Series Condition: Y: the Last Man

I have a confession to make… I’m a pretty lame comics fan. I’ve never read any of the classics of the 90s or early 2000s. I know nothing about Sandman or Starman. I’ve never read Preacher, Powers, or Planetary. I don’t know the difference between Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis.

But I’m hoping to bone up on comics knowledge by reading some of the modern classics over the next few years. The first series I tackled was ‘Y: the Last Man.’ Here are the basics:

Y the Last Man Issue 1Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Pia Guerra (primarily)
60 issues
Years: 2002 – 2008

Of all the comics on my bucket list, YTLM has the catchiest premise. A mysterious calamity sweeps across the globe and kills every male of every species—except for one young man named Yorick Brown and his pet monkey.

Before I started reading, it was hard to predict what the tone of the series would be. Given the premise, I might have expected some gratuitous male-fantasy wish-fulfillment, something like ‘I Am Legend’ re-imagined by the people who brought us ‘Van Wilder.’ Or, given Vertigo’s reputation for heady, ‘alternative’ titles, I might have expected a 60-issue allegory about misogyny, or ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’ The series is actually like something written by Joss Whedon, Brian Michael Bendis, or Lev Grossman. Very character-driven. Lots of charming dialog, occasionally punctuated by action scenes. Overall, YTLM is a prolonged road trip, with Vaughan speculating on how a sudden a lack of men would affect different cultures around the world. He presents some pretty interesting ideas.

The titular mister is an aspiring escape artist… He’s training a helper monkey… His mother is a U.S. senator… His girlfriend is on a walkabout in Australia… He’s named after a Shakespearean character who’s famous for being dead…  Mmmkay. Despite this weird confluence of uniquenesses, Yorick is, at his core, an everyman (an onlyman?). Unless he discussing random trivia about world history or etymology, Yorick is not particularly bright (other characters point this out continuously). He’s pretty weak. He’s pretty slow. He’s annoyingly sanctimonious, if the plot calls for it. He’s kind of a goober, not at all smooth with the ladies, and constantly pining for his unreachable girlfriend, while wandering through a world of 3 billion eligible bachelorettes.

Actually, Yorick can’t be blamed for his lack of assertiveness. In the wake of the gender-cide, a cult of misandrists (the opposite of misogynists… look it up!) are gathering in the cities. And foreign agents are hunting him because they view the last living source of y-chromosomes as an asset that’s worth killing for. In general, the post-plague world is not a very safe place to be. Infrastructures are failing, crime is rising.

In the way YTLM portrays a crippled-but-not-devastated society, it reminds me of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Instead of post-apocalyptic, YTLM is semi-apocalyptic. And Vaughan brings up some good points. What would happen to the world if half the population dropped dead? What do you do with all the bodies? And since soldiers, airline pilots, mechanics, sailors, and construction workers tend (or, in this case, tended) to be men, what happens to those pillars of our society? In some ways, I think Vaughan is too pessimistic. For instance, in one of the first few issues, Yorick is nearly crushed by an improvised sanitation worker, because she can’t figure out how to work the brakes on a garbage truck. Then the woman gets out of the car wearing a ridiculous skimpy outfit for her job, which is gathering half-decayed corpses.

Hmm. Not the most practical outfit for harvesting corpses.

Hmm. Not the most practical outfit for harvesting corpses.

I have to say that the first issues of YTLM were the hardest to get through. They’re full of kinda dumb and unrealistic scenes like the one above. Yorick makes his way across the semi-apocalyptic landscape to his mother, who is now one of the highest ranking officials in the U.S. government. Within pages of being reunited with her son—who has miraculously survived a Biblical plague, who may be the one chance the human race has of continuing the species—Mrs. Brown agrees to let him journey across the continent with a single bodyguard. On foot. It makes no sense at all. If this series was at all realistic, Yorick should have spent the next 60 issues locked in a bomb shelter impregnating Olympians and valedictorians. But no, instead he stumbles across the country, continuously falling into trouble that is often highly avoidable.

But Yorick picks up some interesting friends, and I stuck with the series, mainly based on its sterling reputation. Then we get to issue 19. And that’s when the series truly kicks into gear. There is probably a term for the type of character that is introduced here. She is a mouth-piece for the readers, and basically she tells Yorick what the readers probably want to tell him: “Stop being such a douche!” It’s a similar sort of role that Spike played on ‘Buffy the Vampire’ and ‘Angel,’ with the way he would ground the protagonists with a snarky remark when they started to get too mopey or irrational. After issue 19, Yorick stops being so mopey and irrational, and the story is a blast from then till the end. At the same time, Pia Guerra’s penciling gets better and better. She starts off excellent at convey emotion through facial features, but her figures are her compositions seem a bit stiff. By the end, her stuff is cinematic. Perfect. The coloring also gets better, I can’t think of another example of coloring so adeptly conveying mood and setting.

YTM_02_ab

An example of early YTLM artwork, and artwork from later in the series.

