Short Stories

Progressive Fiction? It’s not Quite as Awful as it Sounds… At Least Not in This Issue

If you told me to read progressive science fiction without giving me any context, I’d run, not walk, away from you. You already know that I believe that messages often ruin things, and that including a message in any type of fiction is a fine line to walk. The risk of doing it badly is severe enough that I actually steer clear of most of the modern science fiction published, and I haven’t read a Hugo winner in a decade.

But I made an exception for the Jubilee Issue of The Future Fire. Why? Because it was gifted to me by the editor himself at WorldCon in Dublin, but much more importantly because said editor, Djibril al-Ayad seemed very cool and extremely smart apart from being very pleasant. I suspected that if anyone could navigate the current political quagmire of the genre, it might be him.

And I’m delighted to have read it.

First, let’s get to the obvious stuff. Yes, there are a few things in here that will offend the easily offended–homosexual relationships, zoophilia in the fairy realm, non-traditional gender roles and the like. Since this doesn’t bother me in the least, it made zero difference to my enjoyment. Most of the book is not centered on pushing any particular viewpoint, but in telling stories about people who happen to be gay, or deadly female soldiers, or whatever, without stopping to question or pontificate. Included that way, these characters are not annoyingly didactic but interesting and dynamic… very easy to enjoy.

As for things I did stumble over, the only one present in this one is an invented pronoun. I understand the arguments for this, but it threw me out of the story every single time, which is unfortunate because the story in which it appeared was otherwise excellent. Unless the author is specifically trying to be openly activist here, I’d recommend dumping the inexistent pronoun (but keeping other progressive elements exactly as they are) because the rest of that story was excellent (Names withheld to protect the guilty) and there was no real need to slash the people who’d enjoy the story that way. If a reader like me gets thrown out every time, you’re really limiting your readership to a small, extremely woke crowd by doing this.

Okay, we’ve dealt with the obvious. What about the stories?

For most of the stories in here, I’ll limit myself to the observation these are excellent tales written by supremely talented people, and I’m delighted to have read them. They run a gamut of different styles and voices, so any given reader will enjoy some more than others, but they are uniformly of high quality and, save that pronoun in an otherwise good story, most readers looking for a good story will enjoy them. There is little attempt here to convert the unwashed.

But there’s one story that stood out not just in this book but as one of the best stories I’ve read in a really, really long time. It’s called “Goodbye Snow Child” and the author is Jo Thomas. Wow. Just wow. The plot is very simple–a woman wakes, wearing a hood that keeps her from seeing anything, and knows nothing about what’s happening to her except what she hears from certain voices–but the execution is nothing short of genius. The last time I had this feeling of genius in a short tale was “Zima Blue” by Alastair Reynolds, which I read back in 2008 or so. Yes, it was THAT good. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you what Thomas did, but it’s wonderful. Track this one down and read it.

So I’d give this issue of The Future Fire high marks. Does the excellence extend to the others? I don’t know, but judging from this small sample size and what I saw of the editor, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. His most recent full-length collection of short fiction is entitled Off the Beaten Path. As the title implies, this one stays away from traditional genre settings in North America and Europe to focus on other interesting places while reminding readers that humans, at their core are more alike than different. You can have a look here.

The View from the North

Post-apocalyptic fiction comes in many guises, most of them dark. You’ve got experimental books in which one of the points made appears to be that the breaking of the world will change everything–even the way we think and interact with reality. You’ve also got the standard fare where everyone is a zombie or a vampire and the heroes have to blow them to pieces in order to survive. There are other recipes, too, but each has been trodden a million times before, and that goes for both the hyper-literary, the socially justice rage story and the straight action-adventure tropes.

So when you come upon a truly different take, you sit up and take notice… or at least I do. And when a post-apocalyptic collection ends on a hopeful note… well, that’s icing.

The Stars Seem So Far Away by Margrét Helgadóttir is a wonderful book which, to me is pretty much the definition of a slow-burn collection with unexpected depths. When I started reading it, I thought it was a straight story collection, one that brought together tales related in no other way than the fact that they’re all genre stories.

Eventually, however, I came to realize the tales are linked together, intertwining the post-apocalyptic fates of four young people in a world that is at once harsh and indifferent (and cold–the setting is basically a Viking area, Greenland and Svalbard) but also contains moments of kindness it one knows where to look. And though action and death are present, they aren’t the central tenet of the work. Rather, the way the world creates and modifies the characters themselves is paramount.

