Read recently: The Martian by Andy Weir

Title: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
Published: serial blog turned self-published e-book in 2011 turned physical from by Crown Publishers in 2014
Read: July 1 & 2, 2015
Recommended by: someone online

Synopsis (from Andy Weir’s website)
Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars. Now, he’s sure he’ll be the first person to die there.

After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.

Chances are, though, he won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first.

But Mark isn’t ready to give up yet. Drawing on his ingenuity, his engineering skills—and a relentless, dogged refusal to quit—he steadfastly confronts one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after the next. Will his resourcefulness be enough to overcome the impossible odds against him?

Review
First, maybe I’m crazy, but I assumed something called The Martian would be shelved in science fiction.

For a reason I can’t quite understand, it was shelved in fiction/literature. I had an interesting time trying to track it down. I know that’s not the book’s fault, but it was an inauspicious start to the reading experience.

There are a lot of things to enjoy about this book: the main character’s sarcasm (which made me laugh out loud on a few occasions), the absence of a romantic story arc (which is a refreshing change from everything else I’ve watched or read lately), the not-so-subtle jabs at bureaucracy (which are necessary with a book that involves a government agency with an $18 billion budget)… all good stuff.

But the thing I loved about this book? It was basically a giant high-five to all the big-brained something-ists (astrophysic-, botan-, chem-, etc.) out there. It’s a book about heroic, interesting  scientists. Look, I don’t know anything more than the average person about physics, engineering, or astronomy, but The Martian reads as if the author knows about all of these things, and it’s impressive.

This is a novel where the science drives the story, and while that should be dry, instead it’s just interesting and different. Yay!

I’m a bit nervous about it becoming a movie (coming out on October 2, 2015 starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Kristen Wiig, Donald Glover, etc., etc.). Yes, there’s plenty of action, and I’m sure Ridley Scott and his cinematographers, designers, and special effects peeps will have a splendid time creating an impactful visual experience of the surface of Mars… it could be an exciting and stimulating film… but the SCIENCE. I think the film will have to cut out all of the technical details that I felt made the story special. I guess we’ll see.

As always: If you’re a friend, I’ll lend it to you. If you’re not, please visit one of your charming, musty, local libraries. If you want to own it for yourself, try your hardest to GO TO A BOOKSTORE (and preferably an independent bookstore) instead of an online retailer — though as The Martian was originally written and released online and then as an e-book, maybe this time I can get off my paper-loving high horse.

S.E. Lund

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I’m so jealous of future people

Have you heard about the Future Library (“Framtidsbiblioteket”) art project by Katie Paterson? Basically, one writer every year until 2114 will contribute a text to the Future Library, with the writings held unpublished until then.

A thousand trees have been planted in Nordmarka, a forest just outside Oslo, which will supply the paper for the special anthology of books of the writings  to be printed in one hundred years time. As per the website: “Tending the forest and ensuring its preservation for the 100-year duration of the artwork finds a conceptual counterpoint in the invitation extended to each writer: to conceive and produce a work in the hopes of finding a receptive reader in an unknown future.”

Margaret Atwood was asked to be the inaugural writer for Future Library which is fitting, I suppose, since her most popular works have been speculative fiction. I’m just jealous of the future humans who get to read her contribution.

I love this idea, though I would love it a lot more if someone would have started it, say, 50 years ago, so I could have a chance of reading the anthology.

Read Recently: Divergent

Title: Divergent (also book 2: Insurgent and book 3: Allegiant)
Author: Veronica Roth
Published in 2011 by Katherine Tegen books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers
Read on February 11, 2014
Recommended by: no one in particular. The movie trailer, I suppose.

Synopsis from the publisher:

In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves… or it might destroy her.

The gist:

It’s a creative and deliciously readable YA dystopian future novel with a strong female protagonist and a significant romantic storyline. Did you enjoy Hunger Games, The Gift,  Star Split, The House of the Scorpian, Uglies, et cetera? If yes, you will like this book. Possibly even more than those others.

The good:

Roth writes action well and her characters are layered and interesting. The protagonist, Beatrice (“Tris”), is the character with the clearest voice and personality of the group. That’s not surprising, really. Divergent is written from the first person. What is surprising is how likeable she is even when doing some incredibly unlikable things. In that, Roth has done a very good job in making her seem real, and also sort of kick ass.

The best aspect of these novels is the setting. But let’s put aside for a moment that I’m a sucker for this dystopian future stuff. By segregating the population into four groups (well, five really if I include the Factionless – and if I paid attention at all to the lessons of the series, I should include them) Roth demands that her readers consider where we would fit, and what benefits and sacrifices we would experience because of that choice. (If you’re wondering, I’d choose Erudite without hesitation. Amity would be torture.)

