2015: Hugo Awards for Best Novel Series

There was a lot of brouhaha (largely negative) around The Wheel of Time‘s inclusion in the Hugo Award nomination list for best novel. Due to some clause in the rules, The Wheel of Time series “was nominated as and ruled to be a multi-part serialized single work” since no individual novels had not been previously nominated. Panic gripped genre fandom and tempers clashed on various social media sites.

Some saw this as a loophole that needed to be fixed, but now that we are progressing through 2014, there are two novel series that I think are deserving of being included in next year’s ballot.

AnnihilationThe first of these is Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. All three volumes were released this year and it would seem silly to nominate the first volume rather than the entire series. I am not sure if this series actually has the capacity to be nominated. It has many experimental elements rather than a chronologically commercial piece of fiction. But what it has going for it far outweighs the fact that it might not have as broad of appeal.

Like the TV phenomenon, Lost, the Southern Reach Trilogy is about unlocking the secrets behind an ecological habitat. Vandermeer succeeds where the TV show failed by having an ending in mind, even if many secrets still remain a mystery. Furthermore, Vandermeer’s writing is excellent at creating the right level of mystery and creepiness that accompanies such a story line. The characters are intriguing and even more fascinating is the slow and haunting reveal of the secrets behind Area X.

My quantity (and quality) of books read has been low for this year, given a major move overseas and a new job, but I think this series has a shot at being on the ballot. It certainly satisfied my reading tastes and I think many will enjoy it on both a fun and literary level.


Range GhostsA series that I think has an even better chance of making the Hugo ballot next year is the Eternal Sky Trilogy by Elizabeth Bear. The first book in this series actually came out in 2012, but the series has received such high accolades among many prominent voices in the SF blogosphere that it would be difficult to ignore.

First of all, Elizabeth Bear has such a high quality of writing that her prose alone almost merits its nomination. But even more importantly, she writes epic fantasy with a uniqueness that is long overdue in the genre. There are no white noblemen duking it out in a fantasized Western Europe. Instead, the milieu is largely inspired by Mongolia and the story refrains from making it a simple lowly hero’s journey to save the world or a quest for the crown. In her short novels (by epic fantasy standards), there is a history that grows far beyond its pages with clans and cults pitted against each other.

The challenge this series faces in getting nominated is the fact that it is not Western Europe. The negative in this is that her vast world building draws upon what is unfamiliar to most people. For those who love visiting foreign lands and learning about the peculiarities of a new world, this is an ample feast for the taking. But there are many (myself often included) who care least about setting and most about character and plot. The unfamiliar setting makes it more challenging on the reader’s imagination (*gasp*), but for those who are up to the challenge, it rewards them greatly. I usually shy away from epic fantasy, but Bear’s trilogy was well worth the journey.

I think one of the biggest challenges genre writers have is finding the right balance between blending the familiar and the unfamiliar. In the above two examples, I believe the authors I mention above struck a chord beautifully. But this is coming from a fan and blogger of genre novels. Authors like Hugh Howey, Stephen King, Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead), and Blake Crouch (Wayward Pines) write stories that are 90 percent familiar with ten percent fantastical elements — and these seem to be the books that reach mainstream appeal. Even A Song of Ice and Fire is largely steeped in reality — as close to historical fantasy as one can get without having anything historical in it.

There are readers for each kind of author and I can appreciate the novels that try and do something experimental or new as well as enjoy books that are more straight-forward and familiar. But when it comes to awards, I like to see novels considered that achieve some semblance of literary quality and uniqueness. Both Bear and Vandermeer are successful in doing this and I hope these series will be considered when nomination season comes around again.


Coming to Television: Wayward Pines by Blake Crouch

The pilot episode of Wayward Pines was shown at San Diego Comic Con this year by none other than M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, The Village, Signs). Based on i09’s review of the episode, I gather that it got mixed reviews. The star-studded cast includes Matt Dillon, Terrance Howard, Juliette Lewis, Shannyn Sossamon, and a few other actors that appeared familiar. Despite it’s season one filming being complete, the series is slated for a mid-season (winter) start.