It’s interesting to think of how Vaughan might have changed direction as the plot progressed over six years. It felt to me like he had a loose outline of where he wanted to go. The first few issues establish several possible causes for the plague (some mystical, some biological, some quasi-scientific), and I wonder if some of these red herrings were also possible alternative that he wanted to keep in his back pocket if he had decided to take the story in a different direction. It’s also interesting to see new characters pop up and old characters fade to the background, as if Vaughan realized that they had become obsolete. In that way, I guess writing a comic series can be like being a show-runner on a 12-episodes-a-season TV show. I don’t think there’s any question that Vaughan makes some fine choices for his primary characters, that he adapts nicely, and that he most definitely sticks the landing at the end. And I have a feeling that the story of Yorick and his friends will stick with me for a while.

I just read: Aurora

auroraA lot of the most popular sci-fi books being released in the last few years are kind of downers. By that I mean their more ‘down to earth’ (sometimes literally) about humanity’s prospects of ever flying spaceships to the stars. They tamp down the magical thinking of classic pop sci-fi in favor of more realistic physics. Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light; we probably can’t even get close to it. There will never be a warp speed. Luke can’t fly a tiny X-Wing fighter to the Dagobah system. Han can’t complete the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs.

And so, a bit of a downer. But once you get over the sobering ground-rules, most of these books are really great. You’ve got rollicking adventure (Seveneves, The Martian, the Expanse series). And who needs Hoth and Tatooine when you’ve got the mind-blowing landscapes of Mercury, Io, or Europa from books like 2312 and Blue Remembered Earth? All of these titles take place entirely in our own solar system. And their authors use this dose of realism, and the latest scientific insights, to create more interest and drama. As most authors know, sometimes adding limitations to your story can actually make it more compelling.

In July 2015, Kim Stanley Robinson (the writer of the aforementioned 2312) took this style of reality-check sci-fi to the next level with his novel, Aurora. The humans in his tale actually fly very far from Earth—ten lightyears away from our solar system. And yet, the interstellar problems they run into are far more overwhelming and unsolvable than the issues I’ve read in other ‘downer’ books. I won’t spoil the hardships here. It’s more fun (fun being a very relative term here) to discover these challenges as the would-be colonists do. Eventually, they run headlong into  a problem that drives the final nail into their best-laid plans, and the spacefarers start to fight it out over what their next course of action should be.

Troubles. Troubles. Everywhere troubles. The basic point of the book is that humans will never be able to establish life on other planets. And Robison presents very sound reasoning behind this premise. According to Aurora, Interstellar travel is an endeavor that is masochistic and—even worse—is anti-Darwinist. And it’s doomed to fail.

As Robinson puts it, ‘life is a planetary expression.’ And our planet is Earth, so our species should never travel unreasonably far from our home.

So this book was a bit of a sad read. In fact, by the time I got to the sixth part of the book and saw its title ‘The Hard Problem,’ I nearly had to put my Kindle down. So all the suicides and societal declines, civil war, birth issues, and diseases that the spacefarers had faced so far weren’t as hard as what was to come? Good lord! But I carried on. Robinson is always an extremely intelligent and intriguing writer, but some patience is required to read through his stuff. Then again, this patience is always rewarded. In the end, Aurora was a very thought-provoking read, and I think it will stick with me for a while.

One of the most intriguing parts of the book is that—for the most part—it’s told by the spacefarers’ starship, which is semi-sentient and practically omniscient (because it has so many sensor devices scattered throughout its insides). At first, this makes the ship a typical 3rd-person omniscient narrator. Then the ship’s nascent A.I. complains that it doesn’t have the artistic qualities or even just the prioritization and self-editing skills needed to create an appealing narrative. And indeed, many parts of the novel are told in a somewhat distant, meandering style. Eventually, the ship learns more about humanity from its subjects, and for a while it even begins philosophizing for long tracts of the book. Depending on what you’ve thought of the book so far, you might find these passages imminently skippable, or captivating.

The narrative often turns esoteric. Robinson namedrops all kinds of scientific theories and concepts, and often he doesn’t explain what these concepts are. For a lay-person such as myself, these terms are like fascinating stumbling blocks.
Eventually I started highlighting the terms so that I could list some of them:
Zeno’s Paradox
Femi’s Paradox
The pathetic fallacy
Greedy algorithms
Halting problems
Winograd Schema
Exceptionalist fallacy
Jevon’s paradox
The two-body Kepler problem
Barker’s equation

Sometimes I have trouble quantifying what is ‘Hard Sci-Fi.’ I don’t have any doubts that Aurora qualifies. It is a challenging read, but it also has a strong vein of veracity and courage running through its core. Even though Robinson’s view of phychics and biology is unflinchingly rational, his view of the human spirit (throughout all his work) is unfailingly compassionate and optimistic.

