Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Martian: Post-Movie Symposium You Will Want to Watch

Video Recommendation: Adam Savage, Astronaut Chris Hadfield, and Andy Weir Talk 'The Martian'

I reviewed the book, The Martian, and I reviewed the movie, The Martian, and I liked them both. Adam Savage of Discovery Channel's MythBusters is a huge fan of both and after viewing the movie he invited author Andy Weir and Astronaut Chris Hadfield for a public symposium, which has now been posted on YouTube.

If you liked either or both, you will enjoy this discussion of the movie, the public response, some of the inside story of book and movie, how Weir's life has been affected by response to the book and movie's success, and from Commander Hadfield, his perspective on the science of the story and space travel, today and in the future.

Around the time I became enthralled with the story, someone suggested calling anyone who visited Mars a Martian. And I thought that was preposterous. A Martian, I thought, should be someone who was born there or who lived there permanently. But Commander Hadfield has a great explanation of why it makes perfect sense from a psychological perspective that someone who visits Mars would become a Martian.

This video is full of very interesting perspectives. Certainly from Hadfield as an astronaut, sharing stories of his experiences as an astronaut in training and in space. And from Weir in writing the story and getting it published, as well as his amazing experiences since the book became a phenomenon. And from Adam Savage, who is no slouch in science and a collector of science fiction memorabilia.

This video lasts just short of an hour, but it's well worth the time to sit back and enjoy a conversation between three well-informed space enthusiasts. Especially if you love science or science fiction.


Thursday, October 15, 2015

Red Shirts: Light-Hearted Poke at Sci-Fi and a Fun Read

Book Review: Red Shirts by John Scalzi

Imagine, if you will, a universe in which fictional characters brought to life on the television screen live real lives some time in the future, and their real lives are affected by the plot lines of the fiction written in the television series. That's a rough paraphrase of the theme behind Red Shirts (2012), a science fiction novel posited by screen writer John Scalzi, based on the Star Trek universe.

In the Star Trek universe, characters who wear red shirts (uniforms) are usually the expendable characters, usually are the first ones to be seriously injured or killed. And so it is in this story. In fact, this is element is key to the story.

Only, the main characters in this story don't inhabit the Star Trek universe per se, they inhabit a ripoff universe of Star Trek that was never as well developed nor as well written as Star Trek, just adopted liberally from its basic premise.

In their real life universe, the main characters serve aboard Intrepid, the flag ship of their version of the Federation (not called the Federation, of course), and Intrepid has an unusually high incidence of deaths. Furthermore, the deaths occur not among all levels of service but of the lowest ranking service members - the red shirts. The mid-level service members get injured a lot but survive, often treated by miracle cures and are ready to serve in the next away mission in amazingly short times. And this comes to the attention of new red shirts who arrive to replace the dead crew members.

I won't get into all the details because that would involve spoilers. But the new red shirts do their due diligence and do their best to solve this great mystery. And John Scalzi explores both the concept and its solution in  brilliant and amusing ways.

Part of the fun of reading Red Shirts is being in on the inside joke of the demise of red shirts as a long time fan of Star Trek. That has always been a curious tick of the show, the tendency of those wearing a red shirt to not survive the episode. So reading the story is like playing out the fantasy of taking this idea to its fullest extent.

Scalzi is a great and imaginative writer. His characters have fulsome dimensions and the dialogue is real and sensible. His narrative and pacing is impeccable. That all comes from his experience as a screenwriter for Stargate: Universe.

As much as I enjoyed the whole read, my favorite bit comes at the very end of the story (before what amounts to the epilogue), the end of Chapter 23 and the entirety of Chapter 24 (before Coda I, Coda II, and Coda III). It's a fun tongue-in-cheek, pulling-your-leg wink after a long, fun read:
And that's just what he did, until the day six months later when a system failure caused the Intrepid to plow into a small asteroid, vaporizing the ship and killing everyone on board instantly. 
No, no, I'm just fucking with you. They all lived happily ever after. Seriously.
Seriously, if you're into science fiction and Star Trek, give this book a read. It's an entertaining, light-hearted take on the genre and an fascinating exploration of the idea of red shirts and their role in the series.

(By the way, I don't consider the quoted material a spoiler, because it doesn't spoil the ending of the story or its outcome in any way. It's just a great example of Scalzi's writing style and the fun of the book.)


Friday, October 09, 2015

The Vega Adventures: A Reading That Will Raise Your Spirits


Vega is a large, weighty sailing vessel with an undersized motor. It’s 125 years old, specially built by Norwegian craftsmen to haul bulky loads like cement across the North Sea. But in 2004 Shane and Meggi Granger took her on a different kind of mission that has become what Shane calls in his amazing new novel, The Vega Adventures.


The story briefly takes you through Vega’s amazing history – why she was built and by whom, how she evolved, and how she lived out her latter work years eventually dragging for glacial stones off the North Sea floor before being bought and then abandoned by a forlorn seafarer.

Then the Grangers restored Vega and took her on their own amazing sea adventure across the Indian Ocean, which begins the book with a life-and-death struggle in a horrific hurricane. They lose the rudder and all control, only just managing to survive as they finally make safe harbor in the Seychelles, where they make repairs and then set off again, destination Malaysia.

Finally basking in warm sunny Malaysia, the Grangers are enjoying some time on land and figuring out how to refit Vega's interior accommodations, when the infamous tsunami of December 26, 2004, hits, generated by a 9.3 earthquake off the shores of Sumatra. The first hints come as swirling currents, but then the waves arrive lifting boats and docks out to sea and sending everyone into a panic. But what they and their boating neighbors go through is nothing compared to what others in more remote places have suffered, the death toll reaching into the hundreds of thousands. That story leads to the Grangers’ real adventure.

