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Book Review: The Martian

Book Name: The Martian
Author: Andy Weir
First Published: 2011

Author Andy Weir was born and raised in Southern California. His father is an accelerator physicist and his mother an electrical engineer. Weir grew up reading classic science fiction. His favorite authors were Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. When he was 15, was hired by Sandia National Laboratories as a computer programmer. While Weir has studied computer science at UC San Diego in California, he has not obtained a graduate degree. Instead, he has been working as a programmer for software companies such as AOL, Palm, MobileIron, and Blizzard.

Weir has been writing stories since his mid-twenties. His first short story, The Egg has been adapted into YouTube videos. His first novel The Martian began as a free series on his website in 2009. As the story progressed, his readers gave him pointers and helped him with the scientific aspects of the story. The Martian is based on real life science and the Ares missions are ones that have been proposed to NASA. As time went on, many of his readers asked if he would make the story available on kindle. He then offered it on Amazon for 99 cents. The novel ended up being on the Kindle bestseller list. Later, Weir was approached by a literary agent and sold the rights of the book to Crown Publishing Group. The print version debuted #12 on the New York Times Bestseller list. It has gone on to be made into a major motion picture by the same name and starring Matt Damon. The twentieth-first Century Fox film was released in October of 2015.

Weir is reportedly at work on a second novel. He currently resides in Southern California.

“Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.”
― Andy Weir, The Martian

Ares 3 is the latest mission to Mars. The six-person crew is there to study for 31 days before flying home. During a freak wind storm, astronaut and botanist Mark Watney is left behind and believed dead when he is impaled by a flying antenna during the evacuation. Due to the way he fell and was covered by sand, his suit was able to retain its pressure. When Watney comes to, he is able to return to the “hab”, a tent-like habitat and care for his injuries. He has no way to contact the ship or earth to let them know that he has survived.

It does not take Watney long to realize that even though he has survived his accident, it will be four long years before Ares 4 returns to Mars. While the Hab has enough air and water due to generating it, he does not have enough food to last that long. When going over the supplies, he discovered a package of real potatoes that was being saved for Thanksgiving dinner. Using his skill as a botanist, Watney creates compost from his own human waste and the martian soil and using the potatoes in the package as a seed crop. Soon, his hab is a mini-potato farm making him plenty of extra food.

In order to contact NASA, Watney realizes that the pathfinder probe is not too far away and he travels to it. When it is uncovered from the sand, its solar panels give it enough power to turn on. Watney devises a way to communicate with NASA via this primitive system until they can reprogram a connection in his rover to type back and forth. Watney is no longer alone and learns that a mission to rescue him is being planned.

Watney plans to drive his rover 2000 miles to Schiaparelli crater where the Ares 4 craft is waiting and making fuel for the next mission. He modifies one of the rovers for the mission, adding solar cells and an additional battery.

During this time, a freak accident creates a tear in the Hab and an airlock breaches. Watney’s second harvest is destroyed along with his compost. He does not have supplies to start his farm anew. He is once again threatened with starvation. NASA attempts to send him a resupply ship, but due to their haste, the rocket is destroyed in liftoff. Thanks to the Chinese, a second rocket is made available, but NASA is unsure if this second attempt will work.

A young astrodynamicist named Rich Purnell, discovers a “slingshot” trajectory that could get Hermes, the original spaceship that the crew is using to return to Earth, to whip around the Earth to gain speed and return to Mars faster than a second ship could. The chinese rocket could be used to send the supplies to Hermes so they and Watney would have enough air and food to survive, but this method would add an additional 500 days to their journey.

The space director is unwilling to risk the lives of the entire crew, but Captain Lewis learns of Purnell’s plan and decides to force the issue after taking it up with her crew. They are all willing to take the additional risk and the extra time in space if it will save their crewmate and friend.

Watney resumes his work on the rover and sets off on his long trek across the Martian surface to Ares 4. He faces many challenges along the way, each one of them coming close to killing him. The journey takes months of hard labor and loneliness. Meanwhile, Hermes is traveling back to Mars to get their man.

Will martian Mark Watney be rescued? You will need to read the book to find out.

