Science, Fiction, Life

Month: October 2015

To be or not to be…cynical

I have decided that I am too cynical about some things. I came to this realization over the last couple weeks because two things happened. First, the trailer for the new Star Wars movie came out, and second, NASA had a workshop to help identify possible landing sites for human missions to Mars. The common thread here, other than awesome things happening in space, is that these are both things where I’m afraid to get my hopes up.

I would love it if the next Star Wars movie is as good as it looks like it will be based on the trailer. I have a deep love for the original Star Wars movies, and I even liked some parts of the prequels, but overall the prequels were disappointing. A classic case of a successful person being given too much leeway, with nobody daring to take him aside and say “You might want to reconsider Jar-Jar Binks” or “Is that slapstick scene with C3PO and R2D2 on the conveyor belt really necessary?” or “Don’t you think it works better if Han shoots first?” And so my initial gut reaction to the possibility of a new Star Wars movie is cynicism. Sure, the trailer looks good but it’ll probably have awful writing and acting, or some silly juvenile slapstick sequence because moviemakers don’t think kids have the attention span or intelligence to understand anything else. But then I watched the trailer again. And again. And John Williams’ powerful Star Wars fanfare slowly chipped through my protective layer of cynicism. I want this movie to be good: why not embrace it and enjoy the hopeful feeling that it will live up to the original trilogy? These thoughts were then summed up perfectly by this comic:

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Likewise with the NASA human landing site workshop. For years I have been extremely cynical about NASA’s human spaceflight program. It is hamstrung by congresspeople who just see it as a jobs program, and so insist on using old-fashioned parts built by contractors in their districts, rather than allowing the brilliant engineers at NASA make their own decisions about how to build their rockets. It is underfunded and plagued by bureaucracy and modern NASA’s complete aversion to anything risky. The last program to build a new NASA rocket got so bogged down and over budget that an independent panel of experts recommended that it be scrapped. NASA doesn’t even have a rocket capable of getting to low-Earth-orbit, let alone Mars. Isn’t this landing site workshop a bit premature?

But the thing is, I got into space exploration because I was inspired by the idea of people exploring the solar system. I would love more than anything to see NASA doing something awesome like sending people to Mars. I am so cynical about NASA’s human spaceflight program because I want so much for it to succeed and I don’t want to be disappointed. But, like the realization with Star Wars, it finally occurred to me this week that my cynicism isn’t doing myself, or NASA, any favors. Far better to be brave enough to let my excitement show through, despite my doubts. Because while I’m sitting around being cynical to protect myself from disappointment, my friends are at NASA, choosing where people will land on Mars. That is so cool!

So, bottom line: I am going to try to be less cynical. I recognize that it’s a defense mechanism to protect myself from disappointment, and that I should embrace the things that I think are awesome. Instead of preemptively being unhappy, I might as well enjoy the anticipation and hope that these things I love will live up to their potential.

Book Recommendations

There are few things I enjoy more than recommending books to people, so you can imagine how happy I was to find that there are two subreddits that are dedicated to book recommendations. It’s awesome to have a place on the internet where people are constantly asking for advice on what to read!

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been recommending up a storm, and I thought it would be interesting to collect a list of my most-recommended books and post them here. This is different from my list of favorite books, I should note. There are a few very common requests that appear over and over on the book recommendation subreddits, so those tend to guide my recommendations. Here are some of the most common requests, along with my general recommendations.

“I am new to reading for fun” or “I used to love reading but I haven’t read anything recently. What should I read?”

Of course when responding to this one, it depends what the person is interested in. But I generally try to aim for easy-reading page-turners that are the beginning of a series:

  • Old Man’s War by John Scalzi – Good, modern take on military sci-fi with a sense of humor but also some poignant scenes. This book starts a series.
  • Wolf of the Plains by Conn Iggulden – Historical fiction about the early life of Temujin (aka Genghis Khan). Does a great job of conveying the rugged life on the steppes. Starts a series.
  • The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell – Very readable historical fiction book about a Northumbrian boy who is captured by Danes (vikings) and raised as one of them, but who eventually joins forces with Alfred the Great. Interesting look at the early middle ages, when a castle was a hall on top of a hill surrounded by a palisade, rather than a towering stone fortress. Starts a series.

“I just read The Martian. What should I read next?”

