Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places is a single-author collection by Argentine writer Gustavo Bondoni, put out by the small press Altered Dimensions and available in paperback and ebook editions. The twenty-two stories comprising this volume are primarily idea-driven science fiction. According to the author, all were originally written in English, rather than having been translated. I believe at least some of the stories were previously published, but there is neither publication history nor individual copyright date for any of them. I would have liked to trace the development of Bondoni’s writing style chronologically, but was unable to do so.
The opening story, “Twilight,” is reminiscent of Golden Age science fiction stories. The image of a world of robots guarding the relics of their vanished creators is a long-familiar part of the science fictional landscape. This version of the trope invokes more a modern biological understanding, but is otherwise very similar to its predecessors. Most of the back story is filled in using large chunks of dialogue. I didn’t think there was enough new here to justify reusing such a familiar setting.
Some of the collected works are more vignettes than stories, with no character growth or development. “Trained Monkeys” is one such. It presents an idea about, well, trained monkeys, but doesn’t take it anywhere. The whole objective is to present a clever idea. This approach was nearly ubiquitous during the Golden Age, but much modern science fiction has adopted a more character-based style. Fans of early science fiction may appreciate this collection.
“One Story Short” works quite well. It’s idea-driven, like the rest of the anthology, but has enough characterization wrapped around the idea to hold the reader’s interest. Like many of the stories, the climax is due to finding something out rather than to the protagonist doing something, but here the protagonist and the reader are learning at the same time. There’s a logical flaw, though: robots are mind-melding, so why don’t they share the information that way?
Bondoni has a tendency to rely on infodumps rather than working necessary back story in more gracefully. Again this is reminiscent of early SF and is probably related to the dominance of idea in these works. As an example, “Growing Pains in the Womb” is almost entirely infodump: history of the generation ship, reasons for sending it, how it’s organized, mixed with a conflict between generations that is described in prose rather than demonstrated as story.
The idea orientation, infodump and lack of character focus work better in humorous pieces; these are the highlights of the collection. One in particular, “The Surgical Option,” is quite good. Extended description is saved from boredom by its humor. The small details–the names and descriptions of the different alien species–are enough to carry the infodumps, while the main idea of the story, about the future of humanity as paparazzi, lawyers and purveyors of continual bad software upgrades pokes fun at current cultural trends within a science-fictional context.
The inscription on the door indicated, to anyone who might have been interested, that the chamber beyond it was Galactic Senate meeting room #12, and did so in the usual seven million major galactic languages. Sadly, its being a somewhat average-sized door meant that the seven million beautifully tooled inscriptions were too small to be read by any known sentient race save the Grinbeggs of Wornpool, which was ironic because Grinbegg was not among the inscribed languages due to it never having been very major. Also, the Grinbeggs had blown themselves to glowing bits in an atomic war several billion years before.
“Silver” employs an interesting idea about human desire and the literal-mindedness of computers. The story wrapping the idea was more successful than some in this anthology, but was ultimately unsatisfying because the protagonist was entirely unsympathetic, and failed to learn anything from his experience.
“Darkness Ends” is a somewhat muddled parallel-reality story in which a technologically advanced Roman Empire takes over our own universe’s Syria. I never quite understood the motivations for this take-over, or why the key, a physical artifact, ended up buried in an archaeological dig, or why it needed such a trivial activation method.
The title story, “Tenth Orbit,” illustrates one of the other tendencies of the stories in this collection. Information is withheld from the reader, presumably to provoke curiosity and entice the reader to continue, but it usually provokes frustration instead (at least in me). Making the reader work is one thing; deliberately confusing the reader by not revealing things that the viewpoint character knows quite well creates a very different effect.
The book closes with two stories, “No Vacancy” and “Time Share,” both set during the colonization of Gliese 67 despite the native inhabitants. Both stories are told in the first person, though from different perspectives. The viewpoint character of the first story appears to be in charge (eventually revealed as the captain of the ship), but we don’t learn anything about the character except that he/she is a bit of a jerk. It isn’t until well past the midpoint of the story that we even learn the character’s surname (Stewart). The reader never learns the given name or much that might lead to identifying with the protagonist.
I decided to growl at my crew a bit to relieve the tension. They were dealing with a situation unlike any in the history of mankind and were trying to find a technical solution to a problem which might not even have one, so this may have seemed slightly unfair to them. Nevertheless, I felt justified because I had to shoulder the burden of command, and they didn’t. Plus, I found that it often helped to spread the stress out a little.
The story never resolves: the conflict is not ended, no clever solution appears, the viewpoint character doesn’t grow or develop or get (or lose) the thing he/she wants. Instead, the captain acknowledges that a clever solution is needed; we just don’t get it.
The second story is told in first-person from the viewpoint of a soldier (Jana; at least there is a name this time, making it easier to identify with the main character [who I assume is female from the name]), who has just sabotaged the outpost’s defenses. She acts from the noblest of motives, and her apparent reckless stupidity never comes back to haunt her. She continues to do things for her own reasons rather than the good of the group. Whatever military training the soldiers have received, it doesn’t seem to be working.
The strength of this anthology is in its ideas. The author has assembled stories displaying a diverse array of themes, from alien governments to human colonization of distant planets, parallel universes to near-future adventures. Throughout the collection, the ideas swamp the characterization. These stories are clever, but the characters are often not well-developed enough for the reader to empathize, or to care about whether the protagonist achieves their goals. Nonetheless, fans of big ideas or Golden Age science fiction may appreciate Gustavo Bondoni’s collected works.
Title: Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places
Author: Gustavo Bondoni
Publisher: Altered Dimensions
Publication Date: November 2010
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