Their sailing vessel perfect for hauling large volumes, the Grangers agree to take 22 tons of badly needed food and medical supplies to the victims of the tsunami. When they see the horrific damage and helpless victims among the island nations where they deliver supplies, it creates a new vision for their lives. The Grangers refit Vega not just for leisure sailing of the high seas, but they begin using it to bring the basic necessities of life to the most remote villages in the Indian Ocean, people shut off from the world who have no access to doctors or medicine, schools or school supplies, even farm implements or seeds. Their mission in life will be to use Vega to bring life to the islands.

The Vega Adventures is the true life story of a couple and their small crew facing the dangers of life on the sea making year-long voyages to raise medical supplies, midwife kits, education packages, soccer (football) balls, backpacks full of school supplies, sewing kits, farm implements, vegetable seeds, and more, and then deliver them to tiny isolated villages on remote islands. Interspersed in the lively narrative are interesting side tales about sailing and sailing experiences, individuals on the islands and their experiences, and the sights, sounds, smells, and feels the Grangers experienced during their voyages.

Shane Granger is the author and his easy-going, humorous narrative style brings the story to life. I’ll warn you that the publisher did no proofreading, so occasional errors may jump out at you, but I promise you that the story is worth the read. And Shane tells me he is looking at another publishing run with corrections.

I’m used to reading the age-of-sail Napoleon-era war-at-sea novels like the Thomas Kydd series by Julian Stockwin, and Shane Granger gives every bit of accurate detail in this story that Stockwin provides in his novels. What’s different here is that the war is between humans and nature, and there’s more about peace and the beneficence of the human spirit than of war itself. The reading will raise your spirits.

The other thing I love about Granger’s The Vega Adventures is the short chapters, which breaks the story into nice little sets. That makes it a breezy read, helped along by Granger's friendly, jaunty tone. And it also makes it easier to keep your place in the book! Enjoy.

Correction: Shane Granger tells me, "I should mention we work in Indonesia with the small islands there and not the Indian Ocean. Small detail."

(The Vega Adventures also available at Barnes and Noble, Alibris.com, and Powell's Books. )

(c) 2015. Alan Eggleston. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

The Martian (Movie): Great Sci-Fi Consumed in the Right Order

Movie Review: The Martian directed by Ridley Scott

The reason I loved the book The Martian was because it was great science fiction.

There are, of course, different kinds of science fiction. There's fantasy (e.g., Lord of the Rings), and there's what I call monster fiction (e.g., Alien), there's speculative fiction (e.g., 2012), and then there's hard core science fiction, where actual science forms the core of the plot. The Martian is a perfect example of the latter.

The book carried it off with perfection, but the movie had a difficult time carrying it off and fitting everything within almost two and a half hours of cinema. Perhaps that was its greatest weakness, trying to do so much with what amounts to so little time.

No mistake, there is science in the film. But some of it gets lost, like the radiation core that is key to warming the rover and saving energy as Watney drives it the thousands of kilometers to Schiaparelli Crater in the hope of being rescued. Watney digs it up and then you see it sitting in the rover, and at one point Watney alludes to how cold the rover is when he's saving energy, but the film never connects the dots to presence of the core.

Through the two and a half hours of the movie, while the time seemed to zoom by, the plot seemed to plod along. I think the problem is that I read the book first.

Because the book covers so many disasters and Watney's science-based fixes, and writer Andy Weir does it with such efficiency, the pace of the story breezes along. The story is suspenseful and fascinating. There is more of Watney's humor present in the book, as well. But the movie spends more time alternating between Watney's time on Mars, NASA's deliberations and preparations on Earth, and the Hermes crew time. All that slows the pace of the story in the film.

If you haven't read the book, I highly recommend you wait to read the book until after you have seen the film.

Thinking about The Martian as a movie, it is highly entertaining. The story holds up and you are treated to some science as aspects of the story line. If you haven't already read the book, you won't know what you're missing and you can enjoy the movie much better. The cast is wonderful and Matt Damon is perfect as Watney - when I found out some time into reading the book that Damon was being cast as Watney, it was apparent from reading Watney's lines that Damon.s sense of humor fits the character.

If you haven't seen The Martian in theaters yet, go see it. Then read the book. They're great science fiction best consumed in that order.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Road Not Taken: Interesting Idea but a Tough Read

Book Review: The Road Not Taken by David Orr

This is a new exploration of the well known and beloved poem by Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken. Its subtitle well explains the new road this book takes: "Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong."

To explain his topic, Orr breaks the book down into four chapters: The Poet, The Poem, The Choice, and The Chooser. Then there's an epilogue: The Crossroads.

Orr's thesis is really about the road that Frost took in presenting the poem to the world and the road the world took in understanding the poem. But what the world doesn't understand is, what we all thought we understood about the poem may be all wrong.

SPOILER: If you don't want to know what we get wrong, skip this paragraph and go onto the next. What Orr learned from correspondence between Frost and a critic-become-friend is that the poem The Road Not Taken wasn't meant to be about choices not taken or making bold choices. Frost originally wrote the poem as a joke for this friend who was always lamenting during nature walks that he wondered what they had missed by not going by a different path. Later on, Frost positioned the poem differently.

That said, reading all this was a long, hard slog for me. The book does a good job of presenting Orr's case, but it is written in the tone of poetic critique. It was like taking a poetry course in school. I'm not sure what exactly I was expecting or hoping for in the book, but I didn't find it in Orr's The Road Not Taken, as interesting as his basic idea is.

If you're looking for a good poetry read, I'm not sure this book is for you. But if you're looking for an interesting take on one of America's most beloved poems, and a different perspective on one of America's most admired poets, then Orr's The Road Not Taken may just be your book.