I just read: Harrison Squared

harrison squaredDaryl Gregory is one of favorite modern writers. Every time he has a new book come out, I know it will be unlike anything else he’s ever written. Like China Mieville, he’s a speculative fiction genre-hopper. Or genre-hybridizer? Mieville seems to value syrupy prose and mind-blowing ideas over character (Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Seriously.) Gregory’s books, on the other hand, are bright and personable—and surprisingly heart-warming, for stories that involve zombies, disfigurement, and demonic possession. And some of Gregory’s ideas are just as trippy as Mieville’s, which is high praise indeed.

For his latest, Gregory has tried his hand at young-adult fiction.
Not as interested in that.
Young-adult fiction based on Lovecraft.
OK, I’m in.

The book is called Harrison Squared. Right off the bat, I have to give Gregory props for introducing a teen protagonist, Harrison, who is an amputee. There’s not enough books out there (young-adult or otherwise) that have a main character who is ‘differently abled’ in some way, unless that difference becomes the main crux for the story. Harrison’s leg is just something he deals with; it doesn’t define him. And he’s not particularly angsty or self-conscious about it, which is refreshing.

Harrison is a well-rounded character. He’s supernaturally gifted. He has one parent who died mysteriously. He’s grappling with some anger issues. And he’s just enrolled in a new school that is very, very strange. Does that sound like any other YA protagonist you can think of? OK, Harry Potter lost both his parents in mysterious circumstances—but there are some definite similarities. In fact, if you are a Harry Potter fan, and you’re looking for something similar but just-different-enough, I think you’ll enjoy the happenings at the Dunnsmouth Secondary School.

Here’s the basic set up: Harrison and his mother, a marine biologist, have moved to the town of Dunnsmouth, on an isolated and eerie section of bluffs on the Maine Coast. On his first day at his new school, Harrison is introduced to a half-dozen strange characters. Perhaps none are as strange as the students themselves, who are all homogeneously somber, antisocial, and goth-pale. At first, Harrison’s classmates seem to be a cross between the Addams family and the Children of the Corn. But looks can be deceiving, and the children of Dunnsmouth are friendlier and more sympathetic than they seem. Which is good, because Harrison is going to need all the help he can get. Soon he is wrapped up in the town elders’ plot to unleash their cult’s ancient ocean god upon the world. Holy Cthulhu, Batman!

stygian_witches_11My favorite parts of the book are the descriptions of Dunnsmouth Secondary and its faculty. There’s the trio of lunch ladies, hunched over their cauldron of stew, and sharing one pair of glasses—like the witches of Greek mythology (or of ‘Clash of the Titans’). There’s the swim coach, who is described like some kind of were-walrus. There’s the love-lorn (and spaced-out) Nurse Mandi. Then there’s Harrison’s friend Lub, whose strange affinity for Aquaman is NOT the strangest thing about him. The characters are creepy and amusing. Another stand-out is Harrison’s glamorous aunt from Manhattan, who is sharp-tongued, smugly used to getting her way, and also surprisingly magnetic and charming.

Overall, I felt the plot was pretty straightforward. Perhaps that was a result of Gregory writing for the young-adult market. There were a few surprising developments among secondary characters, and a few narrative devices to create mystery and suspense. And the end had a bit of a twist to it that I wasn’t expecting, which sets up nicely for a possible sequel.

If you’ve never read Daryl Gregory’s stuff, and you’re not that into young adult, I’d suggest The Raising of Stony Mayhall, and Pandemonium.

I just read: The Vacationers

vacationesAbout halfway through Emma Straub’s The Vacationers. I realized I was reading the literary equivalent of one of those ensemble-cast family dramedies that come out every so often. I’m thinking ‘This Is Where I Leave You,’ or ‘Parenthood.’ I even started casting the book:

Dianne Weist is the urbane, yet wacky matriarch.
Jeff Daniels is her unfaithful, yet regretful husband.
Adam Driver is the lunk-headed son.
Taissa Farmiga is the cynical daughter, aiming to lose her virginity.
Derek Jacobi is one of the gay best-friends.
And so on and so on.

The basic gist of the story: The Posts are an upper-class, high-brow family from Manhattan who have some fairly big issues. They take a trip to the Spanish island of Mallorca. And over the course of the two week trip (and 320 pages) these issues are sorted out—to varying degrees of satisfaction.

Despite some fairly risqué passages, for the most part I thought this book was fairly safe. I thought the older couples’ storylines (Mom & Dad and the 2 GBFs) were a little too saccharine for my tastes.
The younger Posts’ stories were more unpredictable and complex, and I thought Straub did a good job of encapsulating some of the ennui that affects today’s younger generations, Millennials and post-Millennials.

Straub isn’t afraid to portray her Manhattanite protagonists in a less-than-flattering light. If you don’t like characters who are unabashedly self-centered or snobbish, this probably isn’t the book for you. Personally, those are some of my favorite types of characters. And there are several genuinely funny moments. If family dramedies are your thing, I’d say give it a try.

I just read: Lock In

lock-inFirst of all, let me say that I’m not a big fan of police procedurals… or mysteries in general. Like most genre fiction, they require a swift plot, and a swiftly plotted mystery requires coincidences and synchronicities that push the limits of my credulity.