Why do I mention the new show? Well, four days ago I never had heard of the trilogy’s author, Blake Crouch. Then while trapped in a Tokyo hotel room with two toddlers sleeping, I came across the first book, Pines, while browsing Amazon on my iPad. I downloaded the book and four days later I had not read just one, but all three books in the trilogy.

0378 Crouch_Thicker Than Blood_2Blake Crouch admits the story’s inspiration comes from Twin Peaks, but I found the first book to be more reminiscent of Hugh Howey’s Wool. Secret Service officer, Ethan Burke, goes to a small town in Idaho to investigate the disappearance of two other officers. He is in an accident and wakes up in Wayward Pines with little memory about who he is.

The townspeople appear nice at first, but Ethan quickly realizes that things just don’t seem right. Worse yet, he can’t get in contact with his wife or the agency. He can’t even find his way out of the city.

Without spoiling any more of the novel, I will mention that like Wool, Pines is a novel about discovering reality. Science fiction elements are present, but slight, and by the end of the novel, the reader will completely understand the circumstances that Ethan finds himself in. I am not sure if it is an homage, but Blake even mentions in the novel revealing the secrets of Wayward Pines is like lifting the wool from people’s eyes.

Pines 2By the start of the second book, the story shifts from a book of discovery to a book of sociology. It is not a zombie book, but I would compare both the second and third books to The Walking Dead. What makes The Walking Dead the most popular television drama is not zombies, but the social interactions that take place in an isolated society. The enemy is more often the people themselves than the zombies trying to infiltrate their town.

The same is true with Wayward Pines. There is an interesting mix of people and relationships with different levels of knowledge about what the town really is. Ethan finds himself thrust in the middle of internal and external conflicts as he continues to dig deeper into the mysteries of the town. He also begins to learn how and why he got there was not just an accident, but a planned event.

As I mentioned, I plowed through the series in four days. I think this shows how readable the books are. They are page turners and also short in length. I found the premise plausible and the action was almost non-stop. The characters were not as developed as they could have been and I think this is a good opportunity for the television series to improve upon. Also, there is some cheesy dialog by the townspeople that withdrew me from the narrative.

Pines 3Despite these quibbles, I found the trilogy highly entertaining. It nicely blends the strange-world hook of Wool, the sociology of The Walking Dead, and the small town mechanics of Twin Peaks. Even if some of the relationships and interactions are formulaic, the premise gives a storyline that has great potential for being a television hit. Knowing the secrets of the town and story do not diminish from the intrigue of the community and I will plan on giving this show a shot this winter. I also plan on checking out some of Blake Crouch’s other novels to see what other worlds and stories he has developed.

If you want a thrilling popcorn read, Wayward Pines is a great place to start. There is lots of action with just enough science fiction to whet the appetite of genre fans while not alienating those who like their reality kept in check.

Recent Reads

I recently finished two novels, that I will offer a few words on.

WoRIf you haven’t heard, Brandon Sanderson’s second novel in the Stormlight Archive  is a long one. Where George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire ushered in darker, more realistic fiction, Sanderson’s epic fantasy series takes world building to a whole new level. There are many magic systems defined by metaphysical laws, making his fantasy almost a type of science. The idea that magic must have rules is common throughout Sanderson’s stories, but his world-building philosophy is not shared by all authors. For instance, writers such as Joe Abercrombie and Patrick Rothfuss bring us magic systems that are a bit more abstract in their use.

Along with Sanderson’s magic systems are life forces known as spren, which tie into an elaborate mythos and history. Sure, at over 1000 pages in this book, there are a great many of details, but believe it or not, Sanderson’s world feels even larger than the words on the page. His characters, on the other hand, are focused and he sticks to a manageable POV cast.

I am generally not a huge epic fantasy fan, but Sanderson’s soon-to-be magnum opus series is a must read for genre fans. It is transformative in its world-building and having completed Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, it is certain that Sanderson will go down as one of the greatest fantasy authors of our generation.

