Science Fiction

Unfortunately Annoying

I’ve gone on record saying that some SF books are less compelling than others.  I’ve been especially critical of the first part of Pandora’s Star, for example.  But that one eventually got under way and became compelling.

Today’s subject didn’t.

A Fire Upon teh Deep - Vernor Vinge

I don’t ever recall having read a science fiction novel that was full of amazing ideas that I had as much difficulty getting into as Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep.

And when I say ‘full of amazing ideas’, I don’t mean that he just looks at gender roles within established genre tropes or something equally banal and yawn-inducing.  I mean that Vinge comes up with concepts that are truly underexplored in SF.  Things like multiple-organism-minds or variable speed of light and its effects on technology.  There is truly groundbreaking thought behind this book and it deserved to be better.

But it was let down by the characters, especially the milti-organism mind creatures which, for some reason, I found to be more annoying than anything I can remember reading in the genre.  It wasn’t that the writing was bad–it isn’t–but I just found the alines themselves unbearable… and that made the whole book really tough to digest, as half of the action took place in that setting.

I went through it anyway and came away with a sense that it could have been a true great (many already consider it to be one, you should read other reviews by folks who didn’t have such a strong visceral reaction to a major group of characters), with a good quantity of space action, an implacable and incomprehensible (albeit mostly off-stage) enemy and enormous stakes.

The ending did feel a little facile, and some of his speculation bordered on fantasy, but those were minor quibbles.

Anyhow, I may need more time to sort out how I feel about this one.  As a writer, it’s obvious to me that this book is a major achievement… but purely as a reader, it was a hard grind that I really can’t recommend to others.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist whose own far-reaching space opera, Siege… is much less well known than A Fire Upon the Deep.  But people seem to like it, so there’s that.  You can check it out here.

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An Interesting Juvenile

We spoke about interesting finds in Buenos Aires used book stores yesterday, and here’s another one.  Secrets of Stardeep is one I’d probably never have purchased if it hadn’t been in one of the used book shops.  But it was, so I picked it up.

Secrets of Stardeep - John Jakes

Now, I’d never heard of John Jakes which, apparently is wrong, as the guy is a #1 New York Times bestseller.  In my defense I plead the “his bestsellers happened in genres I don’t read that much” gambit (and will ignore his Planet of the Apes novelization)

But I only learned that later and I went into this one blind.  From the cover, I never would have guessed that it was a juvenile, and it clearly wasn’t marketed to the juvenile market–and the YA market had not yet been invented.  I thought it was a typical sixties / seventies space opera.  But it turns out that the protagonist is of about high-school age, and is preparing his examinations when he learns decides that a detour might help him clear his father’s name…

Of course, this leads to adventures galore on a faraway world which puts not only his continued academic career but his very life at risk.

That’s standard fare, and the characters, though more sophisticated are reminiscent of an Asimov juvenile novel.  What isn’t expected is the double twist at the end… which would have worked beautifully in an adult book, too.

I won’t say I loved this one, but I do respect what the author managed within the limitations of trying to appeal to younger readers.  It’s a solid effort which aspiring SF novelists might want to track down to see how it’s done.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He also has a space opera novel you can read.  It’s called Siege, and you can check it out here.

Global Warming Antho – My Take

I love reading publications that contain my stories.  Unlike many authors who just keep cut sheets of their own stories and discard the rest of the book or magazine (for reasons of space), I not only keep everything, but I also put it in my to-be-read pile.  Eventually, they cycle to the top (my TBR pile is an epic thing which holds a year or more of reading material at any given point in time).

Ecotastrophe II - Edited by J Alan Erwine

The latest contributor copy to make it to the top of the pile was Ecotastrophe II.  As explained in the Amazon book description (see link), this one is a follow-up to an antho that Sam’s Dot published a decade or so ago – this one is from Nomadic Delirium Press.  I have a story in this one called “The Wrong Kind of Ship”, which is an SF piece that I like quite a bit.

