Science Fiction

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.

 

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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.

 

Space Opera at Its Best

Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds

It’s no secret that we at Classically Educated really, really like the work of Alastair Reynolds.  I firmly believe that he is the best writer currently working in the SF field by several lengths.  I know his case is helped by the fact that science fiction is currently not going through a golden age–quite the contrary, in fact–but Reynolds is a man who would have been heralded as a great in any era.

His stories take place in the deep future and, though they extrapolate from the present, they don’t pretend that the things that society is deeply concerned about today will matter in a thousand years–or even a hundred.  Thus freed from the fetters of writing boring politically-concerned drivel, Reynolds sets out to explore the galaxy.

And man, does he ever explore.  No distance is too far, and no element of particle physics too obscure for his pen.  His work is made even more interesting by the fact that, with his background as a scientist, he doesn’t take shortcuts: the science in a Reynolds book is limited by what we believe to be the true state of the universe.  No faster-than-light shortcuts to make the plot easier to weave together.  No quantum teleportation on a macroscopic scale.

Pushing Ice is vintage Reynolds.  Humanity is just beginning to push hard into space, with a foothold on the inner planets and profit-driven operations working further out to harvest water ice.  When a moon of Saturn begins to act extremely strangely, the nearest mining ship is sent out to investigate.

The people on board the ship are caught up in events and technology on a galactic scale that they can’t even begin to understand, but must somehow face up to if they want to survive.

As always, Reynolds is unflinching: he gives us a book where believable things happen to the characters, and miracles simply don’t exist which, strangely, ends up making this one an uplifting work.

It’s definitely a solid effort, hard to put down and well paced.  The one thing I didn’t like is that the two main characters often act like spoiled children, and the dynamic between them felt a little forced.

But that’s of little importance when you consider how well this particular drama plays out against the biggest canvas possible.  Another Reynolds winner.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own sweeping space opera is entitled Siege. You can have a look at it here.

Hope and Terror in the Aftermath

I always read the contributor copies of the publications where my stories appear (when they manage to successfully brave the postal system between the English-speaking world and Argentina, that is).  I don’t always read them immediately, though, as they go into the to-be-read pile, which is often biblical in scope.

into the ruins volume 7

So the Fall 2017 issue of Into the Ruins, which contains my tale “Anchored Down in Anchorage” has just cycled through.

When I read the guidelines prior to sending my story through, I remember thinking that a collection of stories set in the ruins of civilization would make for somewhat depressing reading, but the reality is that the magazine was actually a different from what I expected.

In the first place, half of the stories focused on the potential for adventure after the fall of civilization.  It might be worrying if you stop to think about it, but while reading, these tales are mainly entertaining.

The other half of the stories are, interestingly, of the type where humanity falls into its basest patterns… terrifying for different reasons.

So these stories, though set in a world after global warming takes its toll, are not about the catastrophe (even though every single one of them uses global warming and rising sea levels as its starting point as opposed to some other kind of calamity).  The post-civilization world is just a setting to explore the ins and outs of the characters immersed therein.

My favorite was “The Cupertinians” by Damian Macrae, which might best be described as a morally ambiguous romp in the Indiana Jones style.  Wonderful.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His latest novel is entitled Timeless, and you can check it out here.

Living Right on the Boundary: Yet More Penguin Science Fiction

Yet More Penguin Science Fiction - Edited by Brian Aldiss

I recently purchased yet another old collection of science fiction stories.  Anthologies are the one thing I simply can’t resist, especially if they include major figures such as Brunner and Clarke.  I’ll even buy them if they’re edited by Judith Merril, whose selections normally leave me scratching my head.

So I bought Yet More Penguin Science Fiction by Brian Aldiss, and it eventually cycled to the top of my TBR pile.

Now, I was curious about what this one would look like.  Aldiss, after all, was smack in the middle of the New Wave, which I didn’t much enjoy.  But 1964 was pretty early in the game when it came to the New Wave, so there was hope for this antho.

I wasn’t disappointed.  This one if full of stories from top writers, adding Kornbluth, Blish, Van Vogt, Walter Miller Jr., Tenn and Knight to the aforementioned Clarke and Brunner.  Best of all, though the tendrils of what later became the New Wave had not yet become pervasive, and the stories could easily be considered “late Golden Age” tales – with literary sensibilities, but still putting the ideas and the story first.  Even James Blish managed to write an idea-driven story without losing itself in too much introspection (although he was close).

A couple were somewhat predictable, although whether this is because of the fact that they were obvious in their day or that the genre later imitated them to death, I can’t really say, but the rest were more readable than what I expected from SF from the sixties, although the Tenn, “Eastward Ho!”, probably interesting and groundbreaking in its day, has the unfortunate distinction of foreshadowing today’s identity-politics-driven SF.

On the other hand, Kornbluth’s “MS Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie” is both experimental and interesting.  “The Rescuer” (Porges) was one of the predictable ones, but likely groundbreaking in its own time.

Interestingly, the best story in the book was by a lesser-known writer called Theodore Cogswell, whose “The Wall Around the World” definitely deserved its lead spot in the antho.

If you only have money for one antho from a fifty-odd years ago, buy 17 x Infinity.  But if you happen to run across this one, it’s an interesting snapshot of a time of transition which also holds some fun stories.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine Novelist and short story writer whose latest Science Fiction novel is Outside.  Check it out here!

Of Fun in Your Fiction

Revelation Space Alastair Reynolds

Tuesday’s post got me thinking about the kind of stuff I most enjoy reading.  A correct answer to the question “what is your favorite kind of book?” is a complex beast and probably depends on a myriad of factors – everything from my mood to the kind of novel I’m working at at the moment of answering the question.

