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The Last Frontier in Art

It’s no secret that we like art here.  For our readers entertainment, Classically Educated has visited museums, discussed modernist movements and generally illustrated our posts with art that strikes our fancy.

It’s also no secret that we believe space is where humanity’s eyes should be focused, and that any argument for “fixing Earth first” can only seriously be expressed by people who combine shortsightedness with an appalling lack of imagination.  Nothing in the world denotes a person with limited intellectual faculties than someone who believes that money should be removed from space exploration because there are poor people right here who need our help.

So, a combination of two things we feel passionate about should be an incredible journey, right?

The Art of Space by Ron Miller

Well, in the case of The Art of Space by Ron Miller, I have to admit to mixed feelings, although this is more due to my own prejudice than any failing of the book.

The problem is twofold.  In the first place, I was brought up on book covers and illustrated space books as a child and, to a lesser degree, the covers of the pulps.  This was the kind of art I was expecting to find in page after page of this book.

Secondly, I like to gaze at space art as an escape, not necessarily to study technique or see what fine artists were doing in the genre.  This book is much more a history of the evolution of the different types of space painting (painting of planets, space vehicles, etc.) than a gallery of images intended to create a sense of wonder.

Does it have wonderful images in it?  Yes.  Covers as well, of course.  But this is a book perhaps left to the person who studies art for art’s sake who, for some reason is looking at space as a subject.  As an art aficionado, I clearly have a huge blind spot when it comes to what I want from space art.

I can’t seem to leave my populist inclinations aside in this particular genre (so much for my supposedly unassailable elitism) and seem to prefer the garish fascination of pulp to the much more refined visions in this book.

Oh, well.  Nobody’s perfect.  If you can get past that, this is a really good book.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose novel Incursion has the most garish cover of any of his books.  Ironically, he’d asked for something more subdued and was overruled by his publisher.

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Beyond Revelation Space

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days By Alastair reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is probably the most important writer to enter the SFF genre in the past 20 years or so, certainly the most important to be writing pure SF.  His Revelation Space series reminded everyone of why we like reading SF in the first place.  While others are beating us over the head with their politics, abuse of the English language and fears of the coming eco-apocalypse–and winning awards for that drivel–Reynolds built up a far-flung, plausible future extrapolated from the humanity and technology of today and told an entertaining story therein.

So yeah, Revelation Space earned its solid sales, and the writer’s multi-million pound advance was equally well deserved.

But what happens when you move beyond that?  Let’s have a look, using two of Reynolds’ lesser-known books to illustrate the point (as you’re probably aware, we really like doing these exercises).

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days is not a novel.  It’s a collection of two novellas stuck together in one volume, and must be analyzed as such.

It starts off beautifully.  “Diamond Dogs” is pure Reynolds: two humans grappling with an almost unimaginable tech challenge.  On the grand scheme of things, the story might seem like a low-stakes problem, but one increasingly gets the feeling that something important is going on there.  Exciting and interesting.

“Turquoise Days”, on the other hand, is not quite as good.  I think this one tried too hard to pander to what passes for “respectable” SF these days and, for that reason, doesn’t quite reach Reynolds’ usual standards of excellence.  It’s not bad, it just sinks into the quagmire of he current sameness and utter lack of a sense of wonder overrunning the genre.  It also has Solaris envy.

Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds

Century Rain is a very different kettle of fish.  It’s a hugely imaginative, high-concept parallel world / alternate history detective story.  It is conceptually brilliant and a daring change of pace from a man whose strengths lie elsewhere.  The story is somewhat clunky in places but, just like Revelation Space itself, it all comes together seamlessly–and satisfyingly–in the end.

So, what to do?  Well, if you’ve never read any of his work, you absolutely have to start with Revelation Space.  If you haven’t however, I would say that “Diamond Dogs” is a good introduction, but an even better one would be any of his short works.  “Zima Blue” is, in my opinion, the best SF short I’ve read published after the year 1990 by a long margin, and most of the rest of his stories are amazing as well, if, usually much darker than “Zima Blue”.

