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The Martian

The Martian
The Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I won’t deny part of my motivation for reading this book is the impending release of the movie based on it. I have a strong preference for having read the book before seeing a film adaptation, and The Martian was both a book I’d been meaning to read and a movie I want to see. I think I managed to avoid picturing Matt Damon as the main character, despite having already seen the teaser trailers. The book also contains precisely the sort of descriptive action that maps well into visual storytelling on-screen. Part of me thinks it would also make a good adventure game (either text-based or point-and-click), in the way that its structure is largely a series of problem-solving exercises.

Stylistically the first person voice took some getting used to. There was almost too much internal dialogue for our beleagured astronaut Mark, and a lot of it made him come across as a bit… macho? He’s certainly nerdy and resourceful, and has an engineer’s mind, things I identify with, but also seems like someone I wouldn’t necessarily enjoy hanging out with, personality-wise. The book is naturally primarily his story, but I found a number of the supporting characters potentially more interesting; they just don’t get much page time. I wonder how much of that was a limitation of the book’s original serial format? It definitely feels like there could have been a much larger story here, but on the other hand these short action vignettes are probably a more enjoyable read, and make for more nailbiting as Mark prepares to attempt various dangerous improvised survival techniques.

From a technical perspective the book was excellent, at least as far as my own space aficionado knowledge goes. Pretty much any time I had a quibble with the science or engineering, or thought I had spotted a potential solution or technology-based plot hole, it was resolved within a few pages. Some aspects of their fictional mission profile reminded me of the Mars Direct program proposed in Zubrin‘s The Case for Mars, particularly sending cargo and return vehicles to Mars before any crew arrived; however it definitely differs in that the large interplanetary cruise module seems to be the more popular choice in fiction than in reality, where mass and cost matter a bit more. I also liked the callbacks to various past Mars missions.

I don’t think you need a technical background to enjoy the book, but it probably would help to be familiar with the history and technology of crewed spaceflight to enjoy some parts of it. Overall it’s a fun quick read, and I’d recommend it.

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Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one has been on my list for a while, discovered somewhere online. It seemed right up my alley. I was reminded to tackle it after my friend Emily read it recently, and I wanted to see if my impression lined up with her criticisms. This book continues my post-apocalyptic theme. It was another very fast read – I devoured it in two sessions in a total of about 3 hours.

Spoilers are below the cut, although the narrative style of the book (found documents) makes that largely moot.


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Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finished this third and final book on the plane down to Cancun a few weeks ago. I didn’t get a chance to review it on account of the travel and then the end of the semester. Up front: I liked it, although not quite as much as I enjoyed Catching Fire. All kinds of spoilery thoughts on this book and the series as a whole below the cut.


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Catching Fire

Catching Fire
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finished this one a week ago. On a few levels, I liked this second book in the trilogy more than the first. In particular, the balance between world-building and action was better: I preferred the history over the combat. I would guess that is equivalent to my interest in the extended universes of, say, Middle-Earth. There were a few things that annoyed me, however.

I know that this trilogy is geared towards younger readers, and I’m fine with how it’s a relatively easy read – but I don’t like being treated like I’m stupid and have no memory. There are several points early in the book where Katniss reintroduces concepts that were clearly explained in the first book, as if we didn’t know what was going on. It annoys me when serial television does it (“Last time, on…”), and it’s worse when books do it. That’s the main reason this doesn’t get five stars – the story is great, but the writing feels just a tiny bit condescending.

Maybe this makes me a total snob, whining about too much accessibility. If anything, I should be celebrating yet another series that has triggered a spike in teens reading books that have interesting settings and characters. Maybe turning up the maturity dial would mess with it too much, and ruin some of its appeal. It’s likely I don’t relate to the characters as much as some readers, since I wasn’t an angsty teen, nor did I grow up in a dystopian future.

Speaking of dystopian futures, I like that Collins dove more into the political system in this book. I’d like to know more about how Panem came to be organized, who decides who lives in which districts, where President Snow’s powerbase is, that sort of thing. Perhaps Mockingjay will explore some of that.

So far it seems that if you start this trilogy, it’s worth reading all of them, because the plots are directly connected. I imagine it could be published in a single binding with 3 (or 9) Parts, similar to the way there are 6 “books” in some printings of The Lord of the Rings. On to Mockingjay

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Captain Picard Doesn’t Have an iPad

It should be of no surprise to any of you that I am a huge Trekkie. You are probably also aware that I am a total MacAddict. What better binding of bailiwicks than to blather about both?

Star Trek has been at various times credited with inspiring a number of modern gadgets, including the mobile phone (TOS communicator), the PDA and/or tablet (TNG PADD), and touch interfaces (TNG LCARS). The truth of that seems to be a form of loose inspiration (as is often the feedback between science fiction and technology). I’m going to focus in particular on the tablet iPad as compared to the PADD, because I think TNG missed on this in several key ways.

Depending on the specific “model”, a PADD might have:

  • A stylus
  • Separate touch/display areas
  • Various sizes of bezel/case
  • Different colors which indicate dedicated function

Steve Jobs famously said “If you see a stylus, they blew it.”, but a lot of these design choices come out of the realities of prop design – they needed to convey “futuristic” and “alien” in instant, simple, visual ways, and were not trying to build usable devices. Similarly, at the time of filming, they couldn’t embed live video into such a thin device, because the technology didn’t exist yet, so they either had backlit images or had to implement it in post-production with special effects.

