Archives for category: Books

The Martian, Andy Weir This is how I was introduced to The Martian by Andy Weir. Mooch asked, “Remember that scene in Apollo 13 where the engineers get together and have to figure out how to fit the square pegs into the round holes or everyone will die?”

“Yes,” I said.

“That’s The Martian. That scene. For the whole book. On Mars.”

I’m a sucker for stories about Mars.

The novel follows NASA engineer and biologist, Mark Watney, after he becomes stranded early in the Ares 3 mission, the third of five manned missions to the red planet. What follows afterwards a series of unfortunate events– each one requiring ingenuity and creativity to resolve. And not a small amount of 70s nostalgia. They’re not simple problems. This is rocket science we’re talking about.

It’s a quick read, and most of the science is real. Robert Zubrin detailed a plan for manned exploration of Mars almost twenty years ago: the Mars Direct proposal. Weir borrowed heavily from this proposal. Not too far-future science fiction allowed for his inclusion of the constant-thrust, nuclear-powered VASMIR rocket for the Mars transfer orbit. “Not some boring Hohmann Transfer, either!”, Weir wrote for Salon about the novel and about how science shaped his writing.

I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to com­municate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days.

If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water re­claimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.

So yeah. I’m fucked.

Like I said, I’m a sucker for stories about Mars.

Missoula, Jon KrakauerA series of sexual assaults between 2010 and 2012 in Missoula, Montana is the subject of the latest book from Jon Krakauer, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. This is not an easy read. This is not an inspirational story. Instead, Missoula is an incisive and unblinking investigation into the crime of rape. It also serves an indictment to the adversarial structure of our modern day legal system. Krakauer painstakingly exposes and invalidates the myths that surround rape.

“Krakauer’s investigation will succeed in altering the conversation around sexual violence.” —Los Angeles Times

In May, Krakauer appeared in front of a capacity crowd at the Missoula Doubletree Hotel to defend his book. Outside magazine reports, “Krakauer may have expected a tide of detractors, but the audience gave him a standing ovation when he was introduced.”

Maybe the detractors did not show up at his speaking engagement, but they are out there. And they, too, have powerful allies and publishers. I’ll single out one passage from Emily Bazelon in her review for The New York Times. Concerning the case involving UM star quarterback Jordan Johnson and woman whom Krakauer gives the pseudonym Cecilia Washburn, Bazelon opines, “Krakauer doesn’t seem to have spoken to Johnson or Washburn. (In an author’s note, he says he tried to interview the victims and accused men whose cases he covered.) And it’s not clear that he spoke to any prosecutors or police officers in Missoula, or to university officials. As a result, the book feels one-sided. It also lacks texture.”

Bazelon either missed the book’s preface where Krakauer lays out his methodology, or she is being intentionally obtuse– to what end, I can’t imagine. Access to information is one of the very elements that makes rape difficult to discuss. He spent two years meticulously researching what transpired in this town. That much is obvious. And Krakauer does not attempt to be unbiased; this book is a defense of rape victims. Krakauer attempts to be honest. It’s a distinction between the principles of objectivity and accuracy. A line that he argues gets muddled and often disregarded, and by so doing fosters a culture that enables rapists to walk free. Krakauer goes to great lengths to discuss his methodology and precisely what he means when he places words in quotations. Quotations mean someone said it and in most cases, they wrote it. Krakauer’s extensive bibliography supports those claims.

What results from this research is some of the most compelling writing Krakauer has ever produced.

2312, Kim Stanley Robinson With 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson expanded upon many of the themes presented in his seminal work in the Mars trilogy— one of my all-time favorite science fiction series. Terraforming, longevity, human sexuality, the significance of art: Robinson explores these in detail as well as investigating how all of these developments shape what it means to be human. There are characteristics of the future history in 2312 that appear to just assume the events of the Mars trilogy as history. And as always, the Earth is a mess.

What Robinson adds with this novel are some of the post-cyberpunk themes that remind me of William Gibson and Ian McDonald: artifical intelligence, quantum computing, radical anthropogenic evolution.

