Science Fiction

The King of Planets, Anthologized

Something I always look for when perusing used bookstores are science fiction anthologies.  Partially, this is because, as a short story writer, it’s useful to see what’s come before, but mainly because I really enjoy reading short fiction, especially the stuff published until about 1990 or so, when the genre was focused more on entertainment than anything else.

It’s not unusual to encounter incredible stories forgotten in the pages of some battered mass market paperback, and that discovery is always wonderful.  So my bookshelves are kind of packed with random anthologies chosen for no other reason than that I found them on a shelf at some point.

The latest in this quixotic quest was the 1973 antho Jupiter, edited by Frederick and Carol Pohl, which included colossi like Asimov, Clarke, Blish, Simak, Weinbaum, Anderson, and del Rey.  Only two stories were by authors whose name I failed to recognize immediately.

Jupiter - Carol and Frederick Pohl

But the names, amazingly, are secondary.  The most interesting part of this one is the date.  1973.  Jupiter was just being explored, then.  The major NASA probes were on their way, but enough had been discovered to remove any possibility of the pre-war sword & planet tales being possible.  By 1973, everyone knew that the gas giants had atmospheres at least a few hundred kilometers thick and that any surface activity would need to take place under horrendous pressures and in chemically difficult conditions.

And yet even the more modern stories in the antho assume that there is a surface that can be used under the atmosphere–thinking that today’s discoveries have ruled out.  Which means that, even though there’s a certain amount to modern feel to the tales, the fact that many of them take place on the surface of Jupiter gives them a bit of a sword & planet feel anyway.  We know this isn’t how it is, and the story is superseded by reality.

That doesn’t stop one from enjoying them anyway and, as is often the case, the very best of them in my opinion was Lester del Rey’s “Habit”.  I’ve always thought del Rey to be enormously underrated–whenever he has a story in a volume with the real heavyweights, it usually holds its own or better.

Second place goes to Clarke’s “A Meeting with Medusa”.  This one, while not as entertaining as the del Rey, is imbued with the spectacular sense of wonder that the best SF stories always have.  Clarke was a true master of the form.

Overall, however, this one, though entertaining, is for completists and people who don’t mind reading stories that science has since left behind (interestingly, the Clarke and the del Rey, my two favorites, were also the ones that could be published today with little modification, as none of the story depends on old science).  Good, but not great.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest collection of short fiction (none of them based on old science yet) is entitled Off the Beaten Path.  You can check it out (and hopefully buy it) here.

A Classic Format: Ace Doubles Revisited

From the 1950s to the 1970s Ace Doubles were a staple of science fiction publishing, and it was a good thing.  There were hundreds (possibly thousands?) of these books published.

For those unfamiliar with the series, these books have a tête-bêche format with spectacular pulp-style covers.  They contain two novels, and two “front” covers, so flipping the book over gives the impression of going from one book to the next.

I often wonder why the science fiction that is currently winning awards (the Hugos, at least) is utterly obscure and unpopular while everyone flocked to the stuff in the ’50s.  One reason, of course, is the inane, spectacularly boring political content that seems to attract prizes.  But another must be the pretentiousness, the utter horror of using a cover that the reading public might find attractive or exciting.

(I’m not trying to say no one is buying SF.  But I just don’t see the stuff the genre intelligentsia are trying to foist on us at Barnes & Noble… and B&N, having skin in the game, knows what sells and what doesn’t.  Apparently, it’s James S. A. Corey).

And when you read an Ace Double, you’re reminded of the good times.

Of course, with so many to choose from, there’s no guarantee that they’ll all be good.  But I still pulled one at random from a local used book store and waded in, ready for whatever wonders (or horrors) of plot and prose awaited within.

I ended up with Ace Double D-351, and read The Sun Smasher first, as the title seemed to promise less than the other, Starhaven.

Ace Double 351 - The Sun Smasher by Edmond Hamilton

If my objective was to save the best for last, I probably should have read them in the other order.  Edmond Hamilton was a great writer (something I should have remembered because I’ve read a lot of his stuff), and he weaves a tight action story.  Predictable and dated?  Perhaps.  But we’ve had sixty years to catch up with the events of his novel, and both the main character and the way the plot was resolved still seemed fresh after all these years.  The Sun Smasher is an excellent short novel.

