Science Fiction

Progressive Fiction? It’s not Quite as Awful as it Sounds… At Least Not in This Issue

If you told me to read progressive science fiction without giving me any context, I’d run, not walk, away from you. You already know that I believe that messages often ruin things, and that including a message in any type of fiction is a fine line to walk. The risk of doing it badly is severe enough that I actually steer clear of most of the modern science fiction published, and I haven’t read a Hugo winner in a decade.

But I made an exception for the Jubilee Issue of The Future Fire. Why? Because it was gifted to me by the editor himself at WorldCon in Dublin, but much more importantly because said editor, Djibril al-Ayad seemed very cool and extremely smart apart from being very pleasant. I suspected that if anyone could navigate the current political quagmire of the genre, it might be him.

And I’m delighted to have read it.

First, let’s get to the obvious stuff. Yes, there are a few things in here that will offend the easily offended–homosexual relationships, zoophilia in the fairy realm, non-traditional gender roles and the like. Since this doesn’t bother me in the least, it made zero difference to my enjoyment. Most of the book is not centered on pushing any particular viewpoint, but in telling stories about people who happen to be gay, or deadly female soldiers, or whatever, without stopping to question or pontificate. Included that way, these characters are not annoyingly didactic but interesting and dynamic… very easy to enjoy.

As for things I did stumble over, the only one present in this one is an invented pronoun. I understand the arguments for this, but it threw me out of the story every single time, which is unfortunate because the story in which it appeared was otherwise excellent. Unless the author is specifically trying to be openly activist here, I’d recommend dumping the inexistent pronoun (but keeping other progressive elements exactly as they are) because the rest of that story was excellent (Names withheld to protect the guilty) and there was no real need to slash the people who’d enjoy the story that way. If a reader like me gets thrown out every time, you’re really limiting your readership to a small, extremely woke crowd by doing this.

Okay, we’ve dealt with the obvious. What about the stories?

For most of the stories in here, I’ll limit myself to the observation these are excellent tales written by supremely talented people, and I’m delighted to have read them. They run a gamut of different styles and voices, so any given reader will enjoy some more than others, but they are uniformly of high quality and, save that pronoun in an otherwise good story, most readers looking for a good story will enjoy them. There is little attempt here to convert the unwashed.

But there’s one story that stood out not just in this book but as one of the best stories I’ve read in a really, really long time. It’s called “Goodbye Snow Child” and the author is Jo Thomas. Wow. Just wow. The plot is very simple–a woman wakes, wearing a hood that keeps her from seeing anything, and knows nothing about what’s happening to her except what she hears from certain voices–but the execution is nothing short of genius. The last time I had this feeling of genius in a short tale was “Zima Blue” by Alastair Reynolds, which I read back in 2008 or so. Yes, it was THAT good. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you what Thomas did, but it’s wonderful. Track this one down and read it.

So I’d give this issue of The Future Fire high marks. Does the excellence extend to the others? I don’t know, but judging from this small sample size and what I saw of the editor, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least.

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer. His most recent full-length collection of short fiction is entitled Off the Beaten Path. As the title implies, this one stays away from traditional genre settings in North America and Europe to focus on other interesting places while reminding readers that humans, at their core are more alike than different. You can have a look here.

The View from the North

Post-apocalyptic fiction comes in many guises, most of them dark. You’ve got experimental books in which one of the points made appears to be that the breaking of the world will change everything–even the way we think and interact with reality. You’ve also got the standard fare where everyone is a zombie or a vampire and the heroes have to blow them to pieces in order to survive. There are other recipes, too, but each has been trodden a million times before, and that goes for both the hyper-literary, the socially justice rage story and the straight action-adventure tropes.

So when you come upon a truly different take, you sit up and take notice… or at least I do. And when a post-apocalyptic collection ends on a hopeful note… well, that’s icing.

The Stars Seem So Far Away by Margrét Helgadóttir is a wonderful book which, to me is pretty much the definition of a slow-burn collection with unexpected depths. When I started reading it, I thought it was a straight story collection, one that brought together tales related in no other way than the fact that they’re all genre stories.

