literature

The Prefect and Reynolds’ Depth of Character

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Alastair Reynolds is one of my favorite writers working in science fiction today. A little of this has to do with the fact that he writes deep-space tech/idea/adventure-based books that have zero message about utterly trite current politics (see here for more on that). I can read a thick Reynolds book–despite the fact that these are dense, idea and tech-heavy works–in a few days, while most other SF books (and seemingly everything on the last few Hugo ballots) leave me scratching my head and asking myself what kind of reader would enjoy this.

To me, the genre in recent years seems more about showing off political credentials and virtue signaling than any attempt to engage the reader or entertain (which seems weird for a genre like science fiction). Of course, I assume that there are people out there with very different taste from mine, and I further assume that they have to be selling this stuff to someone, or they’ll soon go out of business.

Fortunately Reynolds hasn’t fallen victim to the trend, which is probably why he sells so many books.

The Prefect is a typical Reynolds offering, which is a good thing. This one follows the adventures of two members of the Glitter Band’s police and compliance arm, called Prefects. One is an experienced member of the corps, while the other is a rookie attempting to live down her father’s disgrace.

By focusing so closely on two specific characters in such a large book, Reynolds moves away from the more sprawling style of Revelation Space. Those who criticized his early work as not sufficiently character-based will like this direction while those who enjoyed the mighty Revelation Space books won’t be too annoyed, as it still works.

As always with Reynolds there is a dark edge underlying the marvels he describes, and while most of society is living the dream, we never really get to see it because his characters run head first into that darkness. In that sense it has seriously developed noir sensibilities. Only a tiny fraction of LA in the 1940s was committing murders and blackmail… but that’s the only side you see in noir. Likewise, Reynolds’ universe is one of endless wonders… but you only get to look at the seedy underbelly and the gritty working-class tech people that make it function.

It definitely works. Reynolds’ fiction is worth reading every single time… even if you need to read something light (Wodehouse is ideal) afterwards.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who often works with space opera. The well-received Siege is an example on a massive scale, with a galactic war between the tribes of humanity as the backdrop. He follows a doomed group of baseline humans as they prepare for their last stand. You can check it out here.

Caliban’s War – Another Excellent Corey

A little over a year ago, I reviewed Leviathan Wakes, the first book in James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series. Basically, I found it awesome and wasn’t surprised that it has been chosen to turn into a series. It’s fast-paced, space based and therefore visual, and full of cool ideas. It’s science fiction at its best.

So I was looking forward to reading the second book, and I’m happy to report that it picks up where the first left off. It’s not quite as awesome as the first book, but very, very close. It keeps things moving on a solar-system-wide scale, with humanity’s very existence in the balance.

I think what I love most is how refreshingly unapologetic it is. It’s mid-future space SF which doesn’t stop to plead forgiveness for its focus on taking humanity to the planets and, instead of trying to expound some boring sociological theory simply gives us good stories. Hell, I can’t even guess whether the authors were Trump or Biden voters (which I think is my new benchmark: if I can tell your politics from your text, your book sucks).

So, yeah. Spaceship battles. Seriously badass aliens. Evil corporations. Incompetent governments. And mavericks everywhere trying to make it turn out all right. Science fiction perfection of the kind which, sadly, has been ignored in the awards lately. If you like fun, entertaining SF, you won’t be happy with the Hugo winners, so I’d like to point you in this direction.

Brilliant stuff, and a series I plan to keep reading.

Gustavo Bondoni’s own take on core science fiction is entitled Siege. It’s set much farther in the future than The Expanse, but its bad guys are just as creepy… even if its aliens didn’t survive the war that created the bad guys. 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.

Aliens in Science Fiction – A Critical Text

As most of you here are probably aware, most of what I read is fiction, interspersed with magazines around various topics (or maybe it’s the other way around). But I do find the exercise of literary criticism fascinating, and read texts when they come my way.

So it was delightful when I was given a copy of Elana Gomel’s wonderful book Science Fiction, Alien Encounters, and the Ethics of Posthumanism.