My final verdict? I am enjoying the series, but I find the interludes a bit too stuffy for me and I find myself resisting the urge to skip them so I can return to the main story line. There are supposedly going to be ten books in this series, which would likely add up to over 10,000 pages. This is quite a commitment for both the author and reader, but given Sanderson’s increasing popularity and continually improving abilities as a writer, I think the journey will be worth it.

DefendersWill McIntosh rose to popularity when his short story, “Bridesicle,” won the Hugo. This was later adapted into the acclaimed novel, Love Minus Eighty. Following this novel comes a very different type of novel, called Defenders.

Defenders is a blend of military and social science fiction, written in a similar manner to John Scalzi. It is dialog and idea heavy, which makes for an easy, but still thought-provoking read. The beginning of the novel starts off almost cliche, with an alien species on the brink of taking over the human race. The starfish-like enemies have the ability to read human minds, making any attack completely transparent and predictable. Their only hope is a new form of biological weapon — Defenders. These are three-legged humanoids that are genetically altered to function without serotonin, the neurotransmitters that allow the invaders to read minds. They are built with one goal in mind — destroy the Luyten species.

Humanity’s goal is successful and they are able to fend off the alien species, but now they must deal with the aftermath of their creation. Creatures with a unique sense of morality and social order. A species that can destroy all of the earth at will.

The ethical dilemmas brought up in the book were stimulating to read and the post-war period was unique from a military sci-fi standpoint. The ideas only held me for a while and I struggled with the last 25% of the book. What was a unique social conundrum devolved into a battle of firepower. Unfortunately I failed to connect with the characters in the end and was left a bit disappointed.

As a whole, Defenders is an interesting novel. A new twist on a common trope. I think this novel could have succeeded better if it didn’t try to resolve the fate of humanity, but rather in the resolution of a few key characters. After all, it is through the individuals in stories that are hearts and minds are touched.

What is the Male Equivalent of Trashy Romance?

Perhaps it is a bit narrow-minded of me to make broad generalizations about gender. Particularly in this day and age, when there is a heightened awareness in the genre community regarding gender diversity. Sexual diversity. Ethnic diversity. And so on…

But the fact remains, by and large, that the romance genre is primarily produced and written for women. The genre itself is hard to define, spanning Puritan love stories to BDSM erotica. A portion of this genre is what we could call trashy romance — novels that have little redeeming quality in terms of character/plot development, literary merit, or meaningful themes. These novels serve more to entice the reader with wish-fulfillment and gratuitous sex scenes.

I think men read a lot less widely in the romance genre. Maybe because men are visual creatures, often seeking images rather than emotional connections to fulfill their passions. But that certainly isn’t a rule, nor is it a claim that men have higher tastes in literature than women (I actually suspect the opposite is true).

lonesomeThe subject of a male equivalent of trashy romance came to me while reading the novel, Night in the Lonesome October, by Richard Laymon. This horror novel tells of a twenty-year-old college kid who is dumped by his first love who then embarks on a series of nightly journeys. His travels confront him with some of the most vile humans and most alluring women. Female characters play little more than the role of fulfilling the protagonist’s inner desires while the male characters are stumbling blocks, preventing the protagonist from achieving his goals. The novel is far from erotic and it certainly isn’t romantic. Sexual exploits are purposely visual (blunt) in description and serve to titillate the reader amidst the several try-fail cycles that burden the protagonist.

Despite the paper-thin character sheets, I found this novel impossible to put down and I read it in less than a 24-hour span. Based on my comments, I cannot recommend the novel, but found myself reading page after page after page. The main character, Eddie, is a young man that many can relate to, from the onset being rejected by the woman of his dreams. He is a little reckless and seems to have little trouble finding a replacement for his ex. Even when threatened by more powerful opponents, Eddie is able to demonstrate resourcefulness to escape their hold on him.

Overall, this novel has no prevailing themes worth mentioning and frankly speaking, I cannot give it a higher status than trashy. But it still appeals to the base emotions of the reader. There are some brief attempts at wit and scholarship, but one cannot ignore the fact that Eddie is an imbecile, even if we do care for his livelihood.

