiring antidote: Space Opera.

Now space opera doesn’t have to be Stars Wars cheesy. It can be technologically awesome, like Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space cycle, political, like Iain M. Banks Culture novels, or idea-driven in the tradition of Asimov or Heinlein. Hell, there’s even Eco-space-opera in the form of Dune.

It’s superior to the dystopian stuff for several reasons. The first, of course, is that it’s much more fun to read. Not only is the imagination liberated, but these tend to show humanity at its best, encountering and overcoming challenges on a galactic scale, as opposed to small-mindedly obsessing over the problems of one planet. It takes a very small mind indeed to feel threatened by the possibility of humanity spreading its wings; most people will be uplifted by this subgenre in ways that seldom happens in pessimistic portrayals of an earth-only future.

If you want proof of this concept, just walk down to your local bookstore. You’ll find Asimov, Heinlein, Clark, Herbert, Niven, etc. well represented despite the fact that they created their best work forty years ago in the best of cases, seventy in the case of Foundation… The problem is that those books still attract the kind of reader that was attracted to science fiction in the first place, while the recent crop of dull, politicized dystopia is only good for as a sleeping aid for insomniacs. (recent space opera is much more likely to be on shelves in 50 years than the tripe winning most awards…).

The second reason Space Opera is better is that it is actually more likely to come to pass. While no one should be a climate Pollyanna, the truth is that humanity, through thick and thin, has always advanced technologically. Some of the forthcoming challenges will be tough, but they will be overcome. Moreover, humanity is finally pushing towards colonization of space and that is the kind of barrier that, once broken, crumbles like a piece of stale bread. We will be out there in numbers, very likely within our own lifetimes. So any climate apocalypse tale that doesn’t have a significant human space presence is just silly. I’d shelve it under fantasy and not SF.

Finally, the attitude of the writers is a turn-off in many dystopian books. These volumes are often a reflection of the fears that capitalism and individualism are destroying the planet. While one may agree or disagree with that sentiment, the kind of obsession with it that drives someone to actually pen a novel to show how badly it will end don’t necessarily make for someone in whose head you want to spend a few hundred pages.

They are, in fact, obsessed enough to ignore the fact that living standards have been steadily rising worldwide for the longest time. I recommend The Better Angels of Our Nature for the science and numbers that pretty much conclusively prove it. But not for our poor, angry content creators – they need the world to be going down the tubes, because if not, they’re wrong about everything.

But the technical considerations and political annoyances are secondary. The bottom line is that Space Opera is just more fun, and we read and watch science fiction to be entertained, not to be preached at.

So go forth and buy something fun for a change. It probably won’t have won a Hugo but if you’ve been following the Hugos lately, you know that that no longer matters (caveat, if I ever win a Hugo, you can take it as a given that I was drunk while writing this and that the Hugo represents the very pinnacle of literature of any kind. But until that enormously unlikely event happens, I stand by the above).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who writes a certain amount of Space Opera both in short and long form. His well-received novel Siege is a far-future space opera in a very dark galaxy. You can check it out here.

Merril, Saved by the Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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.

Airport Reads: Scientific American

So, you’re standing in an airport and, once again, you’ve committed the cardinal sin of bringing along the wrong book for your trip.  In my case, the wrong book was Paradise Lost, which, though a cultural keystone, is not exactly light reading.

So what does one do?  You head for the newsstand, of course (I like reading on paper – I spend a lot of time writing on a computer, so the paper experience represents a break) and look for one of the staples of my airport reading.

Scientific American April 2017

In this particular case, I picked up the April 2017 edition of Scientific American (when it arrived unread, I tossed it into the TBR pile, which is why I’m just now writing about it–publications take forever to cycle through my TBR pile).

Now, looking at the cover, it’s easy to wonder why I’d have picked that one up.  I’m not particularly interested in Alzheimer’s research (ask me again in thirty years and you may get a different view), and water and conspiracy theories aren’t my passion either (although I will admit to being intrigues by supermassive black holes).  The thing is, none of that made any difference.  I picked it up with little thought for the articles listed, because Scientific American is a publication I like to read.

I like it so much, in fact, that I used to subscribe a couple of decades back.

Why?  Because it straddles the gap between National Geographic and things like Science or the New England Journal of Medicine nearly perfectly.  It speaks to the more educated layman as opposed to the specialist or the person who is curious but, perhaps doesn’t have enough training to be able to follow a overly scientific language.

It lands in that sweet spot that, though inhabited by relatively few people, is inhabited primarily by people who read.  The demographic is probably very similar to readers of The New Yorker or Fine Books and Collections.  It’s a world of polymaths and, hopefully of Classically Educated readers.

And the fact that every single airport newsstand in the US has copies of this one is no coincidence: Airports probably concentrate a higher proportion of potential readers than any street corner location outside of certain university towns or business centers.  Polymaths are, by their very nature, the kind of people who fly from one place to the other.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story author.  His latest book is entitled The Malakiad, and combines his fascination for history, Greek Mythology, anachronism, humor and Monty Python.  You can check out the ebook here and the paper version 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.