If you get the impression that the batch above is something of a mixed bag, you’d be right.  Other than “Diamond Dogs”, these two books are best left to the fans.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose novel Siege, though nowhere near as well known, explores many of the same issues as Revelation Space.

Incursion, on #LisaBurtonRadio

Something new at CE today – a straight reblog! This is an interview of one of my characters (yes, you read that right, not the author, a character) on the amazing Lisa Burton Radio!

Entertaining Stories

Lisa Burton

Hey there all you space marines, special ops, and saboteurs. You’ve landed on Lisa Burton Radio. The only show that brings you the characters from the books you love.

I’m your host, Lisa the robot girl, and my special guest today is Irene Sol Vianini. “Welcome to the show, Irene.”

“Thanks for having me. So many interesting people have been here before. It’s a true honor to be one of them now.”

“Your story is a bit different than many people we get on the show. To set the stage a bit, aliens are about to invade Earth. A special unit is assembled to wreak havoc upon them, prior to them reaching the outer Earth colonies. You are part of this special unit. What can you tell us about that.”

“I’m a scientist on the factory ship Lapland. Our part of the mission is to build any parts the…

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The Strange Case of David Eddings

The Younger Gods by David and Leigh Eddings

I recently finished reading The Younger Gods, the final book in David Eddings‘ final series (he died in 2009).

I’d really hate for my first post about David Eddings to be a review of The Younger Gods or, for that matter, of any of the books in his Dreamers series.  He deserves better than that–I’ve spent many hours reading excellent books by Eddings in other series.  So let’s celebrate the man’s career first and maybe speak of what the hell happened later.

Like a lot of authors, Eddings began with a couple of standalone novels (one good, one absolutely awful) before finding his niche in the heroic fantasy genre where his slightly offbeat but excellent series, The Belgariad, The Malloreon, The Elenium and The Tamuli were staples of the eighties and nineties.  These series have fun plots, characters with attitude and entertaining villains.

They’re classic Euro-centric fantasy tropes where the effort is expended in making them fun instead of going for the forced diversity and defying of expectations that runs so many more modern works in the genre.  They are fun, and critics, especially 21st century critics will hate them.  These are excellent books that do what they set out to do.  Recommended.  Eddings, on the strentgh of these four series, deserves all the success he had.

So far so good.  But then something strange happened.

At about the same time as he began sharing the writing credit for the books with his wife Leigh, Eddings work began to get… strange.

Instead of writing a new series, or continuations of the same series, Mr and Mrs Eddings began to write the same books from a slightly different point of view. The tone also changed, from normal prose interspersed with a kind of smart-alecky, cynical tone with some sticky-sweet characters thrown in for spice like raisins in a strudel, it turned into a cutesy saccharine form of utter idiocy which I would normally associate more with elderly women in pink sweatsuits than with anything pretending to be a heroic fantasy.  I won’t even try to speculate as to what caused this, as I have no data other than the fact that it began to occur when credit was shared, but according to Eddings, he’d always collaborated with his wife, so that probably means nothing.

But why they thought we’d like to read the entire story of the Belgariad and the Malloreon again, written from the POV of two different characters who both clearly share the exact same personality (moronic and cutesy-wootsie) is a mystery to me but this is what happened in Polgara the Sorceress and Belgarath the Sorcerer.

Worse as to come.  Some genius somewhere decided to combine the cutesy style with the repetition in a new series, and thus was born The Dreamers.  Now, if you can stomach the constant use of the words “dear one” or the phrase “now give me a hug”, the first book isn’t a complete loss.  Eddings could still write an interesting plot.  But it goes downhill from there.  The second book spends an eternity retelling the first, and then the plot is pretty much the exact same thing with the details slightly changed.  Ditto books three and four.  And since the bad guys are set against both the good guys and the freaking gods, there is never much doubt about the final outcome.

What happened?  Was it Leigh?  A set of seriously misguided editors at Del Rey and Warner Books?  Sheer senility?  Or was Eddings making subtle fun of us and trying to see just how idiotic readers could be?  I suppose we’ll never know.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter.  If you ignore any of the later books, and concentrate on the four good series, you’ll have a bunch of good reading to thank me for.

