Sunday, February 22, 2015

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir
Published: Crown Publishers (2014)

The Book:

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?”

The Martian is Andy Weir’s debut novel, and it has a pretty interesting origin.  It was originally posted serially on his blog (which I think is here, though he has another author page here), and it took off in a serious way after he self-published the full novel for Kindle.  Now, it’s a best seller and already has a movie adaptation in the works for later this year!  I originally noticed the novel due to very positive reviews from other bloggers, so I had high expectations from the start.

My Thoughts:

I would highly recommend The Martian for fans of stories of survival in harsh conditions, realistic science, and optimistic, intelligent protagonists.  The events takes place in the near future, where Weir has carefully imagined a potential manned space program to Mars. Though the mission does include some technology that is not currently in existence, the capabilities are clearly explained and internally consistent.  I admit that I did not double-check Mark’s math, but I really enjoyed that the basic math and science were explicitly described.  The novel makes the future where we have a Mars program, and where a man could struggle to survive for years alone on Mars, feel like a plausible extension into the future of our current reality.

While this is a science-based tale of survival, Mark’s personality keeps it from ever getting too dry or grim.  The story is mostly told through Mark’s logs, where his conversational style, optimistic attitude, and good sense of humor keeps things relatively light in the most difficult situations.  A lot of his humor also involves pop culture, as in the following excerpt:

“I got really bored, so I decided to pick a theme song!  …  There are plenty of great candidates: “Life on Mars?” by David Bowie, “Rocket Man” by Elton John, “Alone Again (Naturally)” by Gilbert O’Sullivan.  But I settled on “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees.” ~p. 223

Things are not always quite so goofy, though, and when things go wrong Mark’s panic (and his use of profanity) comes through just as clearly. Mark also has MacGyver-level resourcefulness and an expertise in botany.  I think his charming personality and intelligence are a large part of why the story works so well— I can’t imagine anyone not rooting for him to make it home alive.

The Martian is a pretty straightforward story, where essentially all of the conflict is external.  Mark faces one crisis after another, but I felt that the different circumstances and details kept the pattern from feeling repetitive.  Everything that happens seems to arise naturally from Mark’s situation and the consequences of his own actions. The precariousness of Mark’s situation kept the tension up, and it was fun to try to figure out what might go wrong next.  The story was well-paced and easy to read, and this was a book that I flew through very quickly. I can see why it was optioned as a movie, since I think this is the sort of novel that would be relatively easy to adapt.  I’m looking forward to seeing the film— maybe I can even review it here as well!

My Rating: 4/5

The Martian is a debut novel that has exploded in popularity, and I’m happy to say that it has lived up to the hype for me.  It’s an entertaining survival story that features an upbeat protagonist and a thoroughly imagined future Mars mission program.  In his log, Mark clearly lays out the science and math behind the problems he faces, as well as his proposed solutions.  Events move along quickly and Mark’s personality from his log entries keep things optimistic and funny.  This was a really fun book, and one that I think could translate well to a movie!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Review: The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer

The Terminal Experiment by Robert J. Sawyer
Published: Analog Science Fiction & Fact / HarperPrism (1994)
Awards Won: Nebula Award
Awards Nominated: Hugo Award

The Book:

“After a defining experience as a young student, Peter Hobson had a deep interest in determining the exact moment of a person’s death.  His related research made him a wealthy man, but it was his discovery of the soul leaving the human body that made him a true celebrity.

People frequently ask Peter what the afterlife is like, but he really has no idea. With the help of his best friend Sarkar Muhammed, an AI specialist, Peter decides to answer this question by modeling his own mind in three different versions: one is a ‘control’ version, one is meant to simulate immortality, and one is meant to simulate a bodiless afterlife.  However, the copies were recorded just after Peter’s personal life was rocked by an unexpected betrayal, and it appears to have caused one of the simulations to become a killer!”  ~Allie

This is the second novel I’ve read by Robert J. Sawyer, and it’s definitely my favorite of his novels thus far.  I was not a fan of Hominids, but I’m glad I decided to try another of his novels.  This is another audiobook that I listened to during my daily commute!

My Thoughts:

The science of The Terminal Experiment might not have been terribly realistic, but I thought the fictional science elements (including simulated human minds and the detection of the soul) were really fun. The understanding of computers was a little short-term retro, due to the publication date. For instance, I had to laugh a little bit when after recording the entirety of Peter Hobson’s mind, the narrator commented, “Gigabytes of information had been recorded”.  However, I’ve always been fascinated by the stories including electronic simulations of human consciousness, so I was perfectly willing to suspend disbelief for the story.  As for the existence of the soul, it was interesting to see how the world would change if it could be scientifically proven that there was some kind of afterlife.  All in all, I thought it was a really cool set of ‘what-ifs’ to build a story around.

