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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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Timeless Released!

Timeless - Gustavo Bondoni

It’s not every day that I release a new book.  And it is even less frequent for me to attempt a new genre.  I’d never written a thriller before, much less a romantic thriller, but it’s a genre I read in frequently.  The end result was that I felt both excited at the novelty and comfortable while writing it–an amazing experience, in fact.

Timeless was launched over the weekend, and it’s an ebook format.  You can get it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and, if you prefer to avoid the big retail chains, you can also get it from Smashwords.

A little about the book for those of you who might be curious:

Journalist Marianne Caruso is in Athens on her first investigative piece: finding the reclusive author of a best-selling novel about drug smuggling in the Aegean. She goes out for a night on the town with a good friend, Karina, who disappears after leaving the club.

Marianne’s journalistic instinct, combined with a re-reading of the novel, makes her suspect the kidnapping is linked to her investigation and that the book describes real criminals and events—criminals desperate to keep her from publishing her findings. Now even more determined to locate the author, Marianne teams up with Karina’s family to speak to underworld contacts and discovers the author is a monk at an ancient monastic complex forbidden to women.

Medieval misogyny be damned, Marianne arranges a secret meeting with the monk, but the criminals ambush her. Separated from her companions, she runs for her life with only the monk himself for company, a man who might hold the key to rescuing Karina, but whose past holds secrets that might make him just as dangerous as the men she’s trying to escape.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer based in Buenos Aires.  You can check out his website here.

The Other Airport Read

A couple of weeks ago, I spoke of one of my usual airport purchases: Scientific American.  Well, there’s another mag I often buy in airports, and that one is The New Yorker, proving that I’m not only a pretentious twit, but that I’m a stereotyped pretentious twit.  I guess I can live with that.

The New Yorker - September 16th, 2017

My most recent moment of weakness came in September of 2017 (see cover above) but, as you can see, I’m reviewing it over a year later.  Just like my scientific American, the reason for that is that I only read the first few articles, the ones that are time-based such as concert dates and the like, before tossing the mag onto by To-Be-Read pile, which is a beast about a year in height.

Of course, once I got to the mag, the concert dates were no longer relevant, and many of the theater reviews referred to shows I could no longer watch, but I read through them again anyway.  The reason for this is that I’m always fascinated by The New Yorker’s combination of two things: an appreciation for the finer things in life such as symphony orchestras and the breathtaking capacity to discuss run-of-the-mill stuff in terms that makes you think they belong among the finer things in life.  As an example of this latter trend, it’s impossible to tell whether a couple of the lesser-known bands they talk about are just a bunch of friends who’ve been practicing in a garage and sound like it or the second coming of the Jimi Hendrix Experience.

I spend this time on the social news at the beginning of the magazine because that sums up the whole attitude perfectly.  It’s a local section that doesn’t feel local: you get the idea that the writers truly feel that a concert happening in a bar in New York needs to have a global audience, but it’s also an exercise in discussing everything, regardless of relative quality or banality, in the most exquisite language possible.

Of course, 95% of the people who pick up a copy of the mag will fall into one of two groups: those who shake their head in disgust at the pretentious nature of the writing, and those who think that reading it will somehow “improve” them (some of the latter group may be right, so I encourage them to keep trying).

For the five percent remaining, this one is a guilty pleasure.  We know what the editors are doing, and yet we love the magazine anyway.  We can take the pretentiousness, or leave it aside to read less opaque prose, but whenever we do come back, we find it charming.  I like to think that a lot of the readers of Classically Educated are the same way (although I often hope they don’t think we’re in any way pretentious twits…).

A final note for the fiction section, which, as you can imagine, I always read with particular attention.  The story in this one was well written… but I always seem to buy the editions with the suburban angst and sorrow.  Where are the great, bold stories of yore?  I guess they’re gone to wherever the bold men and women of yore have been laid to rest–after all, the fiction does reflect the readership, or at least it should.

Anyhow, if you’ve never picked up a copy of The New Yorker and read it cover to cover, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Even an old copy bought used is a good bet.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer based in Buenos Aires.  His literary heroes include Borges, Wodehouse and Asimov, and if you can reconcile those three, you are a better psychologist than he is.  His short fiction has been collected in Virtuoso and Other Stories, and you can check it out here.

 

Still the Greatest Name in Literature

As I’ve mentioned more than once, I have a habit of perusing used bookstores.  There are some books that I invariably grab whenever I happen to be at one of them.  Any Wodehouse that I don’t own gets added until such a time as I happen to run across an expensive edition I shouldn’t buy but do so anyway.  Likewise anything by Gerald Durell (not his brother, though).

There’s also one set of books that I buy exclusively at used bookstores and of which I’ve never owned (or indeed seen in person) a new copy, and that is Ian Fleming’s original James Bond series.  The most recent one of these that I’ve read is Goldfinger.