Sometimes small press anthos can be hit and miss, but I found this one to be solid all the way through.  The seven stories are entertaining, and though they all speculate about global warming, and therefore fall in the realm of science fiction (for now), there are different styles, ranging from the horror of “The Last Polar Bear” to the bleak outlook of “Pelagus”.

My own favorite was “The Perisphere Solution” by Robert J. Mendenhall, which is a futuristic thriller.

So, recommended not only for the eco-consciousness, but also for holding a number of good stories.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s is an author whose short fiction has appeared in dozens of publications, but a good place to start is with his reprint collection Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places.  You can see it here.

Debuting The Culture

Consider Phlebas - Iain M Banks

I’ve been (sorta) binge-reading the first books in a number of far future, deep-space series.  We’ve already discussed The Expanse and Pandora’s Star, so of the three initial books in this particular project, only Consider Phlebas remains to be discussed.  For those of you unaware, this is the first book in the late Iain M. Banks’ Culture series.

This book is a little strange.  Though I certainly enjoyed the whole more than I did Peter F. Hamilton’s long buildup, of the three modern Space Operas, it was the one I found least memorable… and I’m not entirely sure why.

It’s certainly a high-stakes, well-paced and well-written novel, with a sympathetic cast.  Perfectly acceptable in other words, and the Culture itself is often hailed as a mature galactic civilization.  At least one writer I respect a lot has told me that he adores these books.

So, yes, I enjoyed it, but it certainly didn’t stick in my mind.  Without being exactly certain as to why, I’ll take a guess: I think it’s because the Culture itself doesn’t appeal to me as a galactic society.

Yes, I get it.  Within a certain number of years, any society in the galaxy is going to lose its frontier vibe and establish social patterns that, if you ignore the scale, can be very similar to what happens on earth.  Hence, a paternalistic socialism based on the logic of computer overseers is not farfetched.  I can also see certain people–perhaps farmer mind types–being attracted to this.

I found it unattractive.  I like my deep space SF to be wild and wooly, and my societies to be very much a grab bag of opportunists, depots and empire builders.  If one of the belligerents is a more expansive version of Scandinavia, it might turn off the centers of my mind that are interested by things.

Maybe if they’d been painted as the bad guys, I might have taken more notice.  A computer-controlled society of extreme conformists, mindlessly colonizing everything with their bland goodness (which reminds me of the San Angelinos in Demolition Man) would be a terrifying enemy.

But they aren’t, they’re painted as the choice of logic.

I’m willing to give this series a further chance on the sheer strength of the writing and the fact that the buildup was much less annoying than Hamilton’s.  Keep an eye on this space for further installments.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s space opera, Siege, has untidy, ragged good guys and a whole bunch of really bad entities as enemies.  He promises that you won’t find it bland, and you can check it out here.

An Eclectic Review Publication

From the Earth to the Moon - Swimsuit scene

Anyone truly fascinated by literature, as I am, will, at some point (probably sooner than later) spend a certain amount of time reading critical work.  In my own case, it just felt like a natural progression from reading a lot to learning about the writing. Heck, I’ve even discussed some of these reads here on CE.

Likewise, the leap from reading criticism to writing it felt natural.  Although I still write a lot more fiction than criticism (what I do here on CE isn’t real criticism, it’s more an exercise in exteriorizing my own feelings about books without spoiling them for others).

The first inkling I had that my critical thoughts might be worthwhile to others was when I sent The New York Review of Science Fiction an article about the relative merits of science fiction in the West and behind the Iron Curtain in the sixties and seventies… and it was published.

The best part of that was that I received a short subscription to the magazine.  I downloaded the PDFs, printed them out… and was amazed.

The New York Review of Science Fiction logo

Here was no-holds-barred criticism about… everything and anything under the genre sun (suns?), some of it extremely tenuously linked to the genre, but all of it thoughtful.  The depth of scholarly musings on subjects that wouldn’t necessarily have occurred to me was simply stunning, and the concentration with which these publications had to be read surprised me.

