The Martian Shows The Power and Majesty of Botany…and Duct Tape.

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The Martian
Andy Weir
Broadway Books
387 Pages

Every now and then you need a good page-turner to dive into and later come up, gasping for air, realizing that you’ve whittled away hours without notice. Got a cross country plane trip? Going on vacation to the beach? Long wait at the DMV? Going on a trip to Mars?

The Martian, a debut novel by author Andy Weir, will help you get through it.

Remember that scene in the movie Apollo 13, the one where the astronauts are slowly succumbing to CO2 poisoning because their air filter stopped working? Suddenly we see a room of engineers and a large box. As the contents of the box are dumped on the table the lead engineer challenges the group to build a new air filter using only “extra” pieces found in the space capsule. They have “x” number of hours to build a filter and fit a square peg into a round hole. Go!

That’s The Martian. It’s the near future. After a vicious wind storm forces a group of astronauts to abandon their mission on Mars, astronaut (and botanist) Mark Watney, thought dead, is left behind. He now has only 90 days of oxygen and food and the next mission isn’t scheduled to arrive for four years. Go!

I remember when I first read Moby Dick by Herman Melville. It’s a story about Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal quest for the White Whale. I was surprised to learn that 2/3rds of the novel is essentially a history and how-to-book on whaling. When I finished, I felt I knew all I needed to be a whaler. (I really didn’t.) Same goes for The Martian. Though at times it may appear a bit technical, it doesn’t overdo it on the geekiness. Watney is faced with ever increasing challenges and through his knowledge of Science! and Botany! he MacGyvers his way to rescue. Along the way he narrates his struggles, explaining in almost precise detail just how he succeeded.

If I’m every left behind on Mars I want The Martian novel with me. But consider this: of all the people to be left behind on Mars and have any chance of surviving, it could only be Mark Watney. IT. COULD. ONLY. BE. HIM. If NASA sent me to be the first Liberal Arts / Book Blogger / Non-profit fundraiser to land on Mars and I was left behind? Yeah, I’d be dead, but I’d have my trusty copy of The Martian to keep me entertained till my air or food ran out.

What I Didn’t Like About the Novel: The novel is mostly written in the form of Watney’s journal entries. When the action switches over to NASA officials on Earth, the characters are all one dimensional. You really don’t care about them. The names and personalities are interchangeable and it’s clear they are there simply to push the story forward. After a few pages of this I was eagerly awaiting a return to the red planet and Watney’s dilemma. Oh, and one thing bugged me: While trapped on Mars, Watney is reduced to listening or reading his former crew members’ entertainment (Agatha Christie novels, disco and 1970’s sitcoms). So did Watney not pack any entertainment for himself? No books, music or TV? It’s a long trip there; they were scheduled for at least 30 days on the planet. Watney didn’t bring anything? Strange. (OK, I’m nitpicking)

What I Liked About the Novel: Besides being an enjoyable, quick, exhilarating, humorous and compelling read, I like the backstory of the publication. The Martian is yet another example of the current power of self publishing. Hurray for the Internets! Author Weir first published chapters of the novel on his blog. When friends and fans requested a version they could read on their e-readers, he reluctantly put it on Amazon for $0.99. Now it’s a major motion picture starring Matt Damon. So, that happened. The internet and various self-publishing sites are giving rise to new voices in literature, Science Fiction and Fantasy. That’s a good thing.

Conclusion: The Martian is not only for fans of the science fiction genre. It contains just enough technical data to appeal to the geek in all of us, while engaging us with a captivating story and a hero we can root for.

I recommend The Martian. 3 ½ stars out of five.

Aldiss’ Last Science Fiction Novel Is No Magnum Opus.

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Finches of Mars

Brian W. Aldiss
202 pages
Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy

While writing this review I was overwhelmed with the feeling of Metanipoko.

(What is Metanipoko? I’ll get to it later….)

Finches of Mars is the latest (and allegedly last) science fiction novel from Grand Master Brian W. Aldiss. It’s a philosophical/political/sociological/ study of the first ten years of Mars colonization.

Logging in at only 202 pages, it’s not a long read, but it felt that way. Each chapter is a sort of vignette, or perhaps snapshot is a better word, into the lives of the colonists as they struggle to advance life on Mars. They can grow plants. They can find water. They can build things. But they can not create life, or more specifically, human life. During the ten years they have been on the red planet every birth is either stillborn or dies soon after.

But after a few chapters, you simply don’t care. Why? Because the characters are one-dimensional. Names change, situations change, but there is nothing to emotionally attach the reader to the colonists’ plight.

There is a very creepy sexual undertone that sort of sneaks up on you. As the story progresses you begin to suspect that the talk of sex, sexual organs and mate selection will eventually lead (at least one thinks it should), to a resolution of the reproduction problem.

Yeah…well, let’s just say Spoilers and leave it at that.

There were times when I was reminded of Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. Perhaps this was the approach Aldiss was taking. Perhaps. The snapshots of life on Mars gradually interconnect as the novel advances. Are we looking at the colonists’ psychological and physical changes as they live on the red plant?

About two-thirds of the way through we get his reference to Finches. It refers to Charles Darwin and the birds (finches) he observed in the Galápagos Islands. The finches evolved to fit certain circumstances of their environment, helping them adapt and survive.