Ace Double D-351 - Starhaven by Ivar Jorgenson

Apparently, this one’s author, Ivar Jorgenson is a pseudonym for Paul W. Fairman, but why he should have chosen to publish this one without attribution is a mystery.  Starhaven is a solid tale in the 1950’s mold where a clean-cut hero saves the day and gets the girl.  Wonderful stuff, and interesting in the way it plays with what morality looks like.

Binding these two short novels together is (and I don’t want to give any spoilers) a sense of hidden identity of the characters.  Neither of the heroes knows who he really is at the outset of the narrative, and that discovery–and subversion of the identity–is the key to both plots.

Very fun to read.  Also, I was delighted to get hold of this one because I’ve always felt that, if you’ve never read an Ace Double, your genre street cred is lower than it could be otherwise.

Anyway, they’re dirt cheap.  Find one and read it if you want to remember why people like SF.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer based in Argentina.  His most popular book is a deep-space novel entitled Siege.  You can check it out here.

 

 

Discovering Noblebright

A couple of years ago, I saw a call for submissions for an anthology to be entitled Still Waters.  I read through the guidelines and realized I had a story that fit with everything except one term I wasn’t sure of: Noblebright.

So I clicked on the link and learned a lot about the concept of Noblebright, including that it was meant to be a contraposition to grimdark.  Now I like a happy ending as much as everyone but, as I admitted in the introduction to Off the Beaten Path, I often set out to write a nice little story and somehow end up with bodies all over the place.

Still Waters edited by CJ Brightley

But though my story did kill of a perfectly nice and attractive character, it also embodied a lot of the concepts they wanted, so I sent it off.

As happens in these cases, I got the acceptance a couple of months later, and received my contributor copy when it was published.  The book went into my pile (those who come here often know I always read and review my contributors’ copies, even if it takes me a few months–or more–to get to each one).

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this one, but one thing that caught me off guard was the spectacular level of the writing here.  I know a couple of the authors involved, so they weren’t a surprise, but the level of craft across the entire book was.  Clearly, the field is getting better at being literary.

The second thing I realized is that most of this isn’t the kind of work I’d normally read were it not for the fact that I had a story in there.  The book is mostly composed of the more modern take on fantasy, meaning that there is less emphasis on adventure and a bit more on character motivation and emotional states.  There are also a couple of science fiction pieces (mine was one), but mainly, this one is more for those who enjoy the current trend of making the genre more literary and mystical (and yes, before you ask, my story is very much in line with this trend… my preferred reading is not always a reflexion on the way I write).

Finally, a word about Noblebright.  While the concept definitely makes for a much less painful reader experience because twisted, reader-unfriendly plots and characters are mostly absent, it also makes things a little predictable.  You know the main character (or the primary secondary character, or all of them) will be motivated by a desire to do good, so you find yourself consciously searching for the signs.  It doesn’t make the book any less enjoyable, but it was an interesting feature I thought worth mentioning.

Favorite story?  Probably “The Ice of Heaven” by Corrie Garrett.  I would have loved for that one to continue, aways the sign of a good story.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s short fiction has been collected in several books, most recently in Off the Beaten Path, which you can check out here.

 

The Fifth Di… A Slim but Poignant Tome

As those of you who saw Friday’s post know, I’m reading contributor’s copies.  The latest was The Fifth Di from March 2018 (yes, I’m a year and a half behind. I know.  My to-be-read pile is approaching critical mass.  If you see news that something collapsed upon itself and generated a black hole centered in Argentina that is slowly absorbing matter from all of the rest of the world and will end life as we know it, it was my TBR pile.  I apologize in advance).

The Fifth Di - March 2018 - Edited by J Alan Erwine

This one hit me hard, because of the four stories within, it contains one by my good friend Robert N. Stephenson, a brilliantly talented writer from Australia who, sadly, committed suicide in August.

This was my first time in Fifth Di, so it’s also my first contributor’s copy, and I was quite impressed by it.  It holds four stories (mine is entitled “Spinning Candle”, a science fiction suspense piece).  The one I liked the most (I never rate mine in these, obviously) was a tale by Lachlan Walter called “She has no Toys”.  This one was a tear jerker on more than one level, with a well-created atmosphere and, coming right before the story penned by my lost friend made the mag hit home pretty hard.

So, a recommended read here.  I definitely invite you to check it out (if you do, please let me know what you thought!).

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writers.  For those who enjoy science fiction suspense, he is also the author of the tense thriller Siege.  You can buy it here.