But if the word “Leigh” appears anywhere on the cover, run like the devil himself is after you…

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is a work of fantasy called The Malakiad.  It isn’t cutesy in the least (quite the opposite, in fact; it pokes fun at absolutely everything).  If enough of you buy it, he may be able to convince the publisher to turn it into the first of a series.

Another Busy Dead Guy

The Janson Command - Paul Garrison

A couple of months ago, I discussed how Tom Clancy seems to be busier than ever now that he’s dead.  Well another highly productive dead guy is Robert Ludlum, whose The Janson Command I recently read (review: it is a fun book.  Not likely to be on college curricula in 500 years’ time), and which got me thinking.

Of course, Ludlum and Clancy share a target audience which I would assume is mostly male and mostly uninterested in the finer points of, for example, the works of the Brontë sisters.

I would also imagine that their audience is aging.  The importance of violent men who live in the shadows and hurt people who need it seems to be lost on the younger generation.  I’d say the core audience for these is probably people who remember the Cold War.

Then again, I might be wrong.  There’s a series of blockbusters about Jason Bourne which I assume are not being watched only by the graying crowd…

Who knows.

The truth is that I joined both of these men with their careers already in progress, in about 1990 if I remember correctly.  Even then, Ludlum was already considered a master of the spy genre, creating the template for the bestselling novels of that type that followed.  Clancy, of course, had recently become a trillionaire with The Hunt for Red October and had written what was by far his best book: Red Storm Rising (seriously – if you read only one Clancy in your life, make sure it’s this one).

Ironically, there was already a dynamic at work between the two men: the passing of a torch.  Clancy had conquered most of the older writer’s thunder, a good chunk of his audience, and younger readers who wanted to move on from the old LeCarré-meets-dynamic-writing style perfected by Ludlum.

I say ironic because, by keeping the two alive as brand names and forcing up-and-coming thriller writers to write in universes already created, the presence of the zombies on the bookshelves is keeping the next torch-pass from happening.  And no, Dan Brown isn’t the same.

I wonder how long it will take for a new name to come into its own the way they did.  No one has come close so far, but when they do, I think these zombies might crumble to dust.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and blogger who isn’t dead (or is he?  How can you be sure?).  His latest novel is a comic romp in ancient Greece entitled The Malakiad.

Papa Hemingway and Caporetto

A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway - With additional endings

Today, we combine a couple of our favorite topics: great literature and war history.  Of course, the very best way to do that is by reading Hemingway.

Now, old Ernest has has a tough time of it lately.  In this kinder, gentler, postmodern world, he is often cited by sad, misguided individuals as everything from a macho dinosaur to the poster boy for toxic masculinity (a silly concept which seems to be in vogue today).

While I’ll be the first to admit that Hemingway was a product of his times, I can only conclude that the arguments against his writing (as opposed to his love of bullfighting, for example) come from people who have never read his work. Sentence by sentence and as the work builds up to a greater plot, even his most virulent critics would have to shut up and admit that the guy could just plain write.  Powerful.  Deep.  Meaningful–and no unnecessary frills.  The fact that it isn’t in the least bit a feminine writing style, and that his themes seem a bit masculine, does not mean it’s bad.  Honest reviewers will accept this and move on.

Having said that, I enjoy his writing on a structural level, but I’m not a particular fan of all his work.  I found The Old Man and the Sea a bit pointless, even if it was, like everything he did, powerful in its way.  On the other hand, his short stories, especially “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” are entertaining and often brilliant.  And yes, though they ignore both modernist and postmodernist concerns to look at things that are much more relevant to actual humans, they pack a huge depth that isn’t apparent on first glance at the sparse prose.

Hemingway with a gun

A Farewell to Arms is arguably his greatest book.  Combining the First World War, a love story and some autobiographical bits, it is an excellent cross-section of what Hemingway is all about.  Even 90 years after it was first published, the book is still easy to read, still resonates with meaning and pathos.  While some of his contemporaries (Joyce, Woolfe) were experimenting with form and finding new ways to publicize their deepest neuroses, Hemingway was telling stories as old as mankind, and telling them well.

