Posts Tagged ‘Mars’

The Martian, by Andy Weir(The Martian, by Andy Weir. Crown, 2014, 369 pp., $24.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Andy Weir’s first novel is a smash hit, and is now being filmed–deservedly so. It has the simplest plot imaginable: the struggle for survival in a uniquely hostile environment, while repeatedly putting the central character through sheer hell in pursuit of that goal. But the plot works well, given that the novel’s interest lies in the central character and in the means he uses to survive.

The Martian has three major strengths. One is the narrative voice of the primary character, Matt Watley, a mechanical engineer/botanist astronaut stranded alone on the surface of Mars. Watley comes across as humorous, non-self-pitying, and resourceful–a likable character it’s easy to root for. A second strength is the description and explanation of the many ingenious technical means Watley uses to survive. To say that Weir did his homework here would be understatement. A third strength is Weir’s writing. It’s lively and concise, and that’s due, at least in part, to Weir’s use of active voice throughout, and his avoidance of flowery prose. He didn’t write a single sentence in passive voice (at least that I noticed), he uses adjectives very sparingly, and he might not have used a single adverb in the entire book–again, I didn’t notice any. And the alternation of first-person narrative by Watley and third-person narrative in the sections concerning the NASA hierarchy and the spacecraft (Hermes) crew that inadvertently abandoned him provides welcome contrast.

The weaknesses in the book are minor: several of the recurring NASA characters are little more than names attached to functions, and it’s not always clear what those functions are. Early in the book, Watley mentions those characters’ jobs when he introduces them, but it’s all too easy to forget what their jobs are. (In contrast, the characters populating the Hermes are well sketched out.) Only two NASA characters are easy to recall. One plays against type, Annie Montrose, NASA’s incredibly foul mouthed (in private) spokeswoman. Another more minor character, Richard Purnell, plays to type as a brilliant nerd who’s painfully socially awkward. Some of the sections featuring these two characters are quite funny, as are many of the sections narrated by Watley.

In sum, The Martian is the best hard sci-fi novel in ages. I can’t wait to see what Weir will do for an encore. Highly recommended.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel.

Free Radicals front cover


War Dogs, by Greg Bear(War Dogs, by Greg Bear. New York: Orbit, 2014, 291 pp.,  $25.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon


War Dogs  is the first book in Greg Bear’s brand new military sci-fi series. It’s a mixed bag. On the positive side, the military action is very well described. And there’s a lot of it. Bear also does a fine job of describing the sheer misery of a soldier’s life, and the terror, callousness, boredom, and resignation it entails.

On the negative side, the writing style is hard to take; it’s seemingly the mutant literary offspring of an unholy union of Ernest Hemingway and Mike Hammer.

Sentences are short.  Sentence fragments. Very simple vocabulary. Dropped pronouns. All over the place.  Cringe-inducing jargon:  “sparkly” (weapons fire in space); “Skyrines” (Marines in space); “the Red” (rather than Mars). This quickly becomes monotonous.  Tedious.

I’m exaggerating, but only slightly.  Here’s a paragraph from pages 15/16:

“‘Nothing here worth staying for,’ Kazak agrees. ‘Terrible place for a fight–no high ground, almost no terrain. Where are we, fucking Hellas? Why drop us in the middle of nothing?”

But one can become inured to almost anything, even this writing style. A few dozen pages in, it fades into the background, and one can focus on the confusing tale.

And it is confusing. It leaves questions galore unanswered, starting with the initial premise: A small number of emissaries from an advanced civilization (“Gurus”) arrive on Earth and begin handing out scientific and technological goodies, with the provisos that they be shared among nations, and that (yes) humans stop saying “fuck” on Earth and use euphemisms instead–and they do it!  Once Earth is hooked on those goodies, the Gurus reveal that they need Earth to supply combat troops to fight a proxy war against their enemies (“Antags”)–on Mars! But why there? Why would the Antags invade dry, desolate Mars rather than Earth? This is one of the many unanswered questions War Dogs raises.

Others include, why would advanced civilizations capable of interstellar travel–in a galaxy teeming with habitable planets (as the Kepler observatory-satellite revealed)–even bother with Earth or Mars? Why would the combat be between humans and Antags rather than, at least primarily, machines? (Bear has one of his characters ask this in the text, so he’ll probably answer it eventually.) What are the strategic objectives of both the humans and Antags beyond simply killing each other? There’s no answer to this one either, not even on the macro scale.  As a result, the combat scenes and situations Bear describes take place in a strategic vacuum, leaving the reader perpetually floating untethered in space. And finally, why wouldn’t the Antags just slam Earth with a comet or asteroid to take it out of the war? (Bear describes–very well–a comet strike on Mars.)

Presumably Bear will answer at least most of these questions in the following books. (The only major question he answers arises in the latter part of War Dogs, and mentioning it would constitute a major spoiler, so I won’t.) But even for a series opener that’s supposed to be open ended, War Dogs is unsatisfying.

Recommended only for hardcore Bear fans.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia.

Free Radicals front cover



Old Mars cover

(Old Mars, George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, eds. Bantam, 2013, 486 pp., $28.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

The number of science fiction short story collections has exploded in recent years. Formerly, there were a relatively few “year’s best” collections of stories that had already been published in science fiction magazines. But roughly two decades ago that began to change. “Themed” sci-fi short story collections began to appear in large numbers: detective/noir; alien sex; time travel; alternate history (alternate presidents, alternate Kennedys); alternate futures (including one collection with advanced technologies, but no Internet); “positive” sci-fi; and the list goes on. Another change is that the stories in many of these collections had not already been published, and were written specifically for these anthologies.

This is somewhat unfortunate, because formerly (as in the “year’s best” collections) the stories had jumped two selection hurdles, the first to make it into magazines, the second to make it into an anthology. As well, the editors choosing the stories for “year’s best” anthologies had a plethora of material to choose from.

In themed collections, the situation is different. The stories in them, when written specifically for the anthologies, only have one selection hurdle to jump, and the editors often have to actively solicit contributions. So, at least occasionally, quality suffers. But this is much less of a problem with themed anthologies such as Old Mars, which has well established, well respected editors, and features stories by established writers.

Old Mars, as the title and cover suggest, is a collection of stories set in the romantic worlds portrayed by writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, and (in the sense that the anthology deals with “lost worlds”), H. Rider Haggard. Thus the Mars depicted in Old Mars has canals, a breathable atmosphere, humanoid Martians, terrifying beasts, cities fallen to ruin, booby-trapped royal tombs, and swashbluckling heroes–with, as additional backdrop, an ocean- and swamp-covered Venus populated by telepathic Venusians.

The most well known authors represented in Old Mars are Allen Steele and Mike Resnick. And this anthology seems an ideal vehicle for Resnick, who has written an impressive number of  sly, tongue-in-cheek tall tales, such as the “Santiago” and “Inner Frontier” stories. He doesn’t disappoint here.

Even though it’s well done, Old Mars is not for all sci-fi fans. If your interests lie in space opera, hard sci-fi, social sci-fi, cyberpunk, steampunk, or military sci-fi, you probably won’t like Old Mars. But if you’re a fan of Burroughs, Bradbury, or pulp or “golden age” sci-fi, you probably will.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia.

Free Radicals front cover

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