If a detective decides to check in on a key witness, then she will arrive just in time to find the door to that person’s apartment has been jimmied open. She’ll be the first to stumble upon a dead body, or to catch the assassin red-handed.

If the detective starts hanging out with someone with a weird area of expertise—say, a doctorate in Native American lore—then it’s a given that the case will hinge on some clue involving Navajo mythology.

If, early in the book, the detective attends a dinner party that introduces a handful of characters, then one of those characters will end up being the culprit. Or if there’s no dinner party, and the detective has a random, non-plot-related encounter with a—say, a Bodega owner or a neighbor of the victim—then that person will end up being the culprit.

So. At this point, you’re probably asking why I chose to read John Scalzi’s Lock In, which is quite clearly a sci-fi police procedural. First of all, John Scalzi is one of the embarrassingly large number of best-selling sci-fi authors whom I have never read. One of my goals in 2015 is to mark some of those essential authors off my to-read list. Secondly, my book Idyll touches on some similar ideas (people in weird comas, living in virtual reality networks or through avatars), so I wanted to see how an acclaimed writer dealt with those subjects. Thirdly… it had a cool cover?

Here’s my shot at explaining the premise: A flu-like epidemic sweeps across the planet, and leaves about 1% of its victims completely paralyzed. They have to spend the rest of their lives ‘locked in’ their bodies. Private industries and government programs emerge to help these people deal with ‘lock in.’ The Hadens (that’s what the paralyzed people are called) basically have two choices of how to live their lives: they can interact with the rest of the waking world through remote-control androids—or they can project their consciousness into a communal, virtual reality environment and confine their interactions to other Hadens.

So those are the two dichotomies that drive most of the plot and themes of the novel:
• Private vs. public sector
• An external, very mechanical life vs. a more cerebral ethereal life.

These parts of the book, when the Hadens focus on the philosophical ‘pros and cons’ of their life choices—and the turns that society is taking—are very interesting. For instance: If a person spends every waking moment in a V.R. environment, where they can be anything they want to be, are they even ‘human’ anymore? Also, if a for-profit company is running that V.R. habitat, is it ethically acceptable to insert ‘pop-up’ ads into people’s lives? Is that better than charging them by the minute to have a life?

Then there’s a whole other complicated part about physically functional humans who can let Hadens control their bodies for a limited time. That’s where things start to get a little wonky.

The plot centers around one of these ‘integrators,’ a murder suspect who may or may not have been controlled by a Haden while he was at the scene of the crime. It’s a very complicated set-up, but once the premise has been established, the mystery spins out by rote. All of the tropes that I listed above (friends with a weirdly useful specialties, coincidental run-ins, dinner party with suspects) you’ll find them here.

Wrapping up, I was surprised at the cleanness and simplicity of the plot, considering the complicated premise. Mostly, I take that as a good thing. If you’re a big fan of action-oriented mystery novels, I’d say give it a try. And even though I left feeling disappointed, I could totally see this as a kick-ass, free-on-HBO movie. (Something like Will Smith’s ‘I, Robot’ or Tom Cruise’s ‘Minority Report.’) In fact, I just checked and I’m not surprised that someone has already bought the rights to a Lock In TV series.

I feel like I have to read another one of Scalzi’s books before I can have a true sense of his writing style, because this novel seems anomalous to the majority of his works, which seem to be space-operas. I do have to say he used the words ‘said’ A LOT. I posted a treatise about the dubious writing tip that ‘you cannot overuse the word ‘said.’’ I didn’t believe it then, and I believe it even less now.

I just read: Seveneves

Wow, this was a really great book.

I’ve heard people praise Neal Stephenson, but I’ve always assumed I would find his books to be somewhat… impenetrable. Mainly that’s because of their heady subject matter and their cryptic titles. For instance: Reamde, Anathem, Cryptonomicon. (See that last one even has ‘Cryptic’ in it!) And his author’s photo doesn’t help with his approachability quotient, since it shows him sporting a kick-ass, ‘evil-mirror-universe’ goatee. Pop-culture has conditioned me to stay away from the likes of that facial hair configuration.

Evil Doppleganger Goateesseveneves_coverJudging by Seveneves, I was very wrong to stay away. This is very fun ‘hard’ science-fiction. Imaginative and thrumming with intriguing characters and ideas and edge-of-the-seat action sequences. It’s an apocalyptic, sublunar space-opera that kept me riveted for all of its 850+ pages.

Here’s the rundown: One day, something (a mysterious ‘Agent’) flies through the moon and shatters it. There’s no explanation as to what the Agent is, and the astronomers in Seveneves are quick to point out that the cosmic phenomena we understand are far outnumbered by the phenomena that we don’t even know exist. Eventually, these scientists figure out that the destruction of the moon will inevitably lead to the destruction of all life on Earth. (I won’t tell you how. I don’t want to spoil it. But it is spectacularly awful.) Nations begin to ally themselves under a global ‘Ark’ project to get a robust representation of the human race into orbit, where they’ll have to survive for 5,000 years, until the Earth’s surface becomes inhabitable again.