So to answer the question at hand, what is the male equivalent of trashy romance? I would posit that it is adventure/horror stories where women are objects of affection with little to no agency. Violence and sex are often gratuitous with little effort in trying to suspend the reader’s disbelief. I suspect that it is this type of novel that many of the leading voices in genre fiction are trying to purge from its repertoire, but alas — they still manage to gain a readership.

I don’t mean to bash on Richard Laymon. In fact, I found his novel, The Traveling Vampire Show, to be a great coming-of-age story that I still recall with fondness years after reading it. Furthermore, I have never stopped reading a novel of his that I started and I doubt it ever took me longer than a week to finish one. I wish I could share the same affection for Night in the Lonesome October, but there comes a point — for me, at least — where I need intelligent actions on the part of the protagonist and deeper character development (and plausibility) on the part of the romantic interests. If you are looking for a fast-paced, cheap-thrill horror novel, this one is addicting. But after gorging myself on the literary equivalent of Hostess Twinkies, I must search for something a little more nutritious for my next read. I wish I could tell you that I am giving up on Twinkies, but hey — everyone has their weaknesses.

Reread of Monster by Naoki Urasawa

I often come across people who enjoy comic books, but never have made the plunge into Manga. I think this is largely because there is an perception of manga as being quirky, comic, and romantic. The truth is that Manga spans many different genres, many of which would appeal to typical comic book fans.

One of the first Mangas I would recommend to comic book fans looking to venture into the medium would be Monster by Naoki Urasawa. The premise of Monster is that a brilliant Japanese surgeon (Kenzo Tenma) chooses to save a boy (Johan) rather than attending to a political figurehead that is rushed into the same hospital. This noble pursuit means disaster to his career, but this is only the beginning of his problems. A string of murders at the hospital is pinned on Tenma and he becomes a fugitive. Now on the run, Tenma seeks to clear his name, but more importantly — to stop the killer before more lives are taken.

Monster 1I read this series with the now out-of-print paperback editions of this book, but I now see that they have a 2-in-1 omnibus collection just starting called The Perfect Edition. I am dying to get my hands on these books! Urasawa is as good as any artist in the business and the oversized editions should complement his vivid and detailed artwork.

The first volume was released on July 14, 2014 and they are on a schedule to release a new volume every three months. The original paperbacks released in the US came in eighteen volumes, so I suspect that the Perfect Edition will contain nine volumes in total.

Urasawa is very good at blending intricate plot lines and balances the large, but unique character sheet well. There are many mysteries that are revealed throughout the course of the narrative, although some explanations were a little shallow.

I have already read the series twice and I suspect that Monster is a graphic novel that I will read more times again. It is lengthy, spanning 162 chapters, but it never feels stretched thin or meandering. For those who like psychological thrillers or horror and are looking to get into Manga, this is the place to start.

Science Fiction in Seoul, Korea

There has not been much activity as of late on this blog, primarily for one reason. I recently moved with my family from our comfortable, suburban home in the USA to Seoul, Korea. The amount of work that goes into relocating across the globe is daunting, to say the least.

But alas, one month after arriving, I have mostly settled in.

For those who are less familiar with the country, science fiction is an active part of the culture. There is a large influence of Japanese culture and bookstores have large sections devoted to manga. American dramas are also popular and many of my coworkers enjoy watching Game of Thrones. Despite the mix of Western and Japanese influence, Korean culture and lifestyle has its own identity. It is hard for me to describe in words, but there are many cute toys, cheerful and upbeat pop music groups, and light-hearted, humorous television shows. I contrast this with American culture, which seems to have a fascination with the dark and gritty.

imageWork has taken up a majority of my time, with language training also taking up a bunch. Many coworkers have asked me what my hobbies are, to which I reply reading, writing, hanging out with friends, and eating good meals. I have also tried a new hobby that is popular among younger people — Gundam modeling. Based on the popular anime, Gundam modeling (or GunPla) is a plastic modeling kit with hundreds of pieces that snap together to make a Japanese robotic mech unit with moveable joints. It has a sometimes extreme devotion, with particular skill required to cut, sand, and properly paint the model before assembly.

