The Martian

I must admit, Andy Weir’s The Martian captured me back in 2014 by the cover alone. I was pleasantly surprised by the film adaptation in 2015. I don’t really consider myself a space enthusiast, but I’m definitely interested in space exploration — from a plausible, current standpoint. That’s the nice thing about Weir’s sci-fi novel: it has the technicality of true space exploration sans alien foes.

In fact, the Martian in question is actually a stranded earthling, Mark Watney. After a sand storm cancels the current mission on Mars, a freak accident leaves Watney stranded — his crew must abandon him (thinking he is dead). Watney pulls together his resources and genius, working on a plan to survive as long as possible, and maybe, just maybe contact NASA. To his luck, NASA just barely makes the connection based on satellite imagery that Watney lives and starts working overtime on a plan to safely bring him back home.

We spend the novel at this 30,000 foot view. There is no getting to know the characters intimately. Watney tells his portion of the story through logs (journal-type entries that tend to be more technical). In fact, my interest started waning because the first few chapters were like this, but luckily there is also narrative about what’s happening at NASA. So there’s a good mix of the logs vs. narrative.

I was a little disappointed with the lack of character development, though. The technical nature of Watney’s logs really fed the realism, and it was fascinating for a time, but after a while, I was a little upset that I didn’t get to know him more — at least other than his goofiness, which really annoyed me after a while. I also didn’t care too much for the descriptive math and technical jargon. It seemed endless at points. I understand that was his main focus, but I just wish we had more insight into Watney as a character.

Other characters were also a little flat or generic, like Annie, the PR diva. I see what Weir was reaching for when modeling her character, but she didn’t feel at all real to me. Her aggressiveness/anger seemed really unwarranted and unprofessional for a director of communications.

Overall, I think the story was fantastic, and it kept me interested and engaged enough to compel me to finish. I was pleased with minor feelings of disappointment as noted above. But for someone’s first novel, I think it is an excellent start. There is plenty of action, and if you like space travel, this one is for you.

The best part of the novel for me is the idea of people banning together to help save this one guy. A good deal of effort is put forth for his rescue, and that’s refreshing and illustrative on many levels of the human spirit: hope and the desire to help others. It reminds me a lot of the film, Captain Philips, for the US to send highly trained folks to rescue someone technically non-essential — just inspiring. We all matter. One of the last passages in Weir’s novel says, “they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true.” I couldn’t agree more.

Favorite Passages in The Martian

Turns out even NASA can’t improve on duct tape. (32)

I am /completely/ alone here. I already knew that, of course. But there’s a difference between knowing it and really experiencing it. (75)

It’s a strange feeling. Everywhere I go, I’m the first. Step outside the rover? First guy ever to be there! Climb a hill? First guy to climb that hill! Kick a rock? That rock hadn’t moved in a million years! (99)

I’m the first person to be a lone on an entire planet. (99)

Sure, I might not get rescued. But I won’t be alone. (116)

Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped. (220)

Life is amazingly tenacious. They don’t want to die any more than I do. (224)

The Girl with All the Gifts

M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts begins in a strangely dystopia-esque world where it appears that children are caged and tied to wheelchairs. It’s only later that we find the children are zombies. But aside from other zombie tropes, these children are still functioning mentally. They are able to learn and process information. The sharpest child with these skills is the protagonist of the story, Melanie. With this fascinating development of zombie-children, army scientists have set up a special base to study these “specimens.” Most intriguing about Melanie’s acuity is her capacity to love, which develops between her and one of the instructors, Miss Justineau.

Of course, as any zombie novel is prone to do, whatever control that may have been left post-apocalypse will ultimately crumble. So goes this science base leaving a small band of humans and high-functioning zombie left to proceed on a journey throughout the remainder of the novel.

Carey’s excellence in storytelling is illustrated through subtlety. This is not an in-your-face horror genre novel. The scare-factor that, in this case, won’t leave you sleepless is the lingering humanity in Melanie that is warring against a new natural (zombie) state. Why is this frightening? In all other zombie novels, yes it is a scary thought to be eaten by a once-human monster. But we can ultimately separate these monsters from ourselves because the person inside is no more. Whatever happens to the spirit, we know zombies are reanimated shells. Not so in this novel — well at least for some.

This ultimately draws out the intrinsic question: what makes a person a person? Melanie is a zombie, but again, she has the capacity to think, to talk, to hinder herself (for the most part) from ripping everyone to shreds. So is she a monster? Do we doom her (aka kill her) because this “disease” has doomed her?

