The Martian–Andy Weir

TheMartian2“Commander,” Beck radioed.  “You need to get to the ship now.”

“Agreed,” Martinez radioed.  “He’s gone, ma’am.  Watney’s gone.”

The four crewmates awaited their commander’s response.

“Copy,” she finally replied. “On my way.”

Source: Netgalley (Review Copy)

Publisher: Crown Publishing

Publication Date: February 11, 2014

When a sandstorm compels NASA to abort the Ares 3 expedition on Mars six days into their month long stay, the team is forced to leave behind a fully functioning habitat, two martian land rovers, millions of dollars of pre-positioned equipment, fifty days of freeze dried food for a crew of six (including fresh potatoes for their Thanksgiving dinner) and one dead astronaut.  Last anyone saw of Mark Watney, flight engineer and team botanist, both he and his EVA suit were compromised, impaled by a communications antenna, tumbling off into the storm with his biometric sensors flat-lined.  Forced by their grave situation to abandon the search for his body, the team leader makes the call and the Martian Ascent Vehicle (MAV) launches, leaving Watney to his fate. 

Fate, living up to its reputation for being fickle, has other plans for Mark Watney.  Against the odds, he survives the suit puncture and impalement and manages to retreat to the expedition’s habitat, which weathered the storm intact.  He’s alive and relatively uninjured.  He has oxygen, water, and food for the next 300 days.  Too bad Ares 4 won’t arrive for another four years, and then around 3200 kilometers from Watney’s refuge. It’s up to him to make his own fate and live to be there when Ares 4 lands.  Watney’s got three things going for him: his ingenuity, his sense of humour in the face of death, and those six potatoes. Thus begins an extraordinary tale of resourcefulness and survival in the tradition of Robinson Crusoe, albeit in a place where everything can kill you.

I first read of Andy Weir’s The Martian early last year while browsing an on-line review.  At the time he was an independent author, and I downloaded a sample with every intention of buying a copy if it proved any good.  Months later, I came across another article mentioning that Weir’s book had been picked up by a mainstream publisher and would be published in February of 2014.  In the meantime, the e-book had become “unavailable” for purchase, a situation which left me somewhat miffed.  However, the publisher was looking for reviewers on Netgalley, so I managed to snag a copy and dug in.

Written from several points of view, the majority being epistolary journal entries by our stranded engineer/botanist, The Martian introduces us to Mark Watney, a thoroughly likeable and extremely resilient character for whom the reader cannot help but root.  He’s no shrinking violet, bemoaning his fate and waiting for the inevitable, but rather your typical “can do” NASA type, working the problem methodically until he achieves one of two results: life; or death.  Throughout the journal, Watney faces many life threatening situations (and some are doozies) and deals with them from an engineering perspective, true to form as…well…an engineer. With this emphasis on problem solving, The Martian is definitely a novel for lovers of hard science fiction, but Weir also develops a character for whom we feel a great deal of empathy, ensuring that the techno-babble doesn’t detract from the story.  The addition of quite a bit of, “you have to laugh or you’ll end up crying,” levity on the part of Watney  helps guarantee the novel not become too dreary. 

One worry I had while reading The Martian was that a novel with a single point of view can limit the author’s ability to build a picture of what’s going on in the greater world (or solar system, in this case).  I wanted to know what the crew were thinking when they presumed Watney dead—and how they dealt with the guilt of leaving a crewmember not just behind, but behind on another planet.  What was going on back at mission control?  How was his family dealing with the loss of their son?   These are all questions that would be impossible to answer had Weir stuck with the epistolary format, so it was satisfying to see him branch out from Watney’s tale and explore those very things.  Transitioning back and forth from Watney’s journal to scenes of his crewmates and people back home gave greater depth to the story than showcasing his tale alone. 

I find generally these days while reading or viewing a movie that it’s hard to get invested in the welfare of the character because you just know that the writer (unless it’s G.R.R. Martin) is not going to do anything too drastic, like kill off the main character.  Knowing that the author won’t take that risk tends to detract from the reader feeling any real investment in a story, but Weir deftly manages to avoid this pitfall.  Every situation Mark Watney faces is written in a way that feels “life or death” in an Apollo 13 sort of way, and until the last few pages of the novel I was unsure as to how things would pan out.  The ingenuity with which Watney, his former crewmates, and the people back on Earth tackle his predicament lends an air of optimism to a novel that could very well have lost itself in the malaise of a man bereft of hope.  Lucky for us, this is not that type of novel.

The Martian is one of those books that you’ll want to read in one or two sittings, maybe even burning a little midnight oil as you follow a lone Martian’s quest to become an Earthling once again.

The Martian will be released by Crown Publishing on February 11, 2014.

B

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Bitter Seeds–Ian Tregillis

Bitter Seeds

“The price has been negotiated.  It will be paid.”

“The Hell it will!  Tell it to sod off.”

“My friends.”  Will spoke in a rigidly neutral tone.  The strain of maintaining his composure and concentration showed in the beads of moisture on his forehead.  “One does not renege on these negotiations…At best we can control the circumstances of the payment.”