I’m under the impression that science fiction hasn’t been taken seriously by older audiences in Korea, but is growing in its popularity for all ages. Original creations of manga and literature are also growing in popularity. I can now read the Korean alphabet, but am barely started in comprehending the language. As encouragement, I picked up a short story collection called Distant Tales by Kim Boyoung. Her writing has been compared to Ted Chiang. Unfortunately, translating is not as simple as copying and pasting text into Google Translate (I foolishly tried this unsuccessfully).

This month, I will take my kids to Comic World, which is supposed to be a pretty cool convention with cosplay. Since my kids adore superheroes, it will be good to find an activity that joins two cultures together.

I expect my blog activity will be sparse in the coming months, considering that my reading activity has dropped to all time lows. I’d like to say I will be remedying it, but I foresee that work, language training, travel, and city life will continue to absorb most of my daily life. I hope to stay active enough in reading to continue posting reviews on Adventures in SciFi Publishing and perhaps on this blog, sharing a broadened perspective that I will gain by living in Eastern culture.

Amateur Reviews and Reader Bias

The most recent issue of Vanity Fair had an interesting article about why certain book critics are dismayed about the recent Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Goldfinch. Reviewers from The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The Paris Review are highly critical of Donna Tartt’s last novel, using words like marred, overwritten, and cliche. Meanwhile, more mainstream media outlets, like Time and The New York Times, feature reviews that give The Goldfinch the highest accolades. While the various reviewers have addressed their discrepant opinions, there seems to be a loose agreement that in today’s book culture, story is king and quality of writing is secondary.

To high-brow book critics (which I don’t mean in any derogatory sense), this stubborn fact doesn’t sit well. If an author’s writing skill has a lower value in the eye of the reader, whatever amount of objectivity in what makes a book good is lessened. There are still elements of plot and characterization that can be judged, but if story is truly king, then quality becomes a mark more of subjectivity than anything else.

I have been reviewing books for a couple of years now, mainly as a learning experience. I was an amateur when I started and despite my efforts at self-teaching myself about the art of reading, I remain an amateur now. Visit sites like Amazon and Goodreads and you will find drive-by reviews of little substance and strong opinions, reflecting what many critics have feared for many years now: the dumbing down of book culture.

Slate also published a damning article of adults who prefer to read YA novels. Particularly, the article suggests, “YA readers… are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.” Several rebuttal blog posts followed, once again setting a divide on what various people consider good fiction.

I have found my own personal reading tastes are inversely proportional to how busy and stressful my life is. When life is under control and I have quiet moments to sit and read a book, perhaps with a nice cup of coffee on the end table next to me, I tend toward the literary end. I would be much more likely to pick up a Gene Wolfe, Cormac McCarthy, or Samuel Delaney novel than I would pick up something like a Star Wars tie-in novel. On the other hand, I am currently in the middle of a job transition and move overseas and find myself leaning toward lighter fiction and graphic novels. Frankly, it’s not that my tastes are changing — it’s that I do not have the intellectual or emotional capacity to read anything deeper. If I were to pick up a literary novel that was more challenging I would likely be bored with it. Not because the writing is bad, but because I would miss the critical details and under-appreciate the well-crafted prose. And if I were to review a book like this, what could I even say? I would be left with surface-level criticisms and an overall generic and uninspiring review.

