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Andy Weir and the Artemis Book Launch at the USS Intrepid

November 16, 2017 Leave a comment

Greetings, readers!

I have a very exciting update. This past Tuesday, my fiancee Anastasia and I took a trip to New York City. We had two main goals: belatedly celebrate our one year engagement anniversary and to meet Andy Weir, author of The Martian, at the launch event of his new book Artemis. I am happy to say that we accomplished both!

The first thing we did upon our arrival in New York was to grab a taxi and get to the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum. This was where I had proposed to Anastasia last October. We wanted to visit the museum again because, let’s face it, being on an aircraft carrier is freakin’ awesome and the Space Shuttle Enterprise is always worth a visit when you’re in New York.

The special exhibit for the museum was about Drones, and I really recommend it if you find yourself in New York and have an interest in the history and possible future of drone technology. It’s not a large exhibit, but as part of the whole museum it’s a great add-on.

Here we are, looking at Drones, with Ana taking a bunch of selfies. Look at that huge white hair in my beard, just taunting me.

They had some really impressive displays in the exhibit, including the Navy’s Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (DASH).

My hopes that with would be an awesome exhibit were not DASH-ed. *Crickets* I’m here all week.

After touring the exhibit on drones, we made our way into the Intrepid to get up to the flight deck, because why take an elevator when you can get lost in a massive ship with winding hallways and narrow stairs? The way up to the flight deck through the ship takes you past some really cool pieces, such as old gun placements.

On the flight deck. The weather was much the same as it was the day I proposed–rainy and cold. The good thing is that this time Ana remembered to bring her own jacket.

Of course, you also have to spend time appreciating the planes that the museum has on the flight deck. In the picture above you can see the A-12–the black plane–behind an F-16 Fighting Falcon. I especially like the A-12, a spy plane which is the forerunner to the SR-71 Blackbird.

I don’t like what they were designed for, but I do like the engineering and science behind them.

I think what I really like about the museum is that it just sits on the pier in the Hudson River, giving you a great view of Manhattan. To be honest, every time I go to New York my jaw still drops at just how huge the city is, so I’m pretty much amazed at any view of the city. I’m a country bumpkin.

Seriously, how can you not love this?

There’s also a storage company across the street from the pier, and it has some really clever advertisements. A lot of the attraction of the museum is the space component, which you can find in the space shuttle pavilion where they store the Space Shuttle Enterprise.

That’s some really clever marketing.

After we spent some time in the space shuttle pavilion, marveling at the Enterprise (and after Ana purchased a glow-in-the-dark “Caturn” t-shirt), we hopped in a cab and set out to visit the main branch of the New York Public Library. I had wanted to visit for some time, and we had some time to do it before the Andy Weir book launch. It’s a really special place, and if I were ever in New York City for some time I would definitely find myself in one of the reading rooms.

Afterward, we stopped at the gift shop to marvel at some of the trinkets, including these Einstein statues with little moving hands.

He knows something, doesn’t he?

Of course, we both started to get hungry. Ana was set on getting tea, so we walked a few blocks to Maison Kayser, a french Boulangerie. The food was delicious, the staff was friendly and efficient, and the setting was intimate. We hunkered down there and ate at a leisure pace.

Mmm…A french version of a club sandwich. Includes everything an American club sandwich has, plus an egg.

We arrived back at the Intrepid museum complex just as they were opening the doors to get in. Since we already had our tickets we were able to get in fairly quickly. We were ushered into an elevator to get to the flight deck strait away as the event was being held in the space shuttle pavilion. As we reached the top, and the elevator doors opened, a prerecorded voice said, “going down,” of course just an automated message played when the elevator moves. One of the people in the elevator with us said, “that’s not something you want to hear on an aircraft carrier.” Laughs were had by all.

We picked our seats by the stage where Andy would be interviewed, and Ana got a free beer from 212 Brewing Company. It was a pale ale, both hoppy and delicious. It wasn’t long before Andy arrived in the pavilion, and he was generous with his time in interacting with his fans. Ana asked him a question about The Martian, and he provided an answer that was thoughtful and not rushed. She also mentioned it was our anniversary (though he called us liars–jokingly, of course!–because it wasn’t really our anniversary).