At the dawn of the 20th century, many nations looked toward the creation of a superior human through the study of eugenics, a scientific pursuit that was taken to horrifying extremes under the Nazi regime during the 40’s.  In pursuit of the Übermensch, physicians such as Joseph Mengele became notorious for their barbaric experimentation and disregard for human life, while Adolf Hitler’s attitude towards race and racial “purification” (aryanization) directly led to the Holocaust and the genocide of over six million Jews by war’s end in 1945.  Once the atrocities of the camps were exposed to the wider world, the concept of eugenics fell out of favour with the world community.  Ian Tregillis’ Bitter Seeds is the story of an alternate 20th century in which the Nazi’s were successful in bringing about the Übermensch and placing England in such desperate straits as to delve into forces both unnatural and malevolent to counter their Nazi foes.

While on a mission to extract a German defector from Franco’s Spain during the Spanish Civil War, Lieutenant-Commander Raybould Marsh of the S.I.S. (Secret Intelligence Service) witnesses something beyond his ability to comprehend when his contact spontaneously combusts right before his eyes.  All that’s left of the informant’s belongings are some charred papers and the remnants of a remarkable, almost unbelievable film.  Once the film is reconstructed, it shows German test subjects purported to be exhibiting paranormal abilities.  One subject seemingly walks through walls, another crushes objects with his mind and yet a third demonstrates the ability to create and shape fire to his purposes.  Yet it is a young woman who bears no obvious outward manifestation that will prove to be the most dangerous weapon of this Nazi arsenal. 

Once the war begins in earnest, this group of Wunderwaffen prove their worth, forcing Marsh and his mentor in the secret service, John Stephenson, to enlist the help of Marsh’s college friend—and Warlock—Lord William Beauclerk.  Together, they assemble a unit (code-named Milkweed) comprised of Britain’s foremost magical talents to “negotiate” with otherworldly presences known as Eidolons to assure the safety of the home countries.  However, the assistance of these demonic forces comes with a price—a blood price—that quickly escalates as England’s situation deteriorates.  Beyond the physical blood price is the spiritual one as these patriots commit reprehensible acts upon their own countrymen to secure the continued cooperation of their supernatural allies.  As the novel goes on, the British find themselves in a morally suspect situation, and Will begins to suspect that the price of victory—even to stop the evil that is the Third Reich—may not be worth what they’ve sacrificed, both physically and spiritually.  The morally dubious English alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union that in reality allowed an allied victory is in this alternate history replaced with a morally bankrupt alternative in the form of the mysterious Eidolons.

Bitter Seeds is a wonderfully well written novel.  It’s also incredibly dark and depressing, especially as the reader slowly realizes the depths to which the ostensive “good-guys” will sink in their moral corruption.  The actions of the British Warlocks stretch the meaning of the phrase, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” to incredulity.  Without giving away any spoilers, the price to be paid for each victory “negotiated” with the Eidolons is an assault on the basic morality of otherwise honourable men.  The novel poses the question of whether or not the ends can always justify the means.  What price would you pay; what heinous actions would you undertake, in the name of the greater good?  Could you kill a child if it would end the war?  How about two?  Or twenty?  Who decides what the greater good is or what price is acceptable, especially if one’s essential morality is lost in the process?  

Of the characters in the novel, it is somewhat ironic that Will, the facilitator of the Milkweed project, is the only character to stop long enough to examine himself and his motives.  He begins the novel as a patriot who wants to do something for his country and as a byproduct impress his brother, and further to be seen as something more than an aristocratic fop.  Later, he comes to question the road they’ve travelled and the price of his actions.  Marsh is a less introspective character, beginning the novel as the good son, modeling his career on that of his adoptive father (the aforementioned John Stephenson, a patriotic yet cold and cunning man) and slowly losing his moral compass as tragedy envelops his family and in his desperation to foil the Nazi Übermensch.

Surprisingly, Tregillis gives us a well-rounded depiction of the Nazi super soldiers, from the principled Klaus to the amoral Reinhardt, the sympathetic simpleton that is Kammler and the self-conscious Heike, and of course, the inscrutable Gretel, to whom everything and everyone is a pawn in a game only she comprehends.   The novel also focuses on small scenes while allowing the greater historical events to fall into place as the stage in which their story plays out.  The greater events of the war, such as the Dunkirk evacuation or operation Sea Lion are mentioned merely as background, but a raid by British forces through supernatural means on the farm that acts as a base to the Übermensch takes up a good portion of the narrative.

Credible world-building is an essential factor in the creation of a believable fantasy novel, even more so in the case of an alternate history, and Tregillis manages to successfully interweave fantasy and science fiction into what would otherwise be categorized as an alternate history novel.  All the essential elements of alternate history are there, twisted into his vision of what might be if the element of fantasy is added.  Dunkirk ends quite differently due to the addition of the Übermensch and their far seer, while the invasion of England is forestalled not by the natural vagaries of the weather (as in reality) but by the mystical wall of nature created by the Eidolons.

I cannot stress enough how very much this is a novel structured around the examination of morality and the horrors that occur when ones moral code is compromised.  Will recoils in horror and devolves into madness as he realizes the evil he has unleashed into the world may be worse than the one they are fighting, while Marsh degenerates from a principled patriot into an obsessive who allows revenge to overcome his principles.  It becomes a matter of the ends justify the means to Marsh, while Will continually questions whether or not they have unduly compromised their humanity.

Bitter Seeds left me with a feeling of profound sadness. I allowed Ian Tregillis to create an empathy in me towards the majority of his characters (yes, even the Übermensch) and then watched them devolve into morally bankrupt shells of their former selves.  Tregillis also left me with an unrepentant desire to continue reading of their decline—or possible salvation—in the next book of the Milkweed triptych, The Coldest War.

B+