From my personal experience, I have found that for amateur reviewers, it is not an objective opinion or really even a subjective opinion that leads to a reader’s response. Readership bias plays perhaps the largest role in whether or not a book is deemed good. I will use Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie as one of these examples. First of all, I found it to be a fine novel and would probably cast my vote for it in the Hugo’s for best novel of the year, largely because the contenders are uninspiring in a year that actually had some very good fiction. Despite my own favorable opinion, I think a reviewer would be remiss to mention that the book had many problems of a debut novelist. The flow of the novel, the pacing, and how information was given to the reader (too little at first, then repetitive later on) were problematic and are aspects of novel writing that come as many writers progress in their careers. What Ann Leckie did extremely well, however, is her use of gender pronouns. This theme alone struck a chord with many readers. In fact, it struck such a chord that reviewers gave it flawless reviews, even calling it the best science fiction book of the decade. The highly positive reviews also seemed to parallel reviewers who particularly care or are activists for gender equality in science fiction (I don’t mean this as a slight on any reviewers, nor do I want to downplay the issue of gender parity. I’m sure there are subjects that would influence my opinion on how “good” I think a book is as well).

My conclusion in my meandering is that in the age of social media, amateur reviewers have a louder voice than ever. And if my hypothesis that book quality is more of a reflection of the personal bias and possibly even temporary circumstances of the reader, we have little to measure what makes a good book. Certainly the seemingly random best novel titles on the Hugo ballot reflect this notion. I don’t know if there is a solution to this or even if this is a problem to solve. I think the only thing a reader can do is find a reviewer whose tastes are most similar to their own and hope that the reviewer isn’t going through a particular season that can shift their perception of the book. Ultimately, each reader will have to decide on their own whether a novel is good.


Review of Trillium by Jeff Lemire

TrilliumTitle: Trillium

Author: Jeff Lemire

Illustrator: Jeff Lemire

Publisher: Vertigo

Format: Electronic

Where I got it: Netgalley



I have long been a fan of Jeff Lemire’s work, particularly his creator-owned stories like The Underwater Welder and Sweet Tooth. His art — while perhaps not as visually stunning as some of the exciting illustrators in the field such as Fiona Staples, Sean Murphy, or Greg Capullo — provides a sense of unity to his comics. He is a true master at understanding the sequential nature of comics and his images evoke the right emotions and pacing that are hard to nail down.

Catching on the science fiction bandwagon with contemporary hits like Saga, Preacher, and Sex Criminals, Lemire pens a love story with the plot devices of time travel, alien cultures, and a sentient disease. One of the featured characters is a botanist named Nika Temsmith, who lives in the year 3797 when a disease has killed off all but four thousand people. Their only hope is the trillium flower, which grows wild on a planet where some mysterious aliens await Nika’s arrival. They stand guard around an Incan temple, which Nika comes to realize is more than just a pyramid of stone.

Screen Shot 2014-05-31 at 1.45.19 PMIn the year 1921, WWI vet and English explorer, William Pike, also makes an expedition in search of the lost temple of the Incas. When natives attack his group, he finds himself face-to-face with Nika, completely unable to understand her language. Their encounter does not seem accidental and both experience a sense of deja vu, feeling as if they should know the other.

With the help of Trillium, William and Nika learn to communicate and find themselves sharing a bond with one another, leading to an adventure where their biggest adversaries are the very teams they were working with.

Trillium was released by Vertigo as an eight-issue story arc and binge-reading it in one collected volume (my preferred method of reading comics) made the story feel as connected and whole as Lemire’s recent work, The Underwater Welder. The illustrations are typical of Lemire’s style, with a sort of rough-sketched appearance. The panels are fully colored, blending a colored-pencilled and water-color appearance. There is an artistic quality to the drawings, but Lemire’s true art is in how he uses images to tell a story. Few writers understand how to use layout as well as he does and there is some good variation, ranging from templated-panel layouts to full page images with inset pictures to pages that need to be turned sideways to orient one’s self properly.

Screen Shot 2014-05-31 at 1.47.37 PMThe main characters were rich. Nika, the altruistic and fearless scientist, was willing to disobey orders if necessary to achieve the proper ends. Yet her willingness of self-sacrifice should not be confused with a suicide mission. She is thoughtful and contemplative — empathetic to other cultures and open to love. William, suffering post-traumatic stress syndrome from the war, questions his own mind, but is willing to follow what he believes is right, even if his closest friends question his sanity.

