Science Fiction

And the View from Today

Last Monday, I wrote about the way National Geographic had dealt with the wonder of the moon landing when it happened, and felt the same wonder that readers must have felt back then, the same sense that nothing was impossible, and that the future was truly on the way.

But then 50 years passed.

Much of society, in the meantime, have become jaded to the fact that the moon was reached, and look at it in purely economic terms, or view space exploration as a waste of resources hat could be used for whatever pet social project people favor. It seems incredible to me, a mean and miserly way to consider humanity’s greatest achievement, something only minds with small horizons should be capable of, but I’ve seen it often enough that I’m no longer surprised when people say things like that.

In light of this, one might think that Ad Astra‘s edition dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the landings (which I was also given at the ISDC) might contain a certain amount of bitterness, a sense of betrayal by the rest of humanity.

But I forgot who I was dealing with. People who love space exploration are, above all, believers in the invincibility of the human spirit. Not for them reproach or recrimination; this magazine is a wonderful celebration of the past, sometimes a reminder of the fact that we still have work to do, and an affectionate look at the true heroes involved.

If you never read another issue of ad Astra, this one is worth your time. It teaches you how to look back in admiration. Which is the only way to think of the past.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside is a look at a future in which humanity has not only conquered the stars but become bitterly divided between those who live a physical existence and those who live only in uploaded versions of themselves. It will make you question what it actually means to be human. 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.

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.

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.

Why Space Opera is so Much Better than Dystopian SF

We live in a world that seems to love its dystopias. From television shows about zombies to near-future resource-constrained novels to the sudden rediscovery of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is a crappy book that resonates with certain forms of gloom-and-doomism, it’s in vogue to consume media that tells us how awful everything will be.

The world, critically acclaimed media tells us, will be awful, and humanity will be trapped on Earth, never to leave again.

Of course, it isn’t actually obligatory to consume dystopian SF. While it’s difficult to escape it, there are good things on the shelves at your local bookstore and even, if you make the effort to look for it, on TV.

And while I can’t explain the popularity of depressing SF that takes place on Earth, I can tell you the name of its fun, inspiring antidote: Space Opera.

Now space opera doesn’t have to be Stars Wars cheesy. It can be technologically awesome, like Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space cycle, political, like Iain M. Banks Culture novels, or idea-driven in the tradition of Asimov or Heinlein. Hell, there’s even Eco-space-opera in the form of Dune.

It’s superior to the dystopian stuff for several reasons. The first, of course, is that it’s much more fun to read. Not only is the imagination liberated, but these tend to show humanity at its best, encountering and overcoming challenges on a galactic scale, as opposed to small-mindedly obsessing over the problems of one planet. It takes a very small mind indeed to feel threatened by the possibility of humanity spreading its wings; most people will be uplifted by this subgenre in ways that seldom happens in pessimistic portrayals of an earth-only future.

If you want proof of this concept, just walk down to your local bookstore. You’ll find Asimov, Heinlein, Clark, Herbert, Niven, etc. well represented despite the fact that they created their best work forty years ago in the best of cases, seventy in the case of Foundation… The problem is that those books still attract the kind of reader that was attracted to science fiction in the first place, while the recent crop of dull, politicized dystopia is only good for as a sleeping aid for insomniacs. (recent space opera is much more likely to be on shelves in 50 years than the tripe winning most awards…).

The second reason Space Opera is better is that it is actually more likely to come to pass. While no one should be a climate Pollyanna, the truth is that humanity, through thick and thin, has always advanced technologically. Some of the forthcoming challenges will be tough, but they will be overcome. Moreover, humanity is finally pushing towards colonization of space and that is the kind of barrier that, once broken, crumbles like a piece of stale bread. We will be out there in numbers, very likely within our own lifetimes. So any climate apocalypse tale that doesn’t have a significant human space presence is just silly. I’d shelve it under fantasy and not SF.

Finally, the attitude of the writers is a turn-off in many dystopian books. These volumes are often a reflection of the fears that capitalism and individualism are destroying the planet. While one may agree or disagree with that sentiment, the kind of obsession with it that drives someone to actually pen a novel to show how badly it will end don’t necessarily make for someone in whose head you want to spend a few hundred pages.

They are, in fact, obsessed enough to ignore the fact that living standards have been steadily rising worldwide for the longest time. I recommend The Better Angels of Our Nature for the science and numbers that pretty much conclusively prove it. But not for our poor, angry content creators – they need the world to be going down the tubes, because if not, they’re wrong about everything.

But the technical considerations and political annoyances are secondary. The bottom line is that Space Opera is just more fun, and we read and watch science fiction to be entertained, not to be preached at.