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 2.47.47 PMFirst of all, I have to say I’m fascinated by the idea of society on the verge of a doomsday that they know is coming. On the Beach, World War Z, The Last Policeman, Y the Last Man. What will happen to humanity in the face of certain extinction? Will we rise to the occasion? Will we devolve into violence and anarchy? How many people will resort to suicide? Does the birth rate drop? Does everyone quit their jobs and start working on their bucket lists? Are the DMVs and the gyms deserted? Are the beaches overflowing?

If all of that sounds a bit too morbid for your tastes, you’ll be glad to know that Stephenson doesn’t spend a whole lot of time dwelling on his doomsday scenario. That’s not to say he gives it short shrift, either. For most of the first part of the book, we’re following a Neil deGrasse Tyson analog who is nicknamed Doob. Just like the real-life Dr. Tyson, Doob is a world-famous astrophysicist who is present for a lot of the seminal moments in the planning of Ark project. For instance, he’s there for a solemn ceremony in Bhutan as one community send off their best and brightest to hopefully be selected to join the sampling of humans in space. There are also poignant moments with Doob’s loved ones. His second wife: whom he meets and marries AFTER the moon is destroyed. And one of his college-aged sons, whom he follows on a road-trip to a sort of populist space-launch platform.

Overall, the Earthlings in Stephenson’s book respond to their eminent extinction with gumption and ingenuity. Stephenson’s narrative is not focused on the potential for melodrama. Instead he’s often detours into the prospects of orbital mechanics, geopolitical wheeling-dealing, genetics, jerry-rigged space habitats, and more. Stephenson makes all of these subjects fascinating.

The second part of the book focuses on the exceedingly brilliant and/or brave people who have been chosen to be shot into orbit. Among them are a Hillary Clinton archetype, and a young muslim who seems to be modeled after activist Malala Yousafzai. (I guess Seveneves is big on cultural analogs!) One of the big themes here is leadership, and we see lots of different styles at work here. The Clintonian political maven. A Captain Kirk type. A tech billionaire who registers on the Aspergers spectrum.

And these pioneers have a lot to deal with. Cosmic radiation. Meteors. Solar flares. The drag of the atmosphere. Reactor radiation. Explosive decompression. Space travel has never seemed this lethal, and even though the first part of the book stacks up a body-count in the billions, the book’s second part seems particularly hair-raising.

The third part of the book begins with a time-jump 5,000 years into the future. I’m not a big fan of time-jumps. The first one that pops to mind is from the epic horror novel, The Passage. In that book, the story shifts from an apocalyptic vampire story, to a post-apocalyptic vampire story. And the plot—in my mind—hits a brick wall.

The third section of Seveneves gets off to a bad start when the first character introduced is named Kath Two. (Enter Sci-fi trope #154: If you want your characters to seem ‘futuristic,’ drop a number into their name!) But Stephenson reveals a very intriguing reason for Kath Two’s nomenclature. It has to do with the genetic manipulation that the Ark’s leaders had to resort to ensure the survival of their descendants. (Again, I won’t spoil anything, by describing the last few harrowing and heartbreaking scenes in the second part of the book.)

After all this genetic tampering, the results are slightly troubling. Basically, the descendants are separated into seven different genetic stocks. And those genes determine almost everything about them, from their personalities to their competencies. In the interest of survival, these ethnicities have been created and specialized so that they’re like pure-bred dogs.

seveneves_mal_dragoFor instance, there’s a heroic race of Mal-Reynold-types. And there’s a race of Ivan Dragos. A race of science-focused Asians. And charismatic but shifty Romans. If you consider this for a while, it comes off as quasi-racist. Then there’s the unlikely fact that these racial pigeonholes seem to have held for 5000 years, with very little cross-breeding. That seems like a segregationist’s wet-dream.

But enough focusing on that. Again, Stephenson throws in all kinds of fascinating ideas, and characters that are easy to care about and to root for.

With around fifty pages left in the book, I was worried that the story wouldn’t have space to wrap up in a satisfying manner. But then we get one final excellent action sequence. And room for a sequel?

If you’re a fan of science-fiction, post-apocalyptic stories, or space operas, I’d strongly recommend this book.

P.S:
Sonar Taxlaw. I love this character’s name, and the reason for it. (Again, no spoilers.) I’m just adding it here to hopefully add to it’s Google results. Long live Sonar Taxlaw!!

I just read: The Martian

The MartianOK, I’m gonna almost brag and say I almost discovered Andy Weir before he blew up. A couple of years ago, I was looking to read a book about life on a planet with gravity that was lower than Earth’s. Mars seemed like an obvious place to start. I stumbled upon this self-published book, ‘The Martian,’ that seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. I added it to my to-read list. A few months later I went back to its page on the Kindle Store, and I was greeted with a weird message, something to the effect of: “The Martian is not available at this time. It will be re-released by Random House on such-and-such a date.”