A lesson in self-examination, stereotypes and labels, government interference, survival instinct, terrifying technological advances, and the generally grey and complicated nature of humanity (with a surprising amount of death. Who are you Veronica? George R. R. Martin?), Divergent is a read that should resonate with you on a personal, moral, and political level.

The bad:

Though Tris is written very well, there is one part of her character that just doesn’t fit. Roth describes her as a sort of average-looking girl who grew up for 16 years in an Abnegation house without mirrors, without vanity, without compliments. Then she chooses Dauntless and really comes into her own. She finds her inner strength and daring and spirit appreciated. She becomes less clumsy and more fit. She becomes a fighter and finds things worth fighting for. At this time people start to be interested in her romantically.

Here’s where I have the problem: Maybe the Abnegation part of her, who isn’t used to being noticed, would ask “Why me?,” but I find it extremely hard to believe that her first reaction to romantic overtures would be “But I’m not as pretty as the other girls.” Tris has always known precisely how attractive she is, and didn’t seem to care too much. She was much more concerned about not being as strong, or tall, or fast, or well-trained as the others. The interest of a cute boy isn’t going to change her character that dramatically.

Also I found that the character arcs of a couple of other characters through the series are choppy and disappointing. Notably, Four.

The other:

Roth loves to describe the scent of things. Her descriptions of smells are vivid and sometimes beautifully worded, but really frequent. Almost distracting.

The Divergent film hits theatres on March 20, 2014 with Shailene Woodley (you might know her from The Descendants) playing Tris. The trailer looks pretty awesome. Also, Kate Winslet is in it, and she can do no wrong.

As always:

If you’re interested in reading this, please visit one of your charming, musty, local libraries. If you want to own it for yourself, try your hardest to GO TO A BOOKSTORE instead of an online retailer. (As a former bookseller, I must plead with you to keep those wondrous book havens alive). If at all possible, make it an independent bookstore, but in a pinch, even the giant corporate books/music/housewares/wrapping paper/Starbucks monstrosities will do.

S.E. Lund

Read Recently: Ready Player One

Title: Ready Player One
Author: Ernest Cline
Published: 2011 by Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.
Read: last week of December 2013
Recommended by: Matt B.

Synopsis (part me, part book jacket):
In the year 2044, the real world is an ugly place. Most of humanity is plugged into a virtual utopia, the OASIS, that lets you be anything you want to be. It’s a place where you can live and play and fall in love on any of ten thousand planets. Somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune—and remarkable power—to whoever can unlock them.

Review:
I had a wonderful time reading this book, and I would happily read it again.

The main character, Parzival… I mean Wade Watts, is incredibly likeable (especially to a reader with a particularly acute case of nerd-attraction). He’s a nice mix of self-deprecation, loneliness, sarcasm, cockiness, and heroics, and though he is clearly framed as possessing the resourcefulness, knowledge, and dedication to compete for the BIG PRIZE, the reader is able to still cheer for him as an underdog. The plot is your typical quest narrative, but creative for all that. The dialogue is entertaining, and settings are vividly drawn.

On the other hand, I found there to be some pacing issues, particularly in the mid- to late chapters of the book. These resolve well enough in the final climactic scenes (plus there are giant robot monsters).

There was an unwelcome coldness in most every character, but particularly in Parzival. Death and devastation barely receive a reaction from him. I understand that apathy is a symptom of the world in which the story is set (violence, poverty, starvation in reality; bliss and wish fulfillment in the virtual universe), but it is applied inconsistently. Also, the story is set only thirty years from now. Apathy might be contagious, but this is unbelievable.

The writing itself is pretty good. Occasionally, clunky phrasing would pull me from the world of the novel, but overall I was fully immersed in the story. It’s not a difficult read, but the volume of pop culture references are enough to give your mind and memory a fair workout.

This novel plays to a specific audience. If you were born later than 1990, you will have trouble enjoying this book. The quest of the characters relies incredibly heavily on 1980’s pop culture. It’s fun if you were alive in the ’80’s, or know enough about the decade to get by, but would be terribly frustrating or boring if you don’t. Here’s a test. Do you know who/what the following things are? John Hughes, HAL, Wham!, Alf, Schoolhouse Rock!, 42, Skynet. If you said yes to all of them, you’ll enjoy it. Less than five? You might struggle.

There’s a nerd loophole though. If you don’t know the ’80’s specifically, but you’re a general sci-fi/fantasy or video game enthusiast, there are enough in-jokes and references to keep you entertained.

Final words: If you’re a friend, I’ll lend it to you. If you’re not, please visit one of your charming, musty, local libraries. If you want to own it for yourself, try your hardest to GO TO A BOOKSTORE instead of an online retailer. (I’m not going to trash Amazon, but as a former bookseller, I must plead with you to keep those wondrous book havens alive). If at all possible, make it an independent bookstore, but in a pinch, even the giant corporate books/music/housewares/wrapping paper/Starbucks monstrosities will do.

S.E. Lund