Probably the kind of writing I enjoy most is the quintessentially British humor of authors like Wodehouse, Pratchett or Douglas Adams.  But I’ve read almost everything they’ve written, so that initial flash of wonder at their brilliance is no longer available.

On the other hand, I often enjoy a good dose of the classics, especially some of the 20th century greats (I especially recommend The Great Gatsby and The Remains of the Day).

Other days, I love nonfiction in various forms.

But if I had to be specific about one particular type of genre, I’d say I enjoy space opera and medieval-style fantasy.

Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

The fantasy is easy to explain.  Lord of the Rings is the benchmark there, and many of the doorstop series that began in the 1970s through 1990s followed the template.  They eschewed social questions to focus on the eternal battle between good and evil… and are all the better for it (Terry Brooks is probably the prototypical exponent of this, but Feist, Jordan and Eddings–before he became impossibly annoying–were good, too).  Escapist stuff, with little in the way of moral grey areas and absolutely no message fiction.  It’s lovely to read stuff in which politics are absent–I can always look at my Facebook feed if I happen to miss that (hint: not likely!).

Dune-Frank Herbert (1965) First_edition

Space Opera falls into a similar space, at least at novel and series length.  By its very nature, the subgenre deals with worlds so transformed by technology that current modes of thought and moral discussions are irrelevant.  This has the effect of making even the political considerations–and, as seen in the Dune series, politics can be used effectively–interesting, as opposed to yawn-inducing.

And it’s only in space opera that writer’s imaginations are fully unleashed.  The technology is so far from today’s stuff that it bends society and even what it means to be human beyond recognition.  If fantasy is escapist, then this takes escape to the next level.

Unfortunately, both genres (like everything else) are subject to the whims of fashion… and fashion is currently dictating two things:

  1. Medieval fantasy is wrong because the social and political structures necessary to make it believable (feudal class structure and a society where men do most of the fighting) are very much not in vogue today.
  2. It is compulsory for science fiction to focus on the next fifty to one hundred years.  And they must be shown as grim because capitalism will destroy us, and global warming will destroy us.

My only problem with the above is that those trends forget that SF became popular because, on one side, it was fun, and on the other, it presented ideas that caused people to say “wow”.

Fortunately, some writers have ignored the dictates above and are still writing about a post-Earth human future.  The old sense of wonder, more mature, more jaded and much more knowing, is still alive in these works.

I really don’t think yet another post-apocalyptic society based on egalitarian political thinking is going to create much of a sense of anything.  Ennui, maybe.  Extreme boredom, perhaps.

But nothing else.

As a genre, we really need to bring the fun back.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose best space opera is probably Siege.  You can check it out here.

A Lesson on Leaving Well Enough Alone

Ghost Legion by Margaret Weis

Star of the Guardians is a space opera series by Margaret Weis, released in the early 1990s.  I read the original trilogy of books as a teenager basically upon their release.  I was also aware that there was a fourth book in the series (apparently, there are now three spinoff books, too), but was never able to find it here in Argentina and by the time I discovered Amazon, the book was out of print and I couldn’t get them to ship used books here.  By the time global internet commerce became a thing, and I could find the book easily, I had pretty much forgotten I wanted it.

That was the state of play until, browsing the SF section of one of my favorite used book stores (BABS Casi Nuevo in Buenos Aires), I stumbled upon it and bought it.  The book was tossed into my TBR pile, and there it lay until I got around to reading it a couple of weeks ago.

I remember enjoying the first three volumes in this series, and, to be honest, the storyline was pretty much closed right where those ended – the lost heir’s quest had been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction and the bad guys had been dealt with.  However, there was one major loose end that Weis felt she needed to address, and wrote this book.

So fast forward to 2018, and a lot of things have happened.  I’m no longer an impressionable teenager, so some of the actions, and the way the plot weaves science fiction and religious fantasy together jars me more than it did then.  Also, there’s a whole lot of head-hopping, which, though I don’t really hate it, is strange twenty-odd years later.

In addition to that, space opera has really evolved since then.  Alastair Reynolds and a few others have moved the goalposts so far down the field that they couldn’t even be seen in the late eighties when these books were being conceived.  This is not Weis’ fault.

But some things are.  The beginning of this fourth volume drags on and on.  The book hits its stride in the last 150 pages, which means that any reader less dogged (and emotionally invested) than myself would have abandoned long before hitting pay dirt.  Worse, the excess length is mainly used to beat us over the head with character motivation–of course that needs to be in there, but some of it is quite repetitive, which seems counterproductive.

The reason for this appears to be that Weis needs to place the characters she’d developed over a well-paced trilogy in a new mental space, and that forces her to break them out of molds.  Unfortunately, all the development she did in three books didn’t lend itself to easy undoing in a single volume… and it got a bit dense.

Luckily, Weis’ penchant for writing action in which characters we care about do amazing things is unaffected and once the pieces are in place for the final act, the book flows briskly to a satisfying conclusion.  It leaves a good aftertaste and rewards the effort to get there.

So it’s not a bad book but, looking back, I probably wouldn’t have read it if I’d known exactly how it was going to go down.  Too much work and there are other good books out there.  Likewise, Weis probably would have been better served (artistically, although perhaps not financially – I don’t know details about that one way or the other) to leave the series where it stood and move on to other projects.  It was in a good place at the end of the original three books.

I don’t know Weis personally, so I can’t ask her about it, but I suspect she might want to take this one back.  I know that if the choice were mine, I’d let the original trilogy stand for itself.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose own galaxy-spanning space opera is entitled Siege.  You can check it out here.