Good for that guy, I thought. And I decided to keep an eye for the re-published ebook.

At this point, it would be nearly impossible to be regular reader and to not know about Andy Weir’s novel. In less than two years, he has rocketed to the stratosphere of self-published success stories, among the likes of E.L. James and Hugh Howey. Now he’s clocking in with a multi-spread interview in Entertainment Weekly, and a huge movie adaptation of The Martian starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kirsten Wiig… pretty much everybody. You can watch the trailer here.

What’s even more impressive is that Weir reached escape velocity with just one book. Guess what? The book is just that good.

The elevator pitch for the novel would be something like ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars.’ After a freak storm, Mark Watney, an engineer and botanist, is assumed dead and stranded on Mars by his astronaut buddies. The book takes place in the near future, so his landing zone is one of the few spots on the planet where he can find abandoned supplies and technology. It takes an Earth vessel something like a year to reach the red planet, and even longer to prep the flight. And Watney doesn’t even have a way to let NASA know that he’s alive.

First off, if ‘Robinson Crusoe on Mars’ sounds even more boring than the original Robinson Crusoe (take THAT Daniel Defoe!), let me assuage your concerns. Sure, the hero spends most of his time holed up inside tiny habitats or an even tinier rover vehicle, and these settings COULD get monotonous. But Weir deftly turns the narrative to the colorful characters at Mission Control at just the right moments. We also check in with Watney’s heroic former shipmates, who are still traveling back to Earth.

Because of those breaks, Watney’s story stays fresh—and it is riveting. Our lonesome astronaut has to make his own food, recycle his water, recycle his poop, nourish the bacteria in his poop, create oxygen, create electricity, generate heat, get rid of heat, get rid of carbon dioxide, customize a land vehicle, rebuild his shelter. Watney’s challenges are constant, and his solutions are fascinating. There’s no question that Weir knows his science, and his enthusiasm for the subject is infectious. I’ve heard that the publishers are considering excising the swear-words from the book to make an educational version for school curriculums. I think that would be great. If this book doesn’t inspire a whole generation of impressionable youths join NASA, I’ll eat a Sputnik!

But Weir is not only an excellent teacher, he’s an expert storyteller. He uses several POVs and narrative devices to wring drama or  funnies from each scene. Most of the story is told in 1st-person, from passages in Watney’s log. But when the narrative occasionally shifts perspective—and time-frame—to explain how the outer shell on Watney’s habitat was manufactured and assembled… Well you have some good old-fashioned sweaty-palm foreshadowing that something bad is about to go down with that outer shell. Weir uses these narrative shifts to great effect. There’s one toward the end of the book—I won’t explain it here, to avoid spoilers—where the ‘perspective’ of the book shifts cinematically to a very faraway shot of Watney on the silent landscape of Mars. I think that will make a great scene in the movie.

Lastly, let me gush over the character of Mark Watney. Dude is like the nerd version of Indiana Jones. Weir writes him to be funny, and rousingly positive, considering his dire situation. Sure some of that is ‘whistling past the graveyard,’ and it is explained as such. But an upbeat protagonist is a welcome surprise, considering the subject matter. Honestly, I was expecting long, pensive passages as the castaway struggles with depression and loneliness. There is not much of that.

Often in sci-fi or fantasy, you’re presented with a hero that other characters will totally mark out over, and all that fictionally generated admiration can get a little grating. (I’m looking at you, Doctor Who!) But when characters in The Martian start saying stuff like “If anyone can do it, Watney can…” or “With Watney out there, anything is possible…” you start to believe it too. I’m sure Watney is meant to encapsulate what should be our can-do aspirations on space exploration, and Weir flat-out pulls it off. The book ends with a ‘Rah-Rah’ speech about the innate goodness and ingenuity of humanity that almost made me well up. And I never almost do that over a book.

Here’s hoping that Weir’s next book, a more far-flung sci-fi story, will be half as good.

My top ten beach reads

The sign of a true nerd: He or she doesn’t remember a beach trip based on bitchin’ waves or a hot summer fling. Nerds get nostalgic over beach reads.

Here are the top ten favorite books I’ve read at the beach (in no particular order).

The Scar by China MievilleThe Scar by China Mieville
This was my first—and still my favorite—Mieville novel. The Scar is an autonomous novel set in the ‘New Crobuzon’ universe. Actually, it takes place on a floating city of ships connected together into Venetian-style neighborhoods. The book is teeming with Mieville’s typically brain-bending fantasy, and his eye-crossingly dense (and fascinating) prose. But don’t let bulk of the craft discourage you. At its heart, The Scar, is a rollicking-good adventure yarn. Kick off your flip-flops and prepare to have your buckles swashed!

The Perfect StormThe Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
Some people might say that this book isn’t conducive to beach reading, what with its painstaking and painful recreations of what it’s like to drown. I say it’s never a bad time to dust off this classic narrative nonfiction account of a fishing vessel that, in 1991, disappeared in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of lethal storms.

