Tag Archives: science

Review: The Martian

This was one of those tragic cases of neglecting to read the book before watching the movie, and so I’ve been waiting YEARS to forget enough of the details to pick up Andy Weir’s The Martian– this year, the time finally seemed right.

themartianIn the novel, Mark Watney and 5 other crew members are on a 31-day NASA mission on Mars. When a sudden storm cuts their stay short, Watney is left behind in the evacuation, believed dead. When he regains consciousness, he finds himself in dire circumstances, injured, running out of oxygen, his suit breached, his contact with Earth severed, and the exit spacecraft gone along with all of his colleagues. But Watney isn’t ready to give up. If he can find a way to stretch the crew’s 31 days of supplies for a couple of years and travel to the site of the next Mars mission, maybe he can hitch a ride back home.  And so begins an interplanetary quest for survival.

“The answer is: I don’t know. I suppose I’ll think of something. Or die.”

I hated math and science classes in school. I managed to avoid calculus and chemistry completely in both high school and college so I’m as amazed as the next person that I found a story so rooted in science to be such a good time. I can’t speak at all for the accuracy of the numbers and equations and details in this book, but Weir states in an author’s note that people in the know mostly agree with The Martian‘s accuracy, and I’m inclined to believe that. It turned out to be a slower read than I expected despite the easy-going first person narration and constant threat of death, because I’m not a reader who can skim sentences/passages without comprehending them- I didn’t pull out my calculator to double check Watney’s math, but I did take the time to absorb the information and understand how he was getting from point A to point B. The good news is that The Martian is a science-heavy book written for the layperson, and there’s enough of a narrative behind the technicalities that I can see why this book appeals to science buffs and novices alike.

What worked best for me, essentially, is the puzzle of it. Having already a sense of the basic story line and quickly realizing that the film didn’t capture all the details, what kept my attention in this book was a constant curiosity about how Watney was going to solve each of the problems Mars throws his way. Not enough water? No worries, he’ll make some. Accidentally create a bomb? No worries, he can defuse that. Get stuck in a sandstorm that makes recharging his vital power supply impossible? No worries, he’ll chart his way out just in time. But I would have no idea how to do any of those things, which made his solutions fascinating to discover. Watney’s light tone as a narrator makes this dire situation surprisingly fun, and also prevents the reader from worrying too much about him dying amidst all of these setbacks. Until the final sequence is in motion, The Martian is more a tale of when he’ll escape, not an if. Thus, the method becomes the most interesting element.

Actually, as readable as Watney’s log entries are, the parts of the book that held my attention best were the glimpses of the other characters trying to help Watney, watching him via satellite and worrying about launch deadlines while they have very little communication with him. There isn’t much of a psychological exploration in this book, but most of it comes through in these third-person sections. Here, we can see just how alone Watney is even though it seems all of Earth is following his progress. We see how all of the technology and intelligence available at NASA is limited in its ability to help him and how frustrating that can be. We see leaders and captains making expensive, life-or-death decisions based on how their astronauts may be affected mentally.

” ‘What must it be like?’ he pondered. ‘He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?’ “

But as much as I enjoyed The Martian, it wasn’t quite a perfect read. As one of the laypeople, I appreciated the extent to which the science was painstakingly explained, but it didn’t feel organic to the story. It’s framed as Watney leaving a detailed log so that anyone who might eventually find it will know what happened to him, in case he doesn’t survive. I had some difficulty believing someone with a low level of expertise was going to be the one to find Watney’s log on Mars. Additionally, the simplification goes beyond Watney’s circumstances and personality- we do see other characters and locations in the novel: the rest of Watney’s crew and the high-ups at NASA mainly, and they all have a tendency of speaking to each other in a way that seems redundant to their perspectives, the dialogue obviously aimed toward the reader rather than realistic for the characters.

Even so, these insights into the team working on Earth and in orbit to bring Watney home were largely my favorite parts of the novel, mainly because Watney’s humor didn’t translate as well for me on the page as it originally did in the film.

