literature

Philip K. Dick Debut

OK, we’ve all seen Blade Runner.  Most of us have also watched the sequel… I remember liking it when I watched it.  The thing is that the movie, in my mind, is more of a collection of sensations, generating the same kind of feeling that noir film of the thirties did, than something I analyze as a piece of science fiction.

Now, I’ve read every major SF writer out there, in depth and in detail… except for Philip K. Dick.  Why?  I’m not sure.  I’ve had the Library of America PKD collection in my shopping cart for about a decade, but it always seems to get bumped out by something newer and shinier.

A Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick

But on my birthday a year ago, a friend gifted me A Maze of Death, one of his novels.

Let’s be clear, this book is not the conventional door into Dick.  That would probably be the novella that engendered Blade Runner: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  Additionally, this is a dark book, whose central theme–as foreshadowed by the title–is the human propensity to cause other people’s deaths.

So what did I think?

This boy has potential.  If even one of his minor works is so intriguing, I can’t help but think that his classics must be amazing indeed.

So let’s have a look at this one.  Without being overly spoilery, this one has three separate layers of reality all transpiring concurrently, of which one, in what, from what I’ve read online, is a typical display of Dick’s sense of humor, is only evident in the chapter list.

The book is interesting more on an intellectual level than as a typical literary enterprise.  The characters are, to put it mildly, unlikable, and they die in mostly uninspiring ways.  Nevertheless, the reader is always kept engaged by the underlying mystery.

The style–perhaps intentionally, I won’t be able to judge fully until I read more of the man’s work–reminds me more of the work of the fifties than the seventies.  It’s reminiscent of A Case of Conscience, or even Mission of Gravity.

So, as a corporate boss might say, this is a good start.  I still need to get my act together and read the meat of his output in order to give my loyal readers a better picture.  Stay tuned!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own exploration of the human psyche is strongest in his novel Outside.  You can check it out here.

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The Great American SpecFic Novel

A few years ago, another writer compared me to Neil Gaiman.

That is the kind of thing that makes writers nervous.  Gaiman, of course, is almost universally revered as one of the masters of the craft.  One might not like his stories per se, but no one doubts his ability or his magnificent talent.  So comparisons with Gaiman tend to take the following form: “Unlike Neil Gaiman’s wonderful work, this writer’s tale…”

Fortunately, this particular writer only commented about the similarity of my hair in a photograph to the good Mr. Gaiman’s.  Even so, it was assumed that I was following in his footsteps…  If I recall correctly, the exact phrase was “did you steal Neil Gaiman’s hair?”  That is the power of Gaiman.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I’ve reviewed Gaiman’s work here before, but, as I mentioned then, still had to sink my teeth into his meatier offerings.  The Tenth Anniversary Edition of American Gods is about as meaty as they come.

So, does the man live up to the hype?  In a word, yes.

The talent is there.  The craft is there.  The concept of down-at-the-heels gods isn’t particularly new, of course (if you’ve read Douglas Adams’ Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, you’ll know exactly what I mean… and if you haven’t, do so immediately) but Gaiman creates a novel of ideas out of this particular well-plowed field.

It’s a big book in more than just heft.  The title of this post is not whimsical.  If we ever do get the Great American Novel, it will likely be structured in a similar way to this one.  It’s a road movie of a book, a sprawling exploration of what America means.  If it’s seen through the eyes of a foreigner, then all the better.  Lolita didn’t suffer for that, and American Gods doesn’t, either.

It’s a book that’s hard to put down, with a compelling plot driving it relentlessly forward, but that’s not what makes it great.  The greatness is in the little things, wonderfully turned phrases and scenes that, though slightly off from reality, are perfectly realized.  Some of those scenes promise to stick in the memory for a long, long time.

In conclusion?  You may or may not like this book, but you will agree with Gaiman apologists that the man deserves the accolades.  The craft and the talent herein are impeccable.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose gods also sometimes walk the earth, particularly in his novel of ancient Greece, The Malakiad.  You can check it out here.