I subsequently published another piece there, and received another subscription, so let me use those as an example of the kind of thing you’ll find there (the samples are from December 2016 and August 2017).

Apart from my own piece (about SFF in Brazil), you’ll find an analysis of Gregory Benford’s fiction looking at from a pure definition standpoint, as well as a scholarly search for the true origins of a vegetable caterpillar found in Ripley’s… and several literary examples thereof.  And these are just the cover stories of one of the issues!

The rabbit hole gets deeper, the scholarship becomes more specialized and you often find yourself reading about books you’re not familiar with… and writers you haven’t even heard of.

Sound like a recipe for boredom?

It isn’t.  Or at least it isn’t to me.  To me it’s the distilled essence of why I read in the SFF genre in the first place, a celebration of blurred boundaries between fantasy and reality as well as those between different literary genres.

I also understand why no less than the late, great Gardner Dozois always mentioned this publication in his annual Summation… and why he never failed to add the word “quirky” to his description.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine author whose novella Branch is both quirky and thought-provoking.  You can check it out here.

Five Classic SF Novels From the Fifties

merican Science Fiction- Five Classic Novels 1956-58

Two (or possibly seven) American classics came together through sheer serendipity for me.  I was walking through the Strand bookstore in New York (can’t recall whether it was in the SF section or in the hardcover / special area near the checkout counter), and I found a copy of American Science Fiction: Five Classic Novels 1956-58. from the Library of America.

I love these Library of America editions for many reasons: price, presentation and, most importantly of all, the fact that they select only the cream of the crop.  Better still this copy, though pre-owned, didn’t appear to have been pre-read, so it was essentially like buying the book new.

But the important bit was the content.  Like it says on the tin, this contained five novels from a truly fruitful era of science fiction, written by five different men.  Here’s the list:

– Double Star by Robert A. Heinlein (this was the only one of the five that I’d read before)

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

A Case of Conscience by James Blish

Who? by Algis Budrys

The Big Time by Fritz Leiber

merican Science Fiction- Five Classic Novels 1956-58 with Artwork!

By far and away, the most memorable of these, if not necessarily the best or most enjoyable is the Bester.  Some of this novel is extremely well done, and the parts that aren’t are, at least, laudable for attempting to do something different and audacious.

The main character is strikingly brutal, but then, the fifties were still an era where people understood the banal brutality of the common man, as opposed to what we do today which is to try to look for specific psychoses.  It’s interesting to realize just how effective dumb aggression from a man too underprivileged to know any better, but, at the same time too dogged to give up can be.  It’s also a reminder of why SF was more widely read back then than it is now – the heroes represented everyman, warts and all.  The poor unprivileged main character didn’t need to have a heart of gold… he could just be a guy doing the best that he could.

The part that isn’t brilliantly done is the whole time travel / trippy / ESP bit.  Of course, this was in vogue in the fifties, but it was not impressive sixty years later.  Still, a big book in its day, and still a staple of “best SF novel” lists, and of books like this one.

Who? and A Case of Conscience are tied as the next most memorable.  They are both deeply informed by the fears of the Cold War, and represent their time brilliantly, possibly even better than the Bester.  Staple reading for SF cognoscenti, and decent novels in themselves.

The Big Time is classic Leiber in the sense that he plays with boundaries of the genre and its rules as well as with history and time travel.  It is more fun than the others, and takes itself less seriously at the same time (which ends up making it a good book).  I found it slightly half-baked… and I think Leiber would agree, as he later expanded this concept.

The best of the bunch is still the Heinlein, even though it isn’t one of his “major” works.  Heinlein was just that good.