Eventually, however, I came to realize the tales are linked together, intertwining the post-apocalyptic fates of four young people in a world that is at once harsh and indifferent (and cold–the setting is basically a Viking area, Greenland and Svalbard) but also contains moments of kindness it one knows where to look. And though action and death are present, they aren’t the central tenet of the work. Rather, the way the world creates and modifies the characters themselves is paramount.

Although I only saw her for a few days in 2019, I consider the author, Margrét, a friend (and before that, she bought one of my stories for an award-winning anthology series). With this book, I found something that, despite being friends with several other authors, had never happened to me before: I felt like this book could ONLY have been written by Margrét. Only she could have given a story set after the fall of civilization as we know it the specific viewpoint that is expressed in this book: the hopeful thread that runs through even the darkest chapters, the deep-seated kindness in certain people and the calm, measured pacing, all reflect the Margrét I know.

It’s highly recommended, and those of you who’ve never met the author will certainly feel like you know her after reading it.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose own collection of linked stories is not a genre work but falls firmly in the literary camp, focusing on moments of complete transformation in the daily lives of people just like you and me. It’s called Love and Death, and you can check it out here.

The Very Best of one of the Greatest Magazines

Most people of my generation who grew up reading science fiction know there are exactly three great SF magazines out there (this isn’t necessarily correct, because there are many more new and old, but this is what we know in our bones). Those magazines are, in chronological order of launch: Analog, Fantasy & Science Fiction and Asimov’s.

Two of these are deeply tied to specific immortal colossi of the genre – Analog is Campbell’s magazine, Asimov’s is… well, it’s pretty obvious if you think about it).

F&SF is not so intimately linked to any specific figure which, ironically, allows it to be linked with almost everyone who was ever anyone in the field. So when I saw a book entitled The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction Volume Two, I had to snap it up and immediately began searching for volume 1 (I still don’t have that one, BTW).

As I started reading this one, it quickly became apparent that F&SF is one of the greats for a very good reason. Of the first twelve stories, I’d read ten or so before in one or another “greatest” or “best of the year” compendiums. SO this isn’t just a magazine tooting its own horn–independent editors have been selecting these stories for “greatest” volumes for a long time. And remember, this is volume TWO. These are the stories that, for one reason or another, didn’t make it into the first volume. The fact that they’re among SF’s acknowledged greats is mind-blowing.

But the thing that stunned me the most is that the immortal Ellison tale “Jeffty is Five” got held over to volume 2. This is one of THE greatest stories ever according to pretty much everyone. That gives you some idea of the quality of fiction that F&SF has published over the years.

As we got into the more modern stories, from the eighties on, I found work that I wasn’t familiar with. Another thing that is lovely about this book is how the style changes as the years go on. All the stories that made it here are obviously well-written with excellently drawn characters, but in the early stories, the idea is front and center while in the later ones, you get a more character-centric vision. Some people (like me) will marvel at the Golden Age stuff, while others will admire the newer work, but everyone will be treated to the most pleasant way to see the evolution of the genre: by reading wonderful stories.

Of the newer ones, I’d have to say that George Alec Effinger’s “The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything” was the one I enjoyed most. It’s funny without being slapstick and memorable besides.

Of the old ones, I have to admit that, despite my love for idea fiction and Golden Age SF, I love Zenna Henderson’s “The Anything Box”. It’s just so well executed that the slightly weak concept is saved. Beautiful story.

For the record, I hate the ending of “Jeffty is FIve”, but it’s certainly a must-read.

And now, off to search, again, for Volume One. There are probably copies on Goodreads.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose collection Off the Beaten path does exactly what the cover says. It collects work outside the obvious settings of the US and Europe to uncover the fantastic (and science fictional) in the rest of the world. You can check it out here.

The Sheer Brilliance of Anthony Burgess, a Droog

When we discuss the great novels of the 20th Century, we usually look at mainstream or literary fiction. We talk about The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness, The Sun Also Rises, To Kill a Mockingbird, Ulysses and anything by Hemingway. To that list, I’d add The Remains of the Day, a near-perfect book if ever there was one.

