literature

The Fiction Issue of The New Yorker

So, how far behind am I? I just finished reading the June 10 and 17, 2019 issue of The New Yorker. A lot of the articles, particularly the ones referred to goings on about town are probably out of date a year and a half, plus a pandemic, later. The reviews, though still valid, probably aren’t as fresh as they could be, either.

But a fiction issue, as this one purports to being, should be okay, so I read it with enthusiasm. All right, let’s qualify that: I don’t normally love the fiction in TNY. I find it a little too dull and boring.

The three stories in this issue were not bad. Not memorable in any way (Sanctuary in the Artist’s Studio is probably the best of the three), but not bad.

More interesting is the fact that they sprinkled the usual content with something called border crossings, where immigrants in different parts of the world describe their experiences. This is non-fiction, and it’s kind of weird to see The New Yorker voicing it. Weird because I expect TNY to show an idealized intellectual-progressive view of things, which obviously doesn’t exist when you bring the real world into it. Even more shocking to me was an honest article about what life in supposed socialist paradise (and failed state) Venezuela is like. It’s the kind of thing one would expect TNY to sweep under the rug, as it will definitely make a good portion of its readership uncomfortable.

So my respect for the magazine–despite still feeling the fiction is just okay–went up a few notches this time. It’s nice to see realism even among the intellectual elite who tend to try to block it out and live in an idealized world where theory rules and when reality doesn’t support that way of thinking, it’s reality that’s wrong.

If you need to understand The New Yorker by reading one issue, this is the best one to pick up of the ones I’ve seen.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres. His literary fiction is collected in Love and Death, a novel in short story form that tells the tale of several families, intertwined through generations. You can check it out here.

Libraries Revisited

I like reading books about libraries. The best of these is probably this one because it balances, but there are many, many wonderful pictures with a complete history of the content and the buildings that made up libraries all over the world, both ancient and modern. Interestingly, it is also entitled The Library (although the main difference with today’s subject is the fact that the earlier book also had a subtitle: A World History).

I also enjoy reading chattier, more personal, history of bibliophile things and in this sense, Nicholas Basbanes Patience and Fortitude is a good bet, and a nice thick book that will keep you entertained for some time. If your own library is in any way quirky or fun, you’ll like this one.

Today’s work is a much lighter read than either of these two, but that isn’t entirely a bad thing.

The Library – A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells is one of those cases in which a book is perfectly described by its subtitle. The “Catalogue of Wonders” part immediately brings to mind those cabinets of curiosities that wealthy private individuals used to have. These so-called cabinets (they were sometimes rooms) could contain anything the person found of interest, from stuffed birds to shrunken heads.

This book is kind of like that. It’s not a chronological history of the evolution of the library (although it does give a well-researched glimpse into that), but a collection of eclectically arranged chapters that tell of major things that befell or happened in libraries. So one chapter might give an evolution of medieval libraries while another might talk about imaginary libraries in literature (of course, Eco’s is in there, but so are the ones from LotR, and Kells shows himself to be a bit of a Tolkien scholar).

It’s actually a perfect book for those who either have already read the two mentioned previously or for those who don’t want to invest the time you’d need to do the others justice. At slightly under 300 pages, the Kells is the perfect length for the casual reader while having enough new anecdotes and stories to be a delight for those who’ve read the other volumes.

Heartily recommended to book lovers everywhere!

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love and Death is a single story made up of many stand-alone shorts. The characters deeply affect each others’ lives, often without ever knowing the others exist. You can check it out here.

Oh Captain! My Captain, Patience and Fortitude

We read only a little poetry here so it may sadden readers to learn that I’ve never read Leaves of Grass cover to cover, it will probably not surprise you. This state of affairs may be unfortunate, but it doesn’t mean that I haven’t read plenty of Walt Whitman’s work over the years. In fact, I’ve probably read Leaves of Grass in its entirety at some point or another… just not consecutively in book form the way it was published.