Although I only saw her for a few days in 2019, I consider the author, Margrét, a friend (and before that, she bought one of my stories for an award-winning anthology series). With this book, I found something that, despite being friends with several other authors, had never happened to me before: I felt like this book could ONLY have been written by Margrét. Only she could have given a story set after the fall of civilization as we know it the specific viewpoint that is expressed in this book: the hopeful thread that runs through even the darkest chapters, the deep-seated kindness in certain people and the calm, measured pacing, all reflect the Margrét I know.

It’s highly recommended, and those of you who’ve never met the author will certainly feel like you know her after reading it.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own collection of linked stories is not a genre work but falls firmly in the literary camp, focusing on moments of complete transformation in the daily lives of people just like you and me. It’s called Love and Death, and you can check it out here.

The Very Best of one of the Greatest Magazines

Most people of my generation who grew up reading science fiction know there are exactly three great SF magazines out there (this isn’t necessarily correct, because there are many more new and old, but this is what we know in our bones). Those magazines are, in chronological order of launch: Analog, Fantasy & Science Fiction and Asimov’s.

Two of these are deeply tied to specific immortal colossi of the genre – Analog is Campbell’s magazine, Asimov’s is… well, it’s pretty obvious if you think about it).

F&SF is not so intimately linked to any specific figure which, ironically, allows it to be linked with almost everyone who was ever anyone in the field. So when I saw a book entitled The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction Volume Two, I had to snap it up and immediately began searching for volume 1 (I still don’t have that one, BTW).

As I started reading this one, it quickly became apparent that F&SF is one of the greats for a very good reason. Of the first twelve stories, I’d read ten or so before in one or another “greatest” or “best of the year” compendiums. SO this isn’t just a magazine tooting its own horn–independent editors have been selecting these stories for “greatest” volumes for a long time. And remember, this is volume TWO. These are the stories that, for one reason or another, didn’t make it into the first volume. The fact that they’re among SF’s acknowledged greats is mind-blowing.

But the thing that stunned me the most is that the immortal Ellison tale “Jeffty is Five” got held over to volume 2. This is one of THE greatest stories ever according to pretty much everyone. That gives you some idea of the quality of fiction that F&SF has published over the years.

As we got into the more modern stories, from the eighties on, I found work that I wasn’t familiar with. Another thing that is lovely about this book is how the style changes as the years go on. All the stories that made it here are obviously well-written with excellently drawn characters, but in the early stories, the idea is front and center while in the later ones, you get a more character-centric vision. Some people (like me) will marvel at the Golden Age stuff, while others will admire the newer work, but everyone will be treated to the most pleasant way to see the evolution of the genre: by reading wonderful stories.

Of the newer ones, I’d have to say that George Alec Effinger’s “The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything” was the one I enjoyed most. It’s funny without being slapstick and memorable besides.

Of the old ones, I have to admit that, despite my love for idea fiction and Golden Age SF, I love Zenna Henderson’s “The Anything Box”. It’s just so well executed that the slightly weak concept is saved. Beautiful story.

For the record, I hate the ending of “Jeffty is FIve”, but it’s certainly a must-read.

And now, off to search, again, for Volume One. There are probably copies on Goodreads.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose collection Off the Beaten path does exactly what the cover says. It collects work outside the obvious settings of the US and Europe to uncover the fantastic (and science fictional) in the rest of the world. You can check it out here.

Disturbed Digest – My First Time

My first impression of Disturbed Digest – on receiving my first contributor copy, for my story in the December 2018 issue – was that the cover is brilliant and perfectly fits the topic of the publication. It looks like something that might have graced a cover of one of the horror or fantasy mags in the fifties, which is the highest compliment I can think of for cover art. I’ve never been shy in admitting that I love those old covers and feel that the modern ones suffer by comparison. This one does not suffer. It’s the perfect blood-red design with a classical human looking unsuspectingly to his symbolic doom. Wonderful.

So the stories inside had to live up to the cover, which is something that wasn’t always the case back in the Golden Age of science fiction in which the mags had classic stories by brilliant masters (Asimov or Heinlein or Leinster or whoever) but also filled their volume with lesser work.