The Martian Book CoverI read The Martian last year on a whim. I had heard good reviews on the story, but Weir was an unknown author to me who started out by posting his novel on a blog! While I am a supporter of independent authors, I am one myself after all, I was not sure if I was ready for a hard science SF novel. Well, my socks were blown off by this book and I fell in love with it. While the characters were not particularly deep, the sheer force of the depiction of living on the planet Mars with present day technology was astonishing. The planet Mars is as much a main character as Mark Watney and it is a powerful antagonist. As the logical mishaps befallen our astronaut, you start to root for the geeky Watney and his quest to stay alive long enough for NASA to rescue him. I could not put the book down.

The Martian is also a success story from an independent author point of view. This is Weir’s first novel and it was more a hobby to him than a career choice. By his own account he was not in writing to make a living. He hit the jackpot with his kindle book that snowballed into a traditional publishing deal and now a movie. It is every indy author’s dream and a one in a million circumstance. Kudos to Mr. Weir. I greatly look forward to his next novel.

Book Review: The Crystal Cave

Book Name: The Crystal Cave
Author: Mary Stewart
First Published: 1970

Lady Mary Stewart was born in Sunderland, England, the daughter of a vicar. She graduated from Durham University in 1938 with full honors in English. While she hoped to become a university professor, due to World War II, jobs were very scarce and she shifted gears, got a teaching certificate and taught primary school instead. After the war ended, she went on to earn a master’s degree and was hired as a lecturer of English Language and Literature at the Durham University.

It was during her years lecturing at Durham where she met a fellow lecturer, a young Scot who spoke of Geology, by the name of Frederick Stewart. They married within three months of their meeting at a VE Day dance in 1945. When she was 30, Lady Stewart had an ectopic pregnancy that was undiscovered for many weeks and damaged her. She lost the child and was not able to have any further children.

In 1956, her husband became a professor of Geology and Mineralogy at Edinburgh University in Scotland. Instead of continuing to teach, Mary Stewart decided to submit a novel to publisher Hodder & Stoughton. They accepted her book and it was an immediate success. She continued to write in many genres such as romantic suspense, poetry, and her famous Merlin Series which is a mix of fantasy and historical fiction.

Mary Stewart was a popular best-selling author throughout the 1950s through the 1980s. Her novel The Moonspiners was made into a Disney movie. After T.H. White produced his book The Sword in the Stone, Arthurian legends became popular. Mary Stewart soon after published The Crystal Cave and it was a huge hit. In the 1990’s it was adapted into a BBC TV series called Merlin of the Crystal Cave and starred Robert Powell as Ambrosius.

In 1974, Frederick Stewart was knighted and Mary became Lady Stewart, although she did not often use the title. She and her husband lived happily in both Edinburgh and Loch Awe, Scotland and were avid gardeners and shared a love for nature. He passed on in 2001. Mary followed him in 2014.

“The gods only go with you if you put yourself in their path. And that takes courage.”
― Mary Stewart, The Crystal Cave

Arthurian legends normally are told via the perspective of King Arthur. The Crystal Cave takes a departure from this trend by following the life of Merlin the Wizard or as he is called in this tale, Myrddin Emrys.

Myrddin begins his story when he is six years old and follows him until he is a young man. The Romans have departed Britain and it is now divided into many smaller kingdoms, loosely united under a High King. Myrddin is the son of a Welsh princess who declines to name his sire. He is small for his age and often neglected. He also has clairvoyant visions. This second sight causes him to be called as “the son of a devil”. He is educated by a hermit named Galapas who teaches him how to use his psychic talents and creates in him a young man of many intellectual talents in a age when brawn and fighting with a sword is more prized. Eventually, Myrddin finds his way to the court of Ambrosius Aurelianus of Brittany. Ambrosius wishes to invade Britain and become its High King. With him is his brother and heir, Uther.

When it is revealed that Myrddin is Ambrosius bastard son, he must leave the court. He returns to his home, only to discover that his teacher Galapas has been killed. He is captured by Vortigern, the usurper king of Britain. The usurper is building a fort, but the land is unstable at the chosen location and the walls tumble on a regular basis. Due to his education, Myrddin realizes that the walls fall because of a series of caves that are directly beneath the fort, but he informs Vortigern that the problem is due to dragons living in the ground. Soon after this, Amrosius invades and defeats Vortigern.

