Short Stories

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.

Disturbed Digest – My First Time

My first impression of Disturbed Digest – on receiving my first contributor copy, for my story in the December 2018 issue – was that the cover is brilliant and perfectly fits the topic of the publication. It looks like something that might have graced a cover of one of the horror or fantasy mags in the fifties, which is the highest compliment I can think of for cover art. I’ve never been shy in admitting that I love those old covers and feel that the modern ones suffer by comparison. This one does not suffer. It’s the perfect blood-red design with a classical human looking unsuspectingly to his symbolic doom. Wonderful.

So the stories inside had to live up to the cover, which is something that wasn’t always the case back in the Golden Age of science fiction in which the mags had classic stories by brilliant masters (Asimov or Heinlein or Leinster or whoever) but also filled their volume with lesser work.

Disturbed Digest doesn’t fall into this trap. There is no filler here, and the stories are chilling enough to carry the cover. Everything from nicely tuned dread to cosmic horror on a Lovecraftian scale, these dooms can be well-deserved or utterly unfair, as the story demands.

The story I enjoyed the most was probably Lee Clark Zumpe’s “Wild with Hunger” that, though it breaks no new ground when it comes to monsters, it is beautifully written and delivers the sensation of being in a dreadful place as well as I’ve seen recently. Another particularly good one was Aria J. Wolf’s tale, “The Death Waltz”, with a reveal at the end that you likely won’t see coming.

Recommended.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest collection is entitled Off the Beaten Path. Moving away from the usual western European settings, this one will open your horizons to cultures and places you never suspected existed. You can check it out here.

The Immortal Towns Lagonda

Back when I was a kid, I played with the local version of Top Trumps (I have a feeling my American readers will have no clue what that is. All I can say is google it). One of the cars included (this was in the eighties) was the Aston Martin Lagonda. It was a crap card to have when playing, as that deck was full of Ferraris and Lamborghinis that would kick its ass. So I always assumed it was a terrible car.

Only years later did I come to appreciate the pure seventies style and class the car exudes. Even today, rolling up in one of these will pick you out as a man of wealth and taste, someone who knows that Ferraris are only for carving up back roads, Lambos are for rich butchers or soccer players–they reek ghetto taste–Rolls Royces are a cliche and anything else is just for the poor. The fact that few people will know what it is is just a bonus.

This misunderstood machine made R&T’s cover in April 1977, and it looks wonderful.

But this issue wasn’t just about a single Rolls-Royce competitor. It also heralds the welcome start of coverage of the 1977 motor racing season, has a wonderful Bugatti Salon and even a feature on model cars.

Most interesting to me is a piece that I thought was non-fiction but was actually a well-disguised piece of short fiction that fit the style and beats of the magazine perfectly enough that I only realized it wasn’t journalism a fe paragraphs from the end. This piece was Miss Deborah’s Rolls by John Lamm (Lamm was a longtime editor of R&T, which added to the illusion). Back then, R&T would sometimes run these adjacent pieces, and they were always decent.

The other thing that comes to light is that automotive engineers were beginning to get a handle on the raft of regulations so haphazardly introduced in the 1970s. Car designers are smarter than politicians, of course, but the sheer moronic shortsightedness of the way smog and safety rules were imposed in the mid-70s had them on the ropes for a few years. But there’s just too much engineering talent in auto manufacturers to be able to knock them out.

So an eclectic, entertaining mix of stuff here, mixed with some hope. The eighties, a much better decade for cars (and music, of course), was just around the corner, and you can feel it here.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is entitled Test Site Horror, and shows a Russian special forces unit desperately fighting an invasion of genetically-built dinosaurs (and other monsters). Action packed and fun, it’s a perfect read if you enjoy being entertained. 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.

The Fiction Issue of The New Yorker

So, how far behind am I? I just finished reading the June 10 and 17, 2019 issue of The New Yorker. A lot of the articles, particularly the ones referred to goings on about town are probably out of date a year and a half, plus a pandemic, later. The reviews, though still valid, probably aren’t as fresh as they could be, either.

But a fiction issue, as this one purports to being, should be okay, so I read it with enthusiasm. All right, let’s qualify that: I don’t normally love the fiction in TNY. I find it a little too dull and boring.

The three stories in this issue were not bad. Not memorable in any way (Sanctuary in the Artist’s Studio is probably the best of the three), but not bad.

More interesting is the fact that they sprinkled the usual content with something called border crossings, where immigrants in different parts of the world describe their experiences. This is non-fiction, and it’s kind of weird to see The New Yorker voicing it. Weird because I expect TNY to show an idealized intellectual-progressive view of things, which obviously doesn’t exist when you bring the real world into it. Even more shocking to me was an honest article about what life in supposed socialist paradise (and failed state) Venezuela is like. It’s the kind of thing one would expect TNY to sweep under the rug, as it will definitely make a good portion of its readership uncomfortable.

So my respect for the magazine–despite still feeling the fiction is just okay–went up a few notches this time. It’s nice to see realism even among the intellectual elite who tend to try to block it out and live in an idealized world where theory rules and when reality doesn’t support that way of thinking, it’s reality that’s wrong.

If you need to understand The New Yorker by reading one issue, this is the best one to pick up of the ones I’ve seen.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres. His literary fiction is collected in Love and Death, a novel in short story form that tells the tale of several families, intertwined through generations. You can check it out here.

Lost and Found and an Emotive Surprise

I write in a bunch of genres and receive very different kinds of contributor copies for my efforts. Sometimes the cover and general look and feel of the book make me think it’s going to be great, and other times, awful. When I saw my copy of Lost and Found, I wasn’t expecting much, even though the book appeared solid and well printed.

But I always read my contributor’s copies, so I read it… and was blown away. The stories in here pull at the heartstrings, and they pull hard. Of course, I should have suspected it. After all the subject of loss lends itself to hugely powerful situations, and the table of contents of this book was full of names I recognized as talented practitioners.

It’s an emotional roller coaster containing everything from fantasy horror in an amusement park to straight literary fiction, and it’s well worth the read. Editor Terri Karsten has done a wonderful job.

My favorite was probably “Lost Lamb” by Paul Lewellan, a mature tale that reads just the way I like my mainstream fiction. Well done. Also memorable was “It Happened at Stratosphere Heights”, by Antonio Simon Jr. – by far the weirdest one in here.

Another thing I really liked was the section entitled “On the lighter side” which, as the name implies, is a collection of stories with more levity – some outright funny, that breaks up the serious nature of the book very well.

In conclusion, this one was a hit with me and proves again that judging a book by its cover is a bad idea, especially when the cover is perfectly fine, just not quite the one you would have chosen. This one is worth the time.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose literary fiction is collected in the book Love and Death, which is a novel told in short story form intertwining the lives of characters who, for the most part, are unaware of how their lives affect everyone else. You can buy it here.

The Translations Fad

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

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

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

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

Solaris - Stanislaw Lem.jpg

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

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

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

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

Cixin Liu Three Body Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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