A-Ha! Now I see what Aldiss is doing. This is a textbook case of humans (finches) on Mars (Galápagos) adapting to their surrounding for survival. This is not a story, rather it’s a journal. We are observers of nameless birds that on the surface all look-alike, but their subtle differences allow the strong to survive. Slowly we piece together small facts and situations to create a working theory. It makes sense! It’s all about evolution, survival of the fittest, adaptation and natural selection. The strong survive, certain traits help the species live….

And then the Deus Ex Machina ending of the novel pretty much slaps you in the face and throws that all out the window.

The colonists evolve the most through their language and the creation of new words. For example, after life is discovered on Mars (“Life! Let’s eat it!” Yes that happens…) instead of a plot twist that might lead to the solution of the procreation challenge (remember that “problem” that the novel is supposedly about?), the colonists debate how it makes them feel and how to describe that feeling. They settle on the word Metanipoko, or “an intensity of regret and delight”.

Which brings me to how I feel about this novel. Delight that I am once again reading a novel by Aldiss, Grand Master of Science Fiction … And regret that I could not write a glowing review for his last contribution to the science fiction genre.

What I Liked About The Novel: the attempt to write a textbook/journal type narrative looking back at the evolution of humans on Mars and their struggle to survive.

What I Did Not Like: the terrible use of a common sci-fi trope for an ending that totally negated the previous chapters and storyline. It was almost insulting. Almost.

Conclusion: If you are a fan of Aldiss you may want to skip this one. Remember instead his better novels and stories. Go re-read Super Toys Last All Summer Long or his Helliconia trilogy.

Two Stars out of Five. 

Obligatory Caveat: I received a free advance copy of this novel from Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

After More Than 60 Years, Simak’s City is Still a Classic Metropolis

  

City

Clifford D. Simak
Originally Published: 1952
Current Edition: July 2015
Open Road Media, Sci-Fi & Fantasy
264 Pages 

Rating: 5/5 Stars

There are good science fiction stories; page turners that captivate and provide easy, fun summertime reads. Then there are great science fiction stories: stories that leave us pondering its content long after you’ve turned the last page. 

City, by Clifford D. Simak goes well beyond that. This is a Classic. It’s everything that a Science Fiction novel should be: Extraordinary, a bit of social commentary, a leap of faith, heartfelt and at times haunting.

The novel, originally published in 1952, is a compilation of several short stories written by Simak between 1944 and 1951 and published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine. (The story “Epilog” was written later in 1973 and after 1980 was added to the novel.) Written especially for the novel, “Scholarly Notes and Discussions” are included before each story, presenting futuristic viewpoints from learned, talking dogs debating the validity of these possible myths and legends. They ask the eternal doggish questions: “What is Man? What is City? What is War?”

Yes. Talking Dogs.

Just go with it. Seriously. 

City is not bogged down by the mechanics of science. There are robots that last for a millennium, hologram suites and man-created talking dogs. Don’t fret over the technicalities. Yes, some of the “tech” sounds dated, but in the context that these stories are being presented, it’s like debating whether or not Noah could have fit all those animals in the Ark.

Because that’s what these stories are about. These are myths, legends; tails told around the fire (see what I did there?). Doggish scholars debate their legitimacy. This is the creation story of Dog and the fall of a being called Man.

Simak is a Grand Master of Science Fiction. That’s not me talking. It’s an actual title. He is the third Grand Master of the Science Fiction Writers Association. City is considered a masterpiece. 

Long after you read the last page you will ponder the myths, legends and beliefs in your own life. Are they true or merely myths invented to help the human race understand their past?

City was on my short list of novels to read for many years. I lament it took me this long to finally get around to reading it. Don’t make the same mistake I did. I highly recommend this novel.

I received a free copy of this edition through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review of the novel.

The Krakow Klub: A Slow Mundane Read.

Rating:  1 Star Out of 5

The Krakow Klub is the latest novel by author Philip C. Elrod. It’s the second novel in the M ylean Universe Series. Full disclosure here: I did not read the prequel, Mylea, so I came into this novel at a bit of a disadvantage, not knowing the events that led up to The Krakow Klub. I believe, however, a novel should stand a bit on its own, even in a series.
There is a story here. For the life of me I could not find it.

I had a very hard time with this novel. This wasn’t due to any handicap I had coming into the series lacking knowledge of what happened in the previous novel, rather it was caused by the unemotional and almost robotic writing.

Elrod has (according to his bio) written books about data collection, computer technology and technical trading of securities. Reading The Krakow Klub was like reading a technical manual or a text book.

At this point I will refrain from a spoiler warning because quite honestly, there is nothing to spoil.  Here is what happens in the first 100 pages (1/3 of the novel)
* A detailed, technical description of a space station.
* A detailed description of a house and island in Key West.
* A step-by-step description of how the protagonist, John F. Scott purchases the Island.
* Scott meets a woman and she describes how to enter her phone number into his phone.

It’s not fast paced. It’s not thrilling. The dialogue, (little that there is) is wooden, mechanical and dry. What I read is a great outline for a future novel. What Mr. Elrod needs to do now is write a compelling, captivating, emotional novel that draws the reader into this world he created. Otherwise, it’s just a technical manual.

I absolutely hate having to leave negative reviews, knowing that authors pour a lot of time and effort into their work. Unfortunately for The Kraków Klub, I can not recommend this novel.

I reviewed this book for NetGalley.