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’.”

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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?