The Funny Martian

Spoilers follow!
The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time. But before I get into why it’s amazing, let me quickly detail why it’s imperfect.

1. It started on the Internet. That’s not an automatic negative mark, and it’s probably the weakest black mark I have against it, but knowing that this was originally written Dickens-style on a blog made some of its flaws more obvious, including a few grammatical errors common to the casual intellectual marketplace of the Internet and the staccato progression that sometimes accompanies updates on a schedule (don’t worry, I thought the same thing of Dickens, on occasion).

2. Audience targeting. It’s never made entirely clear why Mark Watney (the eponymous character and frequent narrator) assumes that his mission logs will be browsed by laypersons, but it makes perfect sense for a novel of this sort. For the most part, Mr. Weir manages to work this out fairly well, with minimal intrusion, but once in a while, I read something and thought, “That only makes sense if your reader is completely unrelated to NASA/the probable first reader of your mission logs.”

3. My own nit-pickiness. (This issue continues for several paragraphs below.) I don’t care for cuss words (the fourth word of the novel is the F-word), but frankly, in this book more than others, it makes a lot of sense. The guy had just discovered he was abandoned on Mars and likely to die. If ever there’s a time to cuss… it’s then.

At one point, early in the book, Mr. Weir describes the ion drives of the primary interplanetary vessel, explaining that they “accelerate constantly the whole way there.” My first thought was, “If you accelerate the whole way there, how do you stop?” This even becomes a plot point later in the novel, and frankly, it seems like an oversight here. I briefly looked into ion engines for a story of my own, and they have potential, but you have to start decelerating about halfway there (unless you have some other engines for stopping). (Granted, “deceleration” in scientific terms is just “acceleration” in the other direction, but that would still mean an odd maneuver, like turning the ship around and switching the engines on the other direction to slow you down. Some sci-fi sources solve this by having engines on both ends of the ship, which makes a lot of sense to me, but ends up pretty ugly and probably expensive. There’s no friction to stop ships in space, after all.)

Also, weird random moments. Two-thirds of the way through or so, we hear Teddy (head of NASA) telling Annie (media relations) to excuse Mitch (mission commander) for his impertinent attitude, because men-testosterone-some-weird-nonsense. Meanwhile, Annie has been cussing like a sailor with a bad attitude since we met her, and seems the least likely of all the characters in the novel to be offended by someone flying off the handle. It’s kind of a baffling moment, but it passes quickly.

4. Heavy-handed pedantry. It lasts for all of a page (the last one in the book), but it ties into the least believable part of the novel: how everyone in the world bands together and spends millions of dollars in an effort to save one guy. I just don’t quite buy it. The way it’s presented for most of the novel, I can buy, if only because a few individuals might be able to pull this off, but there’s a notable lack of people saying, “Well, that sucks, but I guess he’s just going to die now. It’s just too expensive to do anything about it.” Because it’s fiction, I’m happy to aim for the happy ending, but to suggest there’s no antagonism toward this “save one guy in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars” plan? None at all? That’s a little strange. And then for Watney to come back on for a page to talk about how inherently good people are is just too heavy-handed a conclusion.

And that’s pretty much all I have to complain about this novel. It may seem like a lot, but I’m being highly critical (more than usual), because I was really hoping a novel with this kind of success could be easily achieved (Mr. Weir is both more intelligent and a better writer than I am, so I punish him by saying mildly unkind things about his debut novel). There was an awful lot to like (hence the five stars), but it’s not a guaranteed delight. For example, it is–first and foremost–a survival thriller. If you’re at all like my wife, and you get insanely stressed out when fictional characters might die, this is not the book for you. The “everyone might die” scenario is pretty much on the table until the last page. Which I enjoyed. But you might not.

I also like math. I didn’t study math, but given, oh, two or three more chances to go to college, I totally would. It’s right up there with computer science and physics for “most delightful college degrees I didn’t get.” This book has a lot of math. It’s frequently made accessible to the layperson (see “audience targeting” above), so it doesn’t interrupt the flow, but math and science are pretty much the bread and butter of this novel. I have heard it said that “The Martian” is like a full-length story just like that bit in Apollo 13 when the NASA guys get in a room and try to figure out how to make the square peg fit in the round hole; I find that an entertainingly accurate summation.

Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Weir does what almost no other author does: he makes me laugh. Most “comedic” books, even the vaunted Terry Pratchett, leave me saying, “Yep, that’s funny,” but not actually laughing. Perhaps (probably?) aided by his first-person perspective, Mr. Weir accomplishes genuine comedic timing, and delivers time and again with humor that I find delightful. (It may not be your style. Lots of sarcasm, and a little absurdity. It’s perfect.)

I haven’t seen the film yet, but I intend to. Given the content and style of the book, and that the film stars Matt Damon, I imagine that the film is a combination of Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, and Cast Away, minus Tom Hanks.

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Sense v. Friction

When Faith Causes Family Friction: Dr. Ray Tackles the Tough QuestionsWhen Faith Causes Family Friction: Dr. Ray Tackles the Tough Questions by Ray Guarendi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a helpful, if limited, little book. It is short and very easy to read, and it may contain precisely the wisdom you need in your familial troubles. At the same time, much of it seems very common-sense, especially if you’ve listened to Dr. Ray’s radio show before.

And ultimately, that’s what this book is: reading Dr. Ray’s radio show, complete with humorous asides and distracted parentheticals. And that can be delightful and helpful and informative, but ultimately, the radio show works better because Dr. Ray is able to address specifics with his callers, whereas we (the listeners) glean that which is generally applicable. In this book, Dr. Ray condenses his comments to only that which is generally applicable, losing much of the helpful specificity.

And much like a radio show, this book lacks a lot of integrated context. In one answer, Dr. Ray will reference earlier answers; that, combined with undecipherable chapter titles, shows we should read this book from beginning to end. But then Dr. Ray will repeat something he wrote two pages earlier–not just reference it, but repeat it word-for-word–and the reader must wonder whether he is reading this book incorrectly. Finally, the book ends without the slightest conclusion; whether or not these writings could be summarized isn’t clear, but we can’t know, because Dr. Ray doesn’t try. Once he runs out of questions, he runs out of pages, and we’re done. So if you need a specific question answered, it could be very useful–provided you can figure out which title relates to the question you want to ask.

Now, when I say that this book is “common sense,” I must acknowledge that such sense is not at all common–I mean only that I knew much of it beforehand, and it probably does not take Dr. Ray’s psychology degrees to figure it out. But many people have questions along these lines, and for all their intellect and wisdom, cannot come up with the answers Dr. Ray provides. And it may be that, in times of struggle and strife, I shall forget these answers and wonder troubling questions to myself, and I shall need this reminder. For that reason alone, I intend to keep this book.

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Clever Titles That Inform Even without Lampshading Them

It’s a good thing I don’t book-blog pseudo-professionally, or I’d be in trouble for taking this long to read another book and review it. Of course, I finished this one last month sometime, but even so, reading has fallen by the wayside in the business of life. I’m going to try to pick it up again, though, because I just got a bunch of books for my birthday. Huzzah.

The Caves of Steel (Robot, #1)The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished this book some time ago, but never quite got around to writing a review. I hope I shall do it justice with retrospect alone.

It is difficult to say enough about the brilliance of Asimov’s work. He always entertains, and his science fiction always provokes thought experiments and the examination of curiosities. The characters of Elijah “Lije” Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw are compelling, each in their own way.

Lije has a tenacity that is appropriate to his profession, but (at first) lacks the ingenuity and pattern-discovery that we typically associate with a detective; this comes in time, but not before tilting at every windmill he passes in an effort to solve the case, resolve his fears, and return to a normal (somewhat humdrum) life, without all the wildness of human-like robots and politically-charged murder and conspiracies and the idea that Earthmen should recolonize space. This gives us a glimpse of the distant future Asimov has imagined: what sort of cultural changes might drive men to stay in their caves of steel and avoid the warmth of the sun and the taste of fresh air? What economic and social changes would there be? And how would a man fit into that world, especially a man concerned with finding justice? Would he even be so concerned?

R. Daneel neatly strikes that balance between human and inhuman; he is human enough for us to enjoy his presence (narrowly avoiding the uncanny valley), but rigid enough in his programming that we still see him as the outsider. I think the description provided in the story of Daneel’s programming fits him to a T–a robot designed to blend into human society and study human behavior, provided with an additional bit of “justice” code, where “justice” is defined as adhering to the law of the land. He is, at one and the same time, our “outsider,” who is so foreign that Baley spends much of the book despising him, but also our “straight man.” Everything in Baley’s world that is topsy-turvy from our own, we see it analyzed and organized and categorized through Daneel’s eyes. This builds Asimov’s world without info-dumping, while also avoiding the oh-so-tired trope of the “doe-eyed innocent” who has to have everything explained to him.

