Review: The Martian

 

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My advice for books that have a really strong voice (either character, like this one, or narrative/author, like anything by Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett), check out the audiobook at least once. It cranks the personality of the story up to eleven. 

I just finished listening to and subsequently restarting The Martian. Audiobook, of course, and I highly recommend it.

 

 

When I first heard about the movie version of The Martian I figured it would be fairly similar to Apollo 13, one of my favorite movies growing up. (I was raised by computer engineer sci fi nerds, what can I say.) Nothing I heard past that point really convinced me that this movie would be a comedy. Then I got my hands on the novel, and oh my god. I have never misjudged a book by its cover so much in my life.

In short, it was hilarious. What I was expecting, and tbh what the movie provided a lot more than the book did, was your basic scramble-rescue mission story. What made the book wonderful was that it was really more the story of one man surviving, using humor to cope with the facts that he’s most likely fucked, Murphy’s Law is a thing, and he’s the only person on the planet.

Some (non-spoiler) examples:

  • “Maybe I’ll post a consumer review. ‘Brought product to surface of Mars. It stopped working. 0/10.’”
  • “Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.”
  • “I guess you could call it a ‘failure,’ but I prefer the term ‘learning experience.’”
  • “I started the day with some nothin’ tea. Nothin’ tea is easy to make. First, get some hot water, then add nothin’.”

Continue reading “Review: The Martian”

Wednesday Words of Wisdom #8 —Gravity

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My reading habits generally alternate between sci-fi and fantasy, with some other things scattered in their occasionally. Right now I’m swinging back to fantasy as I re-listen to Sunshine by Robin McKinley for probably the billionth time. But last week I was on sci-fi, and I started listening to Enders Game with the vague sense that I’d heard the punchline that comes at the end. Turns out I had, and it probably has something to do with the movie version coming out in 2013 even though I haven’t seen it yet.

So I had a kind of weird “omnipotent newcomer” experience with the book that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before. Say what you will about spoilers, but it was a cool experience.

One of the things that struck me the most while listening to this story was the exploration of directional instructions and personal orientation. Some of the coolest scenes were set in the Battle Room, in null gravity.

“From now on, you forget about gravity before you go through the door. The old gravity is gone, erased. Understand me? Whatever your gravity is when you get to the door, remember — the enemy’s gate is down. Your feet are toward the enemy’s gate. Up is toward your own gate. North is that way, south is that way, east is that way, west is — what way? They pointed.”

~ Orson Scott Card

What I love about science fiction is that it bends your mind into a pretzel thinking about something you’ve never really thought about before in a totally new way. Earth is not the center of the universe. Gravity is a matter of perspective, otherwise people would keep falling off Australia into space. This novel calls for both the characters and the reader to reorient their understanding of directions based to their own context rather than on a planet’s gravitational pull.

Every genre has its own way of calling for this reorientation, this suspension of disbelief, though some are more dramatic than others. Sci-fi, fantasy, magical realism — these are a few of my favorite things.

Pet Peeve: “Humanity” in Fantasy and Sci-Fi

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 7.28.04 PMOne thing that becomes clearer and clearer to me as time passes is that my parents are huge nerds and raised me to watch a lot of very nerdy things, including all the original Star Trek movies. I have seen Star Trek The Motion Picture more times than it deserves because it is, simply put, not good. (My favorite was The Journey Home — neither the best nor the worst, but I liked the whales.)

This is only relevant because bits of these movies sometimes filter back into my everyday life. The quote pictured here is from The Undiscovered Country, when the Americans and Russians… Ahem, I mean the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire try to get together and negotiate an end to the Cold War… Sorry, the whatever the heck it was they called it while the no-mans-space Neutral Zone was still a thing. During an awkward as fuck diplomatic dinner where the crew of the Enterprise visibly judges the Klingon delegates for not knowing how silverware works, there’s one point where Chekov hesitantly attempts to extend an olive branch and the daughter of the Klingon ambassador calls bullshit.

CHEKOV: We do believe all planets have a sovereign claim to inalienable human rights.

AZETBUR: Inalien… If only you could hear yourselves? ‘Human rights.’ Why the very name is racist. The Federation is no more than a ‘homo sapiens’ only club.