I think that’s probably the reason he is still read by casual readers while others, perhaps more celebrated by the literati, are only discussed in college literature seminars.

Was it the greatest book I ever read?  No.  I hated the ending (my question to his contemporaries is: after reading this one and The Old Man and the Sea, why wasn’t he put on permanent suicide watch?).  But it was a good one, and powerful, and the edition I had (pictured above) included a bunch of alternative endings – extremely interesting stuff for any writer: you can do much worse than to learn how Hemingway did it.

So, yes, this guy will still be read when the people today’s critics are gushing over are long forgotten.  He has a history of beating back the literary darlings.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose book Siege made him very popular for about fourteen seconds.

Queen of Crime: A Midlist Report

Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie

If you’ve never read a book by Agatha Christie, you’d be silly to begin with anything other than The Murder of Roger Ackroyd or Murder on the Orient Express.  These are clearly the two “must read” Christies, and act in the same way that The Great Gatsby does for Fitzgerald: the rest of the books might be decent, but there’s a reason these two in particular stand out.

But, as witnessed by the fact that she is the best-selling novelist of all time, it’s pretty clear that most people don’t stop at these two.  They read on and on and on.  The questions we aim to answer today are: 1) why? and 2) is it worth it?

In order to make a run at these, I’ll use three Christie books I recently read: Elephants Can Remeber, Nemesis and Murder on the Links.  These three are a couple of Poirots and a Miss Marple, so a reasonable selection.

Before answering the question, though, I found something interesting: Nemesis was not set in a soft-focus prewar era, but actually in a much more modern milieu.  That ultimately made little difference to its effectiveness as a mystery but somehow, cozy mysteries are just that bit less cozy without some kind of Edwardian-ness about them.

Anyhow, with these three as the star exhibit (I won’t go into plots here – anyone aware of Christie’s methods knows it’s difficult to avoid spoilers if one gets into details) I’ll try to answer the quesions.

Nemesis by Agatha Christie

1)  Why do people read more that one or two of the non-superstar Christie books.  I think there’s a couple of reasons for this one.  The first is the fun of trying to work out who the killer is alongside the detective.  Christie’s lesser work might not be quite as good as her best, but with her, you know that the mystery is going to be interesting and fair to the reader.  You’ll be given a chance to solve it.

Another reason is, I believe, comfort with the characters and scenario.  The grisly, life-shattering effects of any murder are glossed over to focus on the surviving characers and the detective.  No scenes of blood spattered bathrooms or bodies in excrement-filled sewers here, just a clean dead body that starts a process of deduction.  Also, the characters speak in familiar ways and plow familiar furrows.  They are books you can relax into.

Finally, they are entertaining.  Whatever their status as classics, you can certainly count on them to help you pass a pleasant two or three hours and, really, what else can you ask from a book of this kind?

The Murder on the Links

2) Is it worth it?  That’s the crux of the question, isn’t it?  There are more books out there than any human can possibly hope to read, so why bother with anything other than an author’s best?

Well, the reasons above are a good start, but they clearly don’t work for everyone.  Many people will answer the question above with “Don’t bother with anything else,” and they’d have a perfectly valid point.

In my own case, I find that a little Christie novel is the perfect balm after reading something a bit more literary and dense, an Eco, maybe, or some Joyce.  I enjoy a good mystery as much as the next fellow, and these are pretty much always decent, if not necessarily brilliant, and I don’t have to worry about subtext and symbolism (the body was buried in a bunker on the eighth hole… is that symbolic of something?  Sand being the end of all life?).

To others, Christie is exactly the right level for all their reading.  Even very well-educated people might not feel like diving into Kierkegaard after a hard day at the office, and that’s just fine.  And some people can’t be bothered to read anything harder than this – which is also fine; at least their not watching a reality show featuring a Kardashian.  That counts for a hell of a lot in my book.