  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson – This is an epic realistic sci-fi novel about the first 100 colonists on Mars as they try to found a new civilization and terraform Mars to become more like Earth. It was written in the 90s, but holds up pretty well. Where The Martian was a very small-scale story, this one is huge in scope, spanning many years with tons of characters.
  • Contact by Carl Sagan – Writen by an actual astronomer, about deciphering a signal received from an advanced extraterrestrial civilization. Full of good science but also lots of philosophical discussions.

“I just finished Ready Player One. What should I read next?”

  • I often recommend Old Man’s War for this as well. Even though the books are not that similar, the tone of the writing is.
  • Other books that I haven’t read, but which I have heard would go well with Ready Player One are Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.

“I’m looking for a new fantasy series to get hooked on (often after finishing A Song of Ice and Fire or Name of the Wind).”

  • The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – Classics, but it’s surprising how many people haven’t read them. These are must-reads for any fan of fantasy, if only because so much of fantasy is either imitating or subverting the tropes introduced by Tolkien.
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin – Another classic, and the start of a series. I especially recommend this to people who say they enjoyed Harry Potter because LeGuin basically invented the idea of a wizard school in this book.
  • Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb – This is the first in several trilogies set in the same world. Fitz, the protagonist, is in my opinion one of the best characters in all of Fantasy. Occasionally infuriating too, but still a great character, and it’s interesting to see him mature through the books. Also, some of the books about Fitz get pretty dark and gritty, even though they were written before “grimdark” became its own subgenre.
  • The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie – The standard by which all other grimdark is judged. Great characters who are also terrible people, in an interesting fantasy world that has fun subverting some fantasy tropes. I recommend this book and its sequels especially for people who liked Game of Thrones and who want something dark and gritty.
  • Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss – For fantasy readers who want well-polished prose that takes familiar well-worn tropes and makes them excellent just by the quality of the writing. This book and its sequel are good for fans of Harry Potter who want something similar but a bit more mature.
  • Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin – Everyone has heard of this book and its sequels by now, but many have still not read them. If the person seems to have read other huge series but not this one, I highly recommend it. At this point Martin’s influence on the fantasy genre rivals Tolkien’s.
  • Shogun by James Clavell – This is historical fiction rather than fantasy, but it has a lot of what makes Game of Thrones great (tons of characters, tons of politics and intrigue, epic scope, etc.), so I often recommend it to Game of Thrones fans. It’s about an Englishman who is shipwrecked in Japan in 1600 and gets involved in court politics and falls in love with a Japanese woman. Surprisingly, it is based pretty closely on actual events.
  • I also often recommend Cornwell and Iggulden’s historical fiction to fantasy fans.

For fantasy fans who are looking for something a bit different:

  • Perdido Street Station or The Scar by China Mieville – Extremely creative and bizarre stories about a steampunk-ish fantasy-ish world. Strong horror influences. I haven’t read anything else like these. I personally enjoyed The Scar more than Perdido Street. Mieville also loves to use lots of fancy vocabulary in his writing: this annoys some people, but I like it. And if you’re studying for the SAT, I bet these books would be better than a bunch of boring flash cards.

“I’m looking for some good post-apocalyptic books.”

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – One of the best books I’ve read this year, and the best post-apocalyptic book I’ve read in a long time (ever?). It doesn’t do anything particularly new with the familiar tropes of the genre, but the writing is great, with well-drawn characters. Manages to be more literary than most books in the genre without coming off as pretentious.
  • Wool by Hugh Howey – This one is a page-turner. I especially recommend this to fans of the Fallout series of video games, because it deals with underground refuges from the toxic post-apocalyptic wasteland on the surface that are awfully similar to the Vaults in Fallout.
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy – Bleak and depressing, but great, spare writing. And after all, shouldn’t the apocalypse be a bit of a downer?
  • The Stand by Stephen King – A classic of the genre. I loved the first ~2/3 of The Stand and thought the ending was just ok, but still. It’s a must-read.
  • The Postman by David Brin – Obviously an inspiration for The Stand and for the early Wasteland and Fallout video games. Much like The Stand, the first 2/3rds are better than the ending, but still a classic of the genre.
  • Earth Abides – Another classic. This one explores how civilization would change, what knowledge would be kept and what would fade with time, after a disease-style apocalypse. One of the first books of its kind, but quite good, if dated.
  • I Am Legend by Richard Matheson – Another classic. This one was among the first to consider an apocalypse populated by monsters rather than just radiation or disease. Here the monsters are like vampires, but this led to the zombie apocalypse sub-genre. And for its age, it is still quite readable.
  • On the Beach by Nevil Schute – This one is different than most in the genre, but is well worth reading. Possibly the saddest of them all. It’s about several families in Australia after a nuclear war has been waged in the northern hemisphere as they wait for the deadly cloud of fallout to get to them.
  • The World Without Us by Alan Wiseman – This one is non-fiction! But I put it in the post-apocalypse list because it’s about what would happen if humans just up and disappeared one day. It’s a really fascinating book, especially for fans of the post-apocalyptic genre.