Most people who buy a book like this one will be general readers attracted to it by the fact that the works were selected by the Library of America.  They will come away with a critic’s-eye-view of what SF meant in the 1950s, and of five sociologically important books of the era.  Is it representative of what the public was reading?  Possibly, but it goes a lot further than that, too.

I heartily recommend this one to my readers who are looking for a good primer on science fiction.  If you share Margaret Atwood’s belief that science fiction is monsters and spaceships, you’ll be surprised by both the literary quality and the connection to the zeitgeist that this one displays.

And if you already like SF, chances are you may have overlooked these novels.  They are definitely worth knowing.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside is very much connected with the trends of the 21st century and explores the fears we have… or, at least, should have.

Now We’re Talking…

My attempt to read some new core SF got off to a slow start, even though it finished well, so my second attack of a space opera novel the size of an Egyptian building stone was faced with some trepidation…

Leviathan Wakes - James. S.A. Corey

I needn’t have worried.  James S.A. Corey’s Leviathan Wakes, the first book in The Expanse, is a rollicking read from the very beginning.  Perhaps that is due to the characters not being described in excruciating detail but actually shown to us through their actions instead.  Perhaps it’s because the world requires a little less explanation than Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth.  Whatever the reason, this one hits the ground running… and just keeps going.

This is the kind of science fiction we all wish we’d grown up reading.  Fast-paced, well-written and not overly bogged down with politics (particularly not the kind of politics we are discussing today which, in a space-faring society will be long forgotten), it takes you straight to another world as soon as you open the book.

Perhaps this immediacy is the product of the author’s talent, or maybe it has been helped along by the fact that Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, the two writers collaborating under the pen name Corey, get to read and critique each other’s work.  Whatever the formula, it certainly functioned perfectly in this particular instance.

Well enough, in fact, that it spawned a TV series on the SyFy Channel (yes, I know, but this one is reputed to be good), and it made absolutely perfect sense to me.  Unlike certain adaptations, which are head-scratchers, this one appeared to be the perfect fodder, in pacing, visual magic and plot for a movie or TV series.  I may need to watch it… if I find the time, I’ll talk about it here at some point.

Anyway, this one is highly recommended as the state of the art of bestselling space opera.  Even though it seems a little too fun and insufficiently committed on the political front to actually win a Hugo in the current climate, this series overcame those handicaps (???!!!) to be nominated for three of them so far.  That should tell you more about just how good it is than anything else I can write.

Anyway, go out and buy it.  Might not change your life in any deep, philosophical way, but it will entertain you.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a science fiction writer.  His own entry in the space opera field, Incursion, is available here.

A Man Who Starts Slowly

A quick note before I begin this post – I recently decided to get back to reading core SF and to fill some gaps in my reading.  To me, the central core of the genre consists of the kind of thing Asimov or Clarke used to do so well: deep space, far future and tech based speculation.  For my money, the current master of the form is Alastair Reynolds, but I wanted to give others a chance, so over the next few days you will see reviews regarding books by James S.A. Corey and the late Iain Banks (the ones with the M in the writer name).

Today, we start with Peter F. Hamilton.

Of the three writers involved in this particular quest, Hamilton is the only one whose novels I’d been exposed to previously.  I even wrote a review of Misspent Youth for SFReader.  In that review, I had a problem with Hamilton’s writing: he seems to start off extremely slowly, and to create characters that can be extremely annoying–or at least seem that way yo me.

However, the final ten percent of the book showed a pickup in pace.

Pandora's Star by Peter H. Hamilton

Pandora’s Star, the book I chose as Hamilton’s representative in the reading of core SF, suffers from almost exactly the same issue.  You end up hating many of the characters… and then they become important when the pace picks up (and boy, does it ever pick up) in the latter half of the book.  The main difference is that this book is much longer than Misspent Youth, so both the suffering and the payoff are much more prolonged.