Mooch recommended it to me, much as he originally recommended the Mars trilogy to me almost twenty years ago.

The Dervish House, Ian McDonaldThe setting is seven days in Istanbul just a few years from now. Turkey has finally joined the European Union. This is my latest read from Ian MacDonald, The Dervish House.

The story begins with a death– a suicide bomber on a crowded tram. But the attack has no victims other than the bomber. The ramifications of that attack will stretch out across the whole city. And we observe it through the points of view of half a dozen characters whose lives connect in one way or another with an old dervish house in run-down and unfashionable quarter of the city.

Necdet: Necdet is on the tram. He sees the bomber’s beatific expression as she triggers the device. And shortly thereafter, he starts seeing djinns and saints until he finds himself turning, against his will, into an Islamic holy man.

Can: Can is a nine year-old boy with a curious medical condition that confines him into a muffled apartment without sound or shock. Stimuli can kill him. So he explores greater Istanbul through an amazing transforming robot that can take on the form of bird, rat, snake or monkey at will. He witnesses the bombing through the robot’s eyes. He also spots another robot spying on the aftermath of the bombing.

Georgios: Can shares his discoveries with Georgios, an old Greek academic. Georgios spends his days with other old Greeks in the coffee house across from the dervish house, until he is unexpectedly invited to join a strange think tank being set up by his old academic rival.

Leyla: Leyla, who also lives in the dervish house, is caught up in the traffic chaos following the bombing. This causes her to miss a job interview. And as a result she takes a sketchy job drumming up venture capital for a sketchy nanoware start-up company run by a relative. This quest brings her in contact with one of the biggest financial institutions in Istanbul.

Ayse: Ayse owns a specialist antique shop near the dervish house. She accepts a strange commision to find a Mellified Man– someone who was reputedly mummified in honey. At first convinced this is a fool’s errand, she eventually finds herself drawn into the secret history of Istanbul.

Adnan: Adnan, Ayse’s boyfriend, is a trader in the commodities market at that selfsame financial institution that Leyla approaches. But Adnan has bigger plans, with three colleagues he is planning a massive fraud involving black-market Iranian gas.

This is postcyberpunk literature at its best. McDonald delivers his story mostly just assuming the technology that supports the landscape– and then weaves a complex character- and culture-driven story within that assumption. Characters don’t just live within the science fiction, but also within the history, cultures and traditions of the setting.

X Saves The World, Jeff GordinierJeff Gordinier wrote a feature for Details magazine in March, 2006 titled “Has Generation X Already Peaked?” His editor had called him with the idea that the magazine should weigh in on Generation X. What happened to them? What had they accomplished? This was even a question, because of the precarious position Generation X holds sandwiched between the world-swallowing leviathan of the Baby Boomers and their offspring, the Millennials. You may know them as Generation Y if you’re sympathetic to GenX, or my favorite descriptor, the Echo Boomers. By 2006 all of the short-lived lustre of GenX’s media closeup had warn off. We held the limelight for maybe three years? 1993-1996. Maybe? From the end of the first Iraq War to the moment the world discovered the Internet. Whatever.

For the next two years, Gordinier expanded his article into a book, X Saves The World. As he explains when promoting its publication he originally intended for the book to have the more melancholic tone suggested in the title question of his Details article. Yes. The answer is yes. We’re done. We’re over. We’ve been snuffed out. And besides that, we’re not even supposed to be here, today. Gordiner writes:

Because we’re said to be the defiant demographic, dedicated to shredding whatever raiment the marketing apparatus tries to drape us in; because we’d prefer not to be categorized at all, thank you very much; because, like one of those unmarked speakeasies on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, we’re not even supposed to acknowledge that we exist– coming right out and calling yourself Xer has always seemed a bit too, I don’t know, Andrew McCarthy. Too obvious.

But as he worked on the book and interviewed people, his position changed. The fatalistic impression faded and he was able to more than just a catalog of contributions Generation X has given to society, but a cultural mindset– a generational personality. A way of doing things that is hopeful without preening.