Myrddin uses his engineering talents to rebuild Stonehenge, but while doing so, he has visions of his father’s death. When a comet appears and Ambrosius dies, his half brother Uther Pendragon takes the throne.

The Crystal Cave Book CoverI stumbled onto Mary Stewart’s Merlin books in college. I loved Sword in the Stone and later Mists of Avalon, so another series of books about King Arthur and his knights was very welcome. I was surprised to learn that The Crystal Cave followed the original story of Merlin instead of Arthur. Stewart did an amazing amount of historical research to bring her novels into line with the original legends. She created a more organic and natural Merlin, an educated man, than wizard. The bringing in of psychic arts and druid religion gave the stories just enough of a fantasy touch to set them apart. It is a classic tale that has stood the test of time. If you love Arthurian legend, this is a series for you.

The Merlin Series

The Crystal Cave (1970)
The Hollow Hills (1973)
The Last Enchantment (1979)
The Wicked Day (1983)
The Prince and the Pilgrim (1995)

Book Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Book Name: 2001: A Space Odyssey
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
First Published: 1968

Sir Arthur Charles Clarke was considered one of the “big three” founders of the genre of science fiction, along with Robert A. Heinlein and Issac Asimov. He was a British science fiction author, futurist, inventor, undersea explorer and a television series host. He is the recipient of numerous Hugo and Nebula awards.

Clarke was born in Somerset, England and grew up in Bishops Lydeard. He grew up on a farm and spent his youth stargazing and reading old American science fiction pulp magazines. As a teenager, he joined the British Interplanetary Society and proposed a satellite communication system idea that later won him the Franklin Institute’s Stuart Ballantine Medal and other honors. Later in life, he would go on to become the chairman of the Institute.

During World War II, he served in the Royal Air Force as a radio specialist. His work in the early warning radar defense system helped contribute to the RAF’s victories during the Battle of Britain. He also served in the ranks, starting as a corporal instructor on radar and then was commissioned as a Pilot Officer and later as a Flying Officer. By the end of the war, he was the chief training instructor at RAF Honiley at Warwickshire with the rank of Flight Lieutenant.

When the war ended, he returned to school and earned a degree in mathematics and physics from King’s College London. It was during this time that he wrote many articles about telecommunication relays and geostationary satellites. He wrote many non-fiction books describing the technical details and implications of rocketry and space flight. In recognition of his work in the field, the geostationary orbit 22,000 miles above the equator is known officially as a Clarke Orbit.

In 1956, Clarke emigrated to Sri Lanka, the official reason was to pursue his interest in scuba diving. He discovered the underwater ruins of an Koneswaram Temple in Trincomalee. Although it was not made public at the time, Clarke had become close to a Sri Lankan man, Leslie Ekanayake, whom Clarke called his “only perfect friend of a lifetime” in a dedication in one of his novels.

By this time, Clarke had written many books, both technical non-fiction and science fiction. However, his crowning achievement would be a movie that brought his work into the mainstream. 2001: A Space Odyssey began as a 1968 movie developed in concert Clark and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Both developed the story as the film was shot, but in the end, only Arthur C. Clark was credited with writing both the film and the movie. The story is based on various short stories by Clark, but the one used the most was The Sentinel of Eternity (1948), a story he wrote for a BBC competition. Although Sir Arthur C. Clarke has published well over 100 novels, many of them winners of the Hugo and Nebula awards, he is most famous for this novel and the accompanying movie. It is an enduring classic film that has stood up to the test of time.

The author lived in Sri Lanka until his death in 2008, being knighted in 2000 by Queen Elizabeth, although he was in poor health and could not receive the honor in person. He was also awarded Sri Lanka’s highest civil honor, Sri Lankabhimanya in 2005. Clarke chose to be buried with Ekanayake in the Colombo central cemetery upon his death. Although he had been married to a woman for a short time in 1953, it is thought that he chose to emigrate to Sri Lanka where homosexuality was more tolerated at that time. He had no children.