The reason I’m writing about this… let’s call it human-normative prejudice is because I’ve caught that human-normativity in other works of sci-fi and even fantasy.

In The Sword of Shannara, when Flick Ohmsford is sneaking around in an enemy camp of gnomes and trolls, at one point I recall a line that went something like, “It was so quiet, without the sound of any human voice.” Well of course there aren’t. Why would there be? He and Allanon the only human for miles!

That book was written in 1978. The Undiscovered Country was released in 1991. I guess in the gap between those, both the sci-fi and fantasy camps began to think a little harder about anthropomorphization — defined by Wikipedia as “attribution of human traits, emotions, and intentions to non-human entities and is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.” Because, yeah, we all do it. But as authors and creators, we should be thinking beyond those knee-jerk attributions. At the very least, we need to acknowledge that words and phrases like “humanity” and “human rights,” in a story where other sentient beings are known to exist, is the interspecies version of white-washing.

Then again, what does humanity even mean? An anthropologist might argue that “human” is not the same as Homo sapiens. They might be right, technically, but in layman terms I don’t think that applies. “Humanity” and “what it means to be human” very much bear our stamp of ownership because “human” is what we call ourselves.

What do you think? What examples of human-normativity have you seen?

Author’s Voice, Editor’s Voice

I have always struggled with voice. In high school, the struggle went like this:

  • Reading Grapes of Wrath? Everything I write that week sounds like Grapes of Wrath.
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     A visual distillation of how I felt while reading The Grapes of Wrath. (Source.)
  • Reading The Great Gatsby? Everything I write that week sounds like The Great Gatsby. And includes a mint julep.
  • Reading Crime & Punishment? I don’t write at all those two weeks because Russian Lit just kills me.
  • Reading Stephen King in my free time? I learned how to spell harbinger real well. Real well indeed.

Then, in college, the struggle became:

  • I am pretty good at writing fanfiction in the Douglas Adams voice.
  • That’s pretty much it.
  • Everything I write contains the phrases “almost, but not quite ___” or “almost, but not entirely unlike ___.”

My problem is that I’ve learned how to write by sponging up whatever I happen to be reading at the time, and the result is I am still a bit uncertain of my own voice. What I do know is that it tends to be very direct, often rather snarky, and consecutive sentences never start or end with the same word because that drives me up the wall.

Some of this I’ve learned from how I edit other people’s work. I am the nitpicker who will go through the page and circle every instance of a repeated word in a paragraph or page, and note the total count in the margin just in case I hadn’t already made my point. I am the nitpicker who will not only notice that every sentence has the same length and structure, but (a) point it out, (b) state whether or not it seems like you did it on purpose, and (c) start scribbling in examples of how you might rearrange them.

I’ve never been quite sure how anyone feels about my writing critiques, but personally I can’t stand getting critiques back with no notes throughout and a bunch of vague comments at the end. If you didn’t think something worked I want you to show me where during the text you had that thought, and I try to do that when I edit.

My voice as an editor has helped inform me a bit more about my voice as a writer, although I have to take this with a grain of salt. If I listen to my editor-voice too much I get distracted by rewriting things I haven’t even finished writing in the first place. Similarly, I can queue up audiobooks to listen to in the car but have to keep a wary eye out for signs that the book of the week is taking over.

It helps when I pick the audiobooks to suit what I’m writing, rather than the other way around.

And heaven help me if I’m typing up something I’ve written longhand, because unlike the self-restraint described in this post over at The Caffeinated Writer I can’t help trying to fix it as I go! Approximately halfway through whatever I still have written down has somehow become completely irrelevant and I no longer have a complete draft. 

Monday Musings #10 — What just happened?

So… April is over? Apparently? Even though I was doing the April A to Z challenge and hyper aware of where was (or was supposed to be) in the alphabet at most times, the end of the month still managed to sneak up on me.

What did I even do this month?