The Belarussian, the Martian, and the Author.

After he met with the fans, he conducted a short interview for a podcast (I’m not sure which one).

I didn’t hear the interview, but I expect it was sufficiently nerdy.

I really liked the entire scene. Ana and I sat under the left wing of the Space Shuttle Enterprise, on the deck of the USS Intrepid, to listen to Andy Weir talk about his writing process, Artemis, and a host of other interesting details relating to being a writer, getting published, and the science behind the books. Two things which I really appreciated: 1) his remarks about world-building in his stories, and how it’s vital to them. In fact, he explained that Artemis started as him building the world in the novel, and then writing the story around that. 2) The fact that he described the perspective of his books as being “first-person smartass.” A man after my own heart, but also very practical; people are much more tolerant of exposition when it comes from a voice that they like. Andy has a talent for that, as he very easily slides science into the narrative without you really knowing that you’re being SCIENCED!

The shuttle itself is actually much bigger than the picture would suggest. (I tried to rewrite this statement several times and failed to make it not suggestive.)

Finally, after the talk was over, we got in line to get our books autographed.

According to Ana, I’m a pushover.

Andy, as always, we friendly and gracious. He even remembered us from earlier, and wished us a happy anniversary. Ana showed him her beat-up copy of The Martian, which, as she readily explains, she took to the top of a volcano in Hawaii to read. Apparently it provided a really neat setting for the book and provided a certain level of immersion in it. Andy, of course, said he loved books that were “well-loved,” while pretending to crack the spine of my book which was in pristine shape (I am…obsessive about keeping my books in good condition). I jokingly said, “that’s a good way to get the table flipped over,” which he laughed at, providing me no small relief because it could have been received wrong.

It was a very great anniversary, and I can’t imagine that I would ever do something as nerdy and fantastic as this with anyone other than Ana. I look forward to the many more geeky adventures with her, the woman I first met in a science fiction literature class.

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Book Review: The Genius Plague by David Walton

October 6, 2017 Leave a comment

Greetings, readers!

As promised, this is going to be my longer review of David Walton‘s new book The Genius Plague, just released on October 3rd. My previous review was a short advance preview of the book that covered the basics and recommend it to readers of science fiction and general audiences, with 4 out of 5 stars. I had the privilege to meet Walton at the science fiction conference in Washington, D.C., Escape Velocity, in August. He’s a kind, interesting person with a deep well of knowledge, and he’s very generous with his time. I look forward to seeing him at the upcoming PhilCon conference this weekend.

As you’ll see in this review, I have since decided to upgrade the book to 5 out of 5 stars, based on a more thorough examination of my notes, as well as thinking more on what the book actually does.

A note on the text before I get into the review: I read from an Uncorrected Advance Reading Copy, so I likely do not have the final version of the novel. It is expected that there will be certain kinds of errors in the manuscript, and that’s okay. This review will take that into account and focus on the content of the story, the writing style, and other technical aspects that wouldn’t really be effected by the particular edition of the book I read.

This is a long review because I think there’s a lot to unpack in this novel. I’ve left a lot of stuff out for the sake of actually getting a finished review out in time for PhilCon, and I may write more about my thoughts later.

As always, there will be spoilers in this review. Consider yourself warned! If you’d still like to read on, click “Read More” right below.

Read more…

Advance Book Review: The Genius Plague by David Walton

September 21, 2017 1 comment

It’s no secret that I love science fiction. I haven’t reviewed many science fiction books on this blog (with the notable exception of Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, an excellent read), but I have a treat today.

I have a UAC (Uncorrected Advanced Reading Copy) of The Genius Plague by David Walton. The books official release is on October 3, 2017, and I highly suggest that you spare the $14.95 list price (though I’m sure Amazon has it cheaper) to read this book. It’s published by Pyr Science Fiction & Fantasy, an outfit that has been producing some really great work by amazing authors.