In Order, No Less

Serial killers are fascinating to me only because of the obsessive quality of their work; I don’t really care for the actual murder part of it…  Which probably explains why I enjoy Agatha Christie’s work.  Her cases, though involving the sordid occurrence of the death of one or more human beings, always steer away from any suggestion of violence or mess:  “Ooh. There’s a cadaver, let’s see who made it.”

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

The ABC Murders, though not considered one of Christie’s best, is interesting as it brings Christie’s style to the personality of a serial killer.  The sequence of murders is in alphabetical order, and they are all announced by a note giving warning.

After that setup, however, the rest of the book is classic Christie.  Poirot enters stage right and, though others appear to be leading the investigation, takes command.  He guides us through the plot and reminds us to keep an open mind even when things appear to be leaning strongly in one direction.

His cryptic comments keeping everyone honest are the reason this one stays fair, and I’ll give it high marks in that regard.  Also, readability is supreme, as is the obsession factor to know whodunnit.  I read it in a single day, unable to go to bed without knowing how it finished.

High marks and a good place to keep going once you’ve read the obvious candidates (Roger Ackroyd, Orient Express).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose novel Outside is science fiction, but with an underlying mystery that should make Christie fans happy.  You can check it out here.

 

Casting a New Light

I live about forty blocks from a street named FitzRoy.  A lot of streets, places and geographical elements in Argentina are named after old Robert, as well as his boat (called the Beagle) and passenger (some guy named Darwin).  It’s not particularly surprising, considering that all three made their names in large part because of the time they spent exploring the waters around Argentina and Chile.

Most people will assume that Charles Darwin was the most interesting character on those particular voyages, and perhaps they are correct–he’s certainly the one whose effect on popular culture (not to mention religious controversy) has been most pronounced…

this thing of darkness by harry thompson

And yet, the critically acclaimed novel This Thing of Darkness, by the late Harry Thompson, makes a compelling case for the naval officer Robert FitzRoy as the most interesting man aboard.  Certainly, he comes off as a man whose honor could never be besmirched, and a modern man in some regards.

Of course, in other ways, he is also portrayed as a man of his times (the first half of the 19th century), especially in certain inflexibility and in his religious outlook.  Nevertheless, his character in this book makes one question the silly postmodern conviction that being an officer and a gentleman is somehow a bad thing.  If there’s one thing the modern world could use more of it’s people like Robert FitzRoy.

Apart from casting FitzRoy in the role of the Hero–deservedly so–the book is notable for making a six-year-long voyage of hardship and unspeakable tedium read like an action/adventure romp.  While Thompson probably took large liberties with the characters of the men involved (and delved into their minds with unbridled imagination), he also created a page-turning novelization.

Does he commit the crime of superposing his modern views on some of the characters and events?  Sadly, yes (judging the actions of the past by the standards of today is, of course, imbecilic) but he does TRY to avoid it, even if he’s not completely successful.  As a result of this effort, we gain a picture of this time as a moment in history in which scientific observation was in a life-and-death struggle with the philosophical status quo that had guided man through the enlightenment… and that means that Thompson succeeds where so many other modern writers failed.

This is a good book.  It will make you yearn for the age of exploration and seethe at the injustice of the colonial system, but most of all, it will keep you reading.  Also, it will teach you a bunch of stuff you didn’t remember about Darwin’s voyage.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who also explores historical times.  His novel The Malakiad is a romp set in ancient Greece which… well, let’s just say it isn’t exactly based on facts.  You can check it out here.

Being Bad at Middles

writer at work

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m more of a hunter-type personality than a farmer.  This isn’t ideal for living in modern society, but isn’t completely unworkable…  It does, however, have some interesting side effects, one of which I’d like to share, as it definitely has to do with my writing process.

That side effect is being bad at middles.

I’ve always been fascinated by people who love process, in much the way that one is fascinated by gruesome traffic accidents or unusually large insects.  It’s an awful, awful thing, but you just can’t turn your eyes away.  In my case the reason for that is that I don’t understand it.  I love the rush of a new project, delight in the sense of something just about to finish… but have no passion whatsoever for the nuts and bolts of what happens in the middle.  I push forward to the best of my ability, but rely on whatever talent I might have, and the planning I did in the first throes of new-book enthusiasm to get me through at a hopefully high level.