Image result for the martian filmI remember liking Watney’s personality a lot when I first watched the film (4 or 5 years ago), but it just wasn’t coming across for me in the physical book. (A few people who knew I was reading this suggested the audio, but it’s currently checked out from my library. I’ll still look into that at least to sample it, but wasn’t able to get to it in time to finish reading.) However, after reading the book, I rewatched the film (my second viewing ever), and was less charmed there too. So, perhaps the change was me and not the medium. I found the jokes rather man-ish, repetitive, and often focused on the wonders of duct tape or Watney’s dislike of disco. There’s a bit of a formula to it, every serious moment broken up with an irreverent comment about death, NASA’s safety regulations, or one of his crew members. It didn’t take long for this to feel forced, or at least, predictable. He would’ve gotten along well with my high school science teacher.

“Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.”

But, humor aside, The Martian is still one of my favorite survival stories, both in print and film. I do think it’s worth experiencing both mediums, but if you only go for one I’ll add that the film goes more for emotional impact while the book goes for impressive scientific depth. You may find yourself more interested in the science than you expect!

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I usually don’t go for survival stories, because they seem a bit “if you’ve read one you’ve read them all” to me, but this one is pretty unique. At least, in my experience. Having seen the movie already, I did know the broad strokes of the narrative going in, but I still found myself pleasantly caught up in the minutiae. I’ll definitely be reading Weir’s Artemis at some point because I have a copy, but I’ve seen enough disappointed reviews that I’m not in a hurry to get to it.


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Distance of the Moon

(Are you tired of my Penguin Modern excitement yet? I promise I’ll cool it after this month. But in the meantime…) I read another Penguin Modern! This is the 4th of the 6 I bought first, and I’m going to read the last two before the end of March and then take a little break from them. Maybe. My next 6 are already on their way to my mailbox. But first, I read Italo Calvino’s The Distance of the Moon, a set of short fictional stories involving astrology.

thedistanceofthemoonAbout the book: Qfwfq is a fount of stories, having apparently lived several billion years in our solar system and held on to remarkable memories of his cosmic experiences. Through Qfwfq and our narrator(s), these stories explore Earth in a time when the moon could be touched from its surface (“The Distance of the Moon”), at a time when Earth was not yet fully formed and lacked color (“Without Colours”), in modern times as an ancient family prepares for the sun to burn out (“As Long as the Sun Lasts”), and separate from Earth entirely as the narrator considers the pros and cons of imploding vs. exploding, the fate of all cosmic matter.

Italo Calvino is the sort of writer I could follow anywhere. I have read a few of his short stories before picking up this volume, but I still wasn’t prepared for what I found here. I know embarrassingly little about astrology, and I can’t say for sure whether the italicized paragraphs preceding each of the stories in this book are true scientific facts or not. I can say that this whole collection felt like an accessible lesson in astrology, with things like gravity, life spans of stars, and the big bang transformed into fantastical fiction that I just couldn’t put down once I’d started. I mean, granted, the whole book is less than 60 pages, but even so I usually take breaks between the stories/speeches etc. in these little volumes. This one I read straight through, and the four pieces seemed like stories that should be read together.

It’s difficult to classify exactly what I would say this book is. Certainly some sort of sci-fi/fantasy collection, but readers who don’t usually like sci-fi shouldn’t be afraid to read this book. There were a few times I wanted to call it (well-done) magical realism, and underlying it all there’s incredible romance. The general lesson in love seems to be that we want what we can’t have rather than what’s available, and the romance is more an intriguing side force pushing through the story rather than the main focus. But Calvino’s writing is certainly romantic, by which I also mean that it is generally beautiful and lush and captivating and whimsical. Calvino is doing more than telling stories here, he’s testing the language and wielding it with poetic mastery. Check out a couple of my favorite quotes from the book:

“Seen from the Earth, you looked as if you were hanging there with your head down, but for you, it was the normal position, and the only odd thing was that when you raised your eyes you saw the sea above you, glistening, with the boat and the others upside down, hanging like a bunch of grapes from the vine.”

“He won’t be able to forget even for an instant that everything around him is temporary, temporary but always repeated, a mosaic of protons, electrons, neutrons, that will fragment and come together again indefinitely, a soup that will be stirred until it cools or heats up: in short, this holiday in the most temperate planet in the solar system is completely ruined.”

“For Ggge, light-years seem like flea jumps: she hasn’t realized that space is a glue you get stuck in, just like time.”