Gordiner argues Generation X developed an in-betweener, middle-child sensibility: detached, skeptical, quiet, questioning. This is in strong contrast to the polished mythology of the Boomers who preceded us. His neat and ironically-articulated example:

I am Steve Jobs, soothsayer for humanity.

Boomers are all about the collective, and so are the Millennials. We did this. We changed the world. We saved you. You’re welcome. To Generation X, that just rings false. It’s a varnished mythology of so much shamelessness and unnecessary self-promotion.

And the giant generation behind us, what about them? Gordiner is equally critical. Here’s a summary.

The Millennials speak with none of the doubt and skepticism that have marked — and hampered — Generation X. They just love stuff. They love celebrities. They love technology. They love name brands. They love everything. […] So what if they can’t manage to read anything longer than an instant message? — That’s okay! If anything, it’s an advantage. Because literacy leads to self-reflection and critical thinking, and self-reflection and critical thinking open the door to doubt and skepticism and stuff like that just gets in the way.

So continue your Boomer parade. Let the band play on. Millennials, post your selfies to Instagram. Try the rose-colored filter. Use the hashtag #timeofmylife.

We’ll just be over here, keeping the lights on.

Chronicles of Amber, Roger Zelazny

With the debut of the Paul and Storm song, “Write Like the Wind” and the predictable response from George R. R. Martin upon hearing it at w00tstock 5.0 at San Diego Comic-Con, my friends and I started thinking about various other fantasy epics that span multiple books. We discussed each of the inclusions at least somewhat. But it was not until the next day that I realized we’d left one off entirely that really ought to have been there. One that I thoroughly enjoyed when I read it twenty years ago. And that’s the ten-book epic, The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny.

If you consider the other suggestions we did take up, the significance of our oversight on this is pretty astounding. We talked about all of these series, but not Amber.

  • The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkein
  • The Dark Tower, Stephen King
  • The Harry Potter Series, J.K. Rowling
  • Earthsea, Ursula Le Guin
  • The Chronicles of Prydain, Lloyd Alexander
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis
  • The Cthulhu Mythos, H.P. Lovecraft
  • The Mars series, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • The Belgariad, David Eddings

I have no defense. I don’t understand it myself. It’s not like the conversation was a contest whose favorite was the One True Epic. This was more a free exchange of suggestions. Zelazny wrote with a particular noir, hard-boiled aspect in Amber that isn’t present in the others. It’s immortality and power without falling into the anguish and anxiety of the contemporary vampire series. It mythology without dogma. They get to the action more quickly than Martin can. It’s good stuff. I remember that. Now.

So I pulled down the paperbacks from the shelf and started in tonight with the first of the Corwin series, Nine Princes in Amber. This should hold me while I wait for winter to come.

Tubes, Andrew Blum So after four full days of discussing enterprise networking at Cisco Live, the last thing you’re likely to suspect I want to do is read still more about networks. You’d be wrong. Well, no. You’d be partly right. My brain was pretty full of technical information from the various sessions I attended, but networking is still a major part of my life and my interest in it happens on a number of levels.

While wandering around Orlando International Airport killing time while the thunderstorms blew over, I ran across the book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum. Blum writes as a correspondent at Wired magazine. And in this book, he engages on a tour behind the scenes to identify the address of the Internet. Okay, that sounds a bit overly dramatic, given that the Internet is both everywhere and nowhere. It’s a concept, and an interconnected set of disparate systems. Blum’s goal is to try to gain access to some of the physical characteristics of this global phenomenon as possible.