In the middle of something, I often look around and see friends enthusing about their passion for rewrites or for tweaking their hyper-detailed outline for the hundredth time before starting the actual writing and I scratch my head and wonder how they can keep the enthusiasm alive for long enough to actually finish a book.

Honestly, experience tells me that many of them don’t and most books are sacrificed on the altar of perfectionism before anyone can even see their imperfections.

But some of them do get written, and polished, and edited and published.  I find that wonderful, in the sense that it fills me with wonder.  I know I would never have the follow through; I would drown in the mire in the middle.

I’m like that with everything, whether it be a project for work or a book I’m reading–but it seems particularly applicable to writing.  Generally, my enthusiasm for any given piece of work is lowest right in the middle.

I’ve developed a number of strategies to cope.  I often have more than one piece of writing going on at the same time, or I write something really short that I can get finished when the enthusiasm is still upon me.

Another way to cope is to borrow joy across different aspects.  Perhaps a few hundred words on a bogged writing project can be spurred on by the promise of reading the final fifty pages of my book in progress later on… or of starting a new drawing.  Small highs from other walks of life can spur things on.

Of course, nothing renews enthusiasm in writing like a sale… but that’s not something I can control.

Does my method always work?

No.

On those occasions, you need to fall back on that old staple: sheer bloody-mindedness.  It’s gotten me through more fallow periods than I can count.  It does have the downside that you may despise the words you’re putting down, but I’ve found that coming back a couple of weeks later will improve that text immeasurably… even if you don’t change a single letter of it.

Anyway, that’s how I do it.  Your own mileage, as always, will probably differ wildly.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose latest novel is a thriller entitled “Timeless”.  You can check it out here.

 

 

Waving to the New-New Wave

science-fiction-bookshelf

As a kid, I loved going to the bookstore.  We had a Walden Books in the open mall where my mom would go to Kroger, so that is the one I would frequent.  When we first arrived in the US, my interest was in Hardy Boys, but I soon graduated to the science fiction section.

This part of the bookstore was dominated by names such as Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke,  even Silverberg… the gilded voices of the Golden Age.  These were the giants of the time when science fiction was finding its feet, establishing the things that would define it.  They were the men who ruled, uncontested, until the New Wave toppled them from their throne in the 1960s.

That is the narrative, of course.  The reality is that I was a kid in the 1980s, and none of these guys had been toppled.  They still ruled the roost as if the New Wave never happened.

Yes, I’ve discussed the New Wave here before, but never in the context of it’s effect on the genre of the 1980s and 1990s.

First, some context.  If you ask someone about the New Wave today, they will likely say that it marked the end of Campbell’s influence on the genre, and paved the way for today’s more character-driven and literary work.

There may be some truth in this… but it certainly isn’t 100% correct.  The reality on the ground in the 1980s was that the New Wave had pretty much been beaten back by the old guard by the time I started paying attention to science fiction.  Yes, some of the names from the sixties consolidated their places (notably Frank Herbert and Ursula K. LeGuin, with Philip José Farmer a lesser name), but for the most part, the blip had been neutralized, and the rest of the best-sellers were newer names such as Orson Scott Card and Larry Niven.

Girl Looking at stars

Even the writing style had gone back from the convoluted literary muddiness of Judith Merril’s anthologies to a more direct type of narrative with a  focus on story.  Had some of the character-driven sensibilities remained?  Yes, those had survived, everyone appeared to agree that they were a good idea… but the other stuff was discarded as soon as editors realized that readers hated it.

The eighties and the nineties, therefore, were good epochs for SF literature.  The genre sold well, and new readers arrived.

With the turn of the century, however, another shift occurred, a new New Wave, if you like.  SF became more politicized (it was always political, of course) and the sensibilities looked to the literary and experimental once more.  Slipstream flourished, straight idea-driven stories became anathema.  Some misguided souls began using the term “Golden Age” as a kind of benevolent insult.

