The Martian

the-martian-by-andy-weir-r-1000x1000The Martian, Andy Weir

There are often times in life where I have to explain something to a group, and I’m struggling with how to get started, or to condense a complex topic down to a few power point slides. And as I’m trying to figure out how to do this and playing online, I realize that xkcd has already done this, and so much better than I could ever hope to do.

 

 

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So. Yeah, that’s a fairly good description of this book. This is an excellent piece of science fiction, with a hard emphasis on the science. I first read this book because I heard an interview with the author on a science podcast I listen to, and the author was hilarious and incredibly interesting. Andy Weir even talked about the challenges he faced running simulations of interplanetary travel at different points in the future to make sure the possible orbits he was discussing would happen at the proper times as he wrote in his book, and that the rocket flights would be mathematically correct. That is a nerdiness and attention to accuracy of which I am in awe.

For a hard science book, The Martian is also a very easy and enjoyable read. For those of you who don’t know the background yet, it takes place in 2035, when Martian missions are relatively new but semi-routine. One mission requires an emergency evacuation and astronaut and botanist Mark Watney is accidentally left behind. The rest of the book is dedicated to Mark Watney staying alive, and the crew and NASA trying to save him. (Mark Watney is played by Matt Damon in the movie, leading to a wonderful breakdown of how much money the world has spent rescuing Matt Damon. Roughly US$900 Billion, adjusted for inflation).

The way all of the problems are solved in the book are wonderful. If you like McGyver, or that one scene in Apollo 13, if you’ve ever done Odyssey of the Mind spontaneous problems, you will love this book. The way that NASA realizes that Watney is still alive is one of the best points, in my opinion, but everything about how he keeps himself alive, builds and rebuilds life support systems, was wonderful. And even when things go wrong-and lots of things go wrong-it was interesting and realistic. (If you didn’t read the alt-text on the xkcd cartoon, it states “I have never seen a work of fiction so perfectly capture the out-of-nowhere shock of discovering that you’ve just bricked something important because you didn’t pay enough attention to a loose wire.”) It also made me consider how absolutely amazing it is that we have ever been to space. Everything, absolutely everything, has to go right, or everything immediately goes wrong.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone who enjoys hard science fiction, anyone who enjoys suspenseful novels, and anyone who enjoys a fun beach read. I finished in two days; someone without kids can probably do it in one.  It’s not that the book is perfect, the author admits that in a few places he had to take some liberties with the science in order to make it workable. He just ignored how radioactive being in space is, for instance. But most of it is pretty accurate, and the whole book is a fantastically fun read. If you’ve avoided it so far, definitely grab it now.

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The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Lawrence Stern 

Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

I grew up in a very conservative school district.  How conservative, you might ask?  Well, my husband went to Catholic schools, and he got a more comprehensive sex ed in health class than I did.  Just Google “ACLU” and “Lee County” to read a little about what went on in my county.  However, we also had some fairly educated people and a few decent schools and teachers, and so arguments over what books should be read and what was appropriate for high schoolers abounded.  We had a list of suggested books for my AP English class that were, in reality, required, since we had to write papers on a certain number of them, and that’s how we got to read Toni Morrison.  There was definitely a certain segment of the population that thought that modern books were too offensive and risque and full of sex and violence and shouldn’t be read in schools.  A quick hop over to the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged books and the reasoning will show you this mindset is still alive and well.  What’s most confusing to me about this is that the same people challenging any new book that mentions sex will say that we should stick to the classics, to the literary canon.  Which makes it painfully obvious that these people have never read the classics.

People have been basically the same for the last several thousand years, and past popular culture bears that out. If anything, the classics might be more vulgar than modern literature.  Shakespeare might be beautiful, but his plays are plenty bawdy and it’s all the risque jokes that were popular with the masses.  Canterbury Tales maybe should be banned, since the punchline to the Reeve’s Tale is that (SPOILER ALERT) the students get back at the baker by raping his wife and his daughter.  And as for Tristram Shandy, a book that was controversial and considered overly bawdy at the time it was written, well, one of its asides is a very long extended joke* about a man with a huge dick nose that drives all the ladies wild.  (One lady steals her husband’s trumpet to go demonstrate the man’s instrument at a convent and they could be heard moaning inside for three days at the thought of his nose.)

This is all fine as far as it goes, I just get a little irritated when people pretend that our generation is the degenerate and vulgar one.**  La plus ca change, you know?

Back to a review of Tristram Shandy, though.  My main thought on this book–besides that Tipper Gore would object to it on an album–is that satires are always a bit tricky to read a few hundred years after they’re written.  This is almost definitely the type of book that I should have read with a companion guide or in a class.  It’s obvious throughout that pretty much everything is some sort of joke and has at least two meanings, maybe more, but current events have changed so it’s a bit difficult to understand what all the book is about.  I found myself wondering if I would have liked it a lot more if I’d had more context for it.  I’m sure I didn’t get as much out of it as I could have if I knew more about the time period, but without that knowledge, instead I found it a bit of a slog and difficult to follow.  The dick jokes still hold up, though.

*See what I did there?

**This doesn’t just apply to books, by the way.  I can go on a fine tirade about classic Betty Boop cartoons vs. sexuality on tv today.**

**I’m lots of fun at parties.