“I’ve read lots of YA series (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Percy Jackson, Eragon, etc.). What should I read next?” or “What are some good books for a middle school kid?”

A lot of this depends on age. Some adults have only read YA but want something more mature, so for them I refer to the fantasy list. For actual kids in high school or middle school, I recommend:

  • The Golden Compass (Northern Lights) by Philip Pullman – Great YA series with a sort of steampunk-ish world and interesting magic. There are armored bears and witches but also some pretty interesting exploration of physics, philosophy, and theology.
  • Redwall and sequels by Brian Jacques – These books are lots of fun. Woodland creatures in the middle ages with swords and bows and stuff! Also some of the most gratuitous descriptions of feasts I’ve ever read. Probably best for a middle-school aged audience though I read them well into high school.
  • So You Want to be a Wizard? by Diane Duane – Lame title, but I loved this book in early middle school. It’s about two kids who learn how to become wizards and travel to a parallel version of New York, complete with predatory cars and other cool stuff.
  • The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley – I loved these books in early high school, though now I can’t really remember much about them except that they are awesome. Both have great female protagonists.

“I’m looking for non-fiction that will change the way I see the world.” or “What are some must-read non-fiction books?”

  • Books by Carl Sagan including Cosmos, Pale Blue Dot, and Demon Haunted World – Sagan was a brilliant science writer, and all modern popular science writers are basically rehashing things he wrote better. These books will teach you about the history of science, the future of space exploration, and how to think critically about the world around you.
  • 1491 and 1493 by Charles C. Mann – These books deal with what the Americas were like before Columbus, and how the world changed due to globalization after Columbus. These changed my view of history: real history is way more interesting than what you learn in school!

“Halloween is coming up. What are some good creepy/horror stories?”

  • Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury – Not the sort of story that is likely to give you nightmares or keep you up at night but some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read. Bradbury’s writing style is practically like poetry, and this book is all about autumn and death and a creepy carnival, so it fits with the season. All of Bradbury’s books are great, and this is not actually my favorite (That would be Martian Chronicles, of course) but this is the one I’m recommending most lately.

Book Review: Outlander

Outlander-1991_1st_Edition_cover

I had heard a lot about Outlander, the famous romance novel involving a nurse from the 1940s who travels back in time and falls in love with a handsome Scotsman. Many of my female friends love the book and its sequels, and I heard the TV show being lauded as Game of Thrones, but for women. So I thought it would be educational for me to read the novel and see what all the fuss was about. I’ve never really read much in the romance genre, which always seemed like a shame because surely there’s some good stuff there that I am missing out on. Outlander is often given as an example of a great romance novel, so I figured I should try it.

Before I go on, I want to acknowledge up front that I’m decidedly not the target audience for Outlander. I get that. That was actually part of the appeal: so much fiction is written with “white straight male” as the target audience that I wanted to see what it would be like to read something that wasn’t “for me”.

Sadly, I have to report that I really didn’t like it very much, and I am shocked that women do.

The first half of the book was fine. I read it in one huge gulp while traveling overseas, and while the writing wasn’t amazing, it was a pretty good story. But then two things happened. First, I wasn’t traveling anymore so my chunks of reading time were much more fragmented, meaning I could only read smaller passages at a time. This always leads to me being more picky about the quality of writing, no matter what I’m reading. When you aren’t fully sucked in, it’s easier to spot the odd word choices or sentences that fall flat, or minor inconsistencies. But more importantly, at around the halfway mark in the book, Jamie the sexy Scotsman beats the main character with a belt. And then, within a matter of days, she has basically forgiven him. And then he rapes her (but it’s ok because after she says “No, Stop, please, you’re hurting me!” and he keeps going and says he “means to make you mine” and that the marriage vows included the provision that she must “obey”, she eventually says “yes”, so it’s definitely just kinky sex that leaves her battered and bruised definitely not rape). And that was when the book lost me.