Jeff Lemire’s venture into science fiction was a welcome one. He remains true to his style, while appealing to fans of  Arthur C. Clarke or Philip K. Dick. The plot was reminiscent of other science fiction stories and the use of an ancient pyramid for traveling through space and time bore resemblance to Stargate. Nonetheless, the story felt new and original and was executed beautifully.

For fans of science fiction — and particularly those who want a shorter story arc — Trillium is a good choice. Lemire is one of the great writers in the industry today and I found this to be an exciting read that can be enjoyed in one complete and satisfying sitting.



Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The MartianTitle: The Martian

Author: Andy Weir

Publisher: Crown Publishing

Format: Hardcover

Where I Received the Title: Library


There was a lot of hype when The Martian was published earlier this year. It had escaped my radar two years ago when Andy Weir self-published the title. Needless to say, good works gather praise and after good sales and word-of-mouth, the previously rejected novel soon had the attention of publishers. Just one year after releasing this novel for free on his website, Andy Weir had a six-figure deal with Crown to publish The Martian.

The premise of The Martian is that an astronaut by the name of Mark Watney is left for dead on Mars after he and his suit are impaled by an object during a sandstorm. He is knocked unconscious and his life support monitor is destroyed, leading his five crewmates to believe that he is dead. Mark awakens to find that his crew has left and he is left alone on the red planet with some damaged equipment and a suit that is barely held together by his coagulated blood.

Most men wouldn’t last an hour in these circumstances, but Mark Watney is no ordinary man. He is one of Earth’s most brilliant botanists and has the survival skills of a Robinson Crusoe or Macguyver. Using the limited resources left on Mars, Watney develops a livable habitat and a sustainable nutrition plan with one goal in mind — to live until a rescue team returns to Mars.

Let me just say that this book was fantastic. I was hooked from the first paragraph with Andy Weir’s great sense of voice and perfect blend of humor, action, and technical savviness. It is very much a hard science fiction novel, with mathematical calculations and engineering know-how, yet it doesn’t read like one. The character of Mark Watney is rich and likable — the kind of guy you’d love to have a beer with, just to hear his thoughts on any subject matter, be it science, baseball, or the best of seventies sitcoms.

The book starts off as a diary-style narrative, with Mark chronicling the happenings of the day with a lot of side commentary that helps paint Mars’s climate and terrain with a sense of realism. Nearly every page is filled with some witty comment or remark that will crack a smile on your face. As the novel progresses, we also find viewpoints from NASA scientists and Mark’s crewmates, bringing the story together.

The Martian reminds me of why I love science fiction. Like Kim Stanley Robinson’s fiction, I would classify The Martian as utopian SF — demonstrating how man can achieve success against great adversity. Mark Watney is in dire circumstances and Mars is relentless and unforgiving in how it punishes the astronaut. But ultimately, this novel is a triumph of the human spirit, demonstrating how the greatest challenges and impossible odds can be overcome with ingenuity and resilience.

Where movies like Castaway left me somewhat bored, The Martian is anything but tiresome. Each challenge Mark faces requires unique solutions and the pacing of the novel is quick, but balanced well with brief moments of planning and recreation.

The SF field has been inundated with pessimistic dystopias, blaming man’s selfishness and ignorance for dooming future generations. The Martian is a cool reprieve from these heavy-handed plots and it was a true delight to read. I would not hesitate to recommend this novel to people outside of the genre and think SF fans will like it equally. It truly was a wonderful book to read.

What Makes Haruki Murakami’s Writing so Compelling?

harukimurakamiHaruki Murakami is not what one would consider a genre writer, but he writes with such a deep sense of surrealism that one cannot help but compare his writing to urban fantasy novels. His novels feature gateways to other worlds, ghosts, monsters, and ordinary characters that embark on their own form of the hero’s quests.

The plot summaries of his books are not enough to solicit my attention, but there is some quality to his writing and story-telling that grabs me by the collar and never lets go.

In his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami writes of three qualities that are most important for a novelist to have. He claims that the first and obvious quality is talent. “No matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing, if you totally lack literary talent, you can forget about being a novelist.” The next most important quality, Murakami deems is focus — “the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment.”  Later, he notes that the third most important quality for a novelist is endurance. “If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work.”