Additionally, you’ll often see characters using PADDs in ways people don’t generally use iPads:

  • Handing a PADD to another person to give them a document (various main characters)
  • Having something “signed” by an officer (numerous nameless ensigns)
  • Using multiple PADDs in a disorganized pile (Jake Sisko)

I think for the most part this is due to the writers not having any conception of an always-on network. This is pretty understandable, given that the Web didn’t arrive for non-academics until the middle of Deep Space Nine’s run, and widespread WiFi and mobile data weren’t around until almost the end of Enterprise’s run (EDGE was just getting started in 2003, and Enterprise was cancelled in 2005). The idea of something like iCloud, where the current state of all of your documents is nearly instantly available on all of your devices, was apparently too impossible for science fiction. They didn’t even seem to have a concept of email or file transfer!

Also, I think that for most adults both mobile phones and tablets are 1:1 devices – you are the only user of the device, and you have only one of them. There may be brief cases of lending, and there are certainly plenty of people who have separate work and personal phones, but I believe these are the exception. Children, of course, make heavy use of the devices of parental units until they are old enough to have their own. As such, you wouldn’t hand your device off to someone else indefinitely for their use – you’d transfer state digitally. You also wouldn’t keep different files on different devices. In this way PADDs were more like futuristic notebooks or clipboards, not computers.

I’ve been using an iPad for almost two years, and even though I never got around to reviewing it, my uses have definitely differed from my predictions. I even named mine “PADD” (partially in keeping with my theme of naming Macs after Star Trek animals). I checked out the Retina Display today at an Apple Store – it really is astounding, in some ways more so that the iPhone 4/4S. In spite of all of the improvements, especially the screen, I don’t feel the need to upgrade from my original 16 GB Wi-Fi iPad to “the new iPad“. However, if mine turns out to be unable to support iOS 6, that would be a significant motivation for me to shift.

I like to joke about how using it means I’m living in the future, even a Star Trek future, but in many ways, what we have is better than what Star Trek imagined. I believe that Captain Picard would have been much happier annotating treaties, reading Shakespeare, and writing condolence letters for dead security officers… on an iPad.

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The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has been out for a while, and has been on my list for some time, based both on the general buzz and direct recommendations, not to mention that dystopian near-future young adult sci-fi is right up my alley. I got the boxed set as a Christmas gift, and I started reading after finishing up some non-fiction that I was in the middle of tackling.

A non-trivial motivation was, of course, the upcoming film; I strongly prefer to read the book before seeing the movie, so that my imagination can run a bit more freely than whatever vision the filmmakers may have. I do very much enjoy what the director and various designers manage to do in bringing words to life (the Lord of the Rings films, for example), but the written word gives me the ability to see things in my own way. I was thinking about this more recently in the context of Yahtzee’s recent blog post on movie adaptations of video games. In this case that’s a little broken by having seen some of the trailers already, and having an awareness of the casting, but I think I was able to keep that out of my mind while reading. Collins is pretty good at describing the visuals of a scene, through Katniss’ eyes.

Overall, this was a good, exciting read, and because it is so action-heavy, especially in the second half, well-suited to its film adaptation. I was a little worried that the first-person narration by Katniss would annoy me, but I think the dystopian setting managed to mute whatever teenage angst might otherwise have dominated.

Another aspect of its YA target audience is that it was an extremely fast read for me – I was getting close to 3 PPM, and read the whole thing in just 3 sessions. On the other hand, that confirms that it’s a good read, and tough to put down once the plot gets going. I have a tendency to devour books in this way, especially fiction that I find immersive.

I was also glad that the plot wasn’t too predictable, particularly with regards to who would live and who would die, while still touching on the expected tropes. Obviously the availability of a trilogy implies certain things about the survival of certain characters, but that’s nigh impossible to avoid.

I would recommend to anyone of any age with a slight sci-fi bent that they pick up this trilogy and dive in. I am definitely looking forward to the movie, which opens next weekend. My librarian friends are as well.


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I saw the film Moon at the Somerville Theatre this afternoon. It is everything you want from a classic sci-fi story, in terms of addressing the human experience, using a futuristic setting. It also has modern production values, but without any of the empty action sequences typical of a major sci-fi motion picture.

Sam Rockwell is pretty much the only actor you see for the entire 100 minute run time, but Kevin Spacey lends his voice to the robot HAL GERTY, and its at times mysterious motives. There are some amusing moments thrown in, as well (being alone in space unsurprisingly makes you… interesting).

If you can, avoid watching the trailer. I think it’s better going into this film knowing as little as possible about it. Unsurprisingly, I found myself thinking of 2001 a lot, in particular the color palettes involved (lots of whites and greys). However, unlike 2001 or more recently a lot of the effect shots in Battlestar Galactica, sound was allowed for scenes on the lunar surface.

Definitely worth the price of admission (if you can find it, probably at your local arthouse theater, as it is in limited distribution).

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Nicolas Ward

Software engineer in Natural Language Processing research by day; gamer, reader, and aspiring UltraNurd by night. Husband to Andrle
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