I’ll provide a much more in-depth review of the book when it is released, but for now I want to give a shorter advance review. So, first off, I want to say that Walton does an excellent job highlighting real science involved with mycology, as the book is about the spread of a fungus from the Amazon that enhances the intelligence of the people that it infects. In nature, this is seen in species of fungus like cordyceps, which Walton references without naming. Incidentally, the video game The Last of Us features zombies created by cordyceps infection in humans.

Walton obviously writes from a place of deep knowledge, and where he doesn’t have specialized knowledge, he does a fairly decent job with researching. The scientific aspects of the book are believable, as are the sections involving the NSA and Alzheimer’s. I won’t lie: by the time you get to the halfway point of the book, you’re turning pages without being aware of it. Walton has a gift for pacing and knowing how to construct a narrative such that you’re sucked into the novel and reading with increased fervor the deeper into the story you get.

He also has a talent for writing believable characters, for the most part (I’ll talk about some of the issues in the longer review). The dialogue he writes is often engaging, with such gems as “Good to know there’s someone waiting in the wings in case I turn into a fungus zombie.” I laughed out loudly at that line. Another thing that I like about the book is how cryptography plays a role in the action, and Walton does an interesting job of making that fresh.

The Genius Plague is a quick, but excellent read, and deserves a place on the shelf of any lover of science fiction literature. Tentatively, I rate if 4 out of 5 stars (for reasons which I’ll explain in my expanded review).

Book Review: Invisible Planets Part 2 (“The Year of the Rat”)

February 4, 2017 Leave a comment

Greetings, folks!

To start my review of Invisible Planets I’ll be delving into Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat” and exploring the story in detail. To be frank, the story unfolded in a way that both surprised and stunned me, and I hope that, should you read this entire review, you’ll understand why. I get the feeling that this wasn’t just because of my admitted ignorance of Chinese culture, or the limits of trying to interpret this story from the perspective of a Westerner. The narrative is suggestive of a greater ignorance, in fact, not just on the part of the reader, but of the characters’ own confusion at the developments in the plot.

For this review, we’ll be looking at the human element of the story, since that seems to be what’s front and center; more specifically, the relationship between humanity and the themes of the story (economics, maturing, and technology, for instance).

This will be a long review, closing on about 5,500 words, examining several different elements of the story that I think are worth noting. It will also serve as a quick analysis of some aspects of the story from my perspective. Many of these thoughts are preliminary, and if you have any ideas you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.

To avoid potential spoilers for people who would rather read the story first (and there will be spoilers aplenty as the entire story is discussed in detail), the rest of the review can be read by clicking the “Read More” link below.

Read more…

Book Review: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

February 3, 2017 1 comment

“I’ve seen so many versions of you. With me. Without me. Artist. Teacher. Graphic Designer. But it’s all, in the end, just life. We see it macro, like one big story, but when you’re in it, it’s just day-to-day, right? And isn’t that what you have to make your peace with?”

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is a novel that is particularly concerned with two important questions: 1) Who are we? and 2) What if? Like any good science fiction novel, it uses science (in this case some really abstract concepts from quantum physics) to explore not possible consequences of the science, but the ways in which it impacts humanity. Basically, science fiction explores how these concepts relate to us.

The novel opens with Jason Dessen, his wife Daniela, and their son Charlie in their home on family night. Jason contemplates the choices he’s made in life leading him to this point–having a wife, a son, and a mediocre job as a small college physics professor–when he could have stuck with his career and made world-changing discoveries. There’s regret, yes, but I also suspect resignation on the part of himself and Daniela, who also gave up her dreams for her family.

Jason goes out to congratulate an old friend, Ryan, at a local bar for winning the Pavia Prize, awarded to people who make breakthroughs in science. On the way back home, he’s held at gunpoint, kidnapped, and taken to an abandoned power plant where a mysterious man drugs him. He awakens in a hangar he doesn’t recognize, surrounded by people who are familiar with him but who he doesn’t know, and later learns that he invented a kind of machine that allows a person to travel between different universes (along the lines of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics).

“I don’t know. I could see it getting to the where it didn’t feel real anymore. Because it isn’t. The only thing that’s real in this moment is this city. This room. This bed. You and me.”