So go forth and buy something fun for a change. It probably won’t have won a Hugo but if you’ve been following the Hugos lately, you know that that no longer matters (caveat, if I ever win a Hugo, you can take it as a given that I was drunk while writing this and that the Hugo represents the very pinnacle of literature of any kind. But until that enormously unlikely event happens, I stand by the above).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who writes a certain amount of Space Opera both in short and long form. His well-received novel Siege is a far-future space opera in a very dark galaxy. You can check it out here.

The Translations Fad

Today is a reflection about the writing world, so if that isn’t the kind of thing that interests you, you can always read about parties.

Still here?  Cool.  Let’s talk about the current glut of translations hitting the market.  I will focus on the science fiction and fantasy worlds for this particular post, because that’s the world I know best, but I see similar trends elsewhere.

The English-language market has traditionally been the largest market on the planet (although I suspect that the Chinese market might have surpassed it), and the great works from many literatures are usually easy to find.  In fact, it’s often the case that the best translation for those unable to read the original is the English.

The reason for that, intuitively, is that the competition for a slice of the market is so fierce that only the best of several translations survives.  This is good for readers and also forces translators to up their game.

Solaris - Stanislaw Lem.jpg

This isn’t always true, however.  The science fiction classic Solaris sat in bad-translation limbo for decades because the bad English translation came from what was reputedly a bad French one as opposed to having come from the original Polish.  So it doesn’t always work perfectly.

In general, though, English readers had the best of both worlds.  The very best foreign fiction was published in what often were the best translations.

The downside was that second-level foreign work usually didn’t make it, and short fiction was pretty much ignored by the translators (even though a lot is available, there is a LOT more that isn’t).

But social and academic trends change and, for whatever reason, it is now considered wrong that English-speaking authors have an advantage… and translations have become trendy, whether novels or short stories.

Cixin Liu Three Body Problem

This is a mixed blessing.  On one side, there are some wonderful books available to English-speaking audiences that would probably never have been translated in other days.  It’s probably even more notable on the short fiction side.  A good example is American Monsters, which we discussed here a few weeks ago.

But there’s a downside.  What we said for the translation side of things, also goes for the writing side.  The English-language market is much more competitive than any other market on the planet.  There are more writers competing for fewer publishing slots than anywhere else.

The reason for this is simple: the English market’s huge audience means that writers get PAID for their work.  That seems like an obvious thing, but sadly, it’s very much isn’t.

I get together once a month (when pandemics don’t intervene) with the local Argentine SFF writing community.  There are some very good writers and editors there, but the only one who gets paid to write is me.  And that’s because my writing is good enough to break into the US and British markets.

In Argentina the dynamic is different.  Publishers see the writers as either providers of free content (in the best of cases) or as investors in the printing process.  This is often done with the best of intentions, and often art is the first priority, but the dynamic drives away all but the truly obsessed, creating art for art’s sake.  Only bestsellers and celebrities make even pin money from their writing.

This situation is extended to most of Latin America, and I know that most worldwide SF publications don’t pay, so I’d assume it can be extrapolated to a certain degree everywhere.

The competition in those places is naturally less.  Therefore, the quality is also proportionally less.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t geniuses writing in every language on Earth, but I would definitely say that the second-level stuff wouldn’t be good enough to make any impression at all in the English-language marketplace.

Unfortunately, it’s often second-level stuff that’s now the bulk of what’s being published in the translation fad.  Perhaps talented writers, but ones that would need to hone their craft in the crucible of the most competitive market before they can earn their place.

This situation is making the life of English-language writers a little difficult.  I’m lucky enough that I’ve been selling steadily, both on the novel and the short fiction fronts (perhaps because I’ve been in the market long enough that readers know my name – ironically, having a weird name makes name recognition easier), but many are finding this new market reality impossible.  They are being forced to the sidelines by work that would normally be rejected… just because it’s translated.

I think a lot of writers just entering the market will be turned off by this… and we’ll lose them, possibly even some major talents.  Of course, we’ll also get a taste of translated work, so it should even out for readers.

In the future, I think the market will sort itself out.  I think the upper level translations are here to stay, but the foreign-language writers on the second tier will either need to up their game or find that these automatic acceptances are no longer the case.  Fashions do not last forever, and the English-language market is a strict meritocracy: you need to impress both editors (to make the cut) and readers (to ever make the cut again).  A lot of the translated stuff from the past couple of years won’t meet this litmus test, and will gradually disappear.

But what remains will make the genre stronger, so I say welcome aboard.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s well-received science fiction novel Siege is a sweeping story of desperate survival in a galaxy ravaged by war and incomprehensible intelligences.  You can check it out here.

My Favorite Anthology Covers

I sell a lot of short stories, both original and reprint, so it stands to reason that my work has appeared not only in magazines, but also in countless anthologies.

Sometimes, the antho cover is a bit of a disappointment.  Most times, though, they are wonderful, with either beautiful artwork or brilliant design jumping out at readers.  But, since I’m an expert at neither art nor design, choosing my favorites ends up being a question of personal opinion without too much basis in argument of any kind.