Disturbed Digest doesn’t fall into this trap. There is no filler here, and the stories are chilling enough to carry the cover. Everything from nicely tuned dread to cosmic horror on a Lovecraftian scale, these dooms can be well-deserved or utterly unfair, as the story demands.

The story I enjoyed the most was probably Lee Clark Zumpe’s “Wild with Hunger” that, though it breaks no new ground when it comes to monsters, it is beautifully written and delivers the sensation of being in a dreadful place as well as I’ve seen recently. Another particularly good one was Aria J. Wolf’s tale, “The Death Waltz”, with a reveal at the end that you likely won’t see coming.

Recommended.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest collection is entitled Off the Beaten Path. Moving away from the usual western European settings, this one will open your horizons to cultures and places you never suspected existed. You can check it out here.

The Worlds of SF, F, H Volume IV – Robert’s Last Ride

Last week, I reviewed the third volume in Robert N. Stephenson’s World’s of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror series, and now it’s time for Volume IV.

I found Volume III to be truly well-written, action-packed and just plain fun. Volume IV veers in a different direction, being a little more pensive and experimental, although I’m not certain that’s what the writers of the short stories actually intended: it may be because a larger number than usual of the stories are either translated or written by authors whose first language isn’t English.

The reason this feels a little more experimental is down, I think, to three things: pacing, word choice and sentence structure.

The pacing issue is probably the easiest to spot. A couple of stories (both by Italian writers) were extremely slow and convoluted. If Lovecraft were writing today, that’s probably what he’d been doing. I don’t know much about the state of Italian literature today (my latest Italian reads were Eco and Bassani), but I hope that’s not where fantasy writers in that country are today, because they’d have eighty years of catching up to do.

Word choice and sentence structure are also off in some places, which certainly didn’t help my own reading pleasure. I know a lot of people believe the influx of foreign voices into the English canon is a wonderful thing. I agree… to a certain degree. Sometimes, you don’t want a chore, you want a bit of entertainment, and that means being comfortable with the text in order to enjoy character development and story. So foreign writers, in order to have a wider readership in English, need to learn to create prose that works for typical readers… and translators need to understand that the differences in structure are not wonderful pieces of the author’s voice but things that are intrinsic to the structure of the language of origin; there’s no need to inflict them on readers in other languages.

I read in English primarily, but I also read at a high level in Spanish and Portuguese – I will never read a book in one of those languages in anything but the original, because translators often make the mistake of bringing the things that sound fine in one language into the other… where the reader stumbles over it.

Fortunately, there are a couple of stories in this one that not only don’t suffer from the language ills mentioned and also aren’t slow, bizarre pieces which I find pointless. “Me and Septimus: In Extremis” by Kain Massin is a novella length piece which I absolutely loved. Fun, historical and with excellent monsters, it felt a lot shorter than it was. “The Story of Mynheer Reinaerde and the Purloined Tails” was not only fun, but also proved that authors Tais Teng and Jaap Boekestein have a pitch perfect ear for the English language (either that or their translator doesn’t suffer from delusions of artistry, which is a wonderful thing). Wonderful, memorable tales, both of them.

For the record, my own tale in this one is called “Summerland”… For obvious reasons, I won’t review that one.

The rest of the book certainly wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t quite as good as Volume III in my opinion. I’m pretty sure modern critics will disagree strongly with that, so to each, their own!

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest major collection is entitled Off the Beaten Path. As its name implies, it brings visions of a world far from the usual European and North American haunts. You can check it out here.

A Tribute to a Lost Friend

A couple of years ago, I reviewed The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Volume II, edited by Robert N. Stephenson. What I didn’t mention back then was that Robert, apart from being a hard-to-please editor who rejected a lot of my work before I sold him anything, was also a friend.

Only a couple of months after that review came out, I learned that Robert had taken his own life. I’ve now read the next book in that series, Volume III, and it was another wonderful look into three genres I love. But more than that, it was a reminder of just how good a sense Robert had for a good story.

Unlike a lot of anthos of this type, particularly from small presses, there wasn’t a single dud in the lot (which I suspected – I tried to send Robert a trunk story for this one and he told me to try harder… the man knew his stuff), and some of them were really, really good.

