Life on Mars 2? : Andy Weir – “The Martian”

ABOVE: Major Tom the Rocket Man.

C. S. Forester’s Hornblower novels come with their adventurous jargon. So do the nautical narratives of the future, where Space is the treacherous ocean to sail. The terminology changes, though: EVAs, MAVs, modules, checksums. Andy Weir’s “The Martian” is a castaway tale from that near future of extraterrestrial exploration. Astronaut Mark Watney has been accidentally left behind on the Red Planet – and he miraculously proceeds to survive through sheer scientific ingenuity.

It is very tempting to reduce  that plot to “Castaway” + “Gravity” = “Robinson Crusoe in Mars,” (which already exists.)

ABOVE: AKA “Gilligan’s Planet”

“The Martian” is hardly original, a recognizable descendant of science-infused adventures that go back to, if not Daniel Defoe, at least Jules Verne. (“From the Earth to the Moon” + “Mysterious Island” would be the more classical reduction formula.) But what has made “The Martian” popular (and more than a little over-hyped) is that, within the breeziest of narratives, it packs the hardest of SF. The intellectual pleasure here lies with Mark’s use of chemistry, physics, biology, geology and botany. Mark might protest that his stupidity leads him to the brink of death all the time, but that’s a pretty harsh standard of human intelligence: it’s safe to say that you or I would have died about 10 minutes into our Martian adventure. Andy Weir has taken his science seriously – and not science as some laboratory abstraction, but science as the trial-and-error process through which survival on the surface of Mars can go from outlandish fancy to eventual inevitability.

Low gravity on Mars means a lot of levity, so Weir punctuates it all with jokes, written in the vernacular of irony I’ll admit to employing all the time: “Oh, yay. I’m stuck on Mars and will probably die here. That doesn’t suck ass at all!” Half the charm is in those jokes – without them, this would be Arthur C. Clarke –  but they’re all more than a little obvious (“Disco sucks! What is UP with ‘Three’s Company’?”) I didn’t mind. Where ‘The Martian” drifts off is with a pack of secondary characters that seem as mechanic in their forced “diversity” as if they were automatons yanked from the “It’s a Small World” ride. At least Weir seems aware of how flat they are. Here’s how a German astronaut reacts to being offered a sausage:

“Ja, please,” Vogel responded.

“You know you’re a stereotype, right?”

“I am comfortable with that.”

Maybe a little less comfort with stereotypes would have led to better characterizations.


Laveer your Spinnacker to the Taffrail, Matey! : C. S. Forester – “Midshipman Hornblower”

A picture isn’t worth a thousand words. A picture DEPRIVES YOU of a thousand words. You may look at this picture of the Battle of Trafalgar -

ABOVE: Battleships

- but without C. S. Forester, all you’re seeing is a bunch of ships getting shot to hell. I’d never read the Hornblower series as a kid, (more’s the pity) and that means I’ve been poor in my sea words. It also means I found a linguistic bounty in “Midshipman Hornblower” (the chronological first in the classic series detailing the naval career of one Horatio Hornblower.) Sure, I’d glimpsed “mizzenmasts,” “jibs,” “brigs,” “frigates,” and “carronades,” (as through a deep sea mist) but other words, like  “xebecs,” “fothers,” “fanegas,” “coamings” and “halliards” have the novelty of treasure islands for me.

I love archaic terms.

“Mr. Midshipman Hornblower” covers the years 1794-1798, with young Hornblower getting his sea legs in a series of exciting vignettes. Horatio HB sort of rocks the boat, and we rock with him because C. S. Forester puts you out there, drenched by the spray of the ocean spray, sea-sick, while the shrapnel of nautical nomenclature flies fast all about. Occasionally, he’ll let a little too much poetry seep in, with quasi-euphonious tongue-twisters like “a flaw of wind blew a wave of flame aft,” but this is a rip-roaring read overall.

ABOVE: Mr. Midshipman Hornblower set sail for the nearest courthouse that would legally change his name.

RATING : COOL! A hawsehole for your gudgeon’s bollards!

Katabasis : Catherynne M. Valente : “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.”

Katabasis is the Greek word for descent, often associated with sojourns in the Underworld. It’s the “biggest” word to be found in Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There,” but it’s hardly the only one that will tax young readers. I say: “Good.” I say young readers should get a dictionary.

ABOVE: Revel revel

The sequel to “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland” finds young September a little more grown, a little more uncertain in her actions (a heart has appeared at the core of her being.) She returns to Fairyland to find that her friends’ shadows are being sucked into Fairyland-Below. Katabasis Time! Accompanied by the shadows of A-Through-L, (the Wyverary), and Saturday, (the Marid), September travels deep into this Underworld, where her own shadow, the Hollow Queen, is creating trouble. Or is she? As in the first book, the motivations of the “bad guys” are not always what they appear to be. Indeed “bad guys” are not of particular interest to a series this mature. The focus is less on conflict than on the succession of wondrous creatures.