“The Caves of Steel” wasn’t the perfect book, though. Like all science fiction, it eventually becomes outdated, and the possibility of realizing the world imagined becomes less, and we start to wonder how applicable these warnings (and hopings) could even be applied to our lives. “Caves” is not so far gone as all that, but I still think its commentary had much more impact in the 1950s than it does today. Industrialism and pure productivity and dedication to labor and urbanization and all those things coming off the second World War have faded in the minds of many today; they still linger, here and there, but not so pervasively, I think (not that I was there).

I will say that I found Baley’s tilting at windmills tiresome after a while, but I feel the same when watching cop shows and the like; “How do these cops get away with accusing everyone and their mother of the same murder? Is this the ‘shotgun’ approach to getting confessions? ‘Yell at everyone, and someone will crack’? Or is it ‘even a broken clock is right twice a day’?” Informative of his character and Asimov’s world, yes; indicative of a good “whodunit,” not so much.

At any rate, a very good read, with some reasonably expected drawbacks. I will read the sequel (The Naked Sun) eventually, but I just got a pile of books for my birthday, and Asimov isn’t going anywhere.

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Foundation and Follow-Through

Spoilers follow!

Foundation and Empire (Foundation, #2)Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is more excellent work from Asimov. This delves a little more deeply into the science of psychohistory, not to mention the science fiction of mutation and society, while still telling an ultimately human story.

The first ten chapters don’t amount to much; the characters are interesting, but not riveting, and I was never brought to care about them in any meaningful sense. The point of these chapters (“Part I” of the book) seems entirely to lay the groundwork for Part II–that is, we see how effective Seldon’s psychohistory is, how accurately and clearly he has predicted human behavior, so we can be led to wonder how it could possibly fail.

The reader will recall, of course, that the first book in the series showed us how men might unwittingly participate in Seldon’s plan, might lead the Foundation to victory out of selfishness or patriotism, but we are constantly reminded that those men did not particularly matter. In Part I of this book, Asimov takes us a step further on that path: the characters, and their actions, truly don’t matter. The would-be conquerors of the Foundation are hoist with their own petard–we are told, through the eminently intellectual analysis that comes at the conclusion of every Foundation tale, that there was no alternative. By this point in the Foundation’s history, a conqueror must attempt it, and whether that conqueror were general or emperor, he must fail.

Though this results in a fairly weak Part I, it sets up very well for Part II–in which we meet the Mule, an aberration in Seldon’s plan. There are clever hints dropped about the inevitable reveal at the end of the book, but having read it before, I knew what would come (though I had forgotten some of the details). From what I recall of the last time, Asimov kept me curious to the end, but an observant reader could draw the same connections as Bayta does in the story–Asimov used the right repetition, the right wordplay, to make that possible. And, as the Mule himself tells us at the end, some of his explanations were quite illogical and fallacious, and those are pretty easy to spot as the end approaches.

All-told, it’s a good book. It isn’t perfect, but then, I’ve been endeavoring to read old favorites with a more critical eye, so I might be harsher than I need to be on it.

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The Swiss Family Robinson v. the Lord of the Flies

Island of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the WorldIsland of the Lost: Shipwrecked at the Edge of the World by Joan Druett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I did not read this book quickly, but not from lack of interest and excitement on its part. (I was distracted by other readings, writings, and the smallest inhabitant of my house learning to walk, which furnished him with many escape plans that necessitated thwarting.) Honestly, Druett’s work here is eminently readable and intriguing, especially for anyone interested in maritime history and survival stories.

There were a lot of things to like about this book. Human ingenuity, democracy, and the triumph of the human spirit resounded from the tale of the Grafton‘s castaways, while the tale of the survivors of the Invercauld was in no small way reminiscent of Golding’s Lord of the Flies, replete with wretched selfishness and unsettling depravity. Druett’s writing really brought these issues out and made the experience more present for the reader.

I also enjoyed her author’s note in the conclusion (although I admit I skimmed it a bit), wherein she lays out her sources and justifies her choices in regard to discrepancies among those sources. She shows a dedication to research that one can only find in good historians, and it has made the book delightful.

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