Gyo_volume_1Gyo by Junji Ito
Or, as it’s subtitled: ‘The Death-Stench Creeps.’ Okay, at this point you’re probably questioning my taste in beach books. This Japanese comic is told from the POV of a boy who finds out his girlfriend is haunted by a horrible fishy odor. (Umm. Whuh?) That’s pretty creepy in and of itself, but then her island home is overrun by chimeric sea-creature zombies.

Ito writes weird, truly disturbing, stuff, and illustrates it beautiful. If you’ve never heard of it, do yourself a favor and Google one of his other classic series, the Uzumaki Manga.

Gyo Shark

91icZ9KND7L._SL1500_We Were Liars by E. Lockhart
A young-adult book that I read recently on a trip to Jekyll Island. It follows the teen progeny of a wealth New England family who own a private island estate. A very clean, lyrical writing style that builds to a surprising and haunting end.

Killer EliteKiller Elite by Ranulph Fiennes
Here’s me when I read this book: “Whoa! I can’t believe this stuff really happened!” Well, it seems that this novel, ‘based on true events,’ is too good to be true. The story is sparked by a modern Arab royal who is pressured into fulfilling an ancient tradition of vengeance on the specific British soldiers who may or may not have killed his sons during a military engagement. He reluctantly hires an all-star team of hitmen, who carry out the vendetta to vary degrees of success. Their final target was is the author himself. (Umm. Double Whuh?) Their appears to be a mire of controversy surrounding this book, and I had a difficult time parsing through all of it. It seems that most of the assassins’ targets are real British veterans who died of seemingly accidental ways, and the many Britons are upset that Fiennes would conjecture that foul play was involved.

hornsHorns by Joe Hill
Maybe my favorite straight-up horror read (of the last few years anyway). Ig is wholeheartedly devoted to his girlfriend. He’s devastated when she’s killed, and more devastated when most people in his hometown (including his own parents) believe he is the murderer. Ig’s despair turns blasphemous, and he finds himself cursed with horns growing out of his forehead—and strangely blessed with inhibition-negating superpowers which might help him find the true killer. Joe Hill covers a lot of ground, flipping between time-frames and POVs including a switch from the bedeviled protagonist to a whole section of the book that follows a creepily realistic (and narcissistic) villain.

817OxAm5WrL._SL1500_Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden
Like The Perfect Storm, this is another famously riveting example of narrative nonfiction. Bowden ‘un-splinters’ the stories of dozens of U.S. Army Rangers caught in a chaotic firefight that covers a full day and a few city blocks in the Somalian port city of Mogadishu. You’ll often have to refer to the index of names at the end of this book, but cross-referencing has never been so exhilarating.

 

512pvHV6z9LA Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
What nerdy book-list would be complete without a little George R.R. Martin? This was the second book in the epic series, featuring the Battle of the Blackwater, which was a scene I read while in watching container ships pass by in Hilton Head.

 

 

51bD1E1t-DLSpin by Robert Charles Wilson
A sci-fi story that is uniquely character-driven and earthbound. Our planet is trapped in a gigantic bubble, glued in time, while the rest of the universe whizzes by, millions of years per day. This book, written in 2010, finds some fascinating ways to play with the passage of time. One of the most serious dilemmas facing the young main characters: At this rate, the sun will die of old age before they do.

 

81hdZB3eJ9L._SL1500_Beach edited by Gideon Bosker and Lena Lencek
A collection of stories about (you guessed it) beaches. There are some great classics in here: Salinger, John Cheever, J.G. Ballard, Rachel Carson, John Updike, and John Steinbeck. If you’re a fan of short stories, or the Golden Age of ‘Modern’ literature (1930-1970), you can’t go wrong with this one.

 

Series Condition: The Royals, Masters of War

I think most writers would kill to come up with a idea as awesome as Rob Williams’ premise for ‘The Royals: Masters of War.’ Here it is: Royal blood is truly divine, and every king, prince, princess, duke and emperor across the planet has been granted superhuman powers by birthright. Now throw those super-powered nobles into the catastrophic turmoil of WWII and let’s see what happens!

royals_mastersofwarWriter: Rob Williams
Artists: Simon Coleby, Gary Erskine
Total Issues: 6
Published: 2014
Publisher: Vertigo (DC)

Royals is a mini-series, written with a sort of ‘just-the-hits’ mentality. It has a very clean, driving narrative which makes it a fun, easy read. It’s like a summer blockbuster, if summer blockbusters had subplots involving euthanasia, genocide, and incest.

Our heroes (and anti-heroes) are the British royal family. Sorry, these are all characters from an alternate history. So you don’t get to see a teenage Queen Elizabeth kicking Nazi booty. But we do see other historical figures: Churchill, FDR, and Eisenhower, to name a few that I noticed. And a lot of the big WWII milestones are there. As I mentioned, the book has a ‘just-the-hits’ mentality, so we see our nobles fighting at Midway, Stalingrad, and Normandy. It’s kind of like a video-game in that the characters seem narratively obligated to battle in a snow level, a water level, an urban landscape, etc.

