Friday, September 19, 2014

Andy Weir's THE MARTIAN

You can keep your Heathcliffes, your Darcys, your Rochesters ; my literary boyfriend on whom I call dibs for all time is Mark Watney, almost-omnicompetent botanist, engineer, Martian.

Andy Weir's The Martian feels like it has a very familiar premise -- Robinson Crusoe on Mars anyone? -- but Weir's hero makes it a unique story all its own. Stranded on a newly-established Mars base after a sandstorm forces the rest of his crew to abort their years-long mission (an accident during the evacuation leads everyone to believe Mark has perished), he has to choose whether to give up and die and spare himself a slow suffering death from starvation after his NASA rations run out, or to outthink his situation and live. He chooses, of course, the latter, even though he is pretty sure no one is ever going to come to his rescue. And there is much rejoicing.

His story is told via his logs, in which he details his thought processes and his progress toward survival (making water, making [via a combination of Martian dirt and his own poop] garden soil, growing potatoes, hacking the expedition's exploration and sampling equipment to turn it all into a survival machine) as well as his occasional exasperation at his erstwhile crewmates' taste in culture; the mission commander had a serious Seventies problem, and her choices completely govern how Mark winds up spending his leisure hours while, e.g., waiting for batteries to recharge, for potato seedlings to grow, for hydrolysis to happen.

Intercut with Mark's journal entries are conventional third-person narratives detailing how NASA discovers he is still alive and the extraordinary efforts to which they -- and the rest of the planet, really -- go to get him home again. These characters are as vividly realized as Mark is, and almost as enjoyable to watch in action. Almost.

All this is very exciting and enjoyable, but really, for me it's the competence porn that makes this book the delight that it is. Mark is not truly omnicompetent -- he has some scary near misses and makes some nearly-deadly mistakes -- but he's close enough. Give me a man who can make his own soil, hack a Mars rover and maintain his sanity on a cultural diet of nothing but Three's Company reruns and I'll... no, just give me that man, all right?

And yes, I still want to go to Mars. Maybe my cadaver can go someday at least (which, see next review)...


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mary Roach's STIFF: THE CURIOUS LIVES OF HUMAN CADAVERS

Ever since I learned it could potentially be a thing, to turn a human corpse into pencils, I've been absolutely certain that this is what I want done with my remains.

After reading Mary Roach's remarkable Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, though, I'm having second thoughts. Because, awesome as being turned into pencils might be, there are way more awesome things that might be done with this meat carcass of mine when I'm done with it. Things that might benefit all of humanity, rather than a few dozen of my friends who still write their grocery lists on paper.

Yeah, yeah, it might just be that all I'm good for is providing a head on which plastic surgeons can practice doing nose jobs and face lifts, but I might also do service as a human crash test dummy, making the next generation of cars even safer than the last. Or I might teach the next generation of crime scene investigators something new about how bodies decompose in soda ash or sand. Or I might see service as an awesomely gruesome movie prop in some fashion or other!

Oh, the possibilities!

Such are the thoughts a book like this inevitably inspires, even if it's not really good.

But it is, in fact, really good. Mary Roach ( I find myself wondering if that's her maiden name or if she had to hunt down a guy named Roach and marry him in order to have the best name EVER for a journalist who investigates things no one else has the stomach to) has a lively, somewhat gruesome curiosity, a courage abd honey badger-saque lack of concern about how she might be perceived for indulging it, and a knack for framing the results of all of this as satisfying and entertaining narratives. In other words, she is fun. 

I bet she's a blast at cocktail parties. 

What an enjoyable read!


Monday, September 1, 2014

Tim Butcher's THE TRIGGER: HUNTING THE ASSASSIN WHO BROUGHT THE WORLD TO WAR

Not since I first encountered Simon Schama's wonderful Landscape and Memory have I experienced a book that so powerfully evokes the power of place as Tim Butcher's The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin who Brought the World to War. For while the book is ostensibly concerned with Gavrilo Princip, whose murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 touched off the First World War, I would argue that the region itself -- the lands occupied by Princip's beloved "southern slavs" that would be united (more or less) as Yugoslavia for much of the 20th century -- is the real "trigger" for World War I and many subsequent conflicts.

