Tag Archives: Mars

LitBeetle’s Top 5: Man v. Nature Books

27 Mar

A few recent reads inspired me to make a list of some great survival stories. Many writers attempt to capture the age-old struggle against Nature’s tempests, but only a few succeed. The list below are some favorites of mine–new and old–that I hope you will enjoy! In the comments, let me know your own favorite books of humanity’s battle for survival!

FIVE

Serena [2008] by Ron Rash

Serena by Ron Rash

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There’s something about my cozy urban life and redundant desk job that makes me want to read books of perilous adventure. In Ron Rash’s Serena, I found a title character who is in almost every way my opposite. Serena Pemberton and her husband are lumber barons in 1920’s North Carolina. They battle nature’s lethal touch and their partners’ unfaithfulness with equal fervor, doling out their cold-eyed vengeance left and right. Serena is the story of a character more like a force of nature than a woman, and like with any natural disaster coverage, it’s impossible for witnesses to tear their eyes away.

FOUR

The Revenant (2002) by Michael Punke was re-released January 6, 2015 to coincide with the upcoming film adaptation.

The Revenant by Michael Punke

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Nothing you could possibly do will be as cool as an early 19th Century trapper extraordinaire/pirate/Pawnee hunter/frontiersman demigod surviving a bear mauling for the sole purpose of seeking revenge on those who wronged him. Get ready to feel entirely depressed and inferior while reading Michael Punke’s 2002 historical fiction The Revenant. The story of Hugh Glass’s battle against a grizzly, nearly mortal wounds, and extreme odds is actually a true one. With a few embellishments from Michael Punke, author of a handful of historical nonfiction books, the story practically writes itself.

THREE

The Martian Book Cover

The Martian by Andy Weir

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In The Martian, Mark Watney is the only human being on an unforgiving, primarily dead planet and must use every ounce of his human ingenuity and resilience to find a way to survive with limited amounts of Earth’s luxuries. Nothing fancy, you know. Just the usual food, water, and air. Silly stuff like that. As NASA scrambles to send a rescue mission to a stranded astronaut, Mark Watney uses his scrappy resourcefulness, will to live, and dark humor to guide him through one of the most entertaining survival novels of our time. Andy Weir’s debut shines as a thrilling, accessible science fiction story.

TWO

To Build a Fire Cover

To Build a Fire and Other Stories by Jack London

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The title story to this collection of Jack London’s classic short stories is as dark and robust as any of the full novels on this list. A nameless man travels through the Yukon with his wolf-dog. When the dog falls through the ice, the man dives in to save his companion. Now, wet and freezing in temperatures of fifty below, the man is focused on a single, life-saving task: building a fire. London’s steady, descriptive prose mirrors the Nature’s indifferent temperament in the face of a human being’s impending doom. Sounds fun, right? Don’t forget to pack those weatherproof matches the next time you go camping, is all I have to say.

ONE

In the Heart of the Sea [2000] by Nathaniel Philbrick (Photo from Wikipedia)

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

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Certain events in human history become something more than just a popular story or a factoid in a text book. Some events become growing, breathing, pulsing legends that inspire a nation, a world, a host of writers and filmmakers. This is the story of a whale that rejected its role as the prey of men, and the story of men who refused to sink under the brutal forces of the elements. In the nonfiction history In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick tells the true and epic tale of the survivors of the Essex and their battle against an angry whale and the deadly indifference of nature. Frail humanity versus the open and indifferent sea? No thank you, but this–the most harrowing fight for survival–puts In the Heart of the Sea at the top of this list.

What are your favorite survival books? Leave me recommendations in the comments below!

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On Andy Weir’s “The Martian”

24 Mar

The Martian Book Cover

The Martian [2013] by Andy Weir

There are a lot of different types of survivors: there’s the Bear Grylls survivor who “survives” in the “wild” with a full TV crew and then books a hotel room off-screen; there’s the Donner Party survivor who makes it because she overcame some serious taboos; there’s the Tom “Chuck Noland” Hanks survivor who may go a tad crazy but ends up losing weight and looking really good after hanging out with a volleyball for four years; and then there’s Mark Watney, astronaut-botanist extraordinaire and the hero of Andy Weir’s debut novel that will have you canceling your one-way ticket to Mars. In The Martian, Mark Watney is the only human being on an unforgiving, primarily dead planet and must use every ounce of his human ingenuity and resilience to find a way to survive with limited amounts of Earth’s luxuries. Nothing fancy, you know. Just the usual food, water, and air. Silly stuff like that.