What I appreciate most about this novel is how it takes complicated ideas and weaves them seamlessly into an extremely compelling narrative, following Jason (or the Jason that is the most familiar to us), as he deals with the situation he is unwillingly thrust into. The complicated ideas don’t weigh the novel down or make it hard to understand; it flows naturally from the characters’ dialogue. In this, Crouch creates a novel that is, at its core, a thought experiment. Given the idea that for every decision we make universes split off to encompass every possible outcome, and given a kind of technology that allows people to travel to these other universes, how might humans use this technology and how might they interact with it?

In a word: badly. But Crouch’s exploration is deeply illuminating because it shines a light on us. When Jason explores “his” house in another universe, he takes stock of the many differences between that house and the house he actually lived in. “In my house…” sets up a contrast between what he knows and what he’s currently experiencing. He wonders if he’s going mad, or if someone’s playing a prank on him, but he cannot square his knowledge with his current experience.

As the novel progresses, Jason visits different universes where he sees several different versions of himself, of Daniela, and of Chicago. He acknowledges that, the more he travels, the less he thinks he understands about himself. “As I shave my beard, the questions of identity keep haunting me.” In one universe, another Jason drops money into this Jason’s collection box, and narrates, “There’s no danger. I’m unrecognizable.” If there are an infinite number of other universes, with infinite other Jasons, what do you really know about yourself? Throughout the novel there’s this theme that your decisions make you who you are; the Jason we’re familiar with made certain decisions that made him a family man, and the Jason that invented the device that allows travel to other universes made other decisions. So which Jason is the “real” Jason?

There’s probably no way to answer that question, because the question itself is absurd. They’re all the real Jason, but they come from different contexts and they have different histories. They’re not only the result of decisions that they make, but of the history and developments in their universes that are different than our universes. None of them have any kind of priority over any other, and this fact assaults our sense of self and the idea that we all hold that we’re special and unique. Jason has to come face-to-face with the fact that there are versions of himself that are capable of great evils in desperate circumstances.

Further, it turns out the being able to travel the universes depends on your own conscious and subconscious mind. Essentially, your thoughts and emotions direct your travel in the space between dimensions. In effect, by exploring the multiverse, you’re actually exploring yourself.

I suppose we’re just trying to come to terms with how horrifying infinity really is.

Dark Matter has an interesting structure. Most of the narrative is first-person perspective in the present tense, from the point-of-view of Jason. However, the story shifts to third-person when we move to the original Daniela and her time with “Jason2,” which is an interesting shift that makes Jason2 feel really alien–like an altogether different person. Jason’s narration has a very stream-of-conscious feel to it, which reinforces the present-tense, and really makes you as a reader feel the emotions, fear, or sense of panic that the character feels.

Crouch’s writing style is descriptive without being too detail-oriented. It’s original and engaging, and unlike Inferno, it uses ellipses and dashes sparingly and only when they’re called for. The way he describes characters is fresh and real. For instance, “Her breath is wine-sweet, and she has one of those smiles that seem architecturally impossible.” His writing style also has hints of a wry sense of humor, such as the following sentence: “Whole Foods smells like the hippie I dated before Daniela–a tincture of fresh produce, ground coffee, and essential oils.”

The pace of the novel almost never falters, and I found myself losing track of time as I turned the pages. You really lose yourself in the story, and in the images that Crouch draws through witty writing and a profound imagination. During Jason’s travels through the universes, Crouch uses what I call the “ampoule countdown,” tracking the number of trips Jason has left to make. That combined with the truly infinite nature of the multiverse creates a sense of utter hopelessness, especially as we see Jason struggle to figure out how to tune his mind and emotions so that he can find his way home (and fail desperately).

Overall, Dark Matter has a solid story, excellent writing, characters that are fleshed-out and real, and an original idea with a fantastic twist ending. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, and by the end of the story you find yourself questioning your own sense of identity.

I give Dark Matter a 5 out of 5, and highly recommend it to anyone who lives mind-benders, techno-thrillers, or science fiction.