As the title implies, this one is a scholarly text at a university level and needs to be read carefully. Some of the technical terms on the philosophical and ethics side forced me (an engineer) to do a little bit of studying. Nevertheless, the book is anything but opaque; the arguments and analysis are clearly stated and easy to follow. Gomel also pushes her theories with strong argumentation and vivid exemplification from selected SF novels which helps the reader understand what is being said.

As a reader (and a science fiction reader in particular), the delight of this on lies in discovering books and stories that I wasn’t aware of. Gomel’s genre knowledge is as deep expected of the author of a book of this kind, but it is also broad, casting a wide net that includes more obscure titles and less commercial work from behind the iron curtain.

As for the arguments themselves, the book does exactly what the title says it will: it takes alien encounters and analyzes them through a philosophical lens, focusing on humanism vs. posthumanism in particular. I found it fascinating but perhaps I found it fascinating for a different reason than academic readers will; in my case, a major source of the fascination came from seeing how differently certain beloved classics can be read when one has the critical tools to understand them beyond what a run-of-the-mill reader would see.

I think that exercise is worthwhile for any reader of the genre (especially if that reader, like me, is also a writer). Academic readers with a philosophy background will, of course, be able to absorb the conclusions more fully (and possibly disagree with them), but I simply dedicated myself to reading and learning stuff I’d completely missed.

I enjoyed it, and this one is worth reading regardless of where you stand on the regular-reader-vs-academic-reader spectrum. If science fiction–particularly science fiction about alien encounters–interests you, you will find something to like in this book.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose most well-received Science Fiction novel is Siege. You can check it out here.

A Crown Imperiled – Nearing the End of Another Great Series

It’s kind of sad if you think about it. All the great fantasy series I picked up in my early teens are coming to a close, and some of the authors have died (and now Terry Goodkind has died, too).

The Riftwar Cycle, likewise, came to a close in 2013 and, although I’ve yet to read the last book, I’ve just finished the one before that.

This installment was just another reminder of why this series has always been pretty much my favorite. Though, like most of its contemporaries, it’s composed of thick volumes of well-described and gorgeous places, it doesn’t overdo the description and every single volume is packed with more action that books twice the size by other authors.

That doesn’t mean that character development is neglected. Quite the opposite: Feist’s characters are memorable indeed, and truly make the books. While they aren’t in the same league psychologically as GRRM’s or Nabokov’s, they are more than real enough to carry a fantasy adventure series.

I have already ordered the final volume, and will be saddened when I finish reading it… knowing Feist, it’s going to a be a blood-drenched, explosive finale.

My reflection here is… what is replacing these series? I’ve seen a lot of very different kind of thing out there, but very few of the doorstop fantasies that worked so well to bring–and keep–readers in the genre. I’m sure there’s a big market for traditional fantasy based on medieval Europe with magic and evil orcs. Yes, I know it’s a cliché, but sometimes things are cliché precisely because people love them. I know Sanderson and Farland have series out there… but not sure what else worth notice is available. I need to get up to date on Terry Brooks, too.

Anyhow, if you haven’t heard of Feists Riftwar books, you’re in for a treat. Grab magician and read. You can thank me when you’re done.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book, Test Site Horror, is about Russian special forces troops attempting to survive the escape of genetically modified dinosaurs. You can have a look here.

Writers’ Writers vs. Readers’ Writers

I used to think the phrase “so-and-so is a writer’s writer,” was just a way to indicate a writer that other writers would read and recommend. Hell, even after I became a writer myself, the same attitude prevailed.

It was only after my writing reached a certain level, and my consciousness of the art form became much less subliminal and much more specific that I began to realize why some writers are revered by their peers while others most emphatically are not.

Let’s take Dan Brown, for example. Writers will never, ever accept that there is any literary merit in his work. They describe him as a hack who writes awfully, an aberration that proves that, just because words are in a book, it doesn’t make it literature.