To be completely fair to Pandora’s Star, the very first few pages are actually quite funny, but then it reverted to the same form as the other book and I had decided to pan the novel at about 40% through.  And then things exploded in the second half, and it became truly interesting.  I find Hamilton at his best when he is writing action and events as opposed to characters.  Or perhaps he is just a master at setting things up so you leave the book feeling that he is amazing at that–one way or the other, his books end well.

Well enough in this case that I will eventually be adding the second book in this series to my TBR pile.  I want to know how the longer arc ends, even if I don’t care about most of the characters.  The events are compelling enough.

So yes, this is a kind of tortured review.  I like the setting, like the tech, love the conflict… but I have a hard time rooting for some of the characters.  Maybe that’s the point, or maybe it’s just my own spin on normal human beings that others won’t find too much fault with… but that is what I’m left with after reading this one.

Still… I’m going to be buying book 2, so take that as you will!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  His own take on core SF can be found in two loosely linked novels: Siege and Incursion.

Taking Another Look at Gardner Dozois

We’ve discussed Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction series here before.  These books are the longest-running and most complete overview of the short fiction in the genre that money could buy.  The Summation–Dozois’ comprehensive essay about the state of science fiction–at the beginning of each book is worth the price of admission on its own.

I’ve been a bit down in my reviews of some of these volumes lately, mainly because I saw them following the same depressing trend as the rest of the genre–while the writing is uniformly excellent, the stories themselves are boring, and they are beginning to fall into a predictable pattern.  With all of time and space to play with, is it possible that so many of the “year’s best” stories harp on the same theme?  It’s always the same: someone with no power (usually from an oppressed group or subgroup) does something and the reader comes to understand how power works and how the oppressed feel and act.  The American culture wars writ large… and yawn.  Individually, the stories can be inspiring and interesting… but a dozen of them together make for a dull slog.  Thankfully, there’s usually a dark and twisted Alastair Reynolds tale in there somewhere to break up the monotony.

In fact, I have often pointed to Dozois as being one of the main motors of this trend.  After all, he spent more than thirty years as the single most important tastemaker in the genre.  If he said it was good, then it was good.  No questions asked.

And then Dozois went and died on us in May.

Though I never knew him personally, never sold him a story and had been critical of some of his recent selections, he was an important literary figure in my life (and even more for others).  Collections he edited, alone or with others, take up quite a bit of lineal yardage in my bookcases.  I knew his name very well as a teenager, long before my first story sale, or even before it occurred to me I might have stories worth telling.

So I decided to take a step back and to look at his work in the context of the current state of the genre by dipping into two of the Year’s Best books, one recent and one a little earlier.

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

The earlier volume was The Year’s Best Science Fiction – 10th Annual Collection, chosen precisely because it comes from a time before I was writing in the genre and from a time before the culture wars overran the SF world.  This one collects stories from 1992 – I was in high school then.

This one was interesting indeed.  You see, the trends that were to shape the nineties and noughties were already there: despite the fact that a lot of the stories had a very eighties feel to them (eighties feel in SF is hard to explain except to say that I know it when I feel it), the choice of some writers who would come to make a deep impact on the field, and themes such as environmentalism and diversity were already present.  Dozois wasn’t so much leading the charge as he was reading currents that it would take others a decade or more to recognize.

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

The recent volume was The Year’s Best Science Fiction – 31st Annual Collection, which covers stories published in 2013.  My verdict?  This one was a little better than the preceding pair, and the hope from the thirtieth edition was realized.  In this volume, the trend to have fewer and fewer of the more preachy stories continued, and the quality and enjoyment factor, as a consequence, increased.

I still need to read four more of Dozois’ volumes (I hope the publisher clearly and explicitly either ends the series or assigns a new editor instead of keeping Dozois alive as a zombie) to see if this trend continues, but I suspect it might (stay tuned for future reviews).