I mention Murakami’s philosophy on writing because it is so clear that these traits pervade his writing and his life as a whole. He is regimented at waking in the early morning hours to write and is an avid long-distance runner, completing several marathons and other more-challenging races. While his novels do not conform to any common structure, there is a sense of discipline in his writing. The complete absurdity to the magic in his novels has strict limitations as do the characters in following their pursuits. This tempered approach gives the novels — as other-worldly as they may be — a sense of control and grounding. Murakami keeps us at bay as his characters experience the fantastical with every twist and turn.

Murakami’s writing is also very effective in controlling pace. He delivers all of the right beats during dialog exchanges and his prose is effective in changing tempo. Take for example, the following exchange from Kafka on the Shore:

“Just one thing,” she says, raising her head and looking me straight in the eye. “I want you to remember me. If you remember me, then I don’t care if everybody else forgets.”

Silence descends on us for a time. A profound silence.

A question wells up inside me, a question so big it plugs up my throat and makes it hard to breathe. I somehow swallow it back, finally choosing another. “Are memories such an important thing?”

“It depends,” she replies, and lightly closes her eyes. “In some cases they’re the most important thing there is.”

This scene takes place between the story’s main character, Kafka, and a woman whom he has a close relationship with named Miss Saeki. Contextually, this dialog takes place at a very key point in the novel — a point where the reader’s natural tendency is to start scanning in anticipation of what is to come. Murakami slams on the brakes. He describes the silence in two sentences and then spends another couple sentences describing the question that wells up inside of Kafka. As emotional and powerful as this moment is between Kafka and Miss Saeki, the real-time events occur slowly. Without telling us in so many words, Murakami controls the pace with repetition and by showing us the heaviness Kafka feels at that moment. Lesser writers will not change sentence length or the amount of description to get the reader to move at a speed that complements the narrative. Murakami is a master at this.

Many readers have a natural attraction to foreign writers because of the unfamiliar elements they bring, even if the fiction is completely realistic. Certainly Khaled Hosseini’s, The Kite Runner, enjoyed success not only because it was an excellent novel, but because it gave Western readers a glimpse into Afghan culture. I’m not so certain it is the same with Murakami. Even though his novels take place in Japan, I don’t get as strong of a sense that he is trying to reveal Japanese culture to his readers — especially Western readers. In fact, I’m not so certain his novels are written to a particular audience at all. There may be an autobiographical sense to his writing, as his novels feature protagonists that rarely achieve even moderate success by cultural standards. Murakami, who now will get stopped while running by an adoring fan, was not always the literary figurehead he now is. He was married early in life and ran a jazz club, only to decide that he was going to give up the club to focus on writing full time. This decision turned out to be a good one, but it came at the chagrin of his friends and family. Murakami chose a path that was criticized by societal standards. It was a choice to pursue a path that would likely end in poverty and failure. Fortunately, it ended up being a good one.

Above all else, what I think attracts me to Murakami’s writing is the weirdness of it. I love the fact that if a person is walking down the road and sees a cat, the cat may speak to that person. Is the person crazy or is it a talking cat? Or is it even a cat at all? These are the kinds of questions I ponder while reading Murakami, knowing that anything is possible. Beloved characters can live or die — succeed or fail. They can speak to people through dreams, visit them in the afterlife, or discover them, lost in a parallel universe. Murakami raises the tension, be it sexual, emotional, or physical, only to break it down in new and unexpected ways.

In many ways, Murakami’s writing is a paradox. He is a writer with great discipline, but limitless worlds. His novels feature powerful magic that is used to solve mundane problems. His characters act with a great sense of purpose, but often pursue trivial goals.

I have only read a few of his novels and have found The Windup Bird Chronicles to be the most endearing. You can scan best-of lists and find many conflicting recommendations of where to start. It probably doesn’t matter where you do, because each novel is special in its own way. But I will warn you — if you haven’t read Murakami before, his novels are like a bag of Doritos — “Bet you can’t eat just one.”