The Visions Series – A Tough Act to Close

Readers of this blog are all aware that I’m a writer, and that I do a lot of science fiction.  One of the places I’ve sold a few stories to was the Visions series edited by Carrol Fix.  I was in Visions III and Visions VI.  The first contributor’s copy I read in this one was Visions III, and it impressed me very much.  The theme there was “Inside the Kuiper Belt”, and the stories hit the same sweet spot as The Expanse.

Visions VI, while not as mind-blowing, was a solid antho, and I guess you could say the same about the last volume in the series, Visions VII.

Visions VII - Universe - Edited by Carrol Fix

It certainly holds a large number of well-written stories which are worth reading for themselves, so most people who pick it up will enjoy it.  What I didn’t like quite as much was that the very wide way the theme, Universe, was interpreted by both authors and editor.

I would have expected this one’s tales to be set on a broad scale, well above the galaxy level with, possibly a wink to multiverse existences.

And yes, some of the stories do this, and do it well (my own story in the collection, “Burstchasers” was written specifically with this scale in mind – you can judge for yourself whether it’s any good or not).  But too many of them are set on generic planets that could be a few dozen light years away, with no need at all to have been placed in an antho subtitled “Universe”.

That’s a nit, though, and one most readers won’t be bothered by.

As I said above, the stories are good, which is what matters.  Most memorable, and one I think did a fantastic job at interpreting the theme was “Universal Hero” by Darrell Duckworth.  It’s a bit whimsical, perhaps even naive, but well-thought-out and extremely interesting.  I’ll remember that one for a long time.

Anyway, start at number one and read through this series.  It’s fascinating to see the scope grow ever larger as it progresses–even though, the Universe seemed a tad too big for many authors.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an award-winning Argentine author.  His novel Siege takes place on a huge scale, albeit not quite on the Universe level.  You can check it out here.

A Lesson in Why the Greats Are Great

Over the past few years, I’ve been complaining about Gardner Dozois’ Years’ Best Science Fiction anthos.  They were still, I argued, the best source for the reality of the genre in the modern era, and his summation was a priceless essay, but the stories were getting weaker year by year.

Why?  Well, the message was drowning the storytelling.

For those living under a rock, the science fiction world’s current tempest in a teacup is that half the genre believes that the most important thing that SF has to do is to advance a progressive political agenda and that everything else is secondary while the other half feels that the job of science fiction is to tell a good story, politics be damned.  There have been some well-publicized arguments about this which I won’t go into here.  Google is your friend.

Though my reading preferences fall squarely into the second camp, I don’t mind reading a good message story with my action.  My problem was that the message stories were no longer good, and the genre was becoming more about diversity than about actual interesting tales.  Which explains why so much respected genre fiction isn’t selling while every Hollywood film seems to be an SF title.  Dozois, I felt, was echoing this trend instead of fighting it, and I wasn’t impressed.

But I now realize I owe the man an apology.  I wish he were still alive so I could give it to him in person.

The Year's Best Science Fiction- Thirty-Second Annual Collection - Gardner Dozois

This year I became a Hugo voter for the first time, mainly because Guardbridge books launched my collection Off the Beaten Path at WorldCon in Dublin.

So, full of enthusiasm, I started reading the nominees.  The first book was terrible, so I went on to the next.  Ugh.  The third… well, you see where this is going.  It was, to put it gently, a weak field.  The reason: preachy, political stuff and not much that I didn’t find boring.  I was gutted.

In fact, my conclusion was that it had been a bad year for the genre in general.  Until I saw the Dragon Award nominees and realized that it hadn’t been a bad year… just a bad selection.

That forced me to reappraise Dozois’ last few books.  He hadn’t selected too many bad, preachy stories… he had, in fact, had to cull the best ones from an ocean of utter tripe to give us the ones fit for human consumption.  He was doing his job, holding his nose and giving us the Best of the Year… no matter how bad some of that year might have been.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirty-Second Annual Collection, pictured above, is a good collection.  Not as good as some of the older ones, definitely not Golden-Era-worthy, but good, especially when compared to what’s been happening to the Hugos.  He will be missed – his death is a huge blow to the SFF genre.

As for the story selection in this one, I was disappointed that the Alastair Reynolds tale wasn’t quite as good as some others of his I’ve seen over the years, but that disappointment was made up for by excellent stories by Cory Doctorow (“The Man Who Sold the Moon”) and Ken Liu (“The Regular”).  Those were my favorites.