Favorite Passages

there were just things without names, and things without names don’t stay in your mind. (1)

you can’t save people from the world. There’s nowhere else to take them. (51)

When there’s nothing to do, and you can’t even move, time goes a lot more slowly. (61)

all love is blind as it needs to be. (228)

How could there ever have been enough people to live in all these houses? How could they ever have built their towers so high? And how could anything in the whole world ever have conquered them? (247)

the horror of the unknown is more frightening than any horror you can understand (370)

Annihilation

Annihilation, the entry to Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, is a masterpiece. Don’t argue with me. I read the novel back in 2014 when it was first released, and I was astounded at how beautiful and completely … other a novel could possibly be. As such a fan, of course, I was incredibly excited to learn of a film adaptation.

Actually, I was lucky enough to meet the VanderMeers (Jeff and Anne) at the Decatur Book Festival in 2014. Jeff teased that the novel had been shopped around for film rights and it was in the works.I slowly forgot about it until the trailer surfaced and my heart raced. So this opening weekend, I marched into the theater trusting Natalie Portman to be a strong Biologist/Ghost Bird, and I found my heart breaking.

But from the bad can always come good. While I was disappointed at Hollywood’s failed attempt to translate this masterpiece to the silver screen, I knew the antidote to such a poison was to read the novel again. So I did. I finished it in one delicious gulp.

Good God, what an intriguing and stunning novel. There is little to tell without telling everything, and fortunately, there is a fantastic novel to take care of that.

In the simplest terms, an expedition of four scientists are commissioned to go into Area X, a mysterious piece of land that has changed since the Event (whatever that refers to). Each specializes in a different area of expertise: psychology, biology, anthropology, military. Things aren’t as they seem; though, on the surface, everything appears to be pristine untouched land. In reality, it is anything but.

VanderMeer shows incredible prowess as he crafts a story that works so intricately upon the creepy. The tension in these pages can be so real at times that it’s mesmerizing. The novel is built in the guise of the biologist’s journal. She recreates her experience as she and her crew journey into the heart of Area X. There is this constant melange of the biologist fulfilling the role as the watcher and the watched. Tension fills the background because obviously there is some undefinable presence.

What I love so much about this novel, and I think speaks so well to VanderMeer’s true talent is the use of veiled writing. The characters are only partially defined for us. We don’t get much detail as to what they look like, or even what they’re names are. This cloaking adds to the mystery of this land. As the biologist notes, “Names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while embedded in Area X” (9). And it these withheld details that make the novel so cerebral but also direct our attention to the unknown.

Not only that, it puts us at the mercy of our self-proclaimed unreliable narrator. She tells the reader she is withholding certain information: “It may be clear by now that I am not good at telling people things they feel they have a right to know, and in this account thus far I have neglected to mention some details” (150). And this creates a rift of distrust, or perhaps envy. What does she know that we don’t? It is much like a mimicry of Area X itself — the answers escape us.

The biologist is much of an enigma. The psychologist and the surveyor (again they have no names, so they go by their titles) point out that the biologist has begun to change, while she argues that she is steadfast and the same as she always was. That’s actually untrue. She has indeed changed more than she lets on. She reveals in flashbacks that she is a very closed person. She is content in solitude. But as her journal (this document we are reading) shows, she has become much more open. She has revealed much more to us than she has to anyone else, though she claims, “I haven’t told it quite right” (193).

As I write this post, I have reread several passages, and I can’t help but remark at how gorgeous the prose reads. This is one of my favorites:

The ghost bird had found his ghost, on an inexplicable pile of other ghosts. But rather than looking forward to reading that account I felt as if I were stealing a private diary that had been locked by his death. A stupid feeling, I know. All he’d ever wanted was for me to open up to him, and as a result, he had always been there for the taking. Now, though, I would have to take him as I found him, and it would probably be forever, and I found the truth of that intolerable. (118)

This is no ordinary thriller in my opinion. Annihilation is an upstanding piece of fiction. I always judge a work by my level of jealousy, and I have to admit that I wish I had written this! It’s just so damn good. VanderMeer’s writing is masterful. The evidence of the creepy persists so strongly in the background of the novel, that the thrill of the journey seeps into your bones.

Circling back to the film, I often found myself wishing someone like Lars von Trier had a hand in the novel to give us something closer to Melancholia. There just wasn’t enough strangeness, mystery, and wonderment – not to mention aggressive changes to the story. So please, do me a favor, read the book first.

Favorite Passages

when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you. (6)

There are certain kinds of deaths that one should not be expected to relive, certain kinds of connections so deep that when they are broken you feel the snap of the link inside you. (46)

no amount of training could prepare you for encountering a monster. (59)

what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible? (66)

That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality. (108)

“but what about the /veil/ already in place?” (Psychologist, 128)
— confirmation of the veiled writing I mentioned … mentioned several other times

When you are too close to the center of a mystery there is no way to pull back and see the shape of it entire. (130)

I felt as if I were stuck between two futures, even though I had already made the decision to live in one of them. (147)

“but we couldn’t see it through the veil, the interference.” (Biologist’s husband, 166)
— further confirmation of the veil