“He was moving through a new order of creation, of which few men had ever dreamed. Beyond the realms of sea and land and air and space lay the realms of fire, which he alone had been privileged to glimpse. It was too much to expect that he would also understand.”
― Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey is a series of vignettes about an ancient and unknown race of aliens that use a device in the shape of a monolith to encourage the development of intelligent life. The first occurrence on Earth appears in ancient Africa four million years ago where it helps a group of proto-humans to invent tools. The clubs they develop help them kill animals and thus allow them to eat meat and survive.

The book then moves ahead to 1999, showing Dr. Floyd’s journey to Clavius Base on the Moon. He attends a meeting where another monolith is discovered, this one is the first known in human history. How it got there on the Moon is a mystery. Floyd and a team of scientists are viewing the monolith when the sun touched upon it. The monolith sends a radio transmission to one of the moons of Saturn, Iapetus. The scientists decide to investigate further and plan a mission to the moon.

The next vignette features Astronaut David Bowman and Francis Poole. Their ship is guided by a computer, HAL 9000 who is an AI. HAL tells Bowman that one of the units in the ship is faulty, but when Poole goes to check on it, he finds that there is nothing wrong. Bowman and Poole consult with Earth and are told to disconnect HAL for analysis. The instructions on how to do this are interrupted by a broken signal and HAL informs the two astronauts that the same unit has malfunctioned.

Poole goes EVA to remove the malfunctioning unit and is killed when his spacesuit is ripped. Bowman is suspicious that HAL may have had something to do with Poole’s “accident”. He decides to wake the other three astronauts who are in deep sleep, not only for their safty, but because he feels he needs help. As he starts their awakening process, HAL opens both airlocks. Bowman manages to escape in an emergency shelter and from there he is able to shut down the AI’s consciousness.

Upon contacting Earth, he learns that his mission is not just to explore Iapetus, the moon around Saturn, but to seek out the aliens that created the monolith on the Moon. The astronaut discovers that there is another monolith on the Iapetus, but it is much larger than the one that had been buried on the Moon. As he approaches it, the monolith opens up and swallows him. The last message Bowman sends back to Earth is, “The thing’s hollow – it goes on forever – and – oh my God! – it’s full of stars!”

What happens next is astonishing and you’ll have to read the book to find out all the details.

2001 A Space Odyssey book coverI have not read many of Clarke’s novels. They always seemed to be a little dry to me, more high concept than character driven. Yet, I can not deny the impact that this “big three” author has had on the genre.

I was introduced to the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey at filmschool. Stanley Kubrick is a much studied and renown filmmaker and the collaboration he did with Clarke created a piece of cinema that is a stand-alone classic that should be seen. Until I researched this book review, I had not realized that Kubrick and Clarke had worked as partners on the story and I believe this accounts for the highly visual and emotional impact of both film and book. The details of Clarke’s novel are similar to the movie (the book goes to Saturn and the movie to Jupiter), but the science is more explained by Clarke and the ambiguous ending of the film is not a part of the book. Clarke gives you a resolution worthy of a grandmaster of science fiction. I am glad that I have read 2001: A Space Odyssey and seen the movie. Both are classics that every lover of science fiction should partake.

Book Review: The Eye of the World

Book Name: The Eye of the World
Author: Robert Jordan
First Published: 1990

Author Robert Jordan (born James Oliver Rigney, Jr.) was born in the late 1940s in Charleston, South Carolina. As a child, he was fond of reading, especially the books of Mark Twain and Jules Verne. As an adult, he served two tours of duty in Vietnam as a gunner with the US Army.

Returning to the states in the early 1970s, Jordan went back to school at the Military College of South Carolina. He studied the sciences and following the gaining of his degree started work as a nuclear engineer for the Navy.

Writing had always been his passion and in the late 1970s, he began to write novels of various genres, under different pen names. Robert Jordan was his final pen name in which his fantasy books were gathered. His most famous fantasy series is The Wheel of Time which has sold 44 million copies globally and was the basis for a role-playing game, soundtrack album, and a computer game. The ideas and title of the series were inspired by Hindu Mythology.

Jordan had many other concepts waiting to be written in the fantasy genre, he was waiting to start them once he finished The Wheel of Time. However, fate was not kind to him. In March of 2006, he announced publicly that he had cardiac amyloids, a rare blood disease. He was given four years to live. He underwent chemotherapy and took part in a study for a new drug that might have helped him. It was all to no avail. Jordan passed away in September of 2007 with his Wheel of Time series unfinished.