Bad ones?  Yes, there were a few (albeit every one of them well-written).  Nevertheless, considering what’s happening in the rest of the genre, this is a solid collection.  Better than most of the more recent ones.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose collection Off the Beaten Path, mentioned above can be seen here.

 

Merril, Saved by the Year

Judith Merril was probably the most notable science fiction anthologist of the sixties.  She was completely aligned with her decade, and probably wouldn’t have felt out of place at one of Warhol’s happenings.  Her selections and her own written intros were very self-consciously built to reflect the intellectual trends of the sixties.  We’ve discussed her before many times, and even dedicated individual posts to two of her books (here and here).

I’m not a fan of her work in the sixties.  She had a few too many pretentious works to choose from and as a consequence, her anthos veered into the strongly literary as opposed to being SF collections of the kind I enjoy.  I don’t read genre work for its literary merit–I prefer the books to be well-written, but I’ve found that the more experimental they get, the less I enjoy them.  You can replace “experimental” with “political” and the previous sentence still works.  I don’t mind “intellectual” quite as much, but if that intellectual tangent is exploring a faddish (or even lastingly popular) social question then it’s unlikely to hold my interest very long.

So what happens when an anthologist whose tendencies are New Wave, puts together an antho before there were New Wave stories to select?

The Year's Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy - Second Anual Volume - Edited by Judith Merril

The answer to that is The Year’s Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy – Second Annual Volume,  and the other answer is that you get a really good book.

Under the masterful guidance of the great John W. Campbell, the most important and influential editor the SF field has ever known (and likely WILL ever know), the genre had evolved from a literature that focused on sword and planet stories where the science was secondary (if addressed at all), to the genre we know and love.

Mature stories, and places where they could be published began to appear, and writers with a more literary bent found themselves able to sell stories that would have languished in an earlier era.  The genre became the stomping ground of many great stylists…

But the conditions were not yet in place for them to completely undermine the foundations of what made SF a popular pastime.  They had to play within a certain set of rules, and apply their undoubted talent and literary inclinations to building a fun or intriguing speculative story.  Navel-gazing or mindless political or social tracts were out of the question.  So was excessive experimentation.

It’s possible to argue that the years selected, 1955 and 1956, might represent one of the true great ages of the SF genre.  Great names like Asimov, Knight, Sturgeon, Kornbluth, Budrys and Ballard were present, but the field had already expanded to include such outlets as Galaxy and Playboy, magazines that went well beyond Astounding’s traditional formula.  We had all the literary merit without any of the forgettable pretentiousness that arrived with the 1960s.

Even Merril, whose eye for a good story clearly wasn’t as bad as her work from the 60’s made it appear, couldn’t mess this group up.  The book is massively strong all the way through, and represents what can happen when that happy middle ground is achieved.  It would not be found again until the post-new wave reminded everyone that SF is supposed to be fun, and literary aspirations and politics are secondary (a lesson that we seem to have forgotten in the 2010s as purely political forces again besiege the genre – luckily, it’s happened before, and they will go away and bug someone else, eventually).

Interestingly, the antho’s strength lies in the fact that all the stories entertain, more than in having one or two standouts.  Of the tales in this volume, the best is probably Sturgeon’s “The Other Man”, but they are all pretty close.

Anyway, this is a good one.  Probably not too hard to find, but these old paperbacks are starting to disintegrate, so best hurry.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is the author of several books in various genres, including the well-received science fiction novel Outside.  You can check it out here.

Off the Beaten Path Has Been Launched!!

Off the Beaten Path by Gustavo Bondoni

Most books have a story behind them.  This one is no exception.  When I started writing short fiction for publication, back in the mid-2000’s, there were very few people from the non-English part of the developing world writing original work in English.  Oh, some people were translating stuff that happened to land on their desk, but it was a scattershot effort.

So, mixed in with my more usual fare (fiction set in an American or Western European setting), I loved to change it up on editors a bit and drop my characters into unexpected places.  So you get a noirish dystopia in Namibia, a parrot story in New Zealand or a straight up SF espionage tale on the moon… in which two of the antagonists are India and China.

These stories sold, so I kept creating them until, almost without realizing it, I soon had enough for a book dedicated to just my published work that takes place, as the title suggests, off the beaten path of traditional SF.

