A book review: The Martian, by Andy Weir

12 07 2015


Mark Watney is the mechanical engineer aboard the Ares 3 mission, one of six mission specialists on a sixty-day stay on the Martian surface. But on day six, disaster strikes, as a dust storm that exceeds their habitat’s design specifications hits unexpectedly, knocking out comms to Earth and threatening to destroy their ride home. The mission commander, Lewis, decides they must abort the mission while they can still leave the planet, but on the walk from the hab to the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle), Watney is struck by a large piece of windblown debris, his suit breached, his body visibly bleeding profusely, and he tumbles down a slope. His lifesigns quickly fade to black. With only a couple of minutes at most before the MAV topples irretrievably, there is no time to retrieve Watney’s body: Lewis, mindful for the safety of the remaining crew members, insists that the mission abort must proceed. The MAV launches, with only five of the six crew aboard; it makes orbit, then achieves rendezvous with the booster Hermes, and begins the long 200-day crawl back to Earth.

But Mark Watney is not dead. His lost blood, freezing, has sealed his damaged suit, which has automatically recharged his air supply from its emergency reservoir before sounding its internal alarm to revive him to eventual consciousness. He’s stranded on Mars, utterly alone, with no means of communication, with only enough food supplies for a year, and with absolutely no prospect of rescue within that time, but he’s not dead. Yet.

The Martian is Andy Weir’s debut novel, self-published in 2011 before a ‘big publisher’ re-release in 2014. It’s received favourable and well-judged comparisons to Robinson Crusoe and to Gravity, and it’s slated to get a cinematic treatment of its own, with the news that Ridley Scott is to direct a film adaptation of the book. (Spoiler alert: aficionados of the chestbursting sequence from Alien are likely to be disappointed, unless the movie is excessively unfaithful to the original; but those who appreciate a tight, wry, and repeatedly desperate struggle against the constraints of isolation, calorific finality, and sheer environmental brutality should find much to their liking.)

Weir’s never been to Mars (so far as I know), but he writes with such an easy familiarity of the Salmon-Coloured Planet, of the mechanics and thermodynamics of getting there and back, and of the politics and personalities of mission oversight, that it’s quite tempting to be fooled into believing he just might have. Scientific rigour is one of the book’s virtues (although it must be conceded that there are a few lapses — I think Weir’s excursions into in-habitat combustion chemistry are, in one or two places, audacious to say the very least). The characterisation of Mark Watney, the chief protagonist, is another virtue — it is to Watney’s credit that he treats every setback, and there are many, with self-deprecation, grim determination, and potty-mouthed irreverence, whether this be directed at the planet that threatens to kill him, the machinery that struggles to keep him alive, or his erstwhile commander’s taste in recorded music. It also says much for Weir’s skill as a writer that, although the first three chapters of this 400-page book occur entirely within the viewpoint of Watney’s skull, with no other characters coming into the field of view (and, it begins to seem, no prospect of other characters for the entire span of the text), this constricted narrative is not claustrophobic. It helps, from this perspective, that Watney is the bastard child of Julius Sumner Miller, Rube Goldberg, and Marvin the Paranoid Android, with a dash of Hunter S. Thompson thrown in for good measure: if we must spend the entire book in one person’s head, it’s best if it’s an interesting head. (I should add, however, that (a), several other actual characters of appropriate different stripes are introduced, as Weir fills us in on the backstory, and on the Earthside developments; and (b), some of the dialogue, not to say the machinations, between these characters is delightful: another virtue.)

Just about everything that can go wrong with Watney’s struggle for survival does go wrong. And yet Watney, as noted, is supremely resourceful. He has the laws of physics, an endlessly inventive and imaginative mind, a six-person habitat, a functional air- and water-recycling system, heating, a functional alimentary canal, duct tape, a rover or two, some spare parts, civilisation’s most powerful adhesive, and a dozen potatoes. What’s the worst that could happen?

I’ll reserve judgment on whether the story as presented could actually play out. As with Gravity, there are things that are just a bit hinky in places. And there are aspects of the ‘trek’ which forms the ultimate focus of Watney’s sojourn on Mars that seem, in the writing, a bit underwritten, a bit too hastily-sketched compared to so much of the detail that has gone before. But these, when all is said and done, are fairly minor criticisms. The Martian is a well-paced romp that blends scientific street cred with interplanetary brinksmanship, and how often can you say that of a book?

A book review: Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith

26 06 2015


I purchased this book in the expectation that it might be a work of hard SF. As it transpires, in my judgment, it’s not (for reasons outlined below); but that didn’t dilute my enjoyment of it.