Once more, Ana Juan’s excellent illustrations fix the look of Fairyland in our heads. If there’s any nit-picking to be done, surely it’s with the occasional didactic intrusion. It’s too Victorian an affectation. The Fairyland series is too strong to need that kind of linguistic tether to J. M. Barrie and Lewis Carroll. I’m actually looking forward to Valente’s adult work more than I am to part 3 of this series. I want to see what she does without the Oz/Wonderland/Neverland constraints, because the display of imagination here is extraordinarily rich.  Almost excessively so: the characters crowd for our attention, from Aubergine the Dodo to the Duke of Teatime and the Vicereine of Coffee and Belinda Cabbage. It’s harder to love a crowd than it is to love a couple of friends, which is why this book is a small notch below the first.

ABOVE: Crow, crow, crow your boat



Ana Juan’s art site has samples from her non-Fairyland work. She’s an astonishing, instantly recognizable Spanish illustrator.

ABOVE: And it’s not all for children.


Everything is Better With You Than Without You : Manu Larcenet – “Ordinary Victories”

ABOVE: Extraordinary

Actually, the title of Manu Larcenet’s powerful graphic series is “Le Combat Ordinaire” (“The Ordinary Combat”) which is more about struggle than the falsely optimistic name it has gained in the English translation, (“Ordinary Victories.”) By any name, this is a very moving work, sad, funny, youthful and wise. It won the 2004 Angouleme Prize for Best Album, deservedly.

The starting point is familiar: Marc is a young artist panicking existentially, unable to cope with adulthood, trying to figure out how to relate to his girlfriend, his family, his work, and his society. As a friend once put it: “People in their 20s and 30s always write about people in their 20s and 30s figuring shit out.” True, but Larcenet does what the greatest of story-tellers do: he convinces you for a few hours that the story has never been told before, that this is THE portrait of the artist as a young man.

The protagonist of “Ordinary Victories” may be immature, but the artistry in display here is anything but. Any comics fans whose reading expands beyond spandex will appreciate this. I CAN imagine a reader who might feel that Marc is fighting too many internal battles which are never resolved. But I say that’s fine. How COULD they be resolved?  These are combats, not victories. What was that from that Faulkner book?

“Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”

ABOVE: She looks so cute when she’s drawn angry


Strike Two : J. K. Rowling as Robert Galbraith – “The Silkworm”

This is more like it! A remarkable improvement over “The Cuckoo’s Calling”, J. K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith’s “The Silkworm” takes care to fix many of the problems of the previous book in the Cormoran Strike series. The fixes go from the major ( the “reveal scene” here is far from perfect but improves over the last one) to the minor (Rowling/Galbraith noticeably stops referring to Asians as “Orientals,” which, yay!)

ABOVE: Wormtail is NOT a character here, unfortunately

Controversial “artsy” writer Owen Quine has gone missing after a public row with his publisher, and soon it becomes apparent that his disappearance may be permanent. Quine has written a roman-a-clef called “Bombyx Mori” in which he has slandered half of England’s literatti… or told the bitter truth about them. In any case, there’s a long list of bruised egos who would do anything to stop the book from seeing the light of day. And so we have another investigation by Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott (who’s soon to be married to her jealous, unsympathetically moody boyfriend Matthew – OR IS SHE?)

The real reason why “The Silkworm” is a far more assured crime novel is that it unfolds in the publishing world, far from the tabloid cliches of “The Cuckoo’s Calling”. Rowling is at ease here, where the McGuffins involve unpublished manuscripts, the suspects are novelists and editors, the riddles are literary (each chapter is illuminated by lines from Elizabethan/Jacobean revenge tragedies by the likes of Thomas Kyd, John Webster, and the Beaumont / Fletcher duo.)

ABOVE: “My Jacobean Revenge Tragedy is bigger than your Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy!”

“The Silkworm” is not exactly flawless. The “revenge tragedy” angle could have been more substantial – the allusions are seriously undermined by the fact that the “Bombyx Mori” is NOT a revenge tragedy, but a “Pilgrim’s Progress”-style allegory. Also, Rowling belabors Strike’s surfeit of  traits, padding the novel with constant, mostly irrelevant references to his stump pains and his celebrity dad and his estranged brothers and his Army days and his shaving habits and, worst of all, to his psychologically unlikely relationship with a glitzy/ditzy ex-girlfriend. I suspect all those things will pay off in future volumes – (if Rowling hasn’t carefully outlined the next five or six books of Cormoran Strike, I would be shocked) but at this point, they’re annoyances.

Overall, though, this is shaping up to be one of those series that perch themselves on best-seller lists automatically for as long as the writer bothers to release them. (*cough cough* Lee Child James Patterson Sue Grafton John Sandford *end cough.*)