After his death, his wife selected Brandon Sanderson, an up and coming epic fantasy author, to complete the Wheel of Time series based on the notes that her husband had left behind. Robert Jordan had written the epilogue and a few chapters, but little more of the final book. Sanderson took up the challenge but found that the story was so complex that he needed three rather long books to finish the Wheel of Time properly.

“As the Wheel of Time turns, places wear many names. Men wear many names, many faces. Different faces, but always the same man. Yet no one knows the Great Pattern the Wheel weaves, or even the Pattern of an Age. We can only watch, and study, and hope.”
― Robert Jordan, The Eye of the World

The Eye of the World is the first book of a long fantasy epic series that features a cast of main characters instead of a single hero. It has a huge cast of characters and the story unfolds, chapter by chapter, via the viewpoint of a different rotating protagonist. It is a complex tale with many twists and turns.

The story begins in a land known as the Two Rivers which has been all but cut off from the rest of the world for at least a thousand years. It is a rural place of small villages and isolated farms. During the spring festival, young Rand al’Thor notices a stranger watching him. A man whose cloak doesn’t move in the wind. He tells his father about the stranger, but he is gone when his father looks.

They arrive in the village of Emond’s Field for the festival and Rand hooks up with his two friends. Perrin, the apprentice to the village blacksmith and Mat, a comedic prankster. They both mention that they have seen this same stranger watching them. In the village, there are visitors come for the festival. Aes Sedai Moiraine and her warder protector Lan. Moiraine gives each of the three boys a coin; she calls it a token for future work she may ask of them.

Rand and his father return home, but are attacked by creatures known as “Trollocs”. Rand’s father is wounded during the attack. In his delirium, he tells his son that he is adopted, a foundling he picked up on a mountaintop during the Aiel War. Rand takes his injured father back to the village in the hope that the Aes Sedai can use her magic to heal his father. She does heal his father, but she tells Rand, Mat, and Perrin that the Trollocs are after them personally. The strange man who watches them is a “Myrddraal”, a creature of darkness, and the three must leave the village for their own safety and that of their people. The three decide to leave with Moiraine and her Warder. At the last minute, Rand’s girlfriend Egwene joins them. She desires to become an Aes Sedai herself and this is a good excuses to leave Edmond’s Field. A wandering minstrel named Thom also comes along.

The party flees Emond’s Field and travel toward the town of Baerlon. There they meet a young woman named Min who claims that she can see auras around Rand and his friends. While there, their village wisdom Nynaeve find them and says that she wishes to bring the boys home for their own good. This causes her to be at odds with the Aes Sedai who is having enough trouble protecting the boys from Trolloc attacks on the road.

In Baerlon, the boys begin to have dreams where a man clad in black names himself Ba’alzamon and tells them that they will serve him and the Dark One. Moiraine wishes to bring the boys to the city of Aes Sedai, known as Tar Valon, where they can be better protected. She uses her channeling magic, called The One Power, to scare off whitecloak soldiers in Baerlon who wish to harm the boys. While their inn is set on fire, the party escapes.

Away from Baerlon, the group is forced to seek refuge from the Trollocs in an abandoned city called Shadar Logoth. Even the Trollocs fear to enter the city. In the city, the boys go exploring and meet a man called Mordeth who casts no shadow. Mat steals a dagger from him. The boys manage to get away from the man, but this episode worries the Aes Sedai and her Warder enough that they decide to split the party up.

Perrin and Egwene cross the river and try to make their way to Tar Valon on their own. On the way they encounter a man who can talk to wolves. He claims that Perrin has this ability too. As they continue to travel, Perrin and Egwene come to a “stedding”, which is the home of “Ogiers”, giant sized people who live incredibly long lives. Their home has magical protection from Trollocs, however Perrin and Egwene discover that Whitecloaks have also come. The Whitecloaks take a disliking to Perrin due to his association with wolves, which they regard as evil.