I’ve had only passing acquaintance with Nicola Griffith’s writing before this: so far as I know, the only story of hers that I have read is ‘It Takes Two’, from Jonathan Strahan’s Eclipse 3 anthology (reviewed here). Ammonite, her debut novel, published in 1992, won both the Lambda Literary Award for LGBT Fiction and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award for SF / Fantasy exploring gender issues. Griffith’s second (unrelated) novel, Slow River (1995), won the Nebula Award, and she’s achieved other notable success since then as well. To the best of my knowledge, there are no companion novels to Ammonite, though I surmise from its title that her first pro-sale short story, ‘Mirrors and Burnstone’ (which appeared in Interzone in 1988) is backstory to the events that occur in the novel.

Ammonite is an impressively-realised, well-rounded piece of SF speculation: the characterisation is crisp, the worldbuilding is detailed and the plotting is patient and precise. There are aspects of the writing that had me in mind of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, and some of the Culture novels of Iain M Banks, in terms of the sheer immersiveness of the invoked environment; and yet Griffith’s voice is distinctive from any of these authors.

Marghe (Marguerite Angelica Taishan) has elected to travel, as SEC representative, to ‘Jeep’ (the spoken contraction of ‘GP’, which is itself the abbreviation for Grenchstom’s Planet), a virus-ravaged, human-settled world. There have been no men alive on Jeep for centuries, only women, existing in small, isolated communities; the virus, dangerous and sometimes fatal for women, is invariably deadly towards human males. Marghe, a highly-trained anthropologist, has two tasks: one is to learn as much as she can about the sociology of this bizarre and only recently-rediscovered world (with an eye to judging how much of an opportunity, and how much of a threat, Jeep poses to the rest of human-occupied space), and the other is to act as guinea pig for an experimental and possibly-hazardous vaccine, FN-17, that may, and then again may not, successfully inoculate her against the possibly-deadly virus. Her mission is designed to last a maximum of six months, since this is the ‘best before’ date on the final booster dose of the vaccine. And, of course, these missions always go according to plan, don’t they? Always.

It will probably come as no surprise that, though Jeep hosts neither mice nor men, things gang agley, partly through Marghe’s own choices – she takes it into her head to set out north, into inhospitable territory, in the approaching winter, on what promises to be a wild goose chase for the previous SEC representative, missing and very possibly murdered – and partly due to circumstances beyond her control: natural hazards, human hostility, treachery, the weight of history. It is a quest on which she repeatedly risks death. Death, too, waits in the sky, or to be more pedantic, in orbit around the planet: unknown to most of Jeep’s unhabitants (save those of the marginalised military outpost of Port Central), a cruiser, the Kurst, stands ready to sterilise or seal off the world to prevent its hazardous viral freight from ever propagating further afield. Finally, to make matters worse, Marghe’s well-meant anthropological interventions across Jeep have unintended consequences. She may just have set in motion something disastrous …

I may have given the impression, in the above paragraphs, that Ammonite is a recounting of Marghe against the world; but this is not the case. There is a rich cast of fully-realised supporting characters, such as the Port Central military commander Danner, who feels compelled to rebel against her own ordained authority; a perspective contrasting with that of the barbarian leader-to-be Aoife, who appears almost totally constrained by the rules and strictures of her tribe; the hunter Leifin, whose rescue of Marghe masks a mysterious privacy and dark secrets; the malevolent and dangerous Uaithne; the wise and multitalented Thenike, a storyteller who encourages Marghe to discover deeper truths about herself and about the world; the lovers and soldiers Dogias and Lu Wai; and many, many more. Each player is distinct, each action and reaction nicely plausible. It holds together well.

I noted above that Ammonite appealed to me as a possible work of hard SF. I don’t believe that it does so qualify, not because its focus is principally upon the social sciences rather than the physical (although there is a lot of impressive medical and biological detail present), but because it makes recourse to mystical elements which, to my mind, are properly fantastical rather than based in scientific practice. This didn’t, as I say, diminish my appreciation of the story – it helps that the world of Jeep is exceptionally well realised (and populated by thoroughly believable characters) – and I would go so far as to suggest that people whose normal preference is for character-driven hard SF (say, for example, the work of C J Cherryh, Greg Egan, or Alastair Reynolds) would probably find Ammonite to their liking, provided that they’re not allergic to the occasional (fairly sparse) mention of concepts such as dowsing.