The Immortal Emperor!!

But the story does have some nuance as well. The series plays nicely with our basic understanding of 20th century history. It turns out that after this timeline’s French and Russian revolutions (which were just as lethal for super-powered royals as they were for ours), the other monarchies decide to downplay their powers, and to not use them to interfere in the affairs of commoners. But England’s Prince Henry sees the atrocities of the blitz and decides that he can’t stand idly by. So we’re treated to the gratifying scene of a ’superman’ decimating Nazi planes and troops. (Side note: Thank you Authority and Invincible for setting the trope of superhumans punching through the skulls or torsos of mere mortals. It’s pretty gnarly.) Of course, that one moment of patriotic gratification has unpredicted consequences, as monarchs and emperors on the Axis side begin to wade into battle. Things escalate quickly, and you shouldn’t expect Henry’s war to end like WWII ended for us.

Our hero, flying through Nazis

The first issue starts with a ‘flash-forward’ in which we see Henry battling a shadowy Nazi super-soldier. Henry mentions regret for drawing first blood, anger at a mysterious betrayal, and a thirst to avenge his beloved sister. Obviously we’ve seen this flash-forward technique before (I remember American Hustle used it. Breaking Bad used it a few times. Goodfellas and Fight Club as well?). I researched and found out the dramatic term is ‘in medias res.’ So that’s good to know. This scene effectively sets up the mysteries that will run throughout this short series. Who is this German badass? How can Prince Henry beat him? What happened to his sister, and who betrayed them? Williams’ plot plays out all of these mysteries quite nicely.

Related link: Series Condition: Invincible, or that other great long-running series written by Robert Kirkman.

I just read: Grasshopper Jungle

grasshopper_jungle_imageAh, the changes that come upon a man as he enters fatherhood. They are many, varied, and often slightly depressing. One of the more trivial of these is my changed perspective toward books in the Young Adult genre. It’s probably not surprising that I now read these books from the vantage of the father of the young protagonists. If a young character dies, I no longer think: ‘Dangggg, that was uncool!’ I think, “Damn… They had so much life ahead of them, and how horrible it must be for that kid’s family.” With this new, more thoughtful perspective, I was particularly wrenched when I recently read another YA book, ’We Were Liars.’ That ending haunted me. Whereas my callous fourteen-year-old self would have been like: “Wow, that was a gnarly way to end a book! Still, it could have used more boobies.”

I’m sure my fourteen-year-old self would have found parts of Grasshopper Jungle very gnarly indeed. It is steeped—dripping—with adolescent gnarliness. I dare you to find a book that spends more time on sperm, balls, or poop. You won’t be able to do it. This is one YA book that completely immerses you into the persona of it’s sixteen-year old narrator, who is extremely horny, confused, and way into over-sharing. The immersion is so complete, that I never shifted into ‘reading as a parent’ mode. I was right there as a peer for Austin’s wild ride. I also felt like I needed a shower when the ride was done.

Here is the gist of the book:
Austin is an Iowan teenager who thinks he may be bisexual. He’s beginning to realize that he’s in love/lust with his girlfriend and his best friend, Robbie. Austin is struggling to come to grips with his feelings when he and Robbie inadvertently unleash an infestation of mutated, man-sized insects that might bring about the end of the world. Yes, the book goes full-bore into the schlock atomic sci-fi of the 1950s. And I decided to give it a try because I’m a sucker for coming-of-age, apocalyptic books.

Grasshopper Jungle is clearly aiming to go over-the-top. At some points it’s a horror-show comedy. Sometimes, it’s a bawdy parody of American masculinity and the military-industrial complex. (And the agri-industrial complex, if that’s a thing.) Sometimes it’s even a generational tale of Polish immigrants (Austin’s ancestors) striving through tragedy to eke out a happy life for themselves in America. But the book bounces around a lot between all these things. It’s too punk-rock to focus on just one or two defined themes.

Perhaps my biggest complaint of the book is its distinctive voice. Austin is a narrator with OCD, meaning he repeats himself a lot. I get what the author is going for here. Austin considers himself a sort of historian, and reiteration can be a powerful tool for recording history (‘lest we forget’). Also, Austin’s meticulous, snarky repetitions take on a quality like recurring lyrics in a punk-rock song. But all of these semi-lyrical, jokey repetitions might have worked better in a shorter book. Grasshopper Jungle is 390 pages long, and its restatements and re-phrasings make the book a trudge to read in some parts.

Then the end of the book comes all-of-a-sudden, and we have no resolution to Austin’s bizarre love triangle. In fact, there really isn’t much actual romantic conflict in the book either, except for the questions swirling in Austin’s head.

My final analysis is that Grasshopper Jungle is all about bombast and hormones. It created a unique voice, and it makes for an enjoyable read (even if it could have been a bit shorter). Overall, I’m glad I read it, but I’m not sure I would recommend it.