American literature

Idea Driven SF in its Purest State

On Saturday night, I was in one of Buenos Aires’ notable bars surrounded by Argentine science fiction and fantasy writers.  One of them was telling me how he’d recently bought a Clarke book (Childhood’s End, apparently) in a Spanish translation.  The introduction said (and I paraphrase because I don’t remember the exact wording): “this book is a classic example of the now extinct genre of ideas” (italics are mine).

He was livid.  As a postmodern exponent of literary writing, this man felt that his novels were rife with ideas, and valuable, socially-relevant ones at that.  How could a man who wrote an introduction to a book by Clarke be so ignorant, so limited, so crass?

I mumbled something noncommittal and changed the subject.  Why?  Because I tend to agree with the introducer–opinion that would likely have gotten me lynched.

I’ve been watching the SF genre descend from a literature of ideas to a kind of muddle where postmodern sensibilities have pretty much amalgamated the genre with the rest of post-modern literature.  If something is scientifically impossible, no worries, genre limits are so 20th century, aren’t they?  Plus, if the thing is more boring than watching paint dry, it doesn’t matter as long as it’s diverse, right?

Er…  I’ll let each of you answer that last one.

For a certain kind of reader plausibility is important in SF, and that is why readers are staying away in droves lately, and the last real consensus SF classic (by consensus, I mean among readers – I couldn’t care less what other writers or postmodern critics think)  was… I suppose it was Ender’s Game.

 

Larry Niven Ringworld

But there was a better time, a time when SF truly was the literature of ideas, and perhaps the purest form of this is in Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970).  The characters and the plot are there for one thing, and one thing only: to show us the wonderful construct of a ring around a star and to reveal how it works and why.

Are the characters wooden?  A little.  Is it diverse and sensitive?  Not in the least, Niven didn’t care, he just wanted to tell his story and show us this awesome thing he’d dreamt up (or read about somewhere and decided to flesh out).

The cover blurb says “Legendary Award-Winning Classic”, and that description is spot-on.  Everyone’s read this one, and most people remember it.

But I have this sense that if Niven were to submit it today, it would be bounced for any number of reasons.  The legendary award-winning classic would never make it past the slush pile.

And, in a nutshell, that’s the main problem with the genre today.  It’s bleeding readers like a neck wound because the new stuff is more concerned with social and literary sensibilities than it is with attempting to cater to its readers.  Those former SF readers used to be going to comic books and movies but, as witnessed by the floundering of the Star Wars saga due to some of the writers wanting to use it as a platform for their politics as opposed to just a cool universe to tell a story, this way be reverting back.

Whatever the outcome, the nice thing about literature is that the classics are still around.  We can pick them up in paperback.  Most of us have already read Ringworld, but there are dozens of others… sometimes it’s even fun to pick up a random unremembered book from the Golden Age just to relive that sense of wonder (those with an overdeveloped sense of literary outrage may want to give this a pass… some of the prose is, gasp, workmanlike!).

And if you haven’t read Niven’s Masterpiece, you need to do so right now.  When a setting is universally remembered and everyone knows all about it, you can safely ignore the postmodernists and read it.  You may not enjoy every word, but you won’t forget the Ringworld.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina.  His fiction explores big ideas, nowhere more so than in his reprint collection Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places.

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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.