It’s hard to pick a favorite selection from this book. “The Distance of the Moon” started a little slow for me, but the Deaf Cousin and the changing orbit of the moon upped the intrigue. “Without Colour” might have been my favorite, though the banter and the look at the solar system through the eyes of some very long lives infinitely amused me in “As Long As the Sun Lasts,” and none of them got me thinking as much about existence and possibility as “Implosion.” They’re all such different stories and yet they certainly belong together, with a connection I didn’t feel between the stories in the last fiction volume I read from the Penguin Modern set, The Missing Girl.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had no idea what to expect from these stories going in, but they absolutely hooked me. I need more Italo Calvino (I started reading his short story collection Difficult Loves a few years ago; I think I should go back and finish it). I need more Penguin Moderns. As much as I love a good, long saga, I’m really appreciating these little sample-size volumes this month. I wanted to expand my reading horizons in 2018, and these glimpses at modern classic authors are really helping me decide which directions I should go with that goal.

What reading surprises have you encountered this month?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Dark Matter

Blake Crouch’s new science fiction thriller Dark Matter has been sitting sadly unread on my shelf for months, and I finally did the right thing and started reading. This was the last official book on my January TBR, so it was an exciting experience both because the story is out-of-this-world fantastic and because I finally feel like I’m back on top of my reading. If I had read this book a month ago, it would have been on my list of favorites for 2016. Instead, it gets to be my first favorite read of 2017, and I hope it’ll also be yours.

darkmatterAbout the book: Jason Dessen had the potential to be a great scientist, but he dedicated his time to his new wife and son instead of continuing his research. Now he’s an undergrad professor with a teenage son in the Chicago suburbs, and though he wonders what his life would have been like if he’d taken another path, he’s happy with where he ended up. Until he’s kidnapped by an eerily familiar man and wakes up in a strange place among strange people who seem to know him already. The city looks like Chicago, but not quite. Streets have different names. Buildings are moved or missing or replaced. His home isn’t his home, and his family is gone. The problem could be a dream, a brain tumor, or, though at first it seems impossible, an open door to alternate realities. Is it possible that some other version of Jason completed his research and bridged the gap between the known universe and the universes of paths not taken? Or is it all inside his head? Has he been a renowned scientist all along, and stumbled upon a discovery that altered his memory?

“At this point, I’m not even sure what to be afraid of–this reality that might actually be true, or the possibility that everything is going to pieces inside my head. I liked it much better when I thought everything was being caused by a brain tumor. That, at least, was an explanation.”

The scenes of this book are vivid, but no matter how grounded the reader is in place detail, the entire book is a mysterious enigma. After the opening scene of “family night,” (which ends with the narrator announcing that it would be the last night the family shares in their home, an excellent move on Crouch’s part) the reader finds him-/herself just as confused about what’s real and how it’s happening as the narrator, with just enough clues to avoid becoming totally lost in the plot. Dark Matter is nonstop action, with plot twists from far left field that keep the reader guessing through every chapter.

“My thoughts fire at the speed of light. Is there even a drug capable of this? Creating hallucinations and pain at this level of horrifying clarity? This is too intense, too real. What if this is actually happening?”

“And if I have lost my mind, what then? What if everything I know is wrong?”

There’s definitely some science to this story. Just enough to clarify the plot, but it’s a complex plot and the science aspects take some concentration. There are some truly mind-boggling statements in Dark Matter. It’s not so technical that readers can’t follow what’s going on without a scientific background, but there are times you may feel like you’re sitting in on a quantum physics class. That said, it’s the most enjoyable science class I’ve ever experienced.

“What if our worldline [perceived reality] is just one of an infinite number of worldlines, some only slightly altered from the life we know, others drastically different? The Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics posits that all possible realities exist. That everything which has a probability of happening is happening. Everything that might have occurred in our past did occur, only in another universe.”

At its core, Dark Matter is a thriller. If you like that genre, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

What really appealed to me, though, was the concept of a fourth dimension, and of the possibility of access to other lives. I love theories like that. Just when I thought I had a handle on the rules of this world, the narrator would take a step sideways into a whole other world and the rules flew out the window. This is a book that plays with time and space, and “what if”s, and the basics of what makes a person be that person. It’s about questions of reality and identity, set into a thrilling chase to regain one’s life before that life no longer exists.

“It occurs to me that if I do survive, I’ll carry a new revelation with me for the rest of my days: we leave this life the same way we enter it–totally alone, bereft.”