Book Review: Invisible Planets Part 1 (Introduction)

January 11, 2017 Leave a comment

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated this blog. Of course, I say that every time I come back from a long hiatus. I am a terribly inconsistent blogger–I admit this freely. Somehow this blog keeps calling me back, year after year, no matter how long I let it languish. I think I like to delude myself into believing that I have an audience for my ramblings.

Anyway, I wanted to start off 2017 by reviewing a book that my fiance got me for Christmas. Invisible Planets, edited by Ken Liu, features short stories by some of Chinese science fiction’s most preeminent authors. In his introduction, Liu attempts to explain to an English-speaking audience the complex, bold tapestry that is Chinese science fiction, inveighing us not to see the themes and narratives merely through a “Chinese” lense, but a human lens.

While there are some pretty serious cultural schisms that can make the stories somewhat hard to access for an average American reader (me), the stories are nonetheless masterfully written (translated) and serve as an adequate introduction to a vein of science fiction that hasn’t been availble to Western readers in the past.

Since Invisible Planets is split into short stories told by a handful of the most well-known Chinese authors, I plan on splitting my review into several parts, one for each of the short stories. While I cannot come close to anything approaching a knowledgable review of the book, I hope that by sharing my thoughts I can interest other Western readers and bibliophiles.

I started reading this book already a fan of Ken Liu’s skill for translation. I had previously read his translation of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem and Death’s End. Liu’s understanding of the conundrum of trying to define literature is one that I share; indeed, when attempting to define how Chinese science fiction is different from English science fiction, Liu concedes “that the question is ill defined…and there isn’t a neat sound bite for an answer.” The genre is broad and diverse, even within languages.

So what is Chinese science fiction? I suppose that depends on the reader. Liu purposefully selects authors who have a broad range of approaches to science fiction, from their writing styles to the tropes that they employ. Liu grants us a huge boon in this strategy as it allows the reader to try to piece together a view of Chinese science fiction for themselves instead of relying on an easy answer Liu may give. Keeping in mind, of course, that as an Anglophone your idea is either woefully incomplete, wrong, or likely both. But in trying to understand a well-known and loved genre in Western literature taken up by another culture I believe it is best to try to learn what it is for yourself, without the bias of having a simple answer spoonfed to you.

Liu states that “The fiction produced in China reflects the complexity of the environment.” I believe that this is true of fiction produced in any culture or society, be it one comprised of many, many facets like China; or one as diverse and well-worn as America. In any case, the stories in Invisible Planets are best taken as individual pixels in a larger picture–be careful that you don’t read too much into them, but at the same time be mindful about their place in the grand scope of not only Chinese literature, but human literature. Because these stories are indeed human, even if they seem, to a Western reader, a little alien.

This exposure is one sure way to help bridge the gap between East and West. Exchanging not only ideas, but perspectives, is how we tear down the walls between us. Liu is ever mindful of the bias we Westerners may bring to these stories, and they’re mostly things we bring with us without conscious awareness. It’s probably impossible to completely divorce your perspective from the culture in which it was fostered, and that becomes apparent when you feel like you can’t quite grasp everything the story is doing–like you can’t see the whole picture that’s being painted for you. It’s easy to fill the gaps in your understanding with your own biased views–and to a large extent, I believe, this is not wrong so long as it doesn’t overtake or replace the perspective of the author.

The limiting factor in all of this is, however, the quality of the translation. Liu has proven himself capable by his admirable and skillful English adaption of Cixin Liu’s works; even so, there is always something lost–some flavor of meaning that doesn’t quite make the jump from language to langauge. I suspect that this is especially pronounced in Asian languages like Chinese, which are not based on letters put together to make words like English. The logic of the language is different, and thus when the stories are made to be told in a completely different language with a vey different logic, some of the perspective is lost.

But the effort to translate, and to read, and to try to grapple with a new perspective is worth these small losses. And the journey is an extremely rewarding one. The first review will be on Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat,”  and the stories will proceed from there based on the order in which they appear in Invisible Planets.

So, dear reader, grab a cup of Earl Grey and curl up with a warm blanket. We’re going to get a small window into a literary world that rarely gets translated to English.