So when I was in New York in Early June, 2019, I went to the exposition of Whitman’s life, work and influence at the New York Public Library.

Now I’d like to take a second to talk about NYPL’s exhibitions. They are wonderful, the place where they are held is just the right size to cover a specialized topic, and I’ll likely walk into the one held at any given moment even if its subject matter isn’t particularly interesting to me (they are free, so you only spend the time you invest). When it’s something like Whitman, though, it’s doubly nice.

On my way out, I grab the booklet you can take and toss it into my to-be-read pile (currently standing at about 90 books and magazines, not counting the separate pile of Road & Tracks from the 70s and 80s), where it eventually cycles through.

In this case, reading it helped fix what I’d seen in the exhibition in my memory and help me remember stuff I might otherwise have forgotten.

Of those little details, the one that interested me most as a writer was that Whitman released Blades of Grass in one form (which flopped, though it was well received by some critics) and then went on adding to it in subsequent editions. That seems strange to me… I always try to get my publishers the best possible version of my work, complete enough that adding to it would only be an exercise in padding. But it definitely worked for Whitman, who eventually turned the book into one of the most influential collections of poetry in history. Unlike other literary giants from America like Poe or Melville, Whitman became a giant in his own lifetime.

No writer could ever ask for more.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His literary fiction is collected in a strange little book called Love and Death in which the characters from one of the linked stories influence the lives of every other character, usually without knowing it. You can check it out here.

The Lost Fleet, or why Bookstores are the Best Place to Buy Books

Times change. Nowadays, people looking for something new to read will most likely browse on Amazon, maybe follow a “recommended for you” link or two in order to track down something they could love.

In the SFF genre world, times also change, even more than in the rest of the literary world. It used to be that you could pretty much trust the Hugo and Nebula awards to point you in the direction of some interesting, entertaining work. It’s likely this would have been work by an author whose short fiction you were already familiar with, but it was a trustworthy recommendation.

These awards are no longer a good guideline, unfortunately. They’ve become politicized. The Hugos, in particular are a hollow shell of themselves. There was a controversy a few years back which, by laying bare all the problems with the award, essentially caused the people who remained to become radicalized to the effect that, today, the Hugo is more a “rightthink” award than anything remotely literary or SFF-related. It’s gotten so bad that the last time I was a voter (in 2019), I hit no-award on nearly all the categories except where Peadar O’Guilin and Aliette de Bodard were involved. It was really that bad.

The Nebulas are not quite as rotten, but they’re not entirely free of the taint either.

So what is an SFF reader looking to avoid preachy message fiction and rediscover the fun in the genre to do?

The answer is, of course, “go to a bookstore!”

And that is exactly what I did. Browsing the shelves at Barnes & Noble, I looked around the science fiction section until I found a book, first in a series, that, apart from looking technological, actually looked fun. The book I grabbed was The Lost Fleet: Dauntless, by Jack Campbell.

Now, we’re talking. A naval officer is rescued from a survival pod in which he’s been stuck for a hundred years… and put into command of a space fleet. During the war that developed while he was in hibernation, his people have turned him into the most important hero of their people.

But that comes at a cost. The fleet he commands is wounded, outgunned and trapped deep behind enemy lines. The navy he awakes to is completely different from the one he knew.

And not everyone is happy to be under the command of someone so out of touch.

This book is sheer brilliance. Fast-paced and fun as hell, it’s the perfect antidote to the plodding moralistic boredom of the more critically acclaimed SFF we’re saddled with today. It’s not as deep or complex as Alastair Reynolds, but it isn’t meant to be, and it doesn’t need to be. But it does prove that character development and good writing can be present without turning the book into a stagnant snoozer. There’s a reason this one is part of a New York Times bestselling series.

Recommended.

Gustavo Bondoni is novelist and short story writer whose own military science fiction novel is entitled Incursion. It, too deals with a galaxy-spanning war in which a desperate but necessary suicide mission suddenly becomes more complicated than anyone bargained for. You can check it out here.

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.