It's Butcher's uniquely haunted perspective on the region that lets the brutal realities of the landscape eclipse the story of its most famous son. The result may disappoint seekers after a mere biography of Princip (but hey, details on the man's life are scant enough to where such seekers should be used to disappointment -- but should be delighted by Butcher's encounter, early in the book, with Princip's modern relatives, who cherish a sort of folk memory of their famous great-great uncle that is, as far as I know, all new-to-us material), but readers who can get over that small disappointment will still be rewarded by a remarkable book.

Butcher was a journalist on assignment in the Balkans during the horrific conflicts that broke out after the Warsaw Pact gave up the ghost and the nation of Yugoslavia (the name means essentially, southern Slavs, implying a union of same that might have been dear to Princip's heart, though one wonders what he'd think of Tito as a replacement for the Hapsburgs/Ottoman Turks/etc) dissolved into bloody ethnic conflict. As he follows Princip's journey from his poor and remote home village to Sarajevo, Belgrade and back to Sarajevo, Butcher can't help but recall how the vistas he encounters and the people he (re-) connects with in 2012 looked back in the 1990s, even as he tries to imagine his way back to the early 1910s.

This sounds like a recipe for maudlin mourning or peacenik preaching, but Butcher doesn't let either flavor spoil the dish. For every scene of survivor's guilt or tragic and harrowing story behind a destroyed building or a desecrated monument, there is a scene of enduring charm (Fishing with the Imams) or of newly adopted, moving and meaningful rituals (the march commemorating the escape of thousands of Bosnian Muslims from Srebrenica).

The result is a difficult but rewarding read, and one I would recommend to absolutely anyone.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Ian Tregillis' THE COLDEST WAR

I was hoping that The Coldest War would at least be as much about the Cold War as Bitter Seeds, Ian Tregillis' first Milkweed book, was about World War II (I mean, look at this cover!), but, well, we don't always get what we hope for, do we?

Unless, of course, we're Gretel, the Nazi-engineered precog whose machinations are at the heart of this second book (and, I guess, the first, more than seemed the case at the time), about whom this book is much more deeply concerned than about any mere historical backdrop, alt- or otherwise. She pretty much always gets what she hopes for. She just doesn't really hope for that much. Or so it seems. As such.

A lot of this novel wound up being a bit of a tough slog for me, to be honest. I even put it aside entirely to devour the previous novel covered in this blog, and returned to it more out of a sort of determined resignation than any real desire to see how it ended. Gretel's sparse but significant scenes aside, the first half, perhaps even two-thirds, is bogged down in a lot of dreary domestic soap opera as we see some of the more quotidian consequences of the events of Bitter Seeds. Marriages and families have fallen apart. Glamorous damaged antiheroes have found redemption in the love of good women to whom they get forced to lie. Etc. And just the tiniest soupรงon of the promised hints of good old Cold War secret service drama, but not enough to flavor anything.

The Sandbaggers with warlocks this ain't*. But man, it could have been. Ah, me.

Fortunately, there is Gretel, whose motives remain inscrutable and whose near-omniscience remains irritating as hell as she flaps her greying be-wired braids through an escape from a Russian magic-gulag (yes, as hinted would be the case at the end of the prior novel, the Soviets are mighty keen on continuing Westcarp's work, but no, there's not much of that stuff in this novel, except as something from which Gretel and brother Klaus can escape, and as can function as a sort of paper tiger-cum-red herring when things finally get going) and back to England, where she was once a prisoner of war and now hopes for asylum (and, of course, gets it, because duh, omniscient precog precogs her way out of everything).

And there is what's left of Milkweed, when it's not having sad little kitchen sink tantrums at home. It's been no more idle than the Soviets, but just as the Soviets have sort of out-Westcarped Westcarp, the New Men of Milkweed have found an even crueler and creepier way to raise a new generation of warlocks.