I felt like the story was as much a drama as it was a murder mystery. The murder mystery part arrives fairly late in the story, so it is important that the reader be drawn in by the protagonist’s life story.  I initially disliked Peter Hobson, mostly for his contempt and his tendency to generalize dislike of specific people to broad categories of the population.  However, though his own personal narrative often glosses over his shortcomings, I felt like the reader was meant to notice and acknowledge his flaws. Most of the focus of the story is on Peter, and on the variations of his personality.  Other characters, including his wife, her co-workers, and her parents, are seen mostly through Peter’s eyes, and so don’t have the same depth.  One secondary character that I particularly enjoyed, though, was his best friend Sarkar—I think that it is not very common to encounter religious scientists in fiction, and even less common to encounter Muslim scientists.

The murder mystery propelled the plot in the later part of the book, but I didn’t think it was the most interesting part of the story.  It seemed like the consideration of the effects of technology on society fell a bit by the wayside when the murder investigation got underway.  The mystery was also very predictable, so there was not much in the way of a puzzle for the reader.  I still found it pretty exciting, though, to see Peter try to work his way to the solution and keep ‘himself’ from killing again. Peter's story was one that was easy to be drawn into, even through audio. In the end, The Terminal Experiment was an entertaining sci-fi thriller that has brightened my daily travels.

My Rating: 3.5/5

The Terminal Experiment is a mind-uploading murder mystery that revolves around the drama of scientist Peter Hobson’s personal life.  Though the science is dated, I thought the central speculative ideas of the story—the proof of existence of a soul and the ability to electronically copy human minds—were really fun.  I would have liked for the story to involve more of how these discoveries could affect society, rather than moving into a predictable mystery plot.  All the same, Peter Hobson, and his three electronic alter-egos were interestingly flawed central characters, and I also enjoyed many of the secondary characters that filled his world, such as his friend Sarkar, the AI specialist.  Overall, I enjoyed The Terminal Experiment, and it has left me feeling more positive about trying out others of Sawyer’s novels in the future!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Published: Mulholland Books, 2013

Harper Curtis is a killer who stepped out of the past. Kirby Mazrachi is a girl who was never meant to have a future. Kirby is the last shining girl, one of the bright young women, burning with potential, whose lives Harper is destined to snuff out after he stumbles on a House in Depression-era Chicago that opens on to other times. 

At the urging of the House, Harper inserts himself into the lives of the shining girls, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He's the ultimate hunter, vanishing into another time after each murder, untraceable—until one of his victims survives. Determined to bring her would-be killer to justice, Kirby joins the
 Chicago Sun-Times to work with the ex-homicide reporter, Dan Velasquez, who covered her case. Soon Kirby finds herself closing in on the impossible truth…”

This is the third book I’ve read by Lauren Beukes, and it is very different from Moxyland and Zoo City. I’m currently in the process of reading her latest book, Broken Monsters.  Also, this is the first of my 2014 Christmas backlog reviews, which I will post in between reviews of books I am currently reading in 2015.  My biggest 2015 resolution is to find a way to keep from getting behind in my reviews like this in the future!

My Thoughts:

The Shining Girls fits a very different collection of genres than either of Beukes’s first two novels, and one that happens to fall a little outside my usual tastes.  From my perspective, The Shining Girls fits mostly into horror and thriller categories, and I think that knowing this helps one to calibrate expectations.  For instance, one shouldn’t expect for a detailed explanation of the time-traveling house and the shining girls to be a major part of the story. I’m not saying there are no answers at all, but those that exist lean more towards the style of horror.  More than their causes, the supernatural elements are important for their effects on the story. For instance, the time-travel allowed for a look at Chicago throughout the decades, which I found pretty interesting (I’ve only been to the city a few times). It also made Harper a difficult killer to catch, as he darted through history to attack women of great potential.

For me, the shining girls were the most compelling part of the book.  Each of the victims lived in a different time, and was working to overcome or defy different societal problems.  I found it incredibly sad to know from the beginning that they would not survive to fulfill their potential. The lone survivor, Kirby, is the main viewpoint character in her hunt for Harper.  Though she hits some of the typical buttons for a spunky heroine with a tragic past, I appreciated that she was not particularly angsty.  She doesn’t wallow in self-pity, but is instead driven to the search for her would-be killer in order to help gain some closure over what was done to her. I felt that she was a very easy character to like, and I hoped that her search would bring her what she needed in order to heal.