But science fiction usually doesn’t make it into the conversation. Even the pieces of genre that the literati accept aren’t quite in the select group. 1984 and Brave New World fall just short, and the only other major crossover SF book, The Handmaid’s Tale, is crap (the subject is wonderfully chosen, but I would have liked to see it in the hands of someone who understood the dynamic of SF–Ursula K. Le Guin would have been wonderful).

There is one exception, one book, that, though it’s definitely science fiction, gate-crashes the conversation.

I was afraid A Clockwork Orange would be a difficult, dense read. One of the first things you learn about this book, after all, is that Burgess invented a new slang for a lot of it, and that is never fun.

But there’s something you need to remember about Burgess. He’s a virtuoso, a brilliant writer who isn’t afraid to write brilliantly. So despite the book being in unusual language, it works perfectly well. It’s a quick, almost light read.

Of course, it isn’t quite a light read, because the subject matter is a savage attack against… well, as a reader it wasn’t quite clear to me what Burgess was attacking other than the excesses of government in involving itself in people’s lives. I found it to be more of a commentary about the breakneck pace of modern lives and how it affects the subcultures involved. Answer: they get extremely violent…

Now that answer may not seem particularly groundbreaking, and in the hands of a lesser author, it wouldn’t have been. But Burgess makes it work. This book is a must-read, and I was fortunate to buy the Folio edition pictured before they ran out.

But whichever edition you can get hold of, there’s absolutely no excuse to give this one a pass unless you either hate the best books in the 20th century hate anything that looks speculatively at the future.

As an aside, this is considered Burgess’ greatest book, but it’s not my favorite. The Kingdom Of the Wicked is a romp through the ancient world which is unmatched even by Gore Vidal’s Creation. And that is saying quite a bit.

But returning to Orange, all I can say is that the very few hours you’ll spend on this one will be worth it. Sometimes it’s nice just to let a master lead you by the nose.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. His own vision about how society will fall apart around us can be found in the novel Outside. You can check it out here.

The Worlds of SF, F, H Volume IV – Robert’s Last Ride

Last week, I reviewed the third volume in Robert N. Stephenson’s World’s of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror series, and now it’s time for Volume IV.

I found Volume III to be truly well-written, action-packed and just plain fun. Volume IV veers in a different direction, being a little more pensive and experimental, although I’m not certain that’s what the writers of the short stories actually intended: it may be because a larger number than usual of the stories are either translated or written by authors whose first language isn’t English.

The reason this feels a little more experimental is down, I think, to three things: pacing, word choice and sentence structure.

The pacing issue is probably the easiest to spot. A couple of stories (both by Italian writers) were extremely slow and convoluted. If Lovecraft were writing today, that’s probably what he’d been doing. I don’t know much about the state of Italian literature today (my latest Italian reads were Eco and Bassani), but I hope that’s not where fantasy writers in that country are today, because they’d have eighty years of catching up to do.

Word choice and sentence structure are also off in some places, which certainly didn’t help my own reading pleasure. I know a lot of people believe the influx of foreign voices into the English canon is a wonderful thing. I agree… to a certain degree. Sometimes, you don’t want a chore, you want a bit of entertainment, and that means being comfortable with the text in order to enjoy character development and story. So foreign writers, in order to have a wider readership in English, need to learn to create prose that works for typical readers… and translators need to understand that the differences in structure are not wonderful pieces of the author’s voice but things that are intrinsic to the structure of the language of origin; there’s no need to inflict them on readers in other languages.

I read in English primarily, but I also read at a high level in Spanish and Portuguese – I will never read a book in one of those languages in anything but the original, because translators often make the mistake of bringing the things that sound fine in one language into the other… where the reader stumbles over it.

Fortunately, there are a couple of stories in this one that not only don’t suffer from the language ills mentioned and also aren’t slow, bizarre pieces which I find pointless. “Me and Septimus: In Extremis” by Kain Massin is a novella length piece which I absolutely loved. Fun, historical and with excellent monsters, it felt a lot shorter than it was. “The Story of Mynheer Reinaerde and the Purloined Tails” was not only fun, but also proved that authors Tais Teng and Jaap Boekestein have a pitch perfect ear for the English language (either that or their translator doesn’t suffer from delusions of artistry, which is a wonderful thing). Wonderful, memorable tales, both of them.