In the not-to-distant future, NASA succeeds in landing (and returning!) several manned missions to Mars. It’s a dream that isn’t too far away in our own reality, so the scenario Weir conceives in The Martian isn’t as alien as we once thought in the Mars craze of the mid-20th century. Instead, Weir creates an extremely plausible and relentlessly logical story of one person’s struggle for survival on the withered Red Planet. Mark Watney is the lowest rank on a totem pole filled with superlatively qualified astronauts in the Ares 3 mission to Mars. He and the crew only just landed on Mars to begin their research mission when a lethal sandstorm forces them to abandon their base and escape back to the refuge of space. The abort occurs only six Mars days, or “sol,” into their mission, and in the chaos of their escape, the team leaves Watney behind, thinking him a victim to the storm. And that’s the end of the story.

Mars is, as it turns out, not that far away, but I'll let the Mark Watney's of the world visit before I ever do. (Photo from "NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center")

Mars is, as it turns out, not that far away, but I’ll let the Mark Watney’s of the world visit before I ever do. (Photo from “NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center“)

Or so the Ares 3 team thinks as they speed back toward Earth while grieving for their lost crew member and friend. But Watney is alive–for now–and must use his training and extraordinary will to survive to stay one small step ahead of a harsh environment that wants nothing more than to see him dead. While Watney huddles inside the temporary shelter of the Ares mission’s Hub trying to cultivate potatoes in DIY farm soil (I’ll give you a hint straight from Watney’s mouth: “My asshole is doing as much to keep me alive as my brain.”), Mission Control in Houston finally catches on that their missing astronaut miraculously survived. In a mad race against time, NASA personnel try to solve the ultimate puzzle of Watney’s survival. Every time they solve for one problem, the unforgiving Martian environment throws them another life-threatening situation.

Watney’s wit keeps him alive as much as his intelligence (or his asshole, as he claims). He keeps his indomitable spirits high through his wisecracks and never seems to let his bleak surroundings affect his mood, so, while his sarcastic remarks certainly makes for a more entertaining read, I never feared that Watney would fail in his quest. In fact, Weir never so much as mentions the excruciating loneliness Watney must have been feeling. At worst, Watney is bored, but hundreds of days pass without any kind of human interaction, and I had a hard time believing Watney never made his own little Wilson somewhere in the Hab. I understand that reading about a dude being bored might be a dampener on an otherwise nonstop, nerve-wracking plot, but Weir missed an opportunity to investigate the true horror of a human sans humanity, of someone more utterly and definitely alone than any human being has ever been. Instead, Weir sweeps the surreal nature of these circumstances under the rug that is Watney’s sardonic humor.

Watney’s humor helps him keep his sanity, but his extraordinary resourcefulness keeps him alive, and I tried my darndest not to get distracted by some of the contrivances of the blog format Weir uses to tell Watney’s side of the story, or by the fact that I pretty much watched this whole situation play out in Ron Howard’s 1995 Apollo 13 and the fact that we’re going to be watching the Ridley Scott version this November. I still tore through the book in less than two days, and I am still going to watch the film adaptation, and I’m still never, never, ever going to Mars.

Even billions of dollars of technology can't protect Mark Watney from the elements out to kill him at every turn. (Photo from "NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center")

Billions of dollars of technology alone can’t protect Mark Watney from the elements out to kill him at every turn. (Photo from “NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center“)

Read It: The Martian is a story of survival before it’s sci-fi. It is a thrilling, fast-paced, quick-talking adventure story that just happens to take place on the surface of Mars. I say this to encourage all you genre-haters to take off your hate hats and pick up this book. There may be a few sciency type words and concepts buried under all the action, but I found that skimming those and pretending I remembered AP plant biology worked just fine. Andy Weir writes a captivating story that has already made him a name as a great new author to watch.

Don’t Read It: Do you have high blood pressure? Has a doctor recently told you to avoid stressful activities? Listen to your doctor! The Martian is the story of an astronaut in constant peril. Reading this is like watching a five-hour montage of just the climaxes of every MacGyver episode and you don’t get to see the resolution until the final eight seconds.

Similar Books: Tales of survival have always stressed me out, so I mostly steer clear of them, but I recently tackled Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Seathe nonfiction retelling of the disaster that inspired Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick. Philbrick collects information from two survivors’ accounts as well as countless documents from the era to create a thrilling history of the human will to survive even in the face of impossible odds. Weir’s The Martian was also combination of Apollo 13 and Cast Away. There must have been a Tom Hanks marathon on TBS or something when Weir was brainstorming, not that that’s a bad thing.

Andy Weir (Photo from Wikipedia)

A photo of Andy Weir taking a photo. Weirception. (Photo from Wikipedia)

On Philip K. Dick’s “Martian Time-Slip”

27 May
PKD's Martian Time-Slip

PKD’s Martian Time-Slip (1964) explores the physics of time travel in the context of the newest human frontier: Mars.