And it just happened that I already worked with the perfect publisher for a book of this kind.  Guardbridge Books is based in Scotland, but has specialized, since its launch, in books from different cultures.  They had published my novel, Outside, and when I pitched the idea, they were delighted to have a look… and they, like the editors who’d bought the stories initially, also decided to publish.

Of course, they asked for a couple of new stories, which I was more than happy to write, and which round out the book wonderfully (of course I think that… I’m the author!).

So, that’s the genesis of this particular book.  Have a look!  Buy a copy!  Hell, buy multiple copies…  give one to all your friends.  Sign it and pretend I did it (I’ll back you up).

Anyway, you can buy the book on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble.  Let me know if you enjoyed it.

More Visions

A little over a year ago, I wrote a review of a book called Visions III – Inside the Kuiper Belt.  I’d gone into that one with low expectations, but the book blew them all away.  It’s still one of the best contributor copies I’ve ever read.

Visions VI - Galaxies - Edited by Carrol Fix

Unlike its predecessor, Visions VI – Galaxies had some big expectations to live up to.  I’m happy to report that it succeeded reasonably well.   It’s not as good as Visions III, but then, almost no anthology I’ve read in the past few years is.  What it is, however, is a solid collection of writing about space, with adventure and wonder thrown in for condiment.

In a collection of 13 stories (of which I will only comment on 12 as the final tale was “Cloud Marathon”, written by yours truly), there is only one true clunker – a writer who gets the science very wrong (you need to know what a galaxy is if you’re writing a story about galaxies) and is also preachy.

Other than that, though, this book is full of good stuff.  Everything from way-out satire of SF television (“Space Opera” by Amos Parker is the memorable story that does this) to introspective tales that make you question humanity’s behavior (“Final Contact” by Al Onia), it spans the gamut.

Favorites?  There are a couple.  Bruce C. Davis’ “Old Soldiers” packs a strong emotional punch, while “Unity” by Tom Olbert is pure adventure goodness (this one almost lost me for being a little preachy and PC, but the writing carried the day in the end).  But there are other good ones as well, making this a solid read.

So, another good one in this series.  The good news for you is that there are a total of seven anthos in this series.  The good news for me is that I still have my contributor copy of Visions VII sitting in my pile.  A treat to come.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina.  For people who like anthologies similar to Visions, he recommends his book Siege.  You can check it out here.

A Genre Buffet

Some writers don’t read contributor’s copies.  Some even insist their agents send them cut sheets (just those pages in which their work appears).  I suppose that if you’re an Asimov type, who published 250 books and countless articles and short stories, that makes a lot of sense.

I, on the other hand, read every contributor’s copy that I receive.  However, they do go into my pile which–for reasons of sanity–is read in chronological order.  That means that a book from 2017 might get reviewed in mid 2019… such as is the case with this post.

The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Volume 2 - Robert N. Stephenson

There’s a reason I preface my review that way, and that’s because today’s book is The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Volume 2, edited by Robert N. Stephenson.  Fans of my fiction will be aware that I’ve already been published in volumes 3 and 4 of this series and have sold a story to volume 5, so it might seem strange that I’m writing about the second volume.  The above should clear that up.

Anyhow, what about the book?

After reading a lot of old automotive publications, it was a delight to get back to my favorite genres, and this book is a brilliant way to get a sprinkling of a little bit of everything.  From well-known masters of the field like James Van Pelt–whose work I reviewed for SF Reader a few years back and who contributed an evocative tale for this antho–, to people I recognize from sharing many tables of contents with, to names that were new to me, this one gives a nice overview of what the genre can do.  There’s definitely a bit of each genre, and also, the sub-genres that make the field so rich are well-displayed.

A veteran reader of the field can lose himself in this one and enjoy the take on each type, while a newcomer can actually use this book to understand what they like most about SFF and find more work along those lines.  It’s a wonderful volume.

What I liked most was the book’s adventure story par excellence.  “Mnemo’s Memory” by David Versace is a swashbuckling steampunk airship story of the kind they just don’t make any more… and it was utterly wonderful.  Of course, I tend to like my adventure, and Versace got it exactly right in this one.

So, recommended for anyone interested in the genre, both newbies and long-time fans.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a writer with over two hundred stories in print.  He has a new collection coming out in August, but if you can’t wait that long, his short fiction has been collected in Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places and in Virtuoso and Other Stories.