Nynaeve, Lan and Moiraine depart Shadar Logoth together. Moiraine senses that Nynaeve also has the one power and can channel it, but she is untrained. Without the schooling of the Aes Sedai of Tar Valon, she may die. Nynaeve resists the idea, but in the end she accepts that she will need to become an Aes Sedai and agrees to go to Tar Valon with Moiraine. Nynaeve casts her eye on the intrepid Lan and the two begin to fall for each other, which causes complications for Moiraine who is bonded to the man via the one power. Via the coin Moiraine had given Perrin in Emond’s Field, the Aes Sedai is able to track him and Egwene. The trio arrives to save the pair in the nick of time from the Whitecloaks.

Mat, Thom and Rand leave Shadar Logoth in a boat and eventually arrive in the city of Caemlyn. Mat becomes increasing paranoid on the journey. Unknown to the boys, he is being magically poisoned by the dagger he stole from Mordeth in Shadar Logoth. In the city, Rand meets a young Ogier named Loial, who at first mistakes him for an Aiel and tells Rand that he must be a “ta’veren”, a man who fate wraps itself around. Rand is eventually taken to see Queen Morgase where a seer has a foretelling that Rand is at the center of all the destruction that is to come to Caemlyn. While it is commented that Rand looks like an Aielman, his accent is that of the Two Rivers. The Queen decides that Rand may go free since she is familiar with the people of the Two Rivers.

Moiraine and her party arrive in Caemlyn and connect with Rand and Mat. Moiraine uses the one power to heal Mat of the poison from the dagger. The group learns that the Dark One plans to use an object known as The Eye of the World in a place called the Blight. Loial the Ogier knows how to use a magical passage called “the ways” and takes the group to the Blight via this method. There Rand must confront Ba’alzamon, using the budding power within him, to claim the objects that are contained in the Eye of the World.

The Eye of the World Book Cover

I was first introduced to The Wheel of Time saga by gaming friends that were hooked on the roleplaying game based on the novels. In order to play the game, it was necessary to read the books. It did not take me long in The Eye of the World to become completely hooked on this series and soon would go on to read the rest of the novels.

I had an opportunity to hear Robert Jordan read from his final work-in-progress novel, the one that would eventually turn into three volumes written by Brandon Sanderson, at the San Diego Comic Con a few months before his death. The room was packed with hundreds of breathless people, waiting to hear Jordan read from his much anticipated book. He was seated and did not wish to move about much due to his illness, but his voice was strong and clear. The words captivated the audience.

When he died with the final book unfinished, I was one of those heart-broken fans that wondered if I would ever hear the end of the tale by one of my favorite authors. When his wife commissioned Brandon Sanderson to finish the series, I was uncertain if this young author had the chops to write The Wheel of Time. I checked out one of his first novels, Elantris, and saw the quality of his work. I had nothing to worry about. Sanderson has gone on to become one of the top writers in the epic fantasy genre today.

The Wheel of Time Saga

The Eye of the World (1990)
The Great Hunt (1990)
The Dragon Reborn (1991)
The Shadow Rising (1992)
The Fires of Heaven (1993)
Lord of Chaos (1994) Locus Award nominee, 1995.
A Crown of Swords (1996)
The Path of Daggers (1998)
Winter’s Heart (2000)
Crossroads of Twilight (2003)
Knife of Dreams (2005) Final novel completed by Robert Jordan.
The Gathering Storm (2009) Completed by Brandon Sanderson.
Towers of Midnight (2010) Completed by Brandon Sanderson.
A Memory of Light (2013) Completed by Brandon Sanderson, epilogue by Robert Jordan.

Luna Station Quarterly Features Book Review of A WRINKLE IN TIME

A Wrinkle in Time Book CoverI’ve been a regular contributor of book reviews to the online feminist magazine Luna Station Quarterly. It is a magazine that features up and coming female speculative fiction writers, and columns about all things related to science fiction and fantasy. The magazine debuted in 2011 and features a subscription-based magazine and free online columnists that write on subjects connected to speculative fiction. There is also an anthology of stories put out by Luna Station Quarterly that can be found on Amazon.

This June, Luna Station Quarterly has reprinted my book review of the vintage fantasy novel A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I hope you will stop by the magazine and read the offerings by columnists such as myself.