The main result of this trend was actually a rise in fantasy sales.  People such as Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind and even George R.R. Martin benefitted.  They were telling straightforward stories of action and adventure in the traditional mold without looking to challenge or subvert anything… and readers flocked to them in droves.  They still do, in fact.  Harry Potter was also a product of this time.  No one will call Hogwarts progressive, but it certainly did become the darling of supposedly super-progressive Millennials…

Meanwhile, Science Fiction asphyxiated under the heavy yoke of literary writing, and split into factions (the Sad Puppies appeared to try to bring it back, but that effort was, at best, misguided), each of which defends their turf with rabid aggression.

Will any of today’s “superstars” be remembered in the 2030s or will they fall by the wayside the way the writers from the sixties did?  I think most of what is happening today will be forgotten as soon as Elon Musk establishes his Mars colony and people become fascinated with progress and ideas again (as opposed to the current preoccupation with politicizing even the tiniest of human interactions and navel-gazing).  When humans remember why we admire individuals with drive and initiative who push the species forward, SF literature will reverse its current trend towards utter boredom and resurge like the phoenix.

But even twenty years from now, the stuff written today will still be around so that future readers can look at it and scratch their heads much like I do when I read a lot of what came out of the sixties.  At the very least, today’s trends will serve as a reminder of how interesting dead ends can be.

 

Gustavo Bondoni has never been accused of being overly literary.  His latest novel, Timeless, is a romantic thriller in the mold of Sidney Sheldon.  You can check it out here.

Groff Conklin Saves the Day

There are few experiences quite as disheartening as discovering that a genre you love had some growing pains.  Unfortunately, most things worth having suffered at some point, and science fiction, quite obviously, was not the exception.

The genres dark ages happened in the sixties and seventies.  Riding a wave of enthusiasm derived from the Pulp Era and the Golden Age, science fiction hit the days of hippies, pop culture and Vietnam with a resounding thud, and something called the New Wave.

Now, as someone who entered the genre in the 1980s, I was surprised to learn about this.  To me, science fiction was Clarke, Heinlein and especially Asimov, three men who dominated the field in 1987 or so, just as they did in the fifties.  To anyone joining then, it was as if the New Wave never happened.  It’s still kind of that way today, except that all of us recognize that New Wave sensibilities did give us one colossus of the genre, Dune, and another literary great, LeGuin.  Other than that, it has mostly been forgotten.

But the anthologies are still out there, places where one can see the atrocities perpetrated against the genre in all their unfortunate luridity.  Perhaps the greatest of the criminals against genre during the New Wave era was Judith Merril.  At the time a respected anthologist, her collections tend to be strings of empty stories that mainly paid homage to the times and have little lasting value.

Unfortunately, she was also quite prolific, and she compiled a lot of the era’s “Year’s Best” collections, so she’s the first anthologist you’re likely to encounter, and the one that will form your view.

The Best of Sci-Fi- 17 x Infinity - Edited by Groff Conklin

All of the above is just a very long-winded way of saying that when I picked up The Best of Sci-Fi 17 x Infinity, published in 1963, I was expecting more of the same.  Pop-minded crap where density of composition attempted to hide a lack of originality and ideas… boy was I mistaken.

This one actually covers much more ground than other anthos of the era, and includes stories by such colossi as Rudyard Kipling and E. M. Forster.  And before you ask, these aren’t stories “considered” to be science fiction – these are straight SF yarns with no excuses given; cover the writer’s name, and you’d guess Golden Age Astounding.

When you add in more modern authors such as Asimov, Herbert, Bradbury Pohl and Sturgeon it becomes… well, quite simply, this was one of the best SF anthos I’ve ever read.  Perhaps not cutting edge by modern standards, it was a breeze to read… which is the way to know you’re enjoying something.

Favorite tale was probably Herbert’s, which was funny as hell and would probably cause a few interesting meltdowns if someone published it today… which is always a plus.

Track this one down and get a copy.  It’s probably only worth a couple of dollars at your friendly neighborhood used book store.  You’ll enjoy this one.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose latest book – Timeless – was recently released.  You can check it out here.

For Those Who Like Extreme Science in their Science Fiction

Hal Clement - Penguin - Mission of Gravity

I’m on a bit of a science fiction classics binge, which is always an enjoyable place to be…  After not one but two issues of the old Astounding Stories, I moved on to Mission of Gravity, a novel which, fittingly enough, was published in Astounding in 1953.  Since then, it has appeared often in book form, and was even published by Penguin, which I have always found, albeit with a few exceptions, to be a harbinger of at least some literary merit.