This volume contains everything from monks besieged by demons to superheroes to Poe-based science fiction. It truly does what it says on the cover, and it’s obvious Robert received a bunch of good stories for this one, because it’s a thicker volume than the last.

My own favorite was the wonderfully offbeat “A Particular Skill Set” by Julie Frost that deals with fairy queens in a very different way, but also has fanged bunnies. Weirdest one was “Even Souls Sleep” by Jay Hellis, in which a man who checks cargo manifests on trains full of dead souls finds an anomaly…

But, as I said before, there isn’t a true dud in the lot. Some have endings that I didn’t like, but that’s to be expected (and something deliciously ironic, considering how many people have taken me to task for my own endings on occasion).

Like I said last time, there’s something in here for everyone, and this one was truly strong.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose collected fiction appears in many places. His most recent full collection is Off the Beaten Path, a mix of light and dark, fantasy and SF that takes place far from the usual, overdone settings. You can check it out here.

The Fiction Issue of The New Yorker

So, how far behind am I? I just finished reading the June 10 and 17, 2019 issue of The New Yorker. A lot of the articles, particularly the ones referred to goings on about town are probably out of date a year and a half, plus a pandemic, later. The reviews, though still valid, probably aren’t as fresh as they could be, either.

But a fiction issue, as this one purports to being, should be okay, so I read it with enthusiasm. All right, let’s qualify that: I don’t normally love the fiction in TNY. I find it a little too dull and boring.

The three stories in this issue were not bad. Not memorable in any way (Sanctuary in the Artist’s Studio is probably the best of the three), but not bad.

More interesting is the fact that they sprinkled the usual content with something called border crossings, where immigrants in different parts of the world describe their experiences. This is non-fiction, and it’s kind of weird to see The New Yorker voicing it. Weird because I expect TNY to show an idealized intellectual-progressive view of things, which obviously doesn’t exist when you bring the real world into it. Even more shocking to me was an honest article about what life in supposed socialist paradise (and failed state) Venezuela is like. It’s the kind of thing one would expect TNY to sweep under the rug, as it will definitely make a good portion of its readership uncomfortable.

So my respect for the magazine–despite still feeling the fiction is just okay–went up a few notches this time. It’s nice to see realism even among the intellectual elite who tend to try to block it out and live in an idealized world where theory rules and when reality doesn’t support that way of thinking, it’s reality that’s wrong.

If you need to understand The New Yorker by reading one issue, this is the best one to pick up of the ones I’ve seen.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres. His literary fiction is collected in Love and Death, a novel in short story form that tells the tale of several families, intertwined through generations. 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.

Lost and Found and an Emotive Surprise

I write in a bunch of genres and receive very different kinds of contributor copies for my efforts. Sometimes the cover and general look and feel of the book make me think it’s going to be great, and other times, awful. When I saw my copy of Lost and Found, I wasn’t expecting much, even though the book appeared solid and well printed.

But I always read my contributor’s copies, so I read it… and was blown away. The stories in here pull at the heartstrings, and they pull hard. Of course, I should have suspected it. After all the subject of loss lends itself to hugely powerful situations, and the table of contents of this book was full of names I recognized as talented practitioners.

It’s an emotional roller coaster containing everything from fantasy horror in an amusement park to straight literary fiction, and it’s well worth the read. Editor Terri Karsten has done a wonderful job.

My favorite was probably “Lost Lamb” by Paul Lewellan, a mature tale that reads just the way I like my mainstream fiction. Well done. Also memorable was “It Happened at Stratosphere Heights”, by Antonio Simon Jr. – by far the weirdest one in here.

Another thing I really liked was the section entitled “On the lighter side” which, as the name implies, is a collection of stories with more levity – some outright funny, that breaks up the serious nature of the book very well.

In conclusion, this one was a hit with me and proves again that judging a book by its cover is a bad idea, especially when the cover is perfectly fine, just not quite the one you would have chosen. This one is worth the time.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose literary fiction is collected in the book Love and Death, which is a novel told in short story form intertwining the lives of characters who, for the most part, are unaware of how their lives affect everyone else. You can buy it here.

Writing Advice that Sucks – and Some that Doesn’t

Are you a writer still looking for that first sale? Or maybe to move up another step in your career?

Have you already read all the books (particularly On Writing) and everything online… and have gotten to the point where you actually welcome writing advice from monster book writers?