And what are we to make of Jeep’s most noteworthy characteristic – a world populated by women? Well, it’s a world populated by women. That, in essence, is pretty much it. If you’re looking for polemicism, you can look elsewhere than in this review, or in Griffith’s book, because (on my reading of it, at least) there really isn’t anything in Ammonite by way of overt gender diatribe. What is in the book is a detailed depiction, warts and all, of a microcosm of distinct all-female communities, not all of which interact positively with each other. It’s a compelling piece of visualisation, and it certainly helps that the story which connects them is propulsive and engrossing. Jeep is an enthralling world, and it’s detailed enough to be worth returning to.

Updatery, belated

26 06 2015

It’s been brought to my attention that I’ve been rather negligent of blogging of late, for which there are various reasons, chief among them a shortage of the timey-wimey stuff. But so as to prevent the site cobwebs from growing too large and complacent, here are a couple of pieces of now rather old (and, as it happens, both in their own way second-hand) news:


First, I’m thrilled, stunned, humbled and delighted that my poem ‘At the Dark Matter Zoo’ was selected to appear in The 2015 Rhysling Anthology, the annual compilation of the previous year’s best speculative poetry, as nominated by members of the Science Fiction Poetry Association. I don’t poem often (other than via the spam-poetry stylings of ‘Cynthia Mershark’, of course, though she’s been mercifully inactive of late), so it’s wonderful to see the one serious poem I wrote in 2013 do so well for itself. (Stories, take note.)


Second, I was as pleased as punch to discover, very belatedly, that a reprint submission I’d made back in 2013 had in fact borne fruit: ‘The Ballad of P’toresk’ has aired, in translation, as ‘La Balada de P’toresk‘ in La idea fija 15, an Argentinian speculative fiction webzine that publishes both original Spanish-language fiction and translated reprints. The issue in which ‘P’toresk’ appears was in fact released a year ago, and I only learnt of it this time around because Google alerted me when the subsequent issue was released. I’m indebted to the translator for what, to my entirely untrained eye, looks to be a flawless piece of translation.

There is newer news, as well, but I’ll save that until after a couple of reviews.

Visceral, gut-level, tautological fun

16 04 2015

I’ve had a couple of attempts at writing much longer, messier posts on this subject, but I think what I’m trying to get at, in witnessing and reacting to the Hugo-related maelstrom of the past (and doubtless coming) days, crystallises down to this: what is so wrong with wanting to embrace diversity — and, for that matter, tolerance — in science fiction?

SF should be colourblind, genderblind, all kinds of accepting. It is after all the literature, not of the past, but of the future. Let’s take it there.

In other matters arising

7 04 2015

Life goes on, even in the midst of a Hugo nominations maelstrom, and here in the Antipodes, the synchronised Australian and NZ natcons — neither of which I was able to attend — have seen the parcelling out of Ditmar, Sir Julius Vogel, and other awards, under considerably less contentious circumstances than have attended the Hugo noms.  The Ditmar summary can be seen here, and the SJVs here. (Yes, I know the ‘Ditmar’ link isn’t to an official results page, but it’s a source I trust, in the apparent absence of the official page at this time.)

Hearty congratulations to all the winners — I’m especially pleased to see, on the NZ side, SJVs go to Paul Mannering for his marvellously daffy novel Engines of Empathy (thoroughly recommended), to Lee Murray for her short story ‘Inside Ferndale’, and to A J Fitzwater for her well-deserved Best New Talent award. (A J has a novella — the cover story, in fact, in the upcoming ASIM 61, which has been upcoming for so long that I’m sure it’s starting to seem like the Cathedral of Chalesm. But the issue is, honestly, almost complete …) And there’s a long list of good names on the Ditmar sheet as well, but I’d like to single out the hardworking and multi-talented Donna Maree Hanson who has claimed the A Bertram Chandler award this year.

Hugo nominations: Fan, incoming, 3, 2, 1 …

5 04 2015

The 2015 Hugo award nominations have been announced, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine is shortlisted among those in the ‘Best Semiprozine’ category. A Hugo nomination is, of course, marvellous recognition for the achievements of a little Australian-based magazine, which has played its part in starting the careers of a great many local and overseas specfic authors, and which has given many members of the Andromeda Spaceways team, myself included, a great deal of useful experience in the tasks associated with publishing. As a member of the ASIM team, I ought to feel considerable pride in the nomination; and yet I cannot, not as I should. For it appears we did not get there under our own steam, but as one of the recommendations listed on the ‘Sad Puppies 3′ slate.