Whatever the theoretical answer, reality has already given us the real response: Yes.  To many, many people it certainly is worth it.  The illustrations above show the most recent editions of these books, but most, if not all, of them have been continuously in print since they were first published – and the most recent was released in 1975: 43 years ago.

Yeah, she knew what she was doing, and even the internet age hasn’t dulled that.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer.  The characters in his novel Outside face a 500-year-old mystery that has a completely unexpected resolution.

A Bilingual Treat

Growing up in multiple cultures can, sometimes, be difficult, but it also has it’s joys.  I was recently gifted a book by a friend entitled Ramon Writes.  Now, this book can’t be understood by anyone who doesn’t meet the following criteria:  A) lived in Buenos Aires for at least a few years, B) speaks fluent English and understands the culture of the large British emigration to Argentina in the late 19th century and C) speak fluent idiomatic Spanish–particularly focused on Buenos Aires slang from the 20th century.

Ramon Writes_Buenos Aires Herald_Basil Thomson

A tiny group, surely?

Apparently not.  Item A is dispensed with reasonably easily, as 15 million, give or take the odd million people currently reside here.  B is the one that seems to be the stumbling block unless one realizes that like most third world countries, the good schools are mostly British, which means that many middle-class and upper-middle-class children grow up with at least a passing knowledge of the culture needed, as well as a high level of proficiency in English.  C is pretty much everyone, so no problem there, except that it excludes foreigners.

The analysis above isn’t necessary, though.  My edition of the book is a third edition from 2007, meaning the two earlier ones sold well enough to justify this.

So what IS Ramon Writes?  It’s a collection of pieces from the sorely missed Buenos Aires Herald newspaper, once a bastion of culture which was eventually destroyed by both the internet and an unfortunate change of ownership but which, for 140 years gave Argentina one of the few decent sources of actually objective news for intelligent humans in the country (along with the La Nación newspaper… and nothing else). Also, it was the only place that ran peanuts cartoons; enough said!

These pieces ran from 1949 to 1977 and tell the story of the scion of a traditional British / Argentine family who is essentially what we’d call a vago atorrante (it translates roughly as ne’er-do-well, but has much deeper cultural meaning in Argentina).  This is a personality type which is well suited for life in Buenos Aires in that era, but not so much to keep with the expectations of his respectable family.  Being a ne’er-do-well doesn’t disqualify one from society, you just have to take the barbed comments!

They’re funny and entertaining but more importantly they’re also a veiled critique of life and morals at street level but also among the high society, while not shying away from the occasional barbed comment aimed at the politicians of the day.  When you realize that those politicos included people such as Perón and the military dictators of the 1970s, men with a true lack of anything resembling a sense of humor, you also end up admiring the courage these took.  Basil Thomson, the man behind the columns, could easily have had serious trouble because of what he wrote.

Anyhow, this is a tiny piece of extremely local color that serendipity dropped on my doorstep, and I decided to share with you.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest is a very silly fantasy novel entitled The Malakiad.

A Quaint Haunting

the-ghost-and-mrs-muir-poster-art-everett

If anyone had told me the plot of The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947) before I watched it, I would have put this film off time and time again.  You see it’s a love story between a ghost and a living woman… an anyone alive in the 90s will have been put off the genre forever by that vomit-inducing, melodramatic chick-flick, Ghost.

I’m glad no one did.

The Ghost and Mrs Muir is, you see, a good film.  A romantic comedy which, despite its California filming locale has an unmistakably 19th century British feel to it.  As a comedy, it works reasonably well, with a couple of laugh-out-loud moments, but it certainly isn’t trying to be one of those slapstick overloads.  It’s more low-key, with the comic elements taking a back burner while the story is front and center.  In this, it apparently differs from the 1968 sitcom, but, as I haven’t seen that one, I can’t really give an opinion.

And the story defies the expectations of modern audiences; instead of finding some workaround to make the romance function and give everyone a happy ending, the film gives us an ending we can believe in, while still satisfying the desire to feel good about it in the end.