This novel delivers a fascinating, if not particularly tense, tale of space exploration at the limits of known science, and takes place on a hugely massive planet spinning at a crazy rate, which does some very interesting things to the gravity.

The main characters are the inhabitants of that world, and it’s interesting to watch how they’ve adapted to the conditions prevalent on their planet and how they respond to the presence of human explorers who have a problem that they can’t solve themselves.  Making a scenario this alien believable is probably Clement’s strongest point in this book.

I’m also interested in the fact that the author doesn’t stop to explain the physics.  If you don’t know how to recognize the symptoms of high spin or the effects of high gravity, then you’ll miss a whole lot of this.  Perhaps the book was most interesting as an indictment of today’s more lenient and easier education systems.  Sixty years ago, authors assumed science knowledge that would cause a lot of genre readers to stumble and grumble today.  Ouch.

Anyhow, it does dive into science, so might not be everyone’s cup of tea in this slipstream and “soft science is just as respectable as hard science” day and age, but it’s certainly a shining example of the breed.  And unlike the character studies currently in vogue, I’ll actually remember this one in a few years’ time – that’s because SF is the literature of ideas, and the ideas in this one are actually kinda interesting.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose latest novel, Timeless is a thriller about a journalist.  You can have a look at it here.

With Trimmed Edges

Astounding Stories August 1936

Last time, we looked at the January 1934 issue of Astounding Stories with an eye towards understanding what the transition between the old-time pulps and the Golden Age of Science Fiction actually looked like.

One of the hallmarks of the pulp age is, as its name suggests, the use of low-quality pulp paper with untrimmed edges.  The paper itself felt soft and of much better quality than, say the stuff used in 1970s paperbacks that turns brittle and brown (as opposed to the well-creamed-coffee color of the pulp stock), but there’s no arguing that the untrimmed edges give the publications a bit of an unfinished look.

In the two-and-a-half years between that issue and the other one I’ve recently read (August 1936 – pictured above), however, a major innovation occurred at Astounding: trimmed edges!  This complete break with pulp tradition makes less difference today than it probably did eighty-odd years ago on the newsstands.

Once more, I turned to the letters section, Brass Tacks, to see what reader reaction to the change had been.  As expected, the fans were enthusiastic with what they saw as a major advance, and the section also informed me that the change had happened only a few issues before the one I was holding.  But that wasn’t the only thing they talked about: the letters section had, by this time become a major concentration point for amateur literary critics.  The discussion of the merits of the various authors was quite heated… and the old argument about the pulp-style and Golden Age styles that we discussed last time was still alive and well.  Some of the readers were very vocal against the new, more literary and scientific style of story.

Interestingly, John W. Campbell, though not the editor, was already in evidence by this issue.  He wrote a science article about Mercury, apparently part of a series.  Also, this issue showed the return of two authors who’d been in the earlier edition: Nat Schachner and the great Jack WIlliamson.  Other famous names in this one were Murray Leinster and Stanley Weinbaum (who, the editor informed us, would no longer be appearing in Astounding – he’d died in December at the age of 33… and with an enviable body of work behind him).

With regards to the fiction itself, this one was a lucky buy, as it had the beginning of one serial (The Incredible Invasion – Leinster) and the end of another (The Cometeers – Williamson) which meant that I didn’t get stuck with the middle of anything which is always harder to draw conclusions from.  It was these two fragments plus the Schachner tale “The Return of the Murians” which stuck most in my mind.  There was nothing quite like the story “Colossus” which was the highlight of the January 1934 issue, but on the flip side, there were no real duds in this one either.

In general, we’ve definitely moved one step closer to the Golden Age here.  The style and names are almost all there, as are the trimmed edges.  It took one man’s vision to bring it all together… someday, I should probably read an early Campbell Astounding to see how it looks.  And when I do, I’ll write about it here.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book, Timeless, follows journalist Marianne Caruso as she investigates a mysterious author… only to run afoul of the very criminals the man writes about.  You can check it out here.

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.