What if you could take another path?

“It’s terrifying when you consider that every thought we have, every choice we could possibly make, branches into a new world.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I wish I could give it more. I loved the characters that felt so real. I loved their choices. I loved the premise. I loved the narration. This is not a book for everyone, but don’t let that scare you–I guarantee it will take you by surprise, no matter what your preconceptions of the book might be. Dark Matter is best approached with an open mind, because it goes where no book has gone before.

Further recommendations:

  1. If the never-ending plot twists are what get you going, you must pick up Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, and if you’ve already tried the first book and found it not to your liking (how could such a thing be possible?) pick up the next book anyway because it only gets better from there. This series is a dystopian tale set on Mars and through space, but it’s the compelling characters and gut-wrenching surprises that sealed the deal for me. Pick it up yesterday.
  2. If thrillers are your literary niche, try Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10, which was released at about the same time as Dark Matter. This one follows a woman on a small ship aboard which one of the passengers goes missing–and none of the others will admit she ever existed at all. Fearing danger for the rest of the people on board, the narrator sets out to discover what happened to the missing woman, and risks becoming a killer’s next target.

What’s next: I’ve just finished reading Flight by Sherman Alexie, and will be reviewing that soon. This one’s a book about an orphaned teen of mixed parentage who looks for meaning in his life after a close brush with death that allows him to experience other killers’ perspectives firsthand. Then I’ll be caught up on my reviews, but never fear–I’m on such a great reading streak that I’ve already compiled a full plan for next week. Great things are in store.


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Last Days of Night

Did Thomas Edison actually invent the light bulb? The late 1800s were an incredible time of creation and establishment in America, and Graham Moore’s new historical fiction novel, The Last Days of Night, is a perfect way to explore the big names and excitements of that time.

thelastdaysofnightAbout the book: Many an inventor in the late 1800’s knew the impossible challenges of competing against Thomas Edison and his new system of mass production for ideas and inventions. One such competitor, George Westinghouse, even knew the difficulties of being faced with a one-billion-dollar law suit from Edison, known popularly as “the Wizard of Menlo Park.” The patent war, the electrical current war, the unprecedented shock of such an expensive law suit–all of these factors ruled Westinghouse’s life and business in 1888 as New York–and the rest of the country–slowly lit from top to bottom with new electrical lights. Westinghouse may have generated better ideas, ideas more suited to mass market, and yet Edison held the legal claim on the light bulb. Westinghouse hired Cravath, a young lawyer straight out of Columbia Law, to defend his right to produce his own electric lights. Cravath, though inexperienced, is a crafty lawyer who takes his one case so seriously that he faces public humiliation, bankruptcy, spies, death, expulsion from his law firm, the loss of the woman he loves, and much more, all to win the biggest law suit in American history.

“All stories are love stories.  Paul remembered someone famous saying that. Thomas Edison’s would be no exception. All men get the things they love. The tragedy of some men is not that they are denied, but that they wish they’d loved something else.”

There is something incredible about reading the names of real historical giants in a fictional work and seeing them navigate the world an author has created. Thomas Edison is a name nearly everyone in America has heard, but to me, at least, he has always been a ghostly figure, larger than life and frozen in black and white like the photographs that depict him. In The Last Days of Night, I had the chance to imagine him as a living, breathing person–to understand his motivations, to overhear his conversations, and consider him as a human who, like the rest of us, experiences triumphs but also failures. Edison, Westinghouse, Tesla, and Cravath are all people who’ve made a significant impact on America, and this book allows readers to view them as characters who struggle and strive like the rest of us.

” ‘A man, as a general rule, owes very little to what he is born with. A man is what he makes of himself.’ -Alexander Graham Bell”

In The Last Days of Night, the 3rd person narration follows new lawyer Paul as he becomes more and more immersed in the Edison v. Westinghouse case, and tries to add another client to his list, the charming Agnes Huntington who seems to like the eccentric foreign inventor Nikola Tesla more than Paul. She helps Paul care for the unusual scientist, and to chase him back to Westinghouse’s engineering team to design a light bulb that won’t infringe on Edison’s patent if they lose the case. Edison, however, proves himself resourceful as he sets out to thwart all of Paul’s plans toward progress, and finds no room for morality in his endeavors to win at all costs. Paul begins the novel with very little knowledge of electricity and its workings, allowing the reader to refresh his or her memory of the science behind the light bulb or learn the information for the first time along with Paul. He’s crafty, but he’s fresh out of school and inexperienced, which makes him an ideal guide for the reader who knows little about the birth of electricity and the modern law system, and an amusing one for the reader with a firmer grasp on the history. The wide range of emotions and motivations between the three main scientists in this book give the reader a broad view of this occupation in the 1880’s, and builds an intriguing cast of unique characters each with their own strong ideals.