Though I don’t know Dan Brown personally, I imagine he is laughing all the way to the bank. You see, no one told the millions of readers of The Da Vinci Code that it sucked, and they kept right on reading.

In fact, I’ll admit to having enjoyed it enormously (especially the first half of it). I was on a plane and out of books and the only interesting English-language paperback they’d had in Madrid airport was this one. So I bought it and loved it.

Is it well-written in the sense that Brown focuses on the language and the currently fashionable tenets of literary expression. No effing way.

Is it good? Absolutely. It is a page-turner in the classical mold and, like it or not, these are the books that engage readers. No matter how many critically acclaimed auteurs sniff at it, readers are not stupid; they can tell when something is excellent… and they will ignore critics in droves to read it.

So who’s right.

Offhand, I’d say the readers, as they are the people that writers create for in the first place.

But it isn’t that simple. A more nuanced answer would be that both groups are right.

A book that keeps readers reading is good by the most important of all definitions: it gives pleasure, escape and entertainment to its target audience. That can’t be bad, and critics of everything from Harry Potter to Fifty Shades are wrong to forget it. Great storytelling has to be an important part of any great book, and when postmodern critics sit down and disparage anything with a plot that people enjoy, they are doing a disservice to literature (modern critics had the same issue, BTW, this isn’t an attack on postmodernism per se).

Having said that, it’s possible to read for more than just the basic pleasure of finding out what happens next. The plot can be advanced in elegant as well as simple ways… and the texture of the writing can bring pleasure to readers as well. In that sense, arguing for more literary text is perfectly valid.

So why “writers’ writer” and not just “sophisticated readers’ writer”?

I think it’s because of the way writers react when they see a spectacular chunk of prose. While a reader might feel pleasure at the aesthetics, a writer will admire (or be jealous of) the mechanics. Writers, when they manage to turn off their inner reader, can feel awe at another writer’s craftsmanship.

In my case, I see it in Wodehouse, of course. While he is beloved by millions for the sheer sake of his humor and lovable characters, any writer exposed to his prose will leave with a sense of awe and inadequacy that will take a while to shake. There is no writer in the English language whose sentences are as beautifully crafted as Wodehouse. Don’t remember it that way? Then I challenge you to pick up any one of his books and prove me wrong. You won’t.

There are other writers who use language wonderfully (Fitzgerald), or incorporate erudite concepts effortlessly (Eco).

So, yes. There is another level in writing, and these are the books that authors will gravitate to.

But don’t discount readers’ opinions. That a book is straightforward in no way makes it a bad book. You have my permission to ignore the critics who tell you otherwise.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose books (he hopes) are long on both storytelling and language. In an attempt to prove it, he cites his collection of literary fiction, a novel in short story form, entitled Love and Death. You can check it out here.

Mona Lisa Overdrive: Cyberpunk Mysticism Explained… Sorta.

I’ve spoken about William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy here before. Last time, we mused at just how much influence the books had on The Matrix film series (basically it’s impossible to overstate).

Now that I’ve finished the trilogy by reading Mona Lisa Overdrive, I can give my final thoughts.

First off, this book is fun. It’s structured like a multi-string crime book or a thriller in the modern mold, with different characters showing us different threads of the action, which then converge at the end. While it’s a little short to be quite as effective in this treatment as a contemporary (1988) Tom Clancy book, it’s still an entertaining way to structure the novel.

This is probably the one where the cyberpunk elements are woven into the tale most skillfully, possibly because Gibson understood them better or maybe because he assumed that the readers who’d gotten that far also understood everything much better. Either way, I think this book would not really work at all for people who hadn’t read the first two in the series.

Having said that, the best part of this book is that it actually explains the mystical aspects of the earlier novels, which, like the mystical aspects of the Matrix trilogy always annoyed me. They were a jarring note in an otherwise hard-science-y universe of hardware and software.

Though the explanation isn’t very deep or detailed–this book is much more about completing character arcs and telling its own unique set of events–the fact that the spiritual explanations are closed off helps reestablish the hard-edged nature of the series.