Which leads us up to the last third, in which things finally start happening, and boy do they happen. I'm still not sure if this last section redeems the earlier plodding. It certainly would have had there been, say, even one Soviet character in the book, even a cardboard baddie, to provide some actual tension and, you know, villainy beyond the faceless, unknowable threat of the Eidolons**. As it was, well, while the very ending is plenty interesting and satisfying and does give a certain poignancy to all the tedium that preceded it, The Coldest War wasn't really what I'd wanted it to be at all.

That being said, I'm still keen to read the third book, Necessary Evil, sometime soon, just to see where all this is finally going.

I just hope it gets beyond the drawing room a bit sooner.

*But DUDE I WOULD READ THE SNAPE OUT OF THAT SO SOMEBODY PLEASE MAKE IT A THING.

**The Lovecraftian Old One analogues who are the source of all magic and have to be cajoled and bribed-with-bloooooood by batshit crazy human wizards into letting pesky little humans break the laws of physics.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

T.J. Bass' THE GODWHALE

An absolute kitchen-sink classic* of more-or-less-mid-century science fiction, T.J. Bass' The Godwhale is one of the most enjoyable reads I've had this year, even while it was also, broadly, pretty bleak.

The story starts firmly in  overpopulated, dystopian Stand on Zanzibar territory, with our sort-of-protagonist, Larry Dever, quickly and stupidly maneuvering himself into becoming a medical time traveler by getting himself cut in half. The medical science of his near-future time still isn't up to making him whole again, or at least not whole enough to suit him, so he elects to go into suspended animation until it can, gambling on Progress to give him back his legs, internal organs, and fully functioning tallywhacker. As one does.

Oddly enough, his gamble pays off in a way -- he becomes the ancestor to pretty much everyone else that matters in the rest of the story. But only in a way.

Seemingly irrelevant at the time but, as it turns out, crucial to the novel's denouement, Larry is first revived by a world in which his many-times-great-grand-nieces and nephews are getting ready to "seed" other planets, sending out genetic arks into outer space, and while they still can't bring him back to cherry-poppin' full functionality, they can still make him a star-daddy, after a fashion -- he's got wonderfully "primitive" genes compared to what's around in his new time -- humanity is starting to degenerate as only people who can handle overcrowding are able to/allowed to breed, resulting in a loss of hybrid vigor and good old fashioned paleolithic-ish awesomeness of which our man Larry is a last surviving example, even though he's now just a "hemi-human." They'd love to graft him onto a clone-grown lower half and send him into the stars, but when he finds out just how they'd accomplish this, he elects to go back to sleep. They can use his clone-grown material as well as his own sweet self to seed the stars.

All of this is just prologue, though... and then he wakes up again, more or less by accident, into the world of The Hive, in which Bass' other novel Half-Past Human, is set (apparently The Godwhale is a sequel thereto. Oops). A world in which humanity now averages about four feet tall (if that) lives by the multi-billions in one giant, continent-spanning, computer-controlled underground city in unbearably close quarters, below vast Gardens of the kind only Monsanto could love (as in the food plants cannot pollinate themselves or in any way breed, and have to be synthesized from the amino acids up) that exist solely to provide calories for the teeming masses crammed in below, in which no animal life apart from the Hive's stunted little denizens exists, and in which the oceans are completely, lifelessly sterile.

Except for the titular Godwhale, a Harvester, a cybernetic whale remnant of some civilization that existed about halfway between Larry's first awakening and his second, in which giant artificially intelligent cyborgs gathered all the fish and plankton and sea greens and protein from the sea and existed to serve man. This one last cyborg, who lends the novel its title, seems from its having that honor like it's going to be more of a personality within said novel, but alas, the Rokal Maru serves more as a setting-cum-excuse than a partner in protagonism to Larry. I would have loved to have her as more of a character and less of a plot device. Alas. Anyway, she's spent hundreds of years beached on a reef somewhere until suddenly her little robot friend Trilobite discovers not only that there are still people on this here planet, but also maybe some other things are starting to show up, too. Almost as if a cache of biological samples somehow broke open or something. Hmm!