Though the plot is non-linear in time, beyond the horror elements it is the familiar tale of a survivor whose life revolves around her search for her would-be killer.  Everything proceeds more or less as expected, but there were a few things I especially liked about Beukes’s take on this kind of story.  For instance, Harper Curtis, the murderer, was not romanticized in the least.  He was a disgusting, mean-spirited, violent man, and I found myself wishing he had far fewer viewpoint chapters.  However, when he did murder a young woman, the scene was given from her perspective. The reader was clearly meant to identify with the pain, shock and fear of these girls, and to see them as people. On the other hand, there was very little time to get to know each victim, and it was difficult to read about young woman after young woman being brutally murdered.  I would have liked for the narrative to have spent more time with the shining girls while they were alive, so that the pattern from character introduction to murder would not have seemed to repeat so many times. However, all of this definitely cemented Harper as an irredeemable person, and one who I was eager to see meet his comeuppance.  Though the story was a bit predictable, I still found it entertaining and felt that the ending gave the story a satisfying conclusion.

My Rating: 3.5/5

The Shining Girls, as a horror/thriller story set in Chicago, is very different than either of Beukes’s previous novels, and it shows the range of her writing skill.  It is not my favorite of her work, but that is likely due in large part to the fact that the genre and subject matter correspond less closely to my personal interests. I appreciated that the serial killer was not glamorized, and I was particularly drawn to the shining girls, including the survivor and protagonist, Kirby.  I wished there could have been more time spent with the shining girls throughout history, since the repetition of character introduction to brutal murder could get numbing.  Overall, I enjoyed seeing another side of Beukes’s skill as a writer, and I am already reading her next novel, Broken Monsters.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Review: Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
Published: Galaxy Science Fiction (1973), Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (1973), Gollancz (2006)
Series: Book 1 of the Rama Series
Awards Won: Hugo, Nebula, John W. Campbell Memorial, Locus SF and BSFA Awards

The Book:

At first, only a few things are known about the celestial object that astronomers dub Rama. It is huge, weighing more than ten trillion tons. And it is hurtling through the solar system at inconceivable speed. Then a space probe confirms the unthinkable: Rama is no natural object. It is, incredible, an interstellar spacecraft.

Space explorers and planet-bound scientists alike prepare for mankind's first encounter with alien intelligence. It will kindle their wildest dreams... and fan their darkest fears. For no one knows who the Ramans are or why they have come. And now the moment of rendezvous awaits -- just behind a Raman airlock door.”

Through a weird twist of fate, I actually read all of the sequels to Rendezvous with Rama when I was a teenager, but somehow managed to miss ever reading this award-winning science fiction classic. Happily, this oversight has now been corrected! 

My Thoughts:

Rendezvous with Rama is a classic example of a hard science fiction Big Dumb Object story.  The mysterious, alien spacecraft Rama is the setting, the main character, and the point of the entire novel.  The exploration of Rama is undertaken methodically and carefully, and resourcefulness and careful thought is often required to overcome or predict the difficulties that they encounter.  I enjoyed the depiction of how humans might explore and study an alien spacecraft and what conclusions they might be able to draw from it.  The story was therefore pretty simple and straightforward, but the topic is one that I found to be very interesting. 

In my experience, Clarke’s novels tend to be about exciting ideas, but not to have much in the way of memorable characters. In Rendezvous with Rama, the characters did not really have anything in the way of character arcs, and they were mostly defined by a single trait, skill or characteristic.  Typically, a character would be introduced when their particular trait or skill became important to the exploration, and they would fade back into the background afterward.  Thus, the characters served the plot and the ideas of the novel, rather than the other way around.  In this case, I think the characters were sufficient to fill their roles in the story, and Rama was enough to hold at least this reader’s attention.

Arthur C. Clarke’s writing style is very noticeable in Rendezvous with Rama (though less so in the sequels).  He has a very plain, precise style that I have generally enjoyed.  Clarke pays careful attention to detail in the story and in the setting, and I think that his straightforward style enhances the sense of wonder upon which the story depends. Rendezvous with Rama might not have much in the way of character drama or development, but I think that the exploration of Rama is a story that will capture the imagination of readers for many more years.

My Rating: 4/5

Arthur C. Clarke’s award-winning classic, Rendezvous with Rama, tells the story of a brief human exploration of an alien vessel. I thought that the novel was very characteristic of Clarke’s style, with its careful description, sense of wonder, memorable events and ideas, and forgettable characters. The story is pretty straightforward, and I am surprised, in this era of adaptations, that it hasn’t yet been made into a film (apparently there are script-writing issues).  I think the novel will continue to be loved for many years to come by fans of hard science fiction.