PKD pushed the boundaries of the science fiction genre as it burst onto the literary scene in the ’50s and ’60s. He wrote over 40 novels and over 100 short stories in his relatively brief life, and many of them became household names, not in small part because of the film adaptations they inspired: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which became the famed classic Blade Runner; time warping stories like The Minority Report and Paycheck; and, of course, the Martian masterpiece starring the inimitable Arnold Schwarzenegger Total Recall. Philip Kindred Dick passed away over three decades ago, but he still controls the sci-fi genre–both in literature and film–like few others do. His novel Martian Time-Slip combines many of the themes and settings for which he is known: time travel, humanity’s mental capacity, and Mars.

Jack Bohlen is a simple union repair man on Mars. He and his wife Silvia with their son David are pioneers on the desolate, desert planet, roughing it on the cusp of humanity’s efforts of extraterrestrial colonization. In a Wild West fashion, Jack must navigate greedy union bosses, remote governmental tampering, black market ruffians, and mysterious indigenous peoples to stay alive and, maybe more importantly, stay sane. Threatening that sanity is Jack’s connection to a young autistic boy named Manfred Steiner. Jack and Manfred share many qualities, and grow increasingly similar as they spend time in each other’s company. Mars is a dangerous place for those labeled as “mentally ill,” but wealthy union boss Arnie Kott believes people like Manfred have the ability to see through and alter time. Nothing will stop him from harnessing this ability to milk profit from a massive real estate scheme to seduce emigrants to the Martian frontier.

Jack Bohlen doesn't fear the harsh Martian desert. He fears the inevitable crush of human civilization.

Jack Bohlen doesn’t fear the harsh Martian desert. He fears the inevitable crush of human civilization.

Manfred, and other children like him, live in a camp set aside for “anomalous” children. Of all of them, Manfred is singled out as a type of schizophrenic personality who can transcend time and space. PKD focuses on the theory of time travel in relation to our perceptions of “mental illness.” By pedestalizing Manfred and his abilities, Dick debunks theories that support prejudices against “anomalous” people in true sci-fi fashion. Instead of Manfred being “psychotic” or “ill,” it’s everyone else whose psyches are horribly twisted, and Dick uses a frontier environment to showcase the psychosis that is humanity: a selfishness that lives in dire balance with its need for communication and community–a community that must ostracize and marginalize everything Other in order to maintain its “sanity.”

“Now I can see what psychosis is: the utter alienation of perception from the objects of the outside world …”

However, (because there’s always a “however”), in devoting so much book real estate to his obsession with time travel, PKD neglects a prime opportunity to cement the story in its otherworldly setting, and ignores blatant sexism and racism. The women with business sense are called masculine. The women with education are cold and unmotherly. The ideal woman is Silvia Bohlen, a weeping, medicated, clingy, depressed mother who spends the day in bed, pining for her husband. The indigenous humanoid people called Bleekman are treated little better than dogs, and, other than a handful of allusions to invaded Native American tribes, are virtually ignored by the author. Not even the brilliance of Dick’s writing or the astuteness of his social criticism outweighs his negligence and/or inability to be forward-thinking in this respect.

It’s uncomfortable to read sci-fi from five decades ago that didn’t or couldn’t imagine the social progress we’ve made today. It’s angering to imagine futures where we lose what little we’ve gained.

According to IGN, Martian Time-Slip is primed for a film adaptation of its own, penned and directed by Dee Rees, responsible for one of my favorite indie films of all time, Pariah

According to IGN, Martian Time-Slip is primed for a film adaptation of its own, penned and directed by Dee Rees, responsible for one of my favorite indie films of all time, Pariah. Rees, of all people, will be attentive to the racism and misogyny of MTS.

Read it if … you enjoy sci-fi that acts as a foil to history and to current affairs. When PKD wrote this novel, society was globalizing and centralized government was taking over. Martian Time-Slip also makes many allusions to the first American pioneers travelling West, manifesting their white American destiny and disregarding the displacement of indigenous tribes.

Don’t read it if … you’re easily offended. This ’60s era book reads like a ’60s era book, and at times I had to calm myself down. Believe me, I wanted to rant in this review. Dick’s dated prejudices aside, this book also deals with trippy concepts of time and linguistics. MTS, with considerably fewer guns than The Minority Report and the severe lack of head explosions like in Total Recall, is not for the casual reader.

This book is like … The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes for its discussion of the physics of time, Ender’s Game (the whole quintet, actually) by Orson Scott Card for its discussion on human colonization, or The Forever War by Joe Haldeman for its discussion of time and colonization.

The inimitable PKD transformed the sci-fi world in his brief but prolific life.

The inimitable PKD transformed the sci-fi world in his brief but prolific life.