I have to give this one two thumbs up for being a ghost story that is neither hardcore horror or impossibly overwrought melodrama.  It’s a keeper, and recommended, and yet another of those films which I never wold have discovered without the 1001 movies list.  So doubly happy to have seen it.

Also, it features a very, very young Natalie Wood as Mrs Muir’s daughter as a child…  She was already getting high billing in the credits, even then.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He is the author of Siege.

Writing the Other

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

I recently read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  This was a gift, since it’s not the kind of book I’d normally have bought for myself.  I don’t go out of my way to read extremely unusual viewpoints in my fiction (for those who don’t know, this book is written from the viewpoint of a boy with Asperger’s). I read fiction to be entertained or to learn about the human condition, and find that neither happens when the author is forcing an “other” on us.  And a character such as this one, by its very nature, can’t be anything but forced.

Nevertheless, I’m glad I read this one.  It was a quick and easy read because the author, Mark Haddon, writes very deftly, and the first three-quarters of the book are quite entertaining.  They’re couched as a mystery story, and one can look past the message in the fiction.  It does fall down at the end because, inevitably, the message needs to be delivered and not even someone as talented as Mr. Haddon can get around the fact that message fiction is always worse than any alternative.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

My own favorite message-fiction gripe is The Handmaid’d Tale.  While I’m not a huge fan of Margaret Atwood’s writing, it’s undeniable that hers is a brilliant literary mind.  But in order to get a message across, she thought it would be fun to take an interesting idea and bludgeon us with it.  The results are only successful if you happen to be an activist for extreme feminism (which, interestingly, and in her own words, Atwood isn’t).  I can only imagine what a real SF writer, say Ursula LeGuin or Robert Heinelin would have done with the idea.  They would have put the story first and left the message in the background (of course, they would have sold millions of copies less, but that’s another story), making the book much better, if more ambiguous, in the process.

Another example of a politically-fueled book that fails to impress is Atlas Shrugged.  It’s just as bad as the Atwood, and for the same reasons.  Only the politically motivated can possibly maintain that it’s a good book.

The second reason I’m glad I read it is because it got me thinking about writing “the other”.  This is a bit of a taboo in certain literary circles.  Essentially, there’s an outcry against people from any dominant group writing characters that belong to supposedly subjugated populations.  Whether that subjugation is due to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or whatever is irrelevant; the feeling is that there should be a minimum of tolerance for writers who commit this sin (unless that writer is part of the “right” group, in which case he’s an activist and it’s OK – yes, hypocrisy is alive and well in literary circles, it seems).

I happen to disagree.  I believe that a writer has the obligation to write whichever character is best for the story.  If someone is offended… well, let’s just say I am probably not the right person to apply to in those cases.

An author needs to tell a story.  It’s likely that that story is aimed at a certain audience so, if you’re writing about someone who is extremely different from you, you need to make sure that you do it to the best of your ability.

Will it be perfect?  No, probably not.

Does that matter?  No.  Not unless the discrepancies are so large that your audience finds them jarring.  Nobody matters but your readers.  If a college professor out in Portland denounces you for being insensitive to vegan activists because of your portrayal of your main character’s boyfriend, chuckle, thank him for the extra sales and write your next book (Chronicles of a Free-Range, Locally-Grown Chicken).

I do draw the line at purposely portraying characters from underrepresented groups as villains for political reasons, but I think the writers who do so aren’t a problem.  Why?  Because they’ll weed themselves out.  As I said earlier, books where the message gets in the way of the story are crap.

So yeah, there will always be Puritans and Prohibitionists who like to butt in and tell everyone what they can and can’t do, especially in the age of social media and the politization of absolutely everything.  Ignore them.

And if anyone says you can’t write something, tell them I gave you permission and send them here.  By the time they finish reading this, they’ll be so mad at me that they won’t even remember what they were scolding you about.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist who wasn’t born on Tau Ceti, but still writes about people who were.  He also isn’t a young woman, but the main character of his novel Outside is.  He’ll let readers decide whether that’s a good thing or not.