From the way the book is written, it’s clear that this incident is supposed to be forgiven and Claire (and therefore the reader, because Claire is very nearly a blank-slate of a character upon which the reader is supposed to project herself) falls madly in love with sexy Jamie the sexy Scotsman. But for me, the moment he beat her and then raped her, the logical behavior on her part would be to try to escape as quickly as possible and go back to her loving husband in the present. You know, the one she chose voluntarily and who does not abuse her? The book from that point on should have been about getting away from this barbaric man, and this barbaric time period and back to the man who she supposedly loves. But nope. She goes to the standing stones that sent her back in time and then decides that she’d rather not go back to 1945 and all of its relative safety and comfort. Her husband in the present, Frank, is a slim academic type who Claire finds ever so boring as he goes on and on about his historical studies. Nothing is so unappealing as an intelligent man who is passionate about his academic pursuits. Much better to stay in the past with Jamie, the big, buff, virile Highlander whose favorite pass-times are (1) finding any excuse at all to be beaten (seriously, like half of this book is about all the times Jamie was beaten in the past, or gets beaten in the present, or is recovering from being beaten, etc.), and (2) sex.

Also, let’s talk about the antagonist in this story “Black Jack” Randall. In what is surely the most subtle subliminal message ever, the bad guy looks just like Claire’s husband from the present! Hmmmm! “Golly, I wonder if she will go back to her pathetic, skinny, nerdy husband who also happens to look like the vile, raping, antagonist?” How do we know he is not just a rapist, but the bad kind that we hate? (because it’s already been established that beatings and rape are ok as long as the victim deserves it and eventually stops protesting) Why, because he’s a homosexual of course! By my count there are two gay men in this book. One is a minor character who, of course, molests little boys. The other is the antagonist, Jack Randall, a pathetic and evil man who gets off on torturing and raping Jamie toward the end of the book.

For most of the book, Claire is an extremely passive and boring character (the better to allow the reader to project onto her).  She goes from place to place, obeying what others say, listening in on important conversations without being part of them, making very few decisions for herself. At the end of the book I was excited that she was finally taking initiative in attempting to save Jamie, reversing the damsel in distress trope by having the woman save the man. But of course we can’t have that, so she ends up being held at knifepoint and Jamie saves her by giving himself up as a plaything for the bad guy. Then Claire gets tossed out in the snow, and in a ridiculous scene, wins in hand-to-hand combat with a starving wolf by breaking its neck against the corner of a building (I mean, I know WWII nurses were tough, but come on). And then she gets rescued by some men, who then actually rescue Jamie, somehow, through a plot involving unleashing a herd of cattle in the dungeon? Oh and she kills a man by severing his brain stem with a knife. Because that’s easy to do for someone with very little training or strength.

And then at the end of the book, they flee to Normandy, and Claire (a) very nearly converts to Catholicism for some reason (mostly so that there can be a scene where a priest hears her confession and absolves her of any guilt about leaving her loving husband Frank behind in the future), and (b) cures Jamie of his severe bacterial infection AND his PTSD by sending him into an opium-induced hallucination where he thinks that she is the bad guy, and he fights her, and then they end up naked on the floor? Yeah, I don’t know what that was all about.

And finally, the book ends with some sexy sex in an underground hot spring and the revelation that Claire is not infertile, as she once thought! The powerful sperm of the sexy Scotsman, clearly superior to the sperm from her boring, skinny nerd husband, managed to impregnate her. Hooray!

Phew. Ok, so clearly I didn’t much like this book. The only reason I kept with it is because I wanted to see what all my friends saw in it. Maybe my problem is just that I’m the opposite of the target audience, but I really can’t comprehend why so many of my feminist female friends like this book. And just to be clear, I don’t mind the loving detail used in describing how sexy Jamie is: I expected that and it didn’t really bother me. Certainly plenty of books that I read are guilty of the opposite: describing female characters in great detail (making sure to mention something about breasts), and then oh yeah also there was a dude standing next to her and he was tall or something. And it’s not even that the writing is mediocre: I read plenty of fantasy and historical fiction books with just so-so writing. It really all comes back to the fact that I don’t get how a relatively modern woman is supposed to just forgive a man who beats her with a belt for “disobedience”. I don’t care how handsome or charming or honest or self-deprecating he is, or how much he tells you about all the times he was beaten as a kid (har har, isn’t it cute how he got beaten so much because he’s stubborn and disobedient? After all, “boys will be boys” and the only thing to do about it is beat them. PS: Claire, Jamie wants to make it clear that if you have kids he’s totally beating them too.) If this book is supposed to be a woman’s fantasy (and for the vast majority of the book it clearly is), then why make the love interest beat her and rape her? I just don’t get it. I’m very uncomfortable with the potential conclusions that could be drawn from that. But then, I don’t understand why so many women apparently enjoy reading 50 Shades of Gray either.

