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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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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Solo’s Eleven

Star Wars: ScoundrelsStar Wars: Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before I say anything spoiler-y, I want to point this out for everyone who might be interested in this book: everything makes a lot more sense if you’ve read A. C. Crispin’s “Han Solo” trilogy (which itself makes more sense if you’ve read Brian Daley’s “Han Solo Adventures” trilogy, but that’s far enough removed from this that it isn’t necessary). It’s not essential, but it is helpful, especially in light of the Han-and-Lando dynamic that comes up frequently.

Now, let me get into the spoilers. This is a “heist” book, and like a “heist” movie, it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to review without mentioning at least one spoiler. So consider yourself duly warned.

I really enjoyed this book. I like stories that keep me guessing a little bit, and this one certainly delivered. (Of course, Mr. Zahn has some experience with keeping me guessing, at least as long ago as I read his non-Star Wars novel The Icarus Hunt.) I also think that Mr. Zahn did a good job writing Han, Lando, Winter, and Kell Tainer (whom he borrowed from Aaron Allston’s X-Wing books). I would need to reread books featuring the latter two characters to make sure this fits in with their backstories and style, but based on Mr. Zahn’s prior good work, I have no reason to think that it did not.

Perhaps the most frustrating, in retrospect, was the identity and purpose of Eanjer, the local that hires Han for the job. I should have guessed his identity much earlier, based on my prior knowledge of his character, but I think I figured it out, at best, a few pages before Mr. Zahn wanted me to. Ah, well–more credit to the author, I suppose.

The book wasn’t perfect, but I don’t have many complaints. As with The Icarus Hunt, I thought that the book ended too quickly, without revisiting all of the characters in enough detail. And, while I appreciate Mr. Zahn’s interest in embroiling us in the world by mentioning other names that we might remember (referencing Crispin’s trilogy, for example), there were a couple anachronisms. It made no sense, for example, for one character to refer to Revan and Malak (characters from the Knights of the Old Republic video game), who existed thousands of years prior, in the middle of a galaxy in which Jedi and the Force were all but forgotten (a point made by Lando toward the end of the book). I might as well say, “Who do you think they are, Achilles and Odysseus?” It’s theoretically believable that I would mention those people, but far from normal.

At any rate, I enjoyed the book, and I hope that Lucasfilm’s new masters will not overlook Mr. Zahn as they continue to produce fiction in the “new” Star Wars universe.

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Stay Tuned for the Stunning Conclusion!

Spoilers follow!
The Bacta War (Star Wars: X-Wing, #4)The Bacta War by Michael A. Stackpole
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To be honest, I thought that, of all of the X-Wing novels, this one would survive my criticisms best. I recall it being my favorite, back in the day, and I could remember nothing against it.

Unfortunately, upon reading it, I did find a few things to take issue with. For one thing, all of the innuendo and nudge, nudge, wink, wink that went on in the preceding three books was consummated in this one. There was nothing explicit, of course, but innuendo was dropped in favor of stating things outright, and seduction gave way to indulgence. I get the impression that we’re supposed to celebrate these events, because most (or all? I don’t quite recall) of them are between Corran and Mirax, but it ends up seeming hollow. Perhaps the most damning of all, from my perspective, was when Mirax insisted on the “practice makes perfect” argument for sex prior to marriage, which is ridiculous on the face of it. I could wax confrontational, but suffice it to say, I got the impression that I should be cheering at this moment, and all I could muster was a dissatisfied ugh.

Speaking of marriage, the proposal in the book seems sudden and unromantic. I’m not one to judge short dating cycles; my wife and I decided to marry after only a few months. On the other hand, I saw no justifiable reason for Corran and Mirax to get engaged. If all the features and benefits of marriage are in place without the marriage, why get married? It can confer no sacrament, no covenant, under such conditions. Is it simply a contractual declaration that both parties appreciate the current arrangement, and wish for it to continue? Corran’s proposal, at the end of the day, seemed to have exactly that much romance, as well. “I can’t think of anyone I would rather flirt with and be seduced by than you,” he says, “In fact, I think we should make it permanent.”

Be still, my beating heart.

That wasn’t the only relational contrivance I found difficult to swallow. The sudden reparations between Corran and Booster, Mirax’s father, were startling. At least we are able to see Corran’s side of it, even if the conclusion seems a little too easy–but why Booster would suddenly come around is neither clarified nor elucidated. It seems that Corran’s response is so irrevocably honorable that Booster has no choice but to accept him.

I have begun with the negative points, but let me not end with them. The relationships seem rushed and contrived; several of the characters fall by the wayside (notably Riv Shiel, whose early death is not startling so much as nonplussing, and Inyri Forge, who had a pivotal role in Wedge’s Gamble, but has barely registered since then). On the other hand, we’re back in X-Wings all the time; we have grand space battles, devious strategy, clever tactics, and deft political maneuvering that doesn’t distract too much from the entertainment. Borsk Fey’lya and his committees are out of the picture, so we’re able to press on without endless debates. This is still a very good book, and very nostalgic; it just doesn’t quite live up to its “favorite” moniker from ages past.

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Third Time’s the Charm?

Spoilers follow!

The Krytos Trap (Star Wars: X-Wing, #3)The Krytos Trap by Michael A. Stackpole
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The third book in the X-Wing series continues the story right where Wedge’s Gamble left off: Corran is in prison, presumed dead, and Tycho is on trial for his murder. Meanwhile, a virus deadly only to non-humans (and non-Bothans, apparently) is ravaging Coruscant, and Rogue Squadron may be the only hope to save it.

On the one hand, I’m greatly entertained by this book. Rogue Squadron gets back to its roots–running missions in X-Wings. The New Republic is here to stay, so we must send our best and brightest out to fight the enemy on their turf once more–or escort missions, those are good, too. At any rate, Wedge and the gang are back in their cockpits and ready to go. This is good.

On the other hand, Corran’s story takes a bit of an odd turn. His time in Lusankya is a smattering of wild delusions under the influence of hallucinogenics, followed by a self-sacrificial dedication to escape, against all logical expectations about their prison. His perseverance and success here can be chalked up to the revelation we’ve all been waiting for: he’s Force-sensitive, and descended from a Jedi! (It’s hard to say, because I’ve read the books before, but I occasionally felt bludgeoned with the hints about this, over the preceding books. Lots of talk about trusting feelings and so on.)

At the same time, Corran has been trusting his feelings and assumptions about Tycho all along–only to be presented with a logical explanation to the contrary, which he immediately accepts. A quick turn of thought later, and he has identified the true spy in Rogue Squadron! This almost seems contrived; how could it be so easy, when it has been so challenging up until this point?

In rating this book, I am torn between, on the one hand, my love of the characters (one part nostalgia, two parts great writing) and my earnest and compelling desire to see what happens next at every turn, and on the other hand, a nearly predictable outcome, reached by a couple of convenient shortcuts. At the end of the day, I am forced to drop this book to 4 stars as well–perhaps The Bacta War will maintain its hold over me in the end.

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