This all probably seems super spoilery, but really, I assure you, it isn't. This is all milieu I'm explaining here, a setting in which a complex and varied plot told in a series of vignettes over decades takes place and which I'm not going to divulge except to say that, well, yes, Larry's genes got around really good for a guy who didn't even have gonads by the end of the first chapter.

Author T.J. Bass, who sadly died in 2011, thus preventing me from fangirling him on social media because I'd not yet heard of him, was a medical doctor by profession, meaning there is enough hard sci-fi content here to satisfy the most grognard among us (provided he considers medicine and biology to be science-y enough), but it almost never overwhelms the story, or the action, of which there is plenty.

I've never so enjoyed being so disappointed in humanity, you guys. Ever.

*Seriously. From its titular cybernetic whale/ship to its medical time travel to its status as another finger-wagging parable to its post-apocalyptic (and post-post apocalyptic, and post-post-post apocalyptic)(remember, it's sort of a time travel tale, though all the travel is in one direction) settings to its The Man Who Folded Himself identity-collapsing (half the novel's characters are pretty much clones of its sort-of-point-of-view character) to its reverse Planet of the Apes ending, this novel is going to remind you of everything while still being its own unique thing. Quite a feat, that!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Joseph D'Lacey's THE BOOK OF THE CROWMAN

I really enjoyed last year's Black Feathers, Joseph D'Lacey's first half of the saga of Gordon Black (what is it with Angry Robot Books and people named Black and blackbirds these days, by the way? It's impossible not to think of Gordon and Miriam Black as siblings of some twisted and horrible kind), but I gotta admit, this second half, The Book of the Crowman, was kind of a slog, you guys.

And that makes me really sad. Even as it suggests rather strongly (ok, more like shouts, for reasons I'll get to below) that in appreciating the subtlety, ambiguity and lack of preachiness in the first volume, I was appreciating Black Feathers all wrong. Either that or I was being set up in the first volume for the rhetorical bludgeoning I got in the second. I think I'd almost rather have been appreciating it all wrong.

For The Book of the Crowman takes all of the things I liked best about Black Feathers and throws them onto the compost heap. Gordon is now explicitly a hippie Christ figure (although yes, he kills a lot more people than Jeebus ever did) (well except all the ones that Jeebus has indirectly killed over the centuries) (but maybe not, 'cause dude kills a lot of people with his little lock knife). Megan becomes less of a Lemmiwinks but still manages to be boring. And the chilling villains of the first volume, Skelton and Pike, stop feeling quite so much like Neil Gaiman/BtVS villains (they totally reminded me of The Gentlemen in Black Feathers) and more like Satan and Saddam Hussein in South Park.

What kept me going was the writing itself, the one quality that truly does carry over from the prior volume. D'Lacey really lets himself rock out this time around, with great escape sequences, action scenes, whole set-piece battles (longbowmen versus tanks, y'all. S'all I'm saying), and also some more of those powerful, quietly emotional scenes that stay with you long after the last page of the book is read.

Ultimately, though, all of that beauty and excitement wound up not being enough when weighed against the feeling of being preached at. It's an open question for me whether it's people with whom one agrees (as is pretty much the case here) or people with whom one disagrees who are more annoying when they just won't shut up about their cause, but the experience of reading this book has added extra weight to the former notion. When you're drinking/talking with an earnest hippie friend who feels passionately about this cause -- nature versus industrialism, pastoralism versus exploitation, tribal egalitarianism versus macro-societal authoritarianism -- sooner or later you can get them to shut up and realize that they're wasting their breath and energy trying to convert the already converted. One cannot, at present, tell a novel to just shut up and enjoy the sunset though. So far. Ah, me.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Justin Robinson's GET BLANK

Justin Robinson's Fill in the Blank series has the makings of a classic except for one small but significant flaw: it is a bit too much a product of the moment, that moment being early 2014, during the grand epic swan song/swan dive of that remarkable but possibly not unforgettable TV series Mad Men*. Which is to say that I'm a bit concerned, regarding this second volume, Get Blank, that it's not going to stand up quite as well as it deserves to in the years to come, when that show and the other pop culture ephemera of this moment are distant memories. And make no mistake, these books deserve to stand up. They deserve to stand up a lot. And that's not any kind of double entendre. Or at least not much of one.