” ‘Be alone–that is the secret of invention: be alone, that is when ideas are born.’ -Nikola Tesla”

The Last Days of Night contains a little of everything–science, arson, romance, family drama, friendship, legal intrigue, financial intrigue, political intrigue, and, of course, a plethora of history. The short chapters and their piquing titles keep readers turning pages. At the beginning of each chapter the reader also finds a quote from a prominent historical figure that hints at the content within (see the accredited quotes above). Although it’s fictional, this book reads like a a fun history of electrical science for the layperson. It won’t teach you how to build your own circuit or light bulbs, but it informs the reader of controversial origins and incites hours of interest in the simple statement that many people stop at: “Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.” A lot more effort lies behind that single sentence than the words seem to imply.

” ‘This is what science is, Mr. Cravath. This is what discovery is. It’s not a flash of color. It’s not a moment of divine inspiration. It is not the hand of God reaching down to press the pointed finger. It’s work. It’s drudgery. It is trying ten thousand different shapes of bulb. Then trying ten thousand different air fillings. Then, yes, ten thousand different filaments. It is realizing that those are the three components that matter and then trying ten thousand times ten thousand times ten thousand combinations until one of them works.’ [-Thomas Edison]”

The only fault I could find in this book was the pacing that ran a little slowly at times. Historical fiction generally takes me a little longer to read, and I began  The Last Days of Night anticipating that it would take me a little longer than my last book, and that it would probably be dense. Fortunately, it did not seem dense at all, and much of the story was thrilling enough to read quickly and easily. I would not, however, call this book a thriller, and there were a few instances where the action and intrigue lagged a bit. The tension, however, is constantly growing, and keeps the reader pressing onward to discover how the plot threads will come together at the story’s end.

“Stories reach conclusions, and then they go away. Such is their desperately needed magic.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. For some reason, I find this time period fascinating to read about. America has been its own country for over a hundred years by the last couple decades of the 1800s, but it feels like the time when the modern nation was established; ways of life were still distinctly different from our current habits, but not so dissimilar and strange that it’s impossible to picture what it would have been like to live there. I’m only mildly interested in science, and even less interested in law, but this book kept me engaged with the story from start to finish. I was surprised at how thoroughly I enjoyed learning more about Edison and Tesla, and even men I’d never heard of, like Westinghouse and Cravath. It didn’t impress me quite as much as other books I’ve read from this time period, but some of the reveals toward the end of the story would make an eventual reread interesting, and I’m glad I finally picked it up for this first read. Anyone interested in American history–even just a little–should read this book.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you’ve read and enjoyed The Last Days of Night and are interested in learning more about this time period, pick up The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. This one’s a nonfiction book that reads like fiction and focuses on the construction of the World’s Fair exhibition on Chicago in 1893. The narration alternates between the architect of “the White City” and a serial killer who takes advantage of  Chicago’s anonymity and its influx of travelers who’ve been reeled in by the World’s Fair.
  2. If you’ve read and enjoyed The Last Days of Night but want something even more fictionalized from this time period, try Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry. This one is also set in New York in the early 1890’s, but its purpose is aimed toward lending a sense of the city’s character and the oddities of the time. The novel features an experienced member of a Coney Island side show, an impoverished street cleaner who finds an abandoned baby, a patient who’s been forced into an insane asylum that no one ever leaves, and a whole lot more. It’s a wild ride through the darker sides of the city. You can find my complete review of this book here.

What’s next: I’m currently reading Attachments by Rainbow Rowell. This one’s also a bit historical, though it’s only set as far back as 1999, but that year is perfect for the e-mail monitoring man who’s a little lost in his own life and a little caught up in reading about his beautiful coworker’s. This is a romance novel, my first Rowell read, and so far it’s been a fun experience. My full review for this book will be posted shortly.


The Literary Elephant