For the record, my own tale in this one is called “Summerland”… For obvious reasons, I won’t review that one.

The rest of the book certainly wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t quite as good as Volume III in my opinion. I’m pretty sure modern critics will disagree strongly with that, so to each, their own!

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest major collection is entitled Off the Beaten Path. As its name implies, it brings visions of a world far from the usual European and North American haunts. You can check it out here.

A Tribute to a Lost Friend

A couple of years ago, I reviewed The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Volume II, edited by Robert N. Stephenson. What I didn’t mention back then was that Robert, apart from being a hard-to-please editor who rejected a lot of my work before I sold him anything, was also a friend.

Only a couple of months after that review came out, I learned that Robert had taken his own life. I’ve now read the next book in that series, Volume III, and it was another wonderful look into three genres I love. But more than that, it was a reminder of just how good a sense Robert had for a good story.

Unlike a lot of anthos of this type, particularly from small presses, there wasn’t a single dud in the lot (which I suspected – I tried to send Robert a trunk story for this one and he told me to try harder… the man knew his stuff), and some of them were really, really good.

This volume contains everything from monks besieged by demons to superheroes to Poe-based science fiction. It truly does what it says on the cover, and it’s obvious Robert received a bunch of good stories for this one, because it’s a thicker volume than the last.

My own favorite was the wonderfully offbeat “A Particular Skill Set” by Julie Frost that deals with fairy queens in a very different way, but also has fanged bunnies. Weirdest one was “Even Souls Sleep” by Jay Hellis, in which a man who checks cargo manifests on trains full of dead souls finds an anomaly…

But, as I said before, there isn’t a true dud in the lot. Some have endings that I didn’t like, but that’s to be expected (and something deliciously ironic, considering how many people have taken me to task for my own endings on occasion).

Like I said last time, there’s something in here for everyone, and this one was truly strong.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose collected fiction appears in many places. His most recent full collection is Off the Beaten Path, a mix of light and dark, fantasy and SF that takes place far from the usual, overdone settings. You can check it out here.

Judas Unchained and the Conclusion of the Commonwealth Saga

I’ve said it before, so I won’t belabor the point, but I wish Peter F. Hamilton edited about 25% out of his books. They are too long and the narrative structure, which jumps around from one focus of the action to another very often, doesn’t help. If he was a talentless hack just filling in pages, or if his stories were bad, that wouldn’t be so frustrating.

But he isn’t. His Commonwealth saga is a truly interesting story with well-developed characters that takes place within a wonderful setting. I’m a sucker for mid- to far-future stories with human colonization of the galaxy, and this one definitely qualifies.

The story itself is about an interstellar war in which there is one clear antagonist and a bunch of nonhuman races (both human-generated and fully alien) whose loyalties aren’t quite clear at the outset. Intertwined with the galaxy-spanning conflict, we also get a police investigation novel intertwined… and in the end, the cops become almost more important than the people driving the starships against the enemy alien.

In fact, my one criticism of the saga is that it becomes clear rather early in the book that the war will go humanity’s way, and the final enemy standing is more of a question of justice than of survival. When a book is a thousand pages long, knowing that the good guys are too powerful to lose anything but their morality by page 500 is a little too much.

But even with that criticism (which in any other book would have been the death knell), the novel is worth finishing. You want to know how the character arcs play out despite the plot losing a certain amount of attraction, and you want to spend more time in that coalition of planets linked together by wormholes through which trains tie the planets together (yes, an interplanetary civilization based on trains. How cool is that).

If you’re patient, this is well worth reading. If not, you may be better off reading The Lost Fleet, which has a lot of the elements that make the Commonwealth fun but with a laser focus on action and character.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who has explored the question of humanity making a last stand against the forces of an uncaring galaxy in Seige, a well-received novel that looks not only at the limits of humanity’s physical powers, but also at the definition of humanity itself. You can check it out here.

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.