These books aren’t perfect–not many seminal books are–but they do transport you to an alternative and noir world, which is always welcome.

And seeing that a lot of modern science fiction seems more concerned with diversity and inclusivity than with actually telling a cool story, this is a welcome change of pace for those who’ve become saturated with the modern stuff. (I don’t want to be unfair–there’s still plenty of good, story/tech/adventure-driven SF out there. But you have to wade through it).

So there’s a reason Gibson has taken his place among the canonical writers.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside explores, as Gibson’s work does, the limits between humanity and technology, and the consequences of too much reliance on the latter. You can check it out here.

Test Site Horror, My New Monster Book – Released!

Those of you following along at home might remember that I’ve recently written about the publication of two of my monster horror books: Ice Station Death and Jungle Lab Terror.

Well, I’m extremely happy to announce that the strong sales of those two convinced my publisher (Severed Press, if you’re curious) to release a third, entitled Test Site Horror (You can have a look on Amazon here).

Each of these books takes place in the same universe, which means that readers of one will find the next a familiar place, but they are not sequels in the traditional sense–they stand alone, so my suggestion to interested potential readers is that they grab whichever one they feel would give them the most fun. The whole point of these is that they are entertaining and action-packed.

If anyone does read one of these, please remember to drop me a line in the comments. Even criticism is fine; I love hearing from readers!

Local Poetry: Boiling Waves

As someone who doesn’t read poetry all that often, I’m always amazed by how relaxing it can be to read bite-sized slices of life, full of emotion.

I received a reminder of this recently when I picked up María Evangelina Vazquez’s book Ese oleaje hirviente (translated — loosely — as Those Boiling Waves).

Longtime readers of this blog will remember the author as our guest blogger who educated us about Blake. Now, for those among you who can read Spanish, you’ll discover that she is a very talented poet, someone whose command of the language allows her to turn emotion into words much more effectively than mere prose writers–which is the point of poetry, after all.

I’m probably not the person best qualified to evaluate poetry (prose writers tend to think in terms of words to tell a story, with emotions present to bond the characters to the audience, but not necessarily as the central motor of the text), but I found Vázquez to be particularly strong when her poems give us a glance into a snippet of daily life particular to a social class and situation. Good examples of this can be found in the poems in the first third of the book that deal with her experiences in high school.

I also particularly enjoy the fact that her poetry is not opaque. The meaning is either right on the surface or buried under just one layer of metaphor… and that makes it much easier to connect to the emotion contained within each piece.

I recommend this one to lovers of poetry and to lovers of prose who want to take a break to read and savor something different.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. His work spans every genre imaginable. Lovers of poetry will likely enjoy his book Love and Death, a series of very short stories, each standing alone, but which linked together for a single continuous narrative that not even the characters know about. It’s a secret between the writer and the reader. You can check it out here.

Why Self-Publishing Hurts Real Writers*

I wrote this for the old Apex blog in 2010 (before being expelled after the very whiny pushback following an even more controversial–but perfectly accurate–post that came after this one), so this is its 10 year anniversary. While I recognize that there are many excellent writers who self-publish, I stand by the major points and the role of gatekeepers. At the very least, it’s good to talk about these things. Always happy to discuss disagreement in the comments.

The last couple of weeks seem to have had a single hot-button issue.  Unlike many of the topics that get discussed in the genre, this one is truly relevant: publishing is changing, and no one really seems to know where it’s headed.  Will all print books disappear?  Or will ebook readers only destroy the mass-market / airport reading paperback business?  These are valid questions, and I’d like to take a shot at it.

But today, I’d like to address the other component that gets discussed when talking about worrying future trends: self-publishing.

The discussions generally go something like this:

Self-publishing proponent: Self-publishing and especially electronic self-publishing are great!  We don’t need to worry about those pesky agents and editors any more!  We can print our excellent work without interference and Amazon will even let us into their shop without all this insistence on having grammar and plot!  Finally, we can let readers decide what is good or bad!