Excellent. You’ve come to the right place. Prepare to hear some hard truths.

If you’ve really done your homework, you’ll have been inundated with the following gems:
– Cross out all your adjectives
– The secret to writing is RE-writing
– Adverbs are from the devil
– The passive voice is unacceptable
– Use simple words
– If you don’t have several beta-readers you’ll never sell a word

Now, all of these are well-intentioned and there’s a reason each of these is posted a billion times online. Mainly, that reason is that a lot of bad writing is bad precisely because writers overwrite or miss an editing pass and agents and purchasing editors are tearing their hair out over it, so they pretty much convince themselves that if they see another adverb, they’ll track down the writer and shoot him.

But that’s only a part of the story. A lot of excellent writing is heavy with adjectives, written in the passive voice or even, shudder, in the second person. And the writing advice you’ll find online will be very discouraging if that’s your style.

So these are good for beginning writers, except for that one about the secret to writing being re-writing. I secretly suspect that that one was created by some successful writer who wants to keep newcomers out of the field by making the act of writing seem like torture. Because that is what excessive rewriting is… torture (you’ll need some rewrites to whatever you do, but knowingly writing a terrible first draft is just silly. Get it as good as you can and then polish as necessary, don’t relish the rewrite). I like Heinlein’s mandate to rewrite only to editorial command.

So throw all of them away. Here’s my take on how to become a writer:

  1. Be a reader. Preferably from the age of four (get a time machine and go back if necessary). If you can’t swing starting at the age of four, then start right now. Drop whatever you’re doing and grab the nearest book. Read to the end and grab the next nearest. Only once you’ve read everything you can reach without getting up are you allowed to leave your chair. And then, only to go to the bookcase and continue the process. Read in your target genre and out of it. Read magazines and theater. Read poetry (you can yell at me in the comments, but read it anyway). You’ll be surprised at how much your sense of what sounds right will take a quantum leap forward… a lot of writing is unconscious, and if the raw material isn’t there, the writing will be flat. This is the most important writing advice you’ll ever hear. An added benefit is that if you’re a voracious reader, you won’t have to study Strunk and White because you’ll absorb it from authors who already know it. If you try to write without being a voracious reader, you will suck, and you won’t even know it. Let me spell that out for you again: if you’ve ever said “I don’t have time to read,” you are a crap writer. Period. MAKE time.
  2. Write every day. Have writer’s block? Cool, force yourself to write a thousand words. Not inspired? Awesome, now, ass in chair and give me a thousand. Tired? Yeah, that sucks, especially since you are going to be writing a thousand words with your eyelids at half-mast. I think you get the point. Writers are people who write.
  3. Finish and submit your work. No excuses. Get it done, get it polished and get it subbed. It’s worthless on your hard drive and if an editor or an agent hates it, they’ll hate it. Fortunately, since you are forced to write every day, you’ll be thinking about your next piece when the rejection comes in. And once it does, you send it back out immediately. If you’re any good, it will eventually sell (or place in a 4-the-Luv publication). If you aren’t, you need to go back to step 1, above – remember that not everyone is born with Oscar Wilde’s pure talent… but everyone can learn to hear the rhythm of a sentence in their head and turn out publishable prose. I know one particular genre writer who has zero natural talent, but whose workmanlike writing is readable enough to have gotten him onto the NYT bestseller list and writing for at least two wonderful SF properties. I respect that.
  4. Do NOT worry about rejections. There are tens of millions of writers out there. If you’re doing 1-3, you’re already ahead of most of them. Now it’s just a a case of beating the millions that still remain onto a table of contents or a publisher’s release timetable. So getting rejections just means you’re one step closer to seeing that piece in print. Also, if you’re doing steps 1-3, the act of writing, reading and getting your rejected pieces back out there will restore that spark of hope.

So that’s my advice. Note that I’m not prescribing how to tell your stories. Your voice is yours, and if it’s good enough, you will be published. If it’s not good enough, keep reading until you can recognize a good sentence just by how it looks on the page.

It’s hard work, but then being a writer is very cool… and very competitive.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His latest book is a monster book (well, we did warn you) entitled Test Site Horror. It’s an action adventure piece set in the Ural Mountains where genetically-modified dinosaurs and Russian special forces troops battle it out to see who the apex predator actually is. You can check it out here.