“An engaging reminder that, cyber-Utopianism aside, the internet is as much a thing of flesh and steel as any industrial-age lumber mill or factory. It is also an excellent introduction to the nuts and bolts of how exactly it all works.” The Economist

This is a book about real places on the map: what those places sound like, what they smell like. Who lives there. Blum describes the history of the locations he visits– from converted telegraph exchanges in Manhattan to freshly-constructed datacenters in the American west to the cool rationality of Frankfurt’s Internet exchange. It’s a travelogue, certainly. But it’s a travelogue to a find the location of a place that for most of us, most of the time, is ephemera. Quixotic, enigmatic, and often essential ephemera.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is the Fall 2012 selection for “One Book, One Chicago”. Narrated by Death and set in Nazi Germany, this award-winning novel, chronicles the story of the titular character a girl named Liesel Meminger. Originally intended as a novel for young adults, its selection by the Chicago Public Library has elevated its status– at last in my eyes– as something that can (perhaps ought) to be read by everyone. As art should, the novel raises important questions about how we pursue our lives:

  • What choices do we make about groups we will belong to?
  • What groups do we belong to without choice?
  • What are the consequences of belonging to groups?
  • How do we show courage? Or cowardice?
  • Who has power? How do we come by it?
  • Can words give us power?

The Deal From Hell, James O'Shea Two months after I stopped working for Tribune Company, David Carr published his takedown in the New York Times, “At Flagging Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture”. Ten days later, Chief Innovation Officer Lee Abrams, resigned after continued boorish behavior. Three days after that, CEO Randy Michaels resigned at the request of the board of directors. Busy few weeks there at the Tower. But it really wasn’t that simple. And it’s only with a bit of distance away from it that I’m starting to piece together the various elements.

Enter James O’Shea.

To be more accurate, O’Shea had been there all along. He’s an accomplished journalist, serving as the editors of both the Tribune Company flagship newspapers: the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. The Deal From Hell is O’Shea’s riveting frontline report about how news industry executives and editors made a series of decisions that systematically endangered journalistic credibility and drove the papers to bankruptcy and quite possibly the brink of extinction. I’m not reading this out of spite or to dance on any graves. My three years working at Tribune were some of the most influential and beneficial years of my career. The people I worked with day to day, the opportunities I was afforded, the self-confidence the experiences engendered– for these things I am forever grateful.

It is because of that gratitude that I am so curious to learn just what the hell happened. I’ve continued to inform myself over the years: “News War”, Page One, Jim Romenesko, LA Observed and a number of other sources have all fed into my amateur attempts to make sense of it all. I am thankful to add James O’Shea and his highly informative book to that list.

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline For many of us that grew up in the 80s, the video game arcade holds a special allure. The one I haunted at our local mall was appropriately named “The Goldmine”. I spent hours in there playing all kinds of games. And then came home to spend even more time playing on the Atari 2600. Games have always fascinated me: video games, board games, role-playing game, card games. All kinds of games, but especially the sorts of games that were published during my youth in the 80s. So when Smokes recommended that I read this book based on the premise that a quirky billionaire has created a contest based on the details and the spirit of those games, I was intrigued. Ready Player One is the first novel by Ernest Cline. I’ve read a number of various descriptions of the book: quest novel, love story, nostalgia, dystopia, “Willy Wonka meets The Matrix“, and virtual space opera are just a few. Set in a universe where spell-slinging mages battle giant Japanese robots, Ready Player One is a critical mass of 80s pop-culture. The geekier the better.

Perhaps even more interesting is the game within the book itself. Cline’s own obsession with the 80s is manifest in his project car. In an interview with Stephanie Carmichael of VentureBeat, he describes the car this way:

“I have modified the car so that it matches the DeLorean driven by the protagonist in my book. I’ve added personalized license plates that read ECTO88. I’ve also outfitted the car with a KITT scanner from ‘Knight Rider’, an Oscillation Overthruster from Buckaroo Banzai, a large array of Ghostbusting equipment, and a Flux Capacitor. So now it’s a time-traveling, knight-riding, ghostbusting jet car. Probably the geekiest vehicle in history. I love it.”

But he didn’t just build one of these cars. He built two. One is for himself — and occasionally he allows friends to sit in it. The other is a prize to the first reader clever enough to solve the series of puzzles within the novel itself.

It’s a fun book. If you’ve ever enjoyed a game of Dungeons & Dragons, a John Hughes film or an Oingo Bongo song, I guarantee there will be something in it for you.