Lest this be seen as mere coincidence, I don’t see how it can be. ASIM‘s never been Hugo-shortlisted before, not even in the wake of the 2010 Worldcon in Melbourne. And 51 of the 60 ‘serving suggestions’ on the Sad Puppies 3 slate have found their way onto the Hugo ballot. All of Sad Puppies’ recommendations for Novella, Novelette, Related Work, Graphic Story, Long Form Editor, Short Form Editor, Professional Artist, Fanzine, Fancast, and John W Campbell Award got through to the ballot; there was no category in which some Sad Puppies rec did not get through. There is, of course, other stuff on the ballot as well; but it’s damned hard to see this as anything other than a disappointing exercise in tribalism, and as something, therefore, which immeasurably cheapens the ballot for anyone who finds themselves on it through such means.

There were three ‘slate’ recommendations for the semiprozine category: ASIM, Abyss & Apex, and Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show. I cannot help but feel that OSC’s IGMS was probably, for reasons of hierarchy and politics, the first preference of the slate organisers, and that ASIM and Abyss & Apex were there perhaps merely to lend some semblance of impartiality to the Sad Puppies’ list of recommendations, and may have owed as much to their position in the alphabet — you don’t have to trawl far through Ralan’s to find us — as to their merits as purveyors of fine speculative fiction. (I mean no disrespect at all to Abyss & Apex through this conjecture, by the way, and would point you towards that magazine’s own gracious and measured response to the current imbroglio, which is well worth reading. As, indeed, is the magazine.) Like ASIM, Abyss & Apex made it through to the ballot; IGMS missed out.

There’s always this problem with fan-based awards: each friend a potential vote; the drive to the formation of alliances, cliques, blocs. And it’s not so difficult to cross that line from recommendation to apparent organisation; but it’s disastrous for fandom when it happens. Because how do you fight a bloc, except with another bloc?

Of course, on one level, all that Sad Puppies 3 have done is to put up a ‘list of recommendations’, which is not so far from what I (and a million-and-one other fans) have done in advance of various upcoming award seasons. But I always take care (I hope) to point out that interested parties should only vote in accordance with their own wishes, and for things that they themselves have read, or viewed, and personally enjoyed. Because that’s what the vote is supposed to be. Anything else is drifting into a mockery. I’ve been fortunate to have been the recipient of two fan-based awards to date (the Sir Julius Vogel Awards, for 2009 and 2013): I didn’t court them; I cherish them; and I would feel as cheated as, I’m sure, would my competitors, if I discovered that my success in either of those categories had arisen through bloc voting. And the SJVs are, let’s face it, small beer up against the Hugos. (Delicious beer nonetheless. Kiwis are excellent brewmasters.)

So ASIM is on the Hugo ballot. We at the magazine have known about this for about ten days’ time, and have long since sent through the acceptance. But because none of us are exactly active in US fandom, we only became aware of the Sad Puppies connection very late in the piece — in fact, a scant three days before the nominations were made public, and well after all the dust had settled on the nomination process itself. ASIM was never informed about our inclusion on the Sad Puppies 3 slate — if we had been, I very strongly suspect our response would have been a resounding ‘Hell, No’ — and there was no time, nor any point, in looking to remove ourselves once we did get there.

My own take on this is that a Sad Puppies vote for ASIM is a ‘pity-sex’ vote. This doesn’t benefit the magazine, doesn’t benefit fandom, not one bit. Fans who are eligible to vote should only endorse ASIM (which, btw, will be included in some form in the Hugo voters’ packet) if they’ve read and enjoyed the magazine, and judged it worthy of the award against the current competition. That’s what voting is supposed to be about. Sometimes we forget that.

A book review, with digressions: The Listener, by Tove Jansson

4 03 2015


I first purchased this book in 1981, but I have had to wait thirty-three-and-a-bit years to read it. For I originally obtained it in its initial Swedish form, as the book Lyssnerskan (in which form it was, I was told, even back then, already out of print, just ten years after publication; but, having ordered a job lot of some ten of Tove Jansson’s titles from her Swedish publisher, I received it in the company of the rest of the order — evidently, they succeeded in rustling up a copy of the book for me). Alas, learning Swedish did not turn out to be so straightforward an endeavour as I had hoped it would be, though I did manage to get about a third of the way through Jansson’s Den ärliga bedragaren (recently published, in English, as the novel The True Deceiver) before I admitted to myself, sometime in 1982, that I was missing far too many of the nuances of her prose in my halting attempts at dictionary-assisted-translation for the effort to be worthwhile.