But you know, perhaps early readers of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson had similar concerns, back in the day.

All questions of long-term survival of the book aside, Get Blank is a worthy successor to the book in which our conspiracy-juggling hero was introduced, 2012's thigh-slapping romp Mr. Blank. It has all of the qualities I enjoyed most in that first book, without feeling like the mixture same as before; Robinson importantly proves early on that "Bob" Blank is far from being a one-note character, even as again he goes to a familiar crime/noir plot well, that of the getting-too-old-for-this-ish, it's-somebody-else's-turn wannabe retiree who is sucked back into his old life by forces he can't control and complains about it entertainingly.

Robinson wisely narrows the focus, this time around, on his protagonist/narrator's amusing narrative voice, resisting the temptation to fill this second volume chock full of MOAR. MOAR CONSPIRACIES! MOAR VILLAINS! MOAR SURREALS! MOAR PUNTASTIC DIALOGUE! MOAR MOAR MOAR.

Instead, we rather a more restrained and thoughtful look at Blank's weird world through his grudgingly maturing eyes.** As Bernard Black (perhaps my only pop culture hero that doesn't get a sly mention or allusion in this novel) would say, he's a boytfriend now; he's got duties, responsibilities, lots of hand-holding and sighing... except unlike Bernard, Blank really is a boyfriend now, whether people believe him or not; the buxom bombshell who shared his adventures last novel, Mina the gorgeous plus-sized model, saw something special in him that no one else seems to (except for us, of course) and decided all he really needed to be a suitable partner was some decent clothes. It's sweet!

Alas, the damsel no sooner won is lost again, framed for murder in an obvious but effective ploy to draw the supposedly retired Blank back out into his former, laughably complex, orbits. As plot devices go, it's a bit ho hum, and it deprives us of a character that really enriched the prior novel, but really, how the hell else are a bunch of conspiracy nuts going to suck their favorite gopher back onto the sacrificial goat delivery circuit? I can't think of a better, can you?

Taking Mina's prior-novel place as sidekick/helpmeet-cum-source of bafflement is one Victor Charlie, a genuine Man in Black, complete with old-fashioned-looking car that can speed like a rocketship, but who is way more bizarre than anything Lowell Cunningham et al imagined for the comic book/film franchise of that name. VC is one weird amalgam of person and program, popping off stock phrases like "hubba hubba" at inappropriate times, taking instructions like "hang on a second" too literally, and generally both helping and hindering Blank's progress, often at the exact same moment. I wish he'd come into the story sooner, though. Ditto Elias. O, Elias, O VC. I would read the crap out of the adventures of Blank and Elias and VC, I really would. 23 Skiddo.

Did I laugh out loud on every other page like last time? No. But what I did do was begin to feel for Mr. Blank, to understand what a life like his might actually be like, and to root for his romance. And that's no mean feat when dealing with a cranky reader like me.

Bravo, Justin! Bravo, Blank!

*Remusly, lots of references to Mad Men here, and I'm not just talking about the main female character/quest object (yes, sadly, the magnificent Mina is more of an absence than a presence in this second Blank novel) being pretty much a role crafted expressly for Christina Hendricks in all her stacked and begirdled red-haired Marilyn Monroe sex-bomb glory.

**Lest this make the book sound too po-faced, though, let me assure you, there are still bits that are funny as hell. A running gag in which Blank keeps enlightening us on the seekrit conspiratorial messages hidden in a litany of pop songs Mina has loaded onto his iPod is lots of fun, for instance. And yes, one of them is by R.E.M. and yes it's probably the one you're thinking of.

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