If it does, it will be Dozois’ greatest prediction: while the 2018 Hugos were, due to internal politicking in the SF world, a tinny and hollow celebration of one group’s politics, with absolutely no relationship to literary merit (through no fault of the winning writers, I hasten to add, all of whom probably do have literary merit), Dozois was looking forward to the time after the politicking was done, and a new SF genre more accepting of both racial and political diversity came into being.

While everyone else was shouting, Dozois was busy reading everything, regardless of politics, and thinking.  My suspicion, pending the few volumes I still have left to enjoy, is that the shouters on both side’s of SF’s divide will catch up to Dozois sometime in the next decade.

His adult voice among squabbling children will be sorely missed.  And so will his summations…  man, those were awesome.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest Science Fiction novel is entitled Outside.  You can buy it here.

Idea Driven SF in its Purest State

On Saturday night, I was in one of Buenos Aires’ notable bars surrounded by Argentine science fiction and fantasy writers.  One of them was telling me how he’d recently bought a Clarke book (Childhood’s End, apparently) in a Spanish translation.  The introduction said (and I paraphrase because I don’t remember the exact wording): “this book is a classic example of the now extinct genre of ideas” (italics are mine).

He was livid.  As a postmodern exponent of literary writing, this man felt that his novels were rife with ideas, and valuable, socially-relevant ones at that.  How could a man who wrote an introduction to a book by Clarke be so ignorant, so limited, so crass?

I mumbled something noncommittal and changed the subject.  Why?  Because I tend to agree with the introducer–opinion that would likely have gotten me lynched.

I’ve been watching the SF genre descend from a literature of ideas to a kind of muddle where postmodern sensibilities have pretty much amalgamated the genre with the rest of post-modern literature.  If something is scientifically impossible, no worries, genre limits are so 20th century, aren’t they?  Plus, if the thing is more boring than watching paint dry, it doesn’t matter as long as it’s diverse, right?

Er…  I’ll let each of you answer that last one.

For a certain kind of reader plausibility is important in SF, and that is why readers are staying away in droves lately, and the last real consensus SF classic (by consensus, I mean among readers – I couldn’t care less what other writers or postmodern critics think)  was… I suppose it was Ender’s Game.

 

Larry Niven Ringworld

But there was a better time, a time when SF truly was the literature of ideas, and perhaps the purest form of this is in Larry Niven’s Ringworld (1970).  The characters and the plot are there for one thing, and one thing only: to show us the wonderful construct of a ring around a star and to reveal how it works and why.

Are the characters wooden?  A little.  Is it diverse and sensitive?  Not in the least, Niven didn’t care, he just wanted to tell his story and show us this awesome thing he’d dreamt up (or read about somewhere and decided to flesh out).

The cover blurb says “Legendary Award-Winning Classic”, and that description is spot-on.  Everyone’s read this one, and most people remember it.

But I have this sense that if Niven were to submit it today, it would be bounced for any number of reasons.  The legendary award-winning classic would never make it past the slush pile.

And, in a nutshell, that’s the main problem with the genre today.  It’s bleeding readers like a neck wound because the new stuff is more concerned with social and literary sensibilities than it is with attempting to cater to its readers.  Those former SF readers used to be going to comic books and movies but, as witnessed by the floundering of the Star Wars saga due to some of the writers wanting to use it as a platform for their politics as opposed to just a cool universe to tell a story, this way be reverting back.

Whatever the outcome, the nice thing about literature is that the classics are still around.  We can pick them up in paperback.  Most of us have already read Ringworld, but there are dozens of others… sometimes it’s even fun to pick up a random unremembered book from the Golden Age just to relive that sense of wonder (those with an overdeveloped sense of literary outrage may want to give this a pass… some of the prose is, gasp, workmanlike!).

And if you haven’t read Niven’s Masterpiece, you need to do so right now.  When a setting is universally remembered and everyone knows all about it, you can safely ignore the postmodernists and read it.  You may not enjoy every word, but you won’t forget the Ringworld.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina.  His fiction explores big ideas, nowhere more so than in his reprint collection Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places.