Goldfinger - James Bond - Ian Fleming

Of course, the first thing one wonders when reading these books is how well the movie (all of which, of course, civilized people will have watched multiple times) follows the plot of the book.  In Goldfinger, I’m happy to say that the movie is, in fact strongly based on the original material… which is always a relief.

The book is one of the better Bonds, as anyone who has seen the movie would have suspected, and I won’t talk about the plot here.  Instead, I’ll discuss how society has advanced and also how it has regressed since the book was published.

The advance is simple and easy to explain: Fleming was a Brit writing at the tail end of the Empire.  His attitude with regards to everyone else on the planet was one of paternalistic condescension, racist assumptions and stereotyping.  I found it quaint, but I’m sure it will appropriately infuriate certain people who make it their life’s work to be offended by such things.  Cue the book bannings.

Also, it was a reminder of why a James Bond actor who isn’t believably originated in a 1950s public school England (or descended from a man who was) is a travesty, and you might as well call the character something else entirely because no matter what you call him, he is no longer James Bond.

Pussy Galore

The place in which we’ve regressed isn’t quite as obvious at first glance, but it becomes glaring once you stop to think about it.  I’m referring, of course, to Pussy Galore.

Let’s start with the first question: did Fleming know what he was doing?

Yes.  He knew exactly what he was doing.  He used the name in the modern way, which, back then, was likely either soldierly slang or something said by sailors.  The important part, as far as Fleming was concerned, was that the upper-class censors and publishing house officials that would be looking at the books would have no clue… and he just barefacedly left it in the MS and, as expected, raised no eyebrows.

By the time the film was made a few years later, most people got the joke, but the British producers kept it anyway… only the American censors attempted to take any action, but in the end, they left well enough alone.

Cue 2018… could a name like this, unless used as a purely satirical element showing that the writer or producer is a socially conscious person of obvious virtue, make it onto the big screen in a mega-popular production?

No way.

We live in an age of neo-puritanism, in which the political correctness has replaced religious fanaticism as the scourge upon humor.  Of course, both were proposed by “good” people, but the situation appears to have reached the point where we’re shocked by character names that made it past the censors in the 1950s… that can’t be a good thing, can it?

Anyhow, this is a good book to start from if you’ve never read a James Bond novel.  Familiar enough to be Bond, but interesting in its own way.  As Fleming’s writing has slowly moved from trashy-bestsellerdom to classic, and is recognized as the inspiration for so many others, it’s also important reading as more than a guilty pleasure.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s Outside is a tense tale of disaster and mystery.  You can have a look at it here.

Ongoing – and still going well

A Kingdom Besieged - Raymond E. Feist

A couple of months ago, I mentioned that I’d recently read At the Gates of Darkness by Raymond E. Feist.  Well, as befits a series that I enjoy quite a bit, I followed that up by reading the next installment of the long running Riftwar saga:  A Kingdom Besieged.

After a series has been going on for so long, the enemies tend to get more and more dire, and this one is no exception.  Our mortal heroes find themselves having to face enemies on an ever more cosmic and incomprehensible scale.

And yet, this series doesn’t suffer from this excess.  I think that’s mainly because Feist has a deft hand when it comes to making the enormous extremely personal and keeping the characters’ style of conflict resolution constant, irreverent and always entertaining.  That, more than any big concepts is what has made this series a steady mega-selling winner for all of its history.

This is like the perfect antidote to things like A Fire Upon the Deep, which we looked at last week.  Yes, the Vinge has a huge edge when it comes to originality. In fact, Feist re-uses concepts from every great fantasist ever, from Tolkien to Lovecraft, but even though his work is not in the least original, it is still much, much better.  Yes, I know A Fire Upon the Deep is reaching classic status, but I would argue that Feist’s long-running series deserves it just as much, if not more, than the Vinge.

Anyway, if you haven’t already done so, pick up a copy of Magician, the first book in this series.  You’ll be taken on one hell of a ride.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is a comic fantasy novel entitled The Malakiad.  You can check out the Kindle version here and the paperback here.

 

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.

The Bookends of Doom

The Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis

It’s been popular in the past couple of decades to attack The Chronicles of Narnia for its excessive use of Christian messaging.  This is jus one unfortunate side effect of a culture that politicizes everything in the most infantile of ways, meaning that whatever is on the “wrong” side of the political divide must be attacked.  Cue the Marching Morons obeying the dictates of their political-dogma-spewing overlords.

Even though I’m an atheist and should have been shocked (shocked, I tell you!!) at anything which hints at preaching, I decided to read the books anyway.  Why?  Various reasons.  First off, I was lucky enough to have been a kid in a time when good books were just good books and not symbols of protest, so all the later mud-slinging really made no impression on me.  Secondly, generations of children have loved these, and I thought it would be nice to see what all the fuss was about.