I listened to four audiobooks:

  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, which I’d read before but a while ago. I really like the patchwork feel to it, consistent with how London itself is sort of a patchwork of small towns that the city expanded to and assimilated as it grew.
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. I’d seen and been confused by the movie from a fairly young age, so I found this book both fascinating and a revelation.
  • Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, which… I liked the spiritual aspects of, but I sort of still have lingering “sigh, heterosexual women” feelings. And I didn’t particularly appreciate her disapproval of anti-depressants. Sure she took them, and benefited from them, but she kept broadcasting this “I don’t want to be on these forever” feeling and made a point of explaining that she got off them asap. I don’t know, it just rubbed me the wrong way. At the same time, I really appreciated her handling of the fact that not all women want to have children, and not all those that do have them responsibly.
  • And The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman. I am still digesting how I feel about this book. It didn’t have the amount of Quentin fucking up as I’d grown used to.

I went to Indianapolis on my first business trip.

I got my first sunburn of the year, at a really awesome cider festival.

Counting my Sunday Gratitudes, I wrote a post for ever day of the month. They didn’t get posted one per day, exactly, but who’s counting.

All in all, I have gotten a lot done this month. I feel okay about that. Now on to May, and turning twenty-eight…

A to Z Challenge #5 — Earth

MAN: [Blood-curdling scream]

ZAPHOD: The universe does that to a guy?

GARGRAVARR: The whole infinite Universe. The Infinite sums. The Infinite distances between them, and yourself. An invisible dot on an invisible dot. Infinitely small.

~ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, radio series, Fit the Eighth, by Douglas Adams

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The Total Perspective Vortex was invented (fictionally of course) in response to the phrase “Have a sense of proportion.” I’ve noticed a similar concept mentioned in some of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books — that people have, amazingly, the ability to be bored, and completely ignore the infinite stream of stimuli that is constantly available to their senses, including the certain knowledge that there is far more out there than any individual could hope to process. Continue reading “A to Z Challenge #5 — Earth”

A to Z Challenge #4 — Dragons

stick dragonThis was a silly little one panel comic I did on scrap paper (as you can sort of see) in college. I’ve lost the original, thus the poor quality of the image. If I knew where it was now I would scan it with my phone and it would look a lot cleaner. (CamScanner app for the win.)

Anyway, I’m not so great an artist that I could draw a dragon, but I wanted to. As stick figures go, he’s pretty cute.

I love dragons and fantasy. When my younger brother and I were kids, my parents would read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy to us at bedtime. My favorite Disney princess story was Sleeping Beauty, and in retrospect I think it was because Maleficent’s dragon form was really cool. I grew up with my nose in books like The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede and the Song of the Lioness books by Tamora Pierce. I didn’t read exclusively fantasy, but it was usually either that or sci fi, or both. 

As an adult, one of my favorite author finds that came out of my random audiobook adventures were the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik and everything I’ve read so far by Robin McKinley. The first was a random find, and after reading through all that was published at the time I put out a call to my online friends for an recommended books that included dragons. One of the resulting book recs was The Hero & The Crown, which I cannot recommend highly enough. (McKinley’s vampires in Sunshine are, similarly, just fascinating.)

I guess what I’m trying to say is that dragons are cool. And also, does anyone have any good dragon books they’d like to recommend?

A to Z Challenge #1 — Audiobooks

I discovered audiobooks about a year after I graduated from college. At the time I had an intense full time job — six days a week, mostly nine to five, on my feet in a kitchen. By the time I battled my way home through rush hour traffic, it was time to eat dinner, shower, and fall asleep. I don’t remember exactly when or why the idea occurred to me, but I found myself at the nearest library one Sunday, browsing the audiobook shelf. After all, I had a radio adaptor in my car that could plug into my iPod, and I was getting tired of both my music collection and all of the local radio stations.

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This has been a good friend to me.

The first audiobook I selected was decent, but I liked it for the voice of Simon Jones more than for the actual story. I’m a nervous driver and my stress level goes up when I’m surrounded by other cars in that gray area between traffic jam and actually going the speed limit — but my stress level in rush hour traffic went down if I had a book to listen to. It was soothing. Plus, even when not driving I usually can’t read in the car without getting queasy. Not a problem anymore as long as I bring my headphones along on road trips, or if the people I’m riding with are game. (That’s how I got my mom into the Hunger Games series.) Continue reading “A to Z Challenge #1 — Audiobooks”