Anyone who loves literature: Die! Die! Die!

And the people who self-publish are often left in a state of confusion regarding why the other party doesn’t share their enthusiasm.  After all, isn’t giving the authors more control over everything a good thing?

Well…  Let’s have a look at this.

Most proponents of self publishing fall into one of three groups.

  1. Clueless.  These people are generally victims of a vanity press scam.  They believe that people like Stephen King pay to publish their books.  They are to be pitied more than censured, and the best thing you can do for them is to send them a book contract for them to study. It might take days, but I suspect they will eventually realize that the money flows toward the author.  Sadly, much of this is their own fault – the information necessary to avoid scams is readily available, all you have to do is make a minimum of effort.
  2. Conspiracy theorists.  These are actually a subset of number 1, people who think that editors and agents are there to keep new writers and new ideas from ever hitting the shelves.  This particular group is just as irrelevant as the first, because it shows that they haven’t done their homework.  Or maybe it’s just easier to believe that there’s a conspiracy than to accept the sad truth: the writing you are subbing just isn’t good enough for public consumption.  Not liking the options (get better or get out), these people went the self-publishing route.
  3. Economists.  It’s better to keep all the profits yourself, right?  Why pay these editors, copy-editors, formatting people and especially artists, when I already have a great book – my first draft! – and I can format it myself, and use a cover design made by my niece, which is just as good.  And who needs publishers when I can upload it to my kindle.  And if I go the print route, I’ll sell them myself, after all, authors have to be great salesmen, don’t they?  I’ll make a fortune.  All I can say here is: probably not, and your cover art is making my eyes bleed. 

But why does any of this hurt real writers?  Am I admitting that the publishing world is moving to a model without gatekeepers, where it is a pure democracy?

Don’t make me laugh.  I may not know how it will work, but the world will defend itself from this somehow, and self-publishing stealing their sales is a laughable proposition.

The reasons that real writers are being hurt have to do with the confusion that readers are going to be experiencing until the gates are established again.  Readers know that most of the work they find in a bookstore has gone through an editing process, been checked for most spelling mistakes, and been formatted by someone who knows the correct sequence for page numbers (hint: 1, 2, 3, 4…).  Now, if bookstores suddenly disappear, how is that same reader, faced with only a product page to know that Fly By Night Publishing is a vanity press that will publish anything, including Atlanta Nights, or an individual whose knowledge of English consists of what he was able to pick up on the boat ride?  The profusion of self-published titles will educate some readers as to what publishers are worth their time, but it will alienate others, after they get burned.  Less readers hurts real writers.

The words “Published Author” have also lost much of their magic.  Most people, when you tell them that you’re published will ask “How much did you pay?”  The ratio of real writers to people who couldn’t make the grade and decided to self-publish seems to have gone oversquare at some point.  Even bookstore employees flee if you tell them you’re a writer.

Finally, and most sinister, is the fact that publishing houses are run by people who can do math.  So, if writers are willing to pay to have their books printed and also willing to eschew (or pay extra for) decent cover art, why are we footing the bills for all this?  A major romance publisher has already launched a self-publishing imprint.  Can others be far behind?  Of course, the smarter houses have realized that GOOD writers don’t pay to have their work published, and that they are also not good at selling books from the trunk of a car.  But it’s still worrying to see this trend, isn’t it?

So, as I have no interest in selling my books from the trunk of a car, especially my unedited books, I have to say that, even though they represent no threat to real writers from a sales point of view, proponents of self-publishing do damage their ability to make a living.

And that explains the words “Die! Die! Die!”

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work is very emphatically published by publishers and not by him (mainly because he likes real editors to proof his work before showing it to others). His monster novel Ice Station Death was both well-received and popular. You can check it out here.

*The best thing about living in Buenos Aires is that one doesn’t need to be euphemistic about blog post titles.  We don’t believe in political correctness down here, thankfully, and no one who disagrees with me can drive to my house and berate me in person for my views!