Thirdly, I remembered having read, at least partially, one or two of the books when I was a little too young to appreciate them, and wanted to complete that reading.

Most importantly, perhaps, I hate having important gaps in my reading.  By important, I mean books that have stood the test of time, not books that are faddish today – I won’t be running to buy any recent Hugo-award winners unless they are still beloved in twenty years’ time.  But Narnia?  Yes, a must read for anyone who with the maturity to leave political silliness aside.

So… How did they hold up?

In order to answer that question, I need to talk about the order in which the Narnia series was composed vs. the order in which it was meant to be read.  The first four books written (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair) follow the adventures of two brothers and two sisters who initially discover the land of Narnia and have adventures there.  These are the solid core of the series and each is enjoyable and beautiful.

Is there Christian messaging in this core?  Yes, there is, but it’s pretty light, and any intelligent child, anywhere on the political / faith spectrum, will be the better for being exposed to it and getting to think about things.  Plus, they’ll enjoy these books enormously.

Then came The Horse and his Boy, which, in reading order, slots between Wardrobe and Caspian.  This one is a good little adventure as well, although it doesn’t really do much for the central story except to set up the final book.

The last two books to be written were where C.S. Lewis made his big mistake.  The Magician’s Nephew was written to be the first in the series in reading order, and The Last Battle, as its name indicates, was meant to close the series out.

These are the only ones that fall flat, for several reasons, but mostly because Lewis was attempting to make his message (and yes, it is a very traditional Christian message) obvious to everyone.  They are just there, in fact, for that reason, and the adventures are relegated to a secondary role–the books suffer for it.

Are these two unreadable?  Not by any stretch of the imagination.  They just aren’t up to the spectacularly high level of the others.

I would recommend that anyone interested in this series read the first four (or five if you can’t get enough of it) books as written and ignore the rest.  And I recommend it to anyone at all.  If an atheist can enjoy it, so can you.

Just stay away from the last two books written.  They… don’t help.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose fantasy novel The Malakiad is not a Christian novel. In fact, it offends every religion from ancient Greece onwards, and it offends atheists and the politically correct, as well.  In fact, if you are not offended by it, Gustavo will be extremely upset.  You can check it out here (ebook) and here (paperback).

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.

The Golden Age of Speed

Used book stores in Argentina are a hit-or-miss proposition when it comes to books in English.  On one hand, since most people are much more proficient in Spanish, a lot of places don’t bother to have a decent stock of books in other languages but on the other, since Argentina is way off the beaten path of English-language collecting (it’s not Hay-on-Wye by any stretch of the imagination) and since there was a huge influx of immigration from Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, it’s still possible to find interesting and odd (as opposed to valuable) books in the piles.

The Book of Speed

One of my more recent discoveries is a book of essays entitled The Book of Speed (the one in the image isn’t my copy–mine is moth-eaten and ragged and the dust jacket is long gone).  This one is a compilation of essays by notable celebrities of the time, including men who broke the land and water speed records, such as Malcolm Campbell and George Eyston) and airplane manufacturer Geoffrey de Havilland (paternal cousin of Olivia, who acted in the screen adaptation of Gone with the Wind and countless other films).

But the true fascination is that the book was compiled in 1934, which comes through beautifully in several aspects.  The most notable, perhaps, is the innocence with which German vehicles such as the Do.X flying boat are describes as technical marvels by this British book.

The second is the style of writing, in which the British Empire is still a palpable character and in which there is a delightful mix among the men writing the book.  Some are military, some are from the aristocracy, and some have pulled themselves into the text by their bootstraps–but all are treated equally as experts in their field.  It was a time of transitions, but one where the old ways were still alive and well.  It’s extremely easy to see, just from reading this book, why the loss of Empire hit Britain so hard: the way of life that was lost truly did have some exceptional qualities that modern life can’t begin to approach.

Book of Speed - Speed in Modern Warfare Chapter

That glory of living, the gusto for human advancement comes through loud and clear, but it isn’t the central tenet of this book.  That would be the search for going ever faster and, ironically, destroying the leisurely pace of life they don’t even know they’re celebrating.  Unbeknownst to them, and unlike other books that serve as an elegy to the same era, the authors of this book are describing the very things that ended the way of life they’re talking about.

Speed is everywhere: on land, in the air, on the water.  Trains, planes, automobiles, ocean liners, war boats, Zeppelins–each has its place in the text.  And the photos serve as a fascinating backdrop.  Most pictures from this time period are either of war (especially things like the Spanish Civil War) or of the buildup to war, so seeing the civilian side is amazing.

It’s certainly worth the fifteen dollars or so a demolished copy would set you back on ebay.  If you want a high-quality example, you may need to budget many times that.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose most popular book is the far-future novel Siege.  You can check it out 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.