In any case, let’s just leave it at this: I’m glad to be done with this book and very much looking forward to reading something new.

A martian’s review of The Martian (movie)

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I just got back from watching The Martian movie and then eating ice cream and discussing the minutiae with a bunch of my wife’s high school physics students. So I had a pretty fun afternoon.

I went into the movie with high hopes: I was predicting to people beforehand that it would likely make a better movie than book, because a movie can get away with less-developed characters, and acting talent can make up for a lot of shortcomings in the material itself. Also, sweeping landscape shots are just the thing you need for a story like The Martian. They can communicate very efficiently what it would take pages to convey in the book. So was I right? Was the movie better?

Yes! At least, I think so. It was a rare space exploration movie that got almost everything right. Of course there were some nitpicky issues but overall it does a fantastic job of showing a bizarro future where NASA has a lot of funding and is sending humans to Mars. It conveys the excitement and drama of human space exploration, and the heroes are heroic as much for their brains as for their courage. This movie is going to inspire a lot of people to be scientists and engineers, or to at least take more of an interest in these sorts of topics.

As for comparing with the book, they streamlined some of the plot, which was fine by me. They did sadly skip over some technical details that I think could have made things easier to understand (like why he cut a hole in the top of the rover), but a movie has to keep moving. More importantly, having Matt Damon bring life to the relatively two-dimensional character of Mark Watney helped a lot. As did having a supporting cast that was also very well-acted so that, for example, when he is finally able to exchange messages with his crewmates, their banter is much more emotional than I recall in the book.

Yes, but what about the science? Much like the book, it’s mostly pretty good. As before, the biggest issue is the sandstorm at the beginning which is unrealistically forceful. But hey, as I noted in my review of the book, the author acknowledged this and made it as a deliberate artistic choice, and I’m generally ok with bending the rules if there’s a good plot reason to do so. What I like less is when fiction is unrealistic for no apparent reason and there’s very little of that in the movie (though there’s always some).

A new nitpick that appeared in the movie is the landscape. The book spends little time describing the landscape, instead describing potato farming and water production and other technical aspects in loving detail. The movie can’t get away with that: it has to show the landscape, and boy is the landscape of Mars in this movie dramatic! And hey, if people think of Mars as a planet of spectacular cliffs and dunes and canyons, that’s good! Because it is! We just wouldn’t land people near them. Watney is supposed to be in Acidalia Planitia, which is a wide open plain. Those spectacular geologic formations in the movie would be fascinating scientifically, but likely too dangerous to land nearby. (EDIT: My smart friends point out that we could totally land people near large cliffs like that. The benefit of having a human pilot is that your landing uncertainty shrinks down to only a few hundred meters. I had been thinking that all the pre-supply stuff had to land autonomously, but if you can have a human pilot land it, then a site like the one depicted might be ok. But it’s still not what Acidalia Planitia would look like.)

And as for the Pathfinder landing site. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see any towering cliffs or sand dunes in this picture. I mostly just see a lot of rocks that would be a pain to drive over:

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But whatever, I can’t really complain too much that the movie made Mars look extra awesome.

Bottom line: this is a great space exploration movie. You should go see it. Take someone young and impressionable. I hope this movie wins all the awards and makes all the money, so that Hollywood will continue the recent trend of making relatively realistic science fiction blockbusters about the drama of space exploration, instead of yet another superhero reboot. Maybe, just maybe, that will lead to enough increased public interest that what we’re seeing in movies like The Martian will no longer have to be just science fiction.

 

PS: If you have more questions about the technical details of the movie or book, post a comment and I’ll try to answer!

PPS: I still can’t read the movie poster slogan “Bring Him Home” without thinking of the song from Les Miserables. How has there not been a The Martian/Les Mis mashup yet?  Edit: FOUND ONE!

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