That, of course, has never stopped me before so, without more ado, I present my five favorite antho covers from books in which my work appears, in no particular order.

 

A High Shrill Thump makes the list because that Etruscan zombie on the cover is an illustration of my story “Comrade at Arms”.  I’m pretty sure this is the first time the cover illustration of an anthology was based on one of my stories.

A High Schrill Thump.jpg

 

Made You Flinch. This one makes the list because, all these years later, I still remember it.  The reason was that, as I was working my way through the lowest ranks of the indy press, the quality of artwork was often iffy at best.  This one was striking, and anything less than iffy.  I don’t recall much of the stories inside (excpet mine, “Topside”), but this cover is unforgettable.

Made You Flinch

 

Sha’Daa Toys.  I always loved the Sha’Daa covers, even before I managed to convice the editors that I was good enough to join this particular shared world antho series.  And the Toys cover is creepy and dark and moody and everything that it should be for the apocalypse.

Sha'Daa Toys.jpg

 

American Monsters Part One.  The Fox Spirit Books of Monsters represent the most critically acclaimed series of anthos on this list, and with good reason.  They have a powerful lineup of writers from all over the world writing about the monsters near and dear to them.  It’s understandably powerful.  But the artwork is also wonderful.  How and you not love these sepia-toned images?  My story “Vulnerable Populations” is included in there.

Amercian Monsters Part One.jpg

 

Sinisterotica.  Normally, this cover wouldn’t have made the list.  I don’t love it when computer-generated humans land in the uncanny valley, and those fonts are… questionable.  But the cover is also the bravest, boldest thing I’ve seen in a long, long time.  Only the judicious use of shade keeps it from landing in the adults-only section behind a brown paper wrapper but, as they say, no guts, no glory, so this one makes the list among more professionally executed covers.  It contains my story “Top of the Food Chain”.

Sinisterotica

There are so many more that I love, and I hate to leave out such a massive number of great publishers and editors.  But I had to cut somewhere and these are the five I thought of today.

Ask me again tomorrow, and I’ll probably pick a different five.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer with over 300 published stories.  His latest collection is Off the Beaten Path, a curation of stories that take place outside the usual American and European settings.  They will make you think, and they will entertain you.  You can check it out here.

 

My First Experience with Chilean SF

Like many Latin American countries, Chile has a rich literary tradition, but one which is best explored by those who speak Spanish.  Pablo Neruda, for example, was a poet, and that is a form that is best explored in the original language.  Many other great writers are criminally untranslated.  So it sometimes seems like the English-language market is condemned to limit itself to Isabel Allende… which is unfortunate.

I’m lucky that I can read Spanish, which means that I can range across the entire spectrum, and I’m doubly lucky that I’m a writer, which means that I often receive books by my peers as a gift.  I always read them, although it takes me a while.

Más Espacio Del que Soñamos - Leonardo Benavides.jpg

Leonardo Benavides is, first and foremost, a good guy.  We got to talking at a meeting of science fiction writers in Buenos Aires, and he gave me a copy of his book Más espacio del que soñamos (translates as More Space than we Dream of), a collection of science fiction stories.

To those familiar with SF canon, this one will immediately feel familiar while, at the same time being just a little different.  The familiarity will arise from the themes which are very much those of Golden Age science fiction.  Space exploration, robots, alien invasions and the moral and social issues of the technology of the future are well represented and solidly explored.  There’s even a story in here with the classic flip of perspective in which we get to see how an alien would see us.

At the same time, this collection has enough modern sensibilities to avoid feeling stale, and it also has other things that set it apart.  The first, of course, is the fact that it is written by a Latin American who, whether consciously or not, brings a certain worldview to his work.  The work is stronger for it.

(As a somewhat related aside, I recently had a conversation with one of my publishers who said that my work has a lot of philosophical development in it.  I suppose he is correct, but it’s not something I necessarily do consciously–the same might be the case in Benavides’ work: I’ll have to ask him the next time I see him)

Another thing which I found interesting is that I would have been able to guess that the writer was a doctor even if I hadn’t known (I did).  There is an abundance of medical takes in the stories that are much more precise than what one usually sees in any kind of tale, and that makes it different.  In SF, different–when it doesn’t get in the way of comprehension–is always good.  In this case, I think bringing a surgeon’s viewpoint even to non-medical stories removes a certain sentimentality and forces us–as doctors must–to view what we have in front of us dispassionately.  These stories are about what is as opposed to what we’d like for it to be.  They can get a little dark.

In summary, this is a great primer to Chilean SF and I recommend it heartily.  My own favorite story in here was “Un horizonte curvado”, a survival story.  If you can read it, you should.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose most recent collection, Off the Beaten Path, explores the corners of the world we don’t always see, and the people we don’t often encounter… but who feel familiar to us anyway.  You can buy it here.