Random Thoughts about Science Fiction: Gravity

January 21, 2015 Leave a comment

I first saw the movie Gravity not too long after it was first released in theaters. Smarter people than I have explained what the movie got right and wrong in terms of science, but that’s not what I would like to talk about. I haven’t seen Gravity since I saw it the first time in theaters, so my memory might be a bit fuzzy on what happens in the movie. Fair warning: there are spoilers if you haven’t seen the movie.

The thing that most interested me about the movie was this theme about rebirth and growth that was developed through the movie, starting with Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan Stone and her first spacewalk to service the Hubble Telescope. The Hubble Telescope is, in fact, one of the most important instruments we’ve ever developed, capturing images of the universe with such clarity that they never fail to leave us stunned. To look at one of the images is to see the breathtaking expanse of space laid out before us, each speck of light representing another galaxy.

Gravity is a movie about space, but not in the way that a lot of other movies are. Sure, there’s the typical “space is dangerous” aspect about the movie. Apart from that, though, I think that there’s a great respect for the physical forces we’re dealing with, and what it will take for humanity to meet the challenges in front of us. We have a long way to go before we’re ready to reach out and touch the stars.

In the movie, Ryan Stone’s inexperience is met with the childish antics of veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, played by George Clooney. This is Kowalski’s final mission, so he takes the time to enjoy the view and the experience of being in space by floating around with his manned maneuvering unit. To some degree, there’s less a feeling of exploration and pushing the bounds of human knowledge than there is the feeling that this is becoming old hat. How many people are interested in the minutia of what NASA does on versus the number of people who were watching anxiously as man took his first steps on the moon?

The main problem arises when a Russian missile strike on an old satellite puts debris on a collision course with the team and the Hubble Telescope. What follows is a mad scramble to avoid the collision, but ultimately, both the space shuttle Explorer and Hubble are destroyed, and one of the three astronauts dies. Kowalski and Stone then try to get to the International Space Station before the debris spins around the planet to hit them again.

Without doing an in-depth summary of a movie I haven’t seen in over a year, let me get to the point: after Kowalski dies, Stone is on her own, facing circumstances that nobody has ever faced before. There’s a poignant scene in which Stone, after crawling into the space station and taking off her suit, is curled up by a window.

This image calls to mind the picture of a human developing in the womb, curled up with the umbilical cord. And in a way, the space station is Stone’s womb–it’s the thin skin between the cold void of space and certain death and the warmth and air she needs to survive.

Moving ahead a bit, after she crash lands on the planet in one of the Chinese station’s escape pods, she crawls onto the beach. The movie ends as she takes her first, trembling steps on land, signifying her survival and growth from baby in the womb on the space station.

It’s very human–but more than human, it represents the evolution of life. There’s a an idea in science–not quite a theory–called panspermia. There are a lot of different version of this idea, but for me the most attractive is one which posits simply that life on Earth came from space via microorganisms that survived being carried on asteroids and comets. I don’t subscribe to this idea as a good explanation of life, but there are interesting implications. We do know that organic compounds that life depends on can be found on comets and asteroids–so it is, at least, thinkable that the compounds needed for life could have come from them.

There are clear parallels in Gravity and this idea, and furthermore with the evolution of life. Stone survives reentry as all of the metal of the satellites and the two space stations crashes around her. She emerges from the water–as early life did–crawling onto the beach, then on her hands and knees, and then standing on two feet.

So what does this have to do with space exploration and humanity? We reach for space, but come crashing back to Earth. What Gravity does is highlight how hostile space is and how much we actually rely on the safety of Earth. There’s a narrow window in which humans can survive, and once that’s gone, that’s it. As Carl Sagan said in Pale Blue Dot:

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

We reborn onto the planet Earth, with a new respect for it. We’re ready to take our first steps into space, but with humility and awareness that Earth is who we are. We’re drawn to it, literally and figuratively. From space we can marvel at its beauty, and from the surface we can appreciate how it has nurtured us.

Maybe one day we’ll find life on another planet, or maybe even settle and build on other planets. I tend to think that the future holds boundless potential for humanity, as long as we remember that, when we look at the big picture, life is fragile. Earth is all we have.