From the above, you may get the impression that I am some sort of Tove Jansson tragic; and yes, I must concede that that is true. It has actually been some years since I have re-read the Moomin books, and yet they, and her hauntingly episodic novel The Summer Book, hold a place in my heart that no other works, by any other author, have yet succeeded in usurping. The belated availability, in English translation, of a steadily-growing list of Jansson’s work for adults – in her lifetime, her only non-Moomin books available in English were her heavily memoirish adult debut Sculptor’s Daughter; The Summer Book, also closely drawn from life (its protagonists represent her dying mother and her niece); and the not-always-convincing novel Sun City – is a cause for bittersweet celebration. It is, perhaps, inevitable that the renewed recognition she is receiving is posthumous; but I wish this had all come sooner, while she lived.

If you have read Jansson’s Moomin books, and if you are somewhat familiar with the body of work of her compatriot Jean Sibelius, you might, perhaps, note a similarity in development. The early examples of both canons are effusive, unrestrained, busy, rich in contrasts, and often very energetic; later examples show much greater restraint and a fine sense of subtlety, with a tendency towards minimalism or towards the use of negative space. (Listen to the tonal sparseness of Sibelius’s Tapiola, one of his last works, and compare it to the final Moomin novel, Moominvalley in November, which is such an exercise in negative space that the Moomins do not, in fact, feature directly at all.) While such a trajectory of artistic development, over the course of a career, is not necessarily unusual, it does seem as though in both Jansson’s and Sibelius’s case it’s taken rather to an extreme; I’m loathe to pin it down to anything characteristically Finnish, or more broadly Scandinavian, but one has to wonder. (I’m not aware, by the way, whether Sibelius and Jansson ever crossed paths, I suspect probably not, since he was fifty years or so her senior, though they did have at least one mutual friend: Sibelius’s biographer and confidante, Erik Tawaststjerna, was a childhood playmate of Jansson’s, and apparently features in Sculptor’s Daughter as the small runny-nosed child who is afraid of bears.) But I have probably digressed long enough. Isn’t this supposed to be a book review?

I was somewhat surprised to learn that The Listener was in fact Jansson’s second book for adults, published in 1971 and predating The Summer Book by a year. (I had always thought that The Summer Book followed directly on after Sculptor’s Daughter.) Reading these stories now, it seems a shame we have had to wait more than forty years for their English translation. They are in their quiet way (and so much of Jansson’s work is quiet) quite outstanding, and I would venture to suggest that The Listener may in fact constitute the best introduction to Jansson’s work for adults for those readers who know of her only as a writer for children. (This is not necessarily to say that The Listener is her best adults’ book per se – I still believe The Summer Book merits that title – but, rather, the collection of short stories provides a somewhat more accessible initial sampler of her work than does the episodic novel. And this first collection of her short fiction has the advantage that the stories are more classically plotted, for the most part, than is the case with her later stories, some of which hew so close to the dictum of white-space prose that they are essentially just lists, more-or-less eschewing an overt plot entirely …)

So, then: the stories in The Listener. There are eighteen in total, several of them so short as to be essentially mere vignettes – flash fiction, I suppose, although the term did not exist at the time of their writing. By and large, it is the longer stories that are the more memorable, for here Jansson has greater rein to show her ability to completely capture, in a sequence of deft, pure, carefully-chosen words, a scene, an event, a betrayal, a secret, a hidden truth that lies at the kernel of us all … I shan’t detail every story, believing it will serve you better if you discover your own favourites among the book’s pages, but the tales that particularly resonated with me were the title story, of a trusted aunt who finds herself so overwhelmed by the burden of familial confidences that she is prepared to take desperate measures; the wonderfully gothic ‘Black—White’, dedicated to Edward Gorey, in which an artist, under pressure to deliver a set of illustrations for a horror anthology, decamps to a relative’s house for some peace and quiet; ‘A Love Story’, in which a couple on holiday in Venice must decide how they are going to handle an obsession with a well-sculpted pair of buttocks; ‘Grey Duchesse’, in which a seamstress is fated to see when those around her are soon to face death, and to need to speak of this; the almost unbearably anticipatory ‘Blasting’, wherein a demolitions expert takes his behaviourally-challenged son out on an assignment with him to the skerries, where he has been contracted to dispose of a fifteen-ton boulder; and ‘The Squirrel’, the collection’s closing story and its longest, in which a middle-aged woman, living alone on a small, treeless Gulf of Finland island, engages in a madeira-fuelled, no-holds-barred battle of wits with a squirrel that arrives one autumn morning on a length of driftwood. The capsule descriptions offered above for these stories might well sound unprepossessing, but in Jansson’s hands the most seemingly innocuous or inconsequential item